Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Nevereverlands

I've been reading a book this last week called Dutched Up: Rocking the Clogs Expat Style, and I've been enjoying it very much. It consists of a collection of articles and stories written by about 25 expat bloggers living in the Netherlands, and all the articles are about dealing with the Dutch culture as they have found it. Some of the articles are pretty critical and a few have almost had me up in arms in defence of my adoptive country; others are philosophical and others openly positive. But they are all valid because they are all based on real experience, and I've found them quite fascinating. But it got me thinking. What is it that I like about living in this rather special country where honesty is valued above diplomacy and where you doe maar gewoon; dan doe je al gek genoeg (just act normal; that's already crazy enough).

I've had my own bewilderment over Dutch culture over the years. However, I'm now so used to living here that I'm almost suspicious when I go back to the UK and South Africa and encounter what sounds remarkably like double-speak to me. It really does! I know it isn't and I haven't given up my English indirectness myself, but I've just got used to not expecting it from others. I love my Dutch friends and have a lot of fun with them; we laugh about my tentative requests and diplomatic denials that leave more room for negotiation than I ever intended. "What are you really trying to say, Val?" I've been asked more than a few times. "Why don't you just say what you mean without all this polite decoration?" "But I can't." I say, laughing. "It just won't come out." That said, I'm a lot better than I used to be and I definitely don't flinch anymore when a chance remark of laser-like directness catches me in the jugular or a response made with the bluntness of a sledgehammer knocks me off balance. I am used to it; I no longer take offence or creep off and lick my wounds because I know this is simply Dutch honesty and they genuinely do not intend hurt or harm.

So again, what are the pros and cons of living here? There are of course things I don't like: the weather for one, but then I don't think I'd like that anywhere much in Europe. South Africa has, for me, the perfect climate, and I hate the rain, wind and cold. I don't like the bureaucracy much either; it's a pain, it's frustrating and mind-numbing,  the Blasted Dienst  (Belastingdienst a.k.a. the Tax office) being the worst, but I don't think it's much more awful here than in the UK and probably not as bad as it is in France from what I've heard. Added to that, I certainly don't much care for the do it yourself attitude to healthcare here. These days, I have to have something really wrong before I'll venture to the doctor where I mostly get asked what I know about my own condition. There are other things too but all that aside, let's look at the good things, and they are plenty.

Dutch Skies are amazing

I love the Dutch landscape. Yes, I love hills too and miss the mountains, but here you can see forever and really stretch your eyes; the sky is as much part of the scenery as the land and the skies here are stunning even when it's raining. I love the trees along the dykes and the waving reed banks along the sloten (drainage ditches) and canals. I love the water everywhere; I really love that! The boats, barges, quaint bridges and huge commercial waterways alike are my soul food. The fact that river and canal traffic seems to take priority over road traffic seems totally right to me, and I never mind waiting even up to twenty minutes for a bridge to open and close for the boats and barges to pass through. If I'm late for work, well so be it. Everyone gets caught by it sometimes. Oh and did I mention I love the boats? More than almost anything?

Boats , bridges and sky in this one

What else then? Well, I am still fascinated by the biking culture. Being a late starter on two wheels (I only got my first bike ever at the age of 36), I am riveted by the skill of Dutch cyclists who seem to be able to perform impossible deeds on a bike. My favourite sight is that of young mothers cycling with a child on the front and one on the back (and maybe even leading a dog as well) weaving their way through the traffic as if it's the most natural thing in the world. But I've seen people carrying and doing incredible things on their bikes. It's as if when they're born, they whizz out of the chute on tiny bikes and never look back. Granted it's pretty safe here because of the huge network of cycle lanes that criss-cross the country, and of course it's flat, which helps tremendously. About the only hills within miles of Rotterdam are the bridges over the rivers.

Dutch bikes in Amsterdam

The skating culture is another thing. Phenomenal! As soon as there's enough natural ice to bear their weight, the Dutch rush to don their skates and head out to play. It just makes me smile. From tiny tots to grannies and grandpas, they're all out there. There's much less fuss about whether or not the ice is thick enough because a lot of the time even a big puddle will do and no one's going to drown in that. Then if the winter isn't cold enough for natural ice, they make their own by freezing over random pieces of ground, just so people can skate in the winter.

