Before we delve any further into 2013, I would be remiss if I did not inform you that, just after 00:00 on January first, I set off fireworks.
It’s not a secret that I love Dutch New Year’s Eve. My feelings are not universal. Some of our Dutch friends don’t share them. Some of our American friends definitely don’t share them. But I knew my brother would share them. And since he was here for NYE, and since quite frankly we don’t know where we’ll be by New Year’s 2014—I knew that this was the year for personal explosives.
You can buy fireworks in the Netherlands for a three-day period leading up to NYE, assuming you have attained the wise age of 16. Seasonal stores pop up taking orders leading up to those days. We had been in Paris, so it wasn’t until the afternoon of December 31 that my brother and I rode our bikes to the Delfts Vuurwerk Paleis (“firework palace”).
The firework palace was, literally, on the “other side of the tracks.” We rode past warehouses and a giant mound of dirt to a lot where a boy of about five (wearing protective glasses) was lighting small explosives. He looked kind of like a mischievous kid, and I kept my distance. The small, garage-like space was quite busy, and the staff were all in a friendly, festive mood. A stall inside sold gluhwein, while a nearby sign reminded us that smoking was a really bad idea.
Arranged around the periphery were single examples of each firework (cardboard boxes or tubes with a fuse), and you would complete an order card on one of the central tables (like ordering Girl Scout Cookies), which one of the happy employees would then go and fill for you. There were also, helpfully, two flat-screen TVs running a continuous loop of individual fireworks going off, with the item’s name and order number flashing in the bottom of the screen.
A young guy of maybe 18-20 came over and asked us in Dutch if we needed help making our decision. I explained that we had actually never set off fireworks before, and were concerned about shooting our eyes out. “Is it easy?” I asked him, pointing to one we were considering.
“It is so easy!” he assured me. “You light it, and run away!”
So we picked two fireworks and submitted our card. Of our two purchases, neither cost more than €10, and one was a little exploding burst that shot up into the air at least as high as what I would expect my town to do on 4th of July in America.
I was also floored at the firework shop to discover that the fire lantern I had bought in Belgium was, in fact, legal. Last year I had loved the image of these lanterns floating away into the night, and bought one impulsively when I saw them in a Belgian gift shop this summer. Someone later told me that the lanterns weren’t legal (fire hazard—unlike everything else…) so I had been feeling rather guilty—until, in the Vuurwerk Paleis, I saw the exact same lantern for sale. My joy was complete, but windy conditions later on would convince us to hold the lantern for another year.
When we paid, my brother checked his wallet and realized he had no cash. This was largely because, the previous night, we had visited one of Delft’s great pubs, ‘t Klooster. Seeing on their extensive list a beer he was curious to try, Ian had ordered it, and enjoyed it. Which was a great comfort later on when he realized it had been a €17 beer. As I paid for the fireworks, I commented: “Well, Ian, you spent your last Euros on beer, and I spent mine on explosives.” It was looking to be an interesting New Year’s Eve.
When we rode away (with two explosives in my backpack), I had this feeling like I’d just done something shady and gotten away with it. We kept looking at each other and laughing, as we biked through what sounded like a minefield. It was mid-afternoon and happy families were out letting their kids set off explosives in front of the houses. I couldn’t believe it was still eight hours until midnight.
As 2013 rolled around, the weather was iffy. Winds were very high, and it was raining on and off. Knowing that wouldn’t deter most people, we bundled up around 11:30, took our explosives and our drinks and our lighter (I know) and headed for the Markt.
It’s important to get to the Markt early if you don’t want to cross the square while things are exploding, and if you want a good position. I prefer standing in front of the Stadhuis, with my back to the building. There’s no official countdown, although there’s a clock on the church tower, and so explosions begin increasing until finally everyone kind of decides: Yes! It happened! Now it’s 2013!
The fireworks are thickest between 12:15-12:30. We wanted to get our first one going while things were relatively sparse (so we could appreciate it fully), and quickly discovered that the weather was, in fact, giving people problems. Our lighter wouldn’t stay lit in the wind, and meanwhile the fuse was getting damp. I finally ran over to a group of guys who seemed to be having no problems lighting things on fire, and asked if I could borrow their lighter. I finally lit the fuse, and—as instructed—ran away (8 meters).
Then we watched our firework—it was glorious—and laughed, and took a break to watch other people’s. My brother had the honor of lighting firework #2, and again struggled with our lighter in the wind. While he was trying to figure this out, a guy threw one of those little fireworks that just makes a loud bang kind of near where Ian was crouching. Then the guy ran over toward him to tell him either “watch out” or “sorry”—but the thing exploded before he really got there. On the upside, I think then we convinced that guy to help light the second fuse, possibly with his cigar. My memory is a little hazy on this.
(Stick with the first 35 seconds of the video where we’re fumbling with the lighter. Minutes # 2 and 3 are spectacular.)
One of the criticisms we hear of Dutch NYE is: Why would you want to go stand in a big open space while drunk people shoot off fireworks? Well, not everyone is drunk. Some people are. You try and stay clear of them, especially if they’re lighting things. You keep your wits about you, and be aware as best you can of what’s going on nearby. And by around 12:40 or so, in Delft, most of the non-drunk people have drifted home, and you are left with the people who only want to make things burn. When you see flaming cardboard boxes, it’s time to exit the square.
In the US, traditionally, we would sit home and watch TV and wait for the new year to come to us. In the Netherlands, we go out, and we find that new year, and we set it off sparkling.