Brushing Shoulders with Dutch Royalty
As Americans, we generally are unimpressed by the concept of royalty and the fanfare that accompanies persons of hereditary stature. But I will confess it was a remarkable occurrence to find myself standing in a crowd, waiting for the King and Queen of the Netherlands to pass by. Michael had returned from work to find me with Corinne, drinking coffee (a very Dutch pastime) and said, excitement reverberating from every democratic gene: “Don’t you know the King and Queen are coming? They’re supposed to pass by just a block from here.”
Caffeinated as we were to the gills, Corinne and I decided to see for ourselves if Michael was hallucinating or whether we were hallucinating Michael. Nope, he was right. The Dutch version of the Secret Service and the Utrecht police had blocked off about 2 blocks square of vehicular traffic to allow the newly-enthroned royal couple to pass among their subjects in their first “official” visit to Utrecht. However, the hoi polloi (including us) were allowed to line the streets along which Willem-Alexander and Maxima would stroll, winding their way from one official ceremony to the next royal happening in Utrecht.
After experiencing almost military-style scanners and shake-downs at presidential inaugurations in recent years, I was quite surprised that here the common people were allowed so close to the king and queen. In fact, both royals walked the sides of the streets, smiling broadly, greeting people, shaking outstretched hands. The king repeatedly thanked people for coming. The queen bee-lined to the smallest children, but I didn’t see any babies being crowd-surfed for royal smackeroos.
It was actually pretty remarkable, as I was about a meter from the king, and I’ve never been within a mile of any of our presidents. Unfortunately, the close-up shot Corinne took of the king was ruined by some guy sticking his bald head in front of the camera. (No, it was not Michael.)
Why the big fuss over this king and queen? Willem-Alexander is the first king of the Netherlands since 1890, his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother having ruled quite nicely as his predecessors for over a century. However – and also in the tradition of her own mother – (former) Queen Beatrix abdicated on April 30, officially to allow a new generation to take over the titular reins.
For years, Willem-Alexander has tried to outgrow his nickname as “Prins Pils,” the moniker he acquired as a hard-partying, beer-swilling, not-so-serious student at the University of Leiden. It is not an image he was fond of, apparently. Since then, he’s cleaned up his jet-set, party-boy image, and developed expertise (I use this loosely) in water management and infrastructure (whatever that means).
His marriage to Argentinian beauty Maxima in 2002 was highly controversial, as her father had been the Agricultural Minister there during that country’s internal “Dirty War” of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, Maxima apparently has won over all those stolid, resistant Dutch hearts in the intervening years, first by learning Dutch, then participating in many charity events. One of her most recent publicity stunts occurred this past September, when she donned wetsuit and goggles to swim in Amsterdam’s canals for a charity fund-raiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Event organizers claimed the canal water was the cleanest it had been in years, but I’m not sure I would have swum 2 meters, much less 2 kilometers in that water as Maxima did. What would be worse, the canal in its natural state or after its chemical “treatment” in preparation of the royal bather? I’ll bet she headed right for the Royal Aesthetician for a facial and body scrub after that swill – I mean, “swim.”
The Flora Hof of Utrecht
I was strolling through central Utrecht the other day and spied a beautiful courtyard next to the Dom, the landmark cathedral tower which symbolizes Utrecht. On previous passes, the heavy iron gates had been closed, preventing even a glimpse of what was inside. Apparently, this beautiful little courtyard, or hof, in Dutch, is a small segment of quite a large nursery and gardens that have been here for a couple hundred years. This lovely little courtyard has been restored and is now opened to the public.
On the interior walls of the courtyard, however, are stone reliefs which are quite violent and in conflict with the peacefulness of the flowery oasis. Various reliefs depict a child being dismembered, a bishop’s hand being devoured, and a person about to be bludgeoned with a truncheon. I couldn’t find much information on line about these stone sculptures. Sketchy sources said they depicted scenes from the life of St. Martin, the patron saint of Utrecht, or of St. Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht. And while St. Willibrord had been in northern Netherlands, as well as Utrecht, I couldn’t find any specific tales that correlated with these stone reliefs, although he and his merry band of disciples did have some violent run-ins with local pagans.
Nonetheless, the little courtyard serves as a pleasant oasis and place to sit for a bit of respite outside the bustle of one of Utrecht’s busiest byways.
And, in final sign-off, a view of the Dom as it towers over the Oudegracht, or “Old Canal.”