Life turned upside down

Welcome to the inaugural blog of The Olivia Rose Diaries. Olivia Rose is the name of our boat, a 40 foot long Dutch motor cruiser, and the crew are myself, Mary-Jane Houlton, my husband Michael and our dog Maddie. I don’t spend much time on social media and never intended to write this blog, but that was before the Coronavirus caught up with us and turned our world upside down.

It might be helpful in this introduction to give you an insight into the nomadic style of our lives. We split our year into two halves, spending the winter in the UK earning enough money to be able to spend a long summer season cruising in Europe. We sold our house to buy the boat and in the winter we live in our caravan or house-sitting for friends until we can return home to Olivia Rose each Spring. 2020 was due to be our fourth season on the water, and we had hoped to spend six months cruising from France, through Belgium and on into the Netherlands.

Olivia Rose March 2020 on the Moselle

We were scheduled to leave Wales for France on March 12th 2020. A week or so before our departure date, Coronavirus began to make its presence felt in Europe. Whilst China seemed to be coming out the other side of their epidemic, the virus was hitting Italy hard and with astonishing speed. We had to make a decision whether to stay in the UK or to leave, and we chose to leave. We assumed we wouldn’t be able to travel far, if at all, but Olivia was moored in a good spot and we could hunker down and wait it out for six weeks or even two months. If things got difficult and we were needed back in the UK we would come back.

With hindsight our assumptions now seem naive, but who could have foreseen that our world could change with such astonishing speed. Four days after we arrived, France went into lockdown.

‘Lockdown’ is just a word until you find yourself living through one. Overnight all the rules by which society works and recognizes itself are ripped up and a new regime appears. Amazingly, most of us blindly accept these new rules, driven by fear of what might happen if we don’t. I say most of us because this is France, ever rebellious, and so not everyone accepted these new norms to begin with. This is changing daily for the gendarmerie are everywhere and the message is getting through, There are fewer rebels each day, for now at least.

This is a blog about living on a boat in a foreign country through a pandemic, where the most precious, simplest and taken for granted freedoms are abruptly curtailed, of days, weeks or months going nowhere, of searching for a new equilibrium and working out positive ways to fill our time, for time is the one thing we have in abundance. In many ways we are very lucky to be where we are, but we are acutely aware that the only French person who knows we even exist is the capitaln of the port and that if one or both of us become ill it will be a challenging situation.

Until March 16th history was something I read about, something that happened to other people. Now it feels as if I am living it, plunged like everyone else into an historic event that will take its place in the history books for future generations to read. I am sure I am not alone in feeling a compelling need to have a record of what happens, a personal account that goes beyond cold statistics and the latest headlines. Disaster has always bought out both the best and worst of the human race, and I hope this blog will be able to report on the many ways we manage to make the best out of a bad situation. Having said that, I have no idea what life holds over the coming months or how it is going to effect us and our loved ones. The story will tell itself, for better or for worse.

Let me begin this blog by setting the scene and introducing you to our new home. We are moored on the Moselle in north-eastern France in a port called Nautic Ham, which is situated on the outskirts of Basse-Ham village. Our nearest town is Thionville, whilst Metz, a more recognisable city, is approximately 35 kilometres away. The borders with Luxembourg and Germany are both 18 kilometres distant respectively. A week ago we had plans to visit these countries but their proximity has now become irrelevant. Our world has shrunk to the immediate vicinity. We are allowed to go to the supermarket, to the boulangerie and to walk the dog for short times. Nothing else, excluding a medical emergency.

Olivia at her mooring in Basse Ham
View from the pontoon

If you have to be locked down, it doesn’t get much better than Nautic Ham. The marina is only a few years old and the amenities ie showers and toilets, are excellent. There are walks and cycle tracks along the river, the boulangerie is a ten minute stroll and supermarkets are easily accessible. We have electricity on the pontoons, so we can cook and keep warm, but no water supply. This would have been turned on at the end of March, once the risk of frost was past, but we are not sure if that will happen now that the marina is closed. We have been given the keys to the clubhouse for access to the showers and toilets, and we fill plastic containers to bring water over to the boat for drinking and washing-up.

There are 41 boats in this marina and we are the only people in it. There are no other live-aboards, nobody visiting their boat for the weekend, nobody in the office as they have been sent home. If this had happened in early April we would have had other boaters for company, but we got here earlier in the season than most people. I have mixed feelings about our solitude. On the one hand we stand less chance of catching the virus, but it would be nice to see another face. Marinas are usually bustling places, people always coming and going, and the contrast of silence and stillness is striking. It feels most eerie at night, taking our dog Maddie out before bedtime, when we cross a wide floodlit paved area that leads from the water to the clubhouse. The bright lights keep the darkness at bay but several of the boats here, including ours, were broken into a couple of weeks before we arrived and so over the first few nights I found myself feeling anxious, wondering if anybody was lurking in the shadows. I’m gradually getting used to it, for so far we have not been disturbed at night, and can feel myself beginning to expand into all this space that suddenly belongs to us. Even so I’ve taken the precaution of putting our sturdy wooden rolling pin down by my bedside table – just in case. I can’t imagine using it but it makes me feel better.

So this is where we shall be staying for who knows how long, certainly longer than six weeks. I shall end this first blog here but I am sure there will be more news over the coming days. This has been the strangest week of my life. I expect it is only going to get stranger.

8 thoughts on “Life turned upside down

  1. Mary-Jane, this makes for an excellent read. You should spread this to a wider audience, as many would enjoy it. Please continue, as it really helps to get over the tedium of being ‘locked up’. I look forward to the next installment, however trivial the content might have to be – your trip to the supermarket, an in depth look at the other boats around you, a description of the barges ploughing past you – in fact anything. Well done and please continue.

    Like

  2. Nice to get some up to date news on you both. Your new world seems to have contracted significantly. Good luck to you both.

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  3. We are on a 20 meter barge in Chalon en Champagne, with 4 other couples live-aboard.
    We have a great existance (not used with malice) always keeping our social distance but good company for one another.
    Best advice, keep a routine, DON’T stay in your PJs all day! Do jobs on the boat, but don’t rush them, what was once a hours task should now take at least a day!
    Stay fit, walk the dog. Watch the season change; this is an opportunity to slow our lives and see life as it ‘happens’ in place of the hustle and bustle we have spent most of our lives pursuing. Play games, listen to music, paint, your boat or a canvas. Most of all, laugh.
    And use technology to contact all those wonderful people we ‘promised to call’. Most of all, stay safe. Cheers to all.

    Liked by 1 person

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