In the summer of 2023, Wendy and Henry were in the Netherlands for the van der Laan extended family reunion in Stadskanaal. Before and after, they explored other parts of Holland and Europe as well. Altogether, this 2023 summer quest had deep roots, not just in the trips that we’ve made previously, but in a shared experience that reaches back past immigration, through the centuries and across the whole of Europe.

Praeludium Familial – 1971

My father was poor as a proverbial church mouse, so it was our good fortune that he had a close friend from the hood back in Winschoten who made good (in South Africa) and felt the bond strongly enough to look us up and then invite our whole family of nine to visit his millionaire’s four over Christmas, 1970. On the return trip we were able to stop over in Holland to visit family, so I got my first, brief taste of the old country.

While in Groningen, just arrived at Opa and Oma’s, I went for a walk by myself and promptly got lost. By now that address is indelibly etched on my mind, but then it escaped me and it took a kind Gronginger’s phone call to my uncle in Leiden (whose address I did know) to set me straight.

For the rest, fifty-two years later, my memory does not serve me well. My mom’s photo album shows hardly anything but extended family pictures at re-gatherings sweetened by eighteen years of separation. No cathedrals or museums that I can remember, though I can’t imagine my dad not showing us the Martinikerk. And I am sure, only by virtue of a photo’s indubitable testimony, that I saw the farmhouse where my mother turned ten.

None the less, this experience clearly wormed its way into my being and set the stage for recurring visits and a deepening appreciation of my European heritage.

Praeludium Fraternal – 1974

In the old days, there was some advantage to rising up from a poor family. At eighteen, on my way into university I was assured of grants, so I felt comfortable skipping the summer job and galivanting around Europe instead (I don’t recall how comfortable my parents felt). It’s not like I hadn’t already paid my dues, going way back, with part-time jobs running a paper route, pumping gas and delivering flowers.

Brother Wayne, my paper route partner, came along and turned seventeen in the Alps. Trekking through Europe is a rite of passage, sometimes exuding the whiff of privilege. But we paid our own way through Europe (on Five Dollars a Day), and I’d say that it was a good trip and well deserved.

With our two month Eurail passes ($400?) we clocked many miles. Our youth hostel cards put roofs overhead. With long legs we strode through the Uffizi and the Louvre in a couple of hours each, and many other places beside. We climbed mountains and Notre Dame Cathedral and saw many things we’d never seen before.

We were disciplined enough to keep little note books, write home regularly and to (mostly) keep to a budget of four pictures (slides) per day. The stack of letters is still around, waiting to be transcribed, but the slides are mostly crap — we had the most basic Practika SLRs with no metering, and we were still novices, though the slide of Michelangelo’s David still presents surprisingly well.

Coming from the new world, with its subdivisions, malls, beaches and provincial parks, with nary a mountain in sight and the Centennial still in our rear-view mirror we were apprised of something greater and deeper and wider and older. And that is worth a lot.

Praeludium Matrimonial – 1983

Seven post-secondary years of education later, my knowledge had caught up with my understanding and we determined to squeeze in an eighth year, in Holland and Europe – a journey to the source . By this time, I was three years married. It’s probably no accident that Wendy and I share the same roots and second generation experiences, so our year abroad was mutually rewarding. She had been to Holland as well, and has more family there than I do.

Before settling into my church music studies and Wendy’s Estec job, we had three summer months for galivanting. That cemented our marriage, and stands as a major inflection point in our lives. From there we settled down and conceived a family and future whose responsibilities are still with us.

There are forty years between then and now and my memory is not much better than for the earlier trips. It’s amazing to me (and somewhat disheartening) how our recollections get shaped, even replaced, by a scattering of photos, maybe some sparse journals, and the story telling of a few (mostly negative or stressful) incidents.

Fortunately, the photographs were getting better, and we both persevered with our letter writing. Perhaps in 2023 we can top that. And then we can bask, for a while anyway, in the recent memory of a rich experience.

Postlude Matrimonial – ????

We’re not that far yet! And I hope it’s some time before the postlude plays out. If this summer in the old world is our last, then we will have done well. Our trip is far more organized than the others and we go into it with forty more years of living and understanding to help us appreciate the people and places we will see.

Who knows what the future will bring. I am only five years out from the age at which my father died, but Wendy’s dad is ninety-five. Whatever the end to our journey together, we will have lived it fully and faithfully. May all go well this summer so that we can rest more easily in our retirements.

Henry de Jong
June 30, 2023

Barcelona, Amiens

Friday, July 7, 2023:
Barcelona La Raval

We left St. Catharines in good time on Thursday, stopping to say a quick good bye to Wendy’s dad. Traffic was slow but we had plenty of time. The four of us had our last supper together at Tim Hortons before we parted ways at Terminal 3. The daughters Jovita and Laura said goodbye to their departing parents. Role reversal. The whole trip went smoothly. We were on time leaving and arriving. But as usual we got little sleep on the plane.

Exiting Barcelona’s airport was a breeze, much better than at Pearson. We caught the AeroBus which had WiFi so we could connect with our host. From there, a two stop trip on the subway (after lots of stairs) before our host met us on the platform and walked us to her (now our) home. Again, lots of stairs. We’re mid-way up a six storey building. Our host showed us around, before leaving for her own trip.

We had a nap before leaving (with lots of keys) and walking around the neighbourhood towards the Sant Antoni market and back. This is a nineteenth century grand building designed as a market space and now thoroughly modernized at ground level with many stalls selling the same things; meat, fish, produce and lots more. On our walk we stopped in multiple cell phone shops looking for a SIM card and checked out mutiple restaurant menus.

But we were getting tired and decided to just go to a supermarket, pick up some things and eat at home. We went to bed soon after, but both had a hard time sleeping at first. To be expected with jet lag, I suppose.

Saturday, July 8:
Barcelona Waterfront

Our first ful day in Barcelona started off late. I was up earlier to work on this blog, but Wendy did not wake till after eleven. She never sleeps that late, so it surprised her. We had planned to go to a nearby farmer’s market that morning, so after no breakfast we got out to search for it. By the time we did there was very little left so we headed back.

But not before answering the call of the golden arches, very close to our subway stop. There’s no coffee pot at our place (this we realized after buying two kinds of coffee), so we took the advice of our countrymen and entered in. The kiosks, with English menus, gave us the opportunity to order ‘American’ coffee without language struggles, which we enjoyed in the quiet, cool space.

We had lunch back at our flat and then settled down for a siesta, both enjoying naps. By four we were ready to go to the beach. We figured out which bus to catch and crowed on for the twenty minute trip. We easily found a spot and settled in on our lightweight towels (no lawn chairs, no umbrella, no food cooler, no nothing). I went swimming a couple of times. It’s stony going in, and as I gingerly step through, I picture my dad ouching his way into the water at the Pinery. The water gets deep nice and fast here. No walking for a mile to get wet.

An old couple (like us) next to us were reading English books so I struck up a conversation. They were from Dublin, and came here often to stay at their apartment, though he confessed to getting bored after a few weeks with a hankering to get back to fly fishing. Later, by water’s edge, we got to talking and, after telling of our planned trip, he revealed an old love of his for the island of Terschelling. For ten years, he said, when he was a youth, he would go to Terschelling every summer for up to four weeks with as many as ten other Dublin youths to have a good time. This was the time (70s?) when Irish music was popular in Holland, so they were beloved by the locals.

We did not last too long in the sun, so we packed up what little we had and went walking towards the Fish. Part of the allure of Barcelona is the people watching, so we stood at the railings several times where the long shadows had reached to survey the scene. Two essential needs were met; a decent WC and an ice cream stand where we bought slushies.

At the end of the long stretch of beach is the harbour or Olympic Port, where we sat for a while before turning back.

We walked around the harbour and olympic area for a while before going back the way we came, thinking now to catch the bus back to our place. But the D20s kept rolling by with standing room only so we kept walking. Eventually we found ourselves on the inner harbour where there were wide plazas and lots of people out for the evening. We looked around for a while, bought some fries and sat, walked further and finally got a bus that wasn’t packed.

It’s only a short walk from the main Avenue del Para-lel to our place, and just before we’re there is a nice supermarket that we will make regular use of. We’ll do the European thing of buying what we need every day. That way we won’t be carrying large amounts up four flights of stairs. We had supper at 10:30 and didn’t get to bed till 12:30, so we felt at one with the culture.

Sunday, July 9:
Barcelona Gothic Quarter

I’m filling in Sunday after Monday, and it’s already a bit of a blur. A good indicator that some kind of note taking is necessary. Wendy got up an hour earlier, at ten, that day. This is normally the time we’d be in church, so we knew we were late. We managed to get out of the door an hour or so later and started walking, for our first time towards the Gothic Quarter.

