WOW. In all capital letters. WOW, I’m back in the Netherlands, back after three weeks home in Massachusetts. Back at Tinnemans Scheepsbouw in scenic Massbracht waiting for Hoop Doet Leven to be lifted out of the water for its every-six-years survey and inspection, required by our insurance company. WOW (in all capital letters) not only expresses mystification at this situation but it is the name of the budget-discount-not-a-single-frill airline on which I flew back to Europe after receiving an email from Tinnemans that the smallest of their three floating drydocks was about to become available. As my WOWjet rolled down the runway at Boston’s Logan Airport I mumbled to the woman sitting next to me how odd it was to be on an airplane filled with people who had never heard of the airline to which they were entrusting their lives. She smiled. “But it is so inexpensive,” she said, sipping from the bottle of water that she, and every other passenger, had carried onboard after reading Tripadvisor’s WOW advice that the airline provided absolutely no inflight amenities, not even drinking water. No joking about that. I’d paid an extra $9.99 for the privilege of reserving a seat in advance. WOW is the lower-price alternative to low-price Icelandic Airline, which says a lot. As with Icelandic, all flights are routed through scenic Reykjavik. We saw the northern lights from 39,000 feet. The northern lights are special this week. All the Reykjavik streetlights were shut off so as not to interfere with the view.
So. The Netherlands. Where everybody seems to know what Hoop Doet Leven means. Where I try not to smile when shopping carts are called winkelwagons.
After dawdling as long as we possibly could on the Loire and then slowing down even more on our favorite, the Canal du Centre in southern Burgundy, we’d skedaddled up the rivers Saone and Meuse through Lorraine as far north as France goes, slowing down to catch our breath only at the Belgium border. Except for the long hours each day, the trip was straightforward.
The Meuse transformed from not much more than a wide canal to a major river, with other traffic increasing in size from hordes of private Dutch boats to commercial container ships and 100 meter cargo vessels. We squeezed into huge river locks with these commercial ships surrounded by flocks of little Dutch boats jostling for space. The locks were managed for the commercial ships and generally wouldn’t open until a commercial arrived. We found that if we travelled in a commercial’s wake we could arrive at each lock as it opened for our big brother.
Belgium is a schizophrenic nation, half French-speaking, half Flemish-speaking, with the two halves barely speaking to one another. Fortunately, we travelled through Wallonia, the French-speaking region. Being in Belgium was almost like remaining in France. With better, oh so much better, beer. And supermarkets with more than a token shelf of organic produce. And everywhere were fritteries, restaurants specializing in pomme frites, fried potatoes (what Americans – but never the French or anybody else, actually – call french fries. Chips to the Brits, although chips in the U.S. are flat, bagged and likely to be fabricated from some sort of genetically modified, possibly potato-based paste. Ridged).
It took us just a week to cross Belgium and enter the Netherlands, where the Meuse changed its name to the Maas – same river, different name – and became even wider and even more commercial. We felt a long way from our friendly Canal du Centre, where each eclusier chatted us up and offered local wine or veggies for sale. Even farther from the Canal de Bourgogne, where Sandra hopped off at every lock to open or close the lock gates by hand.
We eventually found our way to Tinnemans, tied up at their dock surrounded by what turned out to be second-hand construction cranes and waited for the crew to return from their August vacation closing. Here’s an admission. The Netherlands, unlike French-speaking Belgium, was a culture shock for us. We’ve become pretty cocky about how Frenchified we’ve become. Our standard of comparison for Frenchiness is the first night of our first barge-shopping expedition in early 2011. To get over jetlag we’d booked into a small hotel in Senlis, a half hour north of Charles de Gaulle Airport. The first night we sat in the hotel restaurant courtyard for dinner, our first baby step on what has been a six year French immersion. Sandra ordered wine. The waiter scowled. Perhaps at her infantile French. More likely at her choice of wine. In any event after a half hour with no wine we concluded that we’d flunked – at something – a fear confirmed when we saw the waiter leave the restaurant entirely, never to reemerge. We were humbled by our first night in France. France is good at humbling foreigners.
Nonetheless, we persevered. We’ve spent the next five years patting each other on the back as one French experience after another became more and more natural, praising each other by boasting how far we’ve come from “that dinner” in Senlis (although we still struggle with how to pronounce “Senlis,” is it “sen” as in “sent” or “sen” as in “sun” and is the final “s” silent as in most every other French word or just for fun should we say the “s” out loud this time?) The Netherlands, Maasbracht in particular, put us back in Senlis mode. We couldn’t tell fish from fowl on a menu. Literally. Numbers beyond één, twee, drie don’t exist. Fortunately, hello and bye bye work.
Even more fortunately, our embarrassing absence of Dutch is countered by the fact that so many Dutch speak English. One woman, noting my communication struggles, simply said, “Don’t even try. Just speak English.”
Language problems improved, slightly, on a day trip to the nearest German city, Aachen, just a half hour from Maasbracht. Aachen had been Charlemagne’s capital around the end of the Ninth Century. He was the first emperor of Western Europe since the fall of the Roman empire, quite an achievement for the son of a man called Pepin the Short. Hundreds of Second World War movies gave me an odd German vocabulary. This was combined with the remnants of Yiddish from my grandparents, unfortunately a Yiddish vocabulary composed half of my grandmother either threatening me with a patsch in the tuchas (use your imagination on that) or whispering something she didn’t want the grandkids to understand (which has been scientifically proven to be the most effective method of teaching a language.) Or criticizing somebody (“may her daughter marry a klezmer,” a musician, which was Nana’s most severe curse. Wait a minute, I did marry a musician; if Nana Ida were alive today she’d be rolling in her grave). Despite the similarities between Yiddish and German, none of my odd collection of Yiddish phrases helped me in ordering a German beer. I didn’t dare ask a waitress for a patsch in the tuchas.
