Amsterdam – April, 2001

Wear Orange for the Queen

By Greg Niemann

They say that if you only visit Amsterdam once in your life, make sure your visit coincides with April 30 – Queen’s Day, the annual Dutch national holiday in honor of the late Queen Juliana’s birthday. No matter that the current Queen Beatrix, who succeeded her mother in 1980, was born on January 31. She decided to keep the holiday (and outdoor birthday bash) on April 30 as it beats January weather.

While there are celebrations throughout the Netherlands, in Amsterdam up to one million visitors join the 750,000 locals in creating the world’s largest street party. And what a party it is! One we discovered by accident.  

Heading for Italy, we found an overnight layover in Amsterdam on Queens Day and didn’t realize how fortunate we were to find lodging at Shiphol Airport. Then we learned no taxis would be able to take us downtown, so we jumped on the train and then the Metro. Everything was so crowded we almost turned back, and we actually had to exit four or five stops before downtown central.

We were buried in a sea of “orange,” the national color. The royal family, it seems, is descended from the House of Orange-Nassau. Everything was orange, a bright Denver Bronco/Orange Crush "orange."

The rail cars were jammed with mostly young people in orange:  orange hats, and pants, caps, t-shirts, dyed orange hair, orange boas and wigs, and orange painted torsos. Many wore orange balloons shaped into headgear, and Styrofoam orange crowns. They were often in groups of 4-5, or 8-10 people, similarly-clad, and singing and chanting what appeared to be team or school fight songs.

We followed the crowds, not that we had much choice, being whisked up the subway steps in a literal "orange crush" of humanity.                                      

We've all seen pictures of tranquil central Amsterdam: old shady streets, with a few pedestrians and bicyclists perhaps stopping for a loaf of bread, and placid canals where tour boats serenely glide under bridges. It’s always such a peaceful, bucolic scene.

Not on Queen's Day. Every street, canal-way and small alley downtown was jammed with people. On the wider streets they were crammed around  booths selling food, souvenirs, lots of beer, and even marijuana. Beer was being dispensed everywhere and it seemed that those who were not sloshing it out of huge plastic cups were wandering around with the ubiquitous green Heinekens cans smartly contrasted against all that orange. 

The beer cans were everywhere, thousands littering the streets. One of the most pervasive sounds was the tinkling and clattering of the cans being stepped on and kicked around. Often they were kicked out of the way and piles of them, two and three foot high, were in every block.

Needless to say, with the thousands of people drinking beer, and spilling beer, the town reeked of alcoholic aroma, and also that of its byproduct, urine. There seemed to be too few toilets, prompting men (and women) to use the alleys from which virtual rivulets of pee flowed out into the larger streets.

Most of the revelers seemed young, perhaps college age, clean cut and attractive with Nordic good looks. In that vein, it seemed incongruous to see so many of them smoking pot. Grass was everywhere. Small groups were passing joints, or rolling them, oblivious to who might see them.

Perhaps after the spilled beer and urine odor, marijuana was the most distinctive smell. Of course you’ve got to mingle that with the aroma of hundreds of food stands. Fat wursts dripped juices on numerous grills; Oriental food was being stirred in woks, popcorn was being slavered with butter, and chicken on sticks were being drenched in sauces.

Of course what's a party without music?  The sound of music was everywhere, changing in tempo and volume every block. From small combos on one street, to larger bands on others, to huge bands on stages at major intersections. The vigilant booming from the sound boxes in front of the stages was an affront to the senses of anyone over 30 years old. But the younger ones ate it up. Dancing was omnipresent.

Scores of people stood swaying to the music right in front of the booming stages, typically with a beer in one hand, cigarette in the mouth, and the free hand around their mate’s waist.

While the music tended to drown out conversation for blocks, there was also entertainment for others. At one main square kiddy carnival games and rides were set up. Here were more families, parents pushing prams and strollers which added to the overall congestion.

Over by the canals, in the “Red Light” district, the head shops were doing a booming business and the minimally-dressed girls on display in the whorehouse windows waved and beckoned as they always did, Queen’s party or not.

The canals themselves were jammed as many enjoyed the party from the water. Boats of all sizes, crammed with people, sloshed in the busy canals as music blared and people aboard shouted, sang, and danced, hugging their beers and ducking their heads under the narrow bridges. People lining the bridges above seemed unable to refrain from spilling beer on those passing beneath them.

It was a stupefying spectacle, especially for a foreigner like myself who stumbled on one of Europe's biggest bashes. April 30 that year was a Monday, and I don’t know how many people made it to work the next day.

Because of the sheer numbers of visitors, and scarcity of hotel rooms,  I had to sleep on a lumpy bed in an overpriced room, but it was an experience I'll never forget.

Don't know what kind of crowd a January 31 party would draw. Queen Beatrix was astute in changing her birthday to coincide with her Mom’s. And I wonder where she was in all the revelry. I doubt she was kicking green Heinekens cans around.

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