You’ll Never Walk Alone…Or, How I Spent the Coldest Night of My Life

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Last Saturday, as I sat next to Willem on a train to Neede to pick up some documents I needed for my residence permit application, Willem received a text.  He turned to me and asked if I would be interested in attending a Dutch Eredivisie football match between FC Twente (the 2010 league champion) and RKC Waalwijk.  Our friend had two extra tickets for the match that evening. I gave him a look that could only be interpreted as “Of course I want to go, you ninny! Sign me up!”  (Have I mentioned how much I love football?)

A few hours later, I found myself on a bus headed from Neede to the stadium in Enschede.  It was immediately apparent that the bus was full of die-hard Twente fans (including Willem’s brother).  The Grolsch beer was flowing, everyone seemed to know everyone already, and red-and-white FC Twente scarves adorned every neck.  I was particularly conspicuous on the crowded bus, for two main reasons: I am a female, and I speak little to no Dutch.  First of all, very few women go to football matches in the Netherlands.  Football is generally a “guy thing” here, and judging by the extremely skewed male/female ratio on the bus, this match was no different.  In addition, I was on the way to a match between two football teams most Americans have never heard of, much less cheered on at a home match.  I may as well have walked onto the bus with a large neon sign on my head screaming, “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

I was at first reluctant/apprehensive to speak to anyone for fear of saying something wrong about their beloved team, but curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation with the old man sitting next to me on the ride to the stadium.  He told me he hadn’t spoken English to anyone in years so he had forgotten a lot, but between my small Dutch vocabulary and his broken English we managed.  I learned that he had been an FC Twente fan his entire life, and that he never misses a home match.  Talk about dedication—and from someone who was clearly at least 70 years old!  I even found out that he had visited Virginia waaay back in 1963, when he was working as a sailor on the Holland America shipping line.  It continues to amaze me how often encounters like this occur while I’m traveling.  I can be in the middle of nowhere-ville, Netherlands, and still find someone with a connection to my home 7,000 miles away.

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FC Twente Stadium

When the bus pulled up to the stadium, named De Grolsch Veste (“The Grolsch Fortress”) after the famous local beer brewing company, we got out and walked to the entrance.  I should maybe mention here that the temperature outside was approximately 19°F (-7°C), with a windchill that made it feel much colder.  Even though I had dressed as warmly as I could, the frigid air blowing straight through my multiple layers of clothing on the short walk to the stadium entrance made it clear that I was in for a cold night.  Willem was in an even worse situation than me since he was wearing shoes with only a thin rubber sole, but him being a guy, he didn’t want to admit how cold he was for fear of being a pansy.  I started to get excited about the match, despite the cold, when I looked up to see the brightly-lit stadium looming above me.  Inside the stadium, we still had 45 minutes before the match started so we decided to wander around.  Unlike the stadiums in the U.S., here you are restricted to a small area around your seat and the nearest concession stand.  Massive plexi-glass barriers (each guarded by dozens of security officers and police) separate the sections of the stadium.  This is for safety. Dutch football fans don’t mess around and they don’t take insults to their team lightly.  In the past there have been serious fights between fans of opposing sides, sometimes resulting in serious injuries or deaths.  For an American used to the family-friendly atmosphere of MLS or USL matches, the need for these barriers and constant security is both fascinating and somewhat scary.  My parents, for instance, used to take my brother and I to soccer matches on a Saturday afternoon and bid us adieu, saying, “Bye kids, have fun, see you at the gate at the end of the game!” …and off we would go without a second thought to the possibility of any kind of danger. I seriously doubt any parent would let their child wander around a football stadium unattended in the Netherlands.

That being said, the atmosphere that I experienced in a Dutch football stadium was amazing, and far from scary. The Twente fans, normally known for being some of the craziest in the country, were relatively subdued; this was most likely due to the fact that taking your hands out of your pocket to throw them in the air in protest at a referee’s decision practically meant risking frostbite!  Still, more than 29,000 people braved the cold to support Twente (something that I venture to say would never happen at an MLS match in similar weather conditions).  One of the best moments of the evening occurred at the beginning, when the FC Twente starting line-up walked out onto the field to the entire stadium of supporters singing the Twente anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry & The Pacemakers.  The song is probably more famous as a tradition of Liverpool FC, but FC Twente has also claimed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as its own.

