Thursday, November 06, 2008
Life on a Barge - romantic or just hard work?
Thanks to friend Marcel for this great angle on the Vereeniging
I often get comments from new acquaintances about living on a barge. They see it as a mixture of extreme eccentricity and dreamlike romanticism. Quite often too, they regard me personally as some kind of oddity and question my sanity, while simultaneously being fascinated by the practical aspects of how we barge owners live. And why on earth would a woman from South Africa come to Holland and live on an ancient binnenvaartschip anyway?
It's actually quite simple really. Life on a barge is the realisation of a desire to retain an illusion of freedom. We aren't really free. Not physically at any rate. We cannot just throw off the ropes and move to any other spot we choose. We have to apply for permission to move to a new mooring, and such permission isn't always easy to come by. Still, we can moor up in other places and other towns for short periods of time without a problem, and it most definitely is very special to be able to go on holiday and take your house with you. Quite apart from this, living on a boat is like having your own island. It is 'own ground' of a special sort, and there is no troublesome noise from neighbours..on a barge, you just don't hear them. Okay, the midnight revellers in the bars and cafes are another story, not to mention being a real pain, but noisy neighbours not.
I wouldn't say life itself is all that romantic. A lot of it is plain hard work. For instance, you can't take anything for granted, even your ability to stay afloat! We have to fill water tanks every week; to fetch heating fuel and to take washing to the mini laundromat at the yard. We have to take our barges out of the water every two years to scrape the foul smelling mussels off the bottom, check for thin patches, do some welding on any deterioration and paint the bottom again with the evil smelling black goo that is now a substitute for the old tar that used to be used. Then every summer, there is the need to scrape, paint and varnish every other surface of the boat. Not that we ever manage to finish this, given the uncooperative climate in which we live.
In the winter, the decks get frozen over, so climbing on and off board can be hazardous (and hilarious), especially if there's an east wind when the tide is out and the water in the harbour is very low. It's a bit like scrabbling clumsily up the Eiger to get onto land, quite apart from feeling like a pack animal as you cart heavy school bags laden with student assignments and books on and off the ship. I have stopped wearing skirts and heeled shoes. It's just not worth the hassle or the indignity when your spiked heels gets stuck between the mesh of the gangplank.
On the other hand, the incredible sense of liberation when you cast off the ropes and your home floats free of the harbour wall - that is indescribable. Well almost. There is also the joy of listening to the water slap against the hull as you cruise along silent canals with the sun setting behind trees already black from the dusk. Then, there is the sense of excitement as you tie up in a strange place, but go inside where everything is still home. All of this, including the drudgery, is why I still keep living on my barge, but most of all, it's because I love its charming sleek lines and its old fashioned grace, and I have put so much of my energy and my self into this century old hull that I could no more think of giving it up than of giving up life!