America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
Ice Skating on Amsterdam Canals
By Dan Geddes
This winter Amsterdam’s canals froze over for the first time since 1997. The ice was deemed safe enough to skate on, and so crowds of people found their ways down to the frozen surface of the canals to skate or just look around.
Many people started ice-skating, as if they were picking up from where they left off, even if it had been fifteen years since they last skated on the canals.
Elfstedentocht (The Eleven City Tour) fever gripped the country. Hotel rooms in Friesland were booked (provisionally) and volunteers from the eleven towns along the route cleared the snow from the icy race course. But helaas, it was not to be. The ice began to thaw before the race could take place.
I was a bit reluctant to join the others out on the ice on the Amsterdam canals. Seeing crowds of people walking on the ice makes it seem safer—or does it? Doesn’t the mass of people make it more likely that the ice will crack?
Luckily, my wife is braver than I and took our two boys out on the Keizersgracht. My older son’s school was having a race there anyway. So they seem obliged to go on the ice because it was a school activity.
And because opportunity for profit and gezelligheid should never be missed, someone was busy selling coffee and hot chocolate from a makeshift drink-stand, set up right there on the Keizersgracht’s ice.
Ice skating is typically Dutch, of course. We see skating in paintings of the Dutch masters, especially Hendrick Avercamp. Skating is another variation on the Dutch mastery-of-water theme, such as dikes, windmills, canals, and houseboats. Freezing a canal turns it into a strolling path, rather than the barrier it usually is for the pedestrian. The fact of sliding on it is a bonus of physics, a free feeling like that of skiing.
There’s always the fear factor: the ice might actually break! What a horrible way to go! I actually saw a photo on the web of someone who had built a small camp fire on the ice. These people were brave. Anything for comfort, I guess.
One Sunday afternoon I finally went out on the ice with my family. The perspective of the canal houses as seen from the center of the canals reminded me of boat trips on the canals. This is the way the houses were meant to be seen, not while standing on the sidewalk, craning your neck backward for a view, or having to cross the bridge to look at it from the other side.
My sons were both on skates, while my wife and I walked around and yelled out various instructions for their safety (“Stay away from that houseboat!”) that they continually ignored.
The ice underneath bridges is known to be less solid, in general, so it was with some trepidation that I allowed my family to go under bridges and even to allow myself to do it.
We brought a camera along and took some photos of our good time—however brief—proof of our courage on the ice. The temperature was around the freezing point that day, and the ice began melting in earnest the next day.
At the corner of Brouwersgracht and Prinsengracht I saw a man hurrying across to the tiny dock and the steps leading up to street level. He was dripping wet! He seemed determined to get out fast, but he also seemed calm; perhaps this wasn’t his first time. Or perhaps it was. I saw that the ice wasn’t solid underneath the Brouwersgracht bridge. Perhaps he had slid off the edge into the icy water. My sons were skating wherever they pleased. I had seen enough.
My older son is a good skater and wanted to hang out on the ice. I kissed my wife good-bye and took my younger son to Café Proust for hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Dutch weather teaches you to enjoy life in fifteen minute blocks of time, before the clouds and rain inevitably come. Skating on ice is also snatching a moment of pleasure while you can, before the weather changes and the moment is over, and you’re too late.