Sunday, October 29, 2017

Winter preparations

It's that time of year when we start preparing for winter on board the Vereeniging, and I greet it with something of a wistful sigh.
A baby coot

It's time to make sure the rowing boat is completely empty and the seats and floorboards are stacked so they don't sit in pools of water and rot. We haven't used it much this year because we had our coot squatters in it for so much of the time.  Here is a link to a post I wrote about them before. They set up quite a production line and Mama Coot continued to produce eggs to sit on throughout the summer, which rather effectively prevented much 'spuddling'; no one wanted to risk Papa Coot's ire and I can't say I blamed them.

Spuddling supreme...pulling a mast through the harbour
It's also time to put the little electric outboard motor away too and make sure the battery is regularly charged and in a dry place. I have to say the motor hasn't been available much either this year as there was a problem with the wiring, but that's been fixed now. Our brilliant neighbour, Bas the man of electrical means, has untangled the mess, so it will at least be ready for next year.

As for all the painting jobs I haven't done, well, there's still the odd warm day when some work might be possible, but I fear they will mostly get left until next year now.

And lastly, it's time to light my oil stove. The weather is turning cold and wet, so I must look around for things to do inside. Ah, now that has promise!

Now the welding is done in my back cabin, I want to put vlakvet (grease) on the hull below the floor and get the rest of the new floor down. To my dismay, when I was removing panels for fire watching when we were on the helling a couple of weeks ago, I found the woodworm had returned (or perhaps they had never really gone away - see this post), so that needs to undergo treatment again. At least it's not the floor this time, but the framework to the cupboards has been attacked...ho hum.

I have sprayed (again) and have another fumigator on order, but I need to work in there, so I'll avoid anymore pesticides until I'm satisfied with the floor. I really don't like that stuff at all. Still, I've read that woodworm aren't as active in the winter; I hope that's true. I've also read that if you cover the worms' bore holes with masking tape in the winter, you can see if they are still busy in the spring as the beetles will break through the holes to get out. I'll be using a lot of masking tape, I think! In addition, they (the experts on the internet) recommend those sticky strip fly traps. Apparently, they are also quite good for getting rid of woodworm beetles; they will be going up in the spring too. I really hope I can get rid of the evil worms this time. So far, in terms of their ability to survive my attempts at obliteration, it's woodworm 2, me 0.

Another thing I want to do is build a partition in my living space between the bed and the lounge area. I have an idea of how I want to do it that will not make it too dark there, but I hope it won't be too difficult. I'll keep that simmering for a bit.

And then the last job is to get the engine going again. It's been a long story, hasn't it? Koos is working on solving the mystery of why it refuses to run now, but if (or what if) what he has in mind still doesn't work, I'll have to call an expert in (and that could be a euronormous job). Keep fingers, toes and thumbs crossed everyone!

Well that's all my Vereeniging jobs, so what about the Hennie H? Perhaps I'll tell you about that next week. Have a good one allemaal!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Contacts for my context

As some of you might already know, I am writing the sequel to African Ways. The period I am covering is 1985 to 1987 just after I left the farm (see picture below) which is the subject of the first book. I've been enjoying the process of thinking back, putting myself there in time and simply recalling the people, places and events that occurred during those two years.

The farm where we lived until the end of 1984

The reason I'm limiting it to 1987 is because that was when I left Richmond in what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal. It was the end of an era for me, but also for the area as a whole. Up until that time, Richmond and its environs had been a place of peace and tranquillity. There had never been any cause for me to worry about safety or security and we'd spent six marvellous years leaving doors unlocked, walking freely in the surrounding veld and bush with snakes being about the only things to be wary of. I can't speak for others but I, and the people I lived among on the farm and in the valley, lived a symbiotic life. In simple terms, we all helped each other. Sure, apartheid was still there, being slowly dismantled, but still in force until the early nineties. But in my small corner of Natal, it had very little impact and relevance.

