Let me begin by saying that prior to New Year’s Eve, the town removes public trash cans from the streets and stations. One day after Christmas, I had some trash in my pocket at Delft Station and was confused when I could find nowhere to dispose of it. Then on December 31 I tried to unload my plastic recycling at our neighborhood drop-point. The Dumpster-size bin was locked shut, with a sign stuck to it. If I was reading it right, I realized, the sign said the bin would be locked until the new year….
The removal or locking of these various canisters is, literally, to prevent people from exploding things in them.
It was these kind of signs that hinted, in the last week of 2010, that New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands is a very different holiday than in the US. One of our European friends who had spent some time in Boston said he could never get over how “lame” Americans are about NYE. “People just stay awake until midnight, then go home and go to bed,” he complained. (Whereas here, he would hit various parties until dawn.) I neglected to tell him I wasn’t even sure I’ve made it to midnight the past couple years.
There are other distinctions. The notable one is that in the Netherlands, fireworks for personal use are legally sold for three days leading up to NYE. Fireworks the size your town sets off in the US. They’re not cheap, but they sell plenty, to anyone sixteen or older. (Sixteen, by the way, is also the drinking age here.)
We knew this because since around 9 a.m. NYE morning, we’d been hearing explosions literally nonstop from all over town. When I took my ill-fated walk to drop off the recycling, there were guys setting off fireworks in the parking lot of an apartment complex. (I wasn’t sure why, since you can’t really see them in broad daylight.) There’s no regulation—you can walk as near or as far as you feel comfortable. If you’re European and reading this and it seems like I’m overstating the point, I just have to emphasize that this is not what it is like in the US.
Fourth of July is a huge fireworks holiday—meaning, town-sponsored events set off firework displays at a safe distance from where people gather to watch them. I remember as a kid going with my dad to the softball fields in our town to see the display, sitting on the bleachers. You were only allowed to get so close, and this was just a smallish town in Jersey. Personal fireworks were illegal, but we’d get sparklers (long sticks you lit up and waved at your sister) and some kids’ dads would go into New York and get real fireworks in shady places… but they were pretty small-time things.
I am telling you: people were setting off Roman candles in parking lots at lunchtime.
There’s no Rockin’ New Year’s Eve on TV, either. The morning of NYE we were conversing with a few friends about where to gather that evening, and though our apartment was suggested, we disclaimed, “We don’t own a TV.”
“TV?” was the response. “What do you need a TV for?” Fine by me.
We were invited to den Haag, but hedged when we learned that public transportation actually shuts down early on NYE. (Possibly because the trams are just oversize metallic bins; see aforementioned concerns.) And so our friends wound up coming to our place, to play some games, eat, and drink before heading out to the city center for the festivities.
I should mention that as enthusiastically as some of our friends were telling us we HAD to see the festivities in the center, other friends were telling us the exact opposite: that it wasn’t safe, that the fireworks thing + the drunk people thing = significant problems. As we read in the paper afterward, this is quite true. (Read what the police here describe as a “busy but manageable” night.) But assured that the center was just a couple blocks from our house and we could retreat at any time, we decided we wanted to see the show.
Seven of us (four Americans) passed much of the evening playing Pictophone (the best party game ever, see future post for directions). At 11:30 we bundled up to head to the center. “Grab the champagne! Plastic cups! Grab your beer!” one of the guys was calling. Of course. No open container laws here like in the US—you can take it to the streets, no problem. We already knew this, via the World Cup.
When we began our short walk to the market square, I felt tense with anticipation. What was going to happen? Rather than overflowing with boisterous revelers, the streets seemed empty, deserted. Some guys yelled at us from a window. Overall, it felt creepy. And our German friend was getting upset, because suddenly we all wondered if maybe there just wasn’t much festivity in Delft. This didn’t seem logical, since it’s a college town. We arrived at the market square around 11:45. Small clusters of people were hanging on the fringes, and we did see a kid throw something on fire into one trash can that had survived the purge.
“These aren’t the right people,” our friend fretted. “These are the people who come to watch, not the people who come to make something happen.”
But about five minutes later, a consistent stream of people began trickling into the square. In groups large and small, rowdy and nervous, and yes: some with large cartons of fireworks. (These people got cheers.) With no official countdown in place, everyone stared up at the giant clock on the Nieuwe Kerk as the hands inched closer to twelve. Then people just began shouting out their own countdowns, backwards from ten in Dutch. We joined in, feeling like real locals.
And then the chaos began. It began slowly: a firework here, a firework there. There was one guy with a little boy (it’s common to bring your kids) who was running the show for a few minutes, and people loved him. Gradually more and more stuff was getting shot off from all around us (some of us carefully positioned ourselves with a large building at our rear, so we only had to keep track of the other directions). Someone else said: “Oh look, the Americans are afraid.” This was somewhat accurate.
The first couple minutes were intimidating. The sounds were deafening and things were flying all around us. (One of the guys got hit by a stray piece of something, which luckily did not catch his coat on fire.) But the whole scene was also very exciting. I backed up closer to the building and climbed up on a bench, a pretty safe spot and a great view to boot. I could not believe the craziness that continued for a full forty-five minutes.
It’s hard to capture the mayhem, but you can watch this video Tim took. Tim took a long consistent video, whereas I took about ten that were each roughly eight seconds long and a bit jumpy. The highlights here are at :17 and :29.
We hung around, mesmerized, until nearly 1 a.m., when only the really drunk people were left and the activities had degenerated into just setting stuff on fire. We walked around the city a little before heading home, and after our friends left I realized: I not only made it to 2011; I was up at 2 a.m. New Year’s Eve had just wildly skyrocketed up my list of favorite holidays.
Happy 2011, and here’s to a year of blogging, reading, writing, and traveling by us all!