Friday, January 16, 2009

The Dutch Take to the Ice as the Canals Freeze Over!

"For us, it's in our genes," said Gus Gustafsson, 68, a retired insurance executive, explaining why he and his wife had rushed out to buy new skates and take to the ice under a cloudless blue sky...With thousands of others, they skated northeast toward the cheese capital, Gouda, then toward Utrecht.

This picture (click to enlarge) looks like a painting by the Dutch master Pieter Bruegel the Elder or an illustration from Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates (see the Wikipedia summary and the entire 1896 edition of the book with pictures), but it's actually a photo of Dutch people skating on their frozen canals in January 2009. It seems like all of Holland is suddenly springing to life like the enchanted Scottish village of Brigadoon, which appears for only one day every 100 years. Even elderly grandpas are buying skates and skating down Holland's canals with their grey-haired sweethearts.

Here is video of some young people enjoying themselves on Holland's Canals and a man enjoying a solitary tour in the countryside on the one day that it was cold enough to skate. Here is video of the famous Eleven Cities Tour, which is called the Elfstedentocht. This video celebrates 100 years of the Elfstedentocht.

Wikipedia explains:

Since the Elfstedentocht is such a rare occurrence, its declaration creates excitement all over the country. The day before the race many Dutch flock to Leeuwarden to enjoy the party atmosphere that surrounds the event. The evening before the race called the "Nacht van Leeuwarden" (Night of Leeuwarden) becomes a giant city-wide street party...

The International Herald Tribune (1-16-09) writes:

For the first time in 12 years, the Netherlands' canals froze this month, bringing the Dutch, who like their tulips in neat rows, a heady mix of pandemonium and euphoria.

Hundreds of thousands of skaters, their cheeks as red as apples in the freezing temperatures, took to the ice, and hospital wards were filled with dozens of people with fractured arms, sprained ankles and broken legs.

Train engineers were ordered to go slowly to avoid hitting skaters who clambered across railway tracks to get from one frozen canal to another. Even the minister of defense, an avid skater, fell and broke his wrist. His ministry announced that the national defense remained in safe hands, even if one of them was in a cast.

In the 19th century, when Hans Brinker, 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. Until, that is, this year.

"For us, it's in our genes," said Gus Gustafsson, 68, a retired insurance executive, explaining why 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 my granddaughter, who is 5." With thousands of others, they skated northeast toward the cheese capital, Gouda, then toward Utrecht.

With an influx of immigrants, the country has been struggling to maintain what it considers its Dutch soul, and Gustafsson was one of many here who thought the skating experience enabled the Dutch to reconnect with their identity. "There were only Dutch people on the ice," he said. "I saw no people of Arab descent."

But Andre Bonthuis, who has been mayor in this town of 23,000 people for the past 20 years, said he had seen Indonesians and Moroccans, among other newcomers to the Netherlands, on the ice. "It's rather new for people from Morocco," he said. But he agreed that there was something very Dutch about canal skating, which is depicted in paintings by Dutch masters as early as the 17th century.

"Water is our friend, and 10 percent of our area is water," he said. "From the oldest days, in very little villages, people could skate to each other."

Bonthuis, 59, said 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," he said. "You see a lot of people skating alone."

Asked whether the skating frenzy had an economic impact, or perhaps had helped the Dutch forget the downturn, he replied: "Everybody took days off." He added: "A lot of Dutch canceled ski holidays, so that hurt the economy, at least in the ski resorts."

...[Henk] Van Engelenburg, 74, who makes his home in a restored 17th-century windmill, said his wife, who loved to skate, had a problem hip. "She cried because she couldn't skate," he said.

But his 6-year-old grandson was on the ice, pushing a chair to avoid falling, the traditional Dutch way for a child to learn to skate.[See full text]

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