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 though...as 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.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Adventures in Wifi

On our summer travels, it was very difficult to remain connected to the internet world we are accustomed to when we're at home. Now I don't mind this. Apart from this blog, which I like to keep up, I am perfectly happy to revert to a non-social media, non-browsing lifestyle and just read books for entertainment; or go for walks; or paint the boat; or....you get the idea, anyway. I love that feeling of detachment from the 'real world'.

My dearest and beloved, however, is less sanguine about being off-grid, so to speak. His passion is photography, and next to that is his passion for sharing his photos with others. Yes, even when we are in remote and sleepy parts of the French countryside and access is almost interdit (a very common French instruction), let alone impossible. Well, I shall say no more about that for fear of reprisals (haha), but I do want to tell you about some of the adventures he had in attempting to break the barriers of French internet resistance.

The man with his passion

Technically, it should all have been very simple. When in France, you can buy an abonnement for a limited period to connect with the internet by means of hotspots. In Koos' case, this was with Orange, who claimed to have something like 700,000 hotspots throughout the country. How this works, though, is not quite so easy and I hope I can explain it. There are indeed huge numbers of hotspots, but they are not in comfortable, easy locations like cafés or bars. Oh no.

When a householder organises broadband Internet at home, he/she agrees that, for a reduced monthly fee, passing members of the public can use a small part of his/her bandwidth, thus making his/her home  or premises a hotspot. There are lots of companies offering this throughout Europe, so it is nothing unusual. In the Netherlands, for example, we have KPN Fon and many others. What it means in practice, though, is that anyone with an abonnement such as the one Koos bought needs to be close to the said premises to make use of the hotspot.

Well, I think a lot of people are not fully aware that their homes might be the centre of such 'hot' attention, so to speak. So what happened was this:

Koos bought his abonnement when we were in Douai, but only discovered then how close he had to be to the nearby hotspot to get a connection. In Douai, it wasn't too bad. There was a garden bench on the road opposite the block of flats where the happy, probably unsuspecting, subscriber lived. He would trek up to the bench with his laptop and sit there uploading photos and checking in with his followers. Barring a few odd looks, nobody paid him much attention. After all, what's so odd about a man with a laptop these days? Just an oversized phone, you might say. However, when we moved up the Scarpe away from the urban world, connecting with the world proved more difficult.

Flats in Douai: which one is home to the hostpsot?
At our first stop, Koos walked into the village of Brébieres some distance from the boat, wandered around with his laptop open until he found a hotspot (as anyone would, of course), found a convenient bench (he wasn't always so lucky) and sat down. All of a sudden, life became interesting. A woman had collapsed not far from where he was sitting and was being attended to by anxious friends. She herself was cheerfully chatting on her phone when the ambulance arrived, but seeing Koos on the bench, they pulled up to him first.

'Are you ze one who called for us?' they asked, for all the world as if they were a taxi service.
'No, not me. Her,' said Koos, pointing to the prostrate lady with a smile. She was still talking and laughing on her phone.
'Oh merci monsieur.' And off they went to rescue the real victim. Koos could only imagine they saw his grey hair and beard and just assumed it must have been him, despite his calm demeanour and open laptop. A youngish woman lying flat on the ground? No...it couldn't have been her.

On another occasion, he had to sit on someone's front step to find the magic hotspot. Luckily, the house was closed up, but I cringed with embarrassment on his behalf with this one, although not half as much as I did on a later occasion at Cappy on the Somme. Once again, he was obliged to sit outside someone's house. It was early evening and the blinds were down so he felt safe that the owners were not at home. Unfortunately, though, they arrived back when he was in mid-upload.

Cappy on the Somme
Now Koos has a gift I don't have. I would have felt as guilty as a criminal even though what he was doing was perfectly legal and fully paid for. Koos has no such handicap and proceeded to explain to the bemused householders how the hotspot system worked - in fluent French. My daughter called him a silver tongued charmer the first time she met him, and I am guessing he had to bring the full load of his easy charm to the fore to avoid serious misunderstandings on this occasion. I know I would have failed hopelessly, especially in French!

As you can see, there's a bit of an actor
in my Koos - very useful on such
occasions :)
Apart from these, there were other, even less comfortable hotspots: the dodgy side street in Haubourdin where I was afraid he wouldn't come home with his laptop, if at all and the church square in Marquette-lez-Lille under the eagle eye of the Lord. Most notably, though, he had to get up close and cosy with a lamp post in Leers Noord. Yes. Can you imagine trying to explain that one? 'Yes, officer, I'm getting messages from the aliens. This lamp-post is their earthly antenna.'

