Wednesday, December 30, 2020

A look back on my 2020 in words and pictures

Oh well, I didn't manage that other post before Christmas, but at least this one is before the new year...just! So before I forget completely, I hope you've all had the best Christmas possible in the circumstances and that 2021 will bring a much brighter year with a real hope of recovery.

On that note, it's been a tough one, hasn't it? I can only imagine the hardship some people are suffering and I am forever grateful I work in education, which has kept going in spite of the universities and schools closing. As a freelancer, things could have turned out badly for me, but I am fortunate I was able to continue with all my teaching online, and in fact was even swamped with work before the summer break. 

Then in the autumn, during that brief calm before the recent resurgence of the storm, I had a mix of face-to-face and online courses, which also kept me very busy. But for those in the hospitality and entertainment industries, it's been crippling. No work means no income and these are people with mortgages to pay; some are faced with losing their homes, which is devastating for them. My heart goes out to them all as well as those who have lost loved ones or whose health has been damaged by the virus.

Like everyone, though, we've also missed the travel possibilities. Koos has felt this deprivation particularly as he would normally have been away to Poland and Moldova about three times during the year. However, we've been much less restricted within our own country than many in other parts of Europe. Firstly, we managed a holiday in Portugal in January before Mr Corona swept into Europe creating havoc for us all. But since then, I haven't ever been prevented from going up and down between my cottage in Zeeland and my Vereeniging in Rotterdam, not even when things were at their worst in April. 

This relative freedom has been a relief given that we have two boats a hundred and fifty kilometres apart and they both need constant vigilance. The Vereeniging is my work base as well, so it was important for me to be able to commute and some of you might remember I did several posts about going to and fro, up and down, there and back, hither and thither...well, you get the idea. At one point I felt that was all I was doing.

But I think that being long-term boat dwellers means we are used to keeping to ourselves more than most people, so self isolation hasn't been much of a problem for us. I drove up to the city, parked my car, cycled to the boat and to work and often didn't meet another soul. I even took my food with me much of the time. On the other hand, I was also able to keep seeing my daughters, albeit it only outside most of the time. We got together while I had my barge on the slipway, for outdoor birthday picnics and dog walks. When that wasn't possible, I sat in my car outside my younger daughter's house and we chatted on the phone while waving to each other through the window.

So in the greater scheme of things, we've been blessed and are very grateful for it. Neither of us has been unwell at all, and haven't had so much as a cold (cross fingers), so we'll keep downing our vitamins and taking our regulation exercise – not so much fun in these icy winds, but needs must. The worst that's hit us recently is Storm Bella, whose untimely visit was decidedly unwelcome immediately after Christmas, but even then, she walloped poor England much more than us. My sister lives in the Bedford area and sent me photos of all the flooding, none of which we had. It must have been miserable for people whose homes were in the path of the rising rivers. Awful, in fact, after the war of attrition the virus has waged on us.

So, I really haven't got anything to complain about, have I? It's humbling to look back and see how much we have to be thankful for after this strange 'year of the pandemic'. On that note, then, I'll count my blessings, thank my lucky stars and wish all of you a happy New Year's Eve with a wish for better things to come during 2021. 

Here are a few photos of the sunnier moments our 2020 year in the order of the months that I took them.




A zoom meeting with my grandpup
before any kind of get together was possible



May (slipway time in Rotterdam)

Going down the slipway

My geraniums in June

June at the local gliding airstrip





November, the Hennie Ha's first trip out



Have a good one allemaal. Here's Koos in his Christmas outfit and facemask on: the face of 2020 past. See you all next year!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The artistic skipper

Some readers of this blog will already know that Koos, my partner, is the son of a commercial barge skipper and that it was his childhood on the waterways that inspired me to write my novel, The Skipper's Child, a story about a similar barge family. Now, although the influence his barge background had on my book was intentional, what I didn't know when I wrote it was that his father was artistic, a talent he must have passed to his son. After all, Koos's special photographic view on the world, especially that of old industry in eastern Europe has more than a few admirers. 

