Thursday, December 20, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

And then...the canals froze over.

Not really, but a Dutchman can dream, can’t he?

As the chill has progressively crept into the air above The Netherlands, thoughts have naturally turned toward one of the oldest sports known to the Dutch: Ice skating. When you turn on your television during the next Olympic games, you’ll probably see hoards of Dutch skating fans, decked out in their finest suits of orange, cheering on their nation’s excellent speed skaters. Skating and this country are interchangeable, connected like Canada and maple syrup, Sweden and meatballs, The United States and apple pie.

For the last week or so, the temps have steadily plummeted, making every bike ride around the city—even the short commute to the kids’ school—quite “brisk.” Last weekend, I noticed the first fountain that was partially frozen. Yesterday, a number of the smaller ponds in Vondelpark were frozen over. But the more swiftly moving water of the canals remains fluid.

That’s not stopping our neighbors to the north in the agricultural province of Friesland. This skating-crazy place boasts, besides the world-famous Friesian cows, many skating clubs. Each year when the weather turns cold, it’s a race between the clubs to see which one can host the first ice skating competition of the year, with ice-making specialists huddling and inspecting the ice to determine if the races shall proceed.

The largest competition, called the Elfstendentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), is legendary. I heard about it many years ago when doing research about the world’s greatest tests of endurance.

This 200 kilometer (124 mile) race loops around eleven Frisian cities and features up to 15,000 skaters. It’s allegedly quite the spectacle, made even more special by the fact that since it debuted in 1909, it has been held only 15 times, the last in 1997. It just doesn’t get cold enough, often enough for the race to take place.

If you desire to enter the race, I’ve been told that you need to be a member of one of the numerous skating clubs…either that or do parts of the race unofficially after the official race has passed through.

A man told me the other day that the towns the race passes through become the country’s party-central. Spectators go from pub to pub and café to café, cheering on the skaters, ducking into a pub for a drink, and then back out into the cold again to yell and scream for more skaters. Sounds like fun!

So, the dream continues as we deal with icy canal bridges and freezing winds here in the city. In Friesland and throughout the country, the cold nights are filled, not just with visions of sugar plums and brightly-wrapped gifts of Christmas, but also of the Elfstendentocht, and what might be should the trends of global warming subside for just one wonderful week.

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