In the summer of 2015, Paul Zweverink called a man about a boat. The conversation did not go well. “Why do you want the boat?” asked the owner. “Why?” replied Paul, confused. “To live!” The owner wasn’t convinced. “But you’re a very old man,” he explained, as if this made everything clearer. Paul was angry. “Are you afraid I’ll fall in the water and drown because I cannot walk?” The deal was never struck.
Groningen is a city of bikes and boats. Each day thousands of people weave their way though it’s streets, along it’s cycle lanes and across it’s bridges. They glance at the city’s canals, and the floating houses moored there, catching a glimpse of the lives being lived inside. Paul Zweverink’s is one such life.
It was a good thirty years before that unsuccessful conversation that the idea of living on a boat first meandered its way into Paul’s thoughts. He was halfway through a career as a teacher at a primary school in Groningen. The kids knew him as a great talker, a storyteller. When he got up from his chair, leant against the bureau in his classroom and began talking, they listened.
But away from the classroom, hidden from view, he’d been having a rough time. Several years earlier his girlfriend Fanna cheated on him. He was in his early thirties and had been planning on spending the rest of his life with her. They split. He began drinking heavily and doing cocaine. He kicked the drugs soon enough, but the boozing went on for two years. Eventually he faced up to it. “I made a switch in my head,” he says. “Stop with this nonsense – be satisfied with yourself and go on”.
He believes he came out stronger. He continued teaching, pursued his great passion for sport, and kept in the back of his mind the idea of living on the water one day. He was heavily involved in the local football scene, spending many years training local teams in his spare time. Then one season came around and he found himself without a club. A regional newspaper, Dagblad Van Het Noorden, wondered if he would be interested in freelancing for them instead. There was no question.
As a kid, his dad would ask him what he wanted to do with his life. The answer was always the same. Paul wanted to be a sports journalist. Born in 1946, he was the youngest of three brothers. His childhood was all about football, playing it on the street with the other kids, but when it came to his future he didn’t know how to pursue his passion for sports journalism. His father suggested teaching instead, and that was what happened.
Now seventy, Paul glances across the small decking where we are sat. He looks at least ten years younger, his grey hair looping stylishly over his forehead as he pours some more tea, supremely relaxed. “I never regretted it,” he says. “But I’m glad I had the opportunity to be a journalist at last.”
After just over a decade of part time freelancing, he got the offer from the newspaper to become a full time sports journalist. It was his dream job. He stopped teaching and soon found his regular reports on football and basketball being joined by monthly trips to Formula 1 races. Budapest was his favourite circuit – he liked the beauty of the city. But it was a phony world and Paul is not at his best in big groups. After six years he stopped covering motorsport but continued at the paper till he was sixty-five. For Paul it’s never just been about the highest level of competition. He is as happy watching a fifth division football game as he is interviewing a Formula 1 driver. “All my life is about sport,” he says.
But what about human connection? Following his split from Fanna there were other women, other flirts, but nothing stuck. She was the last and only serious relationship of Paul’s life. Twenty years ago he decided that he loved living on his own, loved doing things on his own. He is clear, however, that just because he is alone, doesn’t mean he is lonely. “I have many friends,” he says. “And a small number of very close ones.”
Retirement brought with it free time but, invested as he was in the local sports scene, he continued to freelance for the newspaper. After a couple of years he moved into the centre of town, but the move was a mistake. There were too many people, too much noise. However, his new commute to Groningen FC, where he reported on weekend matches, took him along a canal. He would look with interest and envy at the boats moored there. There was one in particular, with cream sides, red borders and a small decking, that stood out from the crowded waterway.
Two years later, Paul leans back in his chair, looking beyond the very same decking towards the other boats moored on the canal. “It’s the best decision I’ve made in years,” he says, smiling. This boat had become available just a few weeks after that first unsuccessful enquiry, and soon the rental was agreed. “It gives you a feeling of liberty and freedom,” he says. “It’s different than most people – maybe I like to be different.”
He glances again at the canal. “Now I know a lot about ducks,” he says, laughing. “What they do, how they sleep, how they get water open when it’s freezing – when the ducks want to have a place they can still swim, they do it in groups, in shifts. Three or four come, they make circles in the water, then they go away and other ones come. Then they have an open space.”
Paul is still busy. When he retired, the Chairman of Groningen FC asked him if he would become a mediator for the club, stepping in when the supporters and the Board disagreed. The Chairman was looking for someone who understood all the emotions of the club. He could think of no one better. And what of Fanna? Paul still sees her around Groningen sometimes but he isn’t angry. “When you are angry after that many years, you only have yourself with it,” he says, shaking his head. “She’s happy. I’m happy.”