Thursday, December 31, 2015

More barge family history in photos

With my research for my next book and also as background to The Skipper's Child, I've been looking at old photos of the Fernhout family's barge, and with Koos's permission, I thought it would be nice to share some more of these with you here. All the pictures below are from a small collection Koos has kept since he was a youngster and has now scanned in the hopes of preserving them further. The originals are becoming very faded and so this is one way of keeping these precious images for family posterity.

Many of them were taken before Koos was born and show his father's barge at various times before and after World War II, so they are especially interesting to me as they show its development over the years.

The one above was snapped at Cheratte, Belgium, before the barge, called Twee Gebroeders, was fitted with a rear engine. There's no date on the photo, but it was probably taken before the war in the thirties. Here the barge only had a small 35 horsepower engine under the foredeck which drove a side propellor close to the bows. The wheelhouse was open at the back with a canopy over the stern to protect the skipper from the elements.

You can see the side propellor in this picture of the loaded Twee Gebroeders in 1955 after the main engine was fitted. Apparently Hendrikus Fernhout kept the system as an auxiliary motor for when the current was very strong, for instance when they were on the Rhine. Notice Papa Fernhout is in a white shirt and tie. Apparently this was normal Sunday wear and Sunday was usually photo day!

 I love this one. It's almost like an aerial shot, but it was taken  from the rocks high above the Maas at Namêche, in Belgium (I told you Belgium was beautiful!)

 And here, the lovely old fashioned bows where two of the Fernhout children are standing.  This one and the one below are on the Maas, again in Belgium. Koos was the youngest of four children who survived. Two others were tragically lost to drowning when they were very small as often happened in skippers' families. The awful sadness of losing those two babies could well have affected Mrs Fernhout deeply, making her more withdrawn than even her very real deafness would have done.

 A wonderful image of the deeply laden Twee Gebroeders in Stevensweert in Limburg, in the south of the Netherlands. I don't have a date for this photo, but according to Koos, it is probably pre-war.

 This one and the last photo below show the  new conformation with the wheelhouse right at the stern and the engine's chimney just in front of the roef or saloon. Such developments were normal in the course of a barge's life in the 20th century, something that makes it difficult for restorers to deal with when deciding on how far to take their restoration.

I'll be looking back to the period of these photos over the next months because I'm also really looking forward to writing my story about the father of my Skipper's Child, which will be set during the WWII. Photos like these give me the inspiration, but of course now I need information too, so it'll mean hours of reading (mostly in Dutch, so that'll take me even longer!) and heaps questions that I'll have to put to people in the know. A happy thought and a special project to take me into the next 

And if you are interested in reading The Skipper's Child, why not take a look the first few pages on Amazon:


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Skipper's Family - a bit more background

Koos's father's barge. Mother stands in the wheelhouse door

One thing I hadn't thought about when I wrote my last post about Who is The Skipper's Child? was something Anne Mackle mentioned in her review of the book, and that is that there is no bad language in it.

Some people might find this unconvincing, but in fact it is totally authentic. In the story, it is clear that Hendrik Kornet and his family are Protestants and make this quite plain to those 'heathen Catholics' in Belgium. In the Netherlands of the time, the country was quite clearly defined by its religious leanings: the north tended to be Protestant and the south Catholic (and to quite an extent, this is still the case although there is a large 'bible belt' in Zeeland that runs right through to Zeeuws Vlaanderen, close to the Belgian border).

A closeup of the wheelhouse. Koos's grown up brother still
in white shirt and tie!

Koos's parents were very much of the Protestant persuasion and quite strictly so as many skippers' families were. 'Bad' language of any kind would not have been tolerated on board and so no, there was no swearing or cursing even under duress. It is also true that their entertainment was hymn singing round the harmonium and they did not really mix with people outside their Protestant skippers' world. So my portrayal of the family as being rather innocent and isolated from the world is an accurate reflection of what their life was like (so Koos assures me). Being Protestant set you apart from the Catholics,who were regarded as being frivolous and given to excesses of drinking, eating and partying. Funny to think of now, isn't it?

But the twains did somehow meet now and then. I love this anecdote Koos tells (not in the book) about his father's meeting with a Catholic skipper one Sunday back in the day. The skipper, who I think was Belgian, was moored under a bridge and was busily cleaning his barge. Koos's father, who was quite a tease and not completely intolerant of other men's ways, ribbed the man for working on the Lord's day. The Catholic skipper was totally undaunted and quick as a flash pointed to the bridge above him and retorted that 'what the Lord couldn't see wouldn't hurt him'. Precious, isn't it? And maybe a tongue-in-cheek confirmation of the difference between the two...

So that's why my story is so more than usually 'clean'. It's not only that it's mainly targeted to young people, although that's obviously a consideration; it's just that their life was like that. It really was a different and insular world, and that's why I find it so fascinating.

The prequel is in the planning as I want to write about Arie's father's life during the war. That one will not be targeted to a YA audience but I will still focus on authenticity!

The Skipper's Child is on Amazon if you fancy giving it a try :)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

After the Earthquake by Jo Carroll

A few weeks back, I blogged about the crowd-funding project my wonderful friend, Jo Carroll, had set up to raise money to build a house in Nepal following the terrible earthquake there. In her own blog and also as part of the project, she wrote that she was preparing an e-book about her recent visit to Nepal, the profits from which would go to add to the house building fund.

The book is now out on Amazon and you can find it here, but what I wanted to say on this blog is that I've read the ebook and just loved it. My review is below and as you can see, I would have been happy if it had been much longer. Jo's writing is marvellous: her descriptions are evocative, her empathy with the people is heartwarming and her understanding of their plight shows deep insight into their needs and also their dignity. 

This is a lovely, lovely read, and even if it were not to help the people of Nepal, it would be worth buying and savouring. Thank you, Jo!

