Well, it’s going pretty quickly. No, my bank balance remains healthy; the amount of time I have here does not.
Weeks disappear very quickly and at an alarming pace. “Break neck speed” is the technical terminology. I’m struggling to remember individual days now; I can sort of make out weeks, but it’s all getting mixed together and up and around into a sort of caramel sweetness of historical events; book ended, it will be, by the chocolate of international aeroplane travel (which has just had the rhetorical question of, “What could possible go wrong?” answered).
I realised, too, after my last post that I must be scraping the bottom of the barrel of ideas for this dilapidated little thing. I mean, a picture of a sky with clouds illuminated by the setting sun? What’s that about? Free falling into the world of egotistical internet clichés, that is. Hopefully I climb my way out of those depths.
People here are talking about a single father who is quite pleased to be being evicted from his apartment in the next few days. Everyone thinks it’s horrible for his kids. The father doesn’t want any help from the government and, so the story goes, is very anti-charity. They’ll move into a Wagenplatz shortly, which is a plot usually commandeered for people to live in old vans, caravans, cars and shacks. Picture fires in 44-gallon drums and odds and ends stacked up and lying around the plus; picture colourful characters living there, and self-motivated implementation of law and order.
These streaks of anarchy are to be expected in Freiburg, and Vauban especially – a left-leaning suburb if ever there was one. Graffiti here features the cry of 1789: Vive la révolution!; paste-ups of a self-contented Karl Marx behind a benign, three-tone stencil beard are also a regular feature on available walls. Yellow flags hang from balconies, declaring: Atomkraft? Nein Danke. – “Nuclear power? No thanks.”
In Vauban … green living is compulsory. ‘It jumps in your face a little,’ Claudia Duppe warned me, ‘and there is a lot of social control. If you walk into the quarter with an Aldi carrier bag, it's, “Sorry, I'm not talking to you; you shop at a discount supermarket and you don't buy organic.” It feels claustrophobic, because everyone expects you to behave in the same way - and of course you are not allowed to have a car.’
It's an overstatement, since Vauban residents can own a car - but they have to pay €18,000 a year to park it in one of the multistorey 'Solar Garages' on the outskirts of the quarter. On the main thoroughfare there is a speed limit of 30km per hour - and on Vauban's narrow residential streets, hemmed in by housing estates, cars can travel no faster than walking speed.
It painted a picture of a utopian ideal that didn’t quite work. It works well in theory, it seems to say, but “normal” living is just easier – we really just have human nature to blame.
The New York Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal was here a year later. She wrote:
In Germany, a country that is home to Mercedes-Benz and the autobahn, life in a car-reduced place like Vauban has its own unusual gestalt. The town is long and relatively narrow, so that the tram into Freiburg is an easy walk from every home. Stores, restaurants, banks and schools are more interspersed among homes than they are in a typical suburb. Most residents, like Ms. Walter, have carts that they haul behind bicycles for shopping trips or children’s play dates.
For trips to stores like IKEA or the ski slopes, families buy cars together or use communal cars rented out by Vauban’s car-sharing club. Ms. Walter had previously lived — with a private car — in Freiburg as well as the United States.
“If you have one, you tend to use it,” she said. “Some people move in here and move out rather quickly — they miss the car next door.”
Vauban, the site of a former Nazi army base, was occupied by the French Army from the end of World War II until the reunification of Germany two decades ago. Because it was planned as a base, the grid was never meant to accommodate private car use: the “roads” were narrow passageways between barracks.
The original buildings have long since been torn down. The stylish row houses that replaced them are buildings of four or five stories, designed to reduce heat loss and maximize energy efficiency, and trimmed with exotic woods and elaborate balconies; free-standing homes are forbidden.
This is a more optimistic read. It gives you the picture that the physical set up will affect the way that you live. This, I think, is more accurate. It’s the same concept of Walter Burley Griffin and what he was trying to do with Canberra. I do wonder if Vauban, which is a much, much, much smaller place, has a greater affect, though, because rather than an entire city, it has been attempted on a tiny scale.
Do I think Vauban “works”? Mainly yes. Public transport is available, shops are within walking distance, there are parks and open spaces, if not private backyards; there are always people out and about to talk to; and it’s not far from anywhere – the “real” world is very close if you need it.
It is very different to what I know. The Saturday morning main theme of the petrol mower is almost totally non-existent, and the rolling of a diesel engine pulling into a driveway late in the evening has been totally replaced with the metal zing of the tram.