Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Three favourite places

The Netherlands is a small country. Compared even to the UK it is tiny, with a population only twice the size of the Greater London area. For all that, it takes quite a time to travel from the north to the south even though its most distant extremes (Groningen and Maastricht for example) are a mere 270 kilometres apart (that's about 168 miles). I don't tend to go further north than Amsterdam very often, but would love to take my barge to the north east. It is lovely there on the German border. My own stamping grounds generally revolve around three places: Amsterdam, Rotterdam and a very small place called Westdorpe, not far from Ghent in Belgium. Each of these places is special to me, not only because I know them so well.

I have lived in Rotterdam since I came to the Netherlands and have grown to love it. It is a true port and its magnificent rivers - both the Old and the New Maas are the two major arteries that supply the lifeblood to Europe's hinterland. The rivers are always busy with cargo traffic, cruise ships and tankers, and Rotterdam's modern architecture soars up and around these veins of the city with almost defiant pride - rather like its people. The thing is, Rotterdam is not actually a big place. True, it has the largest port in Europe, but the city itself only has a population of between six and seven hundred thousand. Small fry for a small place in a small country. It is an exciting city, though. It is lively, pulsating with business activity and an eclectic social mix. It combines old and new in a curiously satisfactory blend, and the Oude Haven, which has been my home all these years, is an almost unique monument to the Dutch waterways - a historical floating village in a modern twenty first century metropolis.

This video is one I made several years ago from fragments I filmed with my camera while walking along the Maas Boulevard in Rotterdam. It reflects something of the importance of this waterway.

Then, there's Amsterdam - the charming, traditional face of the Netherlands. Arty, learned, decadent, and slightly cynical in its attitude, especially towards Rotterdam. The rivalry between the two cities sometimes reaches ridiculous levels of animosity. Still, I love my visits there. I generally go every couple of months as I teach a course for the university in Amsterdam. It is mostly conducted online but I do go and give the first and last sessions face-to-face. Normally, I take the train from Rotterdam and the metro to the university quarter. Then I walk along the grachten to reach whichever building I'm teaching in. I always enjoy being there. It has a completely different atmosphere and I can almost feel the intellectual level rising as I stroll along the canals. These photos give a glimpse of some of Amsterdam's corners I find particularly appealing.


Houseboats in Amsterdam

Traditional Oma bicyle against a traditional Amsterdammer
 Then finally, there is Westdorpe, my escape from the frenetic bustle of city life. A country girl is really what I am. I seem to have been destined to spend most of my life in the city, but the stretch of  the open landscape is essential to my sanity and I need my weekly fix of good earth and agri-sniffs. All the same, it must not be far from the waterside wherever I am, and Westdorpe is within spitting distance of the great Gent-Terneuzen sea canal. As I've mentioned before, I can see the ships from my bedroom window at my country hideout. The photos below show something more of its grandeur and appeal.

Heading towards Terneuzen and the sea

A side harbour close to Westdorpe

An every day sight on the canal
So there you have it. Three places, three characters and three reasons for their hold on my affection. You know I often think of sailing away to France, and maybe one day that will happen. But if it does, it will not be without regret for the lowlands that have been my home since leaving South Africa. Maybe you can see why.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writing round up

This post is a departure from my normal boating rambles. I thought I should write something about writers. It's been some time since I did a weberview, I know, but right now I don't really have the time to organise questions and set one up, so I thought I would just do a round up of the authors I have particularly enjoyed over the past months. Most of these are not what you would call big names, which is rather gratifying. I have to say that this is what has been marvellous about Twitter. It has put me in touch with  a wealth of new and talented writers whose books I am reading with great pleasure.

The first name on my list is someone I have known since the beginning of my blogging days and who I have been lucky enough to meet twice when she and her husband came to Europe for their summer holidays. Anne-Marie Klein is the author of a series of 'rock and roll' novels with the overall name  'Behind Blue Eyes'. Amazingly, Anne-Marie wrote the bulk of this story when she was still a teenager in Toronto, Canada, but had sufficient maturity then to know that her life experience was not enough to give the books real authenticity.