"The only thing wrong with this travel memoir of Jo Carroll's is that it was over too quickly. It is a marvellous account of her recent trip to Nepal following the earthquake which has devastated the region and destroyed the lives of so many. However, her trip was not that of a disaster tourist. There is little description of the heaviest damage and the physical suffering as Jo Carroll's aim was to see what was needed to bring tourists back to the country and to find out what was still there for visitors to see and enjoy. There was and is plenty and she shows by her accounts of the wonderful places she visited, both in the mountains and valleys, how welcome and comfortable people will still be made. After all, the mountains and stunning scenery are still there as is the fascinating culture of the people, who are warm, hospitable and very courteous. 

Nepal needs visitors to rebuild; its economy relies heavily on tourism and without it even more people will suffer. The proceeds of this book are going to rebuild a house in Nepal, but its value stretches way beyond that. It is a convincing plea for the tourists to return. I loved it and felt as if I was there with her experiencing the peace, the views, the monsoon rains and even the crocodile (yes, now that was an experience!) but of course I'd much rather go in person now! Maybe one day I will."

Who was The Skipper's Child?

Most people who read my blog and know something of what I write associate me with memoirs about my watery life or about my years in South Africa. Some of you may also know I have written two novels as well although in some sense both of these are biographical too. My novel with the ridiculously long name (sorry!) about breeding sheep, geese and English eccentrics is strongly rooted in my own pre-South Africa life on a smallholding in Dorset. The storyline is fiction, but the characters and the animals are very much based on my somewhat alternative family although I admit I prefer my book characters to one or two of the real life versions.

The same is true of The Skipper's Child, a sort of cat and mouse adventure set on Europe's waterways in December 1962 at the height of the Cold War. 1962/63 was also the longest and coldest winter on record in Europe in the 20th century, even exceeding 1947, I believe. The story is woven around the Kornet family: Hendrik, a commercial barge skipper, his wife Marijke and their three children, Anneke, Arie and Jannie. Essentially, this family is based on my partner Koos's parents and two sisters. 

Little Koos, his sister and Mother in the folded down wheelhouse
of the family barge. Note his mother knitting on the got!
When I first met Koos, he told me many stories of what life was like for a skipper's kind. It was neither glamorous nor exciting and despite travelling all over the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, he felt very restricted as they were always on the move and he could rarely leave the barge. All the same, I was fascinated by the stories of family life on board and the tough conditions they considered quite normal for their way of life.

The Fernhout family on a day out
I knew then I wanted to write about this old and very special way of life. Skippers these days have quite a luxurious lifestyle with all possible mod-cons and even their cars travel with them. In Koos's time, they had no electricity, no central heating and no interior insulation either, so it was not unusual in the winter for them to wake to ice on the inside of the cabin; and on occasions, they even got frozen in and had to walk across the ice to get to land.

Thinking about all of this sowed the seeds of a fictional story in which I could incorporate both Koos's memories and also a few of the anecdotes his father told him about earlier times, especially during and after the war. And so Arie, The Skipper's Child, was born. The outcome is an adventure involving Russian spies, secret service agents and a young stowaway who has failed in a mission that he was not aware he was undertaking until he overhears a conversation where he learns what his fate was to be.

The main target audience for the story was my younger self. It was the sort of book I'd have been reading in my early teens, so I set that as the 'age' for the reader. But in truth, most of its readers have been adults: firstly on a blog where I played out the story for a number of followers, and later when people started buying the book. The only real YA (young adult) feedback I've had has been from The Wishing Shelf Awards whose panel of judges for all the YA entries were teenage school children. Luckily for me, they liked it and The Skipper's Child won a Silver Award.

So why am I telling this story now? Well, following a recent promo when it received a great boost in sales and some lovely new reviews, I'm really hoping still more people will give it a try. I am very, very pleased that readers enjoy my memoirs, but of course my creative side is much more attached to my fictional stories, and The Skipper's Child in particular. Funny how the harder you have to work for something, the more it means to you, but that's how it goes. So if you feel like something completely different from the usual action packed adventure, you might like Arie's story. The link to the book and all the reviews is here (update: and also at Amazon UK). The link to a very nice review can be found below too.

In the meantime, have a  great 2016 everyone! I wish you the shared pleasures of peace, togetherness and time for your loved ones as well as all the other things you would wish for yourselves.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

There's more to noise than meets the ear

The current evening scene

Looking back in my archives again, I found this post from June 2009. It made me laugh as I realise that not much changes in our harbour. I've only had to add a few updates...

I know my barge is in the middle of a serious city. I know that. I really do. What I can't get to grips with, though, is the total and mind blowing cacophony we have to live with. I was going to say unbelievable, but it isn't - unbelievable that is - it's only too real. 24/7, 7/7,  52/12 - all of them.

Nearly every morning I'm there I wake up thinking that WW3 has begun, or at least that we are under attack from giants with monster walking sticks thumping their way through the city streets. This starts at 7 a.m. Not so early you might say for a world war or crippled giants on the loose, but then this is after a night spent listening to riotous revellers who think that the people they are with and all the rest of the world as well are deaf.

Maybe I should backtrack a bit and explain that the dawn raids or in other parlance, early wake up calls, are from the pile drivers on the building site next to the harbour. Oh, I forgot. Not just one site. There are now..let me see...about four sites in very audible proximity to the harbour (I should say most of these have been completed now, but there are others...). They are all building ever higher tower blocks in competition with each other, and they all seem to need to start the race for pile driver of the day, every day and even on Saturdays, at the same time. (I wonder if there's a yellow jersey for the winner of each stage?). Anyway, the explosion of sound and vibration is worse than any rock concert ever, and what baffles me is that there are no government health warnings advising the local populace to wear ear protection when within five kilometres of such locations. Strangely, all the builders wear them, but we mere mortals are clearly unworthy.

As for the night time revellers, I'm sure they think everyone is deaf because I've stood outside in my PJ's at four in the morning watching them. Picture this. Two extremely inebriated students are standing less than a metre from each other. No closer of course. This is Holland, and not Italy, remember. In any other circumstances, they'd be close enough to whisper and still hear each other clearly. But no. They have to shout at the tops of their lungs, and just to make sure they've got their point across, they feel obliged to pick up a few tables and chairs and hurl them into the water for added emphasis. Vocal punctuation is obviously not enough. They need a few physical exclamation marks.

