Monday, November 20, 2017

Things I love about the Nevereverlands

Some time back I wrote a blog about aspects of living in the Netherlands that I like. When the weather is as gloomy and 'Novemberish' as it is now, it really helps to look on the bright side of life here so I thought it was time to write another 'things I love' post to stop myself from pining for the sunshine in my former South African home.

I've travelled through much of this country, although admittedly it's not very big and I should really have seen more than I have, but mostly it's the east that has escaped my attention. That said, and even taking into account the parts I've missed, there really aren't many hills here at all. There are a few humpy parts in the Veluwe, north of Arnhem, and a few more in Limburg and the odd 'wal' or two (ridge of high ground), but apart from these, the country is flatter than the proverbial washboard. Many people don't like this, and I'll admit there are times I would love to stand on a hilltop and enjoy looking out over undulating scenery, but there are advantages to these flatlands.

Lie on your stomach and see into next week
Firstly, it makes driving a breeze. Our country getaway is in Zeeuws Vlaanderen and the drive down from Rotterdam every week is only ever made difficult by the volume of traffic on the roads during the first part of the journey – urban centres are always hell on wheels. The rest of it I could do (and am sometimes at risk of doing) in my sleep. The roads are wide and straight and you can see forever. Even the country lanes are unencumbered by bends and high hedges. They might be narrow, but as we used to say in South Africa, you can lie on your stomach and see into next week; all right, I agree Holland is smaller so perhaps the next half hour is closer to the truth, but even so, visibility is no problem. Still better, any approaching cars will be seen minutes before they reach you too.

I can hear some of you saying already that this must be boring, but I don't find it so. As I've mentioned before, the skyscapes here are wonderful and the light is often pure magic. The sun on the side of a  solitary white-painted cottage in the distance can stand out as a beacon against the gold spread of a wide cornfield and the vast expanse of the water-washed blue sky. Everything is outlined with a sharp pen, even the furrows in the fields. It can be stunning.

High hedges beside the narrow and winding lanes in England, for instance, often mean you see nothing of the beautiful scenery behind them. Hills there might be, but you can also miss half the beauty by having to concentrate on finding a safe place to pass the tractor in front of you going at half a mile an hour. With all those bends and hedges, you can hardly see more than a short distance ahead. There are rarely such problems in the Netherlands although I must admit the tractor drivers here think they are driving go-carts instead of lumbering agricultural machinery. As a result they pound along nearly as fast as anyone else on the road unless they're pulling a trailer load of hay or spuds, but that's another matter.


What's next then? Well, there's the beautiful old Dutch towns of which there are many. Some of my favourites are Dordrecht, Zierikzee (see last week's post), Deventer and Middelburg, all lovely places criss-crossed with harbours and old boats. Those that have their old centres still intact are just a picture of traditional Dutch culture. Most of these have cobbled streets, and quaint narrow gabled houses with outsize windows. Often they have flowers in boxes outside, hollyhocks growing up through the paving cracks and bicycles leaning haphazardly against walls and doorways. There is a kind of ramshackle but elegant charm about all these towns and I love them. There is also much more trust than I have ever experienced anywhere else.

Just the other day, Koos and I were walking through Leiden (which is quite a large city) and someone had put a small table outside their front door with pots of jam in a box. There was a small notice politely asking takers to put the money in the tin provided. Now in the country, I imagine that is quite common in most European countries, but in a large, cosmopolitan town? I think that's pretty rare.

An elegant Dutch townhouse in Goes

Lastly (for this time), let's not forget the people themselves. The Dutch are a puzzle to many other Europeans. Their direct way of speaking can seem blunt and insensitive for those not inured to it as I am now. Unexpected verbal side swipes that catch you off guard can seem to be a uniquely Dutch art. The point is, there is no malice intended – not that I'm aware of anyway. It's just being honest as far as they are concerned. I remember an occasion when I was grumbling to a friend about the amount of work I had to do to prepare and mark assignments for my classes. She looked at me and said with painful candour, "Well, you chose to do it."  I winced, having hoped for just a hint of empathy. She was right, of course, and we laughed about it later on.

It's just one side of the sort of practical no-nonsense approach to life that has the Prime Minister cycling across the Hague for a meeting with the king. Why waste time, money and energy driving a fancy car when you can nip through the city on a bike?

A country farmhouse in North Holland
Nevertheless, most of my Dutch friends would give you the shirt of their backs if you needed it; they are incredibly generous people. Their easy self-confidence and friendly informal familiarity might take some getting used to, but I've realised now how much I've grown to appreciate it and when I arrive back in the Netherlands after being away for a while, I feel a sense of relief. When the immigration officials at the airports greet me with a joke and a smile, I can't help feeling "here I am, home again".

