Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 21st century family: A short story for the new year

I wrote this story a few years ago, but somehow it seems even more relevant today.

Mother is in the kitchen making the family meal. She has a cookery book open on the table, and as she reads down the page with a floury finger, she glances over at the blackboard sitting on the fridge to see if an ingredient she has run out of is on her chalked up shopping list. Good. She smiles to herself. It is. Then her attention is distracted by the calendar on the wall next to the blackboard. She mustn't forget her pottery course that starts during the week. She's looking forward to that. She always meets nice people at these courses. Oh and yes, on Friday she's going to the ballet. Alone probably. She smiles ruefully and looks through the kitchen door to where father is sitting, laptop on his knees, typing furiously, jabbing the keyboard with his heavy fingers. His face is expressionless, but the speed and violence of his two pronged attack on the computer suggest heavy matters are going on in his Internet world.
Her thoughts are interrupted noisily by the entrance of Emily (In a relationship with Stephen White. From London, England. Born on May 18, 1996. At least that's what her Facebook page says).
"Mum, where's dad? I need to ask him something?"
"Where do you think he is, pet. On the Internet. Surely you can see that from here!"
"Yes, but where is he?"
"How, should I know, lovey! Have you tried his usual haunts?"
"Yes, but he's not been on Flickr, or MSN or Pinterest, and I couldn't find him on Facebook! He hasn’t even done a blog post since he came home...."
"Well, sweetie, you could try just going through that door and asking him yourself. You know. Speak to him? In person?"
"Oh come on, Mum," scoffs Emily scornfully. "That's sooooo last century! Get a life, won't you?"
"I thought I had one," sighs her mother, looking wistfully over at her calendar.
"Oh, I know!" Emily exclaims suddenly. "He's started a Twitter account now. He's probably tweeting. I should have checked!"
"Twitter? Tweeting? Isn't that what birds do?" Mother asks, slightly bewildered by her husband's apparent metamorphosis.
Emily shrugs her shoulders exaggeratedly. "Maaaarm! When are you going to get...."
"...with it. I know." Again Mother smiles apologetically at her daughter. Emily’s thoughts have already changed track, though.
“I’ll just send him a DM...” she decides happily, and bouncing out of the kitchen she heads upstairs to her bedroom.
Mother’s eyes follow her, a thought struggling over her face. “A.....DM?” She wonders if she even speaks the same language as her daughter anymore. More or less used to her husband’s internet addiction, she knows that if she wants to talk to him, she has to dial his mobile phone number – this being about the only way she can break his concentration from the screen in front of him. Her daughter, however, makes her feel even more alien in her own home. DM’s? Tweeting? Whatever next?
Just then the front door to the house opens again, and Justin walks in (Single. From London. Born on October 5, 1994).
"Hi Mum," he mutters, grabbing a handful of raisins from the packet on the table.
"Justin! Where have you been? I've tried calling you four times and sent you three Whatsapp messages! It was your dad's birthday yesterday and you didn't even come home to wish him a happy birthday!
"Sorry mum. I left my phone at Dave's. I couldn't call. And anyway, I was in the middle of a serious international gallactic battle!"
"Yes, dear, I'm sure you were, and may the best side win, but even that shouldn't have stopped you from letting me know where you were. There is still such a thing as an email, you know."
"Oh come on, mum....anyway, I did wish dad a happy birthday. I did it on Facebook. Didn't you see? Oh no, of're not there yet are you?"
He smirks slightly at his long-suffering mother.
At that moment, Emily rockets back into the room.
"Wow, mum! Dad's having this amazing row on Facebook. D'you want to see? It's getting quite vicious!"
"I thought he was on this Twitter thing?"
"He is, but you can link it to Facebook of course," Emily's look says it all "and that's what he's done. Anyway, take a look at this! It's wicked!"
Mother is torn between looking at her daughters iPad screen and stepping through the kitchen door and asking her husband what on earth is going on. The iPad wins.
What she sees bemuses her. The slanging match going on between her silent partner in the lounge and someone called David Malkovsky (In a relationship with Anastasia Chownyk. From Kiev. Born 15 January 1962) about the Ukrainian question is loaded with expletives, ugly threats and virulent remarks. And she hasn't heard a thing. Except for the two-pronged jabs at the keyboard of course. It seems like years since the two of them have had any conversation lasting more than a few seconds, and this one has to have been going on for at least an hour. Totally without her knowledge!
Looking at her offspring, she is suddenly amazed that they are even still speaking to her. Verbally. With their mouths and tongues, that is. Her husband only seems to communicate in grunts these days, or through the Internet. Her children, on the other hand, know far more about his life than she does, even though she spends most of every day in the same house as him. And the reverse is probably true too, she realises, as Emily skims down her Facebook profile displaying comments and 'likes' made by her father.
Mother makes a decision. Throwing down her tea towel and washing her floury hands, she grabs Emily's iPad from her daughter's protesting clutches.
"Right then, you two. Show me how to make one of these Facebook accounts. It's obviously time, as you so succinctly put it, that I got a life!"
And with silent regret, she glances over at her calendar, mentally crossing off some of the activities listed on it. If you can't beat them, you have to join them, she supposes. And then she envisages the long evenings ahead - sitting with her loved ones, in hopefully companionable silence, but all the while getting what they call 'a real life' on the Internet.
Watching as Emily and Justin argue over the details to put on her profile page  ("Should she be married, or just in a relationship?"), she smiles at their shared enthusiasm ("And let’s just put her birthday and not the year. We don’t want our friends to know she’s that old!"), and wonders when it was that her children last did something together. Will this be the last time? And what is she getting herself into now? She squashes the doubts resignedly. This has to be the way forward if she wants to share any kind of life with her family.

