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 cafés 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:-

 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?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Back in my berth again

Well that was a week and a half. As I mentioned in my last post, the man with the hammer came on Tuesday and showed almost unhealthy enthusiasm for finding fault with my 120 year old bottom. Well, find it he did: one thin area in front of the propellor through which he made a small hole, and a one and a half metre strip just above where some of the plates are riveted together. I shouldn't complain though. He was just doing his job and probably saved me a heap of trouble later on. But as I also said last time, I hadn't booked anyone to do the welding for me.

Tim's patch
True to his word, though, our lovely neighbour, Tim, came and welded a small emergency patch over the hole just before he set off on his own journey north to fetch a mast for his ship. We watched him leaving and I don't think I've ever seen his smile so wide; it was the first time he'd been away on his beautiful barge so it was quite something to see it moving.

A smiling Tim setting off on his own barge

That same morning, however, another wonderful neighbour, who is actually retired, came to offer his services. He was, bless him, concerned I wouldn't get another chance as the yard might be closing for good next year, so as a special favour, he collected up some odd pieces of steel and knitted them together to patch the thinning skin of my ageing Vereeniging.

The strip above the plate joints

It took three days of hard work, and three days when I had to spend much of my time crouched in the back cabin with the floor up and the cupboards dismantled watching for possible fires. My only company was a washing up liquid bottle full of water ready to squirt on any flames and a bunch of damp cloths to wrap over the old wooden framework of the cupboards, some of which were unnervingly close to the iron plates being welded. Rather wet companions, don't you think?

My properly patched up behind before painting

My only entertainment was posting cryptic messages on Twitter, but it did occur to me I could write the experience into a book about tips and tricks for restoring an old Dutch barge. The inimitable Roger Distill sowed the seeds with his own book 'Hints and Tips for Life with Your Feet Under Water (see the link here) as he'd already suggested I should do one for living on European waters.

Once the welding was over, it was down to painting again, so back came the rollers and black tar substitute. Koos and I rolled and brushed for all we were were worth until yesterday morning when the week was over and we slid back into the water again. After a quick check to make sure there were no nasty surprises after the welding and bashing, one of our other special neighbours towed us back to my berth. Next projects? Getting the engine going...again, sorting out the rust under the rubbing rail...again, and re-building the back cabin...again.

What was that they say here in the Netherlands? Koop een boot, werk je dood! (or loosely translated: buy a boat, work yourself to death)

Have a good week allemaal!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

High and dry again

Just a quickie this time as otherwise I won't get to post at all. It's that time again. The man with the hammer has been and given his verdict on the state of my bottom, or rather, the Vereeniging's. I can't believe that it's already five years since the last time, and unfortunately, those five years have taken their toll. My lovely old lady needs a few sticking plasters on her rear end. Luckily only one of these is urgent as I don't have the time or the welder to do anymore.

I guess I was hoping in vain for a clear bill of health and I took the risk of not calling my welding friends beforehand. There's always an uncertainty with these inspections. You never know what you need until after the hammer has fallen. If you reserve a welder in advance, the chances are that you won't need him; if you don't, then you do (if you get my drift). Well I didn't and I should have, but never mind; my wonderful neighbour, Tim, who helped us last time, is going to save my bacon again. Sadly, he has limited availability, so we are just doing the urgent patch for the moment. I'll definitely reserve him next spring long as he's still around...and there lies another risk! Will he or won't he? When my helpers live on boats too, there's always the possibility that they'll fare away. But I won't worry about that for now! We have enough on our plates for the moment.

Wish us luck, my old girl and me. We have to be finished by Sunday so we need all the dry weather and good painting conditions we can get!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

When in France

I mentioned in the last of my posts about our travels that one of the things I love about being in France is the fact that it is so different from home and what we're used to, but there are moments when this can be challenging. It's not only the Wifi (see last post) that presented us with puzzles though. There are many aspects of life in France that we in Holland and Belgium have to get used to. A lot of the time, we found the differences fascinating, fun or amusing, but sometimes it could be a bit frustrating when we just couldn't seem to get things right. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love France, I love the north and I love the people. They are kind, helpful and easy to have fun with even if you speak limited French, as I do. But here's a taste of what we experienced, both the good and not so good.

