Dreaming of crossing the ocean to start a new life? At the Red Star Line museum in Antwerp they know all about it. And now so do we, because of the exciting children’s nocturne they organize over there.
At what once was the control centre for third class passengers, we’re boarding an imaginative ship on a journey filled with memories, relics and witnesses of the great crossing of the ocean. Between 1873 and 1934 two million people entered one of the Red Star Line ships, to set course to the United States of America. For all those men, women and children, this was the last time they set foot on European soil.
‘Passengers were obligated to shower for one hour’
Captain Josiane – big hat, stern look – explains to us that among those two million people, there where 200.000 Belgians. ‘Here is where you had to put your suitcases’ she points out, ‘so they could get disinfected in this kettle’. When our kids find out that the passengers had to take a one hour long shower, their faces turn pale. Even five minutes feels like forever to them. While these immigrants became spotlessly clean, their clothes were disinfected as well.
Before we’re allowed any further, the passengerlist is checked to see if our names are actually on there. Thank God they are. Felix and Mirtha pose for one last picture, ready to travel. Dreams of starting a new life sparkle in their eyes. It takes two weeks to cross the Atlantic and to be able to afford the ticket, you had to save up for almost two years. We look at a beautiful model of ‘The Vaderland’ and admire also ‘The Belgenland’, the most stunning ship of the fleet. It even had the luxury of running water and electricity.
Waffles and Playmobil
What would you bring to this new world? The Hutlet family had no doubt in their minds: they chose the waffle maker. This way they assured themselves of a lasting supply of Belgian waffles in America. ‘Lego would be on my list’, Felix says. ‘And the recipe for cuberdons. My Grey Hunter books. A saltshaker. And ehm, oh yes, my ticket’, he conveniently adds to his list. Mirtha wouldn’t dream of leaving without her Teddy and favorite Playmobil. ‘Better to take a warm coat with me, a sleeping bag, a tent maybe and a pillow. Do you think it would all fit in my bag?’
‘Only if we’re proven to be fit and healthy we’re allowed on board!’
A briskly looking sailor tells us what the passengers got for dinner the night before they shipped out. Soup, stew with prunes and bread. ‘I would like some of that stew, but with fries. And pasta. And popcorn and an ice-cream’, Mirtha says. But before we get a taste of the stew, we need to visit the doctor. He checks if unwanted passengers accompany us, like lice and other parasites. Only if we’re proven to be fit and healthy are we allowed on board. A movie shows us how people get examined for pinkeye. ‘A toothpick in the eye!’ Felix shouts out in horror.
The immense ocean
A strict looking office clerk asks us all kind of strange questions: ‘Can you read? Can you write? Are you a good worker? We answer them all with a yes. Finally the time has come: we’re boarding the ship. The kids are allowed to play old games as we are looking at the ocean, dreaming and pondering. Time flies so it seems, as the captain announces that we will be arriving in New York city shortly! Let’s hurry off the boat, before we’re back in Antwerp.
‘It al went smoothly, although the luggage is quite heavy’
Their new homeland seems ‘A-Okay’ to Felix and Mirtha. They both write a postcard to the relatives in Europe that stayed behind. Felix’ postcard says: ‘I’ve arrived well. It’s beautiful here. Hope you’ll join us soon.’ Mirtha writes: ‘It all went smoothly, although the luggage is quite heavy’. No wonder when there’s a tent and a couple pounds of Playmobil in your suitcase.
Nocturnes for kids: usually the last Friday of a school holiday between 18 and 21 hrs, but be sure to check the website. You can go on a family tour on every first Wednesday and third Sunday of the month. Or just pick up the family suitcase and make your own way through the museum. You can book in advance at: firstname.lastname@example.org