Yet again, skating mania has struck in Holland, even though it hasn’t been cold enough to skate on natural ice even once this winter. The temperature stayed below freezing for a whole day yesterday, and that’s enough to get the mania started.
Albert, my husband, undoubtedly at the same time as approximately 2,759,992 other Dutch men and women this cold Sunday morning, got up after sleeping in and went over to the window to stare out. That stare was a careful, hopeful study: is the ice frozen on the pond/fountain/ditch outside the window? Is that passerby/dog/cat breathing steam? Is there frost on the plants/cars/pavement?
And, with trepidation: has it snowed? Snow ruins skating, or at least makes it a lot more work if the snow has to be swept off the ice. The best skating weather is well below freezing, cold enough so the risk of snow is minimal and the ice will freeze well.
Within a day of the first hard freeze, conversation inevitably turns to the Elfstedentocht, the Eleven Cities Tour. The eleven “cities” mentioned in the name are actually small villages in the province of Friesland, and the idea is to start in the provincial capital, Leeuwarden – which I suppose you could call a small city – and skate along the frozen canals through ten villages and back to Leeuwarden, a distance of almost 200 kilometers.
This long-distance skating race is a particularly strange tradition in that it doesn’t happen very often. In fact, only seven races have been held since World War II. The last one was in 1997. Nevertheless, every winter freeze raises hopes and preparations begin.
In order to hold the race, the ice on the canals has to be frozen solidly enough – at least 15 centimeters – to support thousands of skaters, both competitive racers and those just going along for the experience. Of course, that means that a couple of weeks of below-freezing weather is necessary, and that just doesn’t happen much anymore.
If you’re thinking “Wow, that sounds like fun! I’ll go too next time it happens!” you can just forget it. To be allowed to skate in the race you have to be a member of the Elfstedentocht Association, and there’s a waiting list. And even if you are a member, a lottery is held every year to determine which 15,000 or so members will be allowed to take part if there’s a race that year.
Apparently, when the Elfstedentocht happens, the whole country comes to a standstill. Hordes of people travel up to Friesland to watch the race in person, lining the frozen canals of the route, undoubtedly consuming vast amounts of gluwein to keep warm, while the rest stay at home or in pubs and watch it all day on TV. School, I’ve heard, gets cancelled.
Last year, the ice came within a few days of being thick enough to hold the race and the Elfstedenkoorts (Eleven cities fever) ran high. The Dutch weather service reported predicted ice thickness along with weather forecasts. For weeks there was an official ban on boating in the canals of Friesland. The army was called out to sweep the canals after it snowed.
It seemed to be all anyone could talk about. How thick is the ice? What is the weather going to do? Where is the ice too thin? (Generally it’s thinner under bridges, apparently, but locals were spraying the ice with water to thicken it.) Who has a ticket to skate this year? Are you going to stay home or go watch it live?
And, of course, any frozen bit of ice (outside the Elfstedentocht route) was crowded with skaters on weekends. Within days, I was sick of hearing about it.
I’ve never witnessed an Elfstedentocht, and neither has my husband. He missed the two that took place in the 1980’s because we lived in Malawi then. We still lived in California when the last one happened in 1997. At the time, Albert was so disappointed that he announced to me that the next time it happens, no matter where in the world we are living, he’s getting on a plane to be here for it.
So every winter we – along with most Dutch people – go through this cycle of speculation and hope, followed by bitter disappointment. I pretend interest in the speculation and sympathy for the disappointment, but the whole thing leaves me cold (no pun intended!).
I don’t even like skating. I can do it, but it’s just not fun. I’d rather stay warm, thank you very much. So if the Elfstedentocht ever happens in my lifetime, I’ll be staying home watching it on TV. Or maybe I’ll just wait until it’s over and watch the highlights on the news.
Albert will drive up to see it live, of course. And then, for weeks afterwards, everyone will talk about the race and who won and who almost won, and the condition of the ice, and so on and so forth, just like they still hearken back to the ones they’ve witnessed in their lifetime.
And I’ll nod and smile and pretend that it matters, and realize that no matter how long I live here, I’ll never be truly Dutch until I catch Elfstedenkoorts.