Sometimes, tempers flare and fights ensue. Given the state of inebriation, time is relative to the participants and what might normally be a few terse words is strung out into a long drawn out battle of howls of distress emphasised at intervals by the regulation chair and table throwing, and if things get really bad, then the bicycles fly.

This also goes on pretty much seven days a week (it did then and it still does, but I'm more used to it now; 7 years of conditioning have helped).

For a little extra spice, call up the trams squealing across their tracks from six in the morning onwards and the testosterone-boosted boy racers screeching their tyres as they u-turn at the end of the harbour where the road meets its end. Not to mention, of course, the gangs of youths who arrive at any time during the night with their car windows down and their heavy rap music which resounds across the harbour and double flips back to meet itself half way - right over our barges.

"What a gezellig place to live!" my Dutch students say when I tell them I live on a barge in the Oude Haven. I merely smile vacantly, and ask them if they'd like to sample a Friday night experience. I see them thinking of the implications. Many of them are quick to realise that they might well be party to some of my night hour distress. Then I tell them about WW3 every morning. Aaah, they nod sagely. It's a bit noisy yes? Just a bit, I say.

Friday, December 18, 2015

An apostrophic nightmare

'Do you ever find yourself doubting your certainties in life? I know, I know. That sounds like a contradiction doesn't it? But it's true. These days, I'm more in doubt about punctuation than I have ever been and that's saying something.

I think part of the problem is that so many others are so sure they are right about what's correct that when those very people contradict each other, I go into a spin.

Here's an example: in academic writing (which I teach), the rules (okay don't sigh now) say that you should only use a semi-colon to separate items in a list or between two independent clauses of equal weight when you don't want to use a conjunction such as 'and, but etc'. Now things seem to be different in narrative and creative writing. And there's the rub. I've read articles that say you can use a semi-colon instead of a comma when a comma is not enough of a break - like a half way pause between a full stop and a comma (for instance, maybe I could even have put one before 'like' in the line above).  That's wonderful - liberating even. I got quite excited when I thought I could sprinkle my sentences with semi-colons when I wanted something of a more pregnant pause than a dear little comma would give me. doesn't always work. No, it doesn't, and I've seen semi-colon use go terribly wrong. I'm not even sure if I do it right myself anymore as I've had editors question my dramatic pauses a few times. So I'm going back to the rules as they apply to academic writing. I may be a wimp but at least they are clear.

Now the next problem comes with our feisty little apostrophe. Goodness, do people get upset about this beastie? I've had my wrist smacked no end of times for using apostrophes with abbreviated words  or 'anglicisms' that have now been accepted as words in their own right (pro's and con's are just an example, being originally Latin). Added to that, when I was at school, I was taught that decades such as the 1960s had an apostrophe before the 's'. I've left it out here as it seems this isn't done now unless it's a possessive form. In fact there were many 'old-fashioned' forms I had to unlearn when I left South Africa and started teaching in Europe. SA is always about fifty years behind - it's quite refreshing really, but it's given me a few headaches along with having to swallow a lot of humble pie.

But talking about possessives, there is one thing I'm quite certain of and that's the difference between its and it's - at least I thought I was. The first is (contrary to expectations) the possessive form of the pronoun it and the second is an abbreviation for 'it is / it has'. Yes? I am right, aren't I? Please tell me that's true! The problem is that I see an apostrophe used so often for the possessive form of it these days I'm doubting myself all over again - hence the title of this piece. I wouldn't mind except that people get so belligerent about these things and when two opposing sides believe they are right, where does that leave a doubting Dora like me?

So that's my problem. Punctuation is becoming an apostrophic nightmare. I know language evolves and all that. And I'm all for it, believe me! But could it just hold on until I've caught up?

Update: I've been reading this forum that shows I was not mad or even wrong by using apostrophes with plural dates at one time. Grammarian, Michael Swann (well known to me in the EFL world) and Lynn Truss both confirm its former popularity. In fact this forum Q and A raises some other interesting points regarding the apostrophe too:

Happy reading for nerds!

Monday, December 14, 2015

'Waterkoud' - that's Dutch winter for you in our harbour

The last week has been truly typical Dutch winter weather. Extreme cold is rare here and when we have it, it comes in short bursts of fridge-like air that roll over the land with the same intensity as the icy blast issuing from a butcher's very large cold storage room when the door is open. It has the same shock factor too because we are just not used to that kind of cold.

Waterkoud - a damp, misty, snowy winter day in the Oude Haven

Anyway, I don't quite know why I've even mentioned it really as it hasn't been cold like that at all this year. It's just been damp and bone chilling, which is something I dislike even more as it's accompanied by grey, misty skies that make our world seem very dark. I need to keep the lights on inside the barge all day when I'm home and the constant patter of rain on the hatch boards is as maddening after a time as the mistral wind is to the French. It makes me feel closed in and shut down. In practically all respects, I prefer icy and sunny to wet and mild, although that's when we often have an east wind which makes the loopplank  do this:-

An old photo showing how steep our
gangplank is when the east wind blows
But at least we have the Christmas lights. They are just too lovely! On Wednesday, I will hook mine out from under the bed in the little guest room below the foredeck and wind them round the full length of mast. We leave them on until mid January and they make even the dreariest day look brighter in the harbour. There doesn't seem to be much activity this year by way of parties and celebrations, but I'm going to be inviting the family over for a Christmas occasion. It will be a bit cramped - quarts into pint pots as it were, and this is especially true of Koos's eldest son who is exactly two metres tall; at its highest point, the Vereeniging is only 1,85, so Sanne has to stand in the skylight and even then he can't straighten up. I think it will be fun, though. We haven't had everyone on board for since about 2007.

