the empire and the field
Life for us is whatever we imagine it to be. To the peasant with his one field, that field is everything, it is an empire. To Caesar with his vast empire which still feels cramped, that empire if a field. The poor man has an empire; the great man only a field. The truth is that we possess nothing but our own senses; it is on them, then, and not on what they perceive, that we must base the reality of life.
-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
I have been obsessed with Fernando Pessoa for a long time, though I have yet to finish one of his books. He writes beautifully, but often the work is tedious to read. The real hook is in his obsession with pseudonyms. I’m paraphrasing, but he invented thirty-some writers and then wrote extensively under many of their names, sometimes even having them arguing with each other. They (“they”) started an entire literary movement doing it. Brilliant. But that is besides the point, my point, today.
This quote is one of many beautiful sentences in The Book of Disquiet, and I couldn’t help drawing parallels to my own life. Technically I am poor and yet, living the way that we do, I feel rich. Rich in time, rich in love, rich in sunshine and the afternoons to enjoy it. My bank account may not contain millions, my house is miniscule, yet it is the empire that is mine. So often, it is our perception of what we have that makes or breaks us. So often(to paraphrase Jay Schafer), it is the mansions that are the debtors’ prisons.
The coming year is sparking. Potential. Idea rubbing on idea. Soon: a flame. The number thirteen stands falsely accused.
Has the winter tricked us? It spent months playing at fall, and now, at the end of January, it is showing itself for the first time. The ground is frozen hard (and yet the moles still throw up mounds of dirt, the ground we walk on must be riddled with tunnels), and snow has tucked it in for a sleep that might last until April. We are going to have to order more firewood.
Two construction sites (Wägen in the making) stand, shivering naked skeletons, on the lawn. People stay inside, and you can go for days without running into a neighbor, though there are foot prints in the snow and the children leave their sleds at the bottom of the hill. Somewhere, a trampoline is creaking.
The shrunken world of winter—a single red Wagen, one 2m by 7m length of space—feels tight, cozy, chaotic. The potential for claustrophobia is enormous. But it doesn’t come, and there is nowhere else I want to be.
In the middle of the night, the wood stove that has smoldered for hours bursts into sudden flame and dances light across the walls. The baby has woken me up, pawing for food, and we fall asleep stomach to stomach to the sound of fire devouring air.
Photo by the lovely JP.
i don’t think santa will be fitting down this chimney pipe
Oh dear wood stove, how do I love thee? And how do I hate thee when it comes time to take down the chimney pipes and clean them out because smoke has been backing into the Wagen at really inconvenient times, like when we’re sleeping? But I jest (a little). I never hate our wood stove. It is my all-time favorite way to heat a room, and it is currently one of the cheapest. Chopping wood, the smell of oak, lighting a fire, and the flicker and crackle—it is satisfying in a way I can only explain by blaming instinct. Fire is the ur-television.
But maintenance is annoying, especially when you need to tackle it alone with a ten-month-old baby on your hands. The wood stove had been letting in minuscule, but horrid smelling, puffs of smoke. The Beard thought something was wrong with the door, that it was no longer closing properly. There was far more smoke coming in when we lit a fire than usual, and we couldn’t open the lower door (which we do often to get a big bit of wood burning) without the stench. Besides being icky, it was scary. No one wants to die in the night of CO2 poisoning. Or wake up next to a baby who has died of co2 poisoning. So we stopped heating at night, when we wouldn’t be conscious to monitor the smoke situation and open the windows obsessively. It was cold by morning. And that was icky too.
Then the Beard went off to work a 48-shift, and I was all like “I am going to get to the bottom of this, so help me cod!” Thing is, when smoke is backing up into your room, it usually has more to do with your chimney than with your stove. We used to heat our kitchen with a stove whose door didn’t close all the way, and yet, with a one-inch gap right next to the flames, smoke never poured into the room once the fire was lit. I looked around the internet and found a lot of people talking about how cold air can temporarily block a chimney, forcing the smoke down into the room. A solution for this is to stick a piece off paper into the chimney and light it, a trick which should warm the air enough to break the block. Note to self. But our problem lay elsewhere.
Turns out (and I had only looked at night, so I couldn’t really see it, and did I mention that I desperately need glasses?) that the little hat we have on top of our stove pipe to keep rain and wind from coming down it had collapsed on top of the pipe itself, leaving onyl the smallest of holes for the smoke to escape.
I found a neighbor to hold Baby Pickles while I worked, borrowed a ladder and a pipe cleaner, and took down all the piping for a scrub. Then I took the bus to the building supply store to see if I could get a”T” shaped bit of pipe to replace the hat at the top of the chimney, which is what I have on the pipe on my Wagen, now our kitchen. They didn’t have any at the store, but what they did have were a bunch of sexist jerks working there who, as male employees of building supply stores in Germany tend to do, talked down to me and generally treated me as if I didn’t have a fucking clue. “But there is no such thing as a “T” shaped bit of metal piping!” Oh, right, because I imagined the one that I have at home. Thanks for clearing that up then, I’ll just be on my way.