Anyway, going back to father Fernhout, it's not the usual idea one has of a skipper, is it? Well, not mine, anyway. I'd never have envisaged a barge owner sitting on deck with a sketchpad and pencil drawing the views around him, or making studies of birds and people. I don't know why, but it just doesn't fit my general image of the working barge world. As a result, you can imagine it came as a huge surprise to me when at one family birthday party, Koos's sister (who is ten years his senior) produced two sketchbooks full of charming pencil and charcoal drawings all done by their father.

I think even Koos had forgotten about them, but when going through the books, he realised some of the more elementary drawings were probably his own early artistic explorations. Hendricus Fernhout usually signed his drawings with distinctive initials and the date, but these were lacking on some of the pictures, suggesting he was only too ready to encourage his son.

Below are some of my favourites of the drawings and I hope you'll agree they are really lovely.

Maastricht in charcoal

The title here is 'filosoof' (philosopher) showing
the gentle humour that was characteristic of Hendricus

Rotterdam's Koningshavenbrug De Hef

The family's barge

Ijssel brug, Kampen

In some ways I wish I'd known about his artistic leanings when I wrote The Skipper's Child. It would have given my 'papa,' Hendrik Kornet, another dimension. But then it's also added to my inspiration for the next novel I want to write: a story that will be built around a young barge skipper during the war. I rather like the idea of a somewhat dreamy, idealistic and arty bargee, don't you? So maybe it's not such a bad thing I was ignorant of this aspect of his personality.

Lastly, I don't really like pushing my books on my blog here, but if anyone does happen to be interested in my novel, there's a link here if you'd like to take a look. It's very much a cat and mouse suspense story, but it's suited to all ages, from ten to...well, let's say plenty! 

Have a lovely weekend allemaal and I'll try and do another post before Christmas and fill it with good Christmas cheer.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Moving experiences

I'm struggling a little at the moment. There's so much to do and yet so little of real note to report that I'm sometimes hesitant to write another blog post when everything seems so kind of 'samey'.

This past month has been a particularly hectic work month and I've had little time to indulge in social interaction of any kind, let alone social media. In the meantime, we're scooting up and down between Zeeland and Rotterdam attending to two boats between my online lessons (in Zeeland) and my face-to-face classes (in Rotterdam and Dordrecht). 

In Rotterdam, the council decided to replace the mooring poles in our harbour with new ones, so several of us had to move from our usual positions. Such upheavals are always inconvenient, but in a way, they also give us a change of scene which can be refreshing. Even having the light coming in from a different angle makes a difference... that's if the sun shines at all. For our part, we had to move the Vereeniging to the other side of the harbour and it was lovely to see her in a different setting.

The only downsides were firstly that the internet connection was almost non-existent and very erratic, and the second was the discovery that the stern gland was leaking, something that happens if you only start the engine and move once in a while. The solution for the first problem hasn't been solved as yet, and as for the leaky gland, Koos has tightened it and I've mopped up all the water that came through, but we'll have to see what happens next week when we move back again. There's always something with boats, especially very elderly ones.

Back in Zeeland again, it's become very cold but yesterday, Koos and I worked on the Hennie H. The cooling system is still a not-quite-resolved issue, but Koos is getting there. As for me, I cut out a section of the interior wooden panelling that was totally rotten as a consequence of a leaking window. I'm happy that I've started on that because it's given me a winter project to occupy me and take my mind of the fact we won't be going to Portugal in January as planned.

Which brings me to the sad fact that due to the current situation with COv (as I call it), the airlines aren't getting the numbers they need to fill the flights. We'd booked to leave from Rotterdam on January the 14th on a flight to Faro. Last week, Transavia wrote and informed me they'd cancelled that flight and offered me an alternative a day earlier from Amsterdam. Well, there were three problems with that: my work commitments, the extra travel time to Amsterdam and the extra night's accommodation in Portugal. And this was just the beginning, I'm sure. When Koos booked to go to Bulgaria in October, they changed his flight three times before he eventually decided it was too much, especially with the quarantine requirements. With that as history, we decided it would be best just to cancel and postpone the trip until later. Sun therapy will have to find another form this year, but hopefully we can go a bit later when the situation has settled. 