When we came along side of our first cathedral, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi, we heard the sounds of worship and entered in, unobstructed. There was a service in progress, with a small group of regulars sitting forward and some visitors at the back. We stood a few times for some responses, sat and listened to a Spanish sermon and basked in the sound of some accomplished organ playing. But when it came time for the Eucharist we remembered our place and left.

A short walk further and we came into the square in front of the Cathedral of Barcelona, the city’s main church for a very long time. Here there was no question of entering – the way was ribboned off from tourists and guarded as well. We did not begrudge them their space, walked around the perimeter and determined to come back another day.

From there we just ambled through narrow streets and let the emerging plazas and markets and monumental buildings surprise us. Out of the ordinary, was a display of columns left over from the Roman Colosseum. The Barcelonians couldn’t bear to tear them down so they just incorporated them and built closely around them.

We’re still struggling with using our Google Maps to figure out where we need to go and how to get there. Perhaps when I finally get a SIM card and some data we will become as accomplished as the next generation already is. We will return with saved locations and a more coherent plan.

After siesta we returned to the beach and set up closer to the north end, marked by the Fish. The water was too filthy to swim in, so we did as all the others who were sitting and reclining on the sand, catching the sun and the breeze. What with the low sun and the short stays we haven’t gotten anywhere near to being sunburned.

We returned by bus, crowed in with people like us who hadn’t had their supper yet. We stopped in again at the supermarket just around the corner from us before concluding our day, tired but satisfied, with supper and sleep.

Monday, July 10:
Barcelona – Montjuic

Monday was our earliest day yet. Soon we’ll be on track again. We managed to get away by 9:30, walked over to the Paral-lel subway stop, discovered a tunnel over to the Funicular (cable rail car) which took us up Montjuic to the Telerefic (cable car) which took us up to the Castle of Montjuic. We have a four day Hola transit pass which paid for the first but not the cable car. It’s a good thing we came as early as we did. Just before the Telerefic opening time of 10:00 a hoard of people joined the line – mostly children.

Coming out to the fort entrance we stopped to admire the view out over the city – a bit hazy but still good. It helps to understand the nature of the city nestled between mountains on a plain with wide access to the sea. We got our first real glimpse of the industrial harbour, with its containers, oil tanks and cranes, and two mammoth cruise ships. It’s important to consider Barcelona’s origins as a shipping, trading and industrial center. There must have been some very unlovely aspects to this.

The path meandered away beside the fort walls, and I led Wendy on to what turned out to be an unfortunately long walk all the way around the fort and gardens. To call them gardens was a stretch – it all looked very arid to me. Finally back to where we started we paid admission and entered the fort. Our tap Passport Visa cards make it all so wonderfully painless.

I’ve seen plenty of forts, and I prefer them with trees and bit less baked. But it was impressive. Having walked along the walls on the outside added to the impression. As a builder, what always strikes me about these constructions is the tremendous amount of labour and material that goes into them. And the planning, supervising and determination that went with it. Trudeau wouldn’t be able to pull something like that off in a million years.

There was a good information center that seemed to suggest that Spaniards had more to fear from each other than from any foreign invader. They did a pretty good job of making life miserable for the Dutch too, as I recall. But, just like Canada defeated the States, Holland defeated Spain. Montjuic didn’t do them much good there.

From the bottom of the cable car run we took a bus down the mountain and stopped at the Poble Espanyol, a 1929 Exhibition displaying Spain’s regional architecture and culture, and hosting various craft shops. It was pleasant enough, but I prefer the real thing. And we are, everywhere, faced with the reality that we can’t buy stuff as we go if we want to keep travelling light.

That was enough for one day, except for another stop at McDonalds for coffee before going home,

A late lunch and a nap brought us to beach time again. We boarded the D20 again and got off this time in a place where we could walk to the south end of the beach, passing Sant Miquel with its smattering of nudists to settle in at Sant Sebastia for an hour. Here the water was passably clean, so I had a decent swim, twice. Even Wendy went in.

The bus trip back was overly crowded and we felt very out of place. We hardly made a dent in the average age of this gaggle of teens and twenty-somethings. I have no idea how many of them were locals and how many were tourists. I suspect that what draws young tourists to Barcelona also encourages youngsters to live here.

We saw more of this when we went out, after supper, at dusk, to walk “La Rambla”. Even after eight the air was a bit too close for me, but I can see why so many emerge at this time, to spread their wings and socialize. We walked up to the Placa de Catalunya and then back to our cross connecting street, de Sant Pau. I reckon we were in bed before most of those we left behind.

Tuesday, July 11:
Barcelona Cathedrals

We kept close to home on Tuesday, catching a bus only once to get home with tired legs. We also did not go to the beach. But the day was full enough. In the morning we entered the spacious, grand, elegant, well appointed Barcelona Maritime Museum. There aren’t enough superlatives for this. The fact that the high stone arches are still intact after 600 years and supporting a beautiful (no doubt newer) beam and plank roof, just the way they were when it was built to house the city’s ship building industry, is incredible. It is a veritable cathedral of shipping commerce.

The whole thing has been thoroughly modernized, and very tastefully so. The building bays serve as display areas, all having to do with ships. But the centerpiece was a replica of sixteenth century Spanish Galleon that spanned almost the whole length of the building. Beautifully built, it is also sumptious in its decorations. A bridge allowed passage overhead to see the rowing benches on one side and the deck on the other.

After the museum, we made good on our intentions to eat out once this week, at one of the many restaurants that serve locals with fixed price daily menus. This one, recommended to us, was established in 1786. We got in without a reservation and enjoyed a very good meal. I chose Catalan dishes where I could. We connected briefly with a three generation family, of Mexican origin, some now living in Texas.

Our next stop was the Barcelona Cathedral, which was now open to the paying public. This cathedral is quite the display – lavish both in its architectural adornments and in its (many gilded) sculptures. But it’s the bones of the thing that get me going. I made some first attempts to do a ceiling panorama – an x-ray so to speak.

The bonus for me was an elevator to the roof. I can’t say I’d ever been on a cathedral roof before, so this was something else. There were galvanized steel gang planks running front to back and to one side that allowed good views of the whole thing, not to mention panoramic views of the city. This sometime roofer and sider loved seeing how the water was drained away. The roof was ‘flat’, unlike Notre Dame for example where a timber roof covers everything with another layer (and is more likely to catch fire).

From here we walked to another cathedral, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. We were especially interested in seeing this because of our watching the Netflix series ‘Cathedral by the Sea.’ There was an option here of going up, for a fee, but on hearing there was no elevator, we declined (spoiled already).

This cathedral was much simpler in its design and decoration. It also had no choir blocking the view of the altar from the people. And it had many more pews. (These are all functioning sanctuaries.)

After this, we were done and needed to get home for a rest. Since we had a four day pass we found a bus that would take us there. We did some grocery shopping right away, and I also finally got a SIM card for my phone so that I can stay connected while walking about.

Toast for supper, and then another walk from dusk through to night fall. We experimented with Google Maps directions (now enabled by data) and used it to locate two Roman remnants, one of which we’d seen already without noting it.

Wednesday, July 12:

Wednesday was to be our big outing. Montserrat is touted as a must-see from Barcelona, so we accepted the wisdom and went. A short subway ride took us to the train station, where the train was already waiting. But we hadn’t seen where to buy tickets, so back we went through the turn styles, got help with a machine and caught the train just in time, non the worse for our confusion.

An hour later, after emerging from underground, rolling through country side and then alongside a river, we got to Aeri de Montserrat. We could have taken the incline railway also, but that seemed too tame. Packed onto a cable car with 20 other folks, over the chasm we went. The young guy controlling it said he makes the trip up to 70 times per day. When asked by one of the people aboard if there have ever been accidents, he replied, “no, – just yesterday.” It got a good laugh from everyone trying hard to pretend they weren’t just a little bit nervous.

Once at the top the view was breath taking, although pictures certainly won’t do it justice, especially with the summer haze. This is a working monastery as well as a pilgrimage site and tourists are not allowed in the basilica till noon, after mass. Hotels and restaurants have been added to accommodate all the tourists but they have been seemlessly and tastefully incorporated into the hill-top space. We enjoyed a coffee in the cafeteria and then spent an hour inside the basilica. The main attraction is the black Madonna and people were lined up for that, but we stayed in the main sanctuary, taking in it’s stained glass windows, architecture, statuary and overall grandeur. This was the darkest of the large basicila’s we’ve seen.

