Ever since unexpectedly, after a very mild December and dreary gray Christmas, Jack Frost decided to pay us an extended visit, there is a buzz of excitement going through the Netherlands. Now that the ice has reached a thickness of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) some even dare whispering “it giet oan”. “It giet oan” is Frisian for “it’s on” and they are the magical words that announce that the infamous “Elfstedentocht” (Eleven Cities Tour) is on.
Once the words are officially spoken by the chairman of the Eleven Cities Tour organization it seems all Dutch go mad (even those not really into the event, can’t help making comments about it). They collectively pack up some warm clothing and skates and head for the north, to the city of Leeuwarden. Shops manage to get all things orange and Frisian on the shelves within a day and skate sharpeners make over hours.
Now what is this fuzz all about? What is this “Elfstedentocht” that gets a whole country into a frenzy also referred to as “Elfstedenkoorst” (Eleven Cities Fever)?
It is an epic speed skating tour of 200 kilometers (that’s about 125 miles and a minimum of 7 hours of skating!). It runs along lakes and canals with natural ice that pass through all eleven Frisian cities. The tour starts in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden, then passes along Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum and ends up in Leeuwarden again. For the tour to take place, the ice needs to have a thickness of 15 centimeters (6 inches). Only then it is strong enough to carry the thousands of skaters that will join the race. Since a winter that cold only happens once or twice a decade in the Netherlands, the race is quite a rare event.
The first official organized “Elfstedentocht” took place in 1909. It was organized by Pim Mulier who became inspired to do so when he skated along all eleven Frisian cities himself in 1891. He also designed the cross that all participants, that manage to reach the finish, get. He was, however, not the first to skate that route. For centuries, skating had been a very practical means of transportation in cold winters for the Frisians. Skates were a cheap and fast alternative to walking on slippery roads. As early as the 1700s there have been reports of young men challenging each other to skate along the eleven Frisian cities as a proof of their strength, endurance and bravery (and I guess that impressing the girls has played some part in it as well ;o)).
Nowadays, the event is extremely popular with both men and women. Every time thousands of people show up at the start to prove themselves. Since the route has a limited capacity, however, the number of participants is now topped at 16,000. To prevent that many participants start but do not finish because they are physically unfit to ride the tour, some selection has been introduced by the organization. Only those who are a member of the “Elfstedentocht” association can join the tour. The only way to become a member is to have two members vouch for your capabilities to ride the tour.
Since cold winters are such a rare event in the Netherlands the official “Elfstedentocht” has only been held fifteen times: in 1909, 1912, 1917, 1929, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1947, 1954, 1956, 1963, 1985, 1986 and 1997. The most famous, or perhaps better infamous, of these tours was the one of 1963. During that tour weather conditions became very grim. There was a stormy east wind sweeping up drifting snow, the ice was full of cracks and temperatures plummeted to minus 18°C (that’s about 0.4 °F). Of the 10,000 participants that showed up at the start, only 69 made it to the finish and many had to be treated for frostbite.
The 1963 tour even inspired a movie “The Hell Of 1963″. If you like you can watch a trailer to get an idea or listen to the title song “De Hel Foarby” (Beyond Hell) sung by the popular Frisian pop group “De Kast” (also a nice chance to hear some Frisian singing! It’s a really beautiful language, at least to my ears). If you are wondering what the lyrics of the song are about, this rough translation by Google Translate will give you an idea. It beautifully illustrates the skating-to-prove-yourself-worthy-of-a-girl’s-love-theme that dominates the movie and shows that those Frisians can be very romantic indeed!
Personally I am not into skating that much (too cold!). But since so many people take much pleasure in the event, I sincerely hope that in spite of the announced short thaw period this weekend, the ice will keep on growing and soon we will hear: “It Giet Oan”!
One of the first images that comes to mind when people think of Holland, no matter where they are from, is a windmill. Funny enough, windmills are not a Dutch invention at all. So how come they ended up as an icon for everything Dutch?
The first windmills were probably invented by the Greek. We know that the Greek Tesibius, who lived from 285 to 222 BC, was probably the first who experimented with the idea of using wind instead of water to drive a mill.
We also know that the Persians had windmills for grinding grain, during the 940s, although historians suspect that they may have existed in the area already in the 700s. These were fixed mills that could not turn to follow changing winds. Only if the wind was blowing from a certain direction the mills could be used.
Windmills first pop up in Europe during the 1000s and 1100s in Flanders and Normandy. These were also fixed mills and mainly used for grinding grain.
Around 1180, we find the first documented rotating windmills in Flanders, also known as post mills. These mills were a technical revolution because they allowed the miller to follow the wind by turning the upper part of the mill, hence making more and better use of it. During the 1200s and 1300s, the post mill spread around Europe and could be found from Scandinavia in the North to Bulgaria and Turkey in the South.
By the 1400s, post mills were a very common sight in almost every part of Europe. So what happened that nowadays people associate windmills so specifically with the Netherlands? Cynics may say that this is mostly the result of the promotional efforts of the Dutch Bureau for Tourism. And although they have put a lot of effort in promoting an image of tulips, cheese and windmills overseas, they did not invent these icons. They merely took and emphasized icons that were already there.
