Fixed freedom: a fresh dive into a commonplace phenomenon

9 maart 2022 en Leestijd: 10 minuten

The municipality of Groningen has a little over 230.000 inhabitants. Around 60.000 of them are internationals. By definition they behold Groningen with a different view than the average Dutchman. What do they see? GRAS asked Italian philosopher and writer Silvia Mazzini and photographer Silvio Zangarini to dive into something you see and drive by every day: houseboats.

Choosing a boat over a house

In a country like The Netherlands, with its capillary network of rivers and canals, many people own a boat for their holidays or weekend trips. Not as many, however, choose them as their permanent home. The numbers speak for themselves: in a city like Groningen, with its 230.000 inhabitants, there are only 400 houseboats.

But 400 is a lot, in my Italian eyes. In my country, as far as I know, this phenomenon does not exist at all. So, the first time I heard about people living in boats, I asked myself: how do they manage not to get chronic seasickness? To me, it seemed a feat to be able to do the simplest household chores. To thread a needle without getting pricked, but also, for example, to play chess and Mikado, living in a constant sway.

I couldn't imagine the boats being grounded. Transformed, so to speak, in their nature: from something that floats, that travels and moves, to a stable and fixed element.

How does this architectural metamorphosis happen? And what leads a person to live in a boat instead of a house? With what consequences for daily life?

Together with photographer Silvio, a fellow Italian who lives in Groningen as well, I wander around the Noorderhaven. Here we already observed beautiful and different boats used as houseboats, every time we passed. Some of them large, proudly displaying the traces of storms, of seas and rivers of different countries, ploughed with familiarity and habit. Others populated with plants, as if they were post-industrial, floating gardens. Some boats are remodelled in new forms, enriched with stained glass windows or small lounges, decorated with atmospheric lighting or genuine works of art. It looks like an open-air museum.

Greeting the day

Ben has been living at the Noorderhaven for two decades: in a steamboat, which, as he tells us, was built in 1923, and has travelled mainly on Dutch and German rivers. On the outside, the well-kept dark green façade has a loudspeaker, and at the top, behind the cabin windows, is the rudder – round and wooden, just as you imagine it to be.

The interior of the boat is bright, spacious, intimate and cosy at the same time. Every element reminds us that we are on a boat: a compass, a pressure gauge, a thermometer. Even if they don't work, they are carefully preserved and reinterpreted by the new functions they take on. 

The cabin with the rudder, for example, located at the top of the boat, with its luminous glass panes on all four sides, deprived of its floor, becomes a source of light for the entire rear part of the boat - where the entrance and kitchen are located. From here the stairs lead us into the keel of the boat: once a large and powerful engine, now converted into a bedroom and lounge. Ben also keeps his electric drums in there.

Every element reminds us that we are on a boat: a compass, a pressure gauge, a thermometer. Even if they don't work, they are carefully preserved and reinterpreted by the new functions they take on

In both the upper ‘floors’ and the keel lounge we find beautiful stoves, fuelled by wood and pellet. The boat is equipped with ordinary heaters as well, but Ben hardly uses them due to the soaring cost of gas. And although he regularly works to insulate the boat, it gets very cold in the mornings in winter – even with the heaters on.

So, when Ben gets up, the first thing he does is turn on the stove, make a nice steaming coffee and sip it as close to the warmth of the fire as possible. He likes this way of greeting the day. ‘Making a virtue out of necessity’.

When we enter, the room is already pleasantly warm. Silvio and I get a nice cup of coffee anyway. Ben tells us that he has been living on this boat since 1990 and that he is very happy with it. In all these years, he has been looking after it and putting it together himself, so it feels like home.

I look at him, at this cosy room, and then, through the windows of this former cabin, at the boats of the neighbours. I find myself thinking that, just as I cut my nails or comb my hair in the morning, so do Ben and his neighbours take care of their boat. As if the environment they live in is an integral part of themselves.

Living amidst history – and ducks

Ben knows most of his neighbours. ‘We help one another and sometimes we meet for a coffee. This creates a sense of belonging to a community.’ The situation is slowly changing, though, he tells us. ‘Twenty years ago, I knew everybody here. Now, more and more people are buying boats as a kind of investment for when their kids will come to study in Groningen. Some of the ships are not always inhabited, which changes the way relationships are.’