What else is there? Well, as they say, little things please little minds. At our crumbly cottage we have a new neighbour. The Polish family who moved in earlier in the year moved out again at the end of August, finally realising that five people in a one person cottage was really beyond reasonable squeezing point. The little house remained empty for a few months, but has recently been let to a single woman. All well and good and much more suited to the size of the house... at least, that's what we thought anyway.

We don't know her yet at all, so this is absolutely no reflection on her character or person but we've been totally fascinated by the amount of stuff she has moved into this tiny house. It reminds me of Mary Poppins' handbag, except it's all been going in, not coming out. Firstly, there were numerous small van loads of boxes and bags, and I mean numerous – dozens, in fact; our other neighbour has been helping her (still is) and for a time he was beginning to bear a strong resemblance to an ant as he scurried to and fro. Then followed a big van with furniture and still more small van loads; the ant was back with friends. Well, we thought it would end there, but for the past couple of weekends, more and more stuff has arrived in a seemingly endless stream and even today when she finally moved in, there were still bags and boxes being carried in. Just as a joke, Koos threatened to go and ask her when her real furniture was going to arrive.

It's hard to fathom where it's all going to go and I hope that she can fit herself in between her mountains of belongings. And how did they get everything up the stairs, which are so narrow and steep, our previous neighbour didn’t even use the bedroom? I’m still playing with that puzzle. Luckily, the new tenant is tall and slim, so she should be able to slip between the gaps easily enough, but it's given us some good entertainment value. But what is it about this tiny house that attracts people to cram it full to the gunwales? We'll have to wait and see, but for now, her move has made all of ours look modest in the extreme.

Have a good week allemaal. Here are some photos of yesterday's brief visit by the sun during our afternoon walk.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Flamingos and flowers

Well, here it is. Another two weeks since I last posted a blog. The speed at which the time seems to fly past is really quite phenomenal. Admittedly, work is taking up much of my time at the moment. I wish I could say I'd been somewhere interesting, or even cycled somewhere new. But my pedalling activities have ground to a slushy halt because of the rain and wind we've been having since last weekend. I'm not a stoic when it comes to two wheels – not anymore, although time was when I'd cycle through rain, wind and snow. Even I find that hard to believe now, but it's true. 

The only things I can really report on are somewhat random. One thing I forgot (I think) to mention last time was that one of my daughters had her birthday at the end of October. However, because it was just after increased restrictions came in and we couldn't have an indoor party, we decided to have a picnic. Just my two girls and me. It was actually great. Despite being windy and blustery, the three of us met at a harbour in Zeeland close to a spot where flamingos gather. Yes, I did say flamingos, and no, they aren't put there for show. They come to Battenoord Haven on the Grevelingenmeer every winter from October to April. Isn't that special?

There are three types of flamingos that gather near the harbour: European, Caribbean and Chilean flamingos, but so far I haven't found much about why they come from such different parts of the world to spend their winters here. The only explanation I've read is that the marine life in this enclosed 'sea' must be very much to their taste. Apparently they haven't always been there, though. Earlier they spent their winters in other Zeeland locations but it seems Battenoord on the Grevelingenmeer has been their winter home for several years now. Here's a post about them. It's in Dutch but can be translated quite effectively by Google Translate.

Photo thanks to VVV Zeeland

When we walked along the dike from the harbour, we could see the flock standing in the water, but they were quite far out so it was more like a pink blur – well, it is if you have my dodgy sight. Even so, it was quite a thrill to be able to catch sight of them. 

A lovely picnic with my girls

And it was a memorable and special way to celebrate a birthday. The food was laid on largely by my other daughter, who loves baking as the goodies on the table demonstrate. She'd also bought these very pretty tea cups and saucers from a charity shop so we could drink our thermos coffee in style. It was all really lovely, and of course the dogs came too.

Despite the wind and weathering we've been suffering with lately, it's been quite mild so my geraniums at the crumbly cottage are still in fine fettle and flowering enthusiastically. To add to their efforts at providing us with good cheer, the little chrysanthemums that we had on the roof of the Hennie H in 2017 are still going strong and have come into flower for the third year running. They give a wonderful burst of colour before everything dies off for the winter. Apologies for the fuzzy photo (a bit like my sight), but you can get a Val's eye view of what I mean below.