Then it was time to reverse our steps, going down in the cable car again, onto the train and eventually through the subway back to our flat. We’re getting the hang of the public transit system here just in time to move on.

After picking up the day’s grocery needs and a quick supper, we headed out to visit the Market De La Bacqueri, the oldest market in the city, with the structure built in the 17th century. There were places to eat and an amazing array of stalls offering sumptious fruit, spiral potato chips on sticks, empanades and burritos and more, along with several stalls selling fresh fish and all sorts of unidentified fruits of the sea. A sign prohibiting picture taking made us wonder whether some EU regulations were perhaps not being followed too strictly.

Along the way we also found a shop selling sun dresses for 5 EU. We had been scouting for a while and finally found one that fit, looked flattering enough and was super cheap. Then we meandered our way back for the evening, where Henry had to take a Zoom call for further van der Laan reunion planning, and we finally got to bed at a more usual time.

Thursday, July 13:
Beach, Monastery Sant Pau

On our final full day in Barcelona we got off to a slow start and then made our way to the beach. This time we went a little further, in front of the Olympic village, and were rewarded for the extra walking time with the nicest beach yet – all sand right into the water, beautiful warm clean water and decent bathrooms. At most of these you have to provide your own paper and squat but this one provided paper, a seat, and a sink. Bliss!

After a couple of hours in the sun and water we took another bus back which took us as close to the La Sagrada Familia as we’re going to get, and passing by the Arc de Triomf and Ciutadella Park. Even with a whole week it’s impossible to see everything we would have liked to.

When we attempted to book tickets for La Sagrada Familia on Wednesday we discovered we were much too late. We had already hemmed and hawed about going. It was the ‘thing to do’, and yet it didn’t appeal to either of us – just too over the top and, with the price, felt more like crowd funding. So the decision was made for us and instead we spent a quiet hour in the 9th century Sant Pau del Camp monastery right in front of our flat. We had the place entirely to ourselves.

Friday, July 14:
Barcelona to Amiens

After finishing packing and tidying up our home for the week, we headed to the train station and started our journey north from Barcelona. The train stopped frequently at first along the coast and in the south of France. The scenery was fabulous! Lakes and tidal pools along the Mediterranean, the Pyranees in the distance, the lovely Rhone river valley with farms and small villages and later on some much higher peaks in the distance. Train travel is great! Once the train was in the Rhone valley it picked up speed, travelling (they say) at 300 km/hr, and getting us to Paris in 6 1/2 hours.

In Paris we had to get from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord for our train to Amiens. That was a little less peaceful – especially with a language barrier. Although I had planned out every route I still went into anxiety mode and we got on the the slow train to Amiens instead of the fast one. We found our hotel, only to come to a locked door and a sign saying it was open from 5-8 pm. We were there at 9:30! But there was a telephone number so Henry, staying calm as could be while I was stressing big time, called, got the code to open the door, then called again to get our room number and up the stairs we went. 50 of them this time – 14 less than the trek up and down in Barcelona. I found the whole business uncanny – the hotel was quiet as could be and I wondered if we were the only people in it.

I picked this hotel because of it’s name, Victor Hugo Hotel, and to get European ambiance. This hotel has it in spades. There are only 10 rooms, they are tiny but sufficient. We were treated to a great breakfast downstairs this morning, along with other guests so there was more life than it seemed last evening.

Once settled last evening we went out to see a bit of the town, enjoying a glass of wine, chacuterie and a great jazz ensemble in a little square by the cathedral. There were already several hundred people just sitting on the steps outside the cathedral then, joined by hundreds more as 10:30 approached and a dazzling light and sound show began on the front of the cathedral, highlighting its architecture and scuptures. There aren’t enough superlatives to do it justice and I am so glad we had the opportunity to take it in.

Saturday, July 15:

On Saturday morning Henry ventured off to the cathedral at 7:30 already while I got a bit more shut-eye. After a lovely breakfast we headed into town, exploring a large park along with market vendors. At one time most of the town’s vegetables were grown on floating gardens. You can still take boat tours through the 300 hectares of these floating gardens although most has been given back to nature preserves and only a tiny part is still used for vegetable growing.

Then back to the cathedral to look, to reflect, to listen to an audio guide inspiring us to never give up the faith that sustained generations of believers over the centuries, and to attempt to capture its magnificence and grandeur by photo and video. This is the largest Gothic cathedral in France dating back to the 1200s. The Notre Dame in Paris can fit into this one twice over. We chatted briefly with a priest who indicated 3-400 people still attend mass there regularly.

Then it was lunch time and we wanted something authentically French so found a nice little creperie. Sticking to a gluten-free regimen has not been possible, but we try.

After lunch we took in a Marionette show, featuring Lafleur, a famous marionette, born circa 1811 in Amiens, and a long tradition of puppet theatre. We didn’t understand a word of it, but it was delightful nonetheless.

We leave early tomorrow for Den Haag, so we found a grocery store to grab some things for supper and on the train tomorrow and now we nap until it’s time for tonight’s light show.

Harlingen, Terschelling

Sunday, July 16:
Amiens to Scheveningen

Sunday morning, while Wendy packed up, Henry got in another brief visit to the cathedral. Then we were on our way again at eight – Amiens to Den Haag. We had to take six trains. Sometimes the change overs were very straightforward, at other times more challenging. One train we had planned to take was cancelled, and finding track 22 in the bowels of Antwerp station was challenging. We were also confused by the difference between languages in city names, like Anvers. It wasn’t until our train neared the city that we realized we were going to Antwerpen.

Finally in Den Haag, with the helpful assistance of someone who explained the OV chip card and routes to us, we set off on the Strandexpress tram line which dropped us off right in front of the Kurhaus Hotel. Our night at this hotel was part of a farewell gift from Jubilee upon Wendy’s retirement.

Wendy doesn’t remember when the dream of staying in such a hotel took hold – probably from one or another TV show or movie, but she’s always wanted to be a guest at least once in such a splendid place. It lived up to her hopes! Surprisingly, it was also reasonably priced, given it’s opulence. It was much the same as we would pay for a hotel in Niagara Falls or Toronto.

Once in our room, we wasted no time in donning swimwear and heading to the beach. But within minutes we realized that swimming in the sea, or even sunning on the sand, was out of the question. The waves rolled in high and fearsome, the wind whipped sand against our legs and it was just 20 degrees, before wind chill. So we headed back in and took advantage of the hotel’s pool, with plush robes, towels and slippers, feeling indulged.

Searching for a good place for dinner, we strolled along the beach boulevard checking out the endless options of restaurants, all cheek by jowl along both levels of the boulevard. We settled on a place that served English Fish & Chips and Chicken Sate for a reasonable amount. From there we strolled along both levels of the pier, all filled with places to eat.

We ventured on to the pier where there’s a ferris wheel, zipline and bungy jumping. But, with the wind whipping away, we weren’t tempted (actually, we never are). Finally back at the hotel, we zoomed with our kids again before getting a good night’s sleep in the biggest, softest bed we’re likely to experience on this trip, or ever.

Monday, July 17:
Scheveningen to Harlingen

A hotel breakfast in the fancy Kurzaal dining room would have been nice, but came with a price we weren’t prepared to pay. So we set off down to the boardwalk to find something more in line with our social standing. Of the 50-100 eating places available the night before, at 9:00 am, only two were open. Scheveningen thrives on night life – there was a casino across from the hotel and another beside it – so it seems nothing much starts until late in the morning, and probably ends in the wee hours of the next day.

We enjoyed a good breakfast omelette, like we might make ourselves, with coffee for 10 euros. After clearing out of our hotel room, we left our luggage in storage there and enjoyed more board-walking, turning briefly into the dunes and checking out a few shops. Mostly though we just enjoyed the fresh air, sand, sky and water, a welcome amount of sun and a significant drop in wind velocity.

Feeling done with Scheveningen, we gathered our stuff and left a little earlier than we’d planned, ~ 1 pm. Back at Den Haag Centraal, we got an on-the-go lunch and rebooked on our rail planner for an earlier train that would take us all the way to Leeuwarden in one go. After Saturday’s spate of train changing, this trip with only one transfer at Leeuwarden felt very relaxing.

Each day we learn something new about travelling, from how to use our Eurail pass, how to get in and out of stations, the OV chip card system, and where our hotel might be. We typically selected a place within 500 meters of the city centre, but quickly realized the city centrum and the train station aren’t necessarily in the same general location. We also wonder how we did this 40 years ago when we didn’t have google to lay out a dotted path on the map for us to follow. The walk from the station in Harlingen harbour was a bit longer than expected, but the narrow streets, canals and lovely houses and gardens made for a pleasant enough walk.