After a bit of insisting, the building store man finally admitted that such a thing did exist, after which he told me that there was no way I could put such a thing on my chimney, that a professional chimney duder needed to do that (though this “it must be done officially” attitude is very German, he did specify dude, harumpf). Oh, but they could order one for me, if I insisted on being a reckless jerk. I wondered why I hadn’t just jimmy rigged something myself in the first place and left. I am sure that there are men working at the building supply store who don’t talk to women customers like they can’t possible know what they are talking about, but every woman builder I know has had a similar experience repeatedly. And I have never seen a woman working at one of these stores, besides at the cash register. Boo hiss.
Back at home, my baby-watching friend and I jimmy rigged a rusty old piece of pipe into an acceptable “T” and jammed it on the top of our chimney pipe. (We had a piece laying around that was shaped more like an “L,” so we hammered off one side of it to create a makeshift “T.”) I reattached all the bits and pieces and lit a fire. And hot damn, no more smoke.
PS The above photo is what the fire in the stove looks like right this second. We haven’t been keeping the glass door very clean.
tiny houses in the snow
Nothing snaps me right out of a tired disgruntled wake-up like opening up the curtains to see this. Bring it on, winter. Even more fun was showing Baby Pickles snow for the first time. Is it snowing yet (if it snows at all, that is) where you are?
That last photo is the space where I want to build the mini-Wagen-house (my current plan is not to build a little house from scratch, but to build two Wägen together) that I described here. I can’t fucking wait to get building on it.
german eco-villages: sieben linden
The number of people who live in Bauwägen in Germany is immense, as far as a tiny sub-culture can be immense. But with over 130 Wagenplätze and who the hell knows how many others—living openly in eco-villages and secretly on garden plots and unofficially in backyards. It all reminds me of the time when the magazine printed in the same office I often work from featured a photo of a woman in front of a Bauwagen. I was astounded that a kind of conservative publication would feature such a thing. My colleague had replied, nonchalantly, “Well you aren’t the only ones.” Indeed we are not.
While doing some research for another project, I stumbled upon a German eco-village (for the German learners among us, that’s ökodorf) called Sieben Linden. These folks bought a big plot of land in East Germany and are living it up eco-style, giving seminars and, yup, living in Bauwägen. There weren’t too many pictures available, and I hope someday to visit and take my own, but for now, check out what they’re doing over there, tiny house-wise:
All photos (cc) flickr user A Moving Office
tiny house movement: the t-shirt
When I think about it—and I often do—the fact that living in tiny houses has become a movement is kind of strange. I mean, that used to just be the way it was, right? Normal people didn’t live in huge McMansions. Half of the time people were in homes that might be considered far too small for the number of people living in them. Nomadic peoples built shelters like the teepee. Small houses were the norm. Then we (in the western world at least and particularly in America) got all crazy and now couples live in huge, echoing structures that are so big they have to hire someone to help them clean. Fuck that.
In Germany I don’t hear people talking about a “tiny house movement” so much. Why? Coincidence, perhaps, together with the fact that most of the houses here are really frickin old, also know as from “the time before McMansions became accessible to people below the upper upper class.”
But things got out of hand and now there’s a movement that’s bringing people back down to earth. Well move this! If you’ve been around for a while, you know that my partner, daughter, and I live in a tiny house on wheels in a community of folks living in houses on wheels (called Bauwägen). There are 130 of these communities throughout Germany, and we celebrate the lifestyle. It is a choice that has allowed us to live our lives on our terms, sans the kind of jobs that make us feel trapped and uncomfortable and miserable. We celebrate it so much that when we made band t-shirts this summer, we decided to put a lovely drawing of a tiny house on them. At the time all three band members lived in tiny houses and for as long as we’ve been making music we’ve been having practice in the same tiny caravans. Not quite as small as this, but you get the idea. Tiny houses were in part responsible for us having found each other to make music in the first place.
