New Year’s Eve can be a funny occasion. Once the clock strikes midnight in Britain, strangers hug and hold hands as they sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ out of tune; friends drunkenly proclaim their everlasting love for each other; and shy people seize the moment to try it on with the person they’ve fancied for ages. People seem to love everyone and everything, and happiness is all around. They regard the evening as a unique event where they have an excuse to say or do something that they normally wouldn’t. The New Year is accorded a special status, with some speaking confidently of ‘change’ or ‘progress’ in any field, whether work or relationships. It’s as if they seem to think they have to wait for the beginning of a new year to form this new attitude. And yet when they wake up a few hours later, nothing really will be about to change. They will simply wake up with a sore head feeling grumpy and sluggish. It will feel just like any other normal day, with the only difference being that they get to open the glossy new calendar Father Christmas put in their stocking. What’s more, the emotions and actions of the night before will have vanished: just like they didn’t speak to each other when sober on New Year’s Eve morning, people will no longer talk to strangers on the street; having commemorated another year of friendship, friends will soon grumble to themselves about their BFF’s embarrassing behaviour the night before; and the shy person will deny any recall of that awkward kiss, stating that it must have come from being ‘so wasted’. People talk about New Year’s Eve like it’s an event of huge significance but really, it’s just another day on the calendar. Its subjective value is invented by personal choice. And yet every year, the same scene repeats itself.
When two friends and I made plans to go to Amsterdam at the end of 2013, I think we too were expecting something huge from our New Year’s Eve abroad – the biggest and best NYE party that we’d ever had. Being scattered around the country doing different things and therefore unable to see each other that often, we’d wanted to go on a city break together for a while. £50 each for a return ferry from Newcastle was the perfect justification for a trip that would involve a mixture of celebrations and culture. We made no specific plans for NYE, deciding we’d go with the flow on the night. Friends naturally made jokes about drugs and brothels, as if assuming our reasons for choosing Amsterdam had been based purely on these factors and not the other elements of the city. Nevertheless, whilst celebrating New Year’s Eve wasn’t the only reason we were going here, it was inevitably the main thing on our mind. But it was my New Year experience in one of Europe’s biggest party capitals that actually made me realise how sensationalised the sentiment surrounding this event is.
Catching the ferry to Holland is always an entertaining, sometimes disturbing, experience. And with New Year approaching, the intentions of the groups of lads on board smelled even stronger of Jaeger bombs and condoms. After our boat docked at 9.30am, a bus took us into Amsterdam. Bike bells rang as the hungover boys and girls stumbled off the bus straight into a cycling path. Crossing the road to the central station, you have to take a few moments to make sure you don’t get run over by an oncoming tram. The blue and white carriages are a trademark of the city and the most convenient form of public transport for getting around (apart from bikes of course…) In the tourist office you can buy a 3 day travel card for all public transport for 16.50 Euros.
My friend had found an apartment on booking.com, situated a few kilometres from Central Station. As we hopped off the tram and walked along Jan Evertsenstraat wishing we’d invested in a proper map, a loud bang erupted from the other side of the street. Jumping in shock we instinctively turned to look. Something small appeared to have exploded, yet other people on the street seemed unperturbed. We soon realised it was a firework, and went on to see small groups of people casually setting them off along the pavements and in parks. On meeting our apartment owners, we discovered that this is a New Year’s Eve tradition here – residents are allowed to set off their own fireworks in public areas all day.
Our afternoon was spent in the lovely Vondelpark, where we sat in the Blue Tea House café admiring the regular sight of cyclists, runners and walkers amongst the on-going blast of fireworks. One of my favourite things about Holland is how active everyone is. It’s a lifestyle choice that people prove their commitment to by getting up and doing it, instead of saying they will and never doing so.
Just before 6pm we put on our boots and coats and joined the great pilgrimage of all nationalities towards the city centre. Cracks and bangs of fireworks still cut through the air as we deviated slightly south, the sporadic noise contrasting with the peacefulness of the canals that dazzled with gold and red reflections off the houses and Christmas lights. Bikes lined the route, with light glinting off the wheels like baubles on a Christmas tree. Later we saw the shining beacon of Leidseplein. Here Latino pop beats blared from a stereo next to a large ice rink situated outside a group of Bavarian Bier bars. Food vendors attracted throngs of people with their Bratwurst, waffles and ‘olliebollen’ – the Dutch doughnuts dusted in icing sugar and with raisins inside. Swarms of people crossed excitedly over the tram routes, following the glowing path of Christmas lights down the streets towards Dam Square where a huge Christmas tree greeted us.
