The Reason for Royalty: Queen’s Day in Amsterdam

Sometimes it’s hard to see the point of royalty.  All they have to do to get the job is be born; all they have to do to keep it is not die; and they often seem to spend most of the time in between making bad decisions about sex partners.  But, the always practical Dutch have found a point for their royal family: they’re an excuse for a party.

The party is called Queen’s Day, and it happens on April 30th each year.  The Queen’s birthday is actually January 31st, but the always practical Dutch have decided that if their queen is going to be so inconsiderate as to be born in the drizzly midwinter, that’s her problem, not theirs.  There are a number of traditions related to Queen’s day, but the most important and enduring one seems to be wearing orange things and drinking beer all day.

Despite the fact that I live just an hour away from Amsterdam, I was reluctant to go to the Queen’s Day celebration there, because people had told me that it was too crowded, too drunken, and too filled with violence and urine as the day goes on.  But, since it’s considered one of the world’s biggest parties, and it’s in the neighborhood, I felt a certain obligation to check it out.

In fact, I found the whole thing to be extremely well-organized, good-natured, and fun.  The always practical Dutch double the length of all of the trains to and from Amsterdam and do a great job policing and directing the crowd.  While the massive quantities of beer do seem to produce a considerable amount of urine, the violence was totally absent.  Everyone was in a good mood and well-behaved.

The place to be on Queen’s Day in Amsterdam is on a boat on the canals.  That’s where all the cool kids are.  Of course, the canals are far too crowded for the boats to actually go anywhere, so essentially, they end up sitting in the same place in the canal while spectators on the bridges stare at them.

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One of the Queen’s Day traditions that is not related to orange, or beer, or orange beer, is the free market (“vrijmarkt” in Dutch), which is essentially a nationwide yard sale in which everyone in the country sells his junk to his neighbor, who presumably sells it back to him the next year.  Come to think of it, maybe this tradition does have something to do with beer.

In any event, after a sunny day filled with beer and orange, even the most skeptical populist starts to develop a soft spot for the Royals.  Which is probably just the way they want it…

Midsummer in Estonia: of Ferns and Fires

The bonfire gets going at sunset... around 11:00 pm
The bonfire gets going at sunset… around 11:00 pm

A while ago, I decided to go for a week-long vacation to Estonia.  Estonia, as you may know, is a lovely little patch of national sovereignty in the upper-right-hand corner of Europe, a place that has traditionally been referred to as either “Germany” or “Russia,” depending on the prevailing Eastern European political climate.

All of that ended in 1991, though, when the wily Estonians took advantage of Germany’s new-found pacifism and Russia’s new-found impotence to cobble together their very own ship of state and sail merrily into the community of nations.  And, a brand-new nation of 1.4 million souls was born, like Greater Milwaukee with a seat in the UN General Assembly.

My motivation for wanting to visit Estonia were complex — I was intrigued by the cultural richness of a place that has been a crossroads of trade and warfare of northern Europe, and I had heard that there were a lot of gorgeous blonde women there.  Now, living in the Netherlands, I am no stranger to blonde women.  But, because of the surprising nutritive value of a diet rich in herring and aged cheese, the average Dutch woman stands a good six inches taller than me.  It’s hard to overstate the psychological impact of interacting with women who tower over you like your fifth-grade teacher — you walk over to them intending to chat them up, but when you get there, you feel an overwhelming urge to make up a lie about why you haven’t finished your homework.  I was hoping that the infamous herring-and-cheese shortage of the last decades of the Soviet Union had made Estonia’s blondes a more manageable size.

Like any responsible traveler, I made careful preparations.  I bought a new backpack and started reading up on the culture and history of the country.  I learned, much to my delight, that my visit would coincide with the midsummer’s eve festival on 23 June.  According to the Rough Guide to the Baltic States, while this festival now bears the Christian moniker “St. John’s Day,” it is an “unashamedly pagan affair” involving “large quantities of alcohol” and “a bonfire.”  It also apparently involves couples going off into the forest, nominally to search for some magical fern, but actually to engage in activities more directly related to the festival’s origin as a celebration of fertility.  The medieval equivalent of a drive-in movie — what’s not to like?  I hoped the blondes would be interested.

In the event, it turned out that the country is indeed filled with ravishing blonde women whose sole failing is that none of them want to go fern-hunting with me.  Not one to be deterred by rejection, however, I still had a lovely time in what I affectionately think of as the third-largest country in the Baltics.

And being that far north in midsummer is, indeed, an interesting experience.  The sun does set, kind of, but it never really gets dark.  The sky turns  a deep blue for about three hours, and then the sun rises at around 3:30.  By 4:15, it’s as bright as midday and your body is telling you its time to go for coffee — four hours before any cafes are open.