Waiting...we did a lot of this in France


Luckily, as strangers and foreigners, no one tried to kiss us as I believe that can be a minefield. Is it one? Two? Four? Working that one out can end up in some highly embarrassing nose bumps. And for safety's sake, I address everyone as 'vous' and don't take the risk of 'tu'ing them. Not ever. However, one custom we encountered that was new to me is the shaking-hands-with-everyone-in-the shop, restaurant, and café. The first time this happened, we were in a small bar in Harmes on the Canal de Lens. Koos and I had stopped in for a cup of coffee. There were a couple of customers there when we arrived who greeted us without any apparent demur, and we sat down with our cups of espresso. But then the café started to fill up. And with every new customer that came in, our hands and those of everyone else in the place were shaken briskly with an accompanying 'bonjour'. It took me by surprise at first and it was a moment before I realised the man (for so it was) wasn't trying anything more sinister than a greeting. Well, I wasn't expecting it, you see, so my instincts drew their own conclusions.

One odd thing about it is that it seems it's not done for the greeter to look the greetee in the eye when clasping hands. I noticed that each of the new arrivals approached us, reached out and then suddenly seemed to see a fly on the table, or the wall, or somewhere. It was slightly disconcerting, I must say, as I never saw the fly and only twigged after about the third shake. Apart from that, I found it a charming custom and only hoped the coffee drinkers who were already there when we walked in were not offended that we didn't rush to clasp them in a friendly grasp. When the same thing happened on a later occasion, we were with Koos' son and daughter-in-law, who were also delighted by it. We of course were old hands (sorry) by then.

Closing time

Now we know that lunchtime in France is sacrosanct. From 12:00 to 14:00 everything shuts except the big supermarkets (and even some of them do too). It's time to eat and the French believe in allowing proper time for the digestive juices to gently process what has just been tasted and savoured. Businesses, offices, hardware stores etc, they all close for these two hours and you just have to get used to it. I love it. I think it is such a civilised idea and applaud the French for giving such honour to lunch. I also noticed that lunch is 'the' meal of the day and it quite often happens that restaurants are only open during the lunch time hours.

Other closing times

Right, we all know about the lunchtime thing, but what is not clear is when other shops and businesses open. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking some places are never open. The bakery is fine first thing. That's a given and they are nearly always open early in the morning until at least about 10:00, but after that, it can be anyone's guess. They might open in the afternoons for a time as well, but not always, so if you've been counting on breaking your baguette with your evening meal, just be aware you might end up with supermarket fare (good rhyming there, huh?). Other shops, though, seem to open and close at will, and even when they say they are open, they quite often aren't.

Then there's the dreaded Mondays. In some towns, like Courcelles near Lens (for instance), the shops don't open on Mondays at all, but you can never be sure (if you don't have internet that is), where or how this will apply. Example: in Aire sur la Lys, the tobacconists were all closed on Mondays as well as most of the town shops. The out of town shopping mall was open but there was no tobacconist there and in France, you can only buy cigarettes from a tabac. If you live with a smoker (as I do), this can be a weighty matter (or a burning issue?) Actually, he became quite philosophical about it in the end because very few shops are open on Sundays either, and thinking about ciggie supplies three days ahead was too much of a challenge.

A restaurant that was only open at lunchtime - for Jo public
anyway. In the evening, they said they catered only for groups
but we think we might have been a bit scruffy for them too.

As I've mentioned, not all restaurants are open in the evenings. This wasn't usually a problem for us as we tend to cook on board and we're not great eater-outers. On the few occasions we did want to splurge, though, we couldn't find anywhere open. In Pont L'Evêque, for example, of the two restaurants, one was closed for a July holiday announcing proudly it would be open in August (but whether in the evenings or not, we couldn't tell)) and the other, a brasserie and bar, shut at five o'clock. This was in high holiday season, which you could say surprised us...given that the north of France is not doing all that well economically.

