Monday, April 27, 2020

Knowing our boundaries, or rather our borders

As many of you know, the crumbly cottage is 'somewhere down south' in the Netherlands. In fact it's within squinting distance of the Belgian border and not all too far from my favourite city of Ghent. Although we can't see its gleaming, beckoning towers from our corner of the country, it's somewhere we're used to going quite regularly. So with the current lockdown and closure of the borders, we miss going into our favourite neighbouring country a lot.

The other day we did a bit of a drive around as a way of extending our horizons beyond the lake at the end of the field on the other side of the garden. Beautiful though it is, it's beginning to feel slightly samey. Anyway, to give the drive a purpose, we decided to inspect all the back roads we know that lead into Belgium. To our surprise, every one of them was barricaded with signs like the one in the photo below. 

How is it then, we wondered, that we see so many obviously Flemish cyclists speeding round our Dutch lanes? The Belgians like cycling in Holland because it's so much safer for two wheelers (or so I was told by some Belgians I met while waiting for a canal bridge to open). Even so, with lockdown closing every cross-border lane, it shouldn't be possible. The answer came when we found another lane with the same set up as the one in the photo, but which had been pulled open, probably by farming vehicles.

The thing is, in these areas it's almost impossible to keep the roads completely closed because they criss-cross the 'grens' (border) several times. The rural communities are obliged to follow these 'borderline' routes simply to get to and from their farms or homes. Add to that, there's the Belgians who live in Dutch villages and who go to work in Ghent and other towns in Flanders. It's all a bit too complicated to enforce complete closure, but they're doing their best. The main roads are policed and non-essential travellers are stopped, which is very odd to see after so many years of freedom of movement.

Anyway, on our short tour we had to turn around and retrace several steps to avoid any transgre(n)ssing (sorry 😏). Eventually, we managed to reach the pretty Dutch village of Philippine, where we unscrambled our brains by walking along this beautiful canal. Formerly a conduit right to the sea for fishing boats and goods too, it's now dammed up with no place to go and no boats to show. Its peaceful tree-lined way soon had us imagining we were back in Belgium again, on the Hennie H, and we reminisced about earlier travels on the Eeklo canal, just a few kilometres away. So near but yet so far.

And right by the canal on a dyke, we encountered this woolly crowd, totally ignoring the social distancing rules and enjoying the afternoon shade together. We tried to talk to them about their flagrant display of civil disobedience, but they just turned their backs on us. We couldn't blame them really.

We are now back in Rotterdam for the great Vereeniging lift out, which is due to happen on Wednesday morning. However, our friend, Murphy, has been at it again, and apparently today is the last fine day we'll have for the next two weeks... the precise two weeks of my hellingbeurt. Tomorrow, it will rain, and go on doing so for the foreseeable future. Well, I suppose the farmers will be happy, and so will the ducks, but I'll let you know how we fare in the good mood stakes. It's not what I was hoping for, I must admit.

Have a good week, allemaal and I'll post some pics of the Vereeniging's makeover as soon as possible.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Springing into summer

What glorious weather we've been having lately. It's actually quite hard to believe we're in the middle of a major global pandemic when all around us the blossom is flourishing and even my last year's geraniums are coming into flower. Summer feels as if it's beckoning enthusiastically. That being said, I have a feeling the farmers will be complaining about lack of water soon. We had a good shower on Saturday and it was cloudy and cool yesterday, but this morning the sun was shining brightly again. Am I complaining? Guess.

Sadly for me, I can't enjoy too much Vitamin D therapy as I'm so very busy with work. I know I've said it before, but it's quite a phenomenon that the current situation has meant I now have more teaching than I know what to do with, if not in the usual way. What's happened is that an online course I've been teaching for years in what is called an asynchronous environment (non-real-time) has suddenly become the flavour of the month. Students who can't attend normal classes or social events are suddenly finding they have time on their hands (no travelling, staying at home and no partying probably equates to several extra hours a day) and are looking around for elective courses to bump up their credits.

And so they've found this course I teach, which normally attracts about ten to fifteen students for each programme (one academic writing and one business writing). Even then, many of them drop out in the first weeks when they find out how much work it involves. However, with the current restrictions meaning they've got more spare hours than they bargained for, these students are flocking to do the courses. Instead of having just a dozen or so participants, my employer has just asked me what's the maximum I can cope with. Oh dear. I don't really need any more work at all and now this. Hey ho.

What's making it even more challenging is that I've got a lift out next week and I'll be busy scraping and painting my bottom between furiously correcting there's an image to conjure. Koos will be with me too, but of course we'll be keeping our distance from everyone else. It will at least be the best and most natural place to wear a face mask.

There's not much I can say about the work itself without boring you all to tears, so I hope I'll have more interesting things to share next time, but what we have managed to do in the meantime is some more work on the Hennie H – well, Koos has, I should say, not we (unless I'm feeling royal). Now the engine's in place, he's closed the deck again with some nifty plates and bolts and is doing a magnificent job of finishing it nicely (pics coming soon). I've been lending my support by drifting round the side decks with a cloth and bucket of soapy water cleaning off the daily dusting of pollen. What else can a girl do when her other half has monopolised her sander and the electricity?

However, I have managed to finish painting the front door of the crumbly cottage and I've renovated my desk, which I'm rather pleased with, so all is not work; I've managed just a bit of play too. Here are some more photos of our diminishing world and some boaty ones to remind you of what I'll be up to next week.