Anyway, what was the saying from that long forgotten movie? "Resistance is futile".

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Audience? What's that then?

This is a post I've had as a draft since last year and never published. It seems quite a good moment to post it now as I'm in the same place again teaching-wise, not to mention being too immersed in work to write a new one. 

Just in case any of you don't know this by now, I'm a teacher. It's how I make my living and it's the day job I'm not about to give up because truth to tell, I really enjoy it. I know, I know. I moan and groan about having to work, but the rewards of really helping my students achieve something they've previously been unable to do is verging on addictive. Oh did I mention that my subject is writing? In English. Surprised? No, well, maybe not.

Sometimes I teach oral English skills. I'm doing that now with two groups of first year International Business students. They are a delight, but as yet, they haven't grasped the fact that seventy percent of their oral communication is about non-oral communication and reaching out to their listeners or audience needs more than mere words.

Like most teenagers, they think that surly and sulky looks lean and mean. They'll learn in time that a smile will leapfrog the inch and carry them a mile. They'll also learn that while accuracy in spoken language is admirable, it's something few people - even native speakers - achieve, so it's not the most important consideration.

Mostly, though, I teach writing skills to Master's students, Phd'ers and administrative staff, and I love that. I feel that accuracy and variety of language are much more important in the written than in the spoken word - not that I count myself as any kind of expert, especially as I'm nowhere in the PhD'ers league. But what I can help them to understand is the importance of knowing that whatever they write is largely determined by the expectations of those reading it. It's also about the craftsmanship of putting ideas, thoughts and opinions into textual form in a way that exactly suits the reader - or as we like to call it, the audience.

As a writing teacher, I've become very aware that this aspect is often ignored but incredibly important. I show my students models to demonstrate the difference between an academic text, a narrative text and a business text - how to say essentially the same thing for three different readers. It amazes them, and to be honest, it still amazes me too. I love the fact that we can re-shape, re-structure and re-package our language in this way and for me, this is one of the major delights of the written word.

So which style do I like best? That's hard to say. One of the most appreciative audiences I've ever had consisted of the management of the health insurance company where I worked for ten years in South Africa. It was my job to write the 'visit reports' - accounts of meetings with member firms I'd been to see as part of my job as assistant marketing manager. In theory, these should have been dry factual accounts, but I enjoyed adding my own take to the reports; brief descriptions of the people I'd met, the offices they worked in or the other employees in the firms, so in truth they were more like short articles or interviews than minutes of meetings. That said, if the managers hadn't told me they looked forward to reading my weekly write-ups, or if they'd criticised my style, I'm sure I'd have changed it, but my audience was receptive and so I carried on.

This brings me to the point that isn't really much of a point. I'm just rambling really. But the point is (yes?) it doesn't matter so much what you write as long as you write it right for the right types. So that's it. The audience is what matters, and in a language generally regarded as being 'writer responsible', it's our task to keep our readers happy by writing in a style they expect and like for the content they've chosen to read.

Sounds easy doesn't it? Well luckily for the teacher me it isn't, because if it were, I'd be out of a job. For the writer me, well that's another story. I wish it were just a bit easier to find the right audience…but I'll keep trying.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

My fourteenth Christmas

This year's harbour lights
My first Christmas in the Oude Haven was at the end of 2001, so this is my fourteenth end of year festive season as the proud caretaker of my lovely Vereeniging. Every year, the winter seems to change. Some are just plain cold, but not enough to stop us having the occasional spuddle. The photo below is one from December 2008, when my daughter and I decided to go for a row with a broom and a homemade paddle (we really did - and they worked perfectly!). Yesterday, we went for another spuddle, except this time we had a smart electric motor and a battery on my increasingly decrepit little rowing boat. Now you'd think that would be much more efficient, wouldn't you?

Well, the occasion will enter the annals of the ridiculously memorable because we wired the motor up the wrong way so everything was in reverse. I'd done about four pirouettes before my daughter grabbed the tiller and figured out that reverse was forwards and left was right! I did feel an idiot, but in hindsight it must have looked very funny.

The fact that we were trying to tow another rowing boat 'to help out' a poor neighbour who was rowing against the current just made things even funnier. Poor Bas didn't know what we were up to except that we were running rings round him. It was icy cold, but I wish I'd had a camera on me to capture the moment.

