Thinking outside the box

This week my trusty but not rusty Marin took me for a ride to celebrate its 14th birthday, and we had a ‘smashing’ time.

Southern Germany has few even breezy days and this was another day of quiet calm that felt as if we were cycling indoors, albeit an indoors with the radiator off. We had an early icy start beside the silent old Rhine smashing potholes filled with saucers, plates and great chargers of clear and opalescent glass. Fortunately the good burghers of Breisach were not out yet and they did not hear my dawn chorus of Nick Lowe’s 1977 hit.

'I love the sound of breaking glass'

‘I love the sound of breaking glass’

We tracked through hedgeless fields empty except for a few small teams of the hardiest eastern European farm workers kneeling in rows on a vast freezing brown ploughed prayer mat. I suspect they were planting the mole-rat of vegetables, the Devil’s white asparagus.

A smashing day

A smashing day

We left the wide floodplain and wound our way up into the western edges of the Black Forest.

As the bike wanders so does the mind and a view of the Alps reminded me of an old friend. In 2010 on a walk across the Alps from Germany to Italy I passed close to the Ötztal Alp where the body of Ötzi the iceman had been found in 1991, 5,000 years after he had died. I paid my respects to the old boy through the thick glass porthole at the museum in Bolzano where his body is on display along with his clothes and few possessions, many if not all,  he had made himself.

I had with me on my bike ride roughly the same number of possessions and items of clothing as Ötzi was found with but to my shame I had made none of them.

The bike says ‘Designed in Marin County’ and ‘Made in Taiwan’. The faded label on the jumper once read ‘Isle of  Harris’ and one or two other items were made in England or  Germany. I was less than 50km from the source of my Swiss Army penknife but the rest of the things had arrived by whatever is the 21st century equivalent of the camel train out of the far East.

Ötzi carried all his possessions but I carried only what the house contents insurance policies call my ‘personal’ possessions, the bulk of my stuff does not travel well and stays behind in the little box.

Making tracks

Making tracks

An insurance payout for the rest of the furnishing cholesterol that is blocking the narrow arteries of this apartment could well be a blessing.

We hang on to stuff as middle-men, links in family chains, inheriting from the last generation, occasionally polishing  the oak table or bureau or Aunt Louisa’s huge wooden chest, and then passing the stuff to the next generation when it is their turn to be possessed by them.

Our story goes that this will provide the next generation with some sense of heritage, history, belonging. It certainly feeds generation after generation of the children of the insurers.

We need a degree of comfort and a white-good or two in the box, and that is what charity shops and flea markets are made for.  The slogan ‘antiques are green’  can be extended to include anything bought both second-hand and locally.

How we will refill the charity shop reservoir in years to come is uncertain, in Germany at least the supply must surely dry up. The low quality of so much chipboard furniture means little will survive to be reused.

Each week in Breisach the residents bring out the dead, the Sperrmüll,  bulky household items that will not fit in the bins.

Poorly laid out Sperrmüll


Late on a Monday evening, the night before collection, the slap of unwanted chipboard and year old Ikea flatpacks being stacked on the pavement for the early Tuesday morning collection, echoes through otherwise silent streets.

Rented accommodation as opposed to ownership is common in Germany and  landlords or departing tenants throw out kitchen units only for the next occupiers to install exact replicas.

In our box the inherited German 50’s formica topped kitchen table appears to have the legs for another 50 years and the very heavy, very brown, six-legged English oak table is capable of possessing countless more generations as well as supporting the roof in an earthquake.

I have followed @lifeafloat on twitter this winter as he shrank the contents of his house to fit into a Jaguar 27 liveaboard. His throwing away reminded me of a short poem, by the Edinburgh and Assynt poet Norman MacCaig, titled Small boy.

A warning of more stuff ('Mind the step) sign at a Charity Shop

A warning of more stuff (‘Mind the step). A sign at a Charity Shop

I will think of Ötzi and the glass cabinet of his possessions in Bolzano when next I press my nose to an Easyjet window and gaze down on the live version of Google Earth and the countless streets of Malvina Reynolds’  ‘little boxes made of ticky tacky’ .

Just like mine, most of the little boxes are stuffed to the attic, and in Germany, stuffed to the cellar, full of things.


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