Skating in De Rijp

After two days of skating on the Amsterdam canals, it was time for a change of scene. Thanks to a friend’s Dutch partner and his family, Marlon and I found ourselves heading north of Amsterdam on Friday afternoon for a last-minute, out-of-town skating trip.  
We caught the 301 bus behind Central Station bound for the medieval village of De Rijp. Everyone on the bus was carrying a pair of ice skates and sandwiches, making it feel like a school trip with total strangers. On the road, we passed people skating on the frozen waterways between towns, and farmlands covered in snow. 
My friend’s Dutch boyfriend Tob described De Rijp as an “adorable little town in the North”… which it is! I’d probably go bonkers living there, but it sure is cute. Still, I’m glad I had the chance to visit—it was so pretty, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have found out about it on my own.

We were the last to arrive after getting lost and feeling like our faces were going to fall off before we found our way. When we got there, our friends were already out on a pond (or small-ish lake) that had been completely frozen over.

It was Marlon’s first time out on the ice this winter. His skates are actually ice hockey skates; they were one of the last few pairs left at the sports store. He’s skated before (in Canada, not just in Megamall!) so he took to it so much faster than I did. Naturally.

Heading out into the frozen North, I began to comprehend the full extent of the Dutch love for skating.

Aside from towering over short people at standing-room concerts, it appears that these infuriatingly long Dutch legs are made for one other thing: speed skating. When the web of waterways that crisscrosses the entire nation freezes over, the Dutch put on their skates and do what they call a “tour.” That means hurtling through double-digit kilometers of frozen countryside…

… in goggles and Mandex.

Yup, they take it seriously here. It’s pretty amazing.

If I had stronger legs, I would have loved to attempt a tour. The countryside is beautiful.

But, helaas, my tropical limbs couldn’t even clock in one kilometer before they started aching in places that I had never thought existed. “That’s right, you don’t use those muscles when you’re lying on the beach,” teased my friend Leslie.

I could have used one of these sleds. They looked more my speed.

So we just kept to our little pond with the babies. Speaking of babies… cuteness break! Aren’t they just adorable? *melt*

Even these little tots were faster on the ice then we were.

And those who weren’t, got pulled along on sleds or wagons. I love how handmade and brand-less their toys look.

Aside from babies, there were quite a few dogs out on the ice too, adding to the cuteness factor.

I think they can sense that Marlon is a dog person; they immediately go for him.

Hot drinks are essential to stay warm, and for that overall cozy-happy-fun atmosphere.

And of course, everything’s better with friends. Especially friends with matching skates (cheapskates, literally)…

friends who know how to have fun…

… and friends who can take our picture as a couple!

Thank you, Holland. This is another awesome memory for the books. Till next winter!

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Schaatsen op de grachten

… or in English, skating on the canals. Yay!
Just as winter doesn’t automatically translate to snow, it also doesn’t necessarily mean ice. In Amsterdam, where winters are relatively milder, ice is a rare thing. There’s too much moisture in the air here (I know, humid pa pala sa lagay na ‘to) and the city is warmer than the countryside. Smaller canals and ponds outside the city freeze faster, but the canals in Amsterdam are a different animal altogether. 
So when the mercury (and the snow) began to fall, you could feel excitement rising in the air, prickling and spiking with every degree that dropped below zero. The city was literally abuzz with one question: “Are the canals going to freeze?” 
Freeze they did. This has led to my discovery of the one other thing, apart from summer, that creates happiness for the Dutch on a national level. And that is… the ice.  
Heading out to the canals was like seeing a Dutch painting come to life. I was particularly reminded of the Hendrick Avercamp winterscape displayed in the Rijksmuseum. 
Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters, image via Wikipedia
I’ve also discovered why ice drives the Dutch bonkers. Simply put, ice = skating. In Amsterdam, it means skating with a UNESCO World Heritage Site as your backdrop. The last time the canals were any good for ice skating was 15 years ago; some parts haven’t been skated on since the 1970s. This winter, the city closed some of the locks, or gates, to help the canals freeze over faster. 
When Megamall opened its ice skating rink in the 90s, I was there on the very first day. So how could I possibly miss out on this?
Photo courtesy of Michelle

Join me on the ice, after the cut!

I wasn’t the only first-timer on the ice that day. It was also a first for Michelle’s baby girl Maddy, who slept through it all.

Natural ice means having to buy your own skates; nobody rents them out here. Most people own their own skates, and many Dutchies prefer the ones with the extra long blades that are made for speed skating. Mine are the most inexpensive kind I could find—just regular figure skates for girls.

Another difference between real vs. rink ice: big ripples and bumps that throw you way off balance. Also, I learned that ice is thinner (or doesn’t form at all) under the bridges, where it’s warmer. 
I was wobbly and tentative, unable to go far without holding on to a friend. But I loved every minute of it.

All I had to do to clear myself of panic was take a deep breath, look up, and see Amsterdam’s historic canal houses and soft glowing sky.

I enjoyed it so much, I had to come back the next day. With a real, palpable fiesta atmosphere pervading the city (especially around the canal belt), a return was simply impossible to resist.

The Dutch bring their culture of gezelligheid (coziness) to the ice, creating an atmosphere of fun, community and warmth (yes, even in the freezing cold!). Everyone was so friendly and happy. You could leave your shoes on the sides and nobody would take them. A guy skated right up to me and my friend and offered to take our photo. People were setting up picnics and parties on the ice…

… and serving hot snacks and drinks from canalside cafes and terraces. Some of the houseboat owners got in on the action and began selling coffee out their windows. And I had a few adorable kids skate up to me and ask if I wanted a cup of tea.

My girlfriends and I skated from one terrace to another, stopping for gossip and gluhwein (hot spiced wine) along the way. My newbie skating legs welcomed the break, and my frozen limbs welcomed the warm wine.

Ironically enough, the only other non-skater in our group was also the only Dutch girl in the group! Sophia (on the left) and I clung to each other for dear life, shrieking and giggling our way down the Prinsengracht. “Of course we can’t skate,” she cried, “we’re intellectuals!” 

In contrast, our friend Karyn was a pro on the ice. She took lessons when she was younger and even once shared the ice with the infamous Tonya Harding.

How I would have loved to get an early start, like so many kids I saw on the canals. Pushing a chair around is how you start learning and developing your balance. And I guess bundling up for the ice is how you start developing a sense of winter style.
I never thought I’d hear myself saying it, but I’m almost sad to see an end to the below-zero temperatures. The days were sunny, crisp and bright, and the ice was just… magical. We won’t get that with temperatures above zero; instead it’s a return to Amsterdam’s prevalent gray and gloom. 

I’ll miss this sight for sure. So many people—especially friends who have lived in Amsterdam for over a decade—told us how extremely lucky we were to experience during on our first winter here. I don’t know if it will happen again while we’re here, but I will harbor the hope that the ice returns to the Amsterdam canals next winter.

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