My Christmas lights wound round the mast
Christmas and New Year are often noisy affairs in our harbour, and in the past we have stayed away on NYE because Sindy, our old dog, was terrified of the fireworks. Actually,  I would never ask any dog to endure what verges on a WWIII eruption, let alone a frightened one, but we are dogless now, so I might cajole Koos into staying on board this year. We can watch the firework displays from the Willemsbrug and join the throngs of revellers as they wish each other a happy new year all around the harbour - something we haven't done since Sindy was a puppy. Maybe some of our neighbours will be drinking gluhwein (mulled wine in English) and we can share some cheer with them. At midnight, a roar will start somewhere and spread round the harbour like an audio Mexican wave. 2016 will have arrived in our part of the world. I'm looking forward to it! I hope you all are too.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Family fantastic

I've been thinking about families, a thought (or several of them) sparked by Peter Davey's hilarious blog about the past year, much of which involved events with delightful, if ageing, relatives. It called to mind an evening I spent explaining my own rather multi-tentacled family to a dear (now departed) friend, who told me with some awe that he never knew I had such a complicated, and odd, background.

The thing is I'm the youngest of four siblings, each of whom has their own oddities - not surprisingly given our shared eccentric background of growing up in a crumbling country house in Dorset surrounded by totally off-the-wall parents and a range of surprisingly canny animals (see my novel on the subject for further fictionalised details). Added to this, although I've not had many relationships in my life, those that I've had have brought me a whole set of new and rather interestingly connected relatives.

This is roughly how it goes: my eldest daughter was the issue of a partnership that didn't last simply because the partner in question had issues with partnerships in general. The problem was he didn't realise this himself and went on to have another (short-lived) partnership after breaking ours which resulted in another daughter I didn't know about until a few years ago when my daughter made contact with him and learnt she had a half-sister. Got it?

Right. Now I then got married to a man who had two sons, so my daughter had two legal step-brothers before I had my second daughter who was then half-sister to daughter one and half-sister to daughter one's step-brothers who were also my official stepsons. Bear in mind now that the other half-sister (remember her?) was as yet unknown to us.

Twenty years down the line, my marriage broke up (we won't go there) and I then got together with Koos who has two sons. But because we aren't officially married, these two boys are my unofficial stepsons while my former husband's two sons are now my official ex-stepsons.

There, I'm sure you've all followed that easily, haven't you? So in sum, I have two daughters who are half-sisters; they are both half-sisters to others, but separately, and one is step-sister to my official stepsons while they are both step-sisters to my unofficial stepsons.

Now try explaining that to someone else without reading this again.

And that's not all.

I have a brother (a complete one, not half or stepped or anything else) who is very religious and a fervent Christian. Don't get me wrong, I am not anti religion and I'm not an atheist. I'm far too worried about dying and ending up in front of a crinkly mouthed creator who will banish me to an eternity without books for my lack of faith, so I definitely have my beliefs; they just don't involve sharing them with other like-minded people, and doing the church or evangelist thing is not for me. Nevertheless, I respect my brother for his commitment as he cruises around the UK on his narrowboat attending Christian boaters' fellowship events. That's what he does and all power to him.

What makes this more than just a by-the-way piece of not very interesting information is that Koos's brother, who was actually born into the boating world as the son of a commercial barge skipper, is also an evangelical Christian. Coincidence? I wonder.  That said, you wouldn't necessarily know this from meeting him except that he comes out with his message at rather surprising and slightly inconvenient moments.

I've never forgotten a visit he made to us in the Oude Haven several years ago. We'd been chatting amiably on board about this and that and we were all heading out for a walk when half way across the gangplank, he turned to me and told me I needed to be saved and I should embrace the Lord. Well, I had a moment of panic I can tell you. There I was suspended on a strip of wood over the water and he decides to tell me this. The Lord wasn't there to embrace or to save me - I didn't even have a handrail to hold on to. Luckily, Koos was behind me so substituted for Himself by guiding me carefully to the quay, but it was a nerve-wracking moment to say the least.

As for the rest of our immediate families, they have nothing in common at all, which is probably a good thing or I'd be really confused about where the lines are drawn.

Sadly, I am unlikely to see any of my extended family on Christmas day as we haven't quite got round to solving the problem of who goes where and when or even who is really related at all, but no doubt I'll see them all at some time over the festive season.

Wishing you all a very pleasant run-up to the holidays!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Digging into the memory archives

I mentioned in my blog before last that it was fourteen years ago in November that I bought the Vereeniging, but it was at the beginning of December - around now to be precise - that I brought her to Rotterdam. The story of our journey is told in Watery Ways and is the lead up to the end of the book when she took her place in the Oude Haven.

Early days in the Oude Haven

But it was in fact great good fortune that we arrived at all given the fragile state of the axle. What we didn't know and never checked was that it was completely rotten and water was seeping steadily through the flange into the engine room. During that journey, we were unwittingly in constant danger (no exaggeration) of having the whole propellor drop off and the barge flooded, but luckily we had no clue. We'd have been in despair if we had.

We only found out how bad it was and how much water was coming in when the Vereeniging was on the slipway. That was also when the inspector turned my lovely boat into a colander (again, no exaggeration) by bashing holes in the bottom, which he did with uncomfortable ease because the old iron was perilously thin. I went cold thinking what could have happened if we'd hit anything hard or sharp on the way. I still do. I mean you would, wouldn't you?

So it's made me think how often we've been spared by not knowing that something was seriously wrong. Well, maybe not spared as such  - it's always resulted in some kind of heavy cost - but at least blissfully ignorant.

For instance, even before this frightener, we'd done a long trip to Lille on Koos's barge before finding out his gearbox was on its last legs. You wouldn't credit it, but we managed to cross all the major stretches of water between Rotterdam and Antwerp, and travel down the Belgium river and canal system into France. I'd left him at Lille but his son was with him when it finally packed up. As chance would have it, his guardian angel had prompted him to have another gearbox on board so he and his son changed it while moored up along the canal side. But weren't we lucky it didn't decide to expire while crossing the wide waters with no handy spots to tie up? And how glad I am we didn't know at the time!

