Saturday, December 22, 2007

Listen to your parents!

It was an absolutely gorgeous day in Amsterdam today. The sun was shining, the breeze was light, and the crisp winter weather felt good.

Since it's been so cold (as mentioned in the previous post), most of the ponds in Vondelpark are almost completely frozen. I've also noticed today that a few of the smaller canals have formed some ice, too, giving even more hope to the Elfstedentocht

Since today was the first day of Christmas vacation, and since the weather was so beautiful, we took a bike ride around Vondelpark. The first thing we noticed were all of the, mostly...treading on the ice. I said to Stacey, "There is no way that I'd let our kids do that. That ice is WAY too thin." The regular wintertime news flashes of my youth, with horrible news of some kid falling through and freezing to death, must have made an impression. I always seem to remember that 4 inches of ice thickness was the ideal for safe ice travels.

So, after a few laps of the park, Stacey took off on her run, leaving Maya, Cole, and I to enjoy the kids' playpark area, which features a large fountain/reflecting pool, now completely frozen over. There were a number of kids playing on the ice, banging away, slipping around, and enjoying stuff that kids do when on the ice. Maya and Cole were instantly attracted to the ice, and I didn't put up a fight...the water is only 8 or 10 inches deep at best, and upon close examination, the ice seemed pretty thick.

But one spot was a bit concerning...there was a 4-foot wide hole near the center of the ice. Of course, I told the kids about 6 times, "Stay away from the water. Stay away from the hole. Stay away from the water."

After about the 7th time, I just quit. And that's when Cole slipped and fell, face first, into the icy cold drink, completely immersing his lower body, his hands, and a good part of his torso.

It all happened so quickly, and the stoic Dutch nearby reacted predictably: I heard just one guy say, "Oh." Everyone stared as I went into full winter survival mode, scooping up a soaking wet 4-year old under one arm and running for my bike, yelling over my shoulder at Maya to run as fast as she could to follow me. After unlocking the bikes in record time, I threw the sobbing Cole on the bike seat and pleaded with Maya to pedal as if she were sprinting for a Tour de France finish line. Fortunately, the ride home took just minutes, and we had Cole in a hot shower in no time.

It sounds pretty serious, but looking back on the unexpected swim, it was the funniest thing I've seen in a long time! Call me cold (or call my son cold, he he), but it was pretty humorous, especially considering our comments just a few minutes prior to the mishap. I wish I could have had it all on videotape!

A good lesson learned on (another) great day in the Netherlands. Listen to your parents!

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.