I ask Ben whether he decided to live on a boat as a result of a rational choice, or rather out of desire or a particular emotion. He shakes his head. ‘Nothing of the sort. Before coming here, I lived in other boats. It was in the early 1980s. I couldn't find a house, they were too expensive. So I rented a boat.’

I didn't expect this answer. It surprises me, and I like it. It allows me not to project generalisations or romanticized ideas. But Ben adds: ‘OK, it was by chance at first, but then I found it beautiful, living on a boat. And I love beauty.’

When I ask Ben what he means by ‘the beauty of living on a boat’, he explains himself with various and different examples. ‘First of all, I like being in the midst of these old buildings, with a history behind them. I'm not the only one who finds them fascinating: people walk and take pictures here all the time. Of the buildings, and also the boats - yes, even my own boat: I'm pleased that they find it beautiful, too.’

Besides the historic element it's also nice to live in contact with water, Ben explains, with its reverberations and its animals. He likes to share his bread with coots and ducks from time to time.

A sense of freedom

What makes this place nice as well is that it prevents uniformity – both in the architecture and in the way of life of its inhabitants. In the Noorderhaven, there is at least a bit (‘just a bit’, stresses Ben) more autonomy: everyone can paint their boat any colour they like. ‘Ten metres away from here, if you only cross the road, different rules apply.’

And in fact, on the so-called mainland, it is the municipality that decides over the colour of the façades, not the house owners. That way the uniformity can be controlled.

The sense of autonomy is one of the small, but important details that help to give breathing space to this place. An air of je ne sais quoi, as the French say, a freer atmosphere. ‘Of course, we're not really free, or against the established order’, Ben says. ‘We pay taxes too, we participate in the rules and the system. But we have at least a certain sense of freedom. Yes, maybe that's one of the reasons why I continue living here.’

‘The boat gives shape and structure to your day. Certain habits are necessary, you can't neglect them’

Even though the boat is fixed and stable, it keeps a part of its sense of oscillating diversities, the charm of free precariousness that each kind of adventure reveals. This atmosphere of beauty and freedom is palpable even for visitors. The same freedom that’s inherent to the boat, of being able to leave, to change residence, to have flexible roots.

‘When I was young,’ Ben tells, ‘I lived on a houseboat with my girlfriend for ten years, travelling through different cities: in Belgium, in Rotterdam, in Amsterdam, here in Groningen. When I retire, I don't exclude taking a smaller boat, and becoming a ‘ship nomad’ again.’

A mutual and two-sided exchange

Ben doesn't hide the fact that sometimes he ‘gets really sick of the way of life dictated by the boat’, though. He even almost bought a 'normal' house once. Because ‘the positives also become negatives: getting wood for the stove, painting the façade, water tanking, and so on. It is not that you open your door and live in it. Every day you are conditioned by it. That's the beauty of it as well, but sometimes it can be too much.’

For Jan, a neighbour of Ben's, exactly this is one of the advantages of this way of life: ‘The boat gives shape and structure to your day. You have to get up early, load the water. Certain habits are necessary, you can't neglect them. By taking care of them, you become more aware of your time, but also, for example, of the energy footprint of your life.’

On a boat like this, water, gas and electricity consumption are not just numbers that you barely check on your bills at the end of the month. They are burdens you carry day by day, even physically. Sustainability, before becoming an ethical and political responsibility, springs from the concrete form of life itself. ‘Here you only use what you really need. It's capitalism that inspires us with induced desires, for things we don't need’, adds Ben.

He smiles. ‘If you think about it,  even the boat itself is sustainable. It wasn't built to be inhabited: it was already there. The object that had finished fulfilling its primary function was not thrown away, but given another life. And in the future – who knows? Maybe it will be able to become a boat again.’

This reminds me of what philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote about architecture: ‘Inhabiting means creating, preserving and intensifying habits, that is, ways of being.’

 

It sounds like a relationship in two directions: on the one hand, a house (or a boat) contributes to shaping our habits, rhythms and way of living. But at the same time our choices, desires and way of living give different forms, colours and functionalities to the place we inhabit. Yes, I like to see it as a kind of mutual and two-sided exchange, as a relationship that goes beyond the concept of mere utility.

A relationship, a surprise, an adventure. And so, taking leave of Ben and his boat, we cross the little gangboard that takes us back to the mainland. We were on a houseboat, which was fixed to the ground. Yet, I feel as if I have travelled a lot. Between stories, rivers and ports, which the boat and the Noorderhaven, with their metamorphoses, know how to reveal to us every time.

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