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