She took up a career in teaching and only finally polished her books (now extended to four novels) during a 'gap' year from teaching last year. I 'met' Anne-Marie on Blogger and we shared our writing on special blogs. We would each read and give comment on the other's work as we progressed, so she has been a great support and encouragement to me as well. Three of her books are published now and each one charts the life and story of Ian Harrington, a young rock guitarist who is tormented by tragic events from his youth first and later by an equally tragic event in his adult life. The books could be film scripts. They are vivid, lively and full of humanity. They are also pacey and at times, quite raunchy. I have read them all so far, both as blog posts and as printed books and enjoyed them twice over. I understand Anne-Marie is busy with the fourth an final part of the series now, so I'll look forward to reading that when it's out.

The second author on my list was a surprise for me. The books are the YA novels by Carol Hedges, whom I 'weberviewed' here back in December 2012. I have now read both Jigsaw Pieces and Dead Man Talking and thoroughly enjoyed them both even though I am not exactly YA anymore... The link here is for Jigsaw Pieces, which is the slightly more mature novel of the two. Carol writes with a true understanding of teenagers and I really love her characters for their spunk and wit. I can imagine they are quite a reflection of the good author herself! The stories are sharp, well paced and well developed. They keep you turning the pages when you should be doing something else - even an 'older' soul like me! Amazing! Actually, I thought Jigsaw Pieces was great for any age, but Dead Man Talking seemed to be a bit more geared to the teenager.  That said, both of them were really good reads and I recommend them without hesitation.

Then of course, I have read Chris Hill's excellent novel Song of the Sea God. However, I'm actually going to read this again as I feel I did not do it justice the first time round. I'm happy to say that now I have a real paperback version of the book, so I can savour it properly. I bought it in Kindle at first but I'm not the best of screen readers. I also prefer to read in bed and as I don't have an e-reader, it meant using my laptop, which doesn't work so well for me. I admired the book very much at the first reading and was impressed by Chris's crisp imaginative prose, his plot and the wide array of characters he draws in the book. Now I have the paperback version, I shall take my time and read it again because I think it well deserves a second reading. By the way I also 'weberviewed' Chris here early in the new year.

Another author whose books I have come to know and enjoy is Jo Carroll. Her gap year book 'Over The Hill and Far Away' was a real 'come travel with me' book and I genuinely felt I was with her on her journeys. I have also read Hidden Tiger, Raging Mountain and Bombs and Butterflies, her two beautiful e-books about Nepal and Laos respectively. I particularly loved the latter and was deeply moved by Jo's account of how Laos was so heavily bombed during the Vietnam war years. There are still more buried bombs than people in this war torn country that was never at war. This is a book rich in colour, emotion and poignancy.

Last but far, far from the least, I read Christina James' In the Family, a book that restored my faith in crime fiction. I thought this faith had been irretrievably lost  after a series of increasingly disturbing novels with ever more graphic descriptions of the horrors inflicted on the victims. I realised I didn't need this anymore - either for my somewhat vivid imagination, or my overall peace of mind. Christina's book, which I also reviewed here, focused more on the puzzle of solving an old crime than on the committing of the crime itself and I was totally absorbed from page one. I am now looking forward to the second of Christina's DI Yates novels, Almost Love,  for my summer reading.

But then what am I doing myself? Well on July the 15th, I am planning to release my own novel going by the name of How to Breed Sheep, Geese and English Eccentrics. It is about a girl who tries her hand at self-sufficiency in the wilds of rural Dorset. Her efforts are thwarted at quite a few turns by a totally eccentric mother, a flock of wilful sheep, a dotty aunt, a charming but ineffective boyfriend and a swarthy, but highly desirably agricultural auctioneer. The mix produces some novel and humorous situations, but that's all I'm going to say at the moment.

I will be publishing this myself through both and also through Kindle, so watch out for a few promos leading up to the big day.

