Reflections- Man’s search for meaning, or What’s it all about Alfie –part 2.

I started this piece when we left the Rhine in early July. I finish it as we wind up the summer in September. One of the conversations we sometimes have is about the purpose of a trip like this. Does it have one? Does it need one? Should we even ask the question? So here are some thoughts along the way.


After cruising white knuckle style down the Rhine it is interesting to be back in canal meditative mode.  The Rhine as you may have gathered from previous blogs was all involving. From the spectacular scenery to the raging floods and fast moving waters the experience was 100% engrossing. Nothing else could impinge on one’s consciousness when guiding a 13,500kgm boat through rough (up to 1 meter waves) fast moving water(10kph current) amongst large barges going up and down stream at 10knots through the water. Indeed it took both of us on duty all the time. Two sets of eyes being better than one in seeing the approaching hazards and blue flags (signifying that they should be passed on the starboard side).


The Rhine gorge.


Now we have turned off the Rhine onto canals which flow not at all and have minimal traffic. In fact one might even be tempted to think of them as boring as they are quite straight and although one has to stay on duty the movements of the wheel are pretty subtle to stay on track.



A meditative canal


And so from full involving attention there is now room in one’s consciousness for thoughts, ideas and randomness. I sit at the wheel pointing the boat down a clear straight calm canal at 10 kph where previously I was looking at moving waters and blind curves and 300 tonne barges close together all travelling at speeds up to 20kph. Time now for thought and meditation.




Koln cathedral with some great scaffolding. Soaring. Spiritual?


And what do my thoughts turn to? Why am I here? Why am I doing this? And of course the quintessential ‘to where is human society evolving?’

Not easy questions as it turns out.


I am here because I can be. Retired with sufficient income to pay the monthly bills opens up some opportunities. Living in Europe is brilliant. The history, the cultures and of course the wine. I have to say a word or two about the wine as it is so delicious.  There have been a number of articles where supposedly wine experts were taken in by €2 wines from Lidl or Aldi.  But that is in fact where wine tasting comes into focus. Everyone has different taste. You like that wine I like this one. It is not an absolute science it is a subjective one. We can agree about corked wines or chemicalized wines or sweet or dry but beyond that it is a matter of personal taste (think Retsina!).

All of that being said there is no question that the wines of the Rhine and Mosel are consistently the best white wines to virtually everyone’s palette. We bought a case from a winery overlooking Rudesheim of absolutely the most delicious white wine I have ever tasted for €6.95 a bottle. We have bought more in the store for €7.69 as we travel on but will probably not see it again as we move further east.



The local wine in Hassmersheim and Ayja’s wine bible.


So that’s the wine. And now an Ad brought to you by Climate Change©.


I must confess to a scientific belief system that closely correlates with the IPCC when it comes to the climate change that is arriving as I write. (The 5th assessment report came out yesterday. Available here http://www.ipcc.ch  Not good news) And yet I am driving a diesel powered boat around Europe. I would like to see the tar sands wound down as the dirtiest oil producer on the planet. This while being conscious that every drop of fuel we use on the west coast of Canada is tar sands oil. So ambiguities and conflicts are built into who I am and what we are doing as a race.  Also I must acknowledge that the Canadian dollar’s strength is driven by our drawer of water and hewer of wood status, and specifically at this moment of Canada’s history by being drawers of oil from the tar sands. This strength in our dollar is partly responsible for my ability to be in Europe. And yet I post and support the forces that would shut the tar sands down and cause our dollar to collapse back to 65 cents US. The ambiguity and irreconcilability of my personal life and the life of humanity are some of the meditative thoughts that now occupy my consciousness.


And then there is compassion as a dominant theme to my intellectual and emotional path.  I have been studying empathy for a number of years now and have even been teaching it to mediators. It turns out that it can be taught. For myself I can sometimes feel the real empathy that makes one a sterling human being and sometimes I cannot. Sometimes I just want to say “Get a life buddy and stop whining”.  Last November I attended the first Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference in London and promised to write some notes about it to my mediator friends.  Whilst in Spain I started to do so but only got the first few paragraphs down before being distracted. I needed to watch the keynote speakers again online before writing but never had really good WiFi as we travelled (video eats up ‘pay as you go’ SIM cards in short order).


The link to the piece is here. http://martingolder.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/empathy-and-compassion-in-society/



Now we have passed Berlin and left Hamburg for the mouth of the Elbe and will cross northern Germany and Holland to Groningen. Both I and Barb have written already about Potsdam, Berlin and Mecklenburg and specific to this missive was my thoughts on Berlin’s dark history.


This is the link to Berlin.





So what’s it all about? Life is a mystery I guess. But I’m totally OK with mysteries and in fact embrace Mystery. My need to know has faded.


So now we are in the final few weeks of this years adventure. We have crossed the estuaries of the Elbe and the Weser and tomorrow will cross the Ems estuary. All of these are open to the North Sea and the weather but so far the crossings have been reasonably calm with only the wakes to deal with (1 meter waves). We have taken a few waves over the bow which have showed Skookum’s metal. (that’s steel).