The nostalgic harbour at nearby Sas van Gent

Beautiful floating history

History on a working canal

Moorings aplenty now

The bridge at Sas 

One very shiny green and cream door

The Vereeniging on the helling in December 2018. The future in my past
Have a good week allemaal. Keep your distance, keep well and I'll catch up with you again soon.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Titbits and pictures from the confines of our world

One of the ironies of this global crisis is that our world has suddenly become much smaller. No longer are we travelling to work, or even to go for a walk. Something we often did before was get in the car and drive across the border to a place we could take a walk, but Belgium is out of bounds to us now. Instead, what is happening is that we're rediscovering the very local world around us because that's all we have access to.

In the Netherlands, we aren't as locked down as many of the other European countries. I'm not going to get into the rightness or wrongness of this. There's already more than enough discussion about it and I'm in no position to know. I wonder if anyone is, really, given that it's a situation none of us has ever encountered before. In fact, I've cut down on a lot of the news I read because I just find it too distressing – so many lost, so many under extreme pressure; still, the point remains that we in the Netherlands can still go out and about as long as we keep our distance from others – 1,5 metres to be precise.

Just as a by the way, I was talking to a Chinese student of mine the other day who comes from Wuhan...yes...that place, and he told me they're lifting the lockdown there. When I asked him what he thought of it, he said: "I don't criticise anyone; I just protect myself. That's all we can do. Protect ourselves." What a wise young man. So that's what we're doing here too 'in our own little way' (thank you for that legendary phrase, Gary and Jill), and in our own little corner of the Netherlands.

But anyway, back to our diminishing world, we're very lucky here to have so many gorgeous walks close by and we're really appreciating how beautiful they are. The blossom is making a special effort for us this year, as are the birds whose glorious singing has stopped me in my tracks on more than one occasion. On one walk, I was privileged to listen to a complete concert from a blackbird sitting on the corner of a roof. Its full throated aria was worthy of a La Scala prima donna.

We also have the Hennie H within walking distance, which means we can at least be on board. Koos has resumed work on the engine, and I've started my annual attempt to stay on top of the paintwork. I say attempt because to date, I've never succeeded – not in the twelve years we've had her. Maybe this year will be my chance... (yes, I see you nod, that'll be the day).

The upside of working on board is that we get to chat to neighbours too, and because we've always done so from the decks of our own ships, nothing feels different. The Dutch talk at the tops of their voices as a cultural habit (friendly, noisy exuberance is one of their most likeable characteristics), so it's actually condition normal for them. Last week, Koos asked one of the nearby couples who live on board how they were were managing with social distancing: "I suppose you don't sleep together anymore?" he quipped. The neighbours laughed. "No," said the husband. "We take it in turns to sleep so we can keep a proper distance." Right. Legs and bells came to mind.

Here are a few photos before I start rabbiting on too much.

Video conferencing with my grandpup 

Pretty as a picture along the dyke

Path through the woods

And then along the creek

Blossom bursting forth

Our nature reserve borders a creeek

Reed island

Along the other side of the creek

Looking back

it makes a lovely walk

Village street

The ships still plough their way along the canal

On their was to and from Ghent.

A lovely day to start the clean-up job on the HH

Loads to do, but she still looks bright.

Have a good week allemaal. As always, stay safe and keep well!

Monday, April 06, 2020

Enjoy your enforced break...

Yes, that's what many people said when the university closed down following the government's directives and I was suddenly left as a teacher without a class (see previous blog post). But the crazy reality of the situation is that I've been busier than ever. Any thoughts of indulging in days of redrafting my work in waiting (as I now call it – 'progress' is simply not happening) have been pushed to one side as I've struggled to adapt to the new normal in the face of the Covid pandemic.

When we were given the task of switching to online lectures and classes, my mind went into overdrive as I tried to navigate my way through instructions for Teams, Zoom and Whereby. I was already using It's Learning, Canvas and Edmodo, but the new platforms I was being presented with (and resisting strongly) were for what I hate most in the world: sitting in front of a camera.

Avoiding the camera at the back of every group
From the age of about three, I've scowled my way through family photos, teenage angsty portraits and group snaps when I was at university. I was always the one practising avoidance tactics.

Still more extreme camera aversion
Then, blissfully, we went to South Africa, where the scenery was more interesting than me for everyone concerned, and of course I had two pretty daughters who loved being the subject of their father's photographic obsession. Exit stage Val and enter blissful oblivion for several long years.

Once back in Europe, though, digital cameras started appearing and I had to resume my ducking and diving all over again, an increasingly difficult task now no one had to worry about wasting film. Then Skype suddenly came to the fore and people wanted to talk on camera. Oh curses. Why on earth would anyone want me to sit and talk on camera? I mean, me? Luckily, I found an excuse for that too. The wifi on the boat was much too unstable, so we could only use audio. Result!

And so this is how I've spent a lifetime managing to successfully to evade the kind of screening I hate so much; that is, until now. The sad truth of the current situation is this: no video means no classes; no classes mean no work; no work... well, I can leave you to finish that one off for yourselves, can't I?

Last week, though, I plucked up the courage to have my first Zoom lesson online. And to my own astonishment, I quite enjoyed it. Chaotic, it undoubtedly was. My students and I couldn't make contact with each other at all at first: the blind leading the blind came very much to mind. But eventually, after numerous emails and messages had hurtled through the airways at rapid fire speed, we managed it, and then spent nearly an hour discussing the way forward for them. This coming week, we'll be repeating the process, at which time, I hope it will be somewhat easier to get things going. Then maybe by next month, when I have another new course starting, I'll be able to face the prospect with a little more equanimity.

So where was I before I started this? Oh yes. That enforced just remind me. What was that supposed to be?

Have a good week, allemaal. Keep your distance, keep safe, and for heaven's sake, stay well!