The beauty of the Drakensberg mountains in Kwa-Zulu

However,  in 1986, I remember the rumbles beginning, and by 1987, they were becoming a loud noise. Political franchise was taking too long. Expectations were not being met. The unrest started and the conflicts between the activists in the political parties grew more sinister and more frequent. Farms and farmers were being attacked, and in the decade that followed, Richmond became notorious for its violence. By the early nineties, when I was already in Johannesburg, I looked on in dismay as the region I'd loved so well descended into a sort of local civil war.

The Nelson Mandela memorial in the Natal Midlands

I left Richmond in March 1987, the principal reason being to go back to the UK and spend some time with my father. When we (the children and I) returned to South Africa, it was to Jo-burg and the highveld, so I never experienced that dreadful wave of violence that beset my beloved Natal. Of course we had our own tensions, dramas and dangers in Johannesburg, but in some ways, that was to be expected. Hi-jackings, muggings, riots, and road blocks were all par for the big city course. But what happened in Natal and in what used to be a sleepy rural town was horrific.

My memoir, however, will stop before any of that occurred, but what it will cover is a year when I worked for an attorney in the area. He was a good and caring lawyer and he spent a substantial amount of time defending poor black people. He also had a number of high ranking clients in black organisations, including members of the ANC. Since he was so well known, I knew that even if I changed his name, anyone who'd lived there would know who I was talking about, so I set about seeing if I could find out if he was a) still alive and b) still living in Natal. If so, I wanted to make contact to ask his permission to use his real name in my memoir.

Luckily for me, my daughter is a super sleuth and she found him. I won't go into how or where, but suffice to say I have made contact, he has read the relevant chapters and has approved them. He has given me permission to use his name too. This on its own has buoyed me up no end. But what has also been deeply moving are the stories he has told me now about some of the unnerving and frightening events he and his staff survived during the time following my departure.

So what is my point in all this? Firstly, the obvious one is that I can be very thankful I left when I did. Who knows how hard it would have been to bring up two children in that environment? Secondly, being in touch with him has given me back a sense of reality about my life there. My memories are of a time before I ever saw the Netherlands, and even before my life in Johannesburg. So much has changed for me since 1987, the life I had in Natal was beginning to assume a kind of dream like quality. But this contact has breathed life back into all of it; my former boss has confirmed its reality by writing back and commenting about some of what I mention in my book: my colleagues in his firm, some of the events I describe, and the names I've forgotten. It's quite an amazing feeling and has given me new inspiration to keep at it and finish the memoir...I have of course promised him a copy of the whole book when it's finished; given that he too is not a young man anymore, I feel I'd better get on with it. Don't you agree?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Back in my berth again

Well that was a week and a half. As I mentioned in my last post, the man with the hammer came on Tuesday and showed almost unhealthy enthusiasm for finding fault with my 120 year old bottom. Well, find it he did: one thin area in front of the propellor through which he made a small hole, and a one and a half metre strip just above where some of the plates are riveted together. I shouldn't complain though. He was just doing his job and probably saved me a heap of trouble later on. But as I also said last time, I hadn't booked anyone to do the welding for me.

Tim's patch
True to his word, though, our lovely neighbour, Tim, came and welded a small emergency patch over the hole just before he set off on his own journey north to fetch a mast for his ship. We watched him leaving and I don't think I've ever seen his smile so wide; it was the first time he'd been away on his beautiful barge so it was quite something to see it moving.

A smiling Tim setting off on his own barge

That same morning, however, another wonderful neighbour, who is actually retired, came to offer his services. He was, bless him, concerned I wouldn't get another chance as the yard might be closing for good next year, so as a special favour, he collected up some odd pieces of steel and knitted them together to patch the thinning skin of my ageing Vereeniging.

The strip above the plate joints

It took three days of hard work, and three days when I had to spend much of my time crouched in the back cabin with the floor up and the cupboards dismantled watching for possible fires. My only company was a washing up liquid bottle full of water ready to squirt on any flames and a bunch of damp cloths to wrap over the old wooden framework of the cupboards, some of which were unnervingly close to the iron plates being welded. Rather wet companions, don't you think?

My properly patched up behind before painting

My only entertainment was posting cryptic messages on Twitter, but it did occur to me I could write the experience into a book about tips and tricks for restoring an old Dutch barge. The inimitable Roger Distill sowed the seeds with his own book 'Hints and Tips for Life with Your Feet Under Water (see the link here) as he'd already suggested I should do one for living on European waters.

