‘Welcome and feel free to use everything inside’ says Mathys, showing a bit of his white teeth under his pale lips. ‘No worries, you can flick through the books on shelves, there’s a lot about boats and Amsterdam in there… and please take a seat anywhere you want’ he smiles, noticing our confused look. ‘Would you like a cup of coffee or a tea?’ asks our guide adding to our puzzlement about this guy’s surprising hospitality.
We’re on one of the many floating houses in Amsterdam. Open to visitors. A sort of museum. And still a home. But above all, a boat. A houseboat.
The boats, these reminders of the past sink the city in a romantic and cosy feel, intensified by the colourful slim old houses on the quay. The boats don’t sail anymore like they used to – they’re all moored to an allocated lot. Few of them seem proper barges, slender, made of steel and iron, ready for adventure, ready to take off to the canals and then to the greater sea.
Others are just younger concrete constructions, the so-called arks, sometimes very luxurious, built on a square hull and laid-down on a platform on the gracht (this means ‘water canal’ in old Dutch), just to give occupiers a dash of privacy and a countryside feeling in the middle of the city. Bust most of them are wide, colourful, adorned with plants and objects, with a very homely feeling. Not surprising there are over 2400 families choosing them, despite the rising prices and endless costs involved. Gatekeepers of a peaceful life. Nowadays most people living on a barge are in search of nature, calm or an alternative escape from the noise of everyday life. But this hasn’t always been the reason for choosing to dwell on a floating surface.
Our cheerful boat man, Mathys is a guide through the history of his boat and of this lifestyle on water.
‘My great grandfather had a boat. He was what we call a cheese head’ Mathyas smiles at us. ‘I mean he used to sell cheese everywhere. He, like many other Dutch in those days, sailed to many places in and out the country, looking for markets… but my parents only moved to this beautiful cargo ship in the ‘50s when these boats were cheap and aplenty, not like these days’.
It turns out, we find out that cargo ships were a clever solution to the housing shortage after the second world war but today no more mooring permits are released by the Amsterdam city council. Spatial planning is of big importance to the Dutch government and as a result people cannot change the outside looks of their floating homes without asking the council.
When Mathys comes back with the coffee I ask about the differences in living on a boat now compared to 30 years ago.
‘You know, I’ve spent most of my life, over 50 years, on boat but things have changed. Where is the freedom of the ‘70s when all the hippies had a boat and painted it and kept it as they wanted? Today I cannot even swap my place with a ‘neighbour’ few meters down the river, without asking for permission from the city aesthetic committee!!’ says the boat guy frowning his eyebrows. ‘It’s true that conditions have improved a lot, people have even central heating and TV cable compared to old days but now I pay over 6000 euros a year in taxes and maintenance work’. I grin in astonishment: that is more than I expected for living on water… I first thought it was a cheap escape for freedom and nature seeking souls. But not anymore. However Mathys biggest concern is in the increasing environmental regulations and taxes. The tar ban is one of them. And old steel and iron veterans need tar. The efficiency of new alternative materials is not clear yet. And the maintenance required and its costs are still on the rise…
‘Not that I’m against environmental movements, you know… I like nature, I have quite a few plants on the roof… have you seen them? ‘. Of course we’ve seen them. He is not the only one. Begonias, marigolds, wriggly morning glories, lush Datura, cacti and others adorn the roof, walls and deck of many vessels in Amsterdam. Real floating gardens! Sometimes a table and sitting chairs can be seen together with other objects like a statue or a solar panel; and not seldom in summer there is a party unfolding on the deck. An entire world on display. For the joy of both tourists and old boat dwellers. But for how long?
Note: Jokingly, Dutch people are nicknamed ‘cheese heads’ which is also a Dutch word for the mould that contributes to the cheese making process uncoiled in some sort of big wooden bucket . The mould becomes solid in time and the rumour has it that in the old ages farmers from North Holland used those hard cheese moulds as protective helmets, hence this pictorial nickname!