Koningsdag has been and gone. That would be Kings Day to the Anglophones among us. It lacked the pomp and regality typically reserved for royal celebrations and replaced them with glow sticks and ecstasy. Even for a nation of tulip-loving, clog-wearing, windmill fanciers it was extremely surreal.
We started out the day with the intention of heading to the centre of Amstelveen, a small village to the south of Amsterdam where the King was visiting. First we took a brief detour to our local shopping centre to see what was going on in our neighbourhood. There were an abundance of stalls with people selling all kinds of junk and a generally cheerful mood. It was incredibly disturbing for a pessimistic Brit so we hurried off to go and see the King.
As we approached the centre of Amstelveen we started to see crowds of people adorned in orange, walking slowly to see their monarch. When we finally made it to the centre we were struck by the true absurdness of corporate sponsorship as the moment we got off the bus we were handed ING bank paper flags to wave. It was 11:45 a.m, there were hundreds of people, some wearing inflatable rubber crowns, others already drinking beer and almost everyone was fidgety and bored. From somewhere we couldn’t see we heard a children’s choir start singing a tuneless melody and realised how tactically stupid we were. The problem from our perspective was not the crowd, or the lack of planned viewpoints or even the noise. It was our gene pool. The first lesson we learned on King’s Day is that there is no point ever trying to watch something on King’s Day as Dutch people are so bloody tall. We felt like Lilliputians as we zigzagged through the crowd in the false hope of being able to catch a glimpse of the absolutely nothing which appeared to be going on. Eventually it occurred to us that we weren’t likely to start spontaneously growing so we decided to bugger off. However we couldn’t find off so we took the metro to Amsterdam instead.
It was whilst walking to the metro that we realised that something wasn’t quite right. We passed an enormous television screen that had been erected for the expected crowds just as the King arrived. We stopped for a few minutes and watched him fold his elastic limbs out of his bus. Some hideous music played out of the speakers as his wife and daughters appeared. It was then it dawned on me. There were only five people watching this stadium-sized screen. Every single person had warned us about the crowds so to find ourselves to close to the King’s route on a near empty square was somewhat of a surprise. We turned to leave, somewhat exhausted by the King with two names half-hearted attempts at waving. You see the problem for the Dutch King two names is that his wave just isn’t quite regal enough. He raises his hand so high that he looks like he is changing a lightbulb. As we made our way to the Metro we were confronted by the most unique sight we would see all day. Sadly, I was laughing so hard that I pretty much failed to take a decent picture. It was a man and woman, one in orange, the other in blue, wearing wooden clogs, dungarees and colanders on their heads. I have no idea what they were doing but they certainly won the best dressed at King’s Day award.
We decided to head as close as we could get to the centre of Amsterdam and then make our way on foot to Jordaan, a supposed bohemian district without any bohemians. We traipsed along the streets, following the immutable pull of the flowing river of orange, expecting to meet the sea at any time. And yet we didn’t. There were indeed a large number of people, but never quite enough to make one feel claustrophobic. Pretty much every street contained people selling crap all along the street. Most shops were selling their wares on the streets most restaurants were selling barbecued food, beer, pisses and shits. The array of crap you could buy was extremely wide-ranging but disappointingly normal. Regrettably we never found the infamous egg man or anything fascinatingly weird. Every street was drowned in the sound of irritating techno music blasted out so loud that you required drugs or a loss of hearing not to commit murder. The soundtrack was accompanied by the smell of burgers burning on every street making me wonder why it is that the Dutch do not value real music or real food.
We received an invite to a barbecue on a roof near Dam Square and gladly took it as an excuse for some respite away from the banging soundtrack which had me openly weeping as I turned each corner. At the barbecue I came to realise one of the greatest things about Amsterdam. It is a cultural melting pot. There were guests from four continents almost all wearing orange filled with optimism about a weekend of partying. The numbers made me realise something very important. That perhaps King’s Day had absolutely nothing to do with being Dutch. It was about getting smashed and wearing orange. Also I learned that buffalos have wings. But that’s a tale for another day.
We ventured out with the group into the Jordaan and immediately purchased a blonde smurfette balloon and played a grown up game of follow the leader. Jordaan was packed, it was like we were sardines in a can, but not quite dead. The sea of orange was swelling around us and pulling us into its current. The canals were full of boats filled with the lubricated and chemically enhanced as they all danced away to their own private DJs. One canal, twenty boats, twenty different sets of speakers. It was near on impossible to identify which song each boat was dancing too, not that it mattered as every tune sounded the same. As we slithered in and out of the sidestreets we passed a number of different parties, each of them as serious as the next. Parties for the old and the young, the gay and the straight, for the deaf and the deafer. Despite the amphetamine gurns, the stench of alcohol and the pungent aroma of skunkweed the mood was incredibly joyous. Not once did we see a confrontation, or a fight. The worst thing we saw all day was a bum. Given the chemical consumption of the denizens of the Dam they really do put us Britishers to shame.
Of course there were downsides. There were the lost and the forgotten. The damaged and the disappointed. There was heartbreak for some. There were great meals for the rats which dwell beside the canals. The urinals were overflowing. People had abandoned their stalls to their own fates. And somehow it didn’t matter, the party went on. It wasn’t a celebration of a King, or even a celebration of being Dutch. It was merely a celebration of being.
Now it feels somewhat like a psychotic memory, like a 21st century ‘Clockwork Orange’, just without the violence or sex. It was like drifting lost within a sea of orange whilst a relentless cacophony of irritating techno music swam through my ears pushing me to the brinks of madness. It was my own personal hell. And yet somehow, just somehow, it was quite alright.