King’s Day in the time of a pandemic

A few years ago, when we were relocating from my company-provided temporary accommodation to our apartment in the last week of April, we were told to avoid Queen’s Day. Thankfully, we were able to arrange our move a few days earlier and on 30th April, got to experience the Queen’s Day Celebrations first hand. We hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Over the years we have swung between dressing in orange and joining the revelry, to actively avoiding it by using the national holiday to go travel to someplace new. Eventually we’ve settled on staying at home for a lazy morning and stepping out for a walk in the afternoon to sample the various street parties and food stalls.

In 2014, queen Beatrix abdicated the throne to her son, King Willem-Alexander. Queen’s Day thus became King’s Day and would be celebrated on 27th April instead of 30th1.

A few days before King’s Day, you start seeing families laying their claim to a rectangular patch of footpath by marking it with duct tape. Inside, they tape their name or initials and the Dutch word for taken - bezet. On King’s day the entire city turns into a flea market and these rectangles of footpath real estate are occupied by families and children selling everything from antiques, old toys, clothes, LPs, DVDs, books, magazines to lemonade, coffee and cake.

The footpaths on the run up to the King’s Day this year were devoid of any tape markings. With large public gatherings banned in Amsterdam till 1 September 2020, this year’s King’s Day was being pitched by the mainstream media as a stay-at-home day2.

Empty streets on the eve of King’s Day 2020Empty streets on the eve of King’s Day 2020

The mood in Amsterdam on the evening before King’s Day is festive. There are scores of parties and concerts on the streets that start in the evening and go on until the wee hours. Cafe De Blaffende Vis, a local cafe, marks King’s Day eve (and has been doing so for the last 20 years or so) with the unveiling of giant, cheesy cutouts (think Dad jokes, only worse) with themes related to the royal family.

Giant Dutch royal family themed cutouts at Cafe De Blaffende Vis from 2015 and 2016Giant Dutch royal family themed cutouts at Cafe De Blaffende Vis from 2015 and 2016

The mood on King’s Day eve this year was somber. The city was quiet and the streets were empty. The only evidence of King’s Day in the neighbourhood was the orange and red-white-blue 3 bunting a pub had decorated their terrace with. Ironically, it had been paired with red-white barricade tape forbidding people from using the terrace.

Bunting and barricade tapeBunting and barricade tape

Even Cafe De Blaffende Vis forwent their annual tradition of unveiling the giant King’s Day cutout. Instead, a nondescript banner instructed the visitors to go to a website for an online reveal”. In keeping with the times, this year’s theme Alexanderhalvemeter” was a wordplay on the Dutch word for meters (anderhalvemeter, the standard corona deterring distance), the King’s name (Willem-Alexander) and the Dutch language’s propensity to coin new words by merely combiningexistingwordswithoutspaces.

Cafe De Blaffende Vis announced their annual reveal through a nondescript, white bannerCafe De Blaffende Vis announced their annual reveal through a nondescript, white banner


On King’s Day thousands of Amsterdammers’ dress in orange, spill onto the streets and enjoy even more parties, concerts, boat parades and the flea markets that spring up in every neighbourhood.

This year, despite the pleasant, sunny weather on King’s Day, very few people were out. The municipality had already banned boating during the long weekend so there wasn’t going to be any traffic in the canals either. The only evidence of the day’s significance was the higher than usual per-capita density of Dutch flags topped with orange pennants.

Dutch flags, Amsterdam flags and Dutch flags with orange pennantsDutch flags, Amsterdam flags and Dutch flags with orange pennants

In a fit of nostalgia, someone had hung a decades old picture of young Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus outside their home. Given how 2020 is going, I am sure they weren’t the only ones pining for yesteryears. Besides people enjoying the sun at the terrace outside their homes, the only other significant human presence on streets was that of food delivery personnel zipping on their bikes. As I stood to take a picture of the house, one whizzed past me in his orange livery - it’s perennially King’s Day for Thuisbezorgd delivery workers. I couldn’t have asked for a better picture to sum up this year’s King’s Day.

