Written by Mary Flanagan Tuesday, May 03 2011
|Prinsengracht canal on Queen's Day|
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – The annual celebration of Queen's Day in Amsterdam on April 30 is best described as a citywide street party. The dress code is bright orange, a tribute to the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau. A crown is optional. It's a day when you can walk around town sporting a sequined tiara and orange feather boa without anyone raising an eyebrow. The person passing by you is probably more outlandishly clad. There's no way to take yourself seriously wearing bright orange.
According to preliminary crowd reports, compiled from aerial photographs and cell phone transmission data, an estimated 800,000 visitors came to Amsterdam for Queen's Day in 2011. As usual, most of the cell phone networks fell out by the afternoon. This year, the skies were cloudless and temperature was a pleasant 70 F.
|Three Generations: Queen Wilhelmina,
Princess Juliana, Princess Beatrix (1938)
Three Generations of Dutch Queens
The annual celebration of Queen's Day started in 1885, as a birthday party for the 5-year-old Princess Wilhelmina, who was born on Aug. 31, the day before the school year started in Holland. As the only surviving child of King Willem III, Wilhelmina ascended to the throne a week after her 18th birthday in 1898. After her coronation, Aug. 31 became a national holiday known as the “Queen's Birthday.” The Dutch like to celebrate birthdays.
Queen Wilhelmina ruled for 50 years, abdicating in 1948 in favor of her only child, a daughter, Princess Juliana. Juliana’s birthday was April 30, and the national Queen’s Birthday celebration shifted to a spring holiday for the next 32 years.
In 1980, Queen Juliana abdicated in favor of the oldest of her four daughters, Princess Beatrix. Beatrix, however, was born on Jan. 31, perhaps the coldest day of the year in Holland. In her coronation speech, Queen Beatrix announced that in honor of her mother the national holiday would be renamed “Queen's Day” and continue to be celebrated on April 30. The Dutch breathed a collective sigh of relief.
|The Free Market|
The Free Market
Probably the most quirky aspect of the Queen's Day celebration in Amsterdam is the “free market.” Unlike Americans, the Dutch don’t hold individual yard or garage sales when they want to dispose of their old stuff. There are organized flea markets in the Netherlands, where you can rent a table or space, but the idea of placing an ad in the newspaper and selling all your unwanted treasures on a certain day is alien to the Dutch culture.
However, on Queen's Day most of the city of Amsterdam turns into a giant yard sale. “I've seen photographs of kids selling things on the street taken as early as the late 1970s,” according to Annemarie de Wildt, curator of the Amsterdam Museum. “Kids started the free market tradition in Amsterdam, and the idea took off very quickly. People jumped at the occasion of getting rid of their stuff.”
Thus, for one day a year, anyone can sell goods and nonperishable foods on the Amsterdam city sidewalks. No license is necessary. No taxes are paid. However, unlike the wild times of the last century, strict restrictions have now been put on the sale of alcohol, sex, and drugs. And more rules and regulations for the free market are being added each year.
During the days preceding Queen’s Day, some sidewalks in Amsterdam become outlined with chalk or masking tape and labeled with the word “Bezet,” which means “occupied” in Dutch. A good selling location for the free market is important, and people start claiming prime space early for Queen’s Day. Years ago, some sellers would define their chosen space with waterproof paint. For months after the holiday, the word “Bezet” would still visible on certain sidewalks. Nowadays there are strict city ordinances against the use of indelible markings. According to one Amsterdam woman with colored chalk in hand, “I live around the corner from this spot. I'll be here setting up very early tomorrow morning.”
|Selling cupcakes on Queen's Day|
The range of stuff on offer at the free market varies from Barbie dolls to sofa beds; penlight batteries to the ubiquitous South American woolen sweaters; earrings to tea sets; paintings, books, and antique Delft-blue plates. You name it. Store owners also use the opportunity to clear out some of their old inventory. As Yvonne Korenhof, owner of the Revanche Boutique, just off of the heavily trafficked Prinsengracht canal, says, “It's a fun day. I usually sell out by 2 p.m., and everyone leaves happy with a bargain.”
What started as a birthday party for a princess continues to be a big event, catering specially to children in many Amsterdam neighborhoods. Certain tree-lined streets and parks, such as the Vondelpark, are designated as “For children only” areas. At these locations, only kids younger than 15 years can operate in the free market on Queen's Day. These young Amsterdammers hone their Dutch entrepreneurial skills early in life by learning how to market their outgrown toys, play their musical instruments, perform song and dance routines, or hawk homemade sweets for fun … and euros.
|Playing the fiddle on Queen's Day|
On the night before Queen's Day, outdoor music podiums are erected in almost every neighborhood in town, with the biggest one on Museumplein, the lawn right behind the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. On Friday night, live music kept revelers partying outdoors until a few heavy rain showers drove most people into cafes. At the height of the festivities on Saturday afternoon, 150,000 people were reported to be at Museumplein.
Only pedestrian traffic is possible on the city streets on Queen's Day. Cars are banned. Trams stop running. Even bikes are useless. With music podiums and beer taps on many street corners, the only way to get across some intersections is by bouncing with the crowd.
Amsterdam, however, does have a fine system of waterways. A cruise in a steel-hulled boat – one that is able to take a few bumps -- is one of the best ways to view the city's festivities. To navigate the overcrowded canals, the captain's nerves need to be of steel, too. A canal boat ride on Queen's Day is not for the faint of heart. Many boats are standing-room-only. Captains have limited visibility, and most of the crew are dancing wildly with a Dutch beer in their hands. Boats cannot avoid banging into each other. According to the earliest official police reports, two boats sank and two people fell overboard this year. I saw at least four people climbing out of the canals. They were all laughing.
The Queen’s Queen’s Day
Every year Queen Beatrix chooses a different Dutch town or two to visit on Queen's Day. This year, she and her family went to Weert and Thorn in the south of the Netherlands. In 1988, she traveled to Amsterdam on Queen's Day. Queen Beatrix shopped the free market too!
Mary Flanagan was born in Fairfield, Conn., and has a degree in archeology from the University of Arizona. She has been working as a journalist, editor, and translator in Amsterdam, Holland, for the past 20 years. Most recently she has translated two historical novels by Dutch author Ivo Knottnerus, The Life of the Renaissance Painter Paolo Veronese and Saint Helena's Pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem, which have just been published as e-books via Amazon.com.