Once the welding was over, it was down to painting again, so back came the rollers and black tar substitute. Koos and I rolled and brushed for all we were were worth until yesterday morning when the week was over and we slid back into the water again. After a quick check to make sure there were no nasty surprises after the welding and bashing, one of our other special neighbours towed us back to my berth. Next projects? Getting the engine going...again, sorting out the rust under the rubbing rail...again, and re-building the back cabin...again.

What was that they say here in the Netherlands? Koop een boot, werk je dood! (or loosely translated: buy a boat, work yourself to death)

Have a good week allemaal!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

High and dry again

Just a quickie this time as otherwise I won't get to post at all. It's that time again. The man with the hammer has been and given his verdict on the state of my bottom, or rather, the Vereeniging's. I can't believe that it's already five years since the last time, and unfortunately, those five years have taken their toll. My lovely old lady needs a few sticking plasters on her rear end. Luckily only one of these is urgent as I don't have the time or the welder to do anymore.

I guess I was hoping in vain for a clear bill of health and I took the risk of not calling my welding friends beforehand. There's always an uncertainty with these inspections. You never know what you need until after the hammer has fallen. If you reserve a welder in advance, the chances are that you won't need him; if you don't, then you do (if you get my drift). Well I didn't and I should have, but never mind; my wonderful neighbour, Tim, who helped us last time, is going to save my bacon again. Sadly, he has limited availability, so we are just doing the urgent patch for the moment. I'll definitely reserve him next spring long as he's still around...and there lies another risk! Will he or won't he? When my helpers live on boats too, there's always the possibility that they'll fare away. But I won't worry about that for now! We have enough on our plates for the moment.

Wish us luck, my old girl and me. We have to be finished by Sunday so we need all the dry weather and good painting conditions we can get!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

When in France

I mentioned in the last of my posts about our travels that one of the things I love about being in France is the fact that it is so different from home and what we're used to, but there are moments when this can be challenging. It's not only the Wifi (see last post) that presented us with puzzles though. There are many aspects of life in France that we in Holland and Belgium have to get used to. A lot of the time, we found the differences fascinating, fun or amusing, but sometimes it could be a bit frustrating when we just couldn't seem to get things right. Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love France, I love the north and I love the people. They are kind, helpful and easy to have fun with even if you speak limited French, as I do. But here's a taste of what we experienced, both the good and not so good.

Waiting...we did a lot of this in France


Luckily, as strangers and foreigners, no one tried to kiss us as I believe that can be a minefield. Is it one? Two? Four? Working that one out can end up in some highly embarrassing nose bumps. And for safety's sake, I address everyone as 'vous' and don't take the risk of 'tu'ing them. Not ever. However, one custom we encountered that was new to me is the shaking-hands-with-everyone-in-the shop, restaurant, and café. The first time this happened, we were in a small bar in Harmes on the Canal de Lens. Koos and I had stopped in for a cup of coffee. There were a couple of customers there when we arrived who greeted us without any apparent demur, and we sat down with our cups of espresso. But then the café started to fill up. And with every new customer that came in, our hands and those of everyone else in the place were shaken briskly with an accompanying 'bonjour'. It took me by surprise at first and it was a moment before I realised the man (for so it was) wasn't trying anything more sinister than a greeting. Well, I wasn't expecting it, you see, so my instincts drew their own conclusions.

One odd thing about it is that it seems it's not done for the greeter to look the greetee in the eye when clasping hands. I noticed that each of the new arrivals approached us, reached out and then suddenly seemed to see a fly on the table, or the wall, or somewhere. It was slightly disconcerting, I must say, as I never saw the fly and only twigged after about the third shake. Apart from that, I found it a charming custom and only hoped the coffee drinkers who were already there when we walked in were not offended that we didn't rush to clasp them in a friendly grasp. When the same thing happened on a later occasion, we were with Koos' son and daughter-in-law, who were also delighted by it. We of course were old hands (sorry) by then.