Added to that were the locks. On the whole, locks are self-service on the canals we used and are operated by means of a télécommande, or remote control, but there are even places when you cannot use these at lunchtime or after six o'clock. And they're supposed to be automated? I know, I know. It sounds bonkers. But there is a logic to this all the same. Just think; if anything goes wrong with the lock, you need to call someone and yes, you've guessed it - they don't work at lunchtime or after hours, so they simply switch them off. The manually operated locks followed the same pattern, but lunchtime is even longer because it takes the lock assistants about twenty minutes to drive from the lock to wherever it was they're going to eat and vice versa. Thus we had to calculate. Waiting time = lunch hour + 2 x 20 mins. It's France after all (says she with a Gallic shrug).

A manually operated lock on La Lys. We had to wait the 'extra'
long lunch hour for this one.


To finish this post on an up note (because as I've said, I love France and all things French), I just adore French supermarkets because they are so...well...French! They cater totally to the French way of life and that means home-produced, so don't even think about trying to buy South African wine or anything other than good French made food. It is either not available or tucked into places that you won't see unless you hunt for it. Even the Dutch cheese they probably sell for their Flemish neighbours is often made in France. As for buying such gastronomic unthinkables as peanut butter, forget it. I love the whole focus on what the French eat, drink and consume, and above all, I love the fact you can buy almost anything in one of the big supermarkets, even hardware stuff we needed for the boat.

I don't have a photo of a supermarket, so here's Douai instead
where we really enjoyed the E. Leclerc hypermarché

One of the wonderful aspects of visiting different countries is experiencing the different customs, and I am hugely grateful that living where I do, I can reach so many so easily, but for me, France is the most different of those within reach and I will never tire of going there. It's like a beautiful view; there's always something new to see and enjoy.

Now of course I'm wondering...what is the culture you've most enjoyed experiencing in your own travels?

Have a great week, allemaal.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Adventures in Wifi

On our summer travels, it was very difficult to remain connected to the internet world we are accustomed to when we're at home. Now I don't mind this. Apart from this blog, which I like to keep up, I am perfectly happy to revert to a non-social media, non-browsing lifestyle and just read books for entertainment; or go for walks; or paint the boat; get the idea, anyway. I love that feeling of detachment from the 'real world'.

My dearest and beloved, however, is less sanguine about being off-grid, so to speak. His passion is photography, and next to that is his passion for sharing his photos with others. Yes, even when we are in remote and sleepy parts of the French countryside and access is almost interdit (a very common French instruction), let alone impossible. Well, I shall say no more about that for fear of reprisals (haha), but I do want to tell you about some of the adventures he had in attempting to break the barriers of French internet resistance.

The man with his passion

Technically, it should all have been very simple. When in France, you can buy an abonnement for a limited period to connect with the internet by means of hotspots. In Koos' case, this was with Orange, who claimed to have something like 700,000 hotspots throughout the country. How this works, though, is not quite so easy and I hope I can explain it. There are indeed huge numbers of hotspots, but they are not in comfortable, easy locations like cafés or bars. Oh no.

When a householder organises broadband Internet at home, he/she agrees that, for a reduced monthly fee, passing members of the public can use a small part of his/her bandwidth, thus making his/her home  or premises a hotspot. There are lots of companies offering this throughout Europe, so it is nothing unusual. In the Netherlands, for example, we have KPN Fon and many others. What it means in practice, though, is that anyone with an abonnement such as the one Koos bought needs to be close to the said premises to make use of the hotspot.

Well, I think a lot of people are not fully aware that their homes might be the centre of such 'hot' attention, so to speak. So what happened was this:

Koos bought his abonnement when we were in Douai, but only discovered then how close he had to be to the nearby hotspot to get a connection. In Douai, it wasn't too bad. There was a garden bench on the road opposite the block of flats where the happy, probably unsuspecting, subscriber lived. He would trek up to the bench with his laptop and sit there uploading photos and checking in with his followers. Barring a few odd looks, nobody paid him much attention. After all, what's so odd about a man with a laptop these days? Just an oversized phone, you might say. However, when we moved up the Scarpe away from the urban world, connecting with the world proved more difficult.