Dutch families skating on natural ice

The Dutch attitude to dogs is also something I appreciate immensely. They accept that dogs are part of the family and so you can take your pet pooch anywhere on public transport while many hotels accepts dogs and there are even restaurants where the family furry is allowed, water bowl and biscuits provided. We won't mention the pooh on the pavements though...

Lastly (for now, and also because I'm not writing a book here), I love Rotterdam. It's my city and although I get tired of the noise in the Oude Haven at times, it's a special and unique place to live. The city itself is alive and vibrant and constantly changing. It's quite a joke that anyone coming to Rotterdam might ask "What's that building over there?" and the Rotterdammer will say "I don't know; it wasn't there last week." I love walking through the market early in the morning, across the square behind the church and along the back alleys into the Meent, one of the busy shopping streets. When the city is waking up and the caf├ęs and bars are opening, there is a special atmosphere of fresh expectancy. Oh and yes, I love the river (as you've probably guessed). It is the lifeblood of the city. If the Netherlands were a body, Rotterdam would be its heart and the river its main artery. Wonderful.

Again, there are other things, but I won't go on - not today, anyway. But all things being equal, I think you might say that when you balance them up, I'm pretty much okay with living here, don't you? The Netherlands has been good to me, this stray sort of South African English woman.

So to finish, here's a question for all of you...what is it you love about your home? Answers please in the comment box below and make them as long as you like...

Saturday, May 21, 2016

My sneaky floor eaters

A few months ago, I was ferreting around in my little back cabin scraping up the rust of ages while wonder welder, Tim, was fixing some nice steel plates to the bottom of my barge to pre-empt any possible risk of my stepping through the hull and consigning myself and my home to a watery underworld.

However, what I didn't realise until I started this enterprise was that it wasn't the steel that was in danger of disintegrating; it was the wooden floor on which I was kneeling.

Unbeknown to me, a colony of woodworm, whose predilection for chomping their way through exotic woods of great worth and density (their version of caviar and rump steak) is well documented, had found their way into the hardwood floor of my cabin and had been merrily demolishing it. I say unbeknown, because the floor was covered with carpet, so the little varmints - or should I say 'wormints' - had been having an ongoing feast worthy of a Roman orgy without being detected. Until I put my foot through a certain patch of it, that is.

Well, I didn't really put my foot through it; there was the carpet to save me, of course. But I heard the awful crunching and splintering and realised that it was a lot worse than I'd thought. I'd seen a few little hillocks of sawdust on the steel of the hull and had treated the parts that I could see with cuprinol, but until I ripped up the carpet, I had no idea how far they had gone.

It was amazing. If you've ever seen a honeycomb that's what my floor resembled in this one particular area. Here's a photo of the plank I cut out.

Honeycomb wood

Rather dark, but the offending area

So now comes the tough part. Do I rip the whole floor out? Or do I hope that my now extensive anti woodworm treatment has done the trick of banishing them to worm Hades? Can I just replace the plank that was the object of their extreme attention? My idea is that if I then varnish the floor thoroughly, it might put them off returning. Or am I clutching at straws? 

Well, in the end, I'll have to do what I can afford to do, both time and money-wise.

So maybe it will end up being a compromise (sorry). 

Whatever the case, it's taught me an important lesson. Never cover unvarnished wood without making it easy to check it. Or rather, just never cover an unvarnished floor. Simple isn't it? 

I wish it hadn't taken me fifteen years to learn that lesson as the wormints have had a good many of those to chew their way through numerous planks and I still don't know the real extent of their burrowings. But (and I say this with fingers, toes and thumbs crossed), the rest of the floor feels pretty strong, and since no one but me goes into the back cabin, I'll probably take the chance. Well you would if you were me too...

That said, I now have another 'what if' scenario to add to my well stoked syndrome. But then I'll always find something to worry about, so it might as well be something worthwhile, and I think on this occasion it is. For the time being, the score is still woodworm 1, me 0. I think I'd like to at least make it a draw!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Our homegrown writing festival

This is just a quickie (really!) as a kind of thank you from me to the lovely writers, audience and ABC staff who made our own homegrown English Writing Festival such a success this last Saturday. It was an event that had taken several months from germination and nurture to fruition, but when it happened it was an inspiring afternoon from which I hope everyone left feeling it was worth their while.

Here's what I learnt from each of the other writers who spoke:
Jennifer Harvey : Flash Fiction
Jennifer Harvey, a prize winning writer who stems from Scotland, but writes and edits for an online story writers website, taught me that for a powerful and evocative piece of Flash Fiction (anything under 1000 words), the writer has to make careful choices about what information to leave out - in other words, how much of 'less' is 'more'.