The fame of the Dutch windmills probably started in the 1600s because of a man called Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, who lived from about 1550 to about 1607. He had a brilliant idea: he added a crankshaft (an Arabic invention, by the way) to a windmill to convert the rotating movement to an up and down movement. This way a windmill could be used to saw wood at a significantly higher speed than any experienced hand sawing team at the time. He obtained a patent for his invention in 1593. A very lucky timing because already in 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded to explore the East Indies. As a consequence, the demand for wood to build ships grew explosively during the decades to follow.
Sawing mills were implemented en masse to supply the tons of wood Amsterdam’s shipyards devoured each year. The first sawing mills however, were not build near the Amsterdam shipyards but along the river Zaan north of Amsterdam. The reason for this is that the hand sawing guilds of Amsterdam, feeling threatened by the sawing mils, managed to ban them from the city. Therefore, they were built just outside Amsterdam’s borders were the guilds had no power and the wood was simply shipped to Amsterdam over the river Zaan.
Cornelis’ patent expired in 1610 and shortly after the amount of sawing mills grew explosively. In a couple of years, almost 90 mills arose in the province of Holland of which 53 were located in the Zaan area. Once it became clear that the ban on sawing mills could not save the hand sawing industry, the ban was lifted in 1630 and the amount of sawing mills grew even further. Historians believe that at the peak of the wind mill era, over 1000 mills were operating in the Holland province. This was using wind power on an industrial scale, especially considering that the Holland province has a land area of only 2,670 km2 (or 1,030 sq mi). Add to this all the mills used to pump water to keep the reclaimed land dry, and it becomes clear that nowhere in Europe windmills were so prominent in the landscape as they were in Holland. Some historians have even theorized that the Dutch jumped on the Industrial Revolution train somewhat late because they already had an industry going powered by wind and hence did not feel the need to switch to steam. Along the same lines the Dutch adopted the train rather late because they had a good transportation network in place using canal boats.
Nowadays little windmills are left in the Netherlands, the most famous being those at the Zaanse Schans. Industry and pumps to keep our feet dry are now powered by electricity. However, we are perhaps slowly reaching back to our windmill days. Over the last two decades, more and more modern wind turbines have been installed in an effort to produce clean power. Slowly, wind turbines are reclaiming the landscape the wind mills dominated for centuries hence redefining on of our best known icons.
If there is one thing the Dutch deeply cherish it is freedom of speech. We like to speak our mind and don’t worry about being seen as utterly blunt by non-Dutch. It’s a right so dear to us that through history we have gone through great lengths to obtain and protect that right. Because freedom of speech is the driving force behind social evolution. The possibility to ponder new thoughts aloud without fear of being burned at the stakes makes it possible to find new and better ways to live our lives. The problem is however, that any new thought is usually is some way insulting because it questions the status quo.
If everybody “knows” that the Earth is flat and the sun and planets all circle around it, suggesting that in fact the Earth is round and that it revolves around the Sun along with the other planets challenges the status quo. It offends. Tell Galileo Galilei about it. The Church condemned his brilliant ideas, prohibited their publication, and sentenced Galileo to lifetime house arrest in 1633. And yet, Galileo was right. It took the Church 360 years to apologize and admit that Galileo was right after all.
Martin Luther run into trouble with the authorities as well, because he had a different view about the relationship between man and God. His ideas challenges about everything the power of the Church at that time was based on. His ideas were seen as highly offensive and he was banned by the Church. However, today his ideas are much appreciated by a large worldwide Protestant community.
The suffragettes dared to speak out loud about the right to vote for women. They were ridiculed at first, but as their ideas took hold among women in society they were imprisoned. Fierce action was taken to make them shut up, literally. Why? Because their ideas were offensive to men. It was though to be ridiculous and dangerous for women to pretend being as smart as men. Some women even died for the cause. And yet, because they spoke out, women can now vote, work and do all those things their great-grandmothers could not.
These are just a few examples of how ideas that were thought to be offensive at first, changed our society in positive ways, made us move forward as mankind. Censorship puts social evolution on hold or even shuts it down. We may not always like to hear about ideas that very much do not coincide with our own. Nevertheless, as a society we need them. We need these new ideas, we need to discuss them out and aloud, where everybody can hear them and freely put them against their own judgment. That is why we need freedom of speech and that is why we need to cherish it.
Today many websites are going black to protest against the so-called SOPA/PIPA act that many fear will give the American Authorities far too much power to block content on the Internet. Although Internet piracy needs to be addressed, giving the State the power to play censor is probably the worst way to accomplish that. Taking sites off line will not stop piracy, but it does pave the way to censor the Internet to stop free voices that are considered inconveniently offensive to certain groups. Shutting these voices down will eventually do more damage than letting them debate out in the open. So history learns us.
On a more day-to-day basis if this bill passes the following could happen:
I always take a picture from Wikimedia to illustrate this blog, since these are copyright free images. Now if something went wrong and somebody accidentally (or intentionally) posted copyrighted material on Wikimedia whitout saying it is, and I would include that copyrighted material into this newsletter by accident, theoretically my website could get blocked, as would my business PayPal account. This would mean the end of my business since most of my readers and clients are based in the United States. The really scary thing is that they could have me blocked without ever setting foot in a court room. All the copyright owner has to do is write a letter and prove I linked to their material without paying for it. This gives room for very nasty practices to get foreign competition shut down with a little bit of creativity.
So if you are an American reading this consider to speak out against this bill so they can come up with a better, more effective and more just way to fight Internet piracy. You can do so at: http://americancensorship.org/. If you support this bill, take no offense by me worrying about it. I’m just speaking my mind and do respect you speaking yours ;o).