Flats in Douai: which one is home to the hostpsot?
At our first stop, Koos walked into the village of Brébieres some distance from the boat, wandered around with his laptop open until he found a hotspot (as anyone would, of course), found a convenient bench (he wasn't always so lucky) and sat down. All of a sudden, life became interesting. A woman had collapsed not far from where he was sitting and was being attended to by anxious friends. She herself was cheerfully chatting on her phone when the ambulance arrived, but seeing Koos on the bench, they pulled up to him first.

'Are you ze one who called for us?' they asked, for all the world as if they were a taxi service.
'No, not me. Her,' said Koos, pointing to the prostrate lady with a smile. She was still talking and laughing on her phone.
'Oh merci monsieur.' And off they went to rescue the real victim. Koos could only imagine they saw his grey hair and beard and just assumed it must have been him, despite his calm demeanour and open laptop. A youngish woman lying flat on the ground? couldn't have been her.

On another occasion, he had to sit on someone's front step to find the magic hotspot. Luckily, the house was closed up, but I cringed with embarrassment on his behalf with this one, although not half as much as I did on a later occasion at Cappy on the Somme. Once again, he was obliged to sit outside someone's house. It was early evening and the blinds were down so he felt safe that the owners were not at home. Unfortunately, though, they arrived back when he was in mid-upload.

Cappy on the Somme
Now Koos has a gift I don't have. I would have felt as guilty as a criminal even though what he was doing was perfectly legal and fully paid for. Koos has no such handicap and proceeded to explain to the bemused householders how the hotspot system worked - in fluent French. My daughter called him a silver tongued charmer the first time she met him, and I am guessing he had to bring the full load of his easy charm to the fore to avoid serious misunderstandings on this occasion. I know I would have failed hopelessly, especially in French!

As you can see, there's a bit of an actor
in my Koos - very useful on such
occasions :)
Apart from these, there were other, even less comfortable hotspots: the dodgy side street in Haubourdin where I was afraid he wouldn't come home with his laptop, if at all and the church square in Marquette-lez-Lille under the eagle eye of the Lord. Most notably, though, he had to get up close and cosy with a lamp post in Leers Noord. Yes. Can you imagine trying to explain that one? 'Yes, officer, I'm getting messages from the aliens. This lamp-post is their earthly antenna.'

So next time you see someone lurking with intent with an open laptop next to a postbox, garden hedge or shop door, don't's probably Koos. Just ask him what he's doing and experience all that silver he's capable of conjuring up at a moment's notice and enjoy it. He's quite an actor, but totally harmless really :)

NOTE: Due to the problems my readers have had with overcoming the 'I am not a robot' captcha if they are not Google account holders, I have enabled comment moderation for all comments. I'm really really sorry I've had to do this, but at least readers won't have the frustration of jumping through hoops to publish a comment. I will check daily to ensure all comments are published.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Last of the Magnificent Moorings

I've been sifting through my photos again to find more of our favourite moorings, and I think this is the final selection. We stayed at so many places, and most of them were great, but the ones I've shown you were special for a number of different reasons. Here are the last of my special favourites.

Douai halte nautique in the town

Douai: we've been there three times now and enjoyed each visit. Because the Hennie H is only fifteen metres, we can go right to the halte nautique in the town and from there it's a ten minute walk to the old centre with all its charm and history. The moorings have bollards on the wall, electricity (if you have the VNF key) and water too. We stayed there both going south and returning north. It's a great spot; there are always people to talk to; the city is close; it's peaceful at night and there's a big shopping centre just by the bridge going out of town.


This next spot is Courcelles, which was quite a discovery. It used to be run by the local mairie and had its own capitainerie, but when the mayor changed, interest in the marina dropped away. When we arrived, we were welcomed in, shown where the water, electricity and showers were and then told it was all free, bar the showers (50c a go). I don't know how long this will last, but it's a very nice place to relax and spend a few days. There is an E. Leclerc supermarket fifteen minutes walk from the harbour. Anyone going there would need to ask directions, but on a bike, it's even less than ten minutes, so easy for shopping.

