Fit For a Queen

I love Queen’s Day. Like New Year’s Eve in Holland, it ranks as one of my favourite celebrations.

Now, I’m not the world’s most social person. In fact, some would say I lean far more toward being a hermit than an extrovert. So why is spending a day on the already-cramped streets of Amsterdam with two million other people enticing? Because it’s simple and unpretentious.

Queen’s Day is Holland’s national day, but that’s secondary to what it’s become. Which is a day of public socializing, and the only day of the year when you’re allowed to sell stuff on the street. How it morphed from a former Queen’s birthday and national unity day to that, I’m not sure, but the whole country embraces it with an enthusiasm that I’ve only seen replicated during the Calgary Stampede.

The excitement mounts slowly, but tangibly. Preparations are visible days beforehand.

People mark the spots on the street that they want to occupy to sell their goods, balloons are placed in trees to mark routes through the city that crowds can follow.

The evening before is Koninginnenacht, and every year in the neighbourhood adjacent to mine, it means an enormous outdoor feast for residents,

followed by “Opera for All”, a sing-a-long of the arias that everyone knows. Even those who don’t know opera. It’s complete with banners falling from balconies, huge, venetian-type flags lining the streets – and it’s free.

Koninginnedag starts early – serious buyers hit the street by 6am – and yet, somehow, there are no unreasonable expectations. The idea is to go out and be social and find something you’ve always wanted – cheap. And to have a great deal of fun while doing it.

There are no elaborate prerequisites or boringly predictable rituals. There is no parade, or brass band playing the national anthem. There are local brass bands though, playing whatever they like.

There is a great deal of flag presence, but no flag-waving. There’s also an astonishing amount of alcohol consumption, but it’s not like other national days I’ve experience in other countries, when one’s required to get drunk because there’s nothing else to do.

There are kids playing music – or doing whatever else it is that they’re good at – on the street. There are people selling homemade food. There are animals doing tricks. There are nutty competitions for measly prizes (my favourite: kids on pedal-less tricycles with special helmets race from one end of the street to the other. The helmets are outfitted with a microphone and a transformer that makes the bike go: whomever screams the loudest goes the fastest).

There is the wacky and the wonderful.

Costumes come out of the closet, crazy inventions finally have a public viewing. Spirits are high.

Throughout the day, song and a modest thrumming beat can be heard, but it’s not so loud as to be distracting. It just lets you know that people are out there having fun, that something’s going on. It’s all very quietly patriotic. Nothing to do with the Queen (or not much, anyway).

On the way back to our house from this year’s Koninginnedag, we ran into some Spanish friends, who were experiencing it for the first time. “So much imagination,” they exclaimed. “This could never happen in Spain.” Parents would never let their kids run loose for fear that they’d get lost. Others would abuse the ability to drink publicly, etc. You can fill in the blanks.

But here, it’s like the city sets up the infrastructure for Koninginnedag and then steps back and trusts the people and their enthusiasm to take care of the rest. That Dutch trust is unique, and one of the things I love about living here.  I cannot imagine the organization required for Queen’s Day – the permits, the first aid, the quiet policing, all the things necessary for dealing with a population that doubles in one day – but on the day, it seems as though the city is invisible. And the imagination takes over.

And while the Calgary Stampede might be the exact opposite (I may be exaggerating here, but it’s basically ten days of required drunkenness, and wearing cowboy hats and boots to work, with serious consequences if you don’t), any city that pulls something like that off without dampening pride – or that lets the pride and imagination take over from the organization – is where I want to be.