The floating houses on the canals are today one of the most symbolic ways of Dutch living. But as much as canal houseboats are a floating dream today, as stigmatized were they only 30 years ago. Meet the people that lived through these years on a houseboat and have seen this change.
You may have seen them laying like a string of pearls in the water, wishing one of them was yours. The houseboat of Amsterdam is the most idyllic way of living. Much closer to a romantic canal view you can’t get. But when we take a step back in history we find that the canal houses were not always as popular.
The year is 1980 and we are in the middle of Amsterdam’s prime squatting years. The streets are filled with chaos and protesters are screaming ’Geen woning, geen kroning!’ (No housing, no crowning!). The living situation in Amsterdam was in a crisis. Many people of Amsterdam needed a rooftop to live under. Like the sailors of Amsterdam’s early years, the houseboat was a solution in a time when there was not much else to choose from.
The status of the canal houseboat then was not quite the same as it is now. Back then it was merely a boat used for a living, since there was nothing else to choose from. It was looked down on as a poor and low way of living. Today however, a houseboat is no longer just a boat that you also can live in, it is a fully equipped house with the most beautiful water views and one of the highest price stags in Amsterdam.
Around the time the squatters were protesting for getting kicked out of their accommodation, Elisabeth and Hans Taselaar Schlager were trying to find a home to start their life in. Elisabeth only had one condition: a houseboat or nothing. Through meeting them, they tell me about how it really is to live on a canal houseboat.
You Elisabeth, moved from Vienna to Amsterdam, why did you choose to make the houseboat your home?
Elisabeth: I come from the nature, and the houseboat gives me this feeling being in nature and by being able to work on the terrace or on the water. I did not want to live outside of Amsterdam, however, I wanted to live in the center of Amsterdam. Having my own space like this gives a feeling of living on an island.
You say that you feel like the houseboat is your own private space, but isn’t it very intimate when the boats are passing by just outside your window?
Elisabeth: No, I do not get disturbed by it. We are also very lucky here since this canal (Da Costakade) is very calm and very few boats pass by here.
Hans: I wake up by this window and I am just amazed by the view we have, the sunbeams dancing on the roof reflecting from the water.
You have to build a lot on this boat yourself. It must have taken you a lot of hard work trying to build a house on the water?
Hans: Today it is very easy to live on a houseboat. There are more skilled techniques on how to work and build on a house boat. Not like in the 80’s. We were part of a small houseboat community in which we shared our experiences on how to work on the boat. Nowadays you do not really share that knowledge in the same way since there is expert help available. But I miss that sometimes. We had a really tight connection.
So you had a strong connection with the other people living on the houseboat. How is the feeling of community in your neighborhood when you are living on a houseboat today? Do you feel like you are living in a house or in a boat?
Elisabeth: I feel like I am living on a boat. It’s because when I look out I see the water and I am alone here. I don’t feel disturbed by neighbors. It is my island in Amsterdam. It is my own place where I am completely safe.
"It is my island in Amsterdam. It is my own place where I am completely safe."
Looking at the houseboats floating in the water they do look like the most idyllic way to live, but are there any drawbacks of living on a houseboat?
Elisabeth: We have to ventilate it very well and keep the humidity on a good level. When the seasons change you have to remove the humidity to keep the air good in here. But a regular house in Holland needs to deal with the many of the same issues if there is a lot of rain and water.
Hans: There is a lot of maintenance work with the boat. We have been working on this boat for a long time. In the beginning, we did not even have a shower in the house but had to shower using an outdoor shower on the terrace.
You also raised your family here, how was that?
Elizabeth: It was very nice. Our daughter was actually born here on the boat. We had two cats and we had our daughter playing on the terrace. We put some plexiglass around the terrace to make sure she wouldn’t fall into the water. Also, we had her taking swimming classes really early so if she would fall into the water she would know how to swim.
Having a family and two cats on a boat sounds a bit crowded. Do you feel like it was hard to live on, such a limited space?
Elisabeth: For me, it was very nice to be able to live on, a small space. Because it demanded of me to change in the way of not having too much stuff. I grew up in a 1000 square meter house. But when I came to Amsterdam I first lived in just 28 square meters. So I learned how to live with little stuff and be very happy and free. The real change in my life was about the question of how I want to identify myself. Do I identify myself by living big or small, what do I need to be a happy person? I found my happiness and freedom in living like this.
Thank you, Elisabeth and Hans, for opening up your home for me and showing me how it is to really live like an 'Amsterdammer'.
Words and photography by Linnea.