Every day is a stay-at-home King’s Day for ThuisbezorgdEvery day is a stay-at-home King’s Day for Thuisbezorgd

p.s. A naval vessel firing salutes had sailed past our house to mark the abdication in 2014. Our windows had shaken so violently, I was worried they’d break.

p.p.s. The only picture of the current King and Queen I saw outdoors was of them in dowdy, gingham nightshirts urging the public to celebrate King’s Day at home. Someone had hung a garland around it. I tried not to interpret this through the lens of Indian culture.

We are celebrating at home this yearWe are celebrating at home this year

  1. For at least a couple of years afterwards, much to everyone’s amusement, come April 30th and you’d be guaranteed to spot at least one group of tourists all dressed in orange and eager to join the legendary Queen’s Day parties in Amsterdam. If you must still buy a paper travel guide, make sure you get the latest edition.

  2. The Dutch word for King - Koning, rhymes with the Dutch word for house - Woning. Koningsdag was thus being pitched by the mainstream media as Woningsdag or Balkoningsdag (Balkon = Balcony). The English translation just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  3. The colours of the Royal house and that of the Dutch flag respectively.

May 3, 2020

Quarantine Diaries, Day 35

(Posted 20 Apr 2020, 21:09)

20:00 I was due to fly to India to meet my parents next week. Once the lockdowns began in Europe and India, the airline cancelled the flight automatically. They will issue a refund as a voucher valid for a year. I wonder if a year would be enough.

India has always been an 8-hour flight away in my mind. To think, no, to know that I can no longer visit on a whim or if my parents need me, makes me feel utterly helpless.

17:20 A typical breezy, sunny, spring day.

A typical sunny, spring dayA typical sunny, spring day

April 19, 2020

Quarantine Diaries, Day 34

(Posted 19 Apr 2020, 23:50)

20:39 Our energy provider sends us a monthly report detailing our usage of electricity and gas. It tells us how our consumption compares to the same month last year.

In March, our electricity and gas usage went up by 17% and 36% respectively.

Electricity and Gas usage under lockdownElectricity and Gas usage under lockdown

We’ve spent a little over half of March under lockdown. The days here are bright and the fan hasn’t come out yet. The only incremental electricity use over days before the lockdown is for charging our laptops all day. On the other hand, we are definitely cooking a whole lot more at home than we used to. The additional gas usage therefore sounds about right.

April would go even higher.

19:05 Each day we get new glimpses of what the world after the lockdown would look like. The neighbourhood branch of Coffee Company has now taped yellow rectangles on the footpath outside for you to stand in while you wait for your order. And if you didn’t order online, you could stand in the red rectangles on the other side of the building and await your turn.

Yellow rectangles for pickupYellow rectangles for pickup

Red rectangles for orderingRed rectangles for ordering

Others are merely parroting government advice - stay 1.5m apart, don’t enter the shop if you have flu-like symptoms, pay using a contactless card etc. etc.

Shopping instructions during a pandemic…Shopping instructions during a pandemic…

I see the following problems:

  • Most shops, especially the boutique kind, aren’t big enough to enforce 1.5m distance when in use by more than 2 to 3 customers.

  • Queueing outside a shop for 15 minutes is not fun, so many would not be willing. To say nothing of the revenue lost on missed impulse purchases.

  • Most parts of central Amsterdam are not big enough to allow queueing beyond a certain point.

Social distancing without at least a partial lockdown isn’t practical in most parts of Amsterdam1. I feel particularly bad for small, independent stores that’ll bear the brunt of a situation entirely not of their own making.

18:30 Random sighting on today’s walk: drawings by children stuck to the windows of their house telling passersby to stay strong.

Blijf Sterk • Stay StrongBlijf Sterk • Stay Strong

  1. Panama and Columbia tried some interesting partial lockdown strategies but these would be unpalatable in a liberal western democracy.

April 18, 2020

Quarantine Diaries, Day 33

(Posted 18 Apr 2020, 21:49)

19:05 Centraal Station was eerily quiet. All the shops inside were closed (save for one to-go grocery store), no announcements played in the hallways and the turnstiles were empty. And with hardly anyone traveling, the row of cabs outside was down to just three.

Empty turnstilesEmpty turnstiles

Taxi standTaxi stand

It broke my heart.