On midsummer’s eve proper, I was in Parnu, the city that used to be the summer playground for St. Petersburg.  You wouldn’t have to have much of a beach to be the summer playground for northern Russia, but Parnu was actually a cute, if quiet, seaside resort with a fairly nice beach.   On midsummer’s eve, they lit their bonfire around 11:00, when the sun finally started to move down towards the horizon, and the drinking seemed to begin in earnest.  The tradition is to stay up until the sun rises again on the other side of the bay, though I must confess that I in fact went searching for the mythical fern of sleep in my hotel room, hoping to take advantage of the few brief hours of darkness…

Gamble Like James Bond: Living Large at the Casino Royale in Monaco

The guy beside me has just put 8000 euros down on the plush green felt of the roulette table.  He looks like someone trying not to look like a movie star — expensive but casual grey cotton shirt, jeans, a few days’ stubble.

And he’s as cool as a cucumber.

He slides his big, rectangular plastic chips over to the line between 1-12 and 13-24.  He’s got a two-thirds chance of winning 4000 euros, and one-third chance of having a good story for his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

The croupier spins the wheel to the left and flicks the ball to the right.  The ball buzzes around the wooden rim of the wheel like an angry bee.  And drops.  On 33.  Prince Albert is 8000 euros richer.

The guy shrugs and walks off — easy come, easy go.  I, on the other hand, am about to faint.

There are not a lot of ways in which James Bond and I are similar.  He has Q to develop the latest in laser-related personal self-defense items; the closest I ever get to high-tech  gadgetry comes from the back catalog of Sharper Image.  He seduces women while cheating death on seven continents; I sometimes have trouble remembering the names of all seven continents.  Most critically, I like my vodka martinis stirred.

But the beauty of the Monte Carlo Casino is how accessible and affordable it is even for those of us who don’t have seven-figure expense accounts provided by Her Majesty’s secret service.  I showed up in just-slightly-above-average American tourist garb — jeans, hiking boots, and a polo shirt borrowed from my father that was two sizes too small.  I assumed that there would be a velvet rope and a heavyset bald Russian keeping out everyone but models and suave assasins, but in fact, a few hours at the Casino are yours for the price of an entry ticket — just 10 euros.

And, the Beaux Arts building itself is worth the price of admission.  Since I went in the early afternoon on a weekday, only the Salon Europe was open.  (The more exclusive and more opulent Salons Privees — where a jacket is required — don’t open until 8:00 p.m.) But even the Salon Europe has the feeling of a palace, with blinging gilt work everywhere and gorgeous frescoes on the ceiling.  It’s the kind of room you spend a lot of time in as a tourist in Europe; the difference here is that you can stay as long as you want, order a drink, and sit on the furniture.  It’s cool to be able to chill out in an environment like that without a tour guide hustling you along or a museum guard giving you the stink-eye.

But of course, even though you could just sit around sipping on a gin and tonic and admiring your surroundings, it would be a shame to stand where James stood and not at least take a shot at turning the price of that drink into a fortune large enough to buy one of the more modest yachts in the harbor.  Since roulette was the only game I understood, I decided to go with that.

And, like the Casino itself, the roulette tables are surprisingly welcoming to the hiking-boots-and-jeans set, with five euro minimum bets.  I started out with my usual strategy of betting on either black or red, but gradually became more adventurous, eventually winning twice on the 17-21 four corners.

As always happens when I gamble, I became ridiculously stressed considering the small amounts at stake.  It only got worse when Mr. Eight Grand laid down the price of used car and lost.  Finally, though, someone showed up to prove to me that I wasn’t the worst white-knuckle gambler in the place that day.  This guy was the opposite of Eight Grand in every way.  He was short, bald, overweight, and sweating profusely.  You would never be allowed to cast him as the Nervous Gambler in a movie, because it would be too much of a stereotype.  But there he was, looking like he had just stopped by the Casino while he had a few minutes between major cardiac events.

He muttered softly to himself and pushed his one 5000 euro chip over to red.  The wheel spun, and I started mentally running through the CPR training I had in sixth grade.  Do you pump the chest five times between each breath, or seven?  I hoped someone there would know.

The ball dropped.  On red.  Nervous Gambler was 5000 euros richer.  I started to relax for the first time since sitting down at the table, but he seemed even more stressed after winning than he was before, like people who are relatively calm during a near-death experience and freak out afterward.  He walked over to one of the red velvet couches and sprawled out, eyes glazed and staring at the ceiling.  He was still there, quietly sweating on the furniture, when I left an hour later.

And as for me?  Well, I don’t like to brag, but after tipping the croupier generously (what would Bond do?) and making up for my father’s somewhat lackluster performance, I finally walked away with 20 of Prince Albert’s euros.  I hope it won’t impact his lifestyle too much.

I still sometimes think about Eight Grand and Nervous Gambler, and I wonder — which one was the real spy?