Coming to Germany from America, and from relatively small town America specifically, one of the biggest surprises has been the lack of yards. Remember last week when I said that in Europe, people build up instead of out? I don’t know if it’s because there’s not enough space, or if they just have a different cultural mindset (probably both, one causing the other), but they don’t really spread out. The price of real estate no doubt has a lot to do with it as well. Or maybe it’s just that “the yard,” or at least what I think of as a yard, is a distinctly American thing. We’ve never really lost that early frontier settler attitude, where we wanted not just a home but a piece of land to call our own, to farm or ranch or whatever, even if all we’re really farming is a lawn and a vegetable garden. When I lived in Mexico several years ago I was similarly struck by the lack of yards, and the few yards they do have tend to be locked behind iron gates. Going back to Utah after two years of that almost gave me agoraphobia, because the streets were twice as wide plus there was a (comparatively) massive yard on each side, so instead of ten yards from one gate to the opposite one there was suddenly thirty or forty yards from door to door–and then another big space in the backyard. Americans live in fields.
Our house here in Feuerbach is a town home which shares its side walls with matching town homes; we’re number two in a line of five. Our front yard is a porch area about four feet by eight feet, most of it full of bushes. Our backyard is actually pretty sizable, starting with a beautiful little terrace thingy and leading up into a hillside courtyard that we share with twenty or so other town homes and apartments. It’s not “lawn” so much as “vaguely manicured overgrowth,” but since the local weeds and wildflowers are short ground cover instead of tall desert grasses, that works out great. My kids and the neighbor kids range all over that area, and some of the friends we’ve made in the same complex will occasionally tromp through it to come say hi. This central courtyard does not “officially” touch the outside world, but when we were trying to move big pieces of furniture that wouldn’t fit through our narrow spiral staircase we found a spot where we could jump a short wall through a neighbor’s front walkway and carry our couch in through the terrace. My wife wants to buy some plants and start a little garden in that back terrace–she was a huge gardener-landscaper in our house back in Utah–but that will probably wait for next spring when we’re a little more settled.
One of the neat parts about building upward and conserving horizontal space is that we live close to everything we need. It’s just a couple of minute’s walk to the “downtown” area of Feuerbach, which has all the grocery stores and kebab shops and so on, plus there’s a train station if we ever need to go to another town or into the Big City of Stuttgart itself. But the best and greatest thing about building upward is that it saves so much of the countryside for, well, countryside. There’s a forest two blocks from my house–two blocks! It’s not a huge forest by any means, but as “local town amenities” go I’d rather be two blocks from a forest than from, say, a strip mall. And the interesting part is this: the first little bit of the forest is not so much forest as gardens: actual gardens and American-style yards, some of them fairly big, but not attached to anything. It’s pretty bizarre, in a way, these gardens in the middle of nowhere. I told my kids that these were elf gardens, and my 5yo thought that was awesome, but my 3yo, being a little more savvy, told me that elves were just in movies, and not really real, so obviously these must be fairy gardens. My 5yo, whose greatest goal in life is to become a fairy, thought that this logic was perfect. In truth, of course, the gardens are exactly what they look like: backyards that just happen to be far away from their houses. You can live in the city, with all the advantages that entails, and still have a neat little garden where you can plants flowers, raise vegetables, put in a swingset or a trampoline, and so on. It’s pretty cool.
I must admit that overall I’m torn. on the one hand, I love having a big yard. Our place in Utah had about a tenth of an acre–not considered very big, by American standards–and it was awesome. When we were shopping around for a new house last year I was appalled by all of the big, fancy houses all crammed so close together your side yard is essentially just a narrow gap between you and the next house. But I also have a passionate hatred for suburban sprawl–vast rolling fields of identical houses stretching as far as the eye can see, dappled here and there with a gas station or an Applebees. Denver seems to exemplify this banal excess, which is why I took such delight in destroying it in fiction (which fiction? Stay tuned to find out!). So while in some ways I love the American model of civic planning, in other ways I really love the European model. When I get back to the US in a couple of years and start looking for a home, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Stay in Europe, I guess. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.