The canals freeze, the Dutch rejoice

Cultural Insights — By on January 23, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Anyone who is familiar with the Netherlands knows that the Dutch have a unique and special relationship with the water. And in the winter, what they really want to do is to skate on the frozen water of the canals that crisscross their country. Sadly, though, an activity that was once an annual obsession now happens much less frequently, as the canals rarely freeze these days. But it happened this winter, and the Dutch gleefully laced up their skates and took to the ice once more.

For the first time in 12 years, the Netherlands’ canals froze this month, bringing the Dutch, who like their tulips in neat rows, a heady mix of pandemonium and euphoria…

In the 19th century, when Hans Brinker, the hero of the novel in which he tries to win a pair of silver skates, coasted along Holland’s ice, the canals froze almost every year. But water pollution and climate change have made this so rare that today a boy of 15, Brinker’s age, may never have seen a frozen canal, or at least remember one. Until, that is, this year.

“For us, it’s in our genes,” said Gus Gustafsson, 68, a retired insurance executive, explaining why he and his wife rushed out to buy new skates and take to the ice under a cloudless blue sky. “It was like a frenzy that came over people, including lots of kids, like my granddaughter, who is 5.” With thousands of others, they skated northeast toward Utrecht, then toward the cheese capital, Gouda.

With an influx of immigrants, the country has been struggling to maintain what it considers its Dutch soul, and Mr. Gustafsson was one of many here who thought the skating experience enabled the Dutch to reconnect with their identity.

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