My parents, Jan and Ger, were both born in ‘s-Gravenzande, Holland.  My father had been widowed previously and had one young son, Leen.  It’s a rather romantic tale of how they came to be married, so I will tell it to you.   Jan was the conductor of the Church Choir and Ger was one of the members.  They both attended the same Church but the congregation was so large they did not really know one another.  My Mum told me that she felt sorry for Jan when he came to Church each week, holding the hand of his little, motherless child.  One Sunday afternoon there was a knock on my grandparents’ door and when they opened it there was Jan, asking to speak to Ger’s father.  They met in the front room of their house so Ger could not hear what the conversation was about.  After a bit, her father came out and suggested that she take a walk with Jan and he would explain about his visit.  I think my mother was in her late twenties at this time and she thought of herself as “past it” and “that she would always be a spinster”.  While on their walk, Jan asked for her hand in marriage!  He had been aware of her through the Choir activities and was impressed with her good, Christian character and thought she would make him an excellent wife and also be an excellent mother for his son, who I think was five at the time.   She was very surprised at this news and after a few minutes asked him for seven days to consider his offer.  The following Sunday she accepted his proposal.    By the time they left Holland in 1952, my mother had three children of her own (Maria, Gerda and Dick) as well as Leen, whom she loved as her own.  Once they arrived in New Zealand they had three more (Ron, myself and Jo).

The house on your left is where Ger lived with Opa and Oma van Oosten

Both Mum and Dad came from large families, around six or seven siblings each, I forget the exact number.  Gerda had been in contact with my mother’s side of the family and had organised for her and Barry to stay with our cousin Ton and his wife, Nicolien.  I had written to one of my mother’s sisters, Tante Rie, asking if we may park our motorhome on their property and proposing that we could look after ourselves in the van, knowing that she was either in her late 70’s or early 80’s.   Her very helpful daughter-in-law replied on their behalf, as she has a good grasp of English and could email me, inviting us to stay the weekend with her family.  Ineke and Dirk, live in the house next door to Tante Rie, which turned out to be perfect.

Oom Klaas and Tante Rie’s home, Ben now manages the hothouses on the property

Dirk and Ineke’s home

We were determined to not keep Gerda waiting and ended up getting to the Church two hours early!  Not like us at all to be early.  We parked in the supermarket car park and did a spot of shopping.  Surprisingly, we found NZ wines on the shelf so we were happy to take a few with us for the family.  We strolled through the village and really loved the atmosphere of the place.  Being a Friday, the market stalls were open in the Town Square and we bought Dennis some decent woollen socks and had a coffee while we waited.  I kept finding myself looking intently into everyone’s face to see if there was a family resemblance at all.  About half an hour before the appointed time we decided to shift the van to a more prominent parking spot and then stand in front of the Church.  While we were slowly driving around, each of us looking for that elusive park on our side of the road, there was a loud commotion in front of us, on the other side of the road coming towards us.  Someone was yelling and half hanging out the passenger window, waving frantically.  That someone was Gerda, beside herself with joy!   She didn’t wait for us to find a place to pull off the road but jumped out of their car and ran down the road after us.  What a great way to meet up with your sister!  Laughter and hugs all around.  Happy, so happy to give each other a big cuddle and another one for good measure.   After we had calmed down somewhat, we followed Barry back to Oom Klaas and Tante Rie’s place and parked our vehicle off the busy road and so our Family Weekend began.

Gerda and Barry, she had a smile from ear to ear all weekend!