 

Even with all of the supporters, the football played down on the field was relatively boring.  The final score ended in a lackluster 0-0.  Not that I can blame either team.  I imagine it is difficult to score when you can’t feel your feet.  By the time the final whistle blew, all I could think about was how quickly I could get back to the warm bus.  It is difficult to describe just how bitter cold it was outside that night.  My legs and feet had gotten so cold and stiff that walking down the flights of stairs out of the stadium, it felt as if I was pulling blocks of lead (or ice) along with me.  Willem couldn’t even zip his jeans back up after going to the bathroom because his hands were too frozen (which still made me giggle even in my near-frozen state)!  As much as I love football, I have never been happier to come home to a warm house and warm bed as I was on Saturday night. I may not have grown up a FC Twente supporter, but after braving the cold I’m pretty sure I deserve to be a card-carrying lifelong fan as much as anyone!

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SNOW!!

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Yesterday, we finally experienced a welcome change from the gray, cloudy, and depressing weather that seems to be the norm here in Tilburg.  SNOW! Seeing as I am really a six year old child, and snow makes me more excited than Christmas morning, the first thing I did was run onto the balcony in my t-shirt to catch a few snowflakes on my tongue, before begging Willem to come outside and play with me.  When the nearly-24 year old responsible part of me realized how freakin’ cold it was outside, I decided that maybe I should put a coat on first.  Ten minutes later, all geared up (including me with my ski gloves so I would be prepared to keep my hands toasty in the case of a spontaneous snowball war that might break out along the way), we ventured outside for a walk.

Below are a few pics I took while wandering around Tilburg in my element.  Hooray for the first true snowfall of the year!

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Bikes in the snow outside the apartment

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Snowy houseboats on the canal

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A coot trying to keep warm

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The snowy canal in Tilburg

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Dutch pride on the canal

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Ringing in the New Year with a BANG!

It’s been a while, but I am now back in the Netherlands.  A lot has happened since I last posted.  During the two weeks in between leaving Virginia and touching back down in the Netherlands, I officially graduated with my Master in Global Politics from LSE (!), visited friends in London, and spent Christmas with Willem and my family in the Bavarian Alps of Germany and Austria.  I may write a post later that details these travels, but I am going to spend most of this post focusing on my first time experiencing a Dutch New Year’s Eve.  I had assumed celebrations would be similar to the ones we have in the States, but as always, the Dutch had a few surprises in store for me.

I woke up on December 31st in Tilburg to the sounds of a war going on around me.  My first thought when I heard the booms was “Ohmygod someone is shooting a gun VERY close by…I hope when I look out the window I won’t see a body lying on the street.”  I then decided that the chances of hearing a gunshot on my street were highly unlikely…heck, the chances of there being a gun within fifty miles of me in a place with as much gun control as the Netherlands is even more unlikely.  Willem, of course, thought my initial distress was hilarious.  He had neglected to prepare me for my first Dutch New Year tradition: the popular practice of carbidschieten (carbide shooting).  I will explain more about this a bit later, because a few hours from then I got to see firsthand what this crazy tradition was all about.

So after the morning’s excitement, we made the two hour train ride to Goor, where Willem’s mom picked us up and drove us the twenty minutes to his house in Neede (Willem’s hometown, in the Eastern region of the Netherlands less than five minutes from the German border), where we planned to spend New Year’s Eve.  We had lunch at Willem’s house, while we listened to the Top 2000 song countdown on Dutch radio.  This is a well-loved end-of-year tradition in the Netherlands, where Dutch citizens vote on their most favorite songs of all time.  Each year, the 2000 songs with the most votes are published in a list, and every song is played in a countdown that leads up to the #1 song, which is played in the final moments before midnight.  The list is pretty eclectic, with songs ranging from traditional Dutch songs to American pop, classic rock, and everything in between.  The #1 song for this year was….Bohemian Rhapsody!