Geraniums and Chrysanthemums abound

Last but not least (I hope), I managed to roll a layer of green paint on the Hennie H's hull before the rain started to fall in earnest. This is about as pretty as she'll get this year, and again, distance helps. Don't look too closely, in other words, but we'll still be working on her as soon as the weather permits.

Clean and green again

I'm sure there are other things I should be adding to this post, but I think I'd best stop here and leave you with a couple of photos I snapped of the one sunny day we've had this past week or so. It gave us the chance to get out for a walk along the estuary...a wonderful opportunity to stretch our eyes.

 Have a good week allemaal. Stay well and keep taking those vitamins!

Saturday, October 31, 2020

An autumn cruise

We finally did it! We had our first faring of the year in the Hennie H. Admittedly, it was only the four kilometres from our mooring to the shipyard at Zelzate last Sunday for a lift out, but it's the furthest we've been on our little barge since October 2018, so we're pretty elated about it.

The purpose of the lift out was to clean the two-year growth of weed and gunk off the water line and cooling system in the hopes the engine wouldn't overheat when under full power (as it did during testing). 

We have a thing called a Blokland cooler, which is a bundle of copper pipes that sits in an open cavity in the hull with a protective grid over it. If you're not interested in technical blurb, feel free to skip this bit. But for those who'd like to know, water from the engine circulates through the bundle and is cooled by the canal (or river) water, before going back into the engine, supposedly at a much lower temperature. Unfortunately, ours doesn't seem to be very effective, so we thought it might have become overgrown with weed; we'd had some fairly spectacular growth on the waterline this year which made that a distinct possibility.

Once out of the water, though, it was not nearly as weed encrusted as we'd thought, or hoped. Koos cleaned it all with a high-pressure hose as well as clearing such dirt as there was from inside the pipes. Meanwhile, I was working in Rotterdam for the first part of the week but hot-footed it back on Wednesday evening, so I could finish blacking the hull while Koos reassembled everything. My thanks to our friend, Carole Erdman Grant, for the photos below. She and her husband called in to see Koos while I was away and took these for the record. For some reason, we totally failed to take any at all while we were there.

Blacking: before (L) and After (R)

A dockside view

One of our last tasks was to pump out a large amount of water that suddenly appeared in the engine room. After eliminating all sorts of scarier possibilities (leaking stern gland, hole in engine room hull etc), we concluded it must have come from under the living space floor, which we haven't inspected in a while because it's all screwed down. 

Perhaps years of condensation and a couple of leaky windows have been accumulating beneath our feet, and we've never known it was there. Who knows? However, in the process of raising the dock, there was apparently quite a sharp and sudden tilt which could have made any water lying in the hold rush through to the stern of the boat. We still have to establish this, but it's the only explanation we could and can come up with.

By 2p.m. on Thursday, we were ready to be re-floated, but although we'd intended to return to home base that afternoon, the weather turned nasty and it took far longer to get off the dock than anticipated. 

On that note, I should say the dock was quite an adventure in itself. It isn't the type that's drained; it's actually a hollow, floating steel box which is raised and lowered by means of a pump. When it's raised, water is pumped out of the box, leaving it full of air; then to lower it, the pump is used to refill it with water. The yard has two of these docks; however, their maintenance is always somewhat in arrears, and the small dock we were on previously was apparently too leaky for us to use. This time we were on a bigger one, but it also leaked, and we could hear the air escaping as we worked. I have to confess my 'what if' antenna were on high alert as I went round the hull with my roller.

Anyway, the light was fading when we were finally floating again, so we decided not to take any chances and left our old lady in the neighbouring marina overnight. We'd done the same for two nights when we arrived and found it a lovely safe haven with good security and a very friendly reception. 

It turned out to be a good decision because early Friday morning, it was beautifully quiet on the water and we had a perfect trip back with no problems or hiccups. Much to my relief, there was no new water in the engine room, and we even made better time than on the outward run. In fact, we were back at home base in forty minutes as compared to the whole hour it took us to make the journey to Zelzate last Sunday. 

