Friday, May 4, 2012

Queen's Day - A Tale of Two Lions

I’m the grounded buoy amongst a hazy, bobbing, throbbing sea of bright orange.  I carefully weave the baby carriage through the crowd, and my 6-month old’s eyes are as wide as mine.  A 6 ½ foot tall lion with a Dutch flag draped around him like a cape glides by us, accompanied by five skinny girls in skinny jeans with orange feathers and beads wrapped around their long necks.  I spot another lion, sitting at the permanent wooden tables in the middle eating French fries.  His headdress is sitting on the table though, in order to consume that favorite of Dutch snacks.  Another gaggle of girls walk by and I continue to carefully maneuver around them.  They wear blow up orange crowns on their heads and bright orange sunglasses on their faces.  The excited, drunken, buzz of the crowd is deafening, and as if it couldn’t get any louder – the Intercity train from Amsterdam to The Hague whips through the station above our heads at lightning speed with a thunderous roar.  Leiden Central Station is not one of its stops.  I pass more male college students with their faces painted and a girl with an orange feather sticking straight up like a question mark from her head.  The whole scene reminds me of a University of Tennessee tailgate crossed with a Dr. Seuss book. 

Queen's Day in Leiden

    Once I have walked past the flower shop, the plethora of food vendors, the bookstore, I arrive at my destination:  The Hema.  From what I’ve gathered, Hema is similar to Target in the U.S.  There is a larger Hema in town, but the train station version is quite interesting to me.  I’m not sure how they decided what to put in the smaller version, but you can buy sliced ham, crayons, bras, birthday candles (unfortunately, I realized this a week too late for the 2-year old’s bday), print photos, hairclips, men’s underwear, stockings, bells for your bike, fresh(ish) sandwiches, notebooks, wine, amongst other seemingly random things.  They do not sell hairdryers.  I looked, my second day here.  It was my first quest amongst many, many other things I would hunt down.   I figured travelers need hairdryers?  They’ve got underwear in case you pop up naked like Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife, but alas, hairdryers didn’t make the list.  But anyway, it is typically very convenient and only a five-minute walk from our house; however, on this particular day, at this particular moment, I completely misjudged my decision to just run to the train station with the baby to pick up a bottle of wine at 6:00 p.m. on Queen’s Day.  Not only was the train station a vessel for transporting and feeding the masses after a day-long (or perhaps, for some, weekend long) revelry, celebrating life, liberty, and Heineken, but apparently a good place to pick up some last minute wine to end the evening, as the Hema was completely sold out.       
    The scene was in stark contrast to the one just 8 hours earlier when we first passed through the train station on our way into town.  The sun was shining brightly and strollers decorated with orange balloons abounded.  There were a few younger people stumbling and squinting their way through the station, looking and pointing to the train headed towards Amsterdam.  They slowly climbed the steps to the platform, gearing themselves up for another fun-filled day while taking cautious sips from paper cups filled with black coffee.  Apparently, Queen’s Day Eve is an event in and of itself.  My LSU-grad husband briefly reminisced about his frat-boy college days, particularly on the eve of big games like LSU-Florida, and looked at them with empathy as we pushed our two children past them and closer into town.
   When we arrived, the downtown area had been transformed.  Thousands of people, strollers, food vendors and beer vendors had lined themselves along the canal.  Everywhere we looked people had put blankets on the ground and were attempting to sell junk.  Apparently, everyone in The Netherlands cleans out their closets the week before Queen’s Day, and brings their unwanted goods out to the middle of town and participates in a huge country-wide garage sale.   Blankets were littered with puzzles, stuffed animals, used shoes, used clothes, glass vases, board games, children’s magazines, and small old TVs.  We turned down a side street and stumbled upon more professional people attempting to sell higher end goods such as antiques, handmade jewelry, and reference books.  These people had tables and awnings.  I briefly admired an antique pepper grinder, but responsibly reminded myself that I already had one of those at home, and we continued weaving the children between the crowds of people down the brick street. 

Overlooking the canal on Queen's Day in Leiden
    It was the perfect day.  It was a sunny, 68 degree day, which we hadn’t seen since we arrived in this country (and well, haven’t seen since).  Everyone was excited to shed their winter coats, and even their ‘spring coats’ as the stores cleverly market them, enabling everyone to don the orange shirts, orange pants (in some cases), and orange accessories they’ve been saving and preparing for with the intensity of a beloved Halloween costume.  We stood in awe and confusion for a good ten minutes on a street corner near the Town Hall, just taking in the scene.  It’s quite an experience, attempting to participate in a country celebration when you are not from the country.  Everyone in the crowd had been celebrating Queen’s Day since they were born.  They knew what to expect from this day.  Here we were, seeing it for the first time, in our early thirties with our two small children.  We enjoyed it.  We did.  But it was a little overwhelming at the same time.  Kind of like going to your first SEC tailgate after you’ve graduated from Baylor.  It just takes a while to understand what to expect, and you feel really out of place until you do.  We couldn’t understand what everyone was shouting or saying around us.  Similar to explaining to SEC fans that alcohol wasn’t allowed on your Baylor campus on Gamedays.  That’s fun.  They tend to look at you like you just spoke Mandarin to them.      
   But anyway, we parked the strollers in the shade of a tree outside the Town Hall where there was space to move around a bit and unfastened the 2-year old from her stroller.  The canal in front of us had been covered with a large stage.  An announcer was shouting loud instructions in Dutch and couples stood poised, ready to dance.  The music started and the couples instantly started hopping back and forth.  Their dance movements were so tiny.  The crowd on the stage was thick, but not so thick to require mouse-like movements, especially in a country where personal space is not necessarily valued on a daily basis.  I began to wonder if it was perhaps a dance-off, you know, last couple standing wins, and each of the couples was attempting to save their energy.  But I couldn’t understand what the announcer was saying, so I knew I’d never really know what the heck was going on, and instead picked up my daughter in my arms and danced with her on the ancient cobblestones next to the canal.  She laughed and giggled until she said “No Mama!” so I put her down, and she did her own groove to the music, to the delight of a few old Dutch women walking by. 
    It was nearing her naptime and I contently used the excuse to head back towards home.  That evening, after I trekked past the Hema an additional 100 yards to the Jumbo, where they were not completely out of wine (yet), V and I sat on our patio, sipping French wine and reflecting on the day.  We survived, lived, and experienced something completely new and overwhelming, and how often were we able to do something like that back home?  We decided that next year’s Queen’s Day – we’ll be ready.  Perhaps we can find matching lion outfits for the kids.  


  1. I hadn't heard of Queen's Day! Sounds like a little weather respite, at least.

    Minnesota stores do the "spring jacket" thing too. Makes it a little less depressing, I guess. It's all about the reframe in the cold climates.

  2. Great story, the photos are splendid also.