King’s Day 2017, pt. 1

Stories of a countrywide birthday party for the Dutch monarch have intrigued me for years. The idea of an entire nation mutually celebrating their leader’s birth really seems like a nice strategy to unite the people. I cannot imagine citizens of the United States jovially participating in any sort of birthday party for any politician.

I had heard rumors of crowds wearing orange, city-wide rummage sales and public intoxication. However, nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience.

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Flags of the Netherlands and their national color, orange, wave above the city for King’s Day. Amsterdam, April 2017

Morning. Within the first few moments of consciousness, we could already hear muffled music coming from all ends of the city. I opened the window and stepped out onto the balcony. The music suddenly grew louder; I could hear it coming from everywhere. The Dutch flag flew proudly from the spire of the Westerkerk in celebration of King Willem-Alexander’s birth.

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The flag of the Netherlands displaying its national colors from the Westerkerk on King’s Day. Amsterdam, April 27, 2017

I went back inside to our front window, which overlooked Laurierstraat. People joyfully paraded down the street brandishing bottles of beer or cider and wearing black jackets with orange accessories. Some wore orange hats or shirts, while others wore feathered orange boas. Down the street, a band played rock songs in both Dutch and English.

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A band performs on Laurierstraat in celebration of King’s Day. Amsterdam, April 2017

We emerged from the apartment into the festivities below with no real destination in mind. Turning from our street onto Prinsengracht, we suddenly encountered a sea of people. A bridge ahead of us had some sort of message written in white, so we waded our way through the crowd until we found ourselves standing on it. The message read: Re-Vest Life. Apparently, they built the sign with life vests used by immigrants going to Europe. 

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Made from the life vests of immigrants, “Re-Vest Life” uses King’s Day to get out their bright orange message. Amsterdam, April 2017

People in boats displaying the Dutch flag floated under the canal where we stood, as a variety of music, singing and dancing came from aboard each skiff. People smiled and waved to each other, regardless of any cultural differences. The reason to celebrate united everyone under its one common goal of happiness.

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Orange-clad people singing and participating in festivities to honor King’s Day. Amsterdam, April 2017

We walked toward Dam Square to see the Palace. It seemed as though music played from every corner of the city. No matter where we turned, crowds had gathered to listen. As we approached Dam Square, the streets began to resemble a massive rummage sale.

Racks of clothing, purses and souvenirs lined the street as stores and citizens alike displayed their wares, hoping passerby saw something that caught their eye. Something definitely caught my eye, but not an item. A large crowd had gathered around a performance I could not see. As I approached, I saw a man covered in raw eggs preparing to fist-fight any egg thrown his way. People in the crowd purchased eggs to throw. Most missed him, but a few actually made their target.

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A man prepares for the next aerial assault of eggs. Amsterdam, April 2017

After watching for a few minutes, we began to aimlessly stroll through the vast array of commodities until hunger finally overpowered us. Thankfully, Koh-I-Noor, a favorite Indian restaurant of ours since 2014, stood down the street, its dark red sign drawing us in. Without saying a word, we smiled at each other and headed toward their welcoming door.

The Dutch Starbucks

One night after we left the casino, we started walking back to the apartment. Suddenly, a foreboding green glow came from a sign hovering above a doorway as our path immediately diverted into the entrance of an open Starbucks. I do not drink Starbucks in the United States, but have discovered that in Europe, their coffee tastes much better. However, I forgot that they can sometimes make it different, too.

I ordered us each a flat white with an extra espresso shot, expecting them to have as much milk as the drinks back at home. The barista complimented my name, telling me that she named the main character Meghan in a story she wrote. When they announced our drinks, we both looked at each other in alarm, for the size of the drink they gave each of us seemed so small, we wondered how they fit any milk into it with the four espresso shots. With some sugar, I didn’t mind it too much. It tasted like one of the strongest cups of coffee I ever tried. However, Kurt looked sick. “I’m getting a white mocha,” he said with pale annoyance. “Do you want one, too?” I agreed and waited at a table for him to return. He came back a few minutes later with two drinks that tasted a lot more like what we expected. We stayed until they began putting chairs on the tables, a sure sign they had closed. We had no real destination, so  we decided to walk back to the apartment with the sole purpose of enjoying the lovely scenery. Warmed and caffeinated, we faced the night with liquid courage of a different kind.

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Amsterdam canal with streetlamps, April 2017.

Amsterdam After Dark

By the time we finally left to find frietjes (the Dutch word for fries), it was after 9 at night. Before leaving the apartment, I expected to see the same dark sky I had seen in Tucson around the same time the night before leaving home. However, the dim twilight still cast its pale light across the Dutch landscape.

Choosing to walk instead of take the tram (it helped us to better explore the city), we headed down Prinsengracht toward Dam Square, stopping every few feet to look in the shop windows. Along the way, we saw a balloon specialty shop, souvenir stores, Delft figurines, a shop dedicated solely to Rubber Duckies, orange t-shirts in honor of the King’s upcoming 50th birthday celebration known as King’s Day (more on that later) and so much more.

By the time we finally reached Dam Square, the clock towers around the city began to ring; the sky had just started to turn dark. The smell of sugar and funnel cakes wafted through the air, luring us to walk through a carnival in Dam Square, despite the fact a few booths had already begun to close for the night.

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We watched in amazed horror as a few brave souls screamed from a neon-lighted contraption above us. A giant metal arm lifted their protective cage as high as the Royal Palace, then plummeted them to the earth, stopping just moments before impact. A Ferris wheel directly in front of us slowly rotated, appearing to encircle the terror device behind it.

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Although it appeared fun, the open seats combined with the icy wind did not encourage me to try it. We wandered through rows of carnival games, each with their own twinkling, brightly colored lights. Once we reached the end of the festivities, we began to head for Muntplein, an area where we previously stayed and knew to have awesome fries.

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As we walked down Damrak, we reminisced on past experiences – Koh-i-Noor (our favorite Indian restaurant), the Amsterdam Dungeon and familiar canals. Couples both young and old, groups of friends as well as individuals walked up and down the street dressed in black (Europe’s most popular color for clothing, apparently).

How many of these people were citizens accustomed to the always bustling streets of late-night Amsterdam? To how many of these unknown faces did the dazzling lights and glittering canals seem a commonplace, everyday scene?

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When we finally reached Chipsy King, we wanted more to eat than fries. Luckily, a Maoz falafel restaurant stood next door, brightly lit and very inviting. Two empty stools surprisingly seemed to wait for us by the window in this restaurant that typically had so many customers, dining in meant standing room only.

I quickly sat down as Kurt ordered for us. He brought our Cokes and waters to the table and waited for our order of falafel balls to finish frying. Within a few moments he returned, holding two foil-wrapped pitas filled with steamy goodness in his hands. We ate in silence, watching people outside ride or walk past the window.

The warm crunchiness of the falafels, fresh condiments and tasty tahini sauce all combined in an explosion of amazing flavors. Once we finished, Kurt asked if I still wanted fries and we both laughed.

Not this time, but soon the following evening, we would accomplish our quest for fries. We stepped from the small, warm doorway and back onto the chilly street. Heading back to our apartment, we planned our adventures for the following day.