Then there are the snowy Christmas seasons. I know everyone seems to think we've not had a proper winter in years, but I have photos to prove otherwise. These three were taken in 2009, one of the prettiest winters we've had with lots of real snow and icicles as well as plenty of sunshine to make it all sparkle. Children playing ice hockey on the canals made a beautiful scene and everything was frozen solid.

This one below was, I think, earlier, but I don't know exactly when. The trees on the quayside have been gone for years, so I suspect it was back in 2005 or 2006. My photos are not always dated very well as the cameras were not set to the right date and time on occasions. Needless to say, this was a very snowy winter in the Oude Haven.

Last winter was unusual in that we had no snow, no frost and everything remained growing, even my annual primulas, begonias and geraniums. They all survived to flower again this spring. This last week, though, we had the coldest days since the winter of 2012/2013 so maybe things will be back to normal again. Much as I hate the cold, I think it's probably a good thing. The earth and the land need the ice and frost to kill the bugs, and snow gives lots of good things to the ground, but even still, I'd prefer not to have too much of the white stuff. Give me freezing temps with sparkling sun rather than this kind of whitout.

That aside, Christmas in the harbour is lovely as many of the barges put up lights in their rigging. This year, lighting up evening will be next Friday, so here's a taste of what's to come. I know I've shown this one before, but I love the atmosphere. This was Christmas 2006.

I'll be keeping my head in my books over the next few weeks, so I'll take this opportunity to wish you all a lovely holiday wherever you're going or what you're doing. May it be peaceful and joyous whatever your persuasion. I won't sign off completely as I might post again, but for now…

Happy holidays and blessings to those who value the season's spiritual message XX

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Being a public presence in private (or vice versa)

I keep reading things about privacy on the Internet and how to keep it. Friends are posting statements on Facebook about what they do and don't permit the social media giant to make use of. It makes a lot of sense, I know, but for me I think it's really too late. Actually, it's always been too late. The thing is, ever since I bought my barge in 2001, it (the Vereeniging) has been an object of curiosity around the world and has consequently graced the world wibe web in a variety of forms ever since. You think I'm exaggerating, don't you? Well, let me explain.

Firstly, the interest was local. When we brought the Vereeniging back to Rotterdam from the town of Grave in the east of the country where I bought it, the man who helped us wrote an article about my engine and posted it on an internet site about traditional Dutch marine engines. In it, he named my barge and me, so before I even had a blog or any other presence on the net, there I was. The web had me entrapped before I could even do anything about it.

Alas, I can no longer find the page, but here is the engine in question in full swing.

Industrie single cylinder engine

It was then some years before I decided to start this blog. However, during this time, my barge was the subject of many a tourist's photo, an artist's painting and a historian's interest. Many of these have somehow found their way onto the internet, and in the case of history articles, my name has been mentioned too as the Vereeniging's owner. What's more, if you look on the photo website, Flickr, and put Oude Haven into its search field, there we will be several photos that include the Vereeniging in them somewhere. Then there are the artists who decorate the quayside, drawing and painting as if no one has ever done this before. Bless them. They post these pictures on the Internet to garner public interest in what they do - hardly surprising, as our harbour is very picturesque.

Here is a water colour painting of the harbour that I happened to come across and is one of many that is floating around our world wide web. See the Vereeniging on the far right. I don't know who painted it, but I really like it.

Water colour painting - artist not known

Apart from this, if anyone cares to type my name into Google, they will find several pages of entries about my books and my blog. Since both have been around since 2006, this means any attempt at anonymity is likely to be slightly useless. So what do I do? I'm on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. What chance do I have when my professional and personal life are liberally plastered over the walls of the web?

Well, the answer is not very much. But I think the point is that I have a museum exhibit of a barge, so it's natural that it will be the subject of fairly wide interest. Added to that, I have written two memoirs about my experiences with my Vereeniging, and both of these are available to whoever cares to read them.
The Vereeniging in 2001
As regards my private life, well, surprising though it might seem, that is still very private. I rarely say anything about my daily life, my work, my family or my relationships on the Internet, or even in my books. I write about my barge and the life I experience around me. That's it. It's kind of like hiding in plain sight, and for me it works. I sometimes cringe at the number of entries I can find referring to me in the search engines, but for all that, I'd challenge anyone to know what I have actually been doing and where I've been today. I only ever publish what it suits me to do so. The rest remains between me and my family and friends.

It's taken some practice, but I think I've nailed being a public presence in private quite well. My barge has taught me that. So, designers and programmers of Facebook, Google and any other sites out there, do what you will, try as you might - you'll only find out what I choose to tell you!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Home again

As many of you know, I have recently spent three weeks in a neighbouring harbour so that our own Harbour could be dredged, something that is very necessary now and then as you will see from the photos below. This is the first time in seven years it has been done, so also the first time since then the harbour has been empty. 

To me, a harbour without boats is a place without soul and I find it strangely melancholic to see it empty like this. All the same, it was fascinating to watch the dredger at work. When I took the two photos below, there was a man standing next to me watching  the process too. When we saw the first scoop coming out of the water, we turned to each other and said "What, no bicycles?" and laughed. A nice moment of cameraderie. 