There are plenty of other things to appreciate about the Netherlands too: the inspiring way they look to the future in terms of energy production, agriculture and water management; the constant attempts to find solutions and compromise in social and political matters; the intrinsic culture of 'anything goes as long as you behave sensibly'. The obsession with health and safety is thankfully not something the Dutch have taken on board and although there are problems here just as there are everywhere else, my feeling is that compared with other countries, this is still an essentially good and wholesome place to live.

I've just finished reading Ben Coates' very good Why the Dutch Are Different, so I'll finish with a quote from the last chapter of the book as it sort of sums things up. The Dutch are "happier than Britain, more efficient than France, more tolerant than America, more worldly than Norway, more modern than Belgium and more fun than Germany." All in all, it can't be bad, can it?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Beth Haslam - Author of the Fat Dogs and French Estates series: The Runaway Porker

Just a diversion from my own posts! I loved this story by Beth Haslam and can recommend her blog on country life in France. She writes wonderful and funny stories!

Beth Haslam - Author of the Fat Dogs and French Estates series: The Runaway Porker: “Interesting, or bad, news depending on how you look at it,” announced Jack, my husband, striding across my clean floor in his fore...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Too cold for faring

Hasn't it suddenly got cold? In just these last few days, the temperatures have dropped and we've realised for the first time that it really isn't summer anymore. I'd got used to being outside in just a tee-shirt, albeit a long-sleeved one. I'm such a summer lover, it's hit me quite hard and I'm struggling to get up the energy to do anything constructive.

I don't have a neighour at the moment, which is rather nice
for my view both on board and on the quay

So what's my response to that? Well, being pig-headed (or should I say bull-headed being a Taurean?), I rebel against my own lethargy and am forcing myself to go for walks every day when I'd really rather hibernate in my dressing gown. I'm also getting off the tram a stop earlier on the way to work to make sure I have more fresh air (unless it's raining; even I'm not that rebellious). Then to be able to give myself a pat on the back, I spent some time after work on Tuesday painting my back cabin roof; not that this turned out to be a good idea. It froze over night and when I looked at my new paintwork the next day, the frost had already robbed it of any gleam. Murphy was having fun again, so I'll have to do it again.

Another thing I've managed to do is move on a little further with the interior of said back cabin. It's no warmer in there either, but at least it's out of the wind. I'm hoping I'll be able to show off its new floor soon. Koos has been busy with the engine, although still no joy as yet. However, he has put one of those squishy gas things on the opening hatch, and that makes it a dream to open and close. I am really so grateful as with my bad shoulder it's been a painful job to open it.

In other news, over the last few weekends we've have been to Ghent twice; once to an art gallery where a contact of Koos' had some paintings in an exhibition, and again yesterday, but that was just to go to Ikea. I love Ghent, so any excuse to go there is fine with me.

Two paintings by Randell Sarneel with Koos doing his
own exhibiting between them.

All the artists involved in the exhibition and Koos

We've also been to the theatre, which is something I always want to do more but never manage to get round to. This occasion had an extra incentive because my daughter had a role in the performance. It was called Duets and was a wonderfully witty series of four short plays involving two people in each segment (hence the title) by Peter Quilter. It was terrific and beautifully performed by all. Very funny and well staged too. I hope they will do more as I need that kind of push to go and I really enjoy it.

The cast and single all-in-one crew member of Duets


Then this last Friday, we went to Zierikzee. I've been before and just felt like going again on our way down to Zeeland. It's a really lovely, traditional Dutch town, and it lies on the shores of the Oosterschelde, the tidal estuary behind the great Delta project dam walls. Most of the time the sluices are left open, so the tide comes in and out normally. I was surprised at how much of a drop there is at low tide. It's much more than in our Oude Haven and is probably close to four metres. Zierikzee is on my list of top towns in the Netherlands and is a place I wouldn't mind living.


The tidal harbour at Zierikzee

Zierikzee's town gate and tower
The history of the harbour telling visitors
how the town got its name. The tidal creek was
called the Ee and it was named after a local
leader by the name of Zierik, hence Zierik's Ee
of Zierikzee as it is now.

And a photo of what it used to look like at the end of
the 17th century

What are you all doing to keep the blood circulating in these cold days? Or maybe hot days in some cases! I'd be interested to hear.

In any event, and whatever the case, have a good week allemaal!


Monday, November 06, 2017

The Oude Haven: help save our slipway!

You may remember that a few weeks ago I had the Vereeniging on the slipway and I mentioned that it might be closing for good.

