When the Queen Invites You to Dinner
My first visit to the Netherlands was centred around an unusual occasion; I received an invitation to dine with Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and the President of the Russian Federation, His Excellence Mr. Vladimir Putin (and Mrs. Putina).
This wasn’t just any old dinner invitation, it was an invitation to dine at Paleis Noordeinde, in The Hague, in honour of Russia’s first state visit to the Netherlands in three centuries. Tsar Peter the Great made the journey in 1716, stopped by his buddy’s Amsterdam canal house before dinner, got into his cups, and kept the dignitaries at the pre-dinner reception waiting. Apparently, it’s taken a few years to get over the snub. Flash forward three hundred years, it was time to try again.
The guest list for dinner included those Dutch with close links to Russia including the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and the conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, just to name a few. Arthur’s invitation included my name, and there it was. I was going to have to figure out how to eat elegantly with an upside-down fork held in my left hand.
I know what you are thinking. What did you wear! Well, believe me, that was my first panicky question too. The good news is, the planners for the event knew that we invitees needed some insight to such a burning question, and included a little hint on the invite; korte avondjurk. Short Evening Dress. I can assure you that this did not mean that the queen would be sporting a mini-skirt, but it did mean that long Oscar-style gowns were not required. As it turns out, Mr. Putin has a casual side, and prefers suit and tie to a formal tuxedo, and the visiting statesman sets the tone. My local boutique spent a few hours tossing things over the fitting room door to me, and I found just the right outfit – classy and comfortable.
At 19.15, we flowed through the palace gates and up the stairs to the grand entrance with the other 183 people on the guest list. Arthur chatted casually with Valerie Gergiev, Russian conductor of the Dutch Rotterdam Philharmonic, while I concentrated on placing my feet carefully so as not trip up the red-carpeted stairs. Success! Inside the palace doors, we were lined up by attendants who knew the plan. I was informed that I was to follow Arthur down the reception line. “De Heer Arthur Arnold en Mevrouw Kim Stokes” boomed a man in full royal regalia reading from a cue card held in his white gloved hand. We stepped forward and began to make our way down the long line of dignitaries.
First, there was Queen Beatrix. I had done my homework on the Queen. I read that she was popular with the people of the Netherlands. She had reigned since 1980, and she had lived in Canada as a girl during World War II. Her sister had been born there! I held my hand out to meet hers as we passed along the line, she took it, smiled graciously at me and nodded. This was something of an assembly line – no time for chatter. Smile, nod, move on. Next, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his wife Maxima, shake, smile, nod, move on. And then, Mr. Putin, Mrs. Putina and a long line of what must be Putin hangers-on. Mr. Putin is not much of a smiler.
The line dispersed into a large reception hall where servers were presenting aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres to guests, who had efficiently arranged themselves into small groups and were speaking together in hushed tones. I picked up a crystal goblet from a silver tray, and we sidled over to a couple who looked in need of company, he, wearing a well decorated military uniform, and she in Short Evening Dress. I opened with, Good evening, clearly you are in the Dutch services. He smiled warmly and took my hand to introduce himself. Hans, he stated in a thick Dutch accent and then, Commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Right. He and his wife were charming, and we were engaged in keeping each other engaged when White Gloves arrived at the towering doorway with another announcement; Queen Beatrix and His Excellence Mr. Vladimir Putin! The crowd parted, creating a wide swath down the middle of the room, and the duo of honour entered the grand hall, followed by the rest of the assembly and made a straight line to Arthur and me, stopping in our company. Hans looked a little bit impressed.
Queen Beatrix struck up a conversation with Arthur about the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Not only do the Russians conduct the Dutch orchestras... she seemed to be saying. Wiley. Arthur pulled a gift from his suit pocket for each of them, a DVD of a concert he had done with the Moscow Symphony, recently in The Hague. Queen Beatrix graciously accepted it, as she moved on to make other acquaintances. Vlad, on the other hand, displayed his ability to make unwanted things disappear. He threw the DVD over his shoulder into the quick hands of the first large black-suited man in his entourage, who flipped it around in his hands before tossing it over his shoulder to the next black suit. This action repeated a number of times, and the disc was gone. Easy-peasy.
We were ushered into the banquet hall. Arthur and I, along with every other couple, were sent to separate tables from each other. A server guided me to a round table of eight people off to one side of the room. To my right was Dutch astronaut André Kuipers, and to my left, Paul, the chief of security for Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Behind each of us was a uniformed server ready to pull out a chair as we stood for speeches, push it back in as we sat, fill one of the many goblets with the appropriate wine for the course, and fill our plates with Dutch delicacies. We all relaxed, had a few laughs and spoke English, for my sake.
André and I found common ground when I announced I had gone to the same elementary school as his buddy Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk. Paul and I talked about how he managed security for an event such as this. I had been requested to bring along my passport, but I had not been asked to present it to anyone. He assured me that if I was here, they knew who I was. And, he said, the Queen knows her guests, each and every one of them.
Dinner was over, and the guests were invited to rise again, and mingle. Paul was madly in love with his new wife and anxious that I meet her. He dodged cognac carrying guests as he wove his way anxiously through the room in search of her. I took André to introduce him to Arthur, and Paul returned with Martine. We were all friends now, and we moved in a mob. Were you supposed to have this much fun at a state dinner?
It was time to depart, and the crowd lined up again to greet Her Majesty on the way out. No orderly line-up this time, I was in front of Arthur. Vlad was nowhere to be seen, so Queen Beatrix had reverted to her native language as she bid her guests good evening. I practiced my smile and nod, thinking it would go over far better than my badly pronounced Dutch, and I stepped up when my turn came. The Queen looked at me, took my hand, smiled, and said to me in English, It has been a pleasure having you here this evening. Paul was right. The Queen knows her guests.