Both of us knew, however, that the bottom of the harbour is littered with an assortment of junk as revealed in this photo. This was after ten days of dredging and they'd been accumulating and removing loads like this every couple of days.

Anyhow, now I am home again and the harbour is back to normal. It was a shame that I had to be towed back, but Koos was away, and I didn't want to risk the dodgy engine without him. It always feels slightly shameful not to move under my own steam. That said, I am very happy to be back in my favoured spot next to lovely neighbours, the brothers Peter and Gerrit Spronkers, Gerrit's son Reynard and all the other dear liggers there. It was a good experience to be in the other harbour as I had the option of staying there, but I found there were no practical advantages despite the fact I was moored to a pontoon, which made getting on and off board slightly easier.

The main issue for me has been trying to get Sindy dog on board, but that still wasn't possible there. Her old legs just can't make it anymore, so she stays in Zeeland with Koos while I am at work in Rotterdam.

Access is thus no longer the problem, and at least in the Oude Haven, I can drive right up to my barge with any heavy loads. In the Haringvliet, I would have had quite a walk to carry things from the car. It was also (to my surprise) very much noisier at night than the Oude Haven - testosterone-filled cars trying to park, students (mostly drunk) on their way home to their flats along the road, and a lot of people apparently hard of hearing who felt the need to shout at each other from close quarters. Now cars are no longer allowed to park in the Oude Haven other than to stop-and-drop (a recent development), much of that noise has gone, or is at least much further off.

And of course, I have my internet back!

All said, I am very happy to be home again even though I am still facing the odd challenge. This is what my loopplank was like on Saturday morning when I left for Zeeland. With its now familiar kink and no handrail, I  took the easier route via the my neighbour's.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Making an imprint in a rather unusual way. Gill from @Ruralfranceshop

This week, I'm branching out into pastures new and have nipped across a couple of borders into France in order to meet one of my newest Twitter contacts, Gill of @Ruralfranceshop. Gill loves boats, the countryside and horses and has harnessed (sorry) her passions to start a Zazzle online store where she sells products with prints of her lovely photos on them. There are beautiful images of canal scenes in both England and France. I think they would make wonderful gifts, so in trying to find out more, I asked Gill to talk to me  and tell me more about herself and her interest in France, and especially boats. 

Firstly, Gill, could we ask you for a little personal information, such as who you are, what made you move to France and what is your artistic background? 

Firstly, thank you very much, Val, for inviting me to your blog! Hi everyone, I’m Gill, born on the outskirts of London, which was “countryside” then. From the age of about 3 I wanted a horse, but didn’t get one until I was 28. At around 10 years old I became interested in photography, developing and printing - when people still used film, and at school, art was my best subject. Leaving school I went straight into graphic art which I followed for my whole career, most of it self-employed. 

We moved to France partly because of our two horses, as it’s very expensive to own your own land in the UK, here we were able to have 7 acres. We both learnt French at school so had a mediocre grasp of the language - which is much better now after 11 years though a long way from fluent. We love the laid-back French way of life and the community spirit that’s gone from much of the UK. And the countryside is beautiful too. It’s great being closer to the rest of Europe as well.

That must be wonderful, Gill - to have land, horses and France as well! Looking at your online shop, I've seen all your products feature your photos. I think readers will want to know what Zazzle is? How does it work and how do you go about building an online store under this umbrella?

Zazzle is an American based print-on-demand company. The products are mainly manufactured in the USA, and when a customer orders a design (for example, on an iphone case), it is printed on that product as a one-off and shipped direct from the manufacturer with a 30 day guarantee. They have a huge range of products now from keyrings to stretched canvas, tableware & home furnishings, greetings cards & stationery, phone cases, bags. There are too many to mention here, I think the last count was around 450 different items.


Two of Gill's canal products found on 

Setting up a shop is easy! Once you’ve named your shop and uploaded your images, it's a fairly easy process. Selling, however is a different story. It’s definitely not a get rich quick scheme! There are a vast number of designers on Zazzle, so plenty of competition! 6 years later, perseverance and patience are beginning to pay off.
However, you don’t need a shop to design something for yourself. Anyone can upload a photo, add it to a product and buy it. The design controls do have a bit of a learning curve though!

It’s also possible to just be an associate, and earn referral fees (quite nice ones!) by promoting other peoples designs.

That sounds like a really great idea! You obviously love the countryside and also the canals. Tell us a bit more about this part of your life

I’ve always had a love of the countryside, wildlife and gardening, I don’t know where it came from - although perhaps it was because my mother was a keen gardener. I’ve always had pets as well, from mice through guinea pigs, dogs, sheep, goats and chickens, to horses. My love of canals started with the first hire boat that my parents organised c1970, on the Llangollen canal, and after getting hooked, it was an annual holiday, or sometimes twice a year, on different UK canals. We had canoes for a while to satisfy the canal cravings.