So! If you love tiny houses, please consider buying our t-shirt! Even if you aren’t really into folk music (though if you are you can check us out here), buy ‘em for the beautiful tiny house on the front. Or buy ‘em cause you love whiskey (the back reads: “no borders but whiskey,” which is a reference to one of our songs). We had a friend screen print a very limited number of shirts at his workshop in Berlin, in sand and charcoal, and once they are gone, they are gone forever. We’ve got S, M, L, and XL (no specifically “ladies” sizes, but I find the fit good, and you can always buy an XL and Frankenstein sew that shit). And the Beard and I are currently living off of the money we make selling them, so you’d also be supporting some tiny housers and particularly Click Clack Gorilla in her further pursuit of tiny house online documentation.
how to order
Pick a size: S / M / L / XL
Pick a country (where we should ship the shirt) and note the price:
Germany 11.35 (euros)
Europe 13.45 (euros)
America 13.45 (euros) or 16 dollars
Click the link below to send us that amount via paypal. Include your shipping address in the notes, along with the size and color you would like. Wala! If you would like to send money by some other means, just drop me an email, and we can work something out (nicolettekyle AT yahoo DOT com). UPDATE: The paypal donate button seems to have expired. So please just paypal the money to nicolettekyle AT googlemail DOT com. Sorry about that!
the further mad cap plans of click clack gorilla
At the beginning of fall a feeling of excitement creeps in alongside the new smells and colors. The smell of dried leaves reminds me of the start of school, of hats dug out of closets, of new notebooks and pencils, of scarves and hot chocolate, cold hands and red noses. It is a season of transition. The trees have changed their clothes and then stripped. The ground is melting into a muddy paste. The air shows me my breath in foggy clouds.
I thrive on change. It is why I like phoenixes. It is why I rearrange my living space at least once a year. It is probably also why I find the idea of an apocalypse so intriguing. I sometimes like to put myself in new situations, uncomfortable situations, just to watch myself struggle and learn and grow. But sometimes, still, it is sad. Like finding out that another member of your band will be leaving. Sniff sniff. On the upside, we also have a new bassist. At the very least, I can already feel myself drawing energy from the reorganization. (More here.)
On the home front, I am settling in. Really feeling at home in a new place takes time. There is no fast forward button. There is always a period of slowness and sometimes sadness and adjusting. Even though I have called this town home in the past, it is all different now. Another challenge, another change, another new source of energy.
This I think, is the reason why I have been humoring some mad cap plans. We still don’t have a Wagen for Baby Pickles, and the emptiness in the spot where we would be placing it and the crazy ass structures others have built in this community have gotten me thinking. Why don’t I just build a fucking house? Right there on that spot? It would be a tiny house, but it would mean having all our spaces under one roof. It would mean lighting one fire and never having to go outside in the rain to get to the kitchen. I could design it just the way I like it, perfect every detail before we moved in.
We have been dreaming of a tiny cabin—something like a retirement plan—but why wait? Why not build a tiny cabin now? I can’t think of any reason to put it off. There is space. We have our Wägen to house us while I start scrounging together materials (and to keep us mobile after). The idea was to save money, buy land, then build, lalala. The usual way. The way that involves working lots of hours and always putting off the dream. It has long been my philosophy that putting off dreams is always a bad idea. Maybe one day we would have enough money. Maybe one day we would get around to it. But what if we didn’t? Do I want to spend my life waiting? Oh hell no.
When I mentioned this to the Beard he was skeptical. But we won’t be mobile, he said. If we get evicted or want to move somewhere else we can’t take a house with us. It’s true. That was always the plus of tiny Wagen life. But I don’t like to live my life waiting. Even five years would be long enough to justify the time and the money to do build an awesome tiny house. And we don’t need to spend a lot of money. We can scrounge. I can hound the internet for free things (one of our new Platz-mates built a lovely kitchen add-on on his Wagen from a garden shed that someone had placed an add to get rid of). I can take my damn time, and then I can get some friends together and build a fucking house. Raise high the roof beam carpenter!
tiny houses: living small, feeling big
You expand and contract according to the size of your dwelling. Have you ever noticed? Get a huge living space and you find yourself slowly working to fill it up. Move into a tiny house, and you’ll become obsessed with decluttering and going minimalist, even if only out of self defense. Our Wagen dwelling was already small, and now it is shrinking.
In the summer, or any of the warm months for that matter, our house expands to include everything outside. We eat outside, we sit outside, and sometimes we even set up an extra bed and sleep outside. The size of our home swells from seven meters by 2 meters 20 to infinite. Our Wagen house becomes more of our posessions’ dwelling than ours.
But as the cold approaches that space slowly begins to recede. We eat a few more meals indoors every week; the chairs are wet. It stops being light until 10 pm; we watch a movie rather than sit around the outdoor table. It is like the ebb of the tide. With the lap of each wave things contract another few steps until you find yourself living with three people in a shoebox.
This is the first year I have felt the Wagen constrict, and it is tempting to blame it on the fact that we now live here with three people, small as the newcomer may still be. However, looking around today, it is pretty obvious that it has a lot more to do with the way we’ve set a few things in here up. Today I found myself fantasizing about a complete renovation, about removing every single object inside, repainting, rearranging, and then only putting the most important, lovely, necessary items back in.