Our hotel was on the Brouwersstraat, cool because Brouwer is Wendy’s mother’s maiden name. The building is one of over 500 historical homes and momuments in the city and thus they may not install an elevator. Not a problem here, as we were finally granted a ground room floor.

After settling in, we went a-wandering again, stopping at a snack bar for a quintesential dutch meal of patate frit, croquetten, sate and lumpia. We stopped in at the Albert Hein to pick up some breakfast food, only realizing when we returned that breakfast was included here. So we’ll have our granola for lunch and supper instead. The sun sets a little before ten here, so we went to the harbour for some good views and to watch the sun drop into the Wadden Zee.

Tuesday, July 18:

Tuesday morning we thoroughly enjoyed the Harlingen Hotel Centraal breakfast. Continental breakfasts typically offer a minimal serving of bread, croissants, cheese, sandwich meat, and coffee, but Hotel Centraal has taken inspiration from America and offers a buffet of scrambled eggs, generous slices of baked ham, fruit, and even smoked salmon!

Well fed, we headed back to the station, caught the train back to Leeuwarden and spent the day exploring this lovely city, the capital of Friesland. Our first stop was the tourist information office where, in Henry’s search for his ancestors who had been pastors there, we were directed to the city archives. A very helpful and enthusiastic archivist spent a good half-hour or more digging up what he could find about Feito Ruardi and the Renemans, and came running out after us as we were leaving to share a book he’d found just of area pastors. Henry got some photocopies, and left a contact sheet.

Next stop was to be the Grote Kerk, or Jacobijnerkerk, but we found the door shut and a sign indicating it would open several hours later. We did hear tantalizing sounds of organ playing from within. This church was built in the 1300s and houses several tombs of the Orange royal family.

In the same square we came upon a momument to the Jewish community of Leeuwarden, most of whom were killed in WWII. From there we wandered along the canals where many historical ships were docked – a kind of open-air museum for the shipping industry.

Our lunch was in an large 1906 clipper which was retired in the mid 80s to become a pancake restaurant. Online information told us it wouldn’t be open on Tuesday so it was a pleasant surprise to see we could eat there after all.

More shopping then, finally finding a place where Wendy could buy a new watch, before we headed back to the Grote Kerk. Two elderly women volunteers, both members of the Grote Kerk congregation, were extremely helpful and quite excited to help us disover that two pastors on Henry’s ancestor list were inscribed on parchments displayed at the back of the church that listed them all, from the Reformation’s beginning to today.

Henry talked to them for some time, even buying a couple of small books while Wendy warmed a pew. One striking feature of this church (like Sant Pau in Barcelona) is the melding of of old and new. Without taking away from the old, modern elements, like chairs and a moveable glass stage have been added.

We also walked over to the St.Bonifatius church, the big Roman Catholic church in the city, but it was closed and we were getting tired at that point, so we made our way back to the station, stopping first at McDonald’s for ice cream and bathrooms. So far we’ve been very resourceful and, mostly, successful at avoiding pay toilets.

We had a lovely train ride back to Harlingen, chatting with an older gentleman, who had returned from a trip to Cardiff to visit his daughter and who had once regularly visited family members in Vlagtwedde. He also knew Terschelling well. Then time for a nap, a light supper of granola and fruit, and bed for Wendy while Henry went out wandering. There, he talked to another gentleman by the canal, about the weather and the reunion and such.

It is slightly annoying, or disappointing, when we talk to people in Dutch (especially service people) and they immediately reply in English. But with the more elderly, we can hold our own and talk extensively about this and that.

Wednesday, July 19:
Harlingen to Terschelling

We needed to be at the ferry to Terschelling by 2:30 so we had most of the day to continue exploring Harlingen. The other times we have been to Terschelling, Harlingen was merely the place to catch the ferry, so we were pleasantly surprised to uncover the charm this town held. We enjoyed another excellent breakfast, left our luggage in the hotel’s billiard room for storage and set off again.

Our first stop was St.Michael’s Roman Catholic church located right behind the hotel. While much newer than all the other churchs we’ve visited so far, it had a quiet, understated beauty and peacefulness. The stone carved Stations of the Cross are among the most poignant we’ve seen, with faces clearly evoking the emotions of each participant, whether they were angry Pharisees, Roman soldiers just getting on with it, or the disciples and women following Jesus to the cross.

Roman Catholics here were only given freedom to worship in the late nineteenth century. Their original home had been claimed by the Reformed church three centuries before, so they built from scratch. Their church was much damaged in the war, but has been fully restored, and is open to the public. The Reformed Grote Kerk, which we visited next, was shut tight whenever we checked its doors. These two church’s towers and a bell tower are the three spires of Harlingen.

Our next discovery was the Hannemahuis Museum, attached to a lovely bookstore and featuring an exhibition of a major work by Franz Hals. We spent about an hour and half there taking in the exhibitions featuring Harlingen life through the centuries and a sculpture garden in the courtyard.

Having had a satisfying sampling of Dutch snack bar food the previous night we were in search of something a little healthier for our lunch and quite pleased to find a snackbar (Molly’s) at the other end of the Zuiderhaven that offered a nice salad for only 3 euros. From there we wandered the northern part of the town’s canals and streets until it was time to collect our luggage and head to the ferry terminal.

The wind blew briskly but the sun was shining, so we spent the first part of the trip up on deck along with skads of teenagers and several young families. The slow boat takes two hours but is considerably cheaper than the fast one, which makes the trip in 45 minutes. We soon went below deck so Wendy could get out of the wind, but Henry kept going out to see what he could see, especially as the Brandaris came into view.

Once docked, we walked down the ramps to find two city buses waiting and quickly got on the bus to Midsland where we walked over to the home where we are spending this week. This is another Home Exchange but the host is here most of the time and will be taking her vacation later in October. Henry wasn’t feeling well (sore throat, fever and very tired, just like last April) so went to bed quite soon and slept a full 12 hours. Fortunately, by the end of the next day he was on the up and up again.

Thursday, July 20:

It rained overnight, but Thursday morning was nice and sunny again, so Wendy promptly got the laundry going before we walked into the village up the Oosterburen to buy our groceries at the nicely modern Coop, just across from the church. So far we have been a bit surprised by the absence of microwaves and clothes dryers. But a stiff breeze and some sunshine did the drying for us in a few hours time, and the microwave we can do without (for a while).

We’d been on the go so much since landing in Europe that it was quite nice to have a slower day. We stayed in, mostly reading or working on pictures and the blog, and chatting with Mirjam, but set out late afternoon to the bike rental shop in Midsland where we rented two e-bikes at the cost of 165 euros for the week.

They say once you’ve ridden a bike, it’s a skill you never forget, but Henry certainly remembered more than Wendy did. We had not been on the bikes for more than 15-20 minutes, when Wendy, trying to stop at the edge of the bicycle path, lost her balance and got tangled up in her bike. It took a bit to extract her. The pain in her upper ribs, where the handlebar hit, was significant. But thankfully nothing was bleeding or abraded. She’ll be sore for a while.

We continued biking nonetheless, making a circle route from Midsland to Midsland aan Zee, to West aan Zee at Paal 8, where there were many bikes and cars of beach-goers. We surveyed the North Sea, the incredibly wide beach and all the people in the sunshine, wishing we had come earlier, appropriately suited. But it was already late, so we returned via Halfweg and the main road back to Midsland.

After supper Henry set off on his bike, leaving Wendy to rest. The sun was still shining and the clouds still scudding, so the view from the dike along the Wadden Zee was spectacular. There were sheep and horses and scat everywhere. Biking east for a while, Henry then turned around and wound his way through Kinnum to the Hoofdweg and then to West-Terschelling. There, after a cursory photo of the Brandaris, Henry walked systematically through the old cemetery looking for family names. By then the sky declared that he should return.

Friday, July 21:

We’re sleeping well in our two single beds. Apart from being apart. Henry wakes feeling pretty good, but still tires more quickly than normal and needs naps. Wendy’s bruised ribs are still painful but not restricting. We did pretty well Friday morning, getting onto our saddles by nine.

Wendy was keen to see and travel the dyke, so we headed south and then east. The weather forecast is still terrible – rain every day that we’re here still. But with the inclements come beautiful skies and no risk of suffering from Barcelonian heat. And the Terschellingers need they rain – there has been very little since April.

The dyke is where we should have started our biking. The paths are quiet and straight, with little to spook a faint heart, except perhaps the narrow sheep gates. By the end of that day it seems like Wendy had her old confidence back. After all, we rode nothing but bikes for a year, forty years ago.

