Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holiday Canal Skating

I was amazed to see it actually happen on Christmas Day.  We were still opening presents when people started ice skating up and down the canal.  We ventured out to see our neighbors cleaning the ice to create an oval track about 80 meters long.  A few minutes later found us skating, sliding and falling down with them.

Children were playing ice hockey on the canal street parallel to us, and there seems to still be an abandoned bicycle lying on the ice in need of rescue.  This was all especially amazing because it was on Christmas Day that everyone finally ventured out.

I had been pessimistic in earlier blog posts that it would actually happen, so I felt I had to say something now that is has.  It’s not terribly surprising in this unusual December that we are experiencing in North Holland and in the U.S. 

It was unsettling to someone not used to standing on canals when the ice made a cracking sound as we gathered together talking with neighbors.  We were told to disperse a bit for weight distribution and not to worry about this type of sound, but to beware if a high pitched "ping" in the ice is heard. 

There were a few people still skating on the next day, even with temperatures above zero and snow sliding off roofs. We've chosen to wait until it stays freezing or below for a couple of days before we venture back out.  It looks like my wife is optimistic because she recently came home with a sack full of ice skates.

The white Christmas, comeplete with ice skating, has made this a memorable first holiday season here. But even with this frigid winter sport fun, I’ll soon be looking at what’s going on at some nearby beaches.  Stay warm!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Driving Home a White Christmas

I began to think more about a white Christmas while sitting stranded in Amsterdam Central station under a snow storm last Friday for 3 hours waiting for a northbound train. The sea of people staring at blank information boards and rushing for a place on the few trains that were announced was like a scene from a Roland Emmerich disaster film, but no one really panicked and no commuters were swallowed up by giant sink holes appearing under their feet.

Screen grab from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
My kids and I have been updating the possibilities daily of the snow being here in Alkmaar on Christmas day, and right now it looks like we could get our wish. This would be my second snowy Christmas in memory; the first was in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1970s. And do we have Christmas spirit here in North Holland? Ja! It’s an unexpected presence on the radio in full force.

Sky Radio from Amsterdam is broadcasting 100% Christmas songs during this coldest December in Europe in 100 years. That’s making for some super-charged Yuletide with the most seasonal songs I’ve heard since I was a kid looking at my white front yard that time in South Jackson. Most songs are from contemporary artists from England and the U.S. ranging from the 1980’s up to the present, and the most popular are played about 5 or 6 times per day. The Sky online station starts even earlier with holiday songs from 1 October through 31 December.

Frans van Dun is the music director of the self-proclaimed ‘Christmas Station’ that has been spinning the holiday tune tradition during the month of December since the station began in 1988. “We started as a station that November, and Christmas songs were first thing we did because nobody was doing that in Holland at the time.” Sky Radio now has about 10 million people in its broadcast area, and estimates that easily more than 1 million people listen daily during the season. He said that the station begins receiving requests for holiday music starting in August.

So who are the broadcast heavy hitters this year? “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey is safely in the #1 spot, says Van Dun.

Other top holiday tunes on Dutch radio:
“Driving Home for Christmas” by Chris Rea
“Last Christmas” by Wham
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by Band Aid
“Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams
“Lonely this Christmas” by Mud

My pick for the best song this year is by Chris Rea. "Driving Home for Christmas" has the lively piano hum-along melody with the raspy voice of Rea that takes you on down the road to a place where one can smell an old, wood heater and something good cooking in the kitchen. I imagine more Europeans will be driving home this year with all of the travel difficulties on railways and at airports.

The Elvis live recording of “Blue Christmas” is still a sure winner, complete with screaming girls to enhance the mood. Happy Xmas (War is Over) from John Lennon is a staple of the season that resists growing old. A surprisingly fun and quirky – and distinctly English - tune is “Stop the Calvary” from Jona Lewie. And “Jingle Bell Rock” - via the Hall and Oates version - is guaranteed to get someone to forget about work for a few minutes and reach for a cocktail. “Father Christmas” from Greg Lake, with its haunting melody and backing choir, rounds out my list of favorites. Of course Bing, Dean and Nat still hold their places in Christmas music fame, but I’m checking out the ‘newer’ classics here.