When we decided that Baby Pickles—though at the time she was about the size of a matchbox—would sleep in bed with us, we decided to enlarge our bed. Originally it was flush against one end of the Wagen—Wägen tend to be about the width of a mattress length—and so we slept with our heads against one wall and our feet against another. For the new super enormo monster bed the mattress stayed in the same position, but we added an extra bit of foam at the feet, and laid across them in the other direction. That is to say, with out heads against the narrow wall of the Wagen and our feet facing out into the room. A couple of feet of space were lost, but it was so worth it.
Later, I built a shelf slash dividing wall facing the bed—a place for our television and clothing to live. This made our Wagen feel like it was made up of two small rooms. The effect was pleasant, but it increased the amount of time we spent dancing around each other trying to get in or out or to this shelf or that. Still worth it.
Then the Beard built a raised platform that came out about 2.5 meters into the Wagen. The reasons were twofold. One: create storage space (under the platform). Two: create a space where Baby Pickles could crawl on the floor without getting cold (the floor is the coldest place once the weather cools down). Both have been successful, but while the Beard uses it often, I rarely set foot upon it. So for me it has taken our Wagen down to a five-meter number, minus enormo-bed, a small space for one, let alone three.
Today we suffered yet another loss of space and an attack of the worst possible kind in any house. Mold. It had been growing on part of the wall under the bed for some time, and we had been postponing removing the boards on which it was feasting for lack of a car long enough to get us replacements from the building supply store. But our spot in Frankfurt seems to be extra damp and when the Beard noticed that the instrument cases beneath the bed were all soaking wet, he took it as a sign that it was time to either act or sign the place over to the spores. Action it was.
Air wasn’t circulating beneath our mattress, so his first move (after clearing everything out under the bed and throwing away a ton of stuff) was to move the bed a foot and a half away from the back wall to create some ventilation. Now the bed is claustrophobically close to the dividing wall slash clothes shelves, and we’ve had to get rid of a number of things to make the situation tolerable. But at least the moldy boards have all been cut out and thrown onto the bonfire pile.
With the house shrinking, I’ve gone into super efficiency planning mode. I just hope that come spring I’m still motivated to put some of my ideas into action. I’m seeing a fresh paint job, less chaotic shelving, and nets hanging from the ceiling to hold worn-but-not-dirty clothes and Pickles’ toys. I’m also seeing some massive decluttering, starting with the flea market this weekend where we’ll be running a table. And people say spring is the time for cleaning.
PS The picture above is an older one of our main Wagen. I can only hope this winter looks as quaint. So far it just looks like a hell of a lot of mud.
PPS I just realized that the bed expansion and the clothing shelf building happened in the opposite order, but oh well nevermind.
and also, we have a new wood stove
Winter is long and grueling, in its way. But in its way it is also the coziest season. It is the best time of year for laying in bed under the weight of six blankets, for drinking tea and mulled wine, for the crackle of fires, for reading six books at once.
I have wanted a glass-fronted wood stove for a long time. Once upon a time in Mainz we had traded wood stoves with a friend who had a huge stove but only needed to heat a small space. We had a tiny stove and needed to heat a larger space. So we used the big wood stove and he the small. But before we moved we traded back. It would have been fine, but. Then there was this offer to buy a wood stove with a glass door from our friend. I was all “hells yeah!” and after a little convincing, the Beard was too.
Cod, isn’t it beautiful? I can see that from my bed.
It is an Italian brand, Nordica, and they make all sorts of wood stoves that sort of look like flat screen tvs with names like Plasma and Fireball. According to the friend who sold it to us (never used) you can get all sorts of awesome wood stoves cheap at Italian building supply stores.
At first we were uncertain about how it would work. With the kind of wood stove we had before, that most of the folks we know have, you have two doors. One opens on the burning chamber, so you can put wood in. Another, lower, smaller door, opens on the ash tray and the bottom bit of the burning chamber. It means you can light all the paper you’ve stuff in under your kindling from the bottom, which is nice. If you were to leave the upper door open it would smoke you out of the house. You could also open the bottom door to get an extra stream of air running through, which makes for a livelier fire when things are starting to slow down.
The new wood stove just has one door, the big glass door. Well, that’s not true. It has a lower door as well, but it only opens onto the ash tray, and you can’t get at the bottom of the burning chamber to light the paper from below or poke a dying fire with a stick. Maybe it would smoke a lot, every time we fed the fire? Maybe it would be a big pain in the ass? Maybe the glass door would be black in a minute flat? Nope, it was awesome. Is awesome.
You do have to clean the glass regularly though, if you want to keep enjoying the view (about every four days and water doesn’t cut it). It is like a little nightlight, flickering pleasantly, then fading to a low, deep glow throughout the night. We have practically stopped watching tv (though this has a lot to do with Baby Pickles) and now we have the fire. Remember when I went on about how fires are the original television? Still think that.
one tiny wagen house
Isn’t she purdy? Just wanted to share in my Mainz Wagenplatz I-miss-you nostalgia.