By 10:30, after numerous stops, we were in line with Lies and went inland again to the main road. Henry has two relatives living in Lies and was keen to cold call on them. Wendy not so much. So Henry dug up a Gmail from Cees and Hittie (who are unfortunately visiting kids in Luxemborg) on his phone to get the street numbers. Both of them were listed as living in Lies, # such and such. No street name. That’s because Lies is a one street village.

The first call was to Nina, a granddaughter of Henry’s dad’s tante Trijntje. Understandably, being once or twice removed, she was a bit perplexed at first and still in her house coat, but soon warmed. Our conversation was friendly, short and open ended. The next stop, just before Lies runs out of road, was at Martie’s, a cousin of Henry’s dad, who has been to Canada and visited his aunts and uncles there. She was glad to see us and we arranged to go back there for coffee on Monday morning. She and her husband Piet Cupido were dealing with the death of Piet’s brother, Willem.

From there, we took the Hoofdweg back through Formerum and Landerum to our home base, where we had lunch and a good nap. Wendy woke Henry at two so that we could get a couple of hours in at the Tiger Bunker Museum yet, since the weather was holding. A fifteen minute bike ride later we were there, just outside of West-Terschelling.

The Tiger bunkers are not a beautiful place to photograph, like a cathedral. War is no friend of beauty. Over the course of German occupation of Terschelling from 1939 – 1945, the island became a major piece of Germany’s defence system, mainly against Allied bombers. On this high dune the Germans built massively fortified bunkers (concrete up to three metres thick) to support various kinds of radar installations.

These bunkers were of course well known to locals. One of our family lived pretty much in its shadow during the war. And afterwards, kids would go there to play. But only recently has it been restored (mostly by volunteers) and turned into an informative visitor center.

The effect of German occupation, especially amongst Dutch immigrants, is still understated. Terschelling was almost like a holiday setting for German soldiers, compared to other fronts. Terschelling suffered little damage. But, emotionally, the oppression experienced by indigenous islanders and Netherlanders had to have been great.

We returned to Midsland via the dike path, and then walked over to the Coop to get some groceries. Wendy was preparing a supper for the three of us. The Coop was full of younsters seeking sustenance. Apparently there are camping grounds here catering specifically to kids aged 16 to 21. Two guys were checking out shopping carts filled with eight crates of beer. A legal drinking age of 18 has recently been instituted in the Netherlands.

The weather was uninviting that evening, so we stayed put and enjoyed our supper and a gezelig evening.

Saturday, July 22:
West Terschelling

The drizzle never really stopped on Saturday, but we went to West anyway, around 10:30 am. Other than Henry’s evening visit, we still had not explored Terschelling’s largest town. We biked in via the Europalaan to get off the busy main road, passed by De Stilen on the Longway, came up to the Brandaris from behind and parked on the bike lot beside it.

For the first while we visited shops on the busy anyway Torenstraat and some other shopping streets. Wendy was on a mission to find warmer clothes and perhaps some rain gear. Some tens of euros later, we walked around the closed Westerkerk, discovered that the museum wasn’t open till one and then had too much lunch at the WigWam. Mustard soup is good. Too many fries is not.

The rest of our stay was taken up by wandering through the Museum ‘t Behouden Huys, a visit we would gladly make again. The audio guides included with the entrance fee are effective and interesting (and also in English). There were dioramas, display cases and displays, room recreations, videos, explanations and much more.

Henry was excited to see a portrait of Schipper Cornelis Bakker (1729-1774) whose name is too close to that of his ancestor Gerke Cornelis Bakker (1704-1763), also a Terschelling skipper, for him not to be suspicious of a connection. That investigation may have to wait.

We were back home by four, in time for another grocery run, supper prep of a pad thai kit, a communal meal and a quiet evening out of the weather.

Sunday, July 23:
West Terschelling

Every language and region must have its “que sera sera” realism. If we don’t have weather made for holidaying by the sea, then we will have weather that has been part of island life since time immemorial. Overnight the thunderstorms rolled through, and morning brought more rain and wind. I was committed to going to church, and I’m sure my ancestors would not have let this stand in their way. So I went. Being less stoic than her husband, Wendy did not.

It’s never been pouring rain, so I did not get drenched walking to the the bus stop, or from from the harbour stop to the Westerkerk. Scheduling brought me there an hour early, for which I was glad. The church was open and quiet, the way I like it, but nicely balanced by the scurrying of the koster, putting up numbers, bringing in glasses of water and setting the bells to pealing for five minutes at nine.

I spent a good time surveying and photographing the interior of this church, where my grandfather’s family worshipped, as always noting the elements, their similarities and differences. The ceiling, pillars, framework, floor, pulpit, table, pews, organ, balcony, windows all make for a unique place to gather and worship.

Two lists of Predikanten took me back to 1654, and included the G.Vossers (1898 – 1922) who presided over Hinne de Jong’s childhood and profession of faith in 1917. I chatted with the koster when he had time and discovered that the still original box of pews across from the pulpit had been for the town’s elite, and that much else had been renewed. As in so many church buildings here, many repurposed from their longitudinal view of God, the pulpit here was centered on the long wall, bringing people as close as possible to the Word.

Eventually, congregants showed up, some bedraggled from the rain, and settled in and around the space, loosely but with a few clusters. Two even deigned to sit in the box. By the time the service started there were sixty or so, including a couple of families. Not at all the same picture as Oom Sense had in 2008.

I have visited a great many churches over the last year, and this one seemed to be among the half or so of them that seem doomed to die from grey hair syndrome. But I am not ready to rule out divine intervention. Here, they have awkwardly combined the local Reformed and Mennonite congregations, to stave off the demise.

Timing can change much. A week earlier and we would have had beach weather and Ds. Gaastra on the pulpit. My pew neighbours apologized to me afterwards that the ‘sfeer’ (atmosphere?) would have been much different, had we not had the black-suited, elderly and eigenardig, mennonite preacher filling in (turns out from the wal-mainland). He was a bit confused and hesitant and had only four songs on board and there was some to and fro between congregation and organist and preacher about which song and verses to sing.

But the organist was a rock. Dick de Graaff (I learned from meeting him afterwards) played with the confidence and feeling that I remember from my dad, with voorspels and naspels and a lovely improvisation during the offering on the song after it, along with a service prelude and postlude. The congregation sang with confidence. This organist has been on the island for four or five years now, and earns a living, along with his wife, giving music lessons to locals.

The surprise came (for the preacher as well, I think) when he picked up a violin, in his organ loft, immediately after the sermon, and played from Bach’s first partita. That he accomplished fully, and the music I certainly understood more clearly than the sermon.

After the service, I went upstairs to the organ, introduced myself to the organist, enjoyed a good chat and took away contact info. By the time we were done, the church was empty again and I exited into the bluster back to the harbour. Having to wait a full hour for the next bus, I channelled my father’s spirit and got a Lekkerbek at the van Dijk Fish stall to warm me. I still cannot bring myself to swallow a haring (sorry dad).

The fish stall crew knew Cees and Hittie and Mattie, my dad’s cousins, so that was cool. And it seems many here have Canadian connections and have even visited. The Westerkerk koster had a brother-in-law, de Vries, farming in Smithville.

Henry got home well after twelve and before too long the weather had cleared up enough that we could go for a walk around town and then on a bike ride to Midsland aan Zee, where we, for the first time, crossed the expanse of beach to touch on the sea. The wind was whipping tendrils of fine sand eastward, but the waves were not great. A couple of kids were venturing in and we met one stalwart coming out, but overall, the population density on the beach was close to nil.

Monday, July 24:

Our Monday coffee appointment with Piet and Martie had been made in faith, either in the weather turning or in our ability to endure it. Fortunately, the morning gave us the former and we biked to Lies under cumulus skies, warmed now by multiple layers of clothing and intermittent sunshine.

We were greeted warmly into a space and fellowship not unfamiliar to us, who have frequented farms our whole lives. Piet was in his overalls, breaking from farm work that continues for him into his eighties, even as his youngest son and a grandson take the helm. Their simple home was built for ‘retirement’, just as we’ve seen so often in Canada.

Piet and Martie were both full of smiles and we shared our stories over coffee, Piet bringing us framed photos, while we showed from our phones. Perhaps Bingo is not such a bad game after all. For us to know that the other knew such and such – my father, grandfather, my aunts and uncles, and more – feels affirming and fellowship full.

