As long as I can remember, I hoped that some day I would be able to take a trip to Europe. So when my uncle, George Knoll, decided to go and asked me to go with him, you can imagine how thrilled I was. He has many friends in the Netherlands, and we both have a lot of relatives there, so we planned to spend most of our time in Holland. Of course, there was much preparation to be made. We had to get a leave of absence from work. We were too late to get reservations on a Holland boat, but managed to obtain space on an English ship on which Alice Reitsma also had a reservation for the 1st of June. A neighbor decided to sail with us, too. Then we had to get passports and the required smallpox vaccination.
Finally we were on our way, with many “good-byes” and good wishes ringing in our ears, to Quebec, from where the Scythia would sail. We had an extra day for sightseeing in that interesting city. On boarding the ship we were shown to our cabin, and soon afterward a pretty blonde stewardess came in and handed me a box with some beautiful flowers my fellow workers had sent. The boat left in a pouring rain, but the next day was a lovely sunny day, and the trip down the St. Lawrence River was very enjoyable. We spent most of our time on deck every day playing games or relaxing on the comfortable deck chairs. The food was wonderful, and it being an English ship, tea and cakes were served every afternoon. We had quite smooth sailing each day, and none of us were seasick.
On Sunday we gathered in the lounge for church services conducted by the Captain. There was no sermon, but reading from the Church of England prayer books from which the prayers were also read. The best part was the songs which are taken from the Psalms, much like our Psalter.
After arriving in Le Havre, France, we went to Paris and left the next day for Holland. Through the train windows we could look at the pretty countryside of France and then Belgium where the fields were covered with purple heather. European trains have compartments which seat six or eight persons comfortably and have an aisle on one side. There are sliding doors between the compartments and the aisle. We met some interesting people on the train.
It was about 9 o’clock when we arrived in the city of Groningen, but it was still very light. In the summer the sun sets very late and rises very early in the morning in Holland. We nicknamed it “Land of the Midnight Sun” because even at night there is a yellow glow on the horizon. Here in Groningen our little party separated for a time. My uncle and aunt were at the station to meet us. It was a very happy occasion, and we soon felt as if we had always known each other. Then I had my first experience trying to express myself in the Holland language. After about a 20-minute ride in one of their English cars, we arrived at their home. They have a nice home with a large garage attached in which to keep the cars and tools. My uncle does a good business renting cars, since very few people in small towns own one, and giving driving lessons. People there may learn to drive only from an instructor licensed to teach and with a car with a double brake and clutch. They must learn many rules and the meaning of dozens of signs. Yet there is no maximum speed law, and it seemed very risky to us the way the cars had to weave through all the bicycles in the city. The country roads are narrow, well-kept up, and not very busy, except for bikes, many of which are equipped with a motor. Everybody, including ministers, old people, nuns and very small children, rides a bike in the Netherlands!
The first few days were cold and wet, and not being accustomed to the climate, we would really have been uncomfortable if it had not been for the little peat-burning stove. That weather didn’t last long, however, and I soon became very fond of this land of windmills, canals and green pastures with clean, well-fed black-and-white cows grazing along with the whitest sheep I have ever seen. The towns are small and not very far apart, all with neat red brick houses with large windows in front and flowers in the windows and in the tiny lawns. On the farms, some of the houses were big with long barns attached, all with thatched or tile roofs. The people are very hospitable and did everything in their power to make our stay pleasant. They love to sit and talk and drink one cup of tea after another. In the towns they have running water and electricity, but running hot water, refrigerators, and bathtubs are almost unknown. Everything was new and interesting to me. I like the little stores which are really just a room in the house where the owners live. Everybody knows everyone in the town, and no one passes you without greeting or stopping to talk. They were all anxious to know what the “Americans” thought of Holland and looked pleased when we told them it was a beautiful country and that we were having a good time. The people loved to see the colored slides and Viewmaster reels we had brought from home.
The relatives with whom we were staying are Synodicals. Their church services lasted only a little more than an hour. The preaching was generally of a “practical” nature. I received the impression that many of the people are not well informed as to the real doctrinal difference between their churches and the Liberated, since they did not discuss it very much. The few Liberated people we talked to were more anxious to talk about it. They also did not seem to know much about our churches.
We spent a week touring the Netherlands by car. Alice and some relatives went with us to Amsterdam where we rode in a glass-topped boat through the canals and harbor. We saw the queen’s palace and the church where she was crowned. We also shopped on Kalverstraat, a very narrow street lined on either side with very nice stores. It is crowded with people who walk right on the street. Then we went to Volendam, a fishing village where the people still dress in their own local costume, although in most of Holland the people dress very much like we do. The women in Volendam wear long skirts and white lace caps. They are especially proud of their necklaces of costly red coral beads, fastened in front with a gold clasp. We had our pictures taken in their costume and also had to try the herring sold at a stand on the street. The local technique is to hold the fish by the tail high in the air and eat them in a couple of bites! Eel fishing is of great importance there since the Zuider Zee was changed into a fresh-water lake by the building of the 20-mile long Afsluit dike, separating it from the North Sea. We also went to Alkmaar where the big cheese market is, and returned to Groningen by way of the Afsluit dike.