So next time you see someone lurking with intent with an open laptop next to a postbox, garden hedge or shop door, don't worry...it's probably Koos. Just ask him what he's doing and experience all that silver he's capable of conjuring up at a moment's notice and enjoy it. He's quite an actor, but totally harmless really :)

NOTE: Due to the problems my readers have had with overcoming the 'I am not a robot' captcha if they are not Google account holders, I have enabled comment moderation for all comments. I'm really really sorry I've had to do this, but at least readers won't have the frustration of jumping through hoops to publish a comment. I will check daily to ensure all comments are published.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Last of the Magnificent Moorings

I've been sifting through my photos again to find more of our favourite moorings, and I think this is the final selection. We stayed at so many places, and most of them were great, but the ones I've shown you were special for a number of different reasons. Here are the last of my special favourites.

Douai halte nautique in the town

Douai: we've been there three times now and enjoyed each visit. Because the Hennie H is only fifteen metres, we can go right to the halte nautique in the town and from there it's a ten minute walk to the old centre with all its charm and history. The moorings have bollards on the wall, electricity (if you have the VNF key) and water too. We stayed there both going south and returning north. It's a great spot; there are always people to talk to; the city is close; it's peaceful at night and there's a big shopping centre just by the bridge going out of town.


This next spot is Courcelles, which was quite a discovery. It used to be run by the local mairie and had its own capitainerie, but when the mayor changed, interest in the marina dropped away. When we arrived, we were welcomed in, shown where the water, electricity and showers were and then told it was all free, bar the showers (50c a go). I don't know how long this will last, but it's a very nice place to relax and spend a few days. There is an E. Leclerc supermarket fifteen minutes walk from the harbour. Anyone going there would need to ask directions, but on a bike, it's even less than ten minutes, so easy for shopping.

Brébiere on the Scarpe

This photo is at Brebière on the Scarpe. I can't tell you how much I loved it there. There was nothing at all and we had to search for the bollards below the signs, but it was just too gorgeous. The scenery, the sunshine, just everything was lovely, especially the clarity of the water. One of those very special spots. 

The morning we left (for the second time), we decided to clean the mooring sign. It was so grubby. I also painted the bollard white so more people would see it.

Anywhere on the Canal de Saint Quentin will do
I'm cheating again with this one. It's the Hennie H on the Canal de Saint Quentin, and in principle, the whole of this canal is perfect for moorings. Again, there are no services, but if you are self sufficient, you can moor up in any of a large number of spots. We noticed they'd been doing a lot of work on moorings and on the banks with new rubber sidings along the waiting areas by the locks. We wondered why they were working so hard on it, but whatever the reason, it's great to see this canal is not being allowed to deteriorate. It is absolutely my favourite arterial waterway and I just love it. The locks are easy to operate (just as well - there a lot of them) and apart from the long tunnel, the entire 90 kilometre length of it from Cambrai to Chauny is a joy.

Séreaucourt le Grand on the Canal de Saint Quentin

This is a particularly idyllic mooring on the the Canal de Saint Quentin. Séreaucourt le Grand is in a side arm just a bit south of St Quentin itself. There's water, electricity and a shower if you can raise the harbour master. We couldn't until the next day but by then it was too late for us. There's a restaurant, a supermarket and several beautiful ponds next to the Somme river, which is here too. It runs close to the canal and even crosses beneath it a few kilometres from Séreaucourt before it branches off at St Simon. This is one of those places I could have stayed a while. It gave me a wonderfully restful feeling.

Chauny - free mooring, but there is a marina
Our place at Chauny above was not the most beautiful of moorings, but the town of Chauny was the biggest surprise of our trip. I was expecting a run down dreary place, but it was lovely: alive, bustling and colourful. There were flowers on every lamp post and the whole place had a vivid, vibrant feel that made you want to park up and stay there. For those who like more comfort, though, there is a marina with full services, so highly recommended as a stop over.

Pont L'Evêque 
Now here was another surprise. Pont L'Evêque, which is at the point where the Canal Latéral à L'Oise joins the Canal du Nord. The entrance to the harbour is through the bridge you can see in the photo above. It looks as if it is a no entry area, but that is misleading. There are moorings with electricity and water, which you pay for at a machine up the road in front of the post office. Pont L'Evêque is such a nice place and the harbour area is wonderful with pretty quayside houses and a working shipyard to keep the Koos and Vals of this world entertained. We loved it and spent two days there.

