Tuesday, May 01, 2007

21 "To the Queen!"

Little girl playing the bassoon, Amsterdam
other photos:

April 3-7: Leerdam-Buren
April 7-11: Buren-Ochten
April 11-15: Ochten-Wyler
April 15-18: Beek, Apeldoorn, Amsterdam
April 20-21: Leidsenveen, Amsterdam, Hardewijk
April 23-25: Apeldoorn
April 26-27: Zuider Zeepad

Apeldoorn, May 1--

Her face painted white perhaps against the harsh Amsterdam sun, a little girl of six or seven repeatedly honks out "Frère Jacques" on the bassoon. This is one of the unforgettable moments from this unforgettable day, Queen's Day, April 30, Amsterdam.

It's only one of the musical moments, which also include: an old man with an accordion; two sisters under ten playing violin duos; the Oops-a-daisies singing and playing Country and Western; rock bands at every major intersection; a little-kid rock band (just bass and drums); a woman belting out the blues while standing on the roof of a cabin on an overloaded boat emerging from under the bridge onto the Amstel River.

Kees has a book published by Lonely Planet: Ten things you ought to do before you die. One of the ten is Queen's Day, Amsterdam. I hadn't wanted to take the train into Amsterdam yesterday morning, then back to Apeldoorn late at night, just for a day of festivity, but I was talked into it, and I'm glad I was. Unforgettable.

The train was full but not unpleasantly crowded. Much of the crowd was wearing orange, the Dutch national festive color. The flag may be red, white, and blue -- that justified the American founding fathers in adopting colors which were also, after all, those of the despised British tyranny -- but the Queen's family is the House of Orange, going back to William the Silent, and the country is fond of its royalty. So festivity, here, is colored orange.

Orange hair, orange clothes, orange bunting; orange banners flying alongside the red, white, and blue. Orange balloons. Orange crowns made of felt, paper, plastic, rubber balloons.

Central Station was jammed, a sea of orange. We made our way through as quickly as possible: once outside the station the crowds were easily diverted by traffic barriers onto one or another of three official Queen's Day routes through the capital -- or, if you preferred, any route of your own devise, or serendipity. The trams were not running in Amsterdam's capacious center, nor were any cars, or vans, or any kind of motorized vehicles; not even bicycles.

Every street seemed to be jammed with people, people of all ages. Many of the streets were markets, but markets with a difference -- not commercial, but people's markets; apparently it's illegal to sell anything for more than a couple of euros, and apparently the rule is followed. The city is an enormous sidewalk sale: books, records, electrical appliances, cups and saucers, clothes, lemonade, bric-a-brac, lamps, cheese slicers, shoes, costume jewelry, everything you could think of. A few shops were open, and sold things on the sidewalk in front -- but only things of little value, things they were clearly simply getting rid of.

At one stand we had an impromptu boterham, or sandwich: a slice of bread lightly buttered, shavings of excellent old Dutch cheese, slice of roggebrod, that crumbly, moist, rough rye bread. At another stand, a beer.

The canal quays and bridges were jammed, but when you needed to sit a spell there always seemed to be a café available. People lifted chairs over the crowd to move them from table to table as necessary. May I take this chair, a young woman asks; Yes, but not too far!, is the good-natured reply.

I have never seen so many people in such good humor. The Dutch genius for tolerance and low-keyed enjoyment was everywhere. I thought about the possibility of pickpockets, of course, and I suppose there may have been some somewhere, but crushing though the crowds were -- and you were constantly jostling or being jostled -- there was never a moment of anxiety or unpleasantness.

And this although the beer was flowing free. Heineken, Bavaria, Brand, Palm, Amstel -- the names and logos were everywhere. You couldn't walk a hundred feet, it seemed, without walking past a table where it was being sold -- or, late in the day, simply being handed out. In cans and bottles and above all on tap: beer. It was not a hot day, thankfully, but it was sunny, not a cloud overhead, and the Dutch needed their beer.

