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Word of the day: rotje (firecracker)

Written by Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute)

Hell’s loose in the city. The Hague, on this last day of the year, has turned into a battlefield. Better to stay at home. The streets have turned into trenches. Explosions, pops, claps, bangs, booms can be heard far and near.

rotjeYesterday I was cycling home from the centre of The Hague. Lost in thought. Flash, near my right foot, and báng. BANG! A firecracker exploded. I saw triumphant faces and when I looked again, legs racing up the stairs in a dark porch.

In moments of emotional intensity I curse in Dutch. So I didn’t say ‘bloody hell’ but ‘verdomme’ (damn) and felt murderous. I was about to jump off my bike and run after the rogues. The loud explosion was still burning in my ears. But experience told me that any attempts would be futile. So I cycled on. Watchful. On my guard. Expecting another explosion anytime. Angry!

The ghastly name ROTJE is an adequate reflection of what this nasty piece of firework is and does. English ‘cracker’ sounds so much more gentle, even harmless. ROTJE is the diminutive of ROT and ROT is the old version of RAT. RAT is the rodent with the long tail. A RAT is a RAT is a RAT in most languages. Generally speaking, humans are not very fond of these agile mammals because they spread diseases and steal our food.

Speaking of ‘rats’, there is a small island off the coast of Perth in Australia which is called Rottnest Island. Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh had given this ‘paradise on earth’ the name ‘Rotte nest’ at the turn of the year 1696-7. The giant rats that he thought he saw, however, were ‘quokkas’, small cat-size marsupials.

When I lived in Australia in 1983, my friend Adriaan and I cycled around Rottnest Island under the illusion that we were in paradise. We had met two lovely Italian girls with whom we went swimming in the warm sea. Nothing else happened, because… I was married. (‘So you are marri-èd’, one of the girls said as if I had been infected by the plague.)

Half a year later Avril, my wife, and I returned to the Netherlands with its rain, snow, wind, storms, floods and terrifying fireworks to start the language school Direct Dutch. Adriaan, however, stayed on because he had found a small spot of paradise of his own in Sydney Harbour. In 1989 he married Kate, a lovely Wollongong girl.

Adriaan lost his paradise and with Kate he moved back to the Netherlands where they had two sons. Adriaan eventually became professor of book history at Leiden University and Kate a wonderful artist and successful therapist of the mind. And now the four of them have flown back to Australia to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Pity that I cannot be there and bring out a toast. Congratulations Kate and Adriaan!

Let’s forget Rottnest Island and let’s leave all conjectures behind which course our lives could have taken in the island if I had not been ‘marri-èd’. We now live in the best of all possible worlds, even though we’re surrounded by fireworks.

While I am typing this word of the day, the sounds of fireworks are rumbling on from far and near. It makes you wonder how civilised these Low Marshy Countries really are. Millions of euros will be blown up tonight. Kids will lose parts of their bodies forever. Many people will feel lonely and animals will try to hide in fright. There will be a lot of havoc in the streets. Cars and houses will go up in flames. We’ll all stuff ourselves on ‘oliebollen’ (deep fried soggy doughy balls) and drink too much of the spirits and the bubbly. Yes, it’s the last day of the old year. And we’ll have to ring it out.

So Happy New Year! Gelukkig Nieuwjaar. Spreek Nederlands! Met Nederlanders!