After a relatively tame winter (by the standards of people who previously lived in Massachusetts), the Netherlands (and much of Europe) has had sub-zero temps for about a week now. This means my face hurts when I go out for a run. This means our heat is running nonstop. And this means: the canals have frozen.
This is a fantastic happening and not one that occurs every year. It was the subject of intense speculation all last week: would they or wouldn’t they freeze? Would the temperatures stay low long enough? I watched our local canals all week and at first I was skeptical, but as the days wore on it became clear that ice was taking over. We bought skates. Tim bought his secondhand on the Dutch site Marktplaats, which is a bit like Craigslist. (Tim’s skates also broke the first time he skated in them.) I didn’t have time to scour the online listings and ran out on Friday to a store in Delft. And on Friday, it snowed.
SNEEUW! The Dutch word for snow begs to be shouted. Not everyone was pumped about the white stuff because it mars ice surfaces for skating—but I was overjoyed. I had begun to believe we would pass the whole winter without seeing a flurry. I went out and walked all around Delft while the snow fell in the afternoon, which turned out to be the last thing I did before realizing I had food poisoning and falling violently ill Friday night.
Our Dutch friends tell us there is not the same sort of “Dutch patriotism” or national feeling that Americans stereotypically feel for America. One specific example I was given is the idea that Americans will display the American flag outside their homes. My Dutch friend found this concept perplexing. There are, however, certain things that are “very Dutch,” an activity or event that whole communities come together around. One of them is skating on the canals. “This,” several people informed us repeatedly, “is very Dutch.”
So Saturday Tim went skating with a Dutch colleague and some friends (I was not up for the task, and quite disappointed). They rode their bikes in the snow to an area called Schipluiden and there found a park where the frozen water formed a 5km route that took them through open fields and under bridges. (Perhaps it goes without saying that the Dutch are quite good on skates, and favor the long ones used for speed.)
On Sunday afternoon I was tired of missing the fun, and we took a walk around our neighborhood, carrying our skates in a bag. Large swaths of some canals had been brushed clear for skating, and in many spots we saw people out on the ice, walking, skating, or playing. It’s disconcerting at first to see these new “streets” in the middle of the… streets. People brought out their chairs, benches, sleds, and snowsuits, enjoying them right next to boats frozen into the mix.
I finally sat down and swapped my boots for my new ice skates. I was glad we didn’t have any of our Dutch friends with us just then to see how wobbly I was! I suddenly realized I could not recall the last time ice skates had been on my feet. Minimum, five years; maximum, who knows. And compared to skating at an indoor rink, which is where I learned, the canal ice is not particularly well groomed. It has bumps and ridges and rough spots. But I got the hang of it and we took a few laps up and down this stretch. The atmosphere was festive, as if the day were a public holiday.
On our walk home we stepped onto the ice of “our” canal and asked a stranger to take our picture. “Is it your first ice?” he asked.
“No,” we said. “But it is our first ice in Holland.”