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Queens of Amsterdam

Orange may not be the favorite color of the Amsterdammers normally, but on Queensday they all go orange - any surplus stock of orange material, paint and other coloring come into use - on bodies, faces and hair, even mixed drinks and the water of the fountains take on a shade of orange on this national holiday, another side of which is garage sales nationwide.

Celebrations might be extra lively here in 2008, in that Queen Beatrix from the House of Orange turns 70. Her broad smile reveals that those years have settled as charming wrinkles on her face, set off by red lips and green eyelids. She is about the only western monarch with some political power intact, also the power to continue with her late mother Juliana's birthday, April 30th, as Queensday, her own birthday on January 31st being a bit cold for outdoor partying.

The Queen's foremost duty is perhaps to act as a national symbol, which she does to perfection as far as I can judge. The sheer mention of the Netherlands, Holland or anything Dutch never fails to produce an image of Queen Beatrix in my mind - fresh, smiling, the volume of her hair suggesting the wind had filled and formed it, her general appearance becoming softer with the years. Arriving in Amsterdam, I am convinced that the Queen will smile at me from every public building but, alas, she is nowhere to be seen.

Royal Approach

The Royal Palace on Dam Square looks deserted. This is where the Amsterdammers congregate to celebrate major royal events, usually in peace and harmony, occasionally disturbed by smoke bombs and republican protests. "What do you think of the Queen?" Such a question produces a funny expression on people's faces, as if they were considering whether you are teasing them or are just stupid. On the front page of papers and magazines, there is no gossip about the royals.

People talk about the Queen in terms of the work she does - which they seem very pleased with - and in economic terms, thus acknowledging those who find the royal rule an extravagancy. These things are separated: a popular Queen on one side, on the other discussions about monarchy versus republic, while personal feelings for the Orange-Nassau family remain private. Queen Beatrix knows how to handle a latent skepticism - she smiles! It's her trademark, clearly demonstrated on posters appearing in shop windows: "Amsterdam and the House of Orange", a temporary exhibition at the Historisch Museum.

The exhibition theme does have a historical background in that the merchants and patricians of Amsterdam tolerated no interference in their affairs, not even from the Nassau rulers. The home of the Historical Museum is identical to the beautiful buildings of the city's old orphanage, easy to reach via the walking street of Kalverstraat. This must be the optimal place to approach an Orange-Nassau, simply by drawing on the knowledge of the museum. They have surely cooperated thoroughly with their primary source who is also a skilled communicator - Queen Beatrix.

The exhibition poster is a hit in white and orange; a triumphant Queen rejoices in the warm tributes, wearing what must be her favorite hat shape, the pill-box. She leads me through a festively decorated portal, lets me proceed under pictures hanging from above - where she pays respect to her parents and sisters, before introducing her oldest son, Willem-Alexander, with a scene that people love - the Crown Prince kissing his bride Máxima on the palace balcony at Dam Square.

The next picture takes me by surprise - an over-elegant drag queen sipping coffee at Café Rouge in the street of Amstel, impersonating Queen Beatrix of course. The drag adorns the exhibition folder as well, an unmistakable signal that the Queen appreciates the admiration and respect with which the gays regard her. She can always count on them, and in her own subtle way, she here sends the entire gay community her recognition, thereby acting as an example.

Live Pictures

Two centuries of monarchy emerge, from 1890 dominated by ladies - before Beatrix and Juliana there was Wilhelmina. The female chain will be broken by Willem-Alexander. All of a sudden, the order of succession is disturbed by the image of a fourth queen, standing tall and erect outside Café Rouge, where she enjoys a cigarette together with her dressers. Although tall and strong, she looks weightless in a full-length creation of orange chiffon, with a hairstyle copying her idol's. As to fashion, Queen Beatrix surely picks up inspiration from creative and pioneering drags.

The exhibition naturally focuses on the past - historical moments, celebrations in the royal family, also the controversial wedding between a law-educated Beatrix and a German diplomat, Claus von Amsberg. Smoke bombs and protests complete the pictures, also that of the 1980 coronation - housing before crowning, they demanded on that occasion. Queen Beatrix, since 2002 a widow, resides in The Hague, the seat of government. Amsterdam is still the capital city, a status defined in the Constitution of 1983.

Texts and pictures, complemented by any number of relevant objects, do produce an impression of the Queen. Much more interesting though - when it comes to creating your own image of her - are the live pictures on old film strips. Her hats, preferably flat ones, prove to be more than work of art; they are part of her expression. When cutting silk ribbons, she seems to prefer huge hats allowing her to reveal how little amused she is. On the whole, her smiles come easily, making them a flexible instrument.

If a limousine stops in an upward slope, the exit can hardly be conducted with style, a situation that provokes irritation served with a smile. Well outside, the Queen shakes hands smiling politely, before interposing a few well-chosen words with a short radiant smile, which effectively calms down a nervous host. The shyness and silence of others are confronted with small talk and matching smiles. At a market, awkwardly bent forward to reach the hand of a very old man across the table, her smile is pure enjoyment. The man is so happy to meet the Queen that he can't stop stroking her hand.

To be the Queen of a strong democracy has its price. While the citizens may speak and write as they please, the Queen has no right to respond or defend herself. She can to some degree speak through her actions. By including drag queens in the Orange exhibition, Queen Beatrix pulls the talents and creativity of the gay underground into the open. The drag queens speak through their own appearance, a costly and time-consuming language, not generally recognized, but understood and appreciated by Queen Beatrix. Equality does apparently not apply to the queens of Amsterdam - whether royal or drag.