Where once there might have been a hundred and twenty farms on Terschelling, there are now only ten. Theirs was one of them, and when we crossed the road to the orginal farmhouse (barn attached) in front of much larger, more modern barns, it was clear that this was not a tourist attraction. The tractors were moving and we did not feel it appropriate to interupt their labours with introductions from Canada.

So we headed down the path between their fields in the polder, towards the dykes of the Wadden Zee. From there, with weather still holding, we ventured east towards Oosterend. The dyke path finally ran out where the massive Boschplaat natural area begins, so we circled up into the dunes and then back over the island’s only main road. By that time it was spitting again, the clouds had thickened over the sun, and we returned home as quicly as we could.

The weather continued to threaten over lunch and beyond, but by four Henry grew impatient and headed out to West-Terschelling again, alone, to accomplish another of his goals. He was seeking two women from his generation, grandchildren of Hermanus, whose brother Hinne was Henry’s grandfather. Well, so what, you may say – if you’re casting a net that far you may very well drown in relations. But there aren’t actually that many left on Terschelling.

Klasien and Tienie are sisters. Klasien has lived in De Stilen, on the Longway, for three years, while Tienie lives in a row house overlooking this large, long term care facility. I came to Tienie’s door to find the home empty. So I parked my bike and wandered until I came through some doors of De Stilen to what looked like a reception area, but unstaffed. Soon, a roaming staff member asked if she could help me and I explained that I was from Canada looking for Klasien Huisman Lieuwen.

Well, her lights went on, she told me I was in luck, and she ushered me over to a board-room sized table round which some twenty elderly in-dwellers were seated for what turned out to a regular coffee social. She announced my quest to the whole group, and, lo and behold, there was Klasien, beaming from the attention, and her sister Tienie sitting across from where I was standing.

I stood for a while, engaging them and the rest of the group, before I was offered a place to sit with the sisters, and a cup of coffee. We chatted for a good half hour before I promised to come to Tienie’s place for coffee the next morning, and zipped back to Midsland with the wind in my sails.

Miriam had a reservation for us at the Restaurant Storm in West-Terschelling, and we enjoyed our first car ride to get there. The restaurant was full and a chanced show would not have worked. We had a window table looking onto the Torenstraat and enjoyed good food at a reasonable price.

Walking back to where Miriam’s car was parked, under the dunes on the Zwarteweg where her mother lives, we saw the beginning of the path going up and that the sun was actually shining. Miriam was happy to visit with her mother while we climbed up to the High Dune lookout.

Here is where the words fail and the camera succeeds. The view all around is spectacular. This was Wendy’s first time and she was awed. It being my third time, the awe came with gratefullness at the opportunity to make my third panorama in optimal conditions. We dwelled in our three sixty surround as long as we could before descending to earth again for a ride home and a quiet evening.

Tuesday, July 25:

The weather has still not been good enough to go for a long, lazy morning or afternoon at the beach. This might have to wait till we’re back in Ontario. But we could bike into West-Terschelling again for morning coffee with Tinie and Klasien. We enjoyed sharing our backgrounds, though we’re too far removed as family for me to glean any tidbits about my dad’s family, who only ever came there for vacation.

On our way back we lost ourselves a bit and ended up in the dunes and woods, in from the main road. The sandy hills, pine trees and oaks had a familiar feel for us. It’s easy to see why Henry’s dad was attracted to the Pinery. There were enough signs to keep us going in the right direction and we ended up half-way into the island on the path to Midsland-Noord. Along the way we passed a small lake and the back sides of a few camping grounds.

The rest of the afternoon was for resting – the weather was too iffy for anything else, but at 4:30 Henry resolved to meet the boat by bike. Paul, Gerine, Silas and Heather, Jessie and Adam were scheduled to arrive and stay for the two remaining days before the reunion. Henry greeted them at the ramp, ushered them to their bus and then hurried back to catch them in Midsland and walk with them to their AirBnB.

They visited us briefly an hour later before we walked together into the village to make good on a reservation for eight at ‘t Wapen van Terschelling, which was chock full of youngsters dressed to dine.

From here, for us, it’ll be packing and farewells, leaving the island again to serve as one anchor for our being in a world much wider.

Zwolle, Reunion

Wednesday, July 26:
Terschelling to Zwolle

The rain came down hard early Wednesday morning, and the idea of seeing more of Terschelling yet got washed away. Henry focused on blogging while Wendy slept. We finished off our pancake mix and other bits from the fridge and proceeded with packing and tidying up. Our last excursion was into the heart of Midsland, biking in and walking back after we’d returned our bikes. Miriam had offered to drive us to the ferry, so we had plenty of time and a relaxing morning.

We were in good time for catching the 12:30 boat, so we stood around, and struck up conversation again with a family we’d met in the grocery store line up a few days ago. Everywhere we go people are curious about this couple born in Canada who speak Dutch, and they’re all amazed at our coming reunion gathering in Stadskanaal for a whole week of so many from North America.

Gerine, Paul, Silas, Heather and Jesse joined us for a while as we waited. They had just come from Cafe Zeezicht, and hung around to see us off.

The sun had come out some time ago and the rain was forgotten. The wind was less than on our trip in so we spent the whole two hours above deck while Terschelling receded from view. We enjoyed our packed lunches, along with the always overwhelmingly Dutch people – especially young people – who come and go to Tershchelling. Multi-cultural, it is not.

We walked a short distance through the now familiar streets of Harlingen to the end-of-line train platform, where the train was waiting. On our trip to Zwolle through Leeuwarden this group of young people, over-laden with luggage, kept following us and crowding the space around us. It’s interesting and entertaining to observe youthful behaviour. We’re glad not to have to go through that phase ever again. They got off in Zwolle too, but then we never saw them again.

The weather was still good when we emerged onto the stately streets of Zwolle, where we allowed google to guide us to our hotel on the outskirts of the old city, defined by canal and bits of wall. It was a good twenty minute walk, and we’re still hoping that our luggage wheels will survive the cobblestones for another month. The hotel proprietor was on the steps talking to another gentleman, and she came up to the third floor when she was done to show us around and just talk to us about her place and our trip. By third floor we mean two (long) flights of stairs.

The hotel may well have been a single family residence when it was built in the early 1900s, she couldn’t say, but there was evidence of it being a multi-family dwelling – one family per floor – and also a student rooming house in the seventies. They had bought the place in the late 90s and had fixed it up very nicely. Her husband is a carpenter. There’s never enough time to explore all of this, including the use of light tunnels to bring natural light into the center.

There were three bedrooms on this upper level, with separate toilet, shower and kitchen rooms. Ours had a balcony big enough to sit on with two people, and offered a lovely view into the tree tops through its french doors. We made use of it for our supper that day, but the next morning it was too wet again.

Before that supper, we had good time to walk into the old city and explore. Because of the sunny weather, the streets and cafes were busy. There isn’t a straight street in Zwolle center, so it’s fun to walk and experience emerging vistas. Churches were already closed for the day so we contented ourselves with walking over to the Sassenpoort, built in 1406, and the only gate from the original wall still standing.

Sassenpoort to Jumbo for grocery shopping is quite the contrast. I do like modern amenities, but it’s probably not fair to exclude people and multiple markets from our pictures of the past. After our supper of ready to go meals on the balcony, we were ready to rest again and did not venture out.

Thursday, July 27:

Ach, ach, why does it have to rain so much when we’re on vacation. We knew it was coming, and the morning skies heralded another day of drizzle, through which we could do nothing more than soldier through. We do have small umbrellas, which, like our spirits, remain unbroken.

We’re in Zwolle for two nights, and we’d book two different hotels – one for the two of us and the second for four. Jovita and Laura were joining us this day, so logistically we would have our hands full. After our Jumbo breakfast, we packed up and got out of the hotel fairly early. In the drizzle, we walked clear across the old city to our new digs, pulling our suitcases behind us over the cobbled streets.

We came to the Pelstertoren around ten to find everything there locked up tight. We’d tried a couple of phone calls earlier to say we were coming and would like to leave our suitcases before checking in. The gap between checkout and check-in times can be a nuisance. Stuck in the rain under cover of a sixteenth century arched opening in the city wall (made for the washer women), we improvised.

We’d already walked by Brownies and Downies, a cafe just around the corner from the Pelstertoren, which we’d had in our sights long ago. So Henry walked over and explained our predicament to the owner, adding the sweetener of our daughter with Down Syndrome coming to meet us this very day. No problem. We gratefully brought our suitcases there for temporary storage and sat down under cover of a large umbrella to enjoy an order of two coffees.

Brownies and Downies is a franchise, with more than fifty locations around Holland, serving breakfast, lunch and coffee. Their roster of employees with Down Syndrome was pictured on a wall, and several of them served us the three times we visited.

