The start of spring: Amsterdam’s frozen canals

‘’Welcome to the Netherlands ladies and gentlemen. The local time is one o’clock in the afternoon, and the current temperature is minus six degrees. Thank you for flying with us and enjoy your stay in Amsterdam’’. Sitting in the middle row between two tall, Dutch men after a seven-hour flight, I looked around me and panicked. Were any of my fellow plane travellers just as astonished by the temperatures as I was? It had been nine months since I’d been in my home country - I was coming back from East-Africa - and I hoped that on this first day of March, spring would have slowly started. But instead of yellow crocuses and my hay fever kicking in, the streets were covered with a thin layer of snow and the feelings of flu hit me straight away.

I stepped out of the plane, and when I entered the long jetway, the ice cold air slapped me in the face. Forty-eight hours before arriving in Amsterdam I was still standing on a white, sandy beach, with the Indian Ocean being twenty-eight degrees. Forty-eight hours before my arrival people were making fun of me; the word spread out fast that the current temperature in the Netherlands felt like minus fourteen degrees. It surprised me that something like cold weather could completely ruin the excitement of seeing my family and friends again. But knowing I would face a temperature drop of more than forty degrees did not excite me at all to go back to the Netherlands during this time. 

With my flat, open shoes and thin, wide trousers, I obviously was not prepared for the snow of that winter. The winter that on this day, the first of March, officially turned into the metrological spring. With his skin white from the lack of sun, a black to grey turning beard and long and curly hair, my dad awaited me outside the gate. In one hand he held a big bag filled with thick socks, a grey woollen hat, a grey woollen scarf, a sweatshirt, and my black and white striped fleece jacket, and in his other hands my black Timberland boots. 

 

 

In the first week of March 2018, the Netherlands experienced the coldest days for that month ever measured. With frost, snow, and frozen lakes and canals it felt more like midwinter than the start of spring. The last two years I had spent most of my time in East Africa, and my skin that had been in the sun for nine months wasn’t used to the cold air anymore. Without proper winter clothes, I wore layer over layer over layer, my neck wrapped in scarfs and my face hidden in hats, in order to stay warm. Staying at my fathers place, along a canal in the ‘old-west area’ of Amsterdam, near the centre, and looking at the canal down the apartment, I couldn’t believe the news from that day saying that people were iceskating on the Prinsengracht, a famous canal just five minutes away. seriously? Iceskating? in march?

 

 

 

Getting prepared for the cold (six layers doesn’t sound too much, does it?) I grabbed my camera and went for a stroll in the city. It had been a long time since I wandered through Amsterdam like this, by myself, with no clear final destination. My only mission was to step on the frozen canals. In the Netherlands I often get mistaken as a tourist, and with my brown hair, tanned skin and camera in my hand, it wasn’t any different this time. But yet, it felt different. I only came for a short period, just for one month, and it was the first time to be in the city without any specific occupation - no work or study related activities, just to have some holiday. So this time, I actually felt like a tourist. Rediscovering the city, the greyness of it (and seeing the beauty of this greyness), the people passing by being busy with whatever made them busy, children playing on the streets, the massive bicycle traffic, cafes and coffeeshops (the ones with the coffee and the ones with the green stuff) full with locals and tourists, youngsters and elderly, warming up inside.

 

By the time I reached the city centre by foot, it seemed like the freezing temperatures didn’t stop too many people being outside. The narrow one-way streets were packed with parked bicycles and people standing along the canal to witness what was going on. It felt like a public holiday, like a festival, the way how people connected with each other, shared the canals and this unique experience with each other. By ice skates or by shoes, slowly people were testing the thickness of the ice, bums on the ground and feet reaching down. Small boats frozen stuck in the canals were used as a platform to enter the ice, others climbed down along the ridge.

 

Iceskating on natural ice used to be very common in the Netherlands, but it had been six years ago since the Dutch were able to cross the canals by foot (or by skate). Waternet - the water company and authority of Amsterdam and surroundings - made sure some of the most populair canals in Amsterdam could freeze over by banning boating on those canals.

 

The snow disappeared, the air was dry and sharp, the sky clear, and the sun left a semi warm glow on the part of my face that wasn’t covered with some type of wool. Groups of friends, couples, or lonely strollers like me walked along the streets of the Netherlands’ capital, preparing their ice skates, carefully touching the ice with their shoes, or jumping on the small boats to enter the canal. Hands in gloves were holding phones to take pictures, young men were playing ice hockey in the middle of the canal between two bridges where the ice was the thickest, and parents guided their small children while they made their first steps on the ice. Others rather took a chair, sipping their hot chocolate milk, while witnessing the whole happening from the side in stead of taking the risk to fall through the ice - yes, not everywhere the ice was that tick, people did fall through the ice in multiple places in the city.

I passed some other canals - some walkable and some not - and ran into a friend who shared my idea. He got his white with black laced ice skates from the storage, and had been riding up and back the canal for over an hour. Packed as an eskimo and walking like a penguin I carefully made my way down the ice, on my shoes, for the first time in - I did not even know how many - years. I thought of how upset I had been when I arrived on the airport, that I only had one month in Amsterdam, how I would have loved to come in May or June, but because of work I was only able to come in March - a month of which I thought was the worst month to come here. How I hoped the weather would be bearable, but how it turned out to be colder than the winter months before. I was thinking of those white beaches from two days earlier, and I realised that I had actually been lucky to spend nine months in the sun, how I had been escaping three winters in a row already. Well, call it lucky or call it a choice, but I realised on that moment, when I was standing on the middle of the canal, was a memorable moment. A moment where I felt much appreciation for the city where I used to live, and respect for the people around me who shared the canals with me. A moment where I realised, this was the best time for me to be here.