The Canal du Nord just outside Péronne
 Last but absolutely not least, was this mooring on the Canal du Nord just north of Péronne a hundred metres or so before the turning into the Canal de la Somme. This was another spot where we just tied up to some bollards on the canal side so we could stop for the night. The bollards were a bit far apart for us; they were designed for commercial barges, but we managed with a rope and anchor as a spring to stop us being pulled out too much by passing commercials. Why was it special then? It was so incredibly peaceful. Once the locks had closed for the night, there was simply nothing to disturb the quiet and as darkness descended, I even heard an owl in the woods. We went for the most wonderful walk and felt we had to whisper so as not to break the silence. Just magical.

So that's it. I've already given you the special mooring on the Canal de Roubaix and as I've said, nearly everywhere we stopped was great. We didn't have one mooring where we were bothered by anyone or unhappy, so it was hard to choose the favourites, but I think I have pinpointed the really special places now.

It's back to teaching for me this week and the weather is cooling down dramatically, so I hope you are all enjoying the early autumn weather. Have a good week allemaal. 

Saturday, September 09, 2017

More magnificent moorings in northern France

As promised, here are some more of my favourite moorings in northern France with a bit of blurb about what makes them special. We had some idea of places we really wanted to stay, and oddly, these were not always the ones that appealed to us. For instance, we wanted to go to a place called La Bassée (not far from Bethune and Lille) after visiting it once by car, only to find that what we thought was a lovely quiet mooring was actually plagued by noise from the two bridges it lies between. As a result, although it was great to go there (which we did - twice), it wouldn't rate as one of my favourites.

So here again, in no particular order other than that in which reached them, are the ones we did like.

Halte Nautique Menen
These two photos are from Menen. It was a lovely mooring off the Leie river against a quay. We had electricity, but no water, although we learned the next morning that the power was not really for visitors, but they didn't seem to mind. I loved all the bird life on the water here!

The local community at Menen

This next photo  is from one of our absolute favourite spots in the Gare d'Eau at Bauvin, near the locks at Don on the Canal de la Deûle. It was just before the junction with the Canal d'Aire that heads towards Dunkirk. I don't know why no one else seems to use it, but it's been empty both times we've been there.

The Gare d'Eau at Bauvin
There are no services but it's really beautiful and we stayed overnight twice on this last trip. The mooring is easy with good bollards and you can get off straight onto the tow path. There are some lovely walks through the woods and along the canal as well. A very precious place.

Bethune town centre 

The first place we stopped after turning into the Canal d'Aire was La Bassée, mentioned above. It was good and convenient for the shops but doesn't rate as a favourite. However, after La Bassée we stayed a night at Bethune, which by contrast was a delightful surprise. This mooring is at the end of an old canal arm and you have to motor past several old péniches to reach the pontoon. There's water and electricity available if you have the VNF key, which you can also buy just along the road into town at the VNF office. Bethune itself is a lovely place and well worth a visit. Apart from the old belfry, it has been completely rebuilt since the war, but in the original style. It looks very authentic and I found it very attractive.

Mooring pontoon at Bethune

This next mooring is at another of my favourite places: Aire sur la Lys. It's at the end of the stretch called the Canal d'Aire (no prizes for guessing why) and is where La Lys, the river, crosses the canal. This halte nautique is on an off-shoot side arm, which may or may not have something to do with the river Lys. I wasn't too sure how that all fitted together, but it was off the main channel.

Halte Nautique at Aire sur la Lys

I don't honestly know why I liked it so much. There were no services, the pontoon creaked like crazy with every barge that passed on the main canal and the nearby grain processing plant hummed constantly. Maybe it was because the weather was so beautiful and Aire sur la Lys is such a lovely place, but I fell in love with it and would have happily stayed a while. One other plus for the mooring is there's a big shopping centre just a five minute bike ride from the pontoon with, joy of joys, a great DIY store. It's away from the centre, but not that much.

