They told us it would be like living in a warzone. We didn't know what to expect from New Year's Eve in the Netherlands, but it certainly wasn't that. Still disbelieving right up until the sun went down, we left the safety of our apartment for deserted streets with houseguests in tow, to be immediately confronted by a fire fight less than a block away.
The fireworks had been going off at all hours for a couple of weeks already. Just a pop here and a crackle there, occasionally loud enough to set off the car alarms along the street, but usually just loud enough to startle. By the time New Year's came along, we had stopped rushing to the window to see what was going on. I still jumped and gasped if it was close enough, but I also laughed, even at two o'clock in the morning snuggled warm and safe in bed.
The nightmare-ish stories we had been reading were not exactly accurate, not anymore, or at least not in the center of Haarlem. We didn't see shops, mailboxes and other free-standing objects boarded up, or blown up, and we didn't actually witness gangs of teenagers roaming the streets with backpacks full of fireworks aiming for anything and anyone in their way. But since Sinterklaas left, hooligans, responsible or otherwise, were somewhere out there gearing up for an explosive evening.
You may be thinking this is all a little dramatic. What harm is there in enjoying a few fireworks? Well, hundreds of people are injured each year including eye injuries and hand amputations. First responders are pelted with fireworks upon arrival. Some cities have had to introduce "firework-free" zones. Two days before this New Year's Eve, a firework complaint hotline had already received 38,000 calls. Police confiscated over 45,000 kilograms of illegal fireworks. Some cities make use of military surveillance equipment that identifies explosion locations. Overall, firework-related damage was much reduced this year, but still stands at an estimated 11 million euros. It begins to make sense why most Dutch prefer to have a quiet evening spent at home with boardgames.
We were not that smart, so we planned to experience a real New Year's Eve on the streets. We had tickets to Crazy Wonderland, an Alice in Wonderland themed party in the Koepelkerk church in Amsterdam. As the evening drew closer, we figured out our costumes and spared only a brief thought towards the logistics of transportation. We've grown accustomed to being able to travel anywhere at any time. Surely the biggest party of the year would be no exception!
Our first hint that we might need to plan more carefully was a short warning on an expat blog to plan ahead because public transportation in Amsterdam would cease at 8:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve. I figured this was referring to local trams and buses because the streets would be overrun with partiers much like they are on King's Day. Nonetheless, we planned to arrive in Amsterdam prior to that time, just in case. I saw no other warnings, but when Brian checked the trip planner the day of, it appeared that we would be without train service between 8:30 p.m. and about 2:00 a.m.
In the dark, and serenaded by explosions, we made our way to Haarlem's train station by foot passing a handful of people hurrying to some destination or another. This was not a night for a leisurely stroll. We were giddy. This night would be a New Year's to remember, if we would make it out alive and unmained.
At the train station, Brian asked a transit employee when service would resume. It turned out that service would not be resuming until 6 a.m. on New Year's Day! We just simply didn't believe it, assured our guests that we would find a way back home, checked in and caught the train into Amsterdam, where the streets were full of roaming tourists who may not have had a clue what was going on, but were ready for a party.
It turns out that the way to be the most badass person on the streets of Amsterdam is to be wearing dark face paint on New Year's Eve. Brian and I were just two Cheshire Cats, but people were legitimately afraid of us.
Between the threat of getting blown up at any given moment, the lack of things to do and the general feeling of lawlessness in the air, seeing someone in face paint was startling. We were asked twice if we were on our way to the "freak show," and Brian posed for selfies with strangers enough that he began to think he should be charging for the privilege.
Our party didn't begin until 10 p.m., so we set out on a search for the quintessential Dutch New Year's treat olieballen, which are deep fried doughy balls sprinkled with icing sugar. Surely gatherings of people would mean food trucks and junk food! That's what brought us to Dam Square, the place that at this particular time, we felt the least safe in our entire lives. Full of drifters and aimless tourists, it had nothing to offer revellers except live targets. One suspicious character of many kicked live fireworks at passersby from an empty bus stop shelter. Despite the promise of a fireworks display later in the evening, nothing would have compelled us to stay.
