The whirlwind European romance that’s lasted for 50 years
Francesca Street, CNN
Carolyn Mazzie arrived at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport in September 1971, excited to embark on a three week tour of Europe.
Carolyn, then 30, worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, an American train network that’s since been absorbed into the Union Pacific rail company. 50 years ago, Southern Pacific Railroad had several thousand employees, and the company’s employee club hosted regular international trips, chartering airplanes and buses to ferry the railroad workers around Europe.
On top of her regular work duties, Carolyn was involved in organizing these excursions. She’d spend hours at meetings, helping coordinate plans. Arriving in Europe was always a little nerve-wracking — if anything went even slightly wrong, she felt responsible. Sure, they had fun, but Carolyn was always, at least partially, in “work mode.”
On the 1971 trip, Carolyn and her colleagues were picked up at the airport in a bright yellow bus. As Carolyn directed her coworkers, helping them load their luggage on board and settle into their seats, she was unaware of the trip’s tour director, watching her admiringly from afar.
“I was standing outside the bus,” the tour director, Chris De Vreeze tells CNN Travel. “And I must say that she looked good to me right there.”
Chris was a twentysomething from the Netherlands. He’d recently finished his then-compulsory Dutch military service and embarked on a backpacking adventure across Europe.
Back home in the Netherlands, he’d landed a tour director job that, at least partially, satisfied his wanderlust — working as a guide operating trips to countries across Scandinavia, as well as to Spain and Portugal.
“We were in charge of picking the tourists up at Schiphol Airport, and then traveling throughout Scandinavia for about three weeks by bus,” Chris recalls. “And that’s how we met, for the first time, in Amsterdam.”
“I didn’t really notice Chris that much, in the beginning,” says Carolyn. She was exhausted from the flight and focused on the trip getting off to a good start.
That first day, Chris’ bus drove to Lübeck, in northern Germany, so the tired transatlantic travelers could get some rest before the following day’s drive.
The first leg of the journey was smooth. From there, the tour group caught a car ferry from Germany to Denmark and then on to Sweden, and Norway.
It was on one of these ferry journeys that Chris and Carolyn talked one-on-one for the first time.
“I remember we were sitting on a gangway on an overnight ferry,” recalls Chris. “We were just talking and drinking.”
Sitting under the stars, the two chatted about their lives up until that point — Chris’ travels, Carolyn’s job with the railroad. They discussed the US and the Netherlands, and their countries’ differences and similarities.
“We started getting along better and better,” says Chris.
It was a clear night and most passengers were asleep in their cabins. Sitting on the deck, Chris and Carolyn looked out over the horizon. In the distance they noticed turquoise spots of light dancing above the water. They couldn’t believe it, it looked like the Aurora Borealis.
This moment, says Chris, “very romantic and soulful.”
“Although,” he adds. “To this day I am not sure whether they were the Northern Lights or some other lights from maybe a city, or God knows what.”
Chris and Carolyn unintentionally stayed up all night under the stars, watching the water, chatting and eventually dozed off.
When the ferry docked, the other passengers returned to the bus but Chris and Carolyn were nowhere to be found. One of the other travelers got off the bus to go and look for them. Chris and Carolyn were found still asleep, sitting side-by-side on the deck.
Carolyn was mortified. But she’d loved speaking to Chris against the backdrop of the sparkling Scandinavian sky.
Carolyn kept a journal chronicling the three-week European trip, which she still has today. In the notebook, she wrote about how most nights she and Chris wouldn’t go to bed until 3 or 4 a.m., spending all night chatting, partying, and getting to know one another.
But although the two were bonding, Carolyn was dating someone else back home in California. She didn’t see the connection outlasting her time in Europe.
Towards the end of the trip, Chris, Carolyn and some of the other travelers were relaxing in a Dutch hotel bar, when Carolyn was informed by hotel staff there was an international call waiting for her.
The trip had supposedly been paid for in full in advance. But on the phone, Carolyn learned there were some payment discrepancies. Seemingly, the external tour company had neglected to pay for some hotel rooms and air fares.
Carolyn ended up at the head offices of the airline, Transavia, trying to work out what was going on, and how it could be resolved. Chris came with her, for moral support, and to see what practical solutions they could come up with.
It transpired there was some $5,000 missing. What was worse is no one knew where it had gone, and until the situation was resolved, Carolyn and her coworkers were stuck in Amsterdam, their charter flight grounded.
With Chris’ support, Carolyn got in touch with Southern Pacific Railroad, which arranged for the funds to be wired over, but it wouldn’t be instantaneous. An agreement was arranged — the charter flight could leave the following day, but Carolyn and Chris would stay put, handing over their passports as collateral while they waited for the money to arrive. And so, the rest of Carolyn’s group flew on ahead.
Carolyn’s colleagues didn’t entirely understand what was happening. Some of them thought she was just finding an excuse to stay behind with Chris for an extra day. Internally, Carolyn was panicking, but externally she tried to stay calm.
“Carolyn and I stayed overnight in a hotel near the airport,” recalls Chris. “And the next morning, we went to American Express and picked up the check for $5,000, brought it back to Transavia. And they gave us our passports back.”