18:45 On the way home, we stopped by at the HIV-AIDS monument. It looks like a giant abacus and signifies the direct and indirect toll of the disease over the many decades1. There was a time when being diagnosed with HIV would mean a hasty death sentence. While a vaccine is still not in sight, over the years, we have invented drugs and prophylactics that prolong life and slow its spread. Would we be forced to make a similar compromise with SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19? We’ve been living under the shadow of one pandemic for decades, would we be able to cope with two?

HIV-AIDS MonumentHIV-AIDS Monument

18:30 We walked past the row of swings next to Muziekgebouw. The municipal authorities had packed away every other swing so you could enjoy the swings while keeping your distance. The halving of public space capacity is going to be one of the many things that would change about our societies.

Swings that conform to official social-distancing specsSwings that conform to official social-distancing specs

09:10 Both the wife and I took a day off from work to decompress. Given the size of our apartment, if one of us is working and video conferencing all day, it’s impossible for the other person to catch a quiet moment. Normally, if one of us were working from home, the other would be in their office or would go out - sit in a cafe, read a book, go to the library, take a day trip to one of the small Dutch towns. None of these activities are possible these days.

  1. Wikipedia informs me that AIDS has killed 35 million people since 1981. I would’ve guessed a number an order of magnitude smaller.

April 17, 2020

Quarantine Diaries, Day 32

(Posted 18 Apr 2020, 13:02)

20:05 Walked past Westerpark and saw this portable electronic sign dissuading people from visiting…

Fine = €390 • Stay Inside! • 1.5MFine = €390 • Stay Inside! • 1.5M

…and keeping their distance if they must or risk a 390 € fine.

19:30 While the shortages of toilet paper, canned food, pasta and rice, all too common during the early days of the lockdown, have subsided, the shortage of flour continues to beset grocery stores in Amsterdam. Apparently the entire city has taken to baking with an almost religious fervor.

Unlike a typical family from Northern parts of India, we don’t use it to make chapatis at home1 but rather use it as for making pancakes on weekends. And even there, it’s just a member of the supporting cast holding other ingredients (mostly oatmeal) together. A packet lasts us a few weeks. We’ve been looking for one for days. Today the wife asked a grocery store employee about its availability and was guided to a bottom shelf that looked empty but had a packet lying further behind - just beyond the prying eyes of other customers. She went on all fours and fished it out. Our weekend pancake breakfast ritual can continue.

Basic wheat flour wholegrainBasic wheat flour wholegrain

10:31 After using The Scream emoji 😱 in the post yesterday, I realized that the painting depicts a person touching their face with both hands. A truly scream inducing prospect these days.

The ScreamThe Scream

08:30 Nothing gets blood coursing through your entire body like changing the bedsheet, duvet and pillow covers. The fitted bedsheet is one of those inventions that is a great idea only if you don’t have to change it yourself.

  1. Which is not to say we don’t crave them. Just that pita bread, tortilla and supermarket naan bread does their job just as well.

April 16, 2020

Quarantine Diaries, Day 31

22:00 Completely forgot to wash my hands after returning home. Don’t think I touched my face. Still, the horror. 😱

21:00 We now do groceries once every four days. I don’t think the capacity of our refrigerator would allow us to do it less frequently. Today’s grocery run was an exception. I had missed a few crucial things during the visit yesterday and decided to pop in after my evening walk. I’ve now begun to use the height of the stack of baskets at the entrance from which you must pick one, as a measure of how busy the store is. Three feet tall, the height this evening, means not at all. The notice to pick a basket used to be a hastily improvised thing, printed on a A4 sheet in Dutch and English and stuck to the turnstile with a sellotape. It had changed today to a more permanent thing printed on a big plastic placard in the store’s branding. This probably means that the social distancing measures are here to stay for a while.

The clerks at the checkout counters now have a large screen of transparent plastic screen in front of them to shield them from customers’ coughs and sneezes.1

The self-checkout screen still tries to sell 5€ worth of air miles using a dark pattern. Not only am I going to have no use for air miles for the foreseeable future, I hate the one extra time I am forced to touch the screen to dismiss it.

Air milesAir miles

20:30 Encountered a lovely sunset on my walk this evening.

A beautiful sunsetA beautiful sunset

  1. And apparently talking loudly can be bad for public health too.

April 15, 2020