By the time we were done coffee, we had only an hour or so before we needed to meet Jovita and Laura at the train station. Aside from walking, we spent most of that time in the Grote Kerk. This cathedral has become multi-functional in a good way, hosting a cafe, used book store, art exhibits and a multi-media presentation about Zwolle and the cathedral, in addition to maintaining its central area for worship services.

From there we walked, in the rain, back to the train station for a happy reunion with two of our children. We trudged back across town with the four of us now, retrieved Henry and Wendy’s luggage and found the Pelstertoren castle keep to be open this time. Our room was the entire ground floor of a half millennium old, large, brick, circular tower that was part of the city wall, the only remnants of which were attached or near by.

Our room was one large open space with half a dozen sleeping places, up against crumbling brick walls. There are modern shower and toilet facilities constructed in one area. It was the most unique hotel space we’ll ever have.

After setting up we went back to Brownies and Downies for a two o’clock lunch before returning to the tower to give the girls some nap time to counter jet lag. Our only remaining activities for the day were a visit to the cathedral book store, and walking the old city streets past modern shops After we finally found a nice place for supper, we all went to bed.

Friday, July 28:
Zwolle to Stadskanaal

Reunion Day. This is the date that’s been front and center for half a year already. The Vander Laans were going to Stadskanaal from Canada and the U.S. for their sixth one week gathering since 1992. Today we had a chartered bus connection to make in Assen at 2:00 pm, so we still had the morning to ourselves. The trip from Zwolle to Assen is short.

We went back to Brownies & Downies for breakfast, before packing our luggage and rolling out of the Pelstertoren by the 11:00 am checkout time. After clattering all the way to the Grote Kerk, we got permission to store our luggage behind a coat rack in the cathedral and enjoyed wandering around, unencumbered. Wendy and Henry had visited the day before, but saved the multi-media show for the four of us. This was centered on Zwolle’s place in the Hanseatic league, and its earlier development from small settlement to city status on a busy trade route. The show, in two temporary rooms was inspiring and eye-catching. Even Jovita got into it. Laura took advantage of the opportunity to climb the restoration scaffolding to the top, at the roof’s peak, for an unparalleled view of the city. When the scaffolding finally comes down, this will no longer be possible.

But time was called soon enough and we continued our walk through the drizzle to the train station. We were in plenty of time to figure things out and catch our train on 6B, which took us to its next stop – Assen. The weather had cleared by then, and we found twenty or so Vander Laans hanging around outside of the station. And so the reunion continued in its stages. A bunch more were behind schedule, so we had to wait for their train to arrive before boarding our bus at 4:00 for the half hour trip to Stadskanaal. That same bus returned to Assen to pick up another load.

From that point the sight-seeing was put on hold and the family time took over, so there’s nothing really to relay. To be honest, we were grateful to have a break from the go-go of tourism and to rest ourselves for a while. The facilities are great, and the food is catered in, so we could just sit and talk. And the sleep was sweet.

Saturday, July 29:

At the Stadskanaal reunion, the calm before the storm was welcomed by all. Our Saturday was a chance sit and nap, talk and greet. A third bus load arrived mid-day to make our group almost complete. The final tally for the reunion is 104 souls, 95 of which had crossed the Atlantic to be there. These are all descendents of Harm and Dina van der Laan (125 in total) — family of Stiny & Herman, Harry & Renate, Hank & Anne, Co & Alice, Rika & Grant. New in-laws and Grant’s family quickly blended in and latched on to this core identity. We’d had a platform going for months already, we had connections on WhatsApp, there were six family tree posters with faces to keep us straight, and five reunion group photos to document the steady progression of life as an extended family.

There were some missing of course; Herman & Stiny & Simon. Dear cousin Ruben, in the final stages of ALS, was reluctantly absent. And others could not make it for good reasons. But the group feels complete in its size and disposition. There’s a continuity with those regular gatherings in the early seventies at Hank & Anne’s, when our three generations still included Opa & Oma.

Sunday, July 30
Reunion Heritage Tour

As much as possible, this reunion has tried to provide options, both in food and in excursions. But Sunday continued to be a day for all – a heritage day. For that, as many as possible traveled together in two buses and a small entourage of cars. First stop was the Vennekerk in Winschoten where we were scheduled to gather for a worship service at 10:30. This church was the spiritual home for both sides of Henry’s family. Herman de Jong and Stiny van der Laan came of age there, only leaving for Canada in 1953, at the ages of 21 and 19. Their parents, Hinne and Wine, Harm and Dina, along with all of Henry’s aunts and uncles had been worshipping there since the 30s. So for the de Jongs, even more than van der Laans, this was home.

The church building itself has suffered the fate of many in Europe and North America – abandoned on the road of unification, disenchantment and ‘samen op weg’. The Winschoten Protestants all (actually not many) worship now in the older, formerly Hervormde church. But the Vennekerk building was saved to become a cultural center and an occasional place for worship. So it was free to use on this Sunday morning. We were encouraged to do that, and some of the older locals who still valued the old way volunteered to do sound and to prepare and serve coffee, cake and lunch to the Vander Laans after the service.

The Vander Laans came into the church in two surges and spent their time before the service exploring the sanctuary and back building and just sitting in the pews to absorb the space. Our organist, Evan de Jong had been there for an hour already to practise, and his organ playing added to the atmosphere. Evan is the grandson of Herman de Jong who played in the Vennekerk (on an older organ) from 1945 (at the age of 13) to 1953.

The Vander Laans could also supply their own clergy. Cindy de Jong led worship and Laura de Jong preached. To that was added piano, guitar, base guitar and vocals. The ‘congregation’ of Vander Laans were not shy to add their own voices to the singing of psalms and contemporary songs, accompanied by organ or team. The whole experience was inspiring, not the least for the local volunteers, friends and family who joined us. This was clearly a living/alive heritage.

After the service, we spent a good hour in the fellowship hall of the Vennekerk, next to a stage that I’m sure Herman and Stiny would have held forth from. The volunteers kept busy serving and cleaning up. And then our whole group ambled back to the sanctuary and the front yard of the church waiting for the buses to arrive and for the heritage tour to continue.

During the next three or so hours the two buses and some cars wound their way south over narrow roads, past the space on the Bouwte Weg in Blijham where the family lived from 1935 – 1945 (in a farmhouse demolished some time ago), to the old Reformed Church in Blijham. There, we got out to enjoy a break in the weather, view the church from outside, look at the monument to the Canadian airmen whose downed airplane destroyed the church tower and who are buried by the church, and then amble through a large cemetery where some family members our buried.

Then, on to the Wedderveer farm (1945 – 1953), still standing where it always has. The buses stopped there too and all the people piled out, onto the bicycle path that used to be a tram track, to have a look. I’m sure this was a spectacle for the neighbourhood, and the current occupants of the farm as well as some neighbours across the road came out to investigate. We explained our invasion to them and were blessed with friendly conversations all around.

Next stop was the Weddeborg, a manor house with no connection to the family, other than being a place to play. From there we entered Blijham, drove past the retirement home of Opu Beekhuis, and continued out the east side of town towards the Weite, the Protestant Church of Vlagtwedde, where Henry’s mother was baptised in 1935. Henry had connected with the church long ago, and the church’s ‘scriba’ was happy to open the building up for the whole lot of us. She was so tickled by our interest that she went to the trouble of finding references to our family in two record-keeping books and opened the books up to eager onlookers.

By then, the time travellers were getting tired, so we opted not to visit another cemetery and just swung by the Renneborg, the first farm of Harm and then Dina van der Laan, before heading back quietly to Pageborg for our pre-supper family time (well lubricated), supper and a relaxed evening together.

Monday, July 31:

It rained off and on all day on Monday. Sunday had its fair share too, but the sun seemed to appear magically whenever we got off the bus. Monday morning’s scheduled excursion was to the Hunebed Centrum, a display of Stonehenge era constructions, artifacts and living conditions. Walking through the rain was simply excepted in these more primitive conditions, so we did not feel it appropriate to complain. We had umbrellas and nylon shells – they didn’t.

The interpretive center was impressive, with lots of hands on activities for kids, good displays and information on boards. There was also a modern coffee shop where we could sit and shelter. The primary focus of the center is the largest hunebed assembly in the Netherlands. Not nearly as big as Stonehenge, but quite impressive. Henry saw these 49 years ago, long before the center was built.

There was also a large field with trails taking us past various reconstructions of dwellings from times long past. Henry always gets curious about construction techniques of any building he sees. He would have been a happy cave man or artisan from centuries or millennia past. Too soon the bus arrived to take us back to Pageborg for lunch.