The funniest Christmas song I can think of, except maybe for “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," would have to be Adam Sandler’s
“Hanukkah Song.”
Put on your yalmulka, here comes hanukkah
Its so much fun-akkah to celebrate hanukkah,
Hanukkah is the festival of lights,
Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights.

And my pick for most annoying Christmas song of all time is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with its painfully repetitive list of material-based efforts to win affection.

How about that white Christmas? Do they happen often here in North Holland? “I’m in my 50s and I can only remember 7 or 8 white Christmases,” said van Dun at Sky Radio. Well turn on the stereos, light a fire and look outside for the snow men as we head for the home stretch. Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fire in Alkmaar

I’ve written that Alkmaar is often a calm city, but there was real excitement today.  A large fire at a manufacturing facility across the North Holland Canal was the first thing visible when opening curtains at 07h15. 

It was still burning as of 13h00, shortly after fire fighters began another push to extinguish the flames. No one had been injured as of that time.

Public warning sirens sounded in East Alkmaar causing concerns about the smoke cloud from burning rubber and plastics, but a police spokesman at the scene said that because of the intense heat, there was no danger to people from the smoke. “It burns clean,” he said. 

Helicopters were circling overhead using thermal imaging to monitor spread and hot points.  Police said that it could be put out by mid-afternoon, but would need to be kept wet and monitored for hours after.   The smoke cloud had recently dissipated at the time of this posting at 15h00.

RTV North Holland reported that the fire at the Derco building was let go into a controlled burn for hours to consume materials at the highest possible temperature to lower the risk of toxic fumes. The facility manufactures conveyor belts, and the cause of the fire was a machine malfunction. Several elderly residents were evacuated and some schools advised children to stay at home. 

Local news organizations were present at the police barrier near the fire.  Nearby residents watched out their windows, and students gathered outside on bicycles.  "I saw part of the factory explode from my bedroom window this morning," said Camille, 10, of Alkmaar. Folks around here will probably be talking about this event for a while.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Early Arctic Howl

This past week has brought arctic winds, slippery conditions and impressive sites around town and the neighboring countryside.  Here in Alkmaar, it can feel like a long way away from things like airport closures and other major weather problems. People seem to be able to get inside and warm.  

Dreaming of ice skating on frozen canals was a large thought on the local population’s mind as this cold front made its arrival.  It was evident to most that it was too early in the season to have thick ice, but it was still more fun to ponder this possibility than to worry about an icy flight out of London or Berlin.

And of course,  bicycles were still trudging ahead through the snow and ice on the roads.  Many cyclists were still dressed in light jackets and even riding without gloves. 
It was difficult to tell from people's faces here that they were riding in arctic wind chill temperatures.  They trudged on through looking the same as if it were a sunny June afternoon.  Maybe some have grown up with North Sea weather riding bikes, and they simply don’t know anything different.  Riding a bicycle on ice for the first time was thrilling for me and the pedestrian lady that I almost ran into, twice.  

Ducks in North Holland appeared unsure of what to do with the canals freezing over.  They were noisy and would congregate on the edges of the ice, and move about more restlessly than usual.  USA Today reported "freezing ducks in lakes" in Poland, and the Belfast Telegraph wrote that ducks had to be rescued from frozen lakes there. One question I have is, “How does one rescue a duck from a frozen lake?”

Bicycle traction, skating and well being of ducks were the larger concerns around Alkmaar, but a variety of problems - including about 40 deaths - came with the weather around Europe.  The roof of a building  housing low-level radioactive waste at the Flamanville nuclear power station in France partially collapsed under the weight of snow on Friday, causing minor concerns.(AFP)

In Switzerland, Geneva's University Hospital cancelled non-urgent operations last week to cope with a massive flow of broken bones caused by people slipping and falling in icy conditions. (AFP)  And in Poland, Police were carrying out street patrols in hopes of getting drunks and homeless people into shelters since they make up the bulk of those who freeze to death each year.  (Belfast Telegraph)