What it's Like Living in a 500-year-old Building

When my wife and I first moved to Germany, we thought we might live in Stuttgart, the main metropolis in Baden-Wurttemberg, and that I would commute to Tuebingen to teach classes.  Once we saw the sleepy, lovely, medieval college-town of Tuebingen though, we knew immediately that it would make a better home base.  Unfortunately, everyone else seems to have had the same idea and so the small town was experiencing an unprecedented housing shortage.  Students literally dropped out of the University because they couldn't find a place to live.

After a few (very expensive) days in a University Guest House, during which we tried to figure out a) the German housing market b) the German phone system--note: you can't just put coins in and make calls--and c) the locker-rental scheme at the train station, which held all our worldly belongings, including, interestingly, Amber's guitar, we found a half-timbered building directly on the Neckar river facing the park.  Built in 1478.

It was beautiful: perfectly-located about a mile from my offices and directly above a bakery.  It was also the filthiest place I've ever seen.  The man showing it to us cringed when we said we'd take it.  "Really?" he asked, incredulous.  Imagine Mrs. Havisham's place from

Great Expectations

 and you more or less have it.  The house hadn't seen a broom since the 1970's, from which era there were (and are) piles of magazines to attest to the proprietor's war on hygienic living.

We cleaned for days. We threw things out with righteous zeal. 

We put furniture in the attic, for which we were later reprimanded, and pulled down others and dusted, rolled, tipped, stored, piled and otherwise organized where we could, holding everything in pinched fingers as if it might be contagious.  It's one of the more disgusting projects I've been a part of, and I'm saying this as a former part-time janitor at an elementary school, who knows whereof he speaks. 

Everything slants at whimsical angles; there are splints holding up every furnishing that isn't nailed to the sometime floor.  The wiring is mostly electrical tape and the lighting (who plans ahead for lighting in the 15th century?)  bare bulbs hanging from strings.  Some of the installation is crumpled up paper sacks from the grocery, which I know because I thought of pulling one down in one of my more zealous fits.  None of this would matter, of couse, had the place been decently cared-for, which finally--the house creaks like mad, but can it sigh in relief?--for this year at least, it will be.

The effort was worth it. We now have a charming flat in the center of town in a building that's literally post-card perfect; it is featured in every advertisement for the town of Tuebingen, and has come quite a way in these last months, now a serene escape along the river's bend from whose windows we watch swans and tourists, the latter pointing their cameras at our half-timbered tumble-down home.