The Lys river in Aire sur la Lys

Here we are at Les Fontinettes or Arques (below) on the Canal de Neuffossé. It's the same canal as the Aire, really, but changes its name after La Lys crosses it. I'm cheating a bit here as it wasn't the mooring I liked as much as the old boat lifts that we could see from where we tied up. That said, there is electricity, but We didn't use it as we didn't have a key at this stage. Being there was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

Les Fontinettes: historic boat lifts, sadly out of use

Our mooring: spot the electricity box on the side

And the last special mooring for this week is this one on the same waterway. We stopped here on our return journey. It's the halte nautique at Garbecque, a name we had great fun with, especially as its neighbouring village was Berguette, which in turn was on the way to Isbergues. For those with associative minds, you can make a meal of this! 

Halte Nautique at Garbecque
That said, although the mooring was right on this busy route to Dunkirk and carries a lot of very large barge traffic, it was incredibly peaceful. There weren't any services at all, but it didn't matter (we never worry too much about that, anyway). What was special was the stillness. We couldn't hear a thing except the ducks and other water fowl, which as always, I loved. A memorable spot.

Wonderful evening light and tranquillity

That's enough for this week, I imagine. I don't want to bore you all to bits. Next week, I'll tell you about some more of our special places further south and why I liked them so much, but for now, enjoy the rest of the weekend allemaal and have a great week.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Favourite moorings in northern France

During our recent travels, we've moored up over night at a variety of wonderful places. Some of these will remain firmly fixed in my memory, and often for different reasons. There have been places of incredible beauty, others of great tranquillity, some of unusual convenience. Whatever the case, I thought it would be fun to write a couple of posts about moorings I've particularly enjoyed. Here are a few good ones to start off with:

This first one (above) was actually the last on our trip this year. It's at Oudenaarde and is against the quay where the commercials tie up over night. There is a marina at Oudenaarde, but we prefer it here because we can watch the barge traffic going past. There is electricity, and as far as we know, it's free, although we're not sure if we were just lucky and someone had forgotten to turn it off. It might be intended for the commercials only, so it probably isn't something we should count on. The only downside is if barges speed past, it can set up a lot of rocking. When we were there ten days ago, a huge barge sped through the lifting bridge and then promptly did a handbrake turn (use your imagination for that) so it could go back through the bridge before it closed. I felt seasick for a good fifteen minutes after he'd gone as the rocking just went on and on...and on. Yes well. That aside, it's a lovely place to be and there's an Aldi just over the bridge and round the corner. Just what everyone wants, yes?

This next one is one of last year's photos, but we moored there this year too, and it's at Leers Nord on the Canal de Roubaix. We absolutely love it there. In fact, there seems to be something called the Leers effect as confirmed by the owner of another barge that was also there when we arrived and was still there when we finally dragged ourself away after five days. One of those 'you can check out any time you like' places but you never want to leave. There's definitely free electricity and water, a great café/restaurant and good shops just a kilometre away. There are some other lovely places to moor up on the Canal de Roubaix that have electricity too, but we haven't tried those yet. The whole canal is highly recommended.

I know this next mooring doesn't look all that interesting, but we really liked it. It is on the canal to Brugge/Bruges and it is totally unofficial, but then we tend to be attracted to informal moorings. They seem more adventurous somehow. This one is at Aalter. It's against a loading quay that has rails along the top and a moving crane. I suppose commercials come there to load up with concrete slabs or just the raw materials, but we found a bollard in the grass and a hook right at the end beyond the rails. We weren't in anyone's way and there were steps up to the quayside. We had to walk along the rails to find a place to get out onto the road, but then once round the corner, we found a good friterie. It was a bit on the pricey side for a chip shop, but it was just what we needed at the time.

This last mooring was on the Scarpe at St Laurent de Blangy. I'm not sure I would say it's a favourite all the time as it was a bit busy with all the kids coming to the water sports centre there (see the canoes), but there's free electricity and water and if you want to pay for Wifi, you can get it from the watersport centre's office. That costs €7,50, but it seems to be valid for three months, not that they'd be happy if you stayed that long, but if you really wanted your money's worth, you could always drive back there for some Wifi time. I mean you would, wouldn't you? Anyway, a very nice French man told us that most of the year, the mooring is wonderfully peaceful (remember: he said that, not me ) and as I loved the Scarpe, I thought it was worth adding. It's also a twenty minute walk from Arras or a bus ride if you're clever enough to figure that out. French public transport remains a mystery to me. I think you have to get up very early to spot a bus in these parts.

That's it for this week's favourite moorings then. I'll probably do a few posts of these as they might be useful to other boating friends. Have a good Sunday allemaal, and I'll catch up with you all in the coming days.