 

In the afternoon, we walked to a field on the edge of town where a group of people were watching some men setting off the “carbide cannons” that had awoken me that morning.  Carbide shooting is a tradition that supposedly hearkens back to an ancient practice of scaring away demons and bad spirits with loud noises to ensure a positive atmosphere for the coming year.

Carbidschieten, or “carbide shooting”

This is definitely a “don’t try this at home” kind of activity!   Safely creating a carbide cannon is apparently as difficult as correctly setting up a controlled dynamite explosion, and requires significant skill to determine the exact second to light the cannon without posing a danger to spectators.  To make the cannon, an empty steel milk urn (the kind that are used on old farms) is propped up and a small hole is drilled in the bottom of the can.  Then a few blocks of calcium carbide (which is an easily available substance) are dropped into the can, and a small amount of water is added before the lid is tightly replaced.  The water causes an immediate chemical reaction with the carbide to produce a gas called acetylene.  As the gas begins to escape out of the hole in the bottom of the can, a torch is used to light the gas at the proper moment.  Presto, you have created your own cannon! The ignited gas causes a massive explosion, launching the lid off the can and into the air with a sound that can knock out your eardrums if you stand too close.  Carbide shooting is actually illegal every other day of the year due to the fact that people get seriously injured every year doing this, but on New Year’s Eve some municipalities (especially in the Eastern Netherlands where the tradition is most popular) allow people to shoot them off as long as they get a permit.  Woohoo! Below is a video of carbidschieten in action!

 

As it got closer to midnight, we left the carbide cannons and got ready to go to the house of a family friend of Willem’s.  It is relatively uncommon for the Dutch to celebrate New Year’s Eve like we do in the U.S., with First Night celebrations and city fireworks displays.  Instead, most people stay at home or with close friends until the clock strikes midnight.  We spent our time cozily counting down the minutes with Willem’s family and friends, sipping drinks, eating oliebollen (a tasty and traditional Dutch NYE treat; they taste exactly like funnel cakes), chatting, and watching TV specials that detailed the events of the past year.

Oliebollen: Traditional NYE treat in the Netherlands

This was all really nice, but I was still slightly disappointed because I thought that by being in the Netherlands I would miss seeing the epic fireworks displays that make this holiday so enjoyable for me. Luckily, I soon found out that the real fun of a Dutch New Year’s Eve doesn’t start until after midnight.  We counted down the seconds until the clock struck 12, and then everyone toasted to the New Year.  Within a few minutes after midnight, it sounded like a war had erupted in Neede.

FIREWORKS!

If this morning was a skirmish, then that hour after midnight was Gettysburg.  I can hardly describe the intensity of the noise that was coming from every possible direction.  It was the kind of sound that creates shockwaves that you can feel booming in the pit of your stomach.  I absolutely loved it!  We rushed outside to watch as every family in the neighborhood set off their fireworks at the same time.  And in case you were wondering, these were no ordinary fireworks.  I didn’t know where to look, because the entire sky was lit up with exploding lights of pure awesomeness.  I was shocked at the kinds of fireworks that were being shot off here (and it is all perfectly legal).  These were some high quality rockets, people!  Due to fire and safety restrictions back home, there are strict laws in each state regarding the fireworks that are legal.  In Virginia, if it’s fun, chances are it’s illegal.  Unless you are willing to suffer through the crowds and bitter cold to see one of the fireworks celebrations sponsored by one of the metro areas, you are essentially forced to be happy with poppers and sparklers.  That is certainly not the case in the Netherlands!

New Year’s Eve fireworks in Utrecht, Netherlands

New Year’s Eve fireworks in Alkmaar, Netherlands

As much as I love fireworks, the nicest Dutch NYE tradition has to be the practice of wishing all of your neighbors luck in the coming year.  While everyone is outside setting off fireworks (or spectating, in my case), it is common for neighbors to walk from house to house, shaking hands and giving each other their beste wensen (best wishes). Once the last sips of champagne had been drunk and most of the neighborhood had exhausted their supply of fireworks, we biked home.  I think I can safely say I rang in this New Year’s in a truly Dutch fashion: with a bang!