A Sea Change by Valerie Poore
The morning was dull, damp and dreary. What on earth was I doing here? Just a few short weeks ago I was in Johannesburg where the sun transformed even the most decrepit, decaying buildings into colourful, vivid life. Now I looked out of the windows of our smart Rotterdam apartment and saw only a washed out, monotone world of grey skies, grey buildings and grey streets. How was I going to cope with this scene day after day? How could I get used to a world where all variety, contrast and colour seemed to have leeched out of it?
The reason for the dramatic change came about because my husband had decided he didn’t want to return to our home in South Africa after a year in the bright lights of Amsterdam. He’d been invited to join a film company in the Netherlands in 1997 and given the increasing difficulty of finding work in South Africa, he’d decided to give it a go. The original intention was to spend a year in the Netherlands to earn enough money to set up his own business at home, but it didn’t take him the whole twelve months to decide he didn’t want to return. Opportunities for independent film makers seemed to be good in the Netherlands, and he persuaded me to join him with our daughter.
I was hesitant from the outset, but now I was here I found myself in deep remorse. If only I hadn’t agreed; if only I’d refused to give up my own fulfilling job as communications manager of a medical insurance company. I loved my work, my colleagues were my family and Johannesburg was my city. We’d only been in Rotterdam a short while, but I already missed South Africa badly and pretty much everything else about my former life. With daughter Mo settled at school and the upheaval of moving here over, life looked more than a bit bleak.
“Come and spend some time with me at the office,” my husband said when he saw how gloomy I found the outlook from our living room. “It’s great! I’m right on the quayside where the commercial barges moor up overnight.”
“How come your office is there?” I asked, curiosity making a bid over depression.
“I’m sure I told you, didn’t I? No?”
I shook my head. If he’d explained, I’d forgotten.
“Well, the Development Department of the Rotterdam Council offered me the space. I know I told you. It’s in an old historic warehouse in the Sint Job’s Harbour. You do remember they asked me to come here, don’t you?”
“Yes, but I didn’t really know where they’d put you.”
Apparently, Rotterdam’s business development board were trying to improve the city’s cultural profile and were enticing artists and film makers by giving them substantial grants and providing office space at a nominal rent. As a script writer and film producer, my husband was just the kind of independent creative type they were looking for to fill up the warehouse, a listed monument that was out of use and mostly empty.
“The office isn’t much to write home about. It’s very basic, but the warehouse is wonderful. I believe it was the first in Rotterdam to have electric lifts and they’re still in use. Pretty scary, to be honest, but amazing all the same.”
“Well yes, I’d love to see it. It would be nice to get out of the burbs here. This isn’t what I had in mind when I came over, I must admit.”
My husband pulled a face. I knew he felt guilty that we weren’t in Amsterdam where I was expecting to be living when I agreed to move from South Africa. On first impressions, Rotterdam seemed like a poor substitute, especially the bland neighbourhood where we were staying, with its cookie cutter houses and regulation apartment blocks.
The drive through the outskirts of the city didn’t do much to improve my opinion, but as soon as we came to the road that ran along the Nieuwe Maas river, my interest moved up a gear. The view was fabulous. A glimmer of sun shone through the low-hanging clouds and reflected on the water, creating sparkles of dancing light. Huge barges ploughed their way up and downstream, many bearing stacked up containers of such a height I was amazed they didn’t topple over.
“Where are all these barges going?” I asked.
“Well, most of them will be heading inland towards Germany, but some of them will travel through the Netherlands or down into Belgium and France. The network of waterways in this country is mind-blowing.”
I was instantly fascinated. Having grown up in London with the Thames a constant draw, I’d loved the docklands and the river with its tides, mudflats and busy quays. My favourite excursions had been the boat trips from Westminster, and I fondly remembered going to Greenwich, Richmond and Hampton Court by water. However, my maritime interests were firmly confined to rivers and canals. Although I’d lived by the sea for many years later on, I’d never been a good sailor and turned green at even the thought of a wave. Living in South Africa for so long had also put thoughts of navigable waterways out of my mind; there were none, not that you could use to travel to other parts of the country, anyway. So seeing this thriving commercial port revived me no end and I could almost feel my eyes brightening.
When we pulled into parking area next to the old Sint Job’s warehouse, I was slightly discouraged by its state of dilapidation. The building itself was beautiful and typically Dutch, with shuttered windows and huge wooden doors, but weeds grew between the cracks in the stonework, the window glass was either broken or absent, and it carried an air of dejection about it that suggested a downward trend rather than any kind of development.
“Don’t worry about what it looks like now.” My husband read the thoughts clearly written on my face. “They’ve got great plans for re-development here, but they want people like me to begin the process.”
As he spoke, he opened a small door next to one of the arched entrances and led the way inside.
“Da dah! Here it is!”
He was right. The office wasn’t much; in fact, basic was a kind word for what was essentially a small storeroom. But there was an adjoining loo and a cupboard that served as a tiny kitchen. With a couple of desks for computers; a printer and a fax machine; some filing cabinets and chairs; and, of course, an internet connection, it had everything he needed to run his business.
“Okay, I need to get to work and make some phone calls. Why don’t you take a walk around? It’s a great place to give the dogs a run. We can bring them next time now you’re here.”
Our old Labrador and Border collie had been snoozing after their morning run when we’d left the apartment, but I was quite willing to do a recce of the environs on their behalf.
I walked to the end of the warehouse where I crossed a road leading to some well-known shipping company offices. From this point on, it was open ground to the end of the harbour and I spent an invigorating half hour clambering over sandy hillocks peppered with rough grass and shrubs. A huge sea-going tanker was moored up at the far end of the quay, and I gazed in awe at the thick cables that secured the ship to the massive bollards. They were stretched to rigid tautness and I wondered how they managed to fix them so tightly until I saw the winches they were attached to up on deck. I’d never been so close to a working vessel before and I felt my spirits lift.