Yes, an hour for four kilometres is very slow, I agree. There were people walking on the towpath faster than we were faring, but we were so worried the engine might overheat we didn't want any problems. I have to say, though, it's amazing how long you can see the same piece of bank and the same dog walkers when you're moving at a pace that would make the local snails look speedy.

As a result, our return felt like we were racing, even though our top speed was only 8kms per hour. It was still wet and drizzly, but we were grinning like a pair of cheshire cats when we arrived home safe and sound. On reflection, though, Koos is still not too impressed with the cooling, so he'll be working on that further. For my part, I'll be ripping up some flooring to see what's lurking underneath our sofa. 

There's still plenty to do, but the prospects for faring further into France next year are finally looking optimistic. Our dreams are beginning to have the smell of reality about them, which is a wonderful thought to carry us through the winter.

Snuggled up to a pontoon in the Zelzate marina

As for the coming month, I am now back into a busy work period that will continue until Christmas. I hope all of you are keeping well and upbeat – difficult under the present circumstances, I know, but do have a good week allemaal!

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Face masks and stove sagas

Once again, I've postponed writing my blog for no other reason than being busy with life. I don't know why I'm finding it hard to do my post a week as I always used to do, but other things really are getting in the way. There's also the fact I'm busy writing another book, which is consuming much of my writing time, but I've never had trouble doing the two simultaneously before. I shall have to blame the Current Situation, which deserves the capital letters because of the impact it's having on our lives.

Like most of Europe, we are experiencing a resurgence of the virus here in the Netherlands and I believe we have the dubious honour of having the highest infection rate per capita of any country on this continent. What's worse is that Rotterdam is the hardest hit city in the region right now. As a result, we are back into partial lockdown with the main feature being that we are obliged to wear face masks almost everywhere indoors (except at home), and that even means for teaching. I gave my first face masked class last Wednesday, which was interesting to say the least. I don't think I'd appreciated before how much we use facial expressions to convey and receive meaning. I'll now have to develop a whole new technique to improve my non verbal communication and practise eye reading as well!

The essential stove

The other story that's occupied my time is the saga of my stove, which was actually quite amusing. Normally, I travel to Rotterdam alone because I'm teaching. Koos has enough to do on the Hennie Ha without schlepping all the way there and back with me and prefers to stay in the south. But I'm glad he was with me this time when my oil stove, the light of my onboard winter life and that which warms my being (along with my hot water bottle and woolly slippers), refused to work. In the process of fixing it, we started big and ended up tiny, with a needle in fact. 

Convinced that the fuel pipe from the tank was blocked and that diesel bug had developed in the system over the summer, we first emptied and washed out the fuel tank (the big job). We then disconnected all the fuel lines and put the compressor to work (also a big job). 

However, all the fun started when I happened to be standing at the end of the copper pipe indoors when Koos applied the pressure outside. I was shocked to find myself in the path of a huge glob of mucky diesel as it shot out of the pipe. Luckily, most of it flew over my shoulder and splattered on the wall the other side; it just missed heading out through the window. 

Effective? Well, yes, you could say that. We both shudder to think what might have happened if I'd been standing just a little to the side, the consequences of which don't bear thinking of too much. I’m also relieved the window wasn’t open. I’d have had some explaining to do to the river police about the strange oil slick around my barge. The consequences of that don’t bear thinking of either. Anyway, the pipe was thereafter judged to be clean even if the language I uttered wasn't. But it still didn't solve the problem. 

We'd already cleaned out the carburettor, which admittedly had a lot of sludge in it, but that still didn't effect a cure. In the end, we, or rather Koos, found that there is a tiny part inside the carburettor's regulator which had a clogged-up slit in it. My eyesight is so iffy I couldn't even see it. Since I had my cataract ops ten years ago now, I haven’t been able to see anything close up or too far away, so focusing is a bit like zooming in and out until I get to the right distance.

But I digress. Koos could see the tiny slit and this, it seems, is the outlet through which the diesel seeps into the stove and enables me to light it. Because it's so thread thin, it took my finest needle to free it of the dirt, which almost had to be done with a magnifying glass. But then hey presto! All of a sudden everything came right and warmth was restored. 

