What’s hip and happening at the grasslands?
Updated: May 17
How do we Frisians spent our time off? The Frisians in the Netherlands -or Mid Frisians- 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. And this blog post contains a short guide for city folk how to communicate with those rural types.
The people of province Friesland belong to the poorest of the country and it has the highest unemployment rate. Yet, the people turn out to be the most happiest of the Netherlands. This according to research of Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (2017) and of Fries Sociaal Planbureau (2019). 'The Frisian Paradox' as it also called, and read our blog post The Giants of Twilight Land to understand more about this paradox.
In this blog post we shall focus on two important and traditional leisure activities taking place at the endless, flat grasslands. Followed by valuable instructions on how to communicate with locals during encounters that might take place while out there. Day and night! These might come in handy hiking stage 4 of the Frisia Coast Trail when you lost track and are wandering through the monotonous green plains. Or maybe even for government officials and politicians who want to restore the communication between the rich and poor parts of the country.
But it might come in handy for older city folk too. Those who romantically think to buy a house in a hamlet after retirement, please first learn to enjoy the activities and master the conversation explained below before even considering buying a house in the Frisian grasslands in the north-west of Germany or in the north of the Netherlands. Make sure the same doesn't happen to you as with a famous Dutch show master.
It's s 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. If canals, rivers and lakes are frozen everyone starts ice skating and just as many selling cake and hot chocolate. But it has not much use to spend many words on ice skating 'in the wild' because it never or rarely freezes anyway anymore. There are indoor ice-skating halls in for example the cities of Groningen, Heerenveen and of Oldenburg where you can learn ice skating. For just in case. Also, buy ice skates in advance because once it freezes it's close to impossible to obtain them.
In springtime things are really kicking off. It is ljipaaisykje-time. Try to pronounce it at your own risk. Some people choked on it. To ljipaaisykje can be broken down into: ljip (peewit), aai (egg) and sykje (to seek).
Seeking for the eggs of the peewit is an emotional thing for the Frisians of Mid Frisia, e.g. province Friesland in the Netherlands. The ‘sport’ used to be unrestricted. But concerned environmentalists succeeded to restrict this free-time activity since the peewit population decreased strongly over the last decades. Every year the Mid-Frisians try through court rulings and decisions to continue the tradition of seeking for peewit nests but are losing each time more and more ground. Today, it's practically forbidden. The environmentalists concerns are understandable but it leaves the jobless and traffic-free Frisians with even more spare-time to kill at their endless grasslands.
Local bird-watch association instead seek for the nests of peewits and other endangered birds now. They mark the nests, so farmers can spare them when working the land with their tractors and other heavy machines. Of course, these bird-watch associations became an immediate big success. Many Frisians who used to seek for peewit eggs joined these associations. This way obtaining a permit as ‘birdwatcher’ and having a solid excuse to roam the grasslands looking for nests (and eggs).
Despite all efforts and all restrictions the population of peewits, and of other pasture birds, decreases still. In the Netherlands that is, because peewits as such are not endangered in Europe. It's a bit of a mystery because the Frisians really did their best to create a beautiful, clean lawn of their fields. Why is such a sterile turf not appealing for birds? The Frisians are in the weeds to find the answer. For the record, also some good news without suggesting any correlation: the population of foxes and birds of prey have increased. Furthermore, the volume of insects has decreased dramatically.
Besides to ljipaaisykje the other hip and happening thing to do at 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 (Mid-Frisian language and translated literally as 'to far-leap') or klootstockspringen in region Eiderstedt in Nordfriesland (North Frisia, Germany), or pulstockspringen in Ostfriesland (East Frisia, Germany). 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. If you make it home dry you did not grasp the essence of this activity. Try again!
There are three basic techniques to leap.
The first technique is reserved for 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 with your feet, the pole still might. As a result you are sitting on the pole above the water, but with a specific body part really aching if you are a boy. Don't say we didn't warn you. This technique is really reserved for girls.
The second technique is the most common one (see picture). You place the pole carefully in the ditch and optional walk a meter or two backwards. Then you grab the pole and jump with both legs at one side of the pole. The trick is to take off in a straight line and with just enough force. Otherwise you're hanging as dead weight clamped to your pole in the middle of the ditch, trying to delay the inevitable.
The third technique is the most thrilling and called boerenplons in Dutch language, meaning 'farmer's splash'. When walking in the fields from a distance you spot a new trench. You lift the four meter long pole in the air and start running fast. Keep looking in front of you 'cause 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. The thrill is twofold. Firstly, you have no idea how broad the ditch is gonna be exactly. 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. But at least you go down with a big bang.
Beside to ljipaaisykje and to fierljeppe more thrilling activities take place at the flat grasslands, especially sports like angling fishing and to keatse. The latter a version of Basque pelote or vice versa, also called Frisian pelote.
Sport fishing can be done in all seasons but to manage expectations upfront: fishing and catching fish are two totally different things and have nothing in common. The same goes for ljipaaisykje: seeking for eggs and finding eggs are two totally different things too. Or as the blind poet Tsjêbbe Hettinga would say it: "Yn dat sykjen sûnder finen" (In the seeking/searching without finding).
Trying to explain to the readers of this blog post the rules of the Frisian pelote or keats-game is impossible and would justify a separate blog post or even more. Only a few people in the province Friesland understand it. Therefore, the people who keatse are truly intelligent and besides that, they are sportive too. The curious thing about keatse-ing 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. As we just explained, you need to be very smart to play this game. Rex illuteratus, asinus coronatus (meaning: an illiterate king is a crowned ass) as the old saying goes. And for the record we have to mention the most famous keatse king of all; tall Hotze Schuil (1925-2005) from the town of Harlingen.