Looking down the main street of ‘s-Gravenzande


Walking into Oom Klaas and Tante Rie’s house was like arriving home.  The same warm welcome and the Dutch feeling of gezillig-ness as my parents’ home had in Nelson.  We had met these two before, many years ago, when they came to NZ to visit Mum and Dad and my Tante Nel (Mum’s sister) and Oom Wim.  What a bonus to have Gerda with us, her Dutch is so good and it wasn’t long before Tante Rie, Gerda and me were talking away without too much trouble.  I would stop and translate for Dennis but in actual fact he caught on to a lot without my help.  Tante Rie has all the same mannerisms as my Mum, the same easy laugh, the same way of speaking as well as the same familial look about her, it brought tears to my eyes just watching her.   She was so funny describing the lectures she would get from her mother, my Oma, about not writing to her sister Ger in New Zealand often enough.  Nevermind that she had six children to look after as well as help Oom Klaas in the glasshouses full-time!  My memories of my Oma are of a very large and very grumpy woman.  Tante Rie assured me that when she was in Holland she was still large but not at all  grumpy, it was only that she couldn’t understand English and us smaller kids wouldn’t speak in Dutch to her, even though we could understand it.   Of course, Maria the Golden Girl could and would reply in Dutch, so she is remembered with special fondness!  Oom Klaas had trouble trying to keep up with Dutch, then English, then back to Dutch again and was happy to relax in his chair and just listen it to all our fumbling with the language and the laughter.  He was very happy to see us and wanted to know all about our travels so far.  When Gerda left to go to Nicolien’s place, I really struggled with the language, my tongue just wouldn’t work fast enough even though my brain had the words on the tip of my tongue.  It wasn’t too long when a tall, dark-haired lady walked into the lounge and introduced herself as Ineke to us.  Thankfully, her English was excellent.  She had spent some time living and working in the UK when she was single and it made all the difference.

Happy Oom Klaas

Tante Rie and Oom Klaas were invited to join us for dinner at Ineke’s home.  As I said they lived in another house on the same property so it was a short walk to retrieve our things from the van and then to Dirk and Inekes’.  Thankfully, I could wash all our laundry that hadn’t dried properly from my last effort and had gone all smelly.  We met up with Dirk and one of their daughters, Karin, when they arrived home from work.  Ineke had prepared a veritable feast for us to share for dinner and in a short time we felt very much at home in this house as well.  We were astonished to find that Dirk and Ineke had given up their very comfortable bed for us and they were to take the guest room upstairs!  Very generous.   I was so tired, it’s hard work trying to think in Dutch and keep up with all the conversations.
The following day we were in for a real treat, actually several.  Dirk works in the administration and IT side of things for the largest tomato growing company in all of Holland, that is saying a lot as Holland is famous for its horticulture.  He proposed to take us on a tour through a couple of their local hothouses, they have sites in several different Dutch provinces.   At present the company has 64 hectares in tomato production and they have plans to take this out in stages to 144 hectares.  When you consider we had one-third of a hectare in production when we were growing hydroponic tomatoes, you begin to realise the difference in scale.  One hothouse we toured through covered nine hectares, employed 50 permanent workers as well as other part timers, had 300,000 plants and was 7 metres tall up to the gutters (as a comparison, our “new” hothouse was 3 metres to the gutters).  Dennis and I found it so fascinating to hear about all the advanced technologies used today in growing hydroponically.  Essentially, the basics were similar to how we did it but this was in another league entirely!  Production levels in this system is roughly twice what we ever managed fifteen years ago.  Five staff were employed throughout the company to specifically manage the insects – monitoring the harmful ones and balancing these with predatory ones, as well as all the bee hives.  They had huge 7,000kw gas turbines, similar ones that fly jet engines, which produced enough electricity to not only power the entire operation but sell the surplus back to the National Grid.  The cooling water from these was used to heat the hothouse.  With the darkening days in autumn and winter the hothouses had overhead lights on for up to 18 hours each day.  All the rain water is collected off the roofs and stored in enormous tanks outside and if and when they run out of this water during the season, they need to use their own desalination plant for their well water.   The majority of the workers were Polish as they are keen to work (too dirty and too much like hard work for Dutch people on the whole) and they had a great bonus system to keep them interested.  The Saturday we were there, college students were working amongst the young plants, removing the stakes that had supported each plant for the first few weeks.  Each worker had their own code and after finishing each row, they logged their progress on a computer using different bar codes for specific jobs done.  They were paid on work done not hours worked.   It was great to see things that we had learned about at the various conferences we had attended in NZ all those years ago, working so well here.  Even though Dirk does not actually work with or on the plants but rather more in the office, he was a very knowledgeable guide and we thoroughly enjoyed the tour.

Dirk, Dennis and Ineke with just one of the computer control panels in the boiler house behind them.

Amazing the size of this equipment

The glass is cleaned regularly to allow as much natural light in as possible

Very strict hygiene standards are followed in each hothouse, that’s the reason we looked so glamorous.  The manager (pictured) along with all the workers  change into their work clothes on the premises.


