It started in the early hours of the morning with a round of Pommery champagne as we join strangers on the corner, all gazing skyward at the sparkling, cascading mayhem of gunpowder disguised as fireworks; aware, like someone on a new frontier, that no one is in charge; anything is possible.
Long after our New Year’s party breaks up and we’ve retired to the comfort of our bed and drawn the thick curtains, the fireworks continue. Demonstrating the surprising tenacity and spending power of our neighbors near and far, the crackling, booming and popping continues throughout the witching hours, slowly diminishing in frequency as the early morning light fills the sky.
Oatmeal for breakfast at 11:15am. I am hung over more from firecracker -induced lack of sleep than from the Pommery. Under such circumstances, the sunshine outside lacks its usual appeal. But our Vitamin-D-challenged reality urges us out of the door anyway, and we start walking.
Waiting at The Hague Central Station for Tram 9, we see the return tram arrive across the platform with everyone inside wearing the same bright orange hats. It takes a moment, but my husband and I suddenly get what’s going on.
“Was het koud?” I ask the first of the young men who come off the tram and cross toward us. They nod, proud, pleased with the acknowledgment of what they have done. It will be crowded at the beach, but that doesn’t deter us.
My son asks me why I asked the man if he was cold. I explain that every year on New Year’s day, a lot of Dutch people head to the North Sea for the polar bear swim—meaning that they dive in the ice-cold sea and then come out again. Unox, a company that sells things like canned soup, has apparently monopolized on the situation by giving away a bright orange cap to all who jump in the sea, the lemming of hats. But there are no free hats: each crazy that has jumped into the North sea to jump-start the new year heads off into the city as a walking UNOX advertisement.
We catch the tram and walk to the sand. Our pace is lazy, slow. I take pictures. My son plays in the sand. The sun shines. I feel simple happiness that must be a basic instinct as we walk together.
I remember a photo that’s still in my Facebook from over 10 years ago. One of my husband and I on a beach in Southern California, back when we were first dating, yet unaware that we had found our life partners in each other.
We take a selfie while my son jumps in the background, too short to do a real photo bomb.
Our friends meet us on the beach. They bring a soccer ball and the boys and men jump into action, laughter, yells, running—a burst of energy that seems to be drawn from some sort of male fusion.
I am happy to see my girlfriend. We chat, hug, breathe in the crisp air. She has a belated birthday present for me that gleams in the sunshine when I take it out of the black and white wrapping paper.
We watch a group of fraternity boys heading to the ocean in ties and swimsuits. On their return trip, I ask if I can take a photo. They pose grandly, cheering, their wet chests jutted forward as they shiver in the growing wind so a stranger can take a picture.
Later, at home, we all do our own things. The big one naps, the little one watches a movie, I rewrite the last chapter of my book.
Feeling a mild sense of accomplishment, I go online and see a post from a Syrian refugee I had the honor of meeting during his six weeks in The Hague. I ask him how the new refugee center is where he’s been transferred. He is conscientious in his answer; honest, but not overly critical. I ask if there were fireworks last night.
He says yes, they were nice, but then they reminded him of the war.
Last night, during our party with champagne and conversation about politics, literature, education, we also wondered how the refugees would respond to the fireworks. It was a light conversation. Now it is a hard reality. It reminds them of the war, a war that is still going on.
I look up the town where my refugee friend has been sent and it is not a town at all, but a refugee center surrounded by farmland. They are not allowed to learn. There is nothing for them to do. I don’t get it. I wonder what is wrong with our government. I realize it is complicated, that there are too many refugees all at once for our country to handle in a proper manner.
I try to imagine myself as a problem solver, finding a way to create jobs and a livelihood for the handful of refugees I have come to know in the last six weeks. I am clearly aware that I want to help those I know, even if I’ve only met them a few times. Could we all adopt-a-refugee and together, create a shared economy where everyone benefits? Do such thoughts make me a Marxist? A communist? Do others think like I do?
A friend sends me a text asking if she can take me to a film to belatedly celebrate my birthday. As a close-to Christmas baby, I am used to belated birthday offers. I concur. We set a date. I temporarily forget about my refugee friend on the other side of the country.
It is late, but I skype New Zealand anyway. I talk to my friend for an hour, hearing about his life there, his accomplishments. He asks me if I’ve written another book. I say I have. His eyebrows go up. Perhaps it was just a polite question, but he says, “I had a feeling you had. Is it another romance?”
“Oh.” His smile is half pity, half amusement.
“But that’s okay with me,” I explain more for myself than for him. “I like writing romance because they bring hope, are about love, and have happy endings. And what I want most in life for people is that they have love and happiness in their lives.”
My words ring true. That would probably be my mission statement if I were a corporation.
I think of Tarek, Julia, of Nidal. Of Majd, Kinda, all the other refugees I have met who have hope in their eyes, despite the war, the terror, fleeing for their lives. Wonder if that hope will still exist in their eyes six months from now, a year from now. What our government will do with them. What we will do, can do, to ease their journey here and aid them in becoming self-sufficient, getting back their dignity.
It’s late. I’m looking forward to reading another chapter of Light Years by James Salter before I go to sleep. I hear the trams running in the night. I hear my son shifting in his sleep. I think of my friends April and Jaime and the beautiful little baby boy that has come into their lives.
I think of the 5:00pm sermon on New Year’s eve where the minister read Ecclesiastes 3:2, how appropriate it was for a New Year’s service.
1There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven– 2A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. 3A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.…
Tomorrow will be another day, with another opportunity to gain impressions of life unfolding in 2016.