We only spent one day in Aachen, accompanied by a gracious retired German architect who showed off his city. He’d been working on his barge, which was on blocks in a back corner at Tinnemans. He said he expected to launch his ship next spring. The folks at Tinnemans said he’d been saying that every year. For several decades.
Rather than sit around in a locked up shipyard waiting for its vacation to end (not only was the shipyard locked up but we didn’t have a key and had to climb a fence to get in and out), we took a train – three trains, plus a bus – to Brussels, in Belgium for a few tourist days. We chose Brussels almost at random. It was a good choice. Brussels is the capital of the European Union (although Strasbourg, which we visited two years ago, also is somehow the capital of Europe, sort of like how every village in Champagne calls itself the Capital of Champagne). Brussels is also the capital of Belgian beers. We skipped wine for four days and indulged in the best beer in the world (with apologies to Vermont brewers, after all Vermont is the Beer Capital of America, as is Colorado, and Boston, and most every other place with a hometown brewery, it seems).
Our son Sam is our beer expert. Until just a month ago, Sam managed the beer selections at what is generally acknowledged to be Boston’s, and perhaps all of New England’s top beer bar, Lord Hobo in Cambridge. Sam knows his brews. And, as it turned out in Belgium itself, brewers know Sam. He gave us a list of breweries, restaurants and bars to visit in Brussels. Top of the list was the Cantillon Brewery, maker of traditional lambic beers. Sam had told us how he’d returned from his last trip to Belgium with his bag stuffed with 40 bottles of Cantillon. I mentioned to the brewery manager that our son worked at a beer bar in Boston. He smiled and asked if I was “Sam’s father.” Lambic beer, we learned, is not made with brewers yeast of any kind. Instead, the wort – the brewery mash – is left overnight in large brass trays in the brewery’s attic, exposed to the eighty different microorganisms inhabiting the air – and wooden beams presumably – for the past hundred or so years. These microorganisms stimulate the fermentation process and give the lambic its unique flavors.
Which were not our favorite flavors. But Sam came through nonetheless. He insisted we eat at Nuetnigenough (meaning “a person who can never get enough, a glutton”). I asked Sam for a beer recommendation there. He said to ask the waiter, he’d know. I did ask the waiter what went with my zwarte pens met Orvalsaus – blood sausage in Orval beer sauce. His choice: Pannepot Old Fisherman’s Ale, a Quad beer, which, not surprisingly, is stronger than either a Dubbel or a Tripel. Pannepot Old Fisherman’s Ale is my beer of choice these days. I was encouraged that the bottle served at Nuetnigenough had a label that in teeny tiny print said it was redeemable for a five cent Massachusetts deposit.
Tinnemans was transformed when we returned to Maasbracht from Brussels. Rather than having the shipyard to ourselves, we found tiny Hoop Doet Leven penned in by commercial ships. These ships, which had all broken down in August and limped in for repairs, had priority over us. Rightly so. We were there for the winter. They were not making money while sitting idle. It would be a while before Tinnemans could get to us, we were told, so we returned home, waiting for word that they’d be able to start our work.
Three weeks later the email came. My WOW flight to Amsterdam was booked and two days later I was back on board. In two days HOOP DOET LEVEN will be tugged into the smallest of three floating dry docks, which will lift her out of the water. The surveyor is scheduled. He’ll test the thickness of the steel bottom at 200 spots. Should he find a thin spot, Tinnemans will weld steel plate over it. While the boat is out of the water we’ll have some work done. The bearing where the propeller shaft exits the hull will be replaced, a recommendation from our 2011 purchase survey to be done next time the boat gets hauled from the water. The bottom will be cleaned and painted. Some small annoyances will be dealt with and, if the repair budget is not exhausted, we’ll have Tinnemans spiff up some of the paint.
I’ll stay around for the survey and to get the work started. Then its home for the winter. During the three week Massachusetts interregnum work at my alter ego Marshview Boatworks sped forward with final coats of paint on the inside and outside of last winter’s Maine Peapod project. In a few weeks the world’s best tender will be available for sale. But first came the most fundamental of boatbuilding tasks: creating a website. Check out http://www.MarshviewBoatworks.com.
And plans were ordered for this winter’s construction project: a Norwegian faering, a thousand-year-old design of what could have been Leif Erikson’s tender when he discovered America. Iain Oughtred, a traditional boat designer on the Isle of Skye, off the northwest coast of Scotland, offers construction plans for a 15-foot faering. It should be finished by the time we return to Maasbracht next spring.
Next summer we’ll head Hoop Doet Leven south through Belgium. South to France. The Ardennes. Champagne. Paris. The Loire. And, of course, Burgundy. Back to our comfort zone.
EDITORIAL NOTE: See, I did it. A whole posting without mentioning that clown politician with the orange hair and small hands. Ugh.
Veronica Hayes said:
For one brief, exciting moment I thought we might finally meet up next year, somewhere on the beautiful Dutch waterways. We keep our Dutch steel cruiser in Friesland. Ah well. I hope the survey is painless and you enjoy your winter back home. Enjoy your time in the beautiful Netherlands and safe journey home.
Liz Britton said:
Thank you for your blog and your book! We are loving it and now planning our retirement to the French canals. It had long been a dream of ours and now we see it can be realised. 3 years away but I hope we cross paths.
Just finished your Book,, and enjoyed it greatly, love your sense of humour and take on things. It was a great treat to lie and read my self to sleep, over some of the winter months Robbie in Ireland