On the way back from the hothouses, Dirk showed us the flood protection system along the waterway into Rotterdam and drove us through the Hoek Of Holland.  Known as the Maeslantkering, it is one of largest moving structures on earth, and is the final section of the Delta Works system of flood protection.  Once a year they have a trial run for these surge protection gates.  This was completed two weeks previously, it takes eight hours to close the gates and another eight to open them again.  The Maeslantkering has only been used against a storm surge once since opening in 1997, after six years of construction.  Rotterdam is one of the busiest ports in the world and while we were standing alongside that waterway the ships were coming in thick and fast.  They have reclaimed acres of land around this area, with a whole section created on the opposite bank for the North Sea Oil refineries and storage. 

Each of the two gates sit in dry docks on either side of the waterway. Once they are closed they fill the hollow gates with water and they then sink to the bottom. The gates can then be emptied in stages to allow the Rhine to drain away to prevent flooding caused by the build up of water on the other side. Clever. Standing upright, these arms would be as high as the Eiffel Tower.

Pretty impressive

The wharves of Rotterdam are immense

The Hoek of Holland has beautiful sandy beaches and is very popular with the locals from Rotterdam and the surrounding areas for swimming, fishing and other recreational activities.  There are still large bomb shelters and bunkers along these sandy shores left over from WW2.  One large bunker was where the Dutch Cabinet met at the beginning of the War and where they decided that the Dutch Queen and the royal family were too vulnerable so they sent them to England for the duration.

The famous bunkers over the road from the beach at the Hoek of Holland

The Dutch people on the whole are very keen on being green.  Dirk drove a Skoda that stopped the engine automatically when you had to wait for the traffic lights to change, it was so fuel-efficient it would do 25 kms/litre!  They had also installed solar panels on the roof of their house, they were able to sell the power back to the National Grid for the same rate they were charged by their electricity supplier!  The entire EU have introduced subsides for these renewable technologies (after Dirk first installed the panels), recognising that it’s cheaper to encourage people to use solar panels for power generation and to heat their hot water and to use wind turbines than to have to build more gas or nuclear power stations.  Why don’t we have the same incentives in NZ, one may ask, when the problems are just the same and our skies are so much clearer as well?

Gardening is truly in our genes! Great fruit and veggie garden at Dirk’s, notice the photovoltaic cells on the roof

We went back to Ineke’s for a quick bite of lunch before the main event of the day,  the Open House at Tante Rie’s.  When they learnt that both Gerda and I would be staying the weekend, Tante Rie put out an open invitation to all her immediate family who lived in the surrounding district.  And what an afternoon we had!  Around 25 people showed up during the afternoon and some had travelled considerable distances.  It was fun meeting them all and sorting out who was related to whom and who was married to whom, etc.  Gerda and Barry proved to be wonderful translators once again.  It was quite overwhelming to see the response to the open invitation, how welcomed we were and realise that all these people had made so much effort in providing yummy things to eat, had given up their Saturday for us and were genuinely happy to met us!  We had a ball.  They also came bearing lots of lovely presents.  This was just a small selection from the entire van Oosten side of the family.

Tante Hetty (wife of Oom Dick) and Tante Jo.  Tante Jo really reminded me of Mum

Marja van der Hout and Trude Lock-van Oosten, both are Oom Dick’s daughters

Tante Rie and Nicolien

Ineke with Maarten Nieuwenhuizen (son of the late Oom Jochem and Tante Cor)

Klaas-Reyer, son of Oom Klaas

Eric van Bergan, married to Arien, and their son Jeroen

Some of my Mum’s siblings: Tante Jo, Oom Dick, Tante Rie

The two Gerdas, both named after my Oma. Gerda Valster, daughter of Oom Klaas, came all the way down from Delfzijl especially to see us.  (The round trip to and from ‘s-Gravenzande is 550kms.)



Dick, son of Oom Dick with Dirk. Dick and his family drove from Utrecht.   Not the best photo Dirk, sorry about that!