From there, Carolyn was able to fly to London to join her colleagues and fly back to California. It was an emotional roller coaster that only brought the American tourist and the Dutch tour guide closer together.
“Oh, I was desperate, I was a wreck,” recalls Carolyn. “And my hero came to my rescue and he took care of everything. That’s when I started thinking, well, this guy’s really kind.”
Chris says the experience, and the extra day they spent together, “only furthered our romance.”
Long distance correspondence
Before Carolyn boarded her flight, she and Chris swapped addresses. Back home in the US, she received her first letter from Europe.
“We kept in contact,” Carolyn recalls.
Her Californian relationship fizzled out, but the letters to and from the Netherlands continued, and upped in frequency.
The two wrote, says Chris, “about everything and anything.”
“It was not unusual at all for us to get two or three letters a week,” he recalls. “Lots of telegrams, and expensive telephone calls on occasion, not too often. But it was mostly all by mail. So we had stacks — we still have them — stacks and stacks of letters that were sent to each other.”
Chris and Carolyn both looked forward to the letters arriving. And the rare phone calls were extra special.
“He has a wonderful voice, I loved talking to him on the phone,” says Carolyn.
If the seeds of their romance were planted on the Scandinavian ferry, the couple fell in love via their long distance correspondence.
When Chris planned a visit to the US that December. Carolyn had a “little feeling” he might propose. Her instinct was correct.
“I always wanted to see her again, of course, and I already had made up my mind — I was going to ask her to marry me,” says Chris.
To get from the Netherlands to the US, Chris spent over 24 hours traveling — flying from Amsterdam to Luxembourg, then to Reykjavik, Iceland, and from there to New York, before flying across the US to California.
Chris was well traveled, but he’d never been on such a mammoth air journey. And he’d never embarked on a trip that seemed so significant. He was nervous and excited.
“But when I got there, I met her family,” Chris says, calling them “wonderful people.”
The proposal, he says, was “old fashioned.”
“I must admit I was quite nervous,” he says. “The nervousness disappeared when Carolyn accepted and it became a joyous time for both of us.”
Carolyn says her family loved Chris from the get-go. If her loved ones had hesitations about her falling in love with the European tour director she’d met just once before (“Who ends up with their tour director on a trip to Europe?” she jokes) they didn’t express them.
“I was 30 at the time. In those days that was kind of late in life to meet anybody,” adds Carolyn, laughing. “So they were so happy.”
Carolyn was much closer to her family than Chris was, so living in the US together seemed like the obvious choice. This turned out to be more complicated than the couple anticipated. Chris’ visa was held up for several months, but eventually Chris and Carolyn got married in May 1973 in the US. Carolyn took Chris’ name, becoming Carolyn De Vreeze.
The wedding was a raucous, happy occasion, with some 500 guests in attendance.
“It was just a great party, live band and all that — it was just absolutely fabulous,” recalls Chris.
Most of the attendees were Carolyn’s friends and family. “All my friends from work, everybody I could think of I invited,” says Carolyn. Chris’ guests were fewer in number.
“In the late 60s, early 70s, a trip to the United States was like a huge deal,” he explains. But he says he didn’t mind.
“I had you,” Chris says to Carolyn today. “That’s all I needed.”
At the end of the wedding, Chris and Carolyn put on their “going away” clothes and got into their car — a Ford Mustang — to drive off into the sunset, or at least into the new chapter of their life. Chris held the passenger seat door open to Carolyn, and jumped into the driver’s seat, as was tradition.
“I get in the car, we drive away. Everybody’s waving and cheering, ‘Goodbye, Goodbye.’ We drove around the corner out of sight and I got out of the car and she got behind the wheel.”
Chris didn’t have a US driving license yet, so Carolyn had to drive.
From there, Chris and Carolyn settled into their life together in Oakland, California. In 1975, they moved into the house in which they raised their two children, and in which they still live today.
50 years later
Today, Chris and Carolyn say they’re proud to have raised international kids, who enjoy their Dutch and American heritage, and also have their own multicultural families.
“We raised them right, without any kind of prejudice,” says Chris.
The past 50 years haven’t all been easy for Chris and Carolyn. There were trying, heartbreaking moments — such as when Carolyn suffered a miscarriage in the early years of their marriage. And then, when their kids were young, Chris’ hospitality job kept him at work into the early hours of the morning, the couple were like ships in the night. Chris and Carolyn say they’ve worked hard to ride the waves of life together over the decades.
“There’s always ups and downs in every relationship and certainly in ours, at times it didn’t look all that promising, but we stuck it out,” says Chris.
“You survive the rough times, and then you’re happy that you did,” says Carolyn. “It’s a commitment.”
Today, the couple treasure the memories of hurtling around Scandinavia on the bright yellow bus, and delight in the years they’ve shared together.
“Looking back at 50 years ago, or so, it all went so fast. Time goes by so fast, it’s over before you know it,” says Chris.
But the couple hope there is more joy to come, they dote on their grandchildren, and love spending time with their family. They’re looking forward to celebrating their 50 year wedding anniversary later this year.
Today, the couple think crossing paths with each other on Carolyn’s European excursion was fate.
“I loved her from day one and I still love her to this day,” says Chris.
“It was just meant to be,” says Carolyn. “It was meant to be.”
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