Sometimes you just have to write…
I went to see the King and Queen today. I did it partly for the enjoyment of being able to say to my family “I’m going into town to see the King and Queen today.”
The Netherlands has a new king; last month Queen Beatrix stepped down – she’s now officially Princess Beatrix – and her son, Willem-Alexander, is the new King. His wife, Maxima, is now Queen.
(I don’t understand why Queen Beatrix’s husband was always called Prince Claus, yet Maxima gets to be Queen. But never mind.)
The King and Queen have just started an official tour of the country, and they started it here, in the northernmost province, Groningen. They were here for all of an hour, and their visit consisted of a short walk through the center of town, with stops to admire various short performances and speeches along the way. There was even a seven-minute-long scheduled stop for a cup of coffee.
The center of town was completely blocked off to traffic, even bicycles, and their walking route was defined using metal barriers. I got a great spot in the sun – yes, the sun is actually shining today – right at the front, so I ended up only about two meters from the king and queen as they stopped to watch a band on the other side of their route between the barriers.
Even waiting for them to pass by was pleasant: the sun was warm and the mood was cheerful. Some young women nearby passed the time pronouncing judgment on the clothing choices made by the various officials and dignitaries who were waiting within the barricaded route: one wore a Levi’s jacket; is that appropriate for a royal visit? One man’s suit was too shiny. One woman made absolutely the wrong color choice of pantyhose. And one woman was dressed well but really needed to stand up straighter. There was a cabaretier waiting to make a short welcoming speech about a festival that happens here every year. I didn’t catch his name but I loved that he was wearing blue suede shoes!
When the King and Queen rounded the corner, they stopped to listen to the cabaretier and a song played right opposite me by a local band. They stood for several minutes – elegantly dressed, as they always are – within about two meters of me, which meant I could get some decent photos.
There are debates from time to time in the Netherlands about the purpose of the royal family, and about whether it would be better to end their official role altogether. After all, they cost the country an enormous amount of money every year. I had this discussion quite recently with our “extra son,” who is from Ireland and doesn’t see any point to having a monarchy.
As I spoke to him about it, trying to explain why the monarchy hasn’t been abolished, I realized that it does have a purpose, besides the general fondness for tradition. While the elected political leaders of the country take sides on every issue, the monarchy never does. The monarchy is neutral. That means that no matter what the politicians are busy doing, there is one group of people that stands above it, and can represent the Dutch people to the rest of the world: the royal family.
That’s mostly what they do, after all: represent the Dutch. They have a very minor, more or less ceremonial role in governing, but they have a very important diplomatic role. They are the personification of the Dutch people. And that is what they’re paid to do: represent us by opening buildings, attending festivals, visiting foreign leaders, and so on.
And I’m impressed with the grace with which they carry out these official functions. They stood there today, in front of me, listening to the speaker and then the band, smiling pleasantly. They shook hands with some of the other people within the barricades. They interacted briefly with some of the festival organizers. And they did it all with such good humor.
As I watched them, it occurred to me that they don’t have an easy life. Yes, they have wealth. Yes, they get to travel around the world. Yes, they have important functions. But they have no freedom. They’ll never get to see our city as it usually is on a beautiful day like today: sidewalk cafés full of people enjoying the sunshine, lovely streetscapes full of shopping crowds, green parks full of bikers, walkers and skaters. Instead, all they ever see, everywhere they go, is crowds behind barriers, or, if they’re inside, staterooms of various sorts full of fawning dignitaries. And everywhere they go, outside of their own residence, they are watched.
They do visit various institutions sometimes in their official capacity: things like schools and factories and old-age homes, so they get a glimpse of people’s real lives. But still their interactions are brief and superficial and practically scripted. Can Queen Maxima ever complain about the rain? Can King Willem-Alexander ever just decide to put on a pair of sweatpants and spend the day lazing on the sofa if he has a city full of people expecting his visit? I doubt it.
So I’m glad I was part of the crowd staring at them, and I’d surely like some of their money, but I’d never want to be in their position. I’d like to invite them to stop by for a cup of tea and a chat. Maxima and I have a lot in common, after all, as foreigners who moved to the Netherlands after marrying a Dutchman. Do they ever get to do that? Just sit and have a chat with a new acquaintance?
A message for Willem-Alexander and Maxima: consider yourselves invited, anytime you want, to stop by for a chat. But don’t bring the entourage. Just come as you are!