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Half-n-Half: Pond ice skating

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After a few sessions of yard skiing, my 4 year-old daughter Anna Lee had worn tracks through to the grass. Bored from pushing her around in the same circles, I suggested that we venture to the nearest village where there was a small pond. During the cold spell several friends had gone ice skating with their young children. We had recently driven past the neighboring village of Horoměřice, where a large crowd of Czechs of all ages were skating on a small pond next to the village fire station.

As is the case with most winter sports in the Czech Republic, the number of sport enthusiasts often exceeds the available sporting resources, and the ice skaters on the tiny pond in the center of Horoměřice were no exception. Every available skating space was crowded with bodies, but tight skating corners didn’t damper the enthusiasm.

We watched fathers and mothers skating backwards holding their children as they took their first shuffling steps on the ice. Grandfathers and grandmothers glided gracefully on old-fashioned skates that could have been hung on display as antiques. The edge of the lake was packed with spectators sipping steaming tea and hot chocolate from large thermoses. Since no one in our family, except my husband, owns ice skates, we contented ourselves by watching on the sidelines. Secretly though, I longed to take a spin on the ice.

Later that same night when I saw a news report on Radio Prague about several ice-related accidents in the past week. It made me stop to contemplate the potential hazards of skating on a natural body of water as opposed to an ice skating rink. After reading the article, the cautious mother in me wondered why anyone risks skating on ponds, knowing that ice conditions can never be 100% safe. Then I reasoned that the same thing could be said about most winter-sports and that using common sense and following basic safety precautions are key.

To educate myself before we traipsed onto the ice, I found several internet sites with ice skating/ice fishing safety rules. Most concluded that testing the ice’s thickness by drilling a hole or throwing a rock is prudent, as well as checking the color and texture of the ice surface. It’s generally believed than anywhere from 4-7 inches of clear, blue non-snow-covered ice is considered safe for walking/skating. The Radio Prague article also offered precautions from a Czech Red Cross Water Rescue employee: never skate alone; bring along a ladder or a plank; and/or carry ice tools while skating. Reading all the tips certainly made pond ice skating seem more potentially dangerous although no less appealing.

To date, my only experience with ice skating in Prague has occurred on a skating rink. I’ve skated a few times at the seasonal outdoor rink set up in downtown Prague at Ovocný Trh and at Štvanice Stadium, a large, wooden indoor rink built on Štvanice Island in 1931. Both times I’ve rented skates although skate rental in Prague is limited (perhaps since the majority of Czechs have their own). Once on the ice, I spent most of the time gradually building up courage and confidence. I’d concentrate hard to cross one foot over the other on the turns, while gazing awestruck at the Czechs whizzing past me. When Radek joined me on the ice, he claimed he hadn’t skated in 20 years, but even so, he lapped me within minutes.

Even though Radek claimed to enjoy skating as a kid, he turned to other winter sports like snowboarding as an adult. However, now that we’ve moved out of Prague and live within walking distance of a few rybníky (ponds), ice skating has increased in appeal.

Soon after we had watched the skating action in Horoměřice, I bundled the children into winter gear and we headed to another nearby village with a small pond. This time, Anna and Oliver both wanted to walk out on the ice. There were fewer people on the pond since it was mid-morning on a weekday, but we saw one father skating with his teenage son and one of Anna’s friend’s skating with his father. There were a few non-skaters walking around on the ice and one or two that were sledding and using the ice as a landing pad.

According to our friends, the pond had been packed over the weekend with skaters. Although parts of the lake were snow-covered, two large skating circles had been brushed clean. The ice on the skating parts seemed clear enough, and I stamped up and down a few times before the kids and I joined our friends on the ice.

Anna managed to slip and slide with short, scuffling motions over the ice, almost as if she were wearing skates, while Oliver and I stepped hand-in-hand cautiously toward our friends. I wasn’t worried about falling through the ice, but I didn’t want us to slip regardless.

Grabbing an extra child-size hockey stick, Anna jumped into an impromptu game of chase-the-puck with her friend while Oliver shouted “Ball Ball!” We skidded around on the ice for several minutes until Anna got hit in the head accidentally with a hockey stick. She was ready to come off the ice although I pursued her to hang around for a few more minutes. After watching our friend’s father skate, she asked me if her daddy also skated. Our friend replied, “All Czechs skate.”

Perhaps a small overstatement, however, without a doubt, ice skating is one of the more popular winter sports in the Czech Republic. Much like skiing, most Czechs learn from childhood how to handle themselves on the ice. Czech boys aspire to join the ranks of famous hockey players like Jaromír Jágr, Dominik Hašek, and Patrik Eliáš, and skating sessions at the local pond in many cases turn into informal hockey training. When I taught English to 8 year-old Martin, he spent many afternoons showing me his hockey card collection and coaching me on the pronunciation of his favorite players’ names. His obsession with hockey statistics seemed on par with my brother’s fascination with baseball as a child.

The first time I ever meet Radek was at a hockey match at Sparta that mutual friends had given us tickets to. For me, it wasn’t as compelling as a tennis match, but I had to admit that the fast-pace did keep my interest better than American football. Radek too isn’t generally a fan of watching other organized team sports, he makes an exception for ice hockey.

Currently, Radek’s trying to track down his pair of skates before the lakes thaw. He hasn’t seen them in 15 years or so, but since Czechs rarely throw anything useful away, he’s hopeful they’ll turn up eventually. Since we’re living in a country where learning to skate is as common as learning to ride a bike, I plan to give it another try too.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please comment below or write to [email protected].

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