After all that work, we could have solved it without risking environmental disaster from diesel spillages on deck and globular projectiles from inside, but who knew? I just hope it behaves itself when I return next Tuesday. Watch this space!

Altogether, though it was an interesting exercise and since I have quite a fascination for mechanical things, I actually enjoyed the process taking everything apart with Koos. And of course now I know how it works, I could possibly dismantle the carburettor myself, which feels like a lesson well learned, albeit with fairly limited applications in this electronic age.

The other essential
Furry boots: benefits self-explanatory

Have a great week allemaal! Keep well and out of harm’s way!

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Weather to paint (or not)

And yes, the 'weather' in the title is intentional, although the 'whether' is also implied. I do enjoy a bit of word play

Anyway, after weeks of posting about my yoyo activities, the weather has indeed changed everything and decided to tell me the painting season is over. Since it can never be over as far as I'm concerned, this is mighty inconvenient. I find I'm scrabbling around trying to find parts of both boats that can safely be sanded and treated even when I know it's going to rain, and even when I don't, which happens all too frequently when the forecast is simply wrong.

On the Vereeniging, I've managed to paint all the window frames this last week – from the inside! They're quite deep, so apart from the sill part, it's been easy to sand them down, scrape any developing rusty patches and put both primer and top coat on them, so that felt good. A real one up for me over the rain. On the Hennie H, however, this is a bit tricky as there aren't any opening windows, other than in the roof. I won't explain why that wouldn't work. I have other plans for what we can do there on rainy days, but more of that later.

Windows before being scraped and sanded

Koos has now done several tests of the Hennie H's engine and a few things have shown how crucial it is to take this time and spend several hours just running the beast to see what happens. The first thing he found was that the original rubber joints for the cooling system needed replacing even though they looked good, but this only transpired after more than an hour of having the motor running in gear. All of a sudden and just when he wasn't watching, one of these joints started leaking quite badly (a typical Murphy trick, that). Luckily, I was painting in the vicinity and I saw the steam coming out of the engine bay, so we were able to stop everything without it causing any problems.

A quick search online and Koos ordered two beautiful new joints. I say beautiful because they are. New moulded rubber engine parts are objects worthy of reverence; I love them. They are now fitted and after another long test run of an hour and a half, they are still leak free. But of course other minor issues have cropped up. Warning lights that don't always come on when they should and an idling speed that's too high but quite difficult to reduce because the adjustment screw is in an awkward place. Altogether, though, it's looking and sounding very promising. I very much hope that we'll have a few rain free days so we can do a proper test and take her around the harbour.

In other news, I will be doing my first face-to-face class since March this coming Tuesday, and I'm looking forward to it very much. However, since the Netherlands is now a code red country and the numbers of people testing positive for Covid have escalated, we'll have to see how long that lasts.

On the home front, another first is that we've lit the stove. We always try and wait until 1 October, but we didn't quite make it this year by a day. Wednesday, September the 30th was lighting up day...not too bad. On that subject, I thought I'd be on top of things early this year so I ordered a load of firewood for the crumbly cottage. It comes on a huge pallet, which is neatly stacked inside a framework so you can keep the logs in it until you need them...that is if you can get the pallet onto your property. The service from the supplier was great. I ordered it on Monday and it came on Tuesday morning. 

The snag was that the transport company only had a small trolley and couldn't lift the pallet over the curb so we could put it in our passage. The driver shrugged with a kind of 'not my problem' attitude and drove off, leaving us with our stately pile standing in the road. What to do?

Well, Koos plucked up his courage and went to ask the farmer over the road if he could help us with his forklift. He struck gold there. Our very kind and friendly neighbour not only offered to move the wood but also to put it in his barn so it will keep dry. All we have to do is hop over the road and fetch it as needed. Aren't good neighbours just the best?

And just to give you something to look at, here are a few autumn snaps I took while on a bike ride before the rain came. Can we have this lovely gentle sunshine back please, Mr Weatherman? 

Have a good week allemaal!