Tuesday, August 1:

Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are market days in Groningen, so our only chance to catch it during the reunion was the Tuesday. The bus to Stadt Groningen was full and arrived there around 9:30, dropping us off just outside of the old city canal boundary. We started off together, walking towards the center, but this soon dissolved into smaller family groups dispersing throughout the city. Every once in a while one group would meet another, until at four o’clock we were all together again waiting for the bus to take us back.

In between, our own family set off on a previously agreed upon schedule. Before too long the rain let up and we enjoyed the off and on dry spells. We walked right by the Martinikerk, which was still closed, into the Grote Markt, half of which was under construction. We learned later that it has been discontinued as a market, pushing all vendors onto the Vismarkt, which we visited next. It was not very busy yet. Later that afternoon when we passed by again it was much more so. We’d been to Groningen as a family in 2017, for a short afternoon visit, so we didn’t dwell on this, except for two purchases of fresh, warm stroop waffels for two of the girls.

By this time, the Aa Kerk was open and we all entered that cathedral space together. It doesn’t matter much which cathedral you enter – the experience is invariably inspiring. Even as I write this, I can’t recall details without looking at my photos, but we spent close to an hour there absorbing the interior space. By this time Jovita was already spent and we agreed to put her on the noon Vander Laan bus back to Pageborg. So we hurried back to the Martinikerk to get an hour in there too.

The Martinikerk is better known, because of its size, tower and history. The tower was closed to climbers, but none of us were tempted anyway. Unlike the Aa Kerk, this church still hosts active congregations, normally having three services per Sunday, including one at 11:30 for the city’s large student population. So the center part of the nave was set up with chairs and a down-to-earth pulpit underneath the old one.

Henry didn’t have time to read up on the history – he’ll do that when he gets back. First impressions, with camera on hand, are valuable, especially with a short visit. The biggest surprise was the size of the apse, relative to the nave. It soared much higher was set free by sky blue ceilings. It was probably built first, and the rest scaled back for some reason or other.

Once we were out again and had seen Jovita off, three of us wandered around looking for a place to sit down and eat our packed lunches. We finally found a way into the Prinsentuin, where there were some dry benches on the edge of a lovely, quiet garden. After satisfying our hunger, we explored the maze of low hedges and vine-covered paths, before setting of for the Forum.

It’s fascinating to see, in a country full of old buildings, how modern expressions are blended in. The Forum, a very new and already popular public building, soaring up to the height of the Martinikerk roofs, stays simple, if off kilter, on the outside. It does stand alone, but reminds me of the ROM expansion in Toronto because of its angularity. Inside there is much space, criss-crossed by escalators bringing people up to various exhibitions, libraries and stores, all media themed.

The top level is an large open deck, with two metre glass barriers around it and a lower level courtyard in the middle. The views around the city, and especially towards the Martinikerk, are popular , and good pictures can be had by holding camera phones high enough, right above the glass. The Forum does compete with the Martini Toren, but stays lower in deference to history, if not the church.

From church to humanist Forum, we went next to the Jewish Synagogue. This made the greatest impression on us. The synagogue was built in the first half of the twentieth century when the Jewish community was still thriving. After the Groningen Jews were decimated, the building lay abandoned and then housed a laundromat for some time. Now that’s ironic. Eventually it was reclaimed by the Jewish community, restored and brought into dual use as a place of worship and a memorial and interpretive center for the general public.

The architect for the synagogue was experienced with Christian churches but was very intentional in seeking out design features from other synagogues, so it felt very distinct. We’d actually never been in a synagogue before. The front half of the sanctuary was permanently gated off from the general public. A balcony circling the space on three side, along with the back space, hosted displays of art, artifacts and descriptive panels.

By then it was time to return to our bus stop and finish our day in Groningen.

Wednesday, August 2:

We had a late start on Wednesday. Juggling the bus for other destinations meant that ours ended up being last. So we had only an hour at the Ter Apel Monastery. It could have used more, so I’ll try to come back some day, preferably when its not raining. But I saw enough to make it worthwhile. This monastery was a late addition to Roman Catholic Church, established and constructed in the late 1400s.

It’s worth reiterating that all of Henry’s ancestors at this time (quite a large number) would have been Roman Catholic. Also, that these Catholics, including clergy were likely to have been of the progressive sort. Trouble had been brewing in the RCC for some time already, and priests like my ancestor Feito Ruardi in Groningen in 1540 quickly jumped to the Reformed side.

Anyway, the brothers at Ter Apel were already of the diaconal sort – keeping their new monastery open for travellers and the wayward, besides doing down to earth things like gardening and brewing. They had a good hundred years of this – more than several generations – before the ground shifted out from underneath them. The Reformation was on the upswing and the brothers found themselves in an increasingly hostile environment. Towards the end of the 1500s the brother superior, working with a much reduced brotherhood, committed to marrying and then continuing on under the auspices of the Reformed Church.

We are fortunate that there was no purge or destructive rampage here – this monastery is the only one of its sort to survive in the Netherlands. It is currently home to a Protestant Church congregation. I enjoyed seeing a 15th century sanctuary set up for contemporary worship. I wonder what it would be like, or do to the worship, to be in such a setting every Sunday.

As usual for a monastery, there was a cloister with a central courtyard. This one was planted full with a wide variety of perennials. Two of our group braved the rain to ID these plants with their mobile apps. The path around and the view within are invariably appealing to me.

Upstairs, mostly in a more modern replacement for a destroyed side of the monastery, there was an extensive exhibition concerning witch burnings in the 1580s and 1590s, some from the very villages that my family later came to inhabit. I need to investigate this further to see whether this spate came from Catholic or Reformed tendencies.

Henry also enjoyed seeing the attic, where the roof framing above and arch brickwork below were visible. It did not seem to me that these had been replaced, and I wonder to myself if my roofs will still be around in 500 years.

The bus hurried us back to Pageborg, where we quickly grabbed some lunch at the buffet table before returning to catch the afternoon bus. After so much walking Tuesday and Wednesday morning we were all looking forward to a restful and recreational boat ride. The two buses took us back to heritage territory, a small inlet from the Mussel Aa Kanaal, which is just around the corner from the Wedderveer farm. A stone throw from there was the pool, now filled in, where the van der Laan kids went swimming every late afternoon during the summers from 1946 to 1952. They have fond memories of this, seventy years later.

The covered boat was operated by Peter Dekker tours and navigated this trip by Peter Dekker himself. Coffee and cookies were included and served by two other on board staff. We’d been dodging rain drops all day already, but then, just as we got going, a miraculous thing happened – the clouds parted and the sun shone for the duration of our trip. We could roll the side windows up and enjoy fresh air and a clear view.

Spectacular, it was not. You could probably get a similar experience on the Grand or Welland rivers. But it was a gezellig time to sit at tables and talk with family. Occasionally, Harry and Hank would tell a story or explain our location. We went upriver, then back, further downstream and then back again, at a very relaxed pace.

We got back in plenty of time for the family hour pre-supper gathering time, and for a surprise barbeque supper with way too much meat.

Thursday, August 3:

The last full day of the reunion turned out to be the finest day of the week. A bus load of Vander Laans took off to visit the Seal Center, up by the Wadden Zee, and some other sea-side attractions. But Henry and Wendy and a few more stayed behind to recover from all the sight seeing and to gather strength for the coming days. There was laundry to do and blogs to write. And the cousins were coming.

Only two branches of the van der Laan/Beekhuis clan emigrated to Canada. The rest stayed put and generated large extended families of their own. But of the cousins of the Vander Laan elders – their generation – there aren’t that many left. Invitations had been sent, and many of these came to Pageborg for a social visit from ten to two, including coffee and lunch. And so they came with walkers and canes or still walking well, twenty strong.

It’s not that these cousins are close. Even some of the locals hadn’t seen each other in a while. But then, my generation of cousins isn’t that close either. Many of them we only see every four years. Still, there’s something about the shared roots and a common history that makes it easy to start connecting again, wherever we left off, and just to enjoy being together. These cousins had a great time, and Henry was in there like a wet rag.

Speaking Dutch, unafraid, and with enough colloquial touches to amuse or impress the locals is a great way to open the gates. Henry is the family historian, with an enviable family tree to hang from, so he managed to kletz with most of the people there. It was nice enough to sit outside and take some group pictures. One cousin in particular promised to keep in touch with Henry, and had some letters of interest with him, including one from Oma van der Laan written just weeks after arriving on the boat in 1953.

The rest of the day was spent unwinding the reunion, giving thanks and starting the clean up.

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