The Elbe at Hamburg


Is there purpose to our travels? Is there purpose to our lives? I must say that ultimately I have no idea to the answer to these questions. We have had visitors who have had great experiences with us and maybe this contribution is enough.


So see you all at Pub Night in Victoria in October.


It has been an awesome summer. Hard work at times and hard emotions at others but ‘Hey. That’s life, Eh?”



September 1st 2013

On the Elisabethfehnkanal Germany.




P.S. It is only a few days since I wrote the sign off piece there above and since that time major events have happened to us and all over the world.  I see that I recently titled this piece ‘Reflections’. So reflect I must. Bare my soul- tell all- …


We are back in Holland, or at least I am. Barbara’s mother and Joan have been visiting for a few days and accompanied us on a short trip from Delfzijl to Groningen, and Barbara has just accompanied them on their journey back to the UK. After John and Nancy left we made the jump to Holland across our last estuary after being held in Bingum for a day by Force 8 winds in the estuary.



John guiding us down the Elbe


(I am digressing for an evening with Led Zepplin II

Brilliant. Even better than Led1  if that’s possible. )


I am alone on the boat at the moment. ‘Baching it’ they used to say. Barbara is away for a week. Unimaginable. Certainly one the features of our trip has been pretty much 24/7 living together. Probably because the necessity of both our attentions most of the time we have not been apart much. And I will say that we could probably write up a storm about this. It has been great. Barbara is the worrier about most things. I was mostly worried how this close proximity thing would work out. Perhaps it helps that she is a social worker and counselor and that I am a mediator studying empathy and compassion.


I decided to play Led1 again when II finished before going on to III tomorrow.


It is good to be back in Holland again. I walked through an area today of old trailers and buses in an encampment that had a communal feeling and thought how great it is that people could choose to live at many levels without being unduly harassed by authority. It feels as though the Dutch invented social systems. (In fact Bismark invented a fair number of the social systems that we take for granted as we discovered in Germany: pensions, welfare reform and education). After the war the Dutch obviously had a huge need for lots of  housing and at one point in the post war period probably 50% of the population lived in public housing.  They invented and evolved sophisticated housing policy over 50 years that the rest of the world always turned to as the gold standard. As a housing activist for many years the Dutch were my heros.


The Dutch are nothing if not pragmatic. I have to keep pinching myself to remind myself that the canals we are on and the towns we are passing through are all below sea level. We descended in a lock from the sea to the canal. (Amsterdam’s gigantic airport, Schipol is 4 meters below sea level.) The Dutch also have a reputation as wheeler dealers. They have been a major world maritime power and traders between Europe and the rest of the world.  Rotterdam is the largest port in the world on many scales and parts of the Waal (the Rhine in Holland) are the busiest pieces of water in the world. (Shanghai is currently taking over some of the largest, biggest categories).



The busiest intersection in the world.


Barb is back and we have 10 days until we leave Skookum, our home in Europe to return to Canada. I have quite mixed feelings. It will be truly wonderful to see our families and friends. It will I am sure be wonderful to be back in our house. I am not sure about all that space but we will get used to it quickly I know. But as you have seen from Barbara’s great blogging Europe has been an awesome experience. Think -hanging out in Laos or Thailand but you are in Europe for the same price. (OK a bit more). I had anticipated a little more time just laying out in a recliner on the deck reading or writing or sleeping or drinking Gin and Tonics. We did some of all these things but by and large there was quite a lot of hard work keeping it all together and dealing with the logistics of travel. We also covered a lot of ground, correction, water, which meant we occasionally pushed on when at another time we would just stop. A philosophy which some old boaters told us when we first arrived was to travel until you saw somewhere you wanted to stop and then stay there until you want to leave. Sounds simple, easy, facile even but is actually good advice and we didn’t always take it. Sometimes we would move on to get somewhere else rather than to leave where we were. I can tell I must be a power boater now.  The old joke is that power boaters are destination driven to get from A to B. Sailors point the boat towards B but don’t really care if they ever get there. They take the long way round. The long road home.


Count down. Discussions over packing, suitcases, what goes? What stays?


We have found a shipyard in Sneek that was recommended by Boss on Carpi, an Aquanaut.  So really this is it. No answers just questions. Questions lead to infinite possibilities. An answer leads to a singularity.


Posted at Schipol

The Netherlands.












5 comments on “Reflections- Man’s search for meaning, or What’s it all about Alfie –part 2.

  1. Food for thought, indeed Martin. Thanks and welcome home!
    Bill Bowie

  2. Ha! So you’ve left an opening for next years travels, to try out the advice from the old sailors! 🙂

  3. Thank you. I have enjoyed your sharing what you have experienced and thought

  4. Congratulations on surviving Close Encounters of the Married Kind! Can’t wait to have you both back in Victoria.

  5. Regarding empathy and compassion: I found this recent paper interesting – it rings true.


    “New research suggests “superfluous apologies,” such as expressing sorrow for bad weather, builds trust.”

    But now that it’s out there in the public domain, con men and sociopaths can use this information just like you or I. They function on trust too.

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