Koos's Luxor, which he sold three years ago
A few years later, another drama occurred that still gives me 'daymares' when I think about it. The steering on our little Hennie H went as Koos pulled into the big sea canal to Gent just after crossing the mighty Westerschelde estuary which is notorious for its currents and sandbanks, and also because it is used by all the sea-going traffic on its way to Antwerp. I am certain that this time Koos's angel was working overtime to make sure it didn't break down on the open waters. It doesn't even bear thinking about what might have happened if it had. Admittedly, he'd had some misgivings about the technical condition of the barge before, but had never anticipated that sickening feeling of turning the wheel and finding nothing was happening at all.

However, being in the mouth of the canal and close to the locks, he was able to get help and a tow to Sas van Gent, but it thoroughly unnerved him. Come to think of it, maybe this time it would have been better if we'd known about the problem. We'd never have set off from Rotterdam in the first place - not until it had been repaired in any event. I only have to see the Westerschelde to shudder at the risk he took.

The Hennie H. Ready to go? We hope so!

As things turned out, the Henni H has taken a few years to get right, and it's only now we are even thinking of taking another real trip in her. Next year is when we hope it will be.

And the destination?

I think I'll keep you all guessing for now. Have a good Sunday everyone!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Dictating the terms

Do you remember the days of dictation at school? I do. I can recall sitting in class scribbling furiously as the teacher intoned the sentences to be written in an appropriately sombre and pompous voice. I remember spelling bees too (is that how you spell that? Haha). I was quite competitive in those days and took childish and smug pride in having a pretty good level of accuracy.

But then that all went by the wayside when I learnt to type. Now my fingers seem to have taken over where my brain left off and they do their own thing with my spelling. They really do. Sometimes I can't quite believe what comes out on the screen. It's bizarre and  certainly not what I had in mind. I'll type completely different words from those I was thinking of, let alone incorrectly spelt ones, and often they aren't even homonyms. It is totally and utterly baffling.

So when the Language Centre at Erasmus University asked me to write a 'difficult' text for the annual dictation competition, I was honoured and terrified in equal measure. I mean I would be seriously under the spotlight if I got anything, even so much as a hyphen, wrong. This was where I would have to prove that I was everything I'd been vaunted to be (don't ask me what that is; it just sounded good).

Now, I don't know about any of my writer friends, but I often have spells of crippling self-doubt. The word fraud frequently enters my mind when I think about my writing. So I was in something of a sweat to create a suitable tangle of spelling, pronunciation and punctuation conundrums to foil the best of the university's language masters in this serious test of their linguistic skills.

In the end, I sought the help of that brilliant pronunciation poem (this one) and resorted to a few choice literary adjectives such as Brobdingnagian and Hurculean. Look, neither of these is too difficult to spell, but you have to remember those capital letters, something used much less in Dutch than in English anyway. I also traded on the rules that the dictation had to be in British English, so peppered the text with words like labour, centre, travelled and instil, all of which trap the unwary students who are more used to reading in American. Mean, aren't I? Well, I had to get them somehow. Some of these cloggies are really good. But there are more than a few who think a 'lift' is Dutch, and that 'elevator' is the correct English word, so I knew I had some easy pits for them to fall into.

As has become my writing custom, I asked for it to be proofread and triple if not quadrulple checked. I really didn't want any arguments, which is what you get if there's any room for doubt at all. The only snag was that the rules also required a maximum of eight sentences. And I had to write around 350 words. You do the maths! Since I also had to read this piece of gobbledegook as part of my job, I was gasping for breath before I'd reached the end of each forty word morsel. I almost felt I deserved the round of applause the contestants gave me when I'd finished. But with heart in boots, I did my thing to completion. The pic below was taken when I was in full enunciation flow. The participants apparently liked it because they found it difficult (odd lot), and they also liked the subject: bilingualism at the university, which is something of a current hot topic, likely as it is to raise the temperature of any conversation.

But I was truly impressed. The winner made a grand total of five errors, which I think is probably fewer than I'd have got if I'd been doing it. Honestly. And she is Dutch. There was a runner-up with just seven. However, I did see one paper with 134, so for that poor soul, it was out of one pit and into the next. All in all, it was a truly enjoyable evening - in hindsight of course. But then I've always been better at pinning the tail on the donkey than seeing ahead with the blindfold off.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Memoirs and the memories they evoke

In a week or so, I will be publishing my new memoir, Walloon Ways. I'm not going to be making a song and dance about it as it is a slim volume and just an addition to my other 'Ways' books. No great work of fiction and maybe only of interest to those who love Wallonia and Belgium as I do.  But if anyone is interested in reading it, the cover is below, so you'll be able to see it on Amazon and also on Nook books in due course. I will make it available as a paperback but only through I sell very few paperbacks these days and in honesty, they bring in less than the e-books if I put them out on Amazon, so it's not worth all the trouble of formatting them the way the big retailers want them done. However, some people still like them better, so if they want a proper book, Lulu will have them.

The thing about writing memoirs, for me anyway, is the memories they evoke and the nostalgia for the times and places I am writing about. Walloon Ways is about our three years as weekend Belgians when we had a barge on the canal just outside Brussels and spent every weekend there. It was intended to be a real move, and we had ideas about living there full time, but I never managed to get teaching work in Brussels and so our residency was limited to the last three days of each week and, of course, holidays. 

During those three years between 2003 and 2006, we had a lovely time on the barge and also exploring Belgium. I grew very fond of the country so while writing, I became immersed again in those memories and experiences, and it's given me hankerings for our life there again. I really miss Brussels sometimes. I loved being among French speaking people, and Brussels was much closer to Wallonia, the region I feel so at home in.

For various reasons, which I explain in the book, we had to sell the barge in 2006. Neither of us wanted to, but we didn't have much choice, which is probably why I am so sentimental about it (but don't worry, the book isn't - at least I don't think so!). It was in many ways my ideal life - living on the water but having a garden too. We were also very close to the city, but it felt like being in the country. The rolling hills of Wallonia were just down the road, meaning we could spend a lot of our time in very rural areas. It was a gift in many ways that I still treasure. 

