Why I never want to spend New Years with the Dutch again

The acrid smoke was stinging my eyes and making it hard to breathe. This was not what I expected at all. We stumbled along coughing as the blinding light assaulted us but we could make out some shadows dashing around in the haze, which just made me nervous. I was already scared; somehow, I had ended up in something akin to a war zone.

The ceaseless explosive banging so loud that it was hurting my ears. “Let’s just try and get to the back streets, it’s probably safer!” I hollered, hoping my partner could hear me.

It had all seemed a bit of harmless fun at first, but this had totally gone out of control. It was the last thing I had expected from the sleepy little town of Zandvoort an Zee in the Netherlands on New Year’s Eve.

My partner pulled me along until we could duck into a side road where the air was a bit clearer, although a heavy mist hung in the air. Bangs and claps continued to echo off the walls on the cold December night by the sea, as eager Dutchmen and women let loose all inhibitions, as well as any common sense it seemed.

People of all ages were excitedly running around the streets with bundles of crackers and fireworks tucked under their arms, gleefully lighting up and blowing things up wherever they could; be it the streets, rubbish bins, rooftops, or crowded squares. It was utter chaos.

We dashed in short bursts from street to street towards our rented apartment as if we were behind enemy lines. Car alarms were wailing across town and bits of red paper was strewn across the streets, evidence of recent explosions. I suspiciously eyeballed everyone that we encountered on our path as if they were potential threats, and I couldn’t help flinching whenever crackers exploded nearby.

We managed to get back to our elevated apartment in one piece, and felt relieved that the deafening bangs were now muffled by the four walls of comfort around me. Seeing it was only about 10pm, I sought a much needed drink and seriously considered bringing in the new year from the safety of the couch, even though we had flown 235 miles to be there.  

I happened to glance out the window and spied black shadows dancing across the roof of the building across the street, and my heart started beating faster again. Moments later several sparks and a loud shrill warned us that either there was about to be a very loud bang over our heads or a stray firework was going to fly through our window any second. Lucky for us their aim was true and we were simply witness to a rainbow of colours above us and not in our living room.

I had been told by a local restaurant owner that the best place to be at midnight on New Year’s Eve was by the beach. During the summer, the town of Zandvoort an Zee is a thriving seaside resort on the North Sea that throngs with tourists who come for the long sandy beaches. A far cry from the long dark night full of terror we were experiencing.

You’re probably thinking that I’m overreacting about the chaos caused by a few people having a little good old fashioned fun with firecrackers.

I kid you not. In 2016, the Dutch government reported that over 700 people were injured in the New Year’s Eve firework shenanigans. Of those, 5 hands were amputated, several fingers removed, 236 eye injuries (91 of them with permanent damage) and 23 cases of blindness, all because of the incessant need of the Dutch to see out the end of the year by blowing shit up.

This year in Amsterdam alone, there were 20 car fires, 206 small fires were called in, and 32 people arrested, two of them for aiming fireworks at firemen. In Rotterdam, some 14 people reported to the specialist eye clinic after being hit by fireworks. Half of them will apparently suffer permanent sight problems.

It seems every January, papers publish a roll call of damage like this. It’s all part of the tradition in the Netherlands. Bus shelters, shop windows, post boxes and bins are ostensibly blown up as a matter of course. I read how a 12-year-old boy was seriously injured while participating in a local tradition known as carbid schieten which involves setting off explosions in milk churns!  

Yet the ‘Dutch pyrotechnic association’ proudly announced in January that calls to the fireworks complaints hotline (surprise, surprise) only reached 45,000 this year – the lowest they’ve had in 5 years. Well, I’ll tell you this. If I had known a complaints hotline even existed I can guarantee I would have kept them very busy that night.

Nevertheless, as midnight drew near we found some courage, climbed into a few hundred layers of clothing, and bravely delved back into the fray to head to the beach in the hope that Zandvoort could redeem itself with a nice, friendly, organised firework display for the big finale.

The beach was only a few blocks away from us and we got there unscathed, where a crowd was growing of small groups carrying bottles of champagne and glass flutes. It looked promising, and it was great to smell the fresh salty air. We stood around with the others and watched the dazzle of random fireworks being set off by people on the beach and the town. We were a safe distance away from them which was the main thing!

Then I heard the sizzle of a fuse being lit and my heart leapt. I turned in time to see that someone had laid out firecrackers right behind us! I managed to dive behind the shelter of my partner and cover my ears in time, but was still assaulted by blinding light and the incredible noise. The locals shuffled back and covered their ears but looked delighted.

Cursing the crazy Dutch, I made a beeline through the crowd, continuing to using my partner as a human shield, until we found what seemed to be a safe spot. We soon realised that nowhere was really as safe as we would like, as bored locals with ammunition continued to seek out these quiet spots and fill every lull with a bang.

Eventually I heard the people around us counting down the last 10 seconds and held my breath as the sky lit up in front of us, behind us and around us with a huge racket. I tried to look everywhere at once and take in the spectacle as locals excitedly revelled in their pyromania, joining in with the official fireworks to supersize the visual display.

Bathing my face in the multitude of colours in the sky, I happily said goodbye to 2016 knowing this was one New Years I’d never forget, and one I’d never seek to experience again!

 

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