A few days before I arrived in the Netherlands in June of 2014, my brother told me that I was very fortunate that my stay with him and his family in Nes aan de Amstel would coincide with the annual dorpsfeest (village fest). The typical dorpsfeest will comprise a (small) carnival, a beer tent with dance floor, communal meals, food stands, activities for the kids (usually a number of traditional games not unlike the ones portrayed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his famous Children’s Games painting) and musical performances. The event in Nes also included a mini-soccer tournament for the kids and a vrijmarkt (a market where everyone can set up shop and sell their unwanted goods). The tradition of the dorpsfeest goes back at least as long as Bruegel’s painting and probably much longer.
To increase my appetite for the event, Hein told me that I would be witness to the annual and ancient slob en slootrace. The what? I asked. The slob en slootrace. I knew what it meant, loosely translated something like ‘dirt and ditch race’. But I did not know what it was. He explained: a one kilometer race through the farmers’ fields around the village in which the contestants (essentially half the village) jump in and out of the ditches and canals that crisscross the fields, trying to finish the course in the shortest possible time. “You could even consider participating,” he said. I replied that I’d think about it.
A casual unintentional remark by Hein to one of his neighbors had caused the rumor that his brother had come all the way from Canada to participate in the slob en slootrace to spread through the village in no time. Whenever I ordered a beer, purchased a pancake or took on a local in a game of shuffleboard someone would say: “Hey, you must be Hein’s Canadian brother, good luck in the race tonight!”
As I contemplated the prospect, I decided that I did not want to get sick on the first day of a week’s stay in the Netherlands and opted out. When I told Hein he fully understood. Yes, it can get a bit chilly in the early evening and you could run up a nasty cold. I was more concerned about what lurked in the muddy canals: hepatitis, tetanus, e. coli… He laughed merrily, no, that really was not something to be worried about.
After a fun-filled day spent at the dorpsfeest grounds, I joined those villagers who were not participating and had gathered at the first ditch to cheer on those who were. A whistle sounded, and off they went. First the adults, then a few minutes later the kids. The race was won by a local farmer nicknamed Tarzan who had dominated the race for the last decade or so. The only year in recent history that he did not win was the year he ran the race in a suit and tie and proposed to his fiancé at the finish line. The lucky girl said yes in the middle of the canal, to cheers of the assembled villagers. Tarzan may have lost the race that year, but he won the girl.
For more images of the Dirt and Ditch Race download issue 25 of Dutch the magazine.
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