It was only around 19.30 in the Square and people seemed to wander around with no set plan. The smell of more waffles led us down a side of the road hosting a long line of stalls. Sausages sizzled amongst the sweet smell of onion as people bustled up and down. I managed to tear myself away from staring at the fudge stall, just as it began to rain. We pressed on further down the street, splashing through puddles towards the other side of the road where the flashing signs of ‘Sex Shops’ showed us we were entering the Red Light District. I silently asked myself what percentage of the guys milling around here were from our ferry…
The heaving ‘EuroPub’ in Dam Square cost 15 Euros to enter, so we moved on from its flashing lights and thumping music to a small Irish bar nearby called ‘Yip Fellows’, which charged no entry. It had a cosy, intimate feel and we were probably the youngest people in there. 5 Euros bought us a generous glass of wine, followed only by a modest two or three more. Bartenders wandered around with a smile offering re-fills. Music began to play and as ‘Summer of 69’ came on, I realised from the lack of tuneless singing that there was a lack of British people around. Nobody was dancing, just laughing over drinks. We were able to hear ourselves talk because there was no sense of need for pounding music; no DJs constantly shouting at us that it was New Year’s Eve to the extent that we felt we were being told off. It wasn’t the scene we’d been expecting, but I preferred it – sharing stories with a bunch of Austrians was more fun than dancing to a song I could dance to on any night out. Fumes of smoke later began to flow through the room, sending us into a hazy state of merriness.
At 11.45 people started heading outside into the packed Square, the sea of people dotted with an array of umbrellas. Fireworks were going off in all directions. Suddenly we heard shouts of ‘nine, eight’ and joined in with the countdown, as people stood on the statue punching the air with their arms in time. Their silhouettes blackened against a shock of red as the sky became a circus of different colours symbolising that 2014 had officially arrived. My friends and I of course cheered loudly and hugged madly, calling ‘Happy New Year!’ to one another. I then watched with amusement as they got dragged into a Hogmanay dance with a bunch of British men, who then proceeded to belt out a pointless rendition of ‘Country Roads’. These men grasped each other tightly, as if they had been reunited for the first time in years. The spell of New Year’s spirit had been cast.
After the rain picked up 15 minutes later we went to return to our bar, only to find they’d introduced an entry fee, and in our rush of excitement to get outside we hadn’t got a wristband. Our giddiness suddenly turned to tiredness and we decided to walk to the bus stop, knowing the night buses weren’t running regularly. As ‘bombs’ continued to explode behind us, the streets ran red with rivers of the last remnants of the day’s firework materials. Hoards of people headed down Damstraat, kicking beer cans absent-mindedly. Some broke off down other streets to continue the party in the Red Light; for others going home was clearly the plan. Fireworks still shrieked loudly above the crowds gathered at the bus stop, committed to entertaining those still keen to continue the celebrations. The buses were taking forever, and as the rain grew stronger and impatience rose, there were signs in people’s faces that the New Year’s glow was already beginning to fade. Any elements of New Year character slowly started to lose resonance, until the night was just viewed as the end of another night out now with the mammoth task of ‘how-to-get-home’.
We had so far to walk back to our apartment, but after half an hour of shivering in our coats waiting, we decided to set off on foot before the cold weather threatened to ruin our night. Loud music thudded from clubs and people dashed here and there, rickshaw drivers calling out to offer lifts. A bunch of girls in a doorway held a bucket under their friend’s face, looking around sheepishly. Crying out ‘Happy New Year!’ seemed like ages ago as our upbeat emotions turned into pessimistic thoughts of ‘How much further?’ In our urge to get home out of the cold and wet, we no longer shared any sense of connection to the people still cheering on the streets, if anything finding their good mood annoying. Relying on the soggy remains of a simple map, it took us an hour and a half to walk back, and once in our apartment we collapsed down in relief, with our hair dripping wet and scarves stinking of smoke, exhausted by the evening’s events.
The night had ended unlike we’d expected it to – we were cold, sober and on the verge of being in a bad mood. But in the later morning we would look back on the evening with smiles, recalling all the funny moments, and even the slightly irritating ones which could now be laughed at. All our senses had been ignited by the events of the evening like no other previous New Year celebration. Even though we’d imagined that we would drink more, dance more, and stay up longer, the atmospheric culmination of the rainy street markets and friendly vibe in that little pub meant that it had indeed been the biggest and best New Year’s Eve party we’d been to, regardless. But just like always, an hour after midnight the novelty of the New Year had worn off.