Later, I had two different friends who lived on narrowboats, one an old working boat with a canvas covered hold and no mod cons whatsoever - that was my favourite, much more of an adventure, especially being a deeper draft on the fairly shallow canals! Happy memories of cooking bacon butties on a little camping gas stove in the hold, walking along the top plank to jump off the front at locks, and sleeping in the boatman’s cabin with the door open as it was too hot with the stove, even with it snowing outside. 

Another time, a friend had a boat built, and we brought it back from the Midlands to near London as an unlined shell with newspaper curtains and sleeping on the paving slab ballast.
Over the years I’ve explored quite a few of the derelict canals on foot, and always having had dogs, it’s an opportunity to go somewhere different with them. That got me interested in canal history. I belonged to a restoration society for a while, and I’m impressed with how much progress these organisations have made - I remember when the Kennet & Avon canal was derelict, and that’s been open for 25 years now. 

No wonder you have such a lovely blog on canal history! I love your photos and articles. You mentioned you wanted to buy a barge to live on. What kind of barge and do you want to cruise with it too, or simply live on it?

I like the idea of a Tjalk style barge, though we don’t intend to do any sailing. Now we’re getting on a bit, the wide beam looks more attractive than the English narrowboat for space and comfort, and with nice wide gunwales. We plan to explore all the French canals and neighbouring countries as well. Who knows, we may even cross the channel again one day! One thing I love about French canals is the towpaths, wide, well made and less populated compared to the UK, and great for dog walking.

Gill, I'll be incredibly envious if you get to do all that before I do! It's my dream too, but work is preventing me from moving far. But back to your business. How do you transfer your photos to the products you sell? 

Quite simply, I upload the images to Zazzle, they supply a blank template for each product to which I add the image and any text online, adjust everything for the best layout, add the royalty of my choice which depends on how much work was involved, and post it for sale in the appropriate shop. In practice it can get quite complicated with layered images (e.g. a background image, plain coloured shapes over the top, a cut-out image on top of that), and several different lines of text which are made as templates for ease of customization - mostly that is the way wedding invitations are done. Occasionally customers will contact me for a variation of design, layout or product, and I do my best to please.

I was going to say it sounds a bit like self publishing books and all the formatting, but at least we don't have to worry about layers! Just out of interest, do you do any other kind of art?

When my grandfather died, I inherited some old cameras and postcards, so vintage cameras and photography became one of my passions, and I now collect old photographic images as well to scan and use in my shops. They can be very labour intensive for retouching. I make digital patterns using software, just because I like doing it, but they look great on cushions! I also use some of my photos with different filters to make digital paintings, if I think it improves on the original. A little bit of graphics - for example, my canal roses range, I learned the method for painting them years ago, and decided to reproduce the style using the same technique but digitally. I also like painting and sketching, but rarely have time to practice it. I need 48 hours in a day!

Gill's dog Raffles

Haha, I know that feeling! I love canal art, and think what you're doing is a really excellent idea! It seems to me that you've really worked out how to use modern technology to market your artistic abilities. Amazing! So having got everyone interested. how can readers reach you, make contact and buy your products.

Well, Val, I have 6 main stores. They are as follows, so people can take their pick: - my original shop, mainly photography of France and other European countries, landscapes, wildlife and plants - my canal themed shop, with photos (vintage and new) and digital art - images from vintage postcards and photos - digital patterns and designs - patterns made from photographs - business cards and stationery with a mainly rural theme
Each of these stores has a “contact seller” at the bottom of the home page, and are also available on most country domains in that currency - i.e. just substitute .nl for .com
I can also be reached by email at

Gill, it's been great to meet you and thanks so much for sharing your ideas and interests with me here. I wish you heaps of success in finding the barge of your dreams. Let me know when you've got it and maybe we can meet on the waterways sometime!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

For boat book buffs

I haven't done a boat book post for a long time, so while I get myself settled back in the Oude Haven (more about that coming soon), I thought I'd write a heads up about some great new boat books I've come across lately.

Now I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I am a terrible sailor - not that I'm bad at it (I never got the chance to find that out) - I just get chronically sick. I learnt this when I was at school and took up the option of doing sailing lessons for sport. I didn't even manage a full lesson and had to be carried ashore, paralysed with sickness. I've tried since, and on numerous channel crossings the same thing has happened, so I've realised that the sea and me are not to be.

Despite this, I'm fascinated by sailing. The idea of taking off out to sea and braving storms, calms and endless ocean without sight of anything other than the odd finned or winged thing circling around both appalls and appeals simultaneously. Because of this, I feel compelled to read about it, all the while staying safe on my inland rivers and waterways.

So here are three books I've come across lately that come highly recommended. I haven't read them all yet, but I'm really looking forward to having time to finish them as each one has a different slant that makes it an enticing read in its own way.

