Thoughts on a trip to Kuhlenbronn

Wed Jul 29 2020

I am writing this in the morning before breakfast one week after we left the place. Kuhlenbronn is a tiny hilltop village of 28 people in the Schwartzwald (Black Forest). We went there in July as part of our post-Oxford summer vacation.

Very quickly, what I liked and what I didn't:

In general, beautiful natural place, very quiet, breathtaking views, nature right at one's doorstep. I remember walking out easy after it had rained, past the winding road through the hills and under the cows on the hill, smelling the sweet scent of petrichor and hearing the sounds of nature. I also remember going out to the garden on a clear and cloudless night with Celine, lying on the ground underneath the blankets and looking at the night sky absolutely carpeted with stars.

The thing I liked most was not the nature per se, however, but rather the space and the ability to grow all of the crops you want. We saw many examples of not-so-big garden plots (around 4*12 m?) growing a surprising quantity of food. Patricia and Dieter basically dedicated two small rows to growing potatoes (around a 2x5m strip) and that was enough to feed them for the entire winter. Ditto for tomatoes---a tiny area, shorter than a length of a study table, would according to Patricia yield many kilos of tomatoes. To say nothing of the prodigious quantity of fruit produced by the cherry/apple/ mirabelle trees and the raspberry/strawberry/redcurrant bushes. The two small redcurrant bushes that grow outside Patricia and Dieter's house gave 2.7kg of recurrants.

A lovely side effect of having so much space is that you also have outside space, with the barn, the coop, the two gardens, and so on.

Something that struck me were how different their lives were: not just in the day-to-day but also in the trajectory of their lives. Let's start with the day-to-day: when we visited, Dieter was always milling around building this or that, constructing an extension to the barn (building a new room by himself with cement, clay and hay), building to build a new toilet (connecting the plumbing himself to the mains), and so on. This is a level of DIY far beyond anyone else I know, and I aspire to reach that level of handiness myself.

Looking more big picture, I was struck by how different their lives were compared to the other people I knew. We met Dieter and Patricia, Eva and Dedlef, Dieter's son Ryan, and Stephen. All of them live very different lives from what I imagined middle-aged people would. Their jobs were very different from what I am used to. Dieter is a social worker, Patricia a tour guide, Eva some sort of IT worker, and Dedlef a locksmith. Stephen seems to be working as a camera operator for a cooking show. My point is that it really opened my eyes to how different of a life one can lead apart from SWE/IB/consulting/professor, which was my bubble at Oxford.

I really appreciated their joie de vivre. For example, Eva and Dedlef showed us their mobile home [1], which they use to travel around Europe for holidays and music festivals. At 50+ they are still traveling around to attend music festivals, and for their anniversary D&P are biking (with leather jackets and all that) to their vacation spot, and by all accounts they are all very cool and awesome. This is really not something I would expect from middle aged people and I can only hope to be as cool next time.

They were also very cool and awesome in their youth. Dieter was first a naval diver with the German Navy and afterwards he joined Greenpeace where they would basically fly around the world to protest against environmental infractions. (They were the OG hippies). Dieter was telling the story of how they occupied the Brent Spar oil rig in the middle of the ocean so as to prevent it from being dismantled and dumped into the sea. Greenpeace sent boats to the oil rig in the middle of the ocean and occupied it for an entire month. Living on an offshore oil rig for a month sounds like an absolute mad lad thing to do. Eventually some sort of moratorium was signed according to Dieter. Dieter and Patricia spent their youth flying around to countries to protest, getting into run-ins with the police, sometimes getting beaten and thrown into jail for days and weeks at a time. This just makes me look at my own extremely sheltered youth and wonder if I should be doing something hot-blooded and activist like this as well.

Addendum: the relationship between Ryan and Dieter seemed like a very positive and healthy father-son relationship. Ryan looks up to his father and thinks he is cool and that is really awesome---I want to be a father like that too.

Kuhlenbronn was an amazing place and the lifestyle Patricia and Dieter lead honestly opened my eyes to how many other ways there are to live apart from the one we have in Singapore. Before I left Singapore, I was a frog in the well. I went to Oxford and realised a different way to live. Then I visited Venla in Finland and saw another way to live. Then I visited Dajiu in California and saw yet another way to live. And now I visit Kuhlenbronn and find a way to live that is completely different.

For instance, Venla used to ski to school when the snow was too thick to walk or bike---that blew my mind. Dajiu and family go to the country club every day after school/work to swim. And there are 28 people living in the village of Kuhlenbronn. (cows outnumber people). In contrast, there are 28 people in the first floor of my HDB block alone. Kuhlenbronn was the biggest change of scenery. While Venla's and Dajiu's are still suburban, Kuhlenbronn is proper rural. They get their water in Kuhlenbronn straight from the top of the mountain where it just flows out from the rocks. They grow a lot of their own food, make their own jam, have an underground cellar, build their own rooms with brick and stone, have their own goats and chickens, and so on. It has been really, truly---and I cannot overstate this enough---transformative. Learning how other people live their lives and taking lessons from there is very important to me. After all, what are the odds that the environment you happened to grow up in/ the way you lived just happens to be the best way to live?

There are some things I loved about Kuhlenbronn. But also some things I didn't like: firstly, one needs a car to get anywhere. The nearest city is 25 minutes away by car, and the nearest petrol station is half an hour away. Dieter drives 45 minutes to work. The nearest grocery shop down in the village of Wise has a tiny selection and closes at 12:30 (that's afternoon, not midnight). So there are pros and cons. All in all, though, this was a very enlightening trip, and I am really grateful for Celine for initially convincing me to go.

  1. They built their own mobile home by themselves for 10k EUR, and it was delightful to see how cleverly they'd constructed the truck. For instance, a chair becomes a toilet, the table folds away, the sink becomes a chopping board... every part of the house was really really clever, and made me realise how little space one really needs if one thinks a little about furniture and furnishings. ↩︎