It’s only after reaching the hotel in Rotterdam that I found out about the tragic news of the MH117 disaster.
I spend the morning glued to Twitter and BBC for updates about the disaster. Images start filtering in about the bombardment of Gaza.
A wave of misery envelopes my soul.
I drag myself out the beautiful idyllic Citizen M hotel. Some fresh sea air would be a good tonic.
The sun is out. Mercury soaring – 3pm. It’s 32 C. according to my weather app on my iPhone. A hot weekend has been predicted (or maybe threatened) with an unprecedented high of 35 C.
Bright afternoon light bounces off the wide open spaces and towering skyscrapers above me. Colourful banners aflutter in the gentle breeze catch my eye at every street corner.
There’s a huge party in town this weekend – in fact, the city’s biggest party of the year: Rotterdam Unlimited, the annual summer carnival. Everyone’s invited – and that includes people who have roots in the Dutch Antilles, people from Bolivia, people from Brazil, people from Cape Verde. The entire Afro-Carribbean population from across Netherlands is descending upon Rotterdam for a weekend of unlimited celebration.
This is a remarkable turnaround of sentiment – for there are few cities in the world that have suffered the bitter consequences and insanity of modern warfare like Rotterdam.
Whilst researching for this trip I discovered that one of its illustrious past visitors included a certain Mr Tolkien, who came to the city back in March 28th, 1958. Fresh from the success of publishing The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he spent the afternoon walking around a city that still lay in ruins, 18 years after being almost completely flattened (see above). The sight of it horrified him. It could have been a scene from his own trilogy when Frodo and his friends return to the Shire after the War of the Ring and are devastated by the destruction they find. Rotterdam had become a blighted, ashen landscape – the touch of Mordor upon the real world.
The malice and brutality that Tolkien lamented through his fiction had taken hold and seeped its way into the arteries of this city.
Tolkien’s publishers, Allen & Unwin, had paid his way to Rotterdam and organised in his honour this ‘Hobbits Dinner.’ When Tolkien arrived at the dinner, he was taken aback by the huge turnout. Rotterdam became a special city to him, “intoxicated with hobbits.” He mentions in his speech that the “cold-hearted wizards,” in their search for knowledge and power, were only good at destroying things. ‘Sauron’ had gone, but the descendants of the hateful, Shire-polluting wizard Saruman were everywhere. The hobbits of the world had no magic weapons to fight them. But, he added with great optimism:
“And yet here gentle hobbits may I conclude by giving you this toast. To the hobbits! And may they outlast all the wizards!”
Fast forward to the present day. Had Rotterdam outlasted all the wizards as Tolkien predicted?
Let’s examine the facts. One amazing fact in particular.
After New York, Rotterdam is the world’s most multicultural city and home to 170 different nationalities.
That’s not a typo.
It’s this staggering multicultural diversity of Rotterdam that makes it such a unique city.
Plus, this multiculturalism is a perfect reason to organise a festival celebrating Guus Dutriex, the director of Rotterdam Unlimited.
‘Rotterdam is more than 50 per cent not from here. So it’s a very diverse city and I think that’s the reason this event is in this city because in Rotterdam, being a diverse city is something we’re proud of. We celebrate the diversity of our society because all metropols today are very diverse in cultures. All those colours celebrate that and don’t use it against each other. Rotterdam Unlimited celebrates the beauty of our cultures together and the interaction between those cultures.’
Guus then adds that the key aspect of the celebration is to have ‘fun’:
‘It’s the biggest party of parties in Holland – just celebrate it.’
( For a full transcript of Guus’s interview, hop over to Micheal ‘Time Travel Turtle’s blog )
And boy, do they party and know have to fun here. Bathed in the glow of the evening sun, on the Friday night before the festival, the inner city streets burst to life with the sounds of drums as brass bands from different parts of the city converged in a face-off on the Hofplein to decide who will be the best brass band of the Netherlands and win the prestigious Golden Drum.
Beautifully dressed dancers add colour and spice to the proceedings.
The main event of the weekend is the carnival parade when the locals and tourists alike line the streets across 2.5 km route to observe the passage of 30 colourful floats (it being the 30th anniversary).
I’ve seen the carnival in Madeira (which is pretty amazing) but the festival here offers the most wonderful gathering of fantastically costumed people you will ever see.
As predicted, it’s a scorching 35 C. on the day.
Some of the junior participants are close to fainting in the heat, but still putting on a brave face.
They swayed to the music. Boldly. Proudly.
Happy to share their identity, they waved at the crowds.
It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
The colourful attire, the sound of different musical styles …everyone swaying and dancing along the streets- it’s a vividly colourful gathering of humanity.
Rotterdam Unlimited was a timely, powerful reminder to me that despite all our differences in cultures, colour and creed- we are still easily united in a celebration of life. Festivals are great for that reason. They bring people together. That’s what they’re for.
When looking back at the Rotterdam Hobbit Dinner, Tolkien remembered it as the ‘greatest party of his life.’ Rotterdam is still that kind of city, where the present has outlived the past, where every night is a great party if you look hard enough – and where its intoxicating hobbits have outlived their wizards and laid the demons of the past to rest.
I was attending Rotterdam Unlimited as a guest of Rotterdam Partners and Rotterdam Festivals. All the views expressed are my own. The festival is part of a series of 42 quirky and lesser known festivals , me and 15 other bloggers are visiting across Europe as part of the Must Love Festivals project.
Images: Udo Geisler and Kash Bhattacharya