The first is one I've read the first half of so far, and I can't wait to have time to read the rest. It's by a writer I 'met' on Facebook's Women on Barges page, Jackie Parry. The book is called Of Foreign Build and it's really fantastic. As I told Jackie, it made me cry, laugh and quake with fear in equal measure. I won't say too much about what happens as the beginning of the book is really heart-rending, and it explains why Jackie runs away to Australia. Once there, she finds solace with a wonderful new man who, like Jackie, cherishes the idea of breaking a few moulds and living free of the corporate world of routine jobs and suburban life.

Essentially, with no experience of sailing whatsoever, Jackie takes off on a small sailing boat with her Noel to firstly sail around the Australian coast and later to cross more than a few oceans. In her first trips out, she suffers severe storms, crippling sickness, and paralysing fear. Nevertheless, such is her spirit and dauntless courage, she overcomes all of these to live her dream with Noel.  Her story is a remarkable one, and for me, the more so because she finds strengths within herself to face her terror and the tragedy that sent her half way across the world in the first place. Jackie's writing is vivid and full of the energy she exudes herself. This is a really great book that I will recommend very highly. By the way, Jackie and Noel have embarked on a new boating adventure as they are currently travelling through France on a Dutch barge. Here is a link to her website and blog.

The second of these sailing books is Whisper on the Mediterranean by Tonia Parronchi. All I've read of this so far is the free sample on Amazon, but it was enough to convince me to buy it and I'm looking forward to reading the rest! Tonia writes about her own sailing adventures with her Italian husband, Guido. Like Jackie, she had no experience of boats and sailing, and with amazing trust and pluck, she agrees to go on extended trips around Italy's coast and further with a toddler in tow. This book has a humorous and light-hearted tone, but the style doesn't completely mask the more serious challenges of how to cope with family life on a very small sailing boat with a very small child. Tonia writes beautifully and comes across as a really lovely, warm person. I know this to be true as well as we have become Facebook, blog and Twitter friends since the book came out. The opening chapters were riveting, so I am convinced the rest of the book will be just as good. Here is the link to Tonia's lovely blog too. She and Guido are currently working on a farm in Germany (yes, I know, can you think of anything more different!).

And lastly, a more serious book about sailing is Corinna Weyreter's Far Out in a Disappearing World. I've bought this, but haven't read any of it yet. Nevertheless, it is regularly in the top twenty of Amazon's Water Sports books and it has had excellent reviews. It seems to be a wonderful book about Corinna and her husband's trips to some of the more remote atholls and islands of the oceans and focuses on the threat to these environments that are clearly occurring through pollution, climate change and environmental neglect. Both Corinna and her Dutch husband Gjalt started life as physicists in the huge corporate world of Shell oil, but sold up and got out to seek the freedom they both yearned for. They are continuous cruisers and Corinna also has a great blog where readers can follow her ongoing sailing life.

Jackie Parry's book is self-published; Tonia Parronchi's and Corinna Weyreter's are published by Sunpenny Publishing's Boathooks Books. All three would make fantastic holiday reads!

Update: I've just finished reading Far Out and can confirm that it's a fascinating and really enjoyable read. It made me both yearn to go off cruising and to find ways of protecting the natural world from all of us who exploit it. If you are a sailor, you will love this book even more as it is written in sailing language, but even if you aren't, you will enjoy it on many levels: personal, environmental, travel and magical.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The last of my technological traumas with digitalis...

I've been leading off recently about the disadvantages of 'digitalis' as I've started calling it, and this is (I promise), the last, and quite fittingly (if there is such a word), it involves time - well, actually, not time itself but methods for telling it.

In the past,  I used to navigate my way around Rotterdam by way of the city clocks. There were dozens of them - big station-style clocks with large faces that were easy to see for even those as visually challenged as I am. They were all over the place  and I found I rarely needed to wear a watch, let alone consult my mobile phone. For some reason, though, most of these clocks have disappeared and those that remain all have the wrong time on them. Even the clock on our famous Witte Huis in the Oude Haven has been removed. I used to check the time by peering at it through my hatch on the barge and now I miss it badly. The one or two others I still see appear to have gone into turbine mode and whizz through the 24 hours in the space of minutes with their hands whirling round like windmill sails.

I have a theory though (as you might expect by now). In the last few years all the tramlines have been renovated, and now every tram stop has a digital display board giving the times of the next expected arrival. Each of these boards also has a small digital clock. Voila! No need for the big railway station-sized clocks everywhere else - *they* think. 

The trouble is, with my increasingly failing eyesight, I can't see these smaller versions- especially from the car-  until I've got dangerously close and am threatening to wipe out (or at least trample on)  a bunch of innocent bystanders in my attempts to squint at the tiny glowing numbers. Since this is probably not a socially acceptable thing to do, I'm now in a kind of personal time warp (maybe I should call it digi-tardis instead).

However, at one tram stop, I'm okay. I don't even need the digitalis. This is the stop by the university, where I spend most of my working days - a stop that has a resident cat. He (I'm assuming things) is nearly always there on dry days. Much of the time, he is curled up under a seat, or if not, he's sitting in a patch of sunshine, but sure enough, whenever a tram is due to arrive, he gets up to greet it. He seems to know it's coming, so whoever's waiting there just keeps an eye on our feline time-keeper and gets up with him.