It's been one of the warmest winters on record, but the air was biting our fingers and ears, so we ducked into an open and hospitable-looking bar for a quick drink. Out of all the places to walk into, De Blauwe Parade bar turned out to be a historical landmark with a large Delft Blue tile mural. We enjoyed a drink at this quiet little oasis despite all the odd looks we garnered due to our outlandish face paint.
Then it was off to the Crazy Wonderland party at the Koepelkerk. On entrance we were given a vial labelled "eat me" or "drink me," and inside the theme really infused every corner of every room. I'm not a partier by any means, but the crowd had a really friendly, easy-going and enthusiastic atmosphere and once we got dancing, it was hard to stop.
Although we missed the full explosion of Amsterdam fireworks at midnight, they strobbed against the church windows while we clanked champagne glasses and danced to 90's dance tunes with hundreds of fanciful characters inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
It was an amazing party, but by 2:45 a.m., our guests were showing some strain, so we decided to head out and try to make our way back home. The internet didn't give us any promising leads for the next train back to Haarlem, so we stopped in at a small bistro for some foot relief and snack food.
After a sufficient rest and refuelling, we decided to try our luck at the train station in case the internet had it wrong. Our evening was perfect, the year was shiny and new, and now all we needed was to make it home.
Unfortunately the train station was completely shut down, and hundreds of people stood, slumped and scattered all over the only open terminal while disinterested security personnel offered little information, except that the next train going our direction would be at 4:45 a.m., which we could take to the airport and wait for the bus into Haarlem (with an ETA of 6:15 a.m.). All I wanted to do was wash my smudgy face and go to bed, but it looked like I'd be spending New Year's Day in bed catching up on my sleep!
It was a long and uncomfortable wait, and we still didn't understand why the trains weren't running. It seemed like a recipe for disaster to strand people, drunk people, in a confined area with only one shop open. Despite all this, no one was angry or causing problems, and I couldn't understand that either. Everyone was just accepting that they were stranded in a cold station for hours without any kind of explanation whatsoever. I felt inwardly irate because it just made no sense to me. This would never happen in Canada, I thought to myself, and felt like an asshole. I resolved to find the reason behind it, and hoped it would make complete sense.
We had no idea if we'd be able to make it on to the train when it arrived, so we hydrated with one eye on the clock and made our way to the chilly platform with 30 minutes to spare. We crowded onto the train with hundreds of other people also worn down by the anti-climactic end to the evening, and got off at the airport hoping for the best.
From the airport, we waited for a bus that would take us within steps of our apartment. We waited much longer than the "real-time" sign indicated we should have to, and long enough for our toes to freeze solid. So many people crowded along the thin bus platform that we began to worry again about making it on the bus once it arrived. If it ever arrived.
When the magical 300 bus appeared at 5:45 a.m., the crowd surged. The pushing started from all sides, and Brian threatened one particularly unapologetic pusher with a punch to the face if he didn't stop. Despite his scary, smeared facepaint, this display of civility endeared him to other passengers who engaged him in conversation about Puff Daddy's girlfriend and Drake, as well as an offer of vodka which Brian politely refused.
It was on the bus that we finally found out why public transportation was suspended. It wasn't for safety or convenience or crowd control. It was to give drivers the chance to celebrate New Year's along with everyone else. This reasoning was relayed to us with complete sincerity, and a strong sense of pride. More important than the freedom of movement on a party night, was the right of those transit operators to join in the partying themselves, even if their plans were simply quiet evenings at home playing boardgames with their families. But, if you just offered double-time, whispers the Canadian, surely someone would be willing to drive the trains. That's missing the point. As much as I wanted to argue, I realized that it was me that had it backwards.
The Dutch know what they value, and not everything comes with a price. I would have thought that freedom of movement trumped the right to party, but I forgot that the Dutch can, at times, be incredibly, nonsensically gracious. This was one of those times, and it was a humbling beginning to 2016.
Happy New Year everyone! I hope you encounter acts of goodwill that defy all reason and common sense this year, and whatever you celebrate, do it with abandon!