Floris Kleijne: Short Stories
Floris Kleijne, who is Dutch, but writes in English for which he has won awards, taught me about not censoring my 'mental flatulence' (he did!). His message, delivered with flair and great humour, was that we should let our creativity bubble rise up and flow out unchecked. He gets his inspiration from being a participant in theatre sports and improv acting where the participants must accept any idea offered or block the story. You can always edit out the rubbish (stench) afterwards. Nice, hey?

Marinca Kaldeway: Poetry

Marinca, who'd just arrived back from a trip to the land of poets, Ireland, showed me that poetry doesn't have to be a lonely pursuit as online publishing has given her a feeling of community she never had before. She told us that her inspiration for her prose poetry comes from her own sense of longing, so it is very centred on self, rather than flash fiction short stories which are often not.

Olga Mecking: Blogging
Olga Mecking comes from Poland, is married to a German and lives in the Netherlands. She started blogging as a means of finding a community to belong to, and she reinforced this notion for me too, for as a blogger myself, I've found a great community in my blogging sphere as well. As a stranger in a strange land, it can be a marvellous way of making contacts and building a social circle on both the web and in real life.

Me on writing memoirs
As for me, what did I learn from my own talk? Well, for one thing, I should never bother to write a script because I never keep to it and I lose the plot all too easily. Ahem. No points to Val for structure and organisation. In my own defense though, I am a teacher used to working without script and just a basic plan, so I am more at ease in that mode. I have learnt that I won't write out my talks again...

But I did write a script and writing it helped me realise why I love writing memoirs. I started after being inspired by Peter Mayle's Year in Provence, and it was his stories about the people he lived among in France that appealed to me. For me, then, memoirs give me the outlet for my observations on the life, people and wonderful quirks of the world in which I live. I thought I'd written my last memoir, but now, I've learnt that I can just go on doing so as long as I have the will and curiosity for life to keep fuelling them.

As I said, it was an inspiring event and as the Dutch say, a very leerzaam or learnsome one too.

PS, thank you too to Jo (for the lovely photos), Mo (for the great questions) and to Ko(os) for being there for me (always), driving me there, paying the exorbitant parking bill, and helping me carry all the stuff around.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Must I dust?

This last week, Rotterdam has been as dusty as a mid-west cattle town and without the excuse of any four footed bovines (note I did say four-footed). Every day I've come home to my barge to find it cloaked in a fine yellow layer as if has been sprayed with even handed care over every surface. Every day, I have dutifully washed it down with my long hose attached to the dompelpomp that I lower into the now dust and seed-covered harbour. For it's that time too; the one when all the seed pods fly off the trees and play in the dust devils, chivying each other up the street before landing on the surface of the water. Washing it all off makes no difference, though; not to the dust and seed pods, which simply settle again overnight; but also not to the spiders, whose webs I cannot avoid spraying when I'm on a mission against the demon dust.

Seed pods in the harbour. They form a huge island
and it drifts from one side to the other

Talking of spiders, have you ever noticed that their webs are almost unbelievably strong? You can point a high pressure jet of water at them and they won't budge. It's amazing.

All boat dwellers suffer from invasions of arachnids every year and if the boat has much wood on it, it's even worse. I have to say it just goes with the boating territory. But it wouldn't be so bad if they didn't spin quite so many webs in quite such inconvenient places. Some mornings I get up and have to fight my way through their overnight production to reach my loo.

And that's another thing; spiders are unbelievably industrious, aren't they? Outside, they spin webs between my barge and the one moored next to me (how they do that without falling into the water is beyond me - they must have invisible trapeze swings), over the steering wheel and between the engine room and the back cabin (roef). And they don't just do this once a week; they do it every single day. No matter how often you clear them away, they're busy rebuilding their BWW (Boat Wide Web) before you've even put the broom back inside.

My problem is that I grew up with a full quota of my mother's maxims, one of which was 'if you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.' Ho hum. This presents me with a daily dilemma and I've probably consigned myself to a life of toil and destitution as I cannot move across my boat, inside or out, without destroying some hard working spider's home. I remain alive, but I fear the thriving bit will escape me.

