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Back in the nineties, when I was first a regular visitor to the Netherlands but not yet a resident there, I was, I am now embarrassed to admit, rather taken with that country’s sovereign. I spent a good deal of time in Amsterdam’s legendary brown pubs, and in many of them – this is a distinctive aspect of Dutch culture – there were large photographs or paintings of Queen Beatrix, often not just a single portrait but whole slews of them, some of them showing her with her husband, others with subsidiary members of the royal family or various commoners. The paintings were sometimes elaborately framed, and not infrequently, as a form of tribute, there were giant vases of fresh tulips placed in front of them. There was nothing remotely ironic, nothing tongue-in-cheek about any of this; the Dutch, young and old, male and female, gay and straight, quite simply adore their queen. In the pictures she always seemed to be smiling, and she always seemed to have a nice way about her, a certain style, a taste for big, fun, almost-but-not-quite-over-the-top hats, a charisma, a joie de vivre, a talent for balancing an easy dignity appropriate to her position with an endearing lack of self-seriousness. At one bar in particular I used to stare at her picture, reflecting that she looked rather like Mary Tyler Moore, and thinking that there would be worse things than to be able to call this woman my queen.
After not very long, fortunately, I snapped out of that romantic royalist reverie and back into my fierce American hostility to the very idea of monarchy. Whatever lingering affection I might have had for Queen Beatrix utterly evaporated, moreover, in the wake of the butchery of the Dutch writer and filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a homegrown jihadist on a busy Amsterdam street in November 2004. To her everlasting obloquy, Beatrix, instead of attending van Gogh’s funeral or even coughing up a kind word or two in his memory or sending a sympathetic note to his family, chose to react to this monstrous act by rushing off to a Muslim community center to assure the people there that she didn’t bear them any ill will.
By that point I had long since moved to Norway, where, from the very beginning, there were two things above all that weirded me out about the place: it had an established church, and it had a king. I, a descendant of men who had taken up arms to free America from George III, was now an official resident of a kingdom. To be sure, King Harald V is a constitutional monarch, but still. His picture is on the ten- and twenty-kroner coins. When you walk around downtown Oslo, there’s the royal palace at the very end of the main street, a constant reminder that the guy is, at least nominally, in charge. Every May 17, on the anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution, armies of schoolchildren march past the royal palace carrying flags, and as they pass the second-story balcony from which the king and his family review this spectacle, the kids lower their flags in tribute. That used to drive me nuts – the idea of kids being taught to bow and scrape, if only metaphorically, to some dude who just happened to have been born into the right family.
I’m still no monarchist. I’m too American for that. But after more than a decade in Europe, I have, shall we say, a more nuanced picture of it all. I still consider Beatrix feckless and cowardly. The royal family of Sweden, too, is a rather silly bunch. And I have my reservations about the next generation of Norwegian royals – the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway are very P.C., and after the Breivik atrocities the Crown Prince seemed to go out of his way to act chummy with Muslim leaders in front of the TV cameras. But Harald – the dad, the king – seems a good sort. Unlike many of the ideologues in his government, he’s plainly a staunch friend of America: I’ve never seen him happier and more relaxed than on a certain evening back in 1999, when, hosting then-President Bill Clinton at a state dinner, he gave an uncharacteristically charming and personal speech (delivered in perfect American English) in which he talked about living at the White House as a boy, during the the Nazi occupation of Norway. While his father and grandfather, the then king, were residing in London, Harald and his mom were house guests of Franklin and Eleanor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His memories of that time were obviously happy ones. It was clear then, and has often been clear since, that Harald has seen and experienced enough in his life to know who the good guys and the bad guys are. The same, I might add, is true of Queen Margrethe of Denmark, a tough and gutsy old broad who, quite the opposite of Beatrix, has spoken out quite bluntly about her country’s immigration and integration problems.
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