Brébiere on the Scarpe

This photo is at Brebière on the Scarpe. I can't tell you how much I loved it there. There was nothing at all and we had to search for the bollards below the signs, but it was just too gorgeous. The scenery, the sunshine, just everything was lovely, especially the clarity of the water. One of those very special spots. 

The morning we left (for the second time), we decided to clean the mooring sign. It was so grubby. I also painted the bollard white so more people would see it.

Anywhere on the Canal de Saint Quentin will do
I'm cheating again with this one. It's the Hennie H on the Canal de Saint Quentin, and in principle, the whole of this canal is perfect for moorings. Again, there are no services, but if you are self sufficient, you can moor up in any of a large number of spots. We noticed they'd been doing a lot of work on moorings and on the banks with new rubber sidings along the waiting areas by the locks. We wondered why they were working so hard on it, but whatever the reason, it's great to see this canal is not being allowed to deteriorate. It is absolutely my favourite arterial waterway and I just love it. The locks are easy to operate (just as well - there a lot of them) and apart from the long tunnel, the entire 90 kilometre length of it from Cambrai to Chauny is a joy.

Séreaucourt le Grand on the Canal de Saint Quentin

This is a particularly idyllic mooring on the the Canal de Saint Quentin. Séreaucourt le Grand is in a side arm just a bit south of St Quentin itself. There's water, electricity and a shower if you can raise the harbour master. We couldn't until the next day but by then it was too late for us. There's a restaurant, a supermarket and several beautiful ponds next to the Somme river, which is here too. It runs close to the canal and even crosses beneath it a few kilometres from Séreaucourt before it branches off at St Simon. This is one of those places I could have stayed a while. It gave me a wonderfully restful feeling.

Chauny - free mooring, but there is a marina
Our place at Chauny above was not the most beautiful of moorings, but the town of Chauny was the biggest surprise of our trip. I was expecting a run down dreary place, but it was lovely: alive, bustling and colourful. There were flowers on every lamp post and the whole place had a vivid, vibrant feel that made you want to park up and stay there. For those who like more comfort, though, there is a marina with full services, so highly recommended as a stop over.

Pont L'Evêque 
Now here was another surprise. Pont L'Evêque, which is at the point where the Canal Latéral à L'Oise joins the Canal du Nord. The entrance to the harbour is through the bridge you can see in the photo above. It looks as if it is a no entry area, but that is misleading. There are moorings with electricity and water, which you pay for at a machine up the road in front of the post office. Pont L'Evêque is such a nice place and the harbour area is wonderful with pretty quayside houses and a working shipyard to keep the Koos and Vals of this world entertained. We loved it and spent two days there.

The Canal du Nord just outside Péronne
 Last but absolutely not least, was this mooring on the Canal du Nord just north of Péronne a hundred metres or so before the turning into the Canal de la Somme. This was another spot where we just tied up to some bollards on the canal side so we could stop for the night. The bollards were a bit far apart for us; they were designed for commercial barges, but we managed with a rope and anchor as a spring to stop us being pulled out too much by passing commercials. Why was it special then? It was so incredibly peaceful. Once the locks had closed for the night, there was simply nothing to disturb the quiet and as darkness descended, I even heard an owl in the woods. We went for the most wonderful walk and felt we had to whisper so as not to break the silence. Just magical.

So that's it. I've already given you the special mooring on the Canal de Roubaix and as I've said, nearly everywhere we stopped was great. We didn't have one mooring where we were bothered by anyone or unhappy, so it was hard to choose the favourites, but I think I have pinpointed the really special places now.

It's back to teaching for me this week and the weather is cooling down dramatically, so I hope you are all enjoying the early autumn weather. Have a good week allemaal. 

