You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Why I ‘married’ a stranger in Amsterdam for the day

The Independent logo The Independent 4/09/2019 Joanna Whitehead
a person wearing a wedding dress © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

I’m gazing into the eyes of a man who I met less than 15 minutes previously. Decked out in a floral headband, floor-length veil, tulle and satin, my wedding garb is more Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? than Vera Wang, but thoughts of my girlfriend are a distant memory are we exchange wedding rings, make our vows and declare “I do”.

Being totally honest, my girlfriend doesn’t need to worry too much. As part of a grassroots initiative to combat overtourism in the Dutch capital, I’ve agreed to “Marry an Amsterdammer” – but just for the day. This high-camp experience involves dressing up in second-hand wedding attire and swapping vows with a stranger, all in a bid to pair visitors with real-life locals who can share their daily lives to build meaningful connections. With more travellers than ever aspiring to “live like a local”, however ambiguous or impossible that concept may be, I decided to give it a shot.

Like Venice and Dubrovnik, Amsterdam has fallen victim to its own success. Home to 1.1 million people, the city attracts more than 17 million visitors every year. Complaints of antisocial, alcohol-induced behaviour, novice cyclists blocking the flow of traffic and packed museums and cafes led the Dutch tourist board to take the decision of no longer promoting the country to tourists earlier this year. For a country that derives a significant proportion of its income from tourism – 4.4 per cent of its GDP in 2018 – this was a bold move.

a person holding a glass of wine: Jo and her ‘husband’ celebrate their marriage (Joanna Whitehead) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Jo and her ‘husband’ celebrate their marriage (Joanna Whitehead) When a friend suggested a trip to the city in the height of summer, I pulled a face. Despite its rich history and picturesque canals, I was reluctant to fight for pavement space with bawdy stag parties. A late afternoon drink on the edge of the city’s Red Light District saw my fears manifested and I ended up apologising on behalf of my countrymen to a group of US visitors on a neighbouring table who were being harassed by a large pack of inebriated, Oasis-serenading Brits. Cycle lanes were, indeed, full – although a visit outside of Pride week, which falls at the beginning of the school holidays, may have seen a reduction in traffic. Venturing away from the teeming city centre into the quieter neighbourhoods of De Pijp and Jordaan, however, delivered the dreamy Dutch experience I’d been hoping for, complete with excellent restaurants, bars and a much slower pace of life.

Untourist Amsterdam, the initiative promoting my quirky temporary coupling, was established to turn visitors to the city into “changemakers”, rather than just consumers – to be a “force for good”. Tourists can get involved in various activities, including fishing for plastic in the city’s waterways; doing a good deed for an elderly or disabled resident; or taking a canal tour on a boat used by refugees to cross the Mediterranean with a refugee who talks about the role immigration played in Amsterdam – a truly poignant encounter. 

But would shacking up with a local for the day really counter the effects of the tulip-trampling tourists and raucous stag parties bowling round the city’s medieval centre?

Since the Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in 1998, I was a little deflated when my request for a female partner wasn’t granted. Instead, I was matched with Pieter, an ex-government official, political scientist and publicist. In homage to the recent death of local lad Rutger Hauer, my prospective spouse had plans to recreate a famous scene from the 1973 Dutch film Turks Fruit, in which the actor rides his bike “Dutch-style” with a girl on the rear rack. A link to the clip on YouTube showed him weaving his way through heavy traffic on his bicycle and narrowly avoiding a collision with cars, while his new bride perches precariously on the back. Since my arrival in Amsterdam, I’d seen many bicycles, but no bicycle helmets, leading me to view my maiden voyage as a newlywed with some trepidation.

a man and a woman walking down a street next to a bicycle: Tying the knot with a stranger is just one of the activities on offer (Joanna Whitehead) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Tying the knot with a stranger is just one of the activities on offer (Joanna Whitehead) After exchanging vows under a floral arch, Pieter thanked me for “showing curiosity towards Amsterdam” and “not standing in the middle of a bicycle path taking endless pictures of buildings” or “spending all my time in the Red Light District or hanging around in a coffee shop all day to get stoned”. With that, our officiator pronounced us husband and wife – “But, more importantly, untourists for one day!”

My new groom led me to his bike, where we attempted to gather the layers of tulle so they didn’t catch in the wheel and send me face-first into traffic. Trying to ignore the torrential rain, I settled gingerly sideways on the bike rack and we set off. As Pieter began to weave about the road, I – fearing for my life – couldn’t help but screech in terror. It was not an auspicious beginning to married life.

Having changed into our normal clothes, Pieter presented me with a white (of course) poncho, before hopping back on the bicycle. He cycled me through the city streets to a “secret” wild swimming spot with views of the elephants, zebras and giraffes residing at the city zoo opposite. Sadly, I didn’t have my swimsuit with me, but Pieter was keen for me to join him for an early-morning dip the next day. Instead, he produced a bottle of champagne, which we proceeded to sink over a genuinely enjoyable chat on subjects ranging from social housing to relationships. While the Moët certainly helped conversation flow, it was Pieter’s good nature and sense of fun that made him the only man I’ll ever marry.

Keen to keep my conscious traveller record clean, my next stop was Hotel Jakarta Amsterdam, a hotel that claims to be the greenest in the Netherlands – no small feat in a country with more bicycles than people. Constructed of bamboo and concrete, the hotel only uses as much energy as it produces. Solar panels cover the roof and façade, high windows reduce the need for artificial light and staff uniforms are made locally from leftover fabric. At the heart of the hotel, rising up through the centre of the building, is a subtropical indoor garden, comprised of Indonesian plants and developed in collaboration with the city’s botanical garden, Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. Located on Java Island, which was the site of departures to and from Indonesia until 1970, the hotel aims to celebrate the historic relationship between these two countries. Guests can hire bikes, take a dip in the hotel pool or strip off in the sauna.

a palm tree: Hotel Jakarta Amsterdam is one of the greenest in the Netherlands (Joanna Whitehead) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited Hotel Jakarta Amsterdam is one of the greenest in the Netherlands (Joanna Whitehead)

Travel should broaden our experiences and enable us to learn about local life, which is why Untourist Amsterdam is the perfect tonic for travellers tired of the much-trodden tourist trail. Whether the scheme would appeal to all visitors to the city is doubtful – first-timers probably won’t want to forgo the classic canal boat tour and Van Gogh museum visit pairing – but making positive connections with local people is certainly a good thing. It’s also a step forward in encouraging tourists to think about the impact of their presence, and is something similarly overtouristed cities would do well to adopt. The sheer weirdness of staring into a stranger’s eyes five minutes after meeting them also makes it an encounter I’ll never forget. And, ultimately, isn’t that what we’re all looking for in a holiday?

Gallery: Beautiful locations for a destination wedding 

More from The Independent

The Independent
The Independent
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon