Yesterday, I mentioned skating. The context was cleaning. Today, I’m talking about the real thing. About a Dutch friend and his family who’ve flown into New York for the holidays but plan to fly right back home the moment the temperatures drop low enough to freeze the canals.Because this man skates. I mean, he skates with the fervour, the fanatical devotion, I associate with jihadists. The last time the canals froze in the ’90′s, he skated 120 kilometers in five hours. FIVE HOURS! Slight of build, he sits and stands so straight, it seems as if his bones would break when forced to bend. But then I see him on the ice, hands clasped lightly behind his back, skimming, no swooping low, so low and so fast, across the frozen surface, he looks like some bird on blades. Silver blades that shoot sparks and reflect that silvery pearl grey light one sees in the paintings of Vermeer. Like a fairy tale. The rituals that accompany this once annual hejira, this pilgrimage on ice, are magical, too. Imagine bonfires and shelters built on frozen meadows where hot pea soup, cider, beer and mulled wine are served up for those who are hungry and cold. And hundreds of towns, medieval some of them, laying out miles of red carpets. Carpets that cover the space between the canals and restaurants. So skaters can get off the ice without removing their blades, sit down, and enjoy a meal. His stories remind me of that marvelous scene in Virgina Woolf’s Orlando when the river Thames freezes over and women cocooned in layers of velvet and lace and sable skate and sled across this vast expanse of white, looking back at a city shrouded in blankets of snow.
But they’re a mysterious bunch, the Dutch. Opaque. This skating–a national passion versus mere sport–says a great deal about how they’ve managed not simply to survive but to thrive throughout the centuries. All while laying low, while skating beneath the world’s radar. We took a trip to visit our friends at their farm in Freisland last summer. It wasn’t the cows or the canals or even that hallucinagenic glimpse of the sea hovering over the landscape that seemed as surreal as the news that many people here still had no credit cards. So while the rest of us tiptoe across a thinner and thinner layer of ice, weighted down by the burden of debt, the Dutch will just continue to skate. Like birds on blades.