The Vereeniging on three of the five cars or trolleys 
Well, we have had a very welcome reprieve! Great news has just been circulated that a foundation has been established for the tijdelijk (temporary or short term) management of the yard and slipway (helling), and that it will continue for at least 18 months. If it goes well, it might end up being a permanent arrangement. I am of course thrilled to hear this, but I can see it puts a certain pressure on the foundation's management to make sure the slipway is continuously occupied and that means they need bookings. An empty helling is not going to keep it going and I frown whenever I see there is nothing sitting there.

So on the basis that every little counts, here's my promotional blurb for our wonderful harbour.

I can personally confirm I've used the yard every two years since I've been in the Oude Haven and I have been forever grateful for the care and cooperation I've been shown as a customer. Naturally, it makes a difference that I live there and I know most of the people involved, but I think I can speak for other non-residents too when I say that help is always at hand and if you need the skills of a good welder, carpenter or even riveter, there is always someone there to step in, even in emergencies.

Each car can carry 20 tonnes
The only restrictions are that 1) those using it have to have a vessel with a hull of at least fifty years old. It is after all a 'historic harbour', so this is the basic criterion. 2) It is also important to have a flat or at least round  bottomed boat rather than one with a deep keel because of the flat 'cars' on which the boats sit, and 3) the length and weight of the barge are limited to 40 metres and 100 tonnes. Each of the cars can carry 20 tons, so that is also a consideration. Apart from these conditions, there is nothing to put you off. The rates are very reasonable, and you can do all or most of the work yourself to keep costs down, depending on your skills. However, if you prefer to have others do everything, that is also your choice and there are no staff employed that you are obliged to use. You can bring in your own. Bookings are normally for a week, but you can ask for two, or more if you wish although since all the work is done while sitting on the slipway, short term bookings are probably preferred. Two smaller boats can, however, share the helling. Lastly, there is a shower and toilet in the yard in the event you cannot use your own (or don't have one!).

Since I'm on a promotional run here, I can also say the Oude Haven is a wonderful location. It is one of the key social centres of Rotterdam and is surrounded by caf├ęs and good restaurants. The centre of the city is a short walk away and supermarkets are close by too. What more could you possibly want at the end of a hard day of being up close and personal with a broad-beamed bottom?

The Oude Haven at night (photo by Koos Fernhout)

Right, here's the other important bit. Who do you contact? Not me, I regret to say. No, there are four guys running the foundation: Nico Hoogstad, Joram Lehmann, Chris van der Meulen and Paulus van der Jagt. You can write to any or all of them at this email address, which is the one for enquiries:- post@koningspoort.nl

 A special view of the Oude Haven

My plea to all barge, tug and other owners of old boats is to give a thought to the Oude Haven if you are in France, Belgium or the Netherlands and are looking for a lift out. The more it is used, the better the prospects are for us all that it will be maintained. Given that it is also one of Rotterdam's foremost visitor attractions, it would be very sad indeed if it were closed and replaced by tower block apartments.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Winter preparations

It's that time of year when we start preparing for winter on board the Vereeniging, and I greet it with something of a wistful sigh.
  
A baby coot

It's time to make sure the rowing boat is completely empty and the seats and floorboards are stacked so they don't sit in pools of water and rot. We haven't used it much this year because we had our coot squatters in it for so much of the time.  Here is a link to a post I wrote about them before. They set up quite a production line and Mama Coot continued to produce eggs to sit on throughout the summer, which rather effectively prevented much 'spuddling'; no one wanted to risk Papa Coot's ire and I can't say I blamed them.

Spuddling supreme...pulling a mast through the harbour
It's also time to put the little electric outboard motor away too and make sure the battery is regularly charged and in a dry place. I have to say the motor hasn't been available much either this year as there was a problem with the wiring, but that's been fixed now. Our brilliant neighbour, Bas the man of electrical means, has untangled the mess, so it will at least be ready for next year.


As for all the painting jobs I haven't done, well, there's still the odd warm day when some work might be possible, but I fear they will mostly get left until next year now.

And lastly, it's time to light my oil stove. The weather is turning cold and wet, so I must look around for things to do inside. Ah, now that has promise!

Now the welding is done in my back cabin, I want to put vlakvet (grease) on the hull below the floor and get the rest of the new floor down. To my dismay, when I was removing panels for fire watching when we were on the helling a couple of weeks ago, I found the woodworm had returned (or perhaps they had never really gone away - see this post), so that needs to undergo treatment again. At least it's not the floor this time, but the framework to the cupboards has been attacked...ho hum.

