How do we Frisians spent our time off? Frisians in the Netherlands must have loads of it because perspectives for a job are about the lowest in the country. And those who have a job, face no traffic jams consuming precious hours every day either like the people of the cities in the south of the country.
The people of province Friesland belong to the poorest of the country and have the highest unemployment rate. Yet, these people turn out to be the most happiest of the Netherlands. This according to research (2017) of the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek CBS ‘Statistics Netherlands’ and research (2019) of the Fries Sociaal Planbureau FSP ‘Frisian Planning Bureau’. The ‘Frisian Paradox’ as it also called. Read our post The Giants of Twilight Land to understand more about this paradox.
In this post we will focus on two important, traditional leisure activities that take place on the endless, flat grasslands. Knowledge of these activities might come in handy for retired city folk too, who romantically think of buying a house in a hamlet after retirement. Please first learn to enjoy these leisure activities, before even considering buying a house on the grasslands in the northwest of Germany, or in the north of the Netherlands. Make sure the same does not happen to you as with a well-known Dutch show master who moved from Amsterdam to Achlum and perished in solitude. Read or post Celtic-Frisian heritage: There’s no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune to hear his disillusion.
Anyhow, it is not until spring before something is happening at the soft grasslands. In wintertime there is nothing going on. Everything is wet, cold, grey, windy and closed. So, watch telly or read a library. Unless… it starts to freeze. When canals, ditches, rivers and lakes are frozen, everyone starts ice skating, and just as many selling cake and hot chocolate. Sadly, it has not much use spending many more words on ice skating ‘in the wild’ because it never or rarely freezes anymore, anyway. There are indoor ice-skating halls in for example the cities of Groningen, Heerenveen and of Oldenburg where you can learn skating. For just in case. Also, buy ice skates in advance, because once it freezes it is close to impossible to obtain them.
In springtime things are really kicking off. It is ljipaaisykje time! Try to pronounce this verb at your own risk. Some people choked on it. To ljipaaisykje can be broken down into ljip (peewit), aai (egg), and sykje (to seek). Pronounce it like: ljip-ie (as in to die)-seek-yuh, and everything as deep in your throat as possible.
Seeking for the eggs of the peewit, also called lapwing, is an emotional thing for Frisians of province Friesland. The ‘sport’ used to be unrestricted. Concerned environmentalists, however, succeeded to restrict this free-time activity since the peewit population was decreasing strongly (specifically) in the Netherlands over the last decades. Every year, the Frisians try through court rulings and decisions to continue the tradition of seeking for peewit nests, but each time are losing more and more ground. Today, it is practically forbidden. The environmentalists concerns are understandable, but it leaves the jobless and traffic-free Frisians with even more spare-time to kill on their endless grasslands.
Local bird-watch association, instead, seek for the nests of peewits and other endangered birds now. The birdwatchers mark the nests, so farmers can spare them while working the land with their New Holland tractors and other heavy machines. Of course, these bird-watch associations became an immediate big success among Frisians. Many Frisians who used to seek for peewit eggs, joined these associations. It went viral. This way obtaining a permit as ‘birdwatcher’, and having a solid excuse to keep roaming the grasslands looking for nests (and, ssst, eggs).
Walking winch – The modern Mid-Frisian word ljip and the English lapwing (peewit) are similar. The Old English word is lǣpwince, thus leap-winch. Leave out winch, and leap and ljip are nearly the same (P.A. Kerkhof 2022).
Despite all efforts and all restrictions the population of peewits, and of other pasture birds, is decreasing still. In the Netherlands that is, because peewits as such are not endangered in Europe. It is a bit of a mystery, because the Frisians really did do their best to create a beautiful, clean lawn of their fields. They grow exclusively English ryegrass. Furthermore, dung is injected into the soil instead of the traditional landspreading, to prevent growth of nasty insects and worms, and a nasty smell. Also, they mow the land six times a year, instead of the two times a few decennia back. Why is such a sterile, odour-free, toxin-green turf not appealing for birds? The Frisians are in the weeds how to find the answer.
For the record, also some good news, without suggesting any correlation. Populations of foxes, birds of prey have and feral cats increased. Furthermore, the volume of insects has decreased dramatically. In the weeds, the Frisians are why peewits, and godwits, disappear. In the weeds.
Besides to ljipaaisykje, the other hip and happening thing to do on the grasslands, especially for high-school kids, is roaming the land with a leaping pole to jump ditches and trenches. Now, how cool is that?
The activity is called to fierljeppe in Mid-Frisian language, and literally translates as ‘to far-leap’. Notice, by the way, the similarities between ljip (peewit/lapwing), ljeppe and ‘to leap’. It is called klootstockspringen in region Eiderstedt in Nordfriesland, Kluvstock-Springen in Land Wursten, and pultstockspringen or padstokspringen in region Ostfriesland. The trick is not to fall in the water, and at the same time to stretch your limits by jumping each time an even broader trench or ditch. If you make it home dry, you did not grasp the essence of this activity. Try again!