Saturday, September 09, 2017

More magnificent moorings in northern France

As promised, here are some more of my favourite moorings in northern France with a bit of blurb about what makes them special. We had some idea of places we really wanted to stay, and oddly, these were not always the ones that appealed to us. For instance, we wanted to go to a place called La Bassée (not far from Bethune and Lille) after visiting it once by car, only to find that what we thought was a lovely quiet mooring was actually plagued by noise from the two bridges it lies between. As a result, although it was great to go there (which we did - twice), it wouldn't rate as one of my favourites.

So here again, in no particular order other than that in which reached them, are the ones we did like.

Halte Nautique Menen
These two photos are from Menen. It was a lovely mooring off the Leie river against a quay. We had electricity, but no water, although we learned the next morning that the power was not really for visitors, but they didn't seem to mind. I loved all the bird life on the water here!

The local community at Menen

This next photo  is from one of our absolute favourite spots in the Gare d'Eau at Bauvin, near the locks at Don on the Canal de la Deûle. It was just before the junction with the Canal d'Aire that heads towards Dunkirk. I don't know why no one else seems to use it, but it's been empty both times we've been there.

The Gare d'Eau at Bauvin
There are no services but it's really beautiful and we stayed overnight twice on this last trip. The mooring is easy with good bollards and you can get off straight onto the tow path. There are some lovely walks through the woods and along the canal as well. A very precious place.

Bethune town centre 

The first place we stopped after turning into the Canal d'Aire was La Bassée, mentioned above. It was good and convenient for the shops but doesn't rate as a favourite. However, after La Bassée we stayed a night at Bethune, which by contrast was a delightful surprise. This mooring is at the end of an old canal arm and you have to motor past several old péniches to reach the pontoon. There's water and electricity available if you have the VNF key, which you can also buy just along the road into town at the VNF office. Bethune itself is a lovely place and well worth a visit. Apart from the old belfry, it has been completely rebuilt since the war, but in the original style. It looks very authentic and I found it very attractive.

Mooring pontoon at Bethune

This next mooring is at another of my favourite places: Aire sur la Lys. It's at the end of the stretch called the Canal d'Aire (no prizes for guessing why) and is where La Lys, the river, crosses the canal. This halte nautique is on an off-shoot side arm, which may or may not have something to do with the river Lys. I wasn't too sure how that all fitted together, but it was off the main channel.

Halte Nautique at Aire sur la Lys

I don't honestly know why I liked it so much. There were no services, the pontoon creaked like crazy with every barge that passed on the main canal and the nearby grain processing plant hummed constantly. Maybe it was because the weather was so beautiful and Aire sur la Lys is such a lovely place, but I fell in love with it and would have happily stayed a while. One other plus for the mooring is there's a big shopping centre just a five minute bike ride from the pontoon with, joy of joys, a great DIY store. It's away from the centre, but not that much.

The Lys river in Aire sur la Lys

Here we are at Les Fontinettes or Arques (below) on the Canal de Neuffossé. It's the same canal as the Aire, really, but changes its name after La Lys crosses it. I'm cheating a bit here as it wasn't the mooring I liked as much as the old boat lifts that we could see from where we tied up. That said, there is electricity, but We didn't use it as we didn't have a key at this stage. Being there was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Les Fontinettes: historic boat lifts, sadly out of use

Our mooring: spot the electricity box on the side

And the last special mooring for this week is this one on the same waterway. We stopped here on our return journey. It's the halte nautique at Garbecque, a name we had great fun with, especially as its neighbouring village was Berguette, which in turn was on the way to Isbergues. For those with associative minds, you can make a meal of this! 

Halte Nautique at Garbecque
That said, although the mooring was right on this busy route to Dunkirk and carries a lot of very large barge traffic, it was incredibly peaceful. There weren't any services at all, but it didn't matter (we never worry too much about that, anyway). What was special was the stillness. We couldn't hear a thing except the ducks and other water fowl, which as always, I loved. A memorable spot.

Wonderful evening light and tranquillity

That's enough for this week, I imagine. I don't want to bore you all to bits. Next week, I'll tell you about some more of our special places further south and why I liked them so much, but for now, enjoy the rest of the weekend allemaal and have a great week.