Ben, son of Oom Klaas and his partner, Cynthia

Ton Nieuwenhuizen(brother of Maarten) and Oom Dick

Maarten gave us a bunch of old photos to take back to NZ (Gerda has them) which everyone enjoyed seeing. Ton, Nicolien, Marit (daughter of Oom Klaas) and Tante Rie. Marit was busy in the kitchen for most of the afternoon

Karin, Dirk’s daughter, and her boyfriend Tony

Arien, daughter of Oom Klaas. Doesn’t she look like Wilma?

The following day we joined Gerda, Barry, Ton and Nicolien and went to the morning service at the Noorderkerk where my parents were married, had their Dutch children baptised and were faithful members.  I’m not sure of the reasons but none of the family we met the day before now attended this congregation, some of them are members of other smaller congregations in ‘s-Gravenzande and Poeldyk.  It is lovely inside the building and although they have recently done some renovations basically it still has the same layout as when Mum and Dad were members.  I became quite emotional during the service, especially with Gerda standing beside me singing her heart out in Dutch, with the other 1000 people there. (She really has a beautiful voice).  I kept thinking about what a blessing this Church has been to our family.  Both my parents were baptised here, as were their parents, and their parents and so on.   Generations of my family on both sides have been chosen by God to be part of His family and are now singing His praises in heaven, joined by our daughter Rebecca.    That’s a blessed legacy and one I treasure.  The preacher spoke slowly and clearly so I managed to understand a good bit of the sermon, but poor Dennis was completely lost.  He just read through the Gospel of Mark in his English Bible.

The stained glass windows looked pretty trendy but apparently they’ve been there all along

Nice organ

After the service we walked the short distance to Tante Janny’s place.  She is my father’s youngest sister and she was so happy to see us.  She lives in a small flat very close to the ‘s-Gravenzande shopping area (all the shops were closed on Sunday!) and had attended the same Church service as us.  She had invited her son, Jan and daughter, Jeanette to come back for coffee after Church to meet their cousins from the other side of the world.  Jan is single and Jeanette came with her husband, Pieter and their two children.  Tante Janny was widowed 10 months ago and is still learning the sad process of living alone.  She is 85 and looks like she manages very well.   She really reminded me of Dad.  We enjoyed cakes and coffee with them but we had a full programme that day and it wasn’t long before we had to leave and grab a bite to eat back with Ineke before visiting the next van den Berg lady.  It was lovely to spend this time with Tante Janny.

The previous day they held a marathon in ‘s-Gravenzande and in the main town square they had helpfully set up portable urinals! What is it with European men that they have to piddle out in the open all the time?

Tante Janny and her son Jan

Cousin Jeanette, and doesn’t she look like Janneke and Colleen?

