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!


  1. Hi Vally,
    Here's a fan writing, it's me, Koos.
    On my photo pages people have asked me when my photo book about Rotterdam will appear. Below is my answer to them:

    Thanks for these really personal comments and the faves, my friends.
    To focus on Martin (Bxl06)'s question: I have in preparation a photo book about Rotterdam, for which VallyP will deliver the written part. To get a taste of her extremely evocative writing, I suggest you go to her Blog.

  2. Hey Val, I think you summed but life afloat to a 'T'

    Love the boat, Ill bt she has a few tales to tell and such classic lines.....the pic at the top, Are they some kind of ramps in the background going into the water? They look like some kind of slipway?

  3. When I saw your line “We aren't really free,” I thought we were about to go into an interesting philosophical argument about determinism. I read the remainder of the paragraph as though it was a metaphor on life anyway and it worked. At least for me; I have a fertile imagination, see. My high school teacher, Fuffles (he slobbered when he spoke – kids are inventive), told me as much: “Yoof a f-fertile phuh-magination phuh-phuff, ” he used to say, drowning me in more ways than one with the compliment. Nowadays it suits my sense of happiness to believe him. If you have never seen the brilliant Sellers in Being There, I recommend it.

    Been lying low lately, but always check in here and there. I hope the pair of you are doing grand. I’m sure Koos understands how lucky he is to be in the immediacy of "Val’s written part."

    Be lucky,

  4. Hi Val,

    I read what you wrote, and I would attest that it is a freedom, but it is also, a confinement. It takes a special person to choose that life, I would think it to be alright as I have lived in a trailer on a huge peice of property, and although my space small my world was huge. And being on water, well, water is freedom, and beauty and serenity. It's work, but what the pay off? Enjoyed the pictures.

    xox ~ to you, Koos, and Sindy

  5. Thanks Geoff! The ramps are the slipway of the boatyard in the Oude Haven itself. We at least don't have to go far to do our repairs! If you go to Google maps and look up Koningsdam, Rotterdam, you will see the yard, and even my barge close to the end of the row furthest from the slipway. It's the third from the end and in the photo they have, it still has a grey roof to the cabin and engine room.

    Paul, so glad to hear from you. I've added a 'not physically' to the line 'we aren't really free', but you could of course argue that freedom itself is an illusion. I'm afraid philosophical discourse is too personal a road for my blog to go down, so in that respect I will always disappoint, but I'm glad you found a metaphor in there ;)

    My mum always described creative people as having fertile imaginations too! Maybe it was the phrase of their generation, because that was usually a compliment. To me she said I had an over active imagination - and that wasn't...

    Grace, I can well imagine living on a trailer on a big piece of ground is similar to the concept of a boat. You can move it, and so you feel a sense of freedom is implicit, and the open space would be similar to having all that water....the main difference is that you don't get seasick when there's a gale blowing ;-)

  6. Hi Val,

    A beautiful description of why this life is important for you despite the fact that the reality is often something else than the romantic visions of those not personally familiar with what it means. Or is it also because of that - all the work that goes to it makes the sense/illusion of freedom somehow more tangible, more "deserved"?

  7. Hi Val,
    I think you're right that people misunderstand the life. I learned that lesson about RVs and caravans in the summer when we went to to Atlantic provinces with my in-laws. I realised very quickly that, although they have the "freedom" of the road, they also have so many check-lists and things to do every time they drop anchor that it is often very tedious. Also, when something goes wrong, and it often did with all the rain we had, it is literally your house that is sinking or stuck in the mud.

    I know that I am too lazy for that life, although we are plunging back into open houses today and looking at getting out of the condo and onto terra firma.

    Enjoy the rest of the weekend!


  8. Maria, thank you...I'm not sure about the hard work giving value to the illusion of freedom. What it does give is a sense of reality, of simple tasks keeping life uncomplicated. The rhythm and routine of living on and maintaining a barge which has few of life's luxuries (apart from the internet!) feels like continuity and keeping a strong handhold on self sufficiency. Still, you could have a point. Maybe the price of the freedom we seek is simple hard work!

    Hi Anne Marie, yes, you have a very good point there, and it's one I'm often conscious of...if anything goes wrong on the way somewhere, it is my entire home that is at risk! Congratulations on your decision to find a house....could your canine friend have something to do with it by any chance?

  9. Hello Val,

    I think if someone love something it's never a hard work. A romantic moment is only a moment, but a moment can be a very, very long time and every people is feeling on an other way.
    If I have a look on your pics it must be great to be on your barge. I can understand the feeling of freedom on a boat. It's the same as me to live in a house with a garden and the neighbours are not very near. For example I can listen to my music so loud every minutes of the day and night and no one comes and say I'm foolish. (OK, I know I'm a little bit crazy, but this is written on an other paper.)

    Wish you a fanastic next week.


  10. In life, the energy expended is equal to the rewards!
    Something about the law of relativity?



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