Bells, whistles and horns will be blasting from this blog to make it a day to celebrate.

Well - it will be something for me to shout about in any event! There might even be cake!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Giethoorn - a Dutch Idyll

This video is my property and all rights are reserved. 

This post is the story of an extraordinary phenomenon concerning my amateur movie about Giethoorn in the Netherlands.

I made this little video about six years ago and posted it on YouTube for friends to see. I never bothered about restrictions on who could view it, so I just left it as 'public'. My video isn't at all professional. It's all home made and home edited - even the music is just something I put together from Garageband, so I never gave it much thought. For the first few years, it seemed to be fairly popular and I received some comments about it - some good, and some scathing about the whole cutsie atmosphere. It really is a gorgeous place but risks being hopelessly twee, so I was fine with whatever people said about it.

But then I stopped watching what happened. I'm not much of a YouTube follower in any event, so when notifications of comments came through, I just deleted them. 

What I didn't know was there there was some kind of explosion in the views, and I still don't really know why. Instead of the few thousand I'd seen before and which some of my other videos have had, this one shot up to 140,000 views, and it's still going on. In the last month alone there have been over a thousand.

Now YouTube has a clever kind of analytics page. It's so clever I can't fathom it at all, but it looks as if some other sites have used my video. One of them seems to be The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, another is a travel website. Maybe this is the reason. I don't honestly know why they should use it - there must be others that are much better made, but perhaps it's because it's free to borrow. Still, it's made me think about removing it or restricting it.

Here's another point. If I had a cent for every view, I'd have made a nice bit of money now - more than on any of my books! That's a sobering thought, isn't it? Maybe I've missed my vocation! Maybe I should put away my pen and pick up my photo camera. It takes a fraction of the time to make a film and you have the incentive to go to nice places too. Now there's a thought. Maybe I could go and do it by boat…..

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Another boating adventure

Looking back through my thousands of photos brings back so many wonderful memories. In my last post I wrote about a trip we did on the Vereeniging that was the deciding factor in the dilemma I had already been worrying over about my engine.

Before I write about that, though, I thought I would share another trip we did the following year on Koos' Luxor. This time we went to the Belgian part of the province of Limburg. The geography of this part of the world is a little complicated as there are parts of the Netherlands that should logically be Belgium and then there are parts of Belgium which would make more sense as France. That being said, there is a long finger of the Netherlands in the South East of the country that protrudes into Belgium and more or less finishes up in Maastricht - a city I think most people have heard of. The river Maas forms the border here between the Belgian and the Dutch Limburg, and we had to go to a place called Lanklaar on the Belgian side (see the map below)

The reason we went this two hundred odd kilometres was to join a festival of boats organised by one of Koos's friends who lives in the area. I forget the purpose of the festival now, but I think it was to raise money for the school or something like that. 

Anyhow Koos started off from Rotterdam on his own as I still had to work. A journey like this takes about three hours by car, but you can reckon on four to five days by boat. It depends on how many locks you have to wait at before you can go through, and on this route there are quite a number. As a result, Koos had to leave before I could get away as I still had some teaching commitments to fulfil.

The Luxor approaching Den Bosch

I met him in the lovely city of Den Bosch ('s-Hertogenbosch) and joined the Luxor in the busy lock that connects the Maas to the Zuidwillemsvaart, a canal that runs more or less parallel with the Maas all the way through to Maastricht. 
Koos spotting me as he approaches Den Bosch
The Zuidwillemsvaart  is the 'easy' route as it is not affected by the vagaries of the natural river, but all the same, the locks provide their own challenges. Some of them were in the process of being re-built and did not have enough poles to tie up to, so it was a bit tense at times. Added to that, we had the pleasure of travelling with a young couple on a sailing yacht who were not all that experienced and who sometimes had difficulties in controlling their boat in the locks.

The yacht coming up behind us

Tying up in a lock - a bit of a mission!

