04 October 2009

The Leiden escape

The people of Leiden conquered the Spanish in 1574, and the Dutch never seem to tire of celebrating. The victory has resulted in a rowdy festival, held annually from the afternoon of the second of October until the last drunk has passed out on the fourth. I recognize that the vast majority do not see this as a problem – after all, who doesn’t enjoy winning large stuffed animals, stuffing themselves with sugar and soda, and then getting sick on the Ferris wheel or bumper cars? Well, me.

I’ve intimately experienced this festival for three years. The heart of activity is located right outside the front door so the fun begins much earlier than October 2nd. First, the ominous black cables appear on the street. These electric cables will supply the flashing lights, sounds, and funfair rides that will soon dominate the city center. As the setup progresses the streets are blocked to cars, but the strict rules that govern bike and pedestrian traffic do not exist in this chaotic universe. Now bicycles and people must compete in the limited thru-traffic areas. Because of the festival’s total domination of space, our apartment complex’s communal garage is inaccessible for a week. If you want to access your car, you must pay to park it elsewhere. Otherwise you’re out of luck.

The first year we escaped to London and missed everything but a hint of the messy aftermath. No such luck the second year. I was deep in a hectic work period and even with the windows closed and the blinds drawn, the festival demanded acknowledgement. The strains of C&C Music Factory (actually just their 90’s hit “Gonna Make You Sweat” were repeated approximately every seven minutes. The roar of the crowd only grew louder as the night progressed. From some nearby ride, a horn beeped three times in succession every three or four minutes. I began to anticipate this sound even in my dreams. Just to get inside, inhabitants of our building had to politely ask teenagers to pause with their making out, peeing, or gagging in front of the entrance.

Unlike the vast majority of attendees, I had to work the following mornings. I dragged myself out of the house, bleary-eyed, and barely managed to sidestep the piles of puke that threatened to destroy my shoes.

This year, we managed a getaway but not quite in time. We had to wrestle our luggage through cables, piles of strangely colored rainwater, food remnants, and already drunken crowds. At least the vomit hadn’t made its appearance yet. It took us 20 minutes to make the usual 6-minute walk to the station. Our luggage unscathed by bodily fluids, we proceeded to Schiphol airport, and from there surreptitiously checked into a hotel for the night. We wanted a good night’s sleep before a long transatlantic flight the next morning. And it worked.

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