I have sprayed (again) and have another fumigator on order, but I need to work in there, so I'll avoid anymore pesticides until I'm satisfied with the floor. I really don't like that stuff at all. Still, I've read that woodworm aren't as active in the winter; I hope that's true. I've also read that if you cover the worms' bore holes with masking tape in the winter, you can see if they are still busy in the spring as the beetles will break through the holes to get out. I'll be using a lot of masking tape, I think! In addition, they (the experts on the internet) recommend those sticky strip fly traps. Apparently, they are also quite good for getting rid of woodworm beetles; they will be going up in the spring too. I really hope I can get rid of the evil worms this time. So far, in terms of their ability to survive my attempts at obliteration, it's woodworm 2, me 0.

Another thing I want to do is build a partition in my living space between the bed and the lounge area. I have an idea of how I want to do it that will not make it too dark there, but I hope it won't be too difficult. I'll keep that simmering for a bit.

And then the last job is to get the engine going again. It's been a long story, hasn't it? Koos is working on solving the mystery of why it refuses to run now, but if (or what if) what he has in mind still doesn't work, I'll have to call an expert in (and that could be a euronormous job). Keep fingers, toes and thumbs crossed everyone!


Well that's all my Vereeniging jobs, so what about the Hennie H? Perhaps I'll tell you about that next week. Have a good one allemaal!


Monday, October 23, 2017

Contacts for my context

As some of you might already know, I am writing the sequel to African Ways. The period I am covering is 1985 to 1987 just after I left the farm (see picture below) which is the subject of the first book. I've been enjoying the process of thinking back, putting myself there in time and simply recalling the people, places and events that occurred during those two years.

The farm where we lived until the end of 1984

The reason I'm limiting it to 1987 is because that was when I left Richmond in what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was the end of an era for me, but also for the area as a whole. Up until that time, Richmond and its environs had been a place of peace and tranquillity. There had never been any cause for me to worry about safety or security and we'd spent six marvellous years leaving doors unlocked, walking freely in the surrounding veld and bush with snakes being about the only things to be wary of. I can't speak for others but I, and the people I lived among on the farm and in the valley, lived a symbiotic life. In simple terms, we all helped each other. Sure, apartheid was still there, being slowly dismantled, but still in force until the early nineties. But in my small corner of Natal, it had very little impact and relevance.

The beauty of the Drakensberg mountains in Kwa-Zulu

However,  in 1986, I remember the rumbles beginning, and by 1987, they were becoming a loud noise. Political franchise was taking too long. Expectations were not being met. The unrest started and the conflicts between the activists in the political parties grew more sinister and more frequent. Farms and farmers were being attacked, and in the decade that followed, Richmond became notorious for its violence. By the early nineties, when I was already in Johannesburg, I looked on in dismay as the region I'd loved so well descended into a sort of local civil war.

The Nelson Mandela memorial in the Natal Midlands

I left Richmond in March 1987, the principal reason being to go back to the UK and spend some time with my father. When we (the children and I) returned to South Africa, it was to Jo-burg and the highveld, so I never experienced that dreadful wave of violence that beset my beloved Natal. Of course we had our own tensions, dramas and dangers in Johannesburg, but in some ways, that was to be expected. Hi-jackings, muggings, riots, and road blocks were all par for the big city course. But what happened in Natal and in what used to be a sleepy rural town was horrific.

My memoir, however, will stop before any of that occurred, but what it will cover is a year when I worked for an attorney in the area. He was a good and caring lawyer and he spent a substantial amount of time defending poor black people. He also had a number of high ranking clients in black organisations, including members of the ANC. Since he was so well known, I knew that even if I changed his name, anyone who'd lived there would know who I was talking about, so I set about seeing if I could find out if he was a) still alive and b) still living in Natal. If so, I wanted to make contact to ask his permission to use his real name in my memoir.

Luckily for me, my daughter is a super sleuth and she found him. I won't go into how or where, but suffice to say I have made contact, he has read the relevant chapters and has approved them. He has given me permission to use his name too. This on its own has buoyed me up no end. But what has also been deeply moving are the stories he has told me now about some of the unnerving and frightening events he and his staff survived during the time following my departure.

So what is my point in all this? Firstly, the obvious one is that I can be very thankful I left when I did. Who knows how hard it would have been to bring up two children in that environment? Secondly, being in touch with him has given me back a sense of reality about my life there. My memories are of a time before I ever saw the Netherlands, and even before my life in Johannesburg. So much has changed for me since 1987, the life I had in Natal was beginning to assume a kind of dream like quality. But this contact has breathed life back into all of it; my former boss has confirmed its reality by writing back and commenting about some of what I mention in my book: my colleagues in his firm, some of the events I describe, and the names I've forgotten. It's quite an amazing feeling and has given me new inspiration to keep at it and finish the memoir...I have of course promised him a copy of the whole book when it's finished; given that he too is not a young man anymore, I feel I'd better get on with it. Don't you agree?