Of course, there were ups and downs too. Some of the downs concerned the animosity of some of our neighbours who felt they'd been invaded by Holland. They really did! And apparently, we were known by at least one person as the Rotterdam Mafia, although I don't know who it was and even if that was true. Still Brussels has some difficulties in coming to terms with its bi-lingual Flemish/French status as most of the residents are French speaking. There were therefore those in the community of barge owners who resented us, but if I leave that part out (as I have in my book - I only touch on it in one part), everything else about our time there was definitely worth being nostalgic about.

Anyway, I'm glad I've nearly finished editing and proofreading now as I've come close to looking for places in Belgium to keep my Vereeniging, such have been the feelings writing my memoir has aroused. It would be even less practical now than it was then, so the sooner I put it all away and hand it over to the world, the better! I can then put my memories back in their box and move on to other projects.

What are they? You may well ask... at the moment, I'm torn between continuing an Eccentrics style novel about a couple who take on the job of looking after a farm in Africa for a year while the owners are away (yes, this is based on personal experience, but it is fiction) and the other is something I'm itching to write. It's a kind of prequel to The Skipper's Child and will start in 1940 with the bombardment of Rotterdam. That's all I'm going to say for the moment. I'm reading a lot of wartime novels and right now,  I'm reading one in Dutch which describes what being in the city during the bombing was really like. It's incredible. And awful. But it makes me want to get started with my own book even more. Time will tell which one wins!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Reflections on my watery life

I've been doing some reflecting this week as I've sat in my barge. Reflecting as in pondering on life as opposed to watching double-sided ducks on the water, that is. And the result of my pondering reflections is this:

It was fourteen years ago this month that I bought the Vereeniging as an empty shell complete with several not so optional extras, these being rust holes, a rotten axle and rather too obvious ventilation in all the wrong places. I had to forgive her though. She was a hundred and three years old and had survived serious abuse and neglect, somehow managing to stay afloat while the weeds grew out of the rust in her hull. It was a match made for the tenacious; both her and me.

The former owner had done much to try and renovate her, but he was also elderly and in truth, he was more enamoured of the engine than any other part of the barge. I wonder if he has yet forgiven me for changing it from the 1921 hot bulb Industrie engine that he so adored to the 1955 Samofa engine that I still adore. Sadly, age and his wife's ill health forced him to sell the Vereeniging as a project he was only three years into in 2001, but apart from my disgraceful insensitivity over the engine, I think it wasn't a bad idea to sell it to me as I am fairly obsessed with this old lady.

After dealing with the worst of the rusted, riveted hull, it took me two years to create a home from the empty shell of the hold. It's taken me several more years to add other improvements (plus further steel plates) and even today, I never stop working on the maintenance. There's always something that needs doing quite apart from the regular two yearly bottom inspections. The last of these was actually after just one year owing to my sleepless nights over the state of the vlak (interior hull surface) in my little back cabin (see previous post).

During the time I've had the Vereeniging, my daughters have both had spells of living on her, and at these times, I've moved off and lived with Koos. The girls have been free to make her their home and as a result things inside have been taken apart, moved or reconstructed - not always to my taste, I will admit. For the last eighteen months, though, I've had her back and I stay on her during the week when I am alone in Rotterdam for work. I am slowly making her my own again and some of you will have seen the progress of the renovation here on this blog.

If I'm honest, a different owner would probably rip out everything I've built in and start again because the interior is entirely of my rather amateur construction and so it is all rather obviously home made, but I don't care. I love every inch of my barge and spend hours inspecting details that I could revise and do better. In fact, last night I lay in bed below the foredeck gazing at the panelling and planning how to neaten it up and re-paint it all. The last time it was done was about seven years ago, and since then, the panels in front of my water tanks have been moved to different positions at least three times, leaving rather obvious scars in the process. Then this morning, I was up early giving my new storage unit / kist a second coat of paint and cutting some shelving to repair one that had got broken when last daughter moved out.

Of course, there is also the never ending challenge of the tides. When combined with a gangplank that wants to start its own life on the quay or dive into the harbour for a swim, this requires a weekly engagement with ropes, spanners and hammers to make sure it all stays in place. The next storm or extreme high or low tide will naturally reverse all my efforts and I'll start all over again.

Two lovely WOB friends

That aside, I wouldn't have it any other way, and when we played host this week to two great cyber buddies from a Facebook group I belong to, Women on Barges, I was very happy to have them on board despite my still long list of to-be-improvedments. We had never met before but it was click at first sight, as it was with all our respective men folk. It was a special and lovely evening of laughter and talk and I know we all count each other as real friends now.

WOBs and BOBs together. An excellent time was had by all

The funny thing is I'd never have come across them if it hadn't been for the Vereeniging, so I have that to thank my lovely old lady for too. She has brought me many friends in the harbour, but also cyber friends via blogging and Facebook; she has also given me the material for two books and fourteen years of something I can only describe as a feeling of warm, embracing security…the Dutch might call it gezelligheid, but it's more than that. I won't go soppy and sentimental on you now, but many people see their boats as a symbol of freedom, and the Vereeniging, now 117 years old, represents that for me too; the freedom, independence and self-reliance I gained when I decided to make my life in the Netherlands. That's quite a symbol isn't it? Is it any wonder then when I say I will never sell her...

Friday, November 06, 2015

The helling is over

So as I have mentioned before, last week was my hell(ing) week. Actually, it wasn't so bad; just very hard work, as usual. But one thing made life a whole lot easier: the weather. Normally the end of October is like what we've come to expect from summer - cold, wet and miserable, only with the added charm of short days, high winds and lurching leaves dive-bombing us from all directions. Contrary to all expectations, though, it was absolutely fabulous - in fact like summer is supposed to be (barring the short days and kamikazi leaves etc). We had wall to wall sunshine every day except Wednesday (when it dripped a bit), and once the early chill had lifted, the temperature was balmy and warm. I couldn't have asked for a better week. 