How to tie a rope on the cleats

The European Championship football was on (I think).
Here's a skipper rooting for his home team
All the same, it was a truly lovely trip and I enjoyed every minute of the canal as far as Helmond. This was where we reached at the end of the first day. As usual, Koos had his camera at the ready although while he is 'faring', he is mostly focused on the waterways ahead.

Always an unconventional soul, Koos likes to steer with his feet when he gets the chance, hence the rather elevated position. It was a great view though! In Helmond, we spent the night moored up in a side branch of the canal that used to lead into the city. Alas, it does no more, but it provides good overnight moorings for travellers like us. We had a long and peaceful walk in the countryside and an unusually restful night away from Rotterdam's noise.

After Helmond, we travelled on the next day to a place called Nederweert. We moored up just below the lock, and for me, this was to prove the high point of the trip. The weather turned from cloudy to gorgeous. The canal was pure peace and I was able to spend some time practising some canal art a friend of mine had taught me while Koos played his guitar.

Our mooring at Nederweert

The mooring taken from the lock

Koos and his guitar

My canal art bucket that I painted on the trip and still have
The following day, we continued on to Weert, another largish town, where we met  many of the other participants in the festival. This was very convivial and there were several very interesting boats moored up there too.
The Luxor with other participants

And the dogs are just part of the gathering

participants in the festival

A liveaboard houseboat of a special kind
From here we travelled in convoy to Lanklaar, but I have to say that while it was great fun to be with other people, I preferred our solitary journey up to that point. It was so peaceful in our parallel world and life took on a new simplicity. There was no internet then and no electricity either, so when at rest we read by the light of oil lamps, or Koos played his guitar and I painted. We walked in the evening twilight, ate outside and listened to the sounds of life in the distance. The normal, land-based and routine existence we could hear was not part of our world at that moment and that time, and for just a few days, that was a magical experience.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

A good boating year

I was looking through my photos earlier and found myself hanging around in 2005. It was quite a year for all sorts of reasons, one of which was that we did more than the usual waterways travelling during the summer. I don't remember exactly, but it looks as if it was a very good summer. My photos show days and days of beautiful sunshine.

On one trip we went to a festival in a place called Strijensas. The word sas is an old Dutch word for a lock, so it is Strijen at the lock. We'd been there before for the same festival on Koos's Luxor, but this time we went on the Vereeniging. The event was for historic barges and we all moored along the banks of the old canal in the village. Very pretty, very peaceful and very gezellig. To get to Strijensas, you have to travel south along the great river systems around Rotterdam until you reach the open water of the Hollands Diep. The trip upstream was lovely, but once we reached the wide waters, things went wrong.

The Vereeniging moored up in Strijensas

Among the other boats and barges

Another participant in the event
For me, the Hollands Diep has always been a terrifying waterway as until recently I have only ever had bad experiences on it. The first times were with the Luxor when we were caught in a force 9 gale, and had engine trouble, no minor matter when you cannot see the shore except as a distant haze. It is my nemesis, and this time was no exception. This time the Vereeniging's engine, a magnificent monument itself built in 1921, decided to die on us. Although we managed to reach the sas and then safety with the help of wind and current, we had to be towed back to Rotterdam after the festival alongside a much larger barge that belonged to some friends of ours.

My Sindy looking young and beautiful on the foredeck

Leaving Strijensas
The Vereeniging's old engine - in motion
 The trip was a nightmare. I won't go into it in detail now as I'll probably include it in my book, but suffice to say I was a nervous wreck by the time we arrived in Schiedam, where our friends had their mooring. Once in the safety of the canal system, we tried the engine again and it worked but kept stalling. Bearing in mind, it took two of us, and generally around twenty minutes to get it going again, and that only as long as we had enough compressed air to start it, meant that it was no easy task.

Moored up in Schiedam

The view from the Vereeniging's side panel - open
 on a hot summer's day

We stayed in beautiful Schiedam for a few days to recover. And it was then I made the momentous decision to replace my wonderful, historic engine with something slightly more reliable.

But more of that later….