It was lucky then that we hadn’t just come to Amsterdam for a New Year’s Eve party. We eased our way into New Year’s Day by wandering down along the side of the canals on Singel to the Bloemenmarkt, admiring the flowers and many souvenirs on show proudly presenting some of Holland’s national symbols – clogs, tulips, windmills and bikes. Amsterdam is such a charming city; its tall houses with their crow-stepped and clock gables radiate elegant charm. The pretty architecture’s settings amongst blissful canals and secret alleyways have enchanted the people at UNESCO, who designated the Canal Ring a World Heritage Site in 2010.
There are hardly any sounds of noisy traffic here – no beeping taxis and screeching brakes – just the occasional calling-clang of a tram and ‘tickety-tickety’ of the green man on the traffic lights. The city values its cyclists and their safety. Their right on the road is so respected, that you’ll rarely see anyone wearing a helmet. Bicycle bells rang at us as we meandered dreamily along the canals, their riders looking fresh despite the antics of the night before. In fact, the whole area was bustling with people. For them, last night clearly wasn’t about drinking until they couldn’t stand; just an ordinary date that didn’t require extraordinary behaviour.
From the flower market we headed north again to Westerpark. A lovely area around here is the Bloemgracht, which for me epitomises all of Amsterdam’s significant aesthetic features in a haven of peaceful tranquillity. The Anne Frank Museum is nearby and it was my second time visiting, having been here 10 years ago. Anne writes about her frustrations of not being able to go outside and speak to people, and having walked around the city so much, it really was heart-wrenching to stand in her old home being reminded of how such a young girl was unable to explore and appreciate such beautiful surroundings so close by, when this is something the millions of tourists coming to this museum every year do so absent-mindedly.
I wondered whether the boys on our ferry and those we’d seen in the Square would have even come to this area of the city, or if now that New Year’s Eve was over, their trip had lost its purpose, with the remainder being spent in hash cafes and bars throwing their money away carelessly. It seemed like a pretty gross concept when one considered how much the Franks and all those other families in hiding would have given to be able to walk around the beautiful, quiet parts of the city at their own leisure.
The next afternoon we boarded our bus back to the ferry port, recognising some of the lads from our journey out. They seemed zapped of energy and hardly spoke a word to one another, as if they’d fallen out. I thought back to the ‘Country Roads’ boys hugging each other fervently in the Square. Looking back it all seemed so fake. And looking at the state of these boys, it was a probably trip they didn’t remember much of, all because they’d felt a necessity to lose all control of their wills and wallets. They had come here with the sole intention of going on one drunken night out, with no interest in any other aspect of this wonderful city. They’d let themselves believe that this blown-up date on the calendar was a reasonable excuse for spending all their week’s wages in one night of mad ecstasy. And had it really been worth it?
Within a few hours we had been returned back to the reality of late night Bingo and cringy cruise ship entertainers singing ‘Mysterious Girl’ (rap section included). It seemed like only two minutes ago we had touched ground in Amsterdam, yet I’d almost forgotten that we’d celebrated New Year here. This was even though I’d expected that its celebrations would be the most memorable part of the trip. But why? Afterall, you can dine and drink and dance anywhere – and that’s essentially what New Year’s Eve is about. I thought back to the fireworks going off all day in Amsterdam, recalling how surprising they were at first. But they made any spirit of the day feel more genuine and prolonged, rather than something formed by alcohol that would last a few soon-to-be-forgotten hours.
When I got home, I knew that in asking how my trip was, friends would probably be envisaging brown cafes and crazy nightclubs. But for my friends and me, it was the sweeter side of Amsterdam that had left a soft spot in our memory. All the bikes had highlighted how life is an ongoing cycle, with no need for people to change course every once a year. New Year’s Eve has developed a superficial element whereby, under an invented spirit of the occasion, people develop a new persona out of a combination of alcohol and the feeling that they ‘should’. But people can stop pretending on this evening that there is deep meaning behind their warm words and future promises, because at the end of the day, nobody seriously believes them, and their behaviour won’t last. Insisting on the need for huge celebrations filled with lovey-dovey words won’t guarantee an enjoyable New Year’s Eve. After spending mine in the city famous for its party scene, I learned greater that when it comes to celebrating this day, less is more.