If you see (old) garlands hanging on doors or walls of houses, it means these were earned for the achievements during a keatse game.
A typical grassland conversation
Being at the grasslands might lead to encounters with farmers or other wanderers and of course with 'birdwatchers'. These encounters go in slow motion and in clearly defined phases. These phases should be observed strictly if you have any ambition to mingle with locals or to receive any help from them in case you are in trouble. The best way to learn it is by illustrating a typical encounter. Before we start, whatever you do, never never laugh and give a grin at best. And if it happens to be a farmer you meet, never ever contradict him (read also the blog post 'Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps').
Here we go:
You are walking in the grassland, desperately and surely, in vain looking for peewit eggs when from afar you see someone slowly walking towards you. Important. You keep doing what you were doing. Do not stop, do not change directions or walk towards the individual. Act as if you do not notice him. After a while he -because that is always the case- is close enough for you to stop. Then it's time to give each other a very quick glance.
Classically one opens with: ‘Goeie' (short for good day). Do not reply with 'Ah, goeie.' This is reserved for someone you know well and leads to confusion if you do not. Just say 'Goeie' back. It will suffice. Both stand their ground and both say nothing for a while. The other can place a remark, but only after a while. No questions please at this stage! Not even if you need medical help urgently because you broke your ankle and is bleeding heavily. For example you can say: 'It wurdt hieltiid minder mei ‘t aaisykjen' (the egg-seeking thing is getting worse all the time). Silence. In average, between every sentence minimal ten seconds.
For some city people silences might be uncomfortable but in the north of the Netherlands and of Germany these are part of the conversation. But still, do not look at each other. Instead, look into the sky or around you as if observing birds or the weather. The other will do the same. After this the conversation may start. You reply his remark with another remark. With remarks both indirectly show their expertise of nature and their knowledge of the area. Do not talk rubbish therefore. It's a way to assess each other. If all goes well you place your feet firmly in the clay and grab your tobacco to light your pipe or else a cigarette. Even if you don't smoke. Do it. The other might do the same.
Now it's time for questions. Please, use the formal address of jo (pronounced as 'yo', meaning 'you' in formal form) and not the informal do (pronounced as 'dough'). Things run terribly bad if you do. Now you also understand why rap music with 'yo!, yo!' didn't do well in Frisia.
A question can be: ‘Jo sykje sels ek?’ (You seek eggs yourself?) or ‘Hawwe jo hjoed al wat fûn?’ (Have you already found something -eggs- today?). Stay looking in the far distance and obey the silences between every question and answer.
The next phase is asking personal questions, like: ‘Binne jo der ien fan…?’ (Are you family of…?). The Frisians love to boast about who they know, the knowledge of nature and their ancestry. In case you need urgent medical help because of your broken and bleeding ankle, now the time has come to ask for help. Show no emotions. You could ask: 'Witte jo faaks wêr dat in dokter wennet?' (Do you happen to know where a doctor lives?). Make no reference to the terrible pain you are suffering and be prepared for some more conversation before you can take off to the doctor.
Then it's time to say goodbye. That goes as slow as the tiding of the Wadden Sea. You give a hint by saying what your plans are for the rest of the day. Wait a while. Extinguish your pipe by hitting it at the toe of your rubber boot. Put the pipe in the pockets of your long coat, straighten your cap or hood and say: ‘Ik sil ris fierder. Ik seach sakrekt noch in mantsje in roek oanfalle’ (I should take off. I just saw a male -meaning a male peewit- attacking a rook). After this, for the second and the last time, you look the other in the eye and say: ‘Oant sjen’ (See you again), turn your back and walk (or limp) away.
Keep your hands low, do not shake hands, smile or wave. Keep it cool. Walk away as if the conversation never happened. What happens at the grasslands stays at the grasslands.
If you meet again continue the conversation where you left of the last time. As if no time has passed since the last time.
If during the conversation it turned out both of you were as kids on the same elementary school, it doesn’t affect the conversation a single bit. It stays exactly the same.
An identical encounter at the grasslands might take place when you are out there in the middle of the night. Not seeking for eggs of course, but placing and emptying your illegal fish pods. Know that swimming in ditches in the province Friesland is nearly impossible because you get entangled in fish pods all the time. And no Greenpeace to cut you free from these nets. And it must be at night since there is no hiding at the flat, near treeless grasslands during the day. In other words, it might be crowded during the night. But also then, the whole conversation stays completely the same, including the subject of seeking peewit eggs. Both of you are of course not admitting to do something illegal at night. The Frisians are masters in avoiding sensitive topics. What else after centuries of being washed away regularly during great floods? They know how to bury emotions deep in a shallow sea. And besides that: can you trust the other that he won’t empty or steal your fish pod? Only the way you lighten your pipe or cigarette goes with much more care in order not to be noticed.
Good luck, and you know, it's learning by doing!
PS 1. If interested in 'to fierljep' know there is even a Fierljep Museum in Noardburgum in the province Friesland, the Netherlands
PS 2. The above concerns mainly Mid Frisia. We are curious for what is hip and happening at the grasslands of Ostfriesland (East Frisia) and of Nordfriesland (North Frisia) both in Germany, and of course at the grasslands of the Ommelanden (province Groningen) in the Netherlands. Let us know! One great way of killing your spare time comes from the Ostfriesland; playing with mud in the Waddensea.