Kings, castles, and unexpected elves

I’m already a week behind in reporting on our long and festive four-day weekend! Well, better late than never. We begin on April 27th:  Koningsdag, the Netherlands’ annual celebration of the King’s birthday and all things Oranje. King Willem turned 50 this year and the country celebrated with the usual mix of parades, music, boats, and lots of drinking.

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So. Much. Orange.

Koningsdag is a day like none other. First, it is the one day of the year that you can sell things without a permit, so Amsterdam becomes one giant flea market. Weeks before the holiday, people claim their space on sidewalks, marking their territory with chalk or masking tape. There are some traditional activities: children play music or organize games of chance, hoping to earn some small change. For a euro or two, you can throw eggs at someone who has volunteered for this strange duty.

In the city center, there are stages and DJs and food and drink everywhere. The first year we experienced Koningsday, we were both surprised by the atmosphere and the attitude. When you consider that most people have been drinking (some heavily) for hours, the party is remarkably friendly and festive. This year, we spent the morning in our new neighborhood, which had a festival that covered several blocks. In the afternoon, we met up with some friends in the busiest part of town, just off of the Prinsengracht. After getting through the worst of the crowd, we did have a good time, enjoying the people watching and learning some classic Dutch songs at a corner bar.

Continuing with the royal theme, on Sunday we decided to go to Kasteel de Haar, located outside of Utrecht. A colleague had gone recently and recommended it. Although it involved two trains and either a bus or a bike ride, we figured it was a lovely day for an adventure, and we headed out. I will note that on the Castle’s website, I read that the visiting hours were different due to an event (“Elfia”), but I didn’t think much of it. I really should have paid more attention to that.

In Utrecht, while we waited for the next train, we noticed a number of people in costume. A Hobbit here, a sort of anime-elf woman, there…no theme that I could figure out. When we got off the train in Vleuten, there they all were again. And more. It seemed clear to us now that something was indeed happening at de Haar, and it involved a lot of mythical creatures and very creative costumes.

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Every soldier needs a broodje.

With some help from a young Dutch couple (who were as puzzled by all the costumes as we were), we made our way via shuttle bus to a stop about 15 minutes from the castle. As we walked closer, we saw even more: zombies, British redcoats, guys from Braveheart, angels and demons and teddy bears. By the time we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that this was no ordinary day at the Castle. The Elfia fantasy festival was in full swing, and a visit to the castle would require a €24 festival ticket for each of us. Our curiosity was pretty high, I’ll admit, but not high enough to justify the cost of entry. We gave the elves their victory.

We did manage to rescue the day from complete failure. Another bus ride and a short train ride brought us back to Utrecht, a city we both really enjoy. We found a table in the sun at one of the many lower-level canal-side restaurants, and I enjoyed the season’s first glass of rosé.

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This is as close as we got to the castle.

What I still can’t figure out – and I’ve given it more thought than it merits – is the underlying theme of Elfia. In what universe do Luke Skywalker, fairies, Scottish warriors, Victorian ladies, Harry Potter and zombies co-exist? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, and, much like Koningsdag, Elfia is a celebration just for the sake of celebrating.

We will make another attempt to visit the Castle. Next time, though, we may try to convince some friends with a car to join us. And we’ll check the website first.

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Falling down

Well, it was bound to happen. The life of a cyclist in the Netherlands is a delicate balance. You need enough caution and attention to get safely to your destination, but a healthy dash of assertiveness and daring doesn’t hurt. In the past months, I’ve gotten more comfortable on my city bike, learning how to navigate some tricky intersections and find my way around new neighborhoods. I’ve had a close call with a tram and a few near-misses with fellow commuters coming off the Centraal Station ferry. Nothing serious yet, although in some ways I’ve been holding my breath waiting for the inevitable to happen…

So who would have guessed that my first bike crash wouldn’t be in Amsterdam at all, but in Utrecht? We took a day trip on Saturday and rented bikes, which we knew from the get-go were not in the best of shape. The tires were a bit wobbly and the brakes were terrible, even though we had both hand brakes and coaster brakes. We managed as best as we could. For the most part we had no problems, since we were biking outside of the city center on new bike paths with little traffic.

