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20 February 2012 / M

February freeze

The full set of photos are here.

All signs may be pointing towards global warming, and they may not make winters like they used to, but each of the last 4 winters have been remarkable in one way or another in terms of ice or snow. Last winter, we got probably the most accumulation of snow I’ve ever seen here, eventually up to about 8 inches (hey, it’s a lot for us), and December had the lowest average temperature in decades: an average high of -1.1C. It was an intense month, but then January and February were tame and snowless. The previous winter, 2009-2010, we were hit by frequent snowstorms. Between December and mid-February, it snowed more times than I could count and instead of melting away the next day, it usually stuck around for awhile due to cold temperatures. In 2008-2009, things froze up enough to allow a fair bit of natural ice skating for the first time since I’d moved here. Some kids didn’t know how to get around on the ice since they’d never had the chance to skate outdoors in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, I missed out on going to canals or lakes that were frozen enough to walk on and had to settle for looking at photos others had taken of walking or skating on the ice.

This winter was not promising to be anything but depressingly disappointing. For two months it was exactly the weather I hate most: wet and windy. Ok, it was also rather mild, but the short days that were so gray the sun may as well have not even bothered to try to shine on us were getting to me, and I’m from Oregon. I was also disappointed for B who just missed all the snow we got last winter and I thought it wasn’t fair that now, his first full winter here, it was being utterly not winter-like. But then there was a sign of change. It was going to get cold, quite a bit colder than we’d been used to these recent months, and it seemed like it might stay that way for awhile. This could be interesting.

In the end, it was the strongest cold snap I’ve experienced in the Netherlands. Nearly two weeks of sub-zero temperatures and low temperatures that were very low indeed. It was a hard adjustment, not only to the cold, but early on there was a strong east wind that bit at your face. In the five minutes it takes me to walk from the train station to my work, my legs went numb (I admit jeans are not the best clothing to wear in such weather). The Dutch meteorological bureau started posting, along with their usual map of current temperatures on their website, a map showing what the temps were with the wind chill. Colors used: deep blues and purples, like frostbitten fingers and toes.

But so far we were only freezing every time we stepped outside. Nothing interesting was going on. It hadn’t snowed. The canals didn’t seem to be freezing at all, perhaps because the wind was too strong and pushed around the water too much. But after a few days some snow finally arrived, along with the requisite freakout that happens as soon as you seen a flake fall here (as I heard a guy say to a friend on the train that morning, as a sprinkling of snowflakes came down that was so slow you could count them: “Oh no, a flake! We can’t go any further!”).  By that afternoon, the trains stopped, the freeways turned to parking lots, people left work early knowing it would take hours to get home. But at least it looked pretty and provided some distraction on a Friday afternoon. The following day, bright and sunny, was perfect for some sledding on the hill of the Burcht in Leiden.

Sledding at the Burcht

Sledding at the Burcht

Sledding at the Burcht

Sledding at the Burcht

During the next week though, the ice dominated. The canals finally iced over and the ice grew. I saw a photo of people skating on the canals in Amsterdam, just like the good old days, an occurrence that people often said wasn’t possible any more in the warm inner city. It was exciting. And if people were on the ice in Amsterdam, could we do the same in Leiden? I’d seen the canals in the center of Leiden get mighty frosty, but never icy enough to hold a person. But skaters were being spotted around town. And by midweek, B and I decided we had to go out on the ice while we could. We didn’t have skates — finding skates anywhere was nearly impossible, they were being snatched up as soon as they arrived in stores — but no matter, we could go sliding around. We went out one evening after dinner, on a clear night with the full moon beaming down. We went to a canal not far from us and I slid off the canal edge onto the ice and shuffled out to the middle. It was awesome to be standing in the center of the canal.

Frozen canal and full moon

We followed voices to where the center of the action was: the wide area where the Oude and Nieuwe Rijn meet. Around a dozen skaters were buzzing around, plus the cafe at that point, Annie’s, had put a few tables out on the ice.

Ice cafe

Everything was still very cold and icy that weekend, but a thaw was in the forecast, so it was the perfect last chance to do as much skating as could be done and to enjoy this rare state while it was with us. On that Saturday, the usual 20 minute walk to the train station turned into a 2 hour dawdle as I took photos and we went out on the ice again, this time along the Galgewater. Once we got to the bridge over the water on the Prinsessekade, and we faced the scene below, looking like an old Dutch painting.

Enjoying the ice

We shuffled out amongst the skaters and non-skaters enjoying the wintery day.

Frozen canal and De Put windmill

Walking the dog on the ice

Skating with baby buggy

There was even a proper koek en zopie stand, the way it should be, keeping the people out there warm with hot chocolate, gluhwein, and soup.

Koek en zopie stand

The next day was meant to be the end of the two-week freeze. It was amazing how quickly I’d become ok with -8 degrees as a high. Far from being sick of the cold, I didn’t want to go back to rainy blehness. Though we didn’t originally plan to head out that afternoon, we needed to make a visit to the V&D and afterwards we could not pass up having a warm drink at one of the tables Einstein’s had set up on the frozen canal.

Having drinks on the ice

Sure, my bum was frozen numb thanks to the cold passing above and below me, and the tea I had barely made a dent in the cold I felt, but it was great to sit out there. A steady stream of people skated past. Some skaters stopped and had a break at the cafe, sitting at the table in their skates. A couple of guys at the table next to us smoked pipes. My amazement went from the poor girl who had to take orders out there, whose fingers were red from the cold, to the servers wearing only t-shirts who came out with the drinks.

Going to work the next day there was the sad discovery of the canals going wet and slushy thanks to some rain. Soon it was back to the mild and wet weather we’d already had so much, making the wintery interlude feel distant and unreal.



Leave a Comment
  1. Elton / Feb 26 2012 16:41

    Oh yes — frigid-and-icy-but-beautiful winter weather is far preferable to the Dutch default of “not terribly cold temperature-wise but so pervasively gray and wet that your very soul turns purple and clammy”.

  2. M / Feb 29 2012 22:29

    Heh, definitely. You’d think I’d be more used to it coming from Oregon, but I dunno, I think it’s because of the lack of summer here. In Oregon, you are pretty sure to have sun and heat from at least the 2nd half of July through August so that you can survive the other seasons. I’ve given up even hoping for summer here which can be pretty similar to how this winter has been, minus the ice.

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