Food is generally very good in Holland and there are no shortages; but the prices are high compared with the wages earned by the workers. We had an advantage since one of our dollars is worth almost four Dutch guilders.
Then my uncle, Alice and I went on a two-week tour of Belgium, France, and Switzerland. I will never forget the wonderful time we had. We went by train to Brussels and took a tour bus to Waterloo and saw the place where Napoleon was defeated by armies led by the Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange. On the walls of the big round pavilion are painted various scenes from the great battle. After more sight-seeing we went to Brugge which is a very interesting old city. Its population is Catholic, and it is not busy like Brussels but very quiet and restful. From our hotel we could look across the market place and see the Belfry tower where in the evening the carillon bells played various tunes for a whole hour. We rode in a little boat through the canals that wind through the city, going under bridges so low we had to duck our heads. It was very picturesque; the old gabled houses with red roofs and carved fronts reflecting in the clear water in which many swans were proudly swimming. A very enthusiastic guide took us on a tour of the city on foot. One of the places of interest was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where they claim to have a piece of wood from the cross, stained with Jesus’ blood. It was kept in a beautiful gold and silver container inlaid with precious stones. We asked the guide whether he actually believed that this was the blood of Christ. He replied, “Everybody here believes it, and I am telling you what I am supposed to say. What I really believe I may not say.” He held his hand over his mouth. Then he said, “This relic was brought here by the Crusaders in the 12th century, but where was it before that? Decide for yourselves.”
Next we saw the lacemakers, women sitting outdoors working with nimble fingers with dozens of spools. They make various articles with this handmade lace to sell to tourists.
From Brugge we went to Paris which is rightfully called the “garden city.” Among the places we visited were the famous Notre Dame cathedral and the enormous Louvre museum, where we saw the works of Rembrandt and the baffling “Mona Lisa” painted by Leonardo. The eyes and smile of the girl in this portrait seem to follow you no matter to which side of the room you go. Also in that museum is the loveliest of all Greek marble statues, “Venus De Milo.” We took tours to the palace of Versailles with its beautiful gardens, and Napoleon’s favorite palace, Fontainebleau, with its fabulous furnishings. The colorful sidewalk cafes were a novelty to us, and we had fun trying to figure out the French menus.
Next we were off to Geneva, Switzerland, situated on both sides of the lovely Lake Geneva. This city has the gaiety of a French city and seems to attract many of the well-do-do Swiss people, since we noticed that most of them were very well-dressed. There are also many jewelry stores displaying the famous Swiss clocks and watches. We saw St. Peter’s Church where John Calvin was minister for almost 30 years. On a long wall facing Calvin College is the monument to the Reformation, the most impressive statues being the four in the center, the Reformers Farel, Calvin, Beza and Knox. All they have of Calvin’s in St. Peters is the chair on which he used to sit in the pulpit. He did not want to be buried in the church like many other great people and did not even want a stone on his grave, for he did not want to glory in a man, but in God. On Sunday, we went to the American Episcopalian Church. They had a communion service, the people kneeling in turn before the altar while the minister gave them the bread and wine.
Interlaken, surrounded by the Alps, was our next stop. From there in good weather you have a wonderful view of the glacier Jungfrau. But that night it was raining hard. It was the Fourth of July, and we had heard that there would be a celebration in the park and fireworks, so Alice and I decided to go. We could see the fireworks from a distance and thought it was quite a novelty that an American holiday was celebrated in a foreign country. The street was lined with inviting-looking souvenir shops, and seeing some pretty cuckoo clocks in a window, we went in to look around. We never did reach the park!
The next day we took an exciting chair lift ride to the top of Mt. First, and spent the afternoon walking along the little mountain paths. For scenic beauty it surpassed anything I had ever seen. The green fields slope up from the mountain valley and above them rise steep slopes covered with dark green pine trees. Above the trees are green pastures with a profusion of wild flowers, and beyond them the snow-covered peaks. Built on the sides of the mountains are little brown huts where the cattle herders lived, and looking down into the valley you see the small towns and here and there the spire of a little white church.
After almost a week in Switzerland, we returned to the Netherlands by way of Germany. Here Alice left us to visit friends in Stuttgart and to go on a tour of Italy, while my uncle and I went on because there was still much we wanted to do in Holland.
We spent the next couple weeks sightseeing and visiting relatives. We saw the places where my parents used to live and the cemeteries where my grandparents are buried. It was an experience I will never forget. We also went to Rotterdam, Kampen and Delft, where we saw the 14th century Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in which is the tomb of William the Silent. On this trip we went through the Northeast Polder which until ten years ago was part of the sea. Now we saw large fields of tall golden flax being harvested. We enjoyed perfect weather.
All too soon it was time to get packed and ready to leave friendly little Holland. We went to London where we spent a couple of days and then on to Liverpool where we boarded our ship for home. It was a Scotch boat and most of the passengers were Scotch or Irish and were very friendly. We again had good sailing and a little excitement early one morning when we saw an iceberg. We docked in Montreal and spent two days visiting in Toronto. Then there was the excitement of coming home and a happy reunion with our family. And the following Sunday when I sat listening to that good Protestant Reformed preaching again, I was sure that I was really glad to be home.