The wind was cold, but for once I didn’t mind the way it pulled at my air and bit at my skin. All my misgivings about coming to Rotterdam began to dissolve; this was so different from anything I’d experienced in Africa. The raw vitality of the river and the ships was exciting.
When I walked back, I noticed a huge barge had moored up in front of the office. As I strolled past its back cabin, I was surprised to see lace curtains in the windows, and peeking through them, my astonishment increased. It had a fully fitted kitchen with modern conveniences as smart as any in our apartment. I watched discreetly as a young woman busied herself with a coffee machine. Who would have thought it? These bargees clearly lived on board.
I turned towards the office and pushing through the outer door, I burst out, “Did you know the barge owners live in their back cabins? I’ve just seen the one that’s moored outside here. It’s like a normal house! ”
“Oh yes. They live and travel on them all year round,” my husband said, putting the phone receiver back in its cradle. Luckily, he’d just finished a call.
“Wow! Wow and wow! That must be amazing,” I enthused.
“Yep, I think so too. Actually, loads of people live on barges here.”
“They do? On working barges?”
“Well, they used to be, but commercial barges have got a lot bigger in recent years, so the older, traditional vessels are often bought by private individuals and converted to liveaboard homes. There were heaps of them in Amsterdam.”
“Oh I’d love to see some. D’you think there are any here?”
“I‘ve heard there’s a harbour for historic barges in the centre. I’ll just check. If I can find it we’ll go and take a look, if you like.”
“I’d love to. What a wonderful way to live!”
Within a few days, we’d found our way to the Oude Haven, the oldest harbour in Rotterdam. My husband’s research revealed it was home to a foundation dedicated to the preservation and restoration of historic Dutch inland waterways’ vessels. In fact, it was a museum harbour although all the craft we saw there were privately owned. After parking the car, we walked around the quays, which were lined with cafés and bars. I also noticed a very strange building composed of a whole bunch of yellow and black cubes that seemed to be balanced on each other at odd angles.
“Ah, so those are the cubist apartments.” My husband gazed over at them. “They’re world famous, as is that odd looking building that looks like a lead pencil. Rotterdam’s signature is its modern architecture.”
“It makes a nice backdrop, doesn’t it? But look at the barges in the harbour. They’re stunning!”
With their bows to the quayside, the row of old craft were absolutely gorgeous. Some had soaring masts that towered metres above us; others had lovely old teak wheelhouses; most of them sported wooden hatch boards, rather than the steel covers the modern barges had.
There were two adjoining harbours, also full of traditional craft and to our delight, we found a slipway where an old crane was busy lifting the mast off another classic barge that was resting on the slipway trolleys. It seemed to be undergoing a full hull cleaning as a man with a high-pressure hose was working his way over its flat bottom.
I was riveted and smitten all in one. Like a child in a toyshop.
Over the next months, we got to know some of the residents of the Oude Haven and learned about the requirements for getting a mooring in the harbour. A seed had been planted that seemed to have taken root in both our minds. I don’t remember exactly when it finally germinated and blossomed, but I do remember the conversation that decided us.
“What would you say if I suggested we bought one of these old barges instead of trying to buy a house here. We both know we can’t afford much at the moment, and it might be cheaper in the long run,” my husband said.
“Oh yes, let’s!” I breathed, conveniently forgetting how much I loathed being cold and wet, and, even more pertinently, that I could be seasick in a rowing boat. “And let’s try and live in the Oude Haven too,” I added. Any niggling doubts I might have had were quickly relegated to the ‘unimportant’ file and kicked out of consciousness.
We spent quite some time deciding what kind of barge we wanted before setting out to find our new dream home. It had to be both family and dog friendly as well as in keeping with the spirit of Dutch tradition and heritage. In the end, it took several months of searching as well as trips all over the country, but we eventually found the one we wanted. We knew she would need restoring to her original form to comply with harbour rules, so another few months passed before our restoration plan was approved and we were finally able to bring her to the Oude Haven where we began our new life.
Our barge had the traditional Dutch name of Johanna Jacoba, but we decided to change it to one that reflected the huge sea change we’d made in our lives. We’d come from South Africa where the term for a major, or flamboyant, turn around is a Kaapse draai (a Cape turn). Although often used literally, we felt it represented what we were doing with the way we lived, and so our new home was ceremoniously re-named, an event we celebrated with all the delightful harbour friends we’d made.
Sadly, it wasn’t a ‘happy every after’ story as far as my marriage was concerned. Within six months of buying the barge, the cracks that had long been widening in our relationship became a canyon across which neither of us could reach. After some painful soul-searching, we agreed to part.
My husband kept Kaapse Draai and ultimately took her to England. I, however, wasn’t done with ‘the life’ yet and had my own sea change.
After a long spell back in South Africa, I returned to the Netherlands and rented a barge from one of our friends. Later in the year, I bought my own historic barge and made another ceremonious entry to the Oude Haven, this time with Vereeniging, which means ‘union’ in Dutch. Her name was still more symbolic for me because Vereeniging was the name of a town in South Africa of which I was particularly fond; it was also representative of a completely new phase in my life: that of my ‘union’ with my Dutch partner, Koos, and also my growing attachment to the Netherlands.
Moving from South Africa was a huge wrench for me. I loved the country and miss it still, but the day I walked along that quay in Sint Job’s harbour was a real game changer. The realisation that people lived on boats fulltime led me to discover a different way of life altogether: rich, quirky, fascinating and rewarding. It was a change I embraced and have never regretted.