Closing time

Now we know that lunchtime in France is sacrosanct. From 12:00 to 14:00 everything shuts except the big supermarkets (and even some of them do too). It's time to eat and the French believe in allowing proper time for the digestive juices to gently process what has just been tasted and savoured. Businesses, offices, hardware stores etc, they all close for these two hours and you just have to get used to it. I love it. I think it is such a civilised idea and applaud the French for giving such honour to lunch. I also noticed that lunch is 'the' meal of the day and it quite often happens that restaurants are only open during the lunch time hours.

Other closing times

Right, we all know about the lunchtime thing, but what is not clear is when other shops and businesses open. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking some places are never open. The bakery is fine first thing. That's a given and they are nearly always open early in the morning until at least about 10:00, but after that, it can be anyone's guess. They might open in the afternoons for a time as well, but not always, so if you've been counting on breaking your baguette with your evening meal, just be aware you might end up with supermarket fare (good rhyming there, huh?). Other shops, though, seem to open and close at will, and even when they say they are open, they quite often aren't.

Then there's the dreaded Mondays. In some towns, like Courcelles near Lens (for instance), the shops don't open on Mondays at all, but you can never be sure (if you don't have internet that is), where or how this will apply. Example: in Aire sur la Lys, the tobacconists were all closed on Mondays as well as most of the town shops. The out of town shopping mall was open but there was no tobacconist there and in France, you can only buy cigarettes from a tabac. If you live with a smoker (as I do), this can be a weighty matter (or a burning issue?) Actually, he became quite philosophical about it in the end because very few shops are open on Sundays either, and thinking about ciggie supplies three days ahead was too much of a challenge.

A restaurant that was only open at lunchtime - for Jo public
anyway. In the evening, they said they catered only for groups
but we think we might have been a bit scruffy for them too.

As I've mentioned, not all restaurants are open in the evenings. This wasn't usually a problem for us as we tend to cook on board and we're not great eater-outers. On the few occasions we did want to splurge, though, we couldn't find anywhere open. In Pont L'Evêque, for example, of the two restaurants, one was closed for a July holiday announcing proudly it would be open in August (but whether in the evenings or not, we couldn't tell)) and the other, a brasserie and bar, shut at five o'clock. This was in high holiday season, which you could say surprised us...given that the north of France is not doing all that well economically.

Added to that were the locks. On the whole, locks are self-service on the canals we used and are operated by means of a télécommande, or remote control, but there are even places when you cannot use these at lunchtime or after six o'clock. And they're supposed to be automated? I know, I know. It sounds bonkers. But there is a logic to this all the same. Just think; if anything goes wrong with the lock, you need to call someone and yes, you've guessed it - they don't work at lunchtime or after hours, so they simply switch them off. The manually operated locks followed the same pattern, but lunchtime is even longer because it takes the lock assistants about twenty minutes to drive from the lock to wherever it was they're going to eat and vice versa. Thus we had to calculate. Waiting time = lunch hour + 2 x 20 mins. It's France after all (says she with a Gallic shrug).

A manually operated lock on La Lys. We had to wait the 'extra'
long lunch hour for this one.


To finish this post on an up note (because as I've said, I love France and all things French), I just adore French supermarkets because they are so...well...French! They cater totally to the French way of life and that means home-produced, so don't even think about trying to buy South African wine or anything other than good French made food. It is either not available or tucked into places that you won't see unless you hunt for it. Even the Dutch cheese they probably sell for their Flemish neighbours is often made in France. As for buying such gastronomic unthinkables as peanut butter, forget it. I love the whole focus on what the French eat, drink and consume, and above all, I love the fact you can buy almost anything in one of the big supermarkets, even hardware stuff we needed for the boat.

I don't have a photo of a supermarket, so here's Douai instead
where we really enjoyed the E. Leclerc hypermarché

One of the wonderful aspects of visiting different countries is experiencing the different customs, and I am hugely grateful that living where I do, I can reach so many so easily, but for me, France is the most different of those within reach and I will never tire of going there. It's like a beautiful view; there's always something new to see and enjoy.

Now of course I'm wondering...what is the culture you've most enjoyed experiencing in your own travels?

Have a great week, allemaal.