Tot ziens, Tante Janny

Tante Nel had been on a short holiday out of town but when she heard the day before that we were in town, she cut short her holiday to make sure we could meet up.  She lives in another small village about 15 minutes drive away, called Poeldyk.  She has a smaller place that Tante Janny, in a four storied retirement home.   She was delighted to see us and chatted away non stop.  Her son Hans was also there and it was great to meet him as well.  We just couldn’t get over how sharp Tante Nel’s memory was, at 92 she is very sprightly.  After hugs all round, the first thing Tante Nel told Dennis was that she used to be so scared of him!   She had visited NZ with her husband, Kees (and her sister Tante Janny and his brother Johan) many years ago.  My parents had driven them around to visit all my siblings in the North Island.  Apparently, when they had a meal with us Dennis had threatened our small children with discipline if they didn’t behave.  She never forgave him for this and always wondered how these poor children survived!  I was happy to assure her they were all sane and in fact we are very proud of them.    Dennis had taken her, Tante Janny and my mother for a ride in his old Ford Prefect that day as well.  It had very bouncy suspension in the back seat and he purposefully drove over every pothole along Oxford Street he could find and she and I could still remember the three of them screaming in delight when they hit their heads on the ceiling with every bump.    We had such an interesting conversation with her about why my father and his brother had such a fraught relationship, we learnt a lot more about the background for this and it began to make more sense to us.  We were pleased to reassure her that they had forgiven each other while my father was in hospital,  a few weeks before his death (though they had tried unsuccessfully to be reconciled many times previously) and that Oom Koos and Tante Gre were so good to Mum when she was a widow.  We also heard for the first time one of the main reasons behind my parents leaving Holland.  Dad worked with his father primarily keeping ditches clear though when that work was done each day, they also worked in the local hothouse industry.  It was Opa’s responsiblity to keep a specific section of the town’s ditches clear of vegetation and he was employed by the local Council to do this.  Being such a low-lying country this work was of vital importance and they were well-known as a hard-working and conscientious team.  My father already had problems with his back and when he saw other people using the newly invented machines for this work, rather than doing it all manually with scythes, he suggested to my Opa that they should invest in this updated technology.  Opa was adamant that they were not going to spend money on it and would continue as they were, he had no sympathy for Dad’s back problem and as he was as strong as an ox himself carried on using the scythe.  (Many years later in NZ, Dad ended up requiring surgery on his back several times.)  Apparently, my father was so upset with this final decision he decided to follow Oom Koos, who was already living in Nelson, NZ.  As well as that, the devastation after WW2 in Holland meant there was a chronic shortage in housing and they were still the effects of rationing, so these things combined made the decision easy for Dad.  I remember talking to my mother about that, she had been most upset and at first told Dad “he could go by himself,” as she could not leave her family.  But, Dad being Dad would not argue about it, his mind was made up and he applied to the relevant authorities in New Zealand.  When he went to The Hague to present his case at the British Embassy my mother stayed at home and prayed that it would not be successful!    I was shocked when she told me this as I had always considered Mum as meek and mild and content to follow Dad’s rule.   Tante Nel had lots more stories to tell, how Opa van den Berg had favourites among the grandchildren in Holland as well and how upset all the mothers were about that (Maria was his favourite in NZ), how he was a very stubborn man (must be a hereditary family trait) and astonishingly, how my mother took an instant dislike to her!   She said it wasn’t long after Mum and Dad were married that Mum came and apologised to her and they became firm friends after that.  We had such a great time with Tante Nel, she was so excited to see us and kept repeating what a wonderful day it was for her.  When it was time to go she walked us down to the front door and waved frantically through the window of the downstairs lounge.  She told me she was going to show off to the other oldies sitting in the lounge, that she had just had visitors from NZ!

Tante Nel, doesn’t she look like her brother, Koos and her father?

Hans de Winter

The view out of Tante Nel’s lounge reminded me of The Wood in Nelson

Barry drove us back to Oom Klaas and Tante Ries’ place where we all had another coffee and slice of cake.  It was time for Gerda and Barry to return to Ton and Nicolien’s for the night, they were due to pick up their touring companions in the morning and leave for Germany again.  Interestingly, everyone remarked that they thought Gerda looked like a real van Oosten whereas they thought I resembled the van den Berg side of the family.  What a joy it had been to be with them for the weekend, it has been a real highlight of our travels for me.  

What a great time we had

Dennis, Ineke and I attended the evening service in a church in Poeldyk.  They had a visiting choir singing through the service as well, which is a novel thing for us.  Dirk was on taxi duty picking up another one of their children from a weekend Youth Camp.   We really appreciated getting to know my cousin Dirk and his family better each evening, when we had time to sit quietly over a glass or two of wine and enjoy wide-ranging conversations in English.   It didn’t take long to realise that if we had lived in the same vicinity we would have not only been relatives but friends as well.   
On the Monday we were surprised to learn that Ineke had taken the day off work to enable her to show us around all the places that had been important in my family’s life in ‘s-Gravenzande.   After the guided tour we came back to say goodbye to Oom Klaas, Tante Rie and Ben.  It is difficult saying goodbye with the knowledge that we won’t be seeing them again on this side of heaven but I am so pleased that I came here.  Both Dirk and Ineke were so kind to us all weekend and we are so appreciative of all the work Ineke had done on our behalf, helping her mother-in-law with all the preparations, etc as well as the beautiful meals she served each day.  We had a fabulous time with my relatives and it has been a real highlight of our trip away from home.   Whenever they come to New Zealand we will surely have a hard act to follow.

Opa van den Berg lived here

The house that Mum and Dad lived in before coming to NZ. Obviously, it didn’t have a shop downstairs then

The primary school which my Mother went to

Mum worked as a maid in the Manse beside the Church before marrying my Dad

Gerda was born in the house in the middle

Now that they have removed the urinal we get a good view of the old Town water supply

The coffee was good too…

Our friendly tour guide and the ‘s-Gravenzande windmill