Koos saving me from chipmonkdom by spraying my bottom!
This unexpected bonus made life somewhat easier to bear once we were out of the water. Added to that, the good fortune extended to finding the hull almost totally free of mussels, although this wasn't so very surprising. It's only a year since the Vereeniging was last lifted out and the little varmints hadn't really had time to attach themselves and grow. As a result, Koos didn't need much muscle to spray off the mussels (sorry). It was after that the the rot, or should I say the rust, set in.

The first of the 5kilos of rust I scraped off the bottom
Once all was clean and dry, I set to work to find out what condition my bottom was in (remember the concern about the yukky rusty bits in my last post on the subject), and it was not good. The photo above shows the first of a pile of around 5 kilos of accumulated rust that I scraped off the inside of the hull's bottom at the stern end of the barge. I should say that once it was clean, the old iron looked okay, but I was worried about damp seeping from under the ribs that form the frame of the barge. There were also puddles of water originating from places I couldn't see under the structural plates, so I attacked those spots on the hull with a hammer from the outside. Even then I couldn't make any holes, but I was still worried by the seepage. It didn't seem to want to dry inside and I didn't know what to do about it.

That night I had an uneasy sleep. I dreamt about floods and rain, about being stranded in a boat going nowhere and all sorts of other watery nightmares. Of course I might just have needed the loo, it's true, but it gave me pause for thought. In the morning, I made a decision. I would have two plates welded to the bottom just for security. It would be expensive, but not as expensive as a real sinking feeling.

An old lady that needs lots of TLC

Picture pretty - all painted black
So that's what happened. While I rolled black paint onto the rest of the hull, my super trooper Koos and wonder welder Tim set to work. Over the next few days, the Vereeniging had two big sticking plasters of about 1 metre by 50 cms welded to her derrière. Koos cut, bent and positioned the pieces while Tim welded; a tricky job as steel on iron does not always make for a happy union. All the same, by Friday afternoon it was finished and I was able to paint the final sections.

Koos straightening out my loopy plank
Meanwhile, remember the story of my damaged gangplank? Well, we took advantage of being on the yard to get it straightened out. See photo above with Koos operating the massive vice that took the kinks out of one very loopy loopplank.

Smart as paint. Sunday afternoon and all the work done
This then was how things looked on Sunday. Koos and I were both exhausted but happy. It was a stunningly beautiful morning and I could hardly believe it was November the 1st. The surreal quality of the day was made more so by seeing a group of young people floating around the harbour in a mobile hot tub. It took a moment for it to sink (not literally) in that they were all wearing summer swimwear at the beginning of the penultimate month of the year. If this is global warming, I like it!

Anyhow, now we are back in the water, back in position and the weather is back to being November. We've had gales and rain for much of this week, so I  feel a bit sorry for the helling's current incumbent. I definitely had the best of it, and I hope my watery worries are now laid to rest rather than to rust…right, I'll shut up now...

Monday, November 02, 2015

Helping Nepal get back on its feet

My friend and great traveller, Jo Carroll has started a terrific initiative to help a family build a house in Nepal following the devastating earthquake earlier this year.

Why is she doing this? Because the people of Nepal have been, in her words, unstintingly generous and kind to her on the visits she has made to this wonderful country in the past few years. She has made very dear and good friends there, many of whom gave her accommodation, guidance and a very warm welcome when she stayed with them. In September, she returned to Nepal again to see her friends and see what she could do for them after the destruction that hit the country. What she saw made her realise that quite apart from efforts to encourage tourists to return (which is what they need), the people need help to rebuild their lives.

As a result, Jo has undertaken a project to raise the funds to build a house for one family. As she has said, she can't help the whole country, or indeed everyone there, but she can and will help one family. So she's set up a GoFundMe page and is asking for contributors to help her raise the 1500 GBP to build the house. So far, she has received 620 GBP in donations. She is also writing an e-book about Nepal, the proceeds of which will be added to the funds too.

But she understands that some people might be concerned about where and how their contributions are being spent

In her blog this week, Jo explains:

I'm not going to give you any identifying information - because the family at the end of all this don't know I'm doing it. They don't need to know - all they need is a new house. It doesn't matter where the money comes from.

I am paying the money into a small charity, based in the UK, that pays for the health centre in the village and contributes to the school. Anyone in specific need in the village can ask for help. So if someone needs to get to hospital in Kathmandu, or a disabled child needs equipment, then the charity is there to help.

But someone has to administer that? There must be pockets that could be lined along the way?

The charity is founded by a woman I know - I met her on my first visit to Nepal. She has her own reasons to be grateful to the people who live here, and has been unstinting in her efforts to raise money for them, to get to know everyone in the village, and to help identify needs. She visits regularly - she loves them and they love her. I have no doubt that every penny donated in this country ends up in Nepal.

But she doesn't have the final say. There is a small committee, in Nepal, which oversees the distribution of the fund. Another pocket-lining opportunity? Well, it might be, if the faithful Tika weren't on that committee. But he is - and anyone who has read my little books, or recalls the way I've talked about him here on the blog, will know that he is totally trustworthy. If he tells me the money will go where we want it to go - then it will.

So there you have it. I hope those who needed reassurance are comforted. And if there is anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about, you can find the appeal page here.

I think this is such a wonderful scheme and Jo is exactly the person to be doing this. Her integrity shines through everything she writes whether it is her blog or her books  If you need more convincing to help her, read her delightful e-book about her second visit to Nepal. Her great friend, Tika, mentioned above, figures large in this story about her Nepalese adventures. It's called Hidden Tiger, Raging Mountain, and you can find it on Amazon with this link 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

On the slipway again

Some of you might remember I had the Vereeniging on the slipway last year. Others might even remember that we call it a helling in Dutch. This word always amuses me as in some ways it's always a kind of hell. But then I must also admit that once the first anxiety of getting the barge out of the water and seeing what has been going on underneath is over, I actually enjoy the work, tough, rough and dirty though it is.