What's even more touching is that the cat expects to be greeted too, so many people who get off the tram give him a tickle and a scratch, and then he goes back to his spot and waits for the next one. 

Thankfully, this is one type of independent 'mechanism' that no digi-revolution can touch. I have to say its charm, or rather the cat's, is one of the upsides of my otherwise digitally challenged day.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Things wot get dredged up now and then

These past two weeks, we've all (that's about twenty barges) been exiled from our harbour, and I don't know yet how much longer this forced evacuation will last. I posted photos of my new spot two weeks ago when I was happy to have a change of scene. Now, I'm not so sure I want to stay there, but that's for a number of practical reasons.

The purpose of the exercise was so that the council could dredge the harbour - the first time they've done this for seven years. So, I thought I should share just one image of what they've extracted from the bottom of the harbour basin. The photo below is only one load of offerings to the water gods. I took this pic out of the back window of the Vereeniging as the dredging barge was on its way to wherever they deposit this junk (apologies for the poor quality). There have been many more loads since. I like to muse that somewhere in that pile of chairs, tables, mobile phones and bicycles are - most likely - a couple of my own bikes, victims of high jinks (others have a different name for it) or sacrifices made by over zealous students (others have a different name for this too) on their nights out. Incredible, isn't it?

The dredger taking a load of junk to the dump.
How many chairs and tables can you count?

Saturday, November 01, 2014

More technological challenges - The downsides of digital display

These further musings on the challenges of technology have been prompted by a post I put on Facebook last week that got me thinking, so apologies to those of you who've read some of this already, but bear with me…there's more here than there was before.

When I first came to the flatlands, I used to travel round much more for my work than I do now. I often went to The Hague, Breda and even to Tilburg in the south to give lessons. Because of the high traffic congestion on the roads here and the difficulty of getting places by car on time, I used to travel regularly on the trains. But even the trains were often delayed for various reasons and my morning musings on the platforms were punctuated (or punctured was more like it) by the sing-song and dulcet tones of the announcers.

This happened so often it was how I actually managed to start learning Dutch.

The thing is I've never had a proper course of Dutch lessons. I took a few from a teacher friend some years ago, but I think I only had about four full lessons in total. The rest of my Dutch (which is still very much *my* Dutch) has been gleaned from reading, re-playing telephone messages over and over again, and listening to loudspeaker announcements such as those at the station.

I know, I know. You're all thinking that Koos could have taught me. You're right, but for now I won't go down that road. Suffice to say it's a bit like asking your husband to teach you to drive!

So to return to my train travel, I spent many a morning standing on bleak and drafty stations listening to the staff telling us of delays, platform changes and alterations to routes. Now I know they say that conditioning and behaviourist methods of teaching are only any good for Pavlov's dog, but maybe I am more canine than humine because this is a way that I really can learn. Repetition, I find, is a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. The evidence is below:

This sentence was the very first I learnt because it was the one that affected me most.
"Dames en heren, de Intercity trein van Rotterdam Blaak naar Den Haag Centraal heeft een vertraging van ongeveer tien minuten" (the train from x to x will be delayed by about ten minutes)
or then there was...
"Dames en heren, de Intercity naar Delft, Den Haag Hollands Spoor en Den Haag Centraal vertrekt over enkele minuten vanaf spoor 5." (it'll leave in a minute or so from platform 5, not the one I'm standing on! Oh heck! They've changed the platform!)
or simply...
"Dames en heren, de internationale trein naar Brussel Zuid vertrekt over enkele minuten van spoor 1." 
(just an announcement of an imminent departure).

These sentences are imprinted on my brain. I heard them so often I swear I'll never forget them. The sad thing, though, is the first one is no longer used. It has been replaced by an electronic display showing simply "+/- 10 minutes" instead of keeping weary listeners awake with a tonal mantra. And increasingly, the voices we hear are digital recordings and not the sometimes mischievous, sometimes weary tones of real railway staff. 

These days too, we are reminded constantly to "forget not in and out to check with your OV chipcards". Sounds positively Shakespearean, doesn't it? Although of course they say it in Dutch - 'vergeet niet in en uit te checken met uw OV chipkaart'. But,  I think it shows how close 16th century English was to its Dutch origins and I enjoy playing with these direct translations!

Eventually, I suppose, the more we move towards apps, icons and emoticons, everything will be announced by numbers, symbols and smileys and my public broadcast Dutch lessons will disappear forevermore. In linguistic terms, that means I will undoubtedly fossilise - if I haven't already :-)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Musical Boats

For the last month, we've been playing musical boats in the harbour. Up until last week, it only affected me in so far as I kept seeing different barges in the Oude Haven and one or other of the other harbours in our complex was simultaneously empty.

The reason for this complicated form of boat rotation is that the Rotterdam authorities are dredging…something they need to do now and then to clear the river bed of the debris that collects there, among which are large numbers of bicycles, mobile phones, shopping trolleys and other assorted projectiles that the inhabitants decide to hurl into the waters when the spirits take them - literally and figuratively.