But then. On our way back into the city, we were riding on a bike path in a relatively active neighborhood. Up ahead of me, I saw a woman and a dog coming towards the path from the left. My husband was in front of me and came to a hard stop to avoid hitting the dog, which had run into the bike path. And then I came to a hard stop, first into him, then down to the ground. Damn the rental bike and it’s crappy brakes! A very kind bystander helped us out and made sure I was ok, before assuring me that, “it happens to everyone!”.

Thankfully I survived with nothing more than a few bruises. The bike was no worse for wear, and I also managed to protect the jacket I had bought only hours before. I’m moving a little slower, but that didn’t stop me from biking again today – on my own bike, with brakes that I trust.

Oddly, there’s some measure of relief to having this first crash out of the way. Of course, it’s not as if we each only get ONE crash. I could have another one tomorrow. But I know now that I can survive a tumble. And, at least while the bruises are still fresh, I will be a little more alert to my surroundings, and pay more attention to what’s in front of me.

Le Grand Départ!

Sometime in late 2013, the powers that be who run the Tour de France announced that the starting city for the 2015 Tour would be Utrecht, in the Netherlands. I have a vivid memory of learning this news, and of my response. I was sitting at my desk at my office in Boston and I turned to my colleague, who is also a fan of Le Tour (hi Chris!), and I said, “Ok. July 2015. I will be in Utrecht for Le Grand Départ of the Tour”.

At that point, my plans to move abroad were still in their very early stages. Amsterdam was an idea more than a plan. But the Tour was something I could pin my idea to – a goal, a deadline, an inspiration.

So, I am very happy to report that yesterday I was in Utrecht, as I promised myself, to witness the start of the 102nd Tour de France.

Welcome to Utrecht!

Welcome to Utrecht!

It was crowded. It was chaotic. It was HOT. And it was fantastic.

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Not sure who he is, but at least the team is American…

He’s only blurry ’cause he’s fast.

Crowds gather at the 1K marker. In retrospect, we should have stayed there to watch the action…

I went with a large group of expats and Dutch folks, including one very funny and enthusiastic French woman who was a Tour veteran. She had her French flag at the ready whenever a French rider or a helicopter or camera passed by.

With a big group – especially one with people with varying levels of interest in the Tour and cycling generally – it was hard to keep

everyone together, so we split up pretty quickly.  I had the good fortune to pair up with a guy who was a cyclist and a huge Tour fan, and who (like me) wanted to see as much as possible.  Although we first had a spot near the end of the course, beyond the finish line, we decided that we wanted to try to get to the start line.

Unfortunately we took the longest possible route to get there. We spent a lot of time looking at people on the other side of one barricade or another, trying to figure out how to get to where they were. But it was fun, not least because we got to see much of the spectacle of the Tour as we wandered around the course. Then, finally, after talking my way “in” through an “out” break in the barricades (sometimes not speaking Dutch is a help!), we had arrived at the starting ramp! At this point it was about 15 minutes before the first rider was scheduled to go.

At the starting ramp!

At the starting ramp!

There was a ceremony (and commentary in Dutch, English and French), with the Mayor of Utrecht and other officials. The first rider was from Eritrea, and part of a South African team. The Minister of Sport of Eritrea was present, and there was a large African fan base cheering him on. We watched the first few riders take off, and then moved to another part of the course and reconnected with a few people from the group (including the flag-waving French woman). After a little more wandering – including a visit to the team bus area, where we saw the riders warming up on stationary bikes – most of our small group was ready to head home. But me? Not quite yet…

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Team car traffic jam!

I said goodbye to the others at the station and then headed back into the fray. Being at the Tour had been a dream for too long to leave without really soaking it in. So I spent a little more time wandering around, watching the route coverage on the big screens scattered around the square, and buying a few souvenirs. (Honestly, I needed a water bottle for my racing bike. Really.)

I don’t think a water bottle and a t-shirt can capture the excitement and the thrill of the day. Yes, it was mostly the excitement of the Tour itself, and of being close to something I have followed at a distance for a long time (and just barely missed once, back in 2013). But there was also a part of the day that was thrilling because of the sense of accomplishment that came along with it. Many people I’ve met here have been transferred by their employers for a year or two – it’s a wonderful opportunity and everyone I know in that situation is making the most of it. But my move to Amsterdam was something that I engineered. I had help, but I did a lot of work and I made it happen. My day at Le Grand Départ was a reminder of that, and a reminder of the day back in Boston, when my idea of moving to Europe started to feel a little more possible.

Vive le Tour!