But going back to the dust, I've heard varying reports about its provenance: it's rape seed pollen from Germany, it's just pollen in the air, or it's a Sahara sand cloud. I honestly don't know and can't say, but what I do know is there's more of it than ever before - like everything else these days. A friend of mine said we are just having more weather and I agree. But why is that? There are plenty who talk about climate change, but why should that also mean we get more pollen, more dust and just more of everything else? If it means we'll have more bees, butterflies and birds, I won't mind, but if we get more mozzies, spiders and bugs, I'll be having very stern words with the Boss...

Never mind, though. For now, I shall just keep hosing down my barge with dusty water from the dusty harbour and wait for the next extreme something from somewhere exotic to come our way.

I must admit that for once, I wouldn't mind if it was a bit of extremely clean rain!

Saturday, May 07, 2016

First ventures of the year or going with the flow

This spring has been marked not by its beauty, or its abundance, but by its cold. I honestly cannot believe how cold it's been in the last weeks. The trees, blossom and wild flowers are all late with a capital L, and some of our trees and hedgerows have been badly damaged by an uncalled for, severe frost. So it's not just me being sensitive.

Typically Dutch Deventer
On April the 25th and 26th, I was in Deventer, a beautiful, typically Dutch town to the north east of Amsterdam. I was there for work for two days and stayed at a B&B where I've been before. But boy, was I miserable! It was so cold and wet, I could hardly bear to be outside and even went without an evening meal because it was just too frigid to leave my room. The rest of the week up to April the 30th was also just plain horrible. I felt so sorry for my stepson and his girlfriend who'd come over for their first holiday in years. We had our national Kings day holiday (the Dutch king's birthday) on the 27th accompanied by pouring rain, bitter winds and hail showers. 

My hands were so cold, my phone slipped when taking
this photo, but I quite like it all skew
 But then May the 1st arrived and with it, overnight, the spring we'd been waiting for. The sun came out and hasn't disappeared since. The first few days were chilly, but since the middle of this last week, it's been glorious; in fact so lovely that on Thursday, another holiday (this time Ascension Day and Liberation Day all in one), I cajoled Koos into coming with me for our first spuddle round the habour of 2016.

Just to explain, the week before I'd been trying to empty my rowing boat of rainwater before it sunk, and in my efforts not to disturb some nesting coots, I lost one of my oars. I was at first resigned to spending some money to replace it, but then I found a nifty pair at a local store for just €3,50. Well of course, I had to test them, didn't I?

A nifty pair of oars for a bargain price

So on Thursday, after cleaning down my barge, I set to work to spruce up the little rowing boat. It was a right mess, it really was. Full of the muddy leavings from a winter of storms and the remains of the nest the coots had since abandoned, it took me several hours to scoop everything out and clean up. But eventually, it was done and after some negotiating and bargaining with my other half (who was more inclined to an afternoon snooze), I got him to join me and test drive the new oars - a 'proeftocht' as they call it in Dutch.

Natty boots and bright could we go wrong?

 I have to say the oars performed magnificently (dare I say it? oarsomely!). With their bright yellow blades and black handles, they put my poor faded little green boat to shame. Nevertheless, nothing daunted, we tore out of the harbour, assisted ably by the rapid upstream current. The oars sliced through the water, and our neighbours smiled at our speedy passage. Perhaps they guessed what we hadn't yet...
Lovely barges basking in the breeze

Taking a rest before taking on the current on again
Because... then we had to turn round and come back again. Right. The current was still flowing fast upstream and we needed to row against it to get back to the harbour. Hmm. At first we didn't move at all despite sterling efforts and much helpful grunting from both of us. Then, we actually started going backwards! I couldn't believe it at first. I mean, the shame of it! So we gave up the grunting and just let it... and ourselves...flow backwards. Talk about the path of least resistance!

Ploughing back downstream on the turning tide
A good spot for another rest
Eventually, the tide started to turn and we put our shoulders to the little yellow oars and started to make some progress. It still wasn't easy, but we made some headway and after a few halts for a rest, we reached the bridge that marks the entrance to our harbour and quite literally hauled ourselves through. The water was high so it meant ducking a bit, but once round the corner, we made it back to base without too much pain and suffering. The oars held out, we'd had...errr... a fantastic spuddle (really!) and as always, it was wonderful to potter about on the water...a lovely small adventure. But then these days, I think they are the best kind, don't you?

Now, we are down in Zeeland again and it's time to commune with nature....

Our neighbourly ovine friends

Have a lovely Sunday everyone!