The dredgers started at the eastern end of our small network of harbours and worked their way up through the Haringvliet and into Wijnhaven to our west. At each stage, the barges have had to move to another harbour to allow the dredgers to work unimpeded, hence the assorted array of visitors. Then last week, the mail arrived informing those of us in the Oude Haven that it was our turn to move.

Now life needs a good deal of coordinating when it comes to shifting and finding places for twenty odd resident barges as well as quite a number who were there temporarily. The email included an extensive spreadsheet giving instructions as to who was going where, when, and by what means - some barges have no engines so had to be towed. The image below is just a portion of the table of instructions.

I was a little concerned about these arrangements since having lost my loopplank, I've been relying on my neighbours to give me access. I had visions of being stranded with the Vereeniging floating dejectedly on its own. I knew many of my fellow bargees were moving on Thursday while I couldn't move till the weekend owing to my day job.

As it happened, I decided to cancel Friday's work so I could be there, and it was just as well. On Thursday afternoon, three of the barges (in fact my immediate neighbours) had gone and the others were scheduled to leave the following day. Koos drove up from Zeeland to help and on a very soggy Friday morning, we started to get the engine running in readiness to move as the barges on each side of me were being towed.

To our dismay, the problem that caught us out when we were last moving occurred again. The engine just died. We thought we'd fixed it, but it seems there is still something wrong. The upside was that since the tug boat was on duty anyway, we could be towed too. Still, it's a worrying issue that Koos still hasn't managed to resolve despite several more hours trying to bleed the system and find out what is causing it to lose power and what's worse, to smoke badly too.

That apart, though, I am pleased with my change of scene, and looking forward to at least two weeks 'holiday' in the Haringvliet. It's only a couple of hundred metres from where I was, but it's great to have a change of outlook, so for now I'll take in my new surroundings and get a feel for it all.

The photos below are of where I am now and also of the almost empty Oude Haven.

In position

No loopplank needed here - just these small steps

A nearly empty Oude Haven - a very unusual sight

The current incumbent of our slipway - huge, isn't it?
Have a good week everyone and watch this space. No doubt there'll be more news from the watery burbs next week!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

More of the same

Now I've written my Nutty Nora posts and got those out of the way, I'm going back to my usual topic - barge stuff.

The last few weeks have been difficult on board because a little while ago, I arrived back after a weekend away and found my lovely, safe loopplank (gangplank) seriously bent, rendering it now totally un-safe for human passage.

My suspicion is that a whole troop of tourists decided to use it for a photo opportunity and pushed it so far down on one side, it then got stuck under the rope pins of a bollard and was bent even more as the tide rose. Now bearing in mind there's a very visible sticker on it that says "max 3 persons", I was not best amused.

As it really was no longer safe, we didn't put it back after my hellingbeurt (slipway week), so I've been relying on the neighbours for access until we can straighten it out and strengthen the section. These things are far too expensive to abandon and the insurance company doesn't seem to be interested in helping either. I know it doesn't look bad in this photo, but you should see how skew it really is…and very wonky indeed.

To make matters worse, my nearest neighbour has also removed her loopplank  as she is no longer living on board, so I am now doing a three barge hop to board the Vereeniging. This requires skills something akin to those of a mountain goat, which - I hope you'll agree - I'm not! Well, if I am, I'm a very clumsy one.

The overall consequence is that there's a limit to what I can do as I cannot easily get materials on and off. So...I am concentrating on painting (surprise surprise!). Slowly but surely, all the red trim is being finished (takes me an age) and my next job is to de-rust and paint the engine room windows. I can't believe this warm weather is going to go on that much longer, but while it does, I must paint…and paint….and paint some more!

Added to that I have also been been working inside and have re-painted my kitchen cupboards. When I made them back in 2002, I stained the panels with chestnut coloured varnish, which looked more red than anything, and I'd never felt like changing them. As of this last week, though, they are no longer red-pannelled but completely creamy white, and I am so enjoying their bright shiny faces.

During the course of the coming week, I'm praying the weather will give me the break I need so I can also paint the foredeck (I've been saying that for months, I know). In the last ten days or so, every time I've decided to do this very necessary job, it's rained, so keep your fingers crossed for me because next weekend, we have to move again and I don't know when I'll next get the chance. 

The reason for the move is because the council are currently dredging all the harbours so we are being turfed out of our spots in rotation to clear different sections at different times. Next week it is the Oude Haven's turn to be dredged and I don't know yet where we'll have to go. By the time I write this blog again, we'll probably be in a different harbour and mooring, so watch this space! I'll also take some photos as it's very rare that the harbour is ever empty of barges. The last time was in 2007 when the harbour wall was re-built. Koos and I were the last to leave, and I took this photo just before we cast off and pulled out.

An almost empty harbour in 2007
It normally looks like this! Very full.
Have a good week everyone and may the sun keep shining on you wherever you are!