Well, it's about to happen again and this time, I'm a bit more anxious than usual. I normally wait two years before lifting it out, but I felt I couldn't afford to do that this time. You see over the past months, I've been working on board and I noticed woodworm has eaten away parts of the floor in my little back cabin. My heart sank and I started ripping everything out but then got distracted. I saw something worse than rotten wood. I saw rust and lots of it.

I don't know how I've managed to overlook this before, but I have. The bottom of the barge below the wormy wood is encrusted with rust and it doesn't look good at all. I started scraping at it and it was damp underneath the first flaky layers. This was even worse and so I stopped. It occurred to me I could easily scrape my way through the bottom of the boat and then I'd have a real problem. As a result, I made a date with the harbour master to have the Vereening up on the helling this coming week so I could attack the nasty area with vigour and without fear of sinking more than just my feelings.

Rust is strange stuff though. It can expand dramatically and look much worse than it really is. But you can't take chances can you? Not when it's your home. And it could quite easily sink if it has even a small hole in the bottom. My plan is therefore to get my friend Tim to give it hell (pardon the pun) with a hammer from the outside, while I do the same inside. If it's all right, then I can relax, but if it's fragile, then Tim will fix it for me, he being an excellent welder.

So that will be my moment of truth on Monday. I hope the rest of the week will go as smoothly as the rolling of all the paint that will follow. Luckily I have Koos to mop my brow and work alongside me with another roller, but I'll keep you posted on how it all goes.

By the way, I am quite close to being ready to publish my latest memoir, Walloon Ways (our three years as weekend Belgians). It's in the final proofing stages and the cover still needs sorting out properly, but my aim is to have it ready to go by mid November. Another anxious moment to come!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The finished product

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a photo of the storage space I'd started building on the Vereeniging. It's not totally finished yet. There's still a bit of paintwork to be done and I want to make shelves inside the 'box' or 'kist' as we called it in South Africa, but for the most part, it's done and I'm quite pleased with the space it gives me for hiding a lot of my clutter.

So, drum roll…here it is…(for those of you who haven't seen it already on

I've added the trim and given it a 'skirting' board to compensate for the uneven shape of my hull. It's also painted the same colour as the panels above it. The lid comes off and inside there will be shelves like trays with handles so I can just lift them out easily to get at the things that are stored underneath. In essence this will be my DIY storage space, and I'm very happy to hide it away as the table is where I sit to do my work.

The only risk is the amount of stuff that might get piled on top….this is, after all, me. And I might not be the tidiest person in the world...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Breaking one's fast in foreign lands

In the last months when we've had the good fortune to be travelling a lot, I've confirmed my belief that breakfast isn't just the most important meal of the day for our health - it's the one that gets people most fractious if they can't have what they like or what they're used to. It doesn't matter what they have for any other meal of the day, but messing with people's breakfasts is a risky business.

This observation is something I've made several times over the years. We've had guests here from England who've grumbled about being given ham and cheese for breakfast instead of cereal with toast and marmalade. Cereal is a pretty rare commodity in the Netherlands, with the exception perhaps of meusli, and marmalade - well that's almost unheard of. Then I've seen other people muttering about the way the French make tea or serve coffee at breakfast time, well tampered with chicory. Of course no one can object to their delicious flaky croissants, but maybe you don't know the Dutch are famous for taking their own food on holiday to France and Spain, and I suspect that the desire to have their own cheesy breakfast is part of it.

I've always chuckled at the mutterers and scoffed at them for their lack of adaptability - that was until I went to Romania and Moldova this summer and found that breakfast there was at best dry and uninteresting and at worst, almost inedible - for my tastes that is.

And much of my disappointment came down to the bread. Isn't it funny how bread can vary so much in different countries? The trouble is that wherever you go, it's generally what's eaten in the morning unless you come from China where they eat rice and can't fathom why anyone would want to eat anything else…yes well. But anyway, back to bread, I just love it (usually) and could eat an entire wholewheat loaf fresh from the oven all by myself - I really could. I also love French baguettes and Italian ciabattas. I even like German rye bread, but my preference is definitely for slices of yummy crusty wholemeal brown.

So imagine my dismay, followed by deep disappointment and then severe disgruntlement when in Romania and Moldova, I couldn't find any kind of brown bread anywhere on any breakfast menu. Everywhere we went, we were only offered white, rather dense and distinctly un-yummy slices of what can best be described as fibrous cardboard. Occasionally, we could get something from the street stalls that was rather like Turkish bread, but then they filled it with odd stuff like cabbage. Yes. Cabbage...

On my first breakfast in Romania, I couldn't even get a cup of coffee. If you wanted it, you had to pre-order, but we didn't know this. Well, scroll down several posts and you will learn that I am not nice to know if I cannot have at least two cups of caffeine laden brew first thing in the morning. What made it worse was that our dining room seemed to be next to an in-house chapel so while we were chewing on our cardboard and swallowing glasses of tepid water (I really cannot stomach tea), a church service started up in the next room complete with chanting. Now I don't have anything against religious services as a rule, but everything has its place and at my breakfast table is not it.

After repeating this (the repast not the church service) for several days, I started being a slightly unhappy bunny. No matter that we had other decent food and often sampled the local fare, I just couldn't get my system used to the sterile way I had to break my fast. I'm ashamed to say I even started becoming a bit petulant and complaining that there was nothing worth eating at all, which was patently not true. But then I realised that I was being a typical mutterer - just like my testy visitors in Holland who couldn't have their cereal.

And why? Because breakfast is…I know, I've said it already, but yes, it's the meal not to be messed with, and I wasn't getting what I wanted, or what I liked. Sound familiar?

So the moral of the story is: when going abroad and it comes to being faced with a less than appealing morning fare…erm…actually, I don't know. Give it up, maybe? Say you're on a diet? Smuggle your own food in? It's a hard one, isn't it?

But what do you think? Was I being pathetic? No, you don't have to answer that, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on this supposedly all important meal of the day. Just don't be too hard on me...