In the 19th century, when Hans Brinker[i], the hero of the novel in which he tries to win a pair of silver skates, coasted along Holland’s ice, the canals froze almost every year. But water pollution and climate change have made this so rare that today a boy of 15, Brinker’s age, may never have seen a frozen canal, or at least remember one. And one of my Dutch colleague in GRI told me that "The number of opportunities we have to skate in the Dutch winter is decreasing," Until, that is, this year.
Although warmer global temperatures have led to less natural ice forming in the low-lying Netherlands, this February saw much snow during the coldest period of Europe. There’s a chill in the air, frost on the ground and everyone is bundled up with their scarves and mittens. However, the flat terrain of the Netherlands makes it a suitable location to practice rollerblading and inline skating. And in Amsterdam with hundreds of bridges and canals, the deep freeze makes the most of the cold and turned this lovely city into one of the world’s most beautiful skating wonderland.
It doesn’t happen every year, but during those winters when it’s cold enough that trains were ceased to avoid snow blocks, Dutch people got their best chance to skate.
It doesn’t take Sven Kramer[ii]‘s five consecutive gold metals to know that the Netherlands is a nation that takes ice skating seriously. The Dutch have been crazy about ice skaters for ages – Dutch painter Hendrik Avercamp[iii] (1585-1634) lived in a time famously known as the Little Ice Age and is most famous for his winter landscapes. As a part of the Dutch national identity, speed teams, in tight lines, nose to nape of neck, legs pumping in a powerful unison, set the ice whining and vibrating like the rails under an approaching train. Children on double-bladed, tin skates push chairs ahead of themselves for balance. During this time, hundreds of thousands of skaters, their cheeks as red as apples in the freezing temperatures, took to the ice. Veteran couples in sensible wool jackets, arms entwined, sway along like ballroom dancers. And hospital wards were filled with dozens of people with fractured arms, sprained ankles and broken legs.
In every cold winter in The Netherlands, anticipation is growing for the “Elfstedentocht” or “11 Cities Tour”, a national event where speed skaters race along a 200km course beginning and ending in the northern city of Leeuwarden.
My landlord told me that along the raceway, families nearby would take out of delicious food and drinks to share with skaters and passerby, which is a good showcase of the common friendly character of Dutch people.
Because of the thousands of skaters (both professional and amateur) participating in the marathon, nearly all of the ice along the route must be at least 15cm thick.
This year marks the 100th year since the race began and if held. If happens, the tour would mark the first in over a decade.
Skating on Canals
The cold snap of February 2012 has also resulted in a number of organized ice events in and around Amsterdam, including Disco Skating, sprint races on the Keizersgracht, classical concerts on ice and long distance skate routes in Amsterdam-Noord.
To provide the most valuable information to Dutch people, Dutch newspapers track the thickness of ice daily and feature detailed maps pointing people to long stretches where skating is allowed.
The general rule is that four nights at -4C are needed to produce ice thick enough to skate on. Early in February 2012, the decision was taken to close off Amsterdam’s canals to water traffic to allow ice to form.
Skates are sold out in stores after many who thought that ice would never return to the Netherlands threw their rusty blades away or simply lost them.
On Saturday night, February 11, a rare skating race was held on the Imperial Canal in Amsterdam, located between the Leidsestraat and the New Spiegelstraat. Divided into several age categories, the participants skated over a distance of 150 meters against each other. More than ten thousand people gathered along the canal to see them skate, while there was not just watching and skating, but dancing, singing and stomping feet were also on, as well as cakes, mulled wine, a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream, etc. With thousands of others, they skated northeast toward the cheese capital, Gouda, then toward Utrecht.
“For us, it’s in our genes,” as an old Dutch man said, he and his wife had rushed out to buy new skates and take to the ice under a cloudless blue sky. It was like a frenzy that came over people, including lots of kids, like his 5-year-old grand daughter. “Water is our friend, and 10 percent of our area is water. From the oldest days, in very little villages, people could skate to each other.”
Another man watching the skating race told me that he had skated with friends recently but also had spent a lot of time just skating meditatively alone, leaning slightly forward, arms crossed behind his back. “It’s nice to skate when there is a beautiful view of the fields. And you can see a lot of people skating alone”. I was curious about whether the skating frenzy had an economic impact, or perhaps had helped the Dutch forget the downturn, he laughed: “Everybody took days off. A lot of Dutch canceled ski holidays, so that hurt the economy, at least in the ski resorts.”
With an influx of immigrants, the Netherlands has been struggling to maintain what it considers its Dutch soul, and there are many of Dutch people thought the skating experience enabled the Dutch to reconnect with their identity. There were only Dutch people on the ice. You will never see Arab people there.
Although several canals in the capital Amsterdam have frozen over, the ice is not yet thick enough to deliver the rare treat of skating across the city’s frozen waterways.
Hope that I can watch it next year!
A beautiful skating video: http://devour.com/video/skating-amsterdams-canals/