(The English and Americans, too: English seemed to be spoken as much as Dutch. When we bought our return train ticket we waited patiently while the counter-lady explained at length, in English, the itinerary she'd just sold a puzzled-looking couple, dark, small, well-dressed. Where were those people from, I asked, when our turn came. Oh, said the ticket-lady, they're French. I hate having to deal with the French; I can't speak it well at all. The French, the Italians, and the Spanish, they're the only ones who come here speaking nothing but their own language. I always wonder, why do you travel abroad, but don't learn another language? Why come to Amsterdam, if you won't learn English?)

All that beer intake implies a consequent outflow, of course, and portable facilities had been set up everywhere, including something I've never seen before, portable plastic pissotières. They looked like dashers in old-fashioned washing machines, two meters tall, cross-shaped in floor-plan, accommodating four men at a time standing with their backs to the open air and peeing into conveniently placed cup-like receptacles molded into the one-piece cast-plastic unit. Where all the stuff went, I have no idea. They're hollow, Cynthia explained; after the center is waist-deep, you have to work hard, against the current.

Maybe: that would explain why, late in the day, you saw men peeing just about anywhere -- against trees, the tires of parked cars, and -- especially -- into the canals. In the evening we took up a station where one of the main canals entered the Amstel, to watch the unbelievable boat trafffic. Big boats and small came through the bridge to our left, entering the Amstel, where they wheeled about mindlessly in an easy-going traffic jam before deciding whether to go upstream or down.

Most of the boats, whatever their size, were absolutely jammed with people, most of them wearing orange. They stood for the most part, or danced,dancing in place mostly. Beer, boats, and crowds, Cynthia mused; a recipe for disaster. But though many of the boats had only a few inches of freeboard, and though boats occasionally nudged one another, and though most of the passengers were standing and may who weren't were leaning out over the water (and often in embraces), no one seemed to go overboard. I noticed that on one boat a couple of very young children were wearing life-jackets -- orange, of course -- no one else had any such protection.

Often a can or bottle or glass of beer would be handed across from one boat to another, and occasionally a glass would be tossed up from a boat to the crowd standing on the bridge, or down from the bridge to a boat. A police-barge was tied up across from us, and a small police-boat occasionally darted among the traffic-jam, but the smartly uniformed officers seemed to have no other occupation than to smile good-naturedly at the crowd, and occasionally hand a glass of beer on from whoever had offered it to them to someone else floating by within arm's reach. On one occasion a small motorboat, its skipper clearly quite drunk, entered the canal against traffic (it was a one-way canal), and a policeman on the barge looked momentarily concerned and disapproving, but there wasn't much could be done about it, and he quickly resumed his good-humored tolerant complacency.

Two things continually came to mind during the five or six hours we walked the streets and watched the crowds. One of them was Pieter Breughel. Except for the fashions and the constant din of amplified music -- for every boat had its generator and loudspeakers -- there was something very 17th-century about the scene. Children's games, adult follies, the wry observations of folk wisdom.

The other thing was Liberty. I doubt there's a better demonstration of total liberty. Everyone seemed to be doing just what he wanted to do, and the entire day of freedom was facilitated by the Government, or perhaps better put by its Administration. Eating, drinking, walking, sitting, dancing, peeing, singing, playing, buying, selling; seven hundred thousand, it was thought, but I would have thought more, were doing nothing but what they wanted, and you never saw a frown unless it was the concentration of a seven-year-old girl playing the bassoon.

We wound up the day at my favorite Amsterdam bar, 't Oude Dock, on Kadijksplein -- a gezellig neighborhood bar whose clientele always seem to know one another, whose bartender is a nice grandmotherly woman in her sixties, I'd say; whose tables are covered with the old-fashioned mohair deep-pile Turkish table-carpets, and whose ceiling is covered with beer coasters. Here I toasted the Queen with an oude jenever en een pils, and the four of us bantered with the regulars; and then we went on looking for a restaurant that might be open; and, finding, none, crashed into a friend of Kees's, a painter who lives with his photographer wife in an artist's loft near the railroad station, a wonderful man who cooked up an impromptu risotto with carrots and potatoes -- I'd never have imagined such a thing, but Kees did, and it was delicious, of course.

And then the last train to Amersfoort, full almost with people mostly in their twenties finally calling it quits on the Queen's Birthday, surprisingly sober and articulate; and the midnight train to Apeldoorn, deserted now -- though this morning's paper says there were 130,000 revellers even in Apeldoorn!

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