There are three basic techniques how to leap.
(1) The first technique is reserved for famkes ‘girls’. You place the pole in the water and jump with the pole between your legs. If you do not make it to the other side of the ditch with your feet, the pole still might. As a result you are sitting on the pole above the murky water. Okay for a girl, but with a specific body part really aching if you are a boy. Do not say we did not warn you. This technique is reserved for famkes.
(2) The second technique is the most common one (see picture above). You place the pole carefully in the ditch and, optional, walk two meters or so backward. Then you grab the pole and jump with both legs on one side of the pole. The trick is to take off in a straight line, and with just enough force and speed. Too little velocity, you are hanging as dead weight clamped to your pole in the middle of the ditch, trying to delay the inevitable. Too much velocity, you have no time to stretch your legs and body reaching forward. If by mistake you take off diagonally and not in a straight line, the water distance to cover might be too demanding. You can predict and visualize the consequences.
(3) The third technique is the most thrilling and called boerenplons meaning ‘farmer’s splash’. When walking in the fields from a distance you spot a new trench, you lift the four-meters-long pole in the air and start running fast. Keep looking in front of you because there might just be another ditch you overlooked. The rule is to never stop running. When you have reached the ditch, continue with the same speed. Place the pole while running in the ditch and jump in one elegant flow.
Because with this technique you have not inspected the ditch beforehand and simply started running, the thrill of the boerenplons is twofold. Firstly, you have no idea how broad exactly the ditch is going when you start running. Secondly, you have no idea how deep the pole will sink into the black, smelly mud. So, in the worst-case scenario the ditch turns out to be three meters or more wide, and your pole sinks at least two meter under the water surface. Two meters pole left to bridge three meters of water. Forget it. Ain’t gonna happen. At least you go down with a big bang, made touch with nature, and you grasped the essence of to fierljeppe.
Of course, the real boss is king Radbod of Frisia. According to medieval legends he did not need a pole at all to cross water. With his white horse he even jumped the River Ems. It happened with so much force, that a hole in the shape of a horseshoe was left behind, which filled itself with water and became the Dollart Bay as we know it today. Really.
3. And much more
Beside to ljipaaisykje and to fierljeppe more thrilling activities take place on the flat grasslands, especially sports like angling fishing and to kaatsen. The latter is a version of Basque pelote or vice versa, also called Frisian pelote.
Sport fishing can be done in all seasons. To manage expectations upfront: ‘fishing’ and ‘catching fish’ are two totally different things and have nothing in common. The same goes for ljipaaisykje, by the way. Seeking for eggs and finding eggs, are two totally different things too. Or as the late, blind Frisian poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga (1949-2013) would say: “Yn dat sykjen sûnder finen” (‘In that searching without finding’).
Trying to explain to the reader of this post the rules of Frisian pelota/ kaatsen game is almost impossible. Only a few people in province Friesland understand it. Therefore, the people who kaatsen are truly intelligent and besides that, they are sportive too. The curious thing about kaatsen is that the best player is chosen as king or queen. If you think this is weird, realize this king or queen at least has some kind of (yearly) exam before becoming or staying king or queen. If you spot (old) garlands hanging on doors or walls of houses and farmsteads, it means these were earned for the achievements during a kaatsen game. We dedicated a seperate post to this sport in Donkey King of the Paulme Game.
Lastly, in region Ostfriesland they have also some eyebrow-frowning sports. Take for example Boßeln (Boßelball in Kreis Nordfriesland), and Klootschießen. Like in provinces Friesland and Groningen, a great way of killing your spare time in Ostfriesland, is playing with mud too. Frisians everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast have a lot of mud to their disposal. Question is, how to give meaning to that much mud? Therefore a sport they practice on the mudflats is silt-sled racing, called sliksleeracen in the Netherlands and kreierrennen in region Ostfriesland. Read our post Racing the Wadden Sea with a Silt Sled for more.
Note 1 – If interested in fierljeppe know there is even a Fierljep Museum in the village of Noardburgum.
Note 2 – We haven’t mentioned the sport skûtsjesilen yet. It is a sailing competition of the traditional skûtsje boats. A skûtsje is a Dutch barge ship-type. These cargo boats were built from the eighteenth century onward. Skippers started racing for price money in the nineteenth century. already. There are two competitions: the Sintrale Kommisje Skûtsjesilen (‘Central Committee Skûtsje-sailing’; SKS), and the Iepen Fryske Kampioenskippen Skûtsjesilen (‘Open Frisian Championship Skûtsje-sailing’; IFKS). The SKS was founded in 1945, and is limited to a fixed group of fourteen ships, and often the same skipper families. The IFKS was founded in 1981, and is an open competition and not as traditional as the SKS.
Note 3 – If you want to know how to communicate with the people of the grasslands, check the instructions in our post Grassland Conversations.
- Vandenbussche, H.& Casella, R., Human Playground. Why We Play (2022)