The Ice Man Kommt

If anyone were seeking evidence to emphatically refute the existence of intelligent design, they would only need to deliberate over ice-skating. No higher, ethereal being intent on establishing a universe populated by big-brained, walking, talking mammals with some hideous habits, could have purposely fashioned an activity which required their creation to strap metal blades to their feet, go round in a circle on ice with many other people, and endure an acoustic backdrop of dreadful pop music. Such rudimentary constituents mean that although all winter sports are counter-intuitive by nature, they could only ever be a result of mutation and random change (commonly known as evolution, natural selection or what happens when I cavort with schnapps).

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Since last year I have swapped retro-trendy ice-skating (shuffling) at Engleman in the 17th district in the west of Vienna, for Eisring Süd in the (currently) unheralded, incommensurable 10th district (Favoriten) somewhere north of the Balkans. There are good reasons for this but mostly because mention of the impending ascendency of Favoriten poses a predicament for inner-city BOHOs, hipsters and guide-book writers. And the 10th is the Shoreditch of Vienna (this may not be a good thing).

Anyhow, Eisring Süd is everything you would expect from a non-descript, rather dilapidated city social amenity. It looks like it was built in the 1970s or earlier and left, like me, to age gracefully with a few rough edges. To paraphrase Congressman Francis Underwood in House of Cards, modernity is an exotic bird in such a location and this can be disconcerting in a world increasingly driven, it seems, by the accoutrements of technological advance and social-gadgetry fused in science fiction. Yet aside from the over-blown, 7000m2, ostentatious monstrosity of the 45 day “Eistraum” (more EisALPtraum – nightmare)  in front of the town hall in the 1st district, it seems the destiny of all the ice-skating facilities I know to remain frozen in time. Which is fine.  Progress and creation needs one day of rest. And I am allergic to crowds.

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The rink is found in the shadow of the water tower and water playground at the top end of Triesterstrasse opposite the end stop of tram number 1. To fully appreciate the scale of what was once literally an “ice-ring” take a look at Google Maps. To the left you can see the original, extensive outdoor track (now closed due to budget cuts and global warming) which, when my wife was a youngster in “search of boys”, as she put it, was the place to skate in south Vienna. Now all that is left is an ice-hockey rink sized piece in the middle, although sizeable enough for any budding ice-dancer, solipsistic posers in white with slightly unfashionable, wrap-around shades or groups of renegade children who haven’t grasped universal principles of movement and insist on skating against the main flow of panic-stricken skaters (me).

In the middle you can see the ice-hall and to the right the former tennis courts of the sports complex (you can still make out traces of the red clay) now over-grown, atrophied and derelict, although reputedly heaving in the zenith of Austrian tennis (i.e. Thomas Muster). The ice hall boasts what I assume is also a full-size ice-hockey rink. More worryingly, it is also home every Sunday to the “Eis Disco” which nobody over fourteen should ever venture unless they want to cast a shadow over their mental health and be exposed to the pong of teenage angst.

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You enter the ice-rink itself from the Raxstrasse across a particularly shabby concourse and down some steep, concrete steps into a rubber matted changing area incorporating the skate hire (run by a pasty, skinny teenager with more groupies than a boyband) and the ubiquitous heavily painted, wooden benches and rows of ancient lockers. I am no longer a patron of the skate hire as I sagely invested in a pair of ice-skating boots last year to avoid amongst other things, Deppensteuer (half price, I am not a fool). Getting kitted out, however, means I have crossed the winter sports Rubicon (frozen, of course) and the motivations, even for the hobby skater, the inept and the courageous, are several:

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Firstly, it takes the sting out of rental (about 7 Euro a pop). Secondly, it takes the smell out of rental (and the odour of a thousand other feet before me). And thirdly, it takes the pain out of rental (evolution has yet to address this and a pair of skates that actually fit is heavenly and perhaps evidence of intelligent design). This all means we only have to pay 18 Euro entry ticket – family with a couple of excitable kids – and a 5 Euro deposit for an individual padlock (I find this so charming) for our own locker. All I am saying is don’t lose the key.

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Boots adorned we hit the ice, me tentatively at first as my coordination emerges from its weekly hibernation, the kids straight in, gliding away into the distance like Frozone from The Incredibles. At out usual time (weekend mornings, often Sunday) the rink is mostly vacant with a beautiful, untouched surface glimmering with intent in the mid morning sun (it is always sunny in the 10th district). And then for the next hour or so it is round and round, re-connecting with the elements and banishing any lassitude induced by the previous night’s wine experiments from Burgenland. I know that ice-skating is manufactured rather than spontaneous leisure, but its simple pleasures are irreducible beyond that eventual state of relaxation and self-congratulatory contentment which only outdoor exercise can endow with any conviction. And I am converted to its charms.

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At which point, as you start to dream of velvet apparel, toe-loops and bombastic show-tunes, and with an icicle forming on the tip of your nose, you probably need a break. So it is off to the “restaurant”, although calling it a restaurant is like claiming I have something in common with pint-sized, world and Olympic ice-skating champion, Scott Hamilton. Nevertheless, it provides respite and warmth, serving the usual suspects of disobedient food and oil-soaked snacks, although a lot of people seem to prefer beer even on Sunday mornings (to be fair, it is Stiegl which was invented by proponents of intelligent design in Salzburg – monks).

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I sit there, cheeks glowing (on my face), and let my mind wander as the children drink hot chocolate with a spoon, and in traditional manner, spill half of it on the table top. Ice-skating, I realise, is an eminently curious and arbitrary activity in that it is almost impossible beforehand to visually ascertain a person’s propensity for talent on ice. It defies rationale and outwardly it is immune to age, body shape and gender. Such sporting plurality means it has the potential as a sporting leveller like no other activity I know (except perhaps darts) and I have seen some of the fanciest footwork from some of the most improbable of sources. Indeed, no amount of sporting prowess, achievement, dexterity, speed, skill or agility will prevent you from either falling on your backside – ice is surprisingly unpliable – or deter that slightly disconcerting feeling that you are not completely in control of your feet (some of my best friends have an implicit instinct for this when they hit the dancefloor). Still, you know you’ve got a bit of work to do when you are routinely passed on the ice by groups of pensioners who are old enough to have appeared in The Third Man.

While inside, I take a gander at the indoor rink. For such a beautiful morning it is relatively busy. Families, affable older couples, middle-aged men and women with iPods (the men have the iPods) pushing themselves through their paces with astonishing grace and bustle. But mostly it is populated by the socially adrift. Highly proficient teenager skaters, mostly boys, even at this hour, some in t-shirts, racing around the rink performing intricate turns and figures at speeds which not only make my knees wobble but seem to impress small groups of teenage girls gathered on the ice.

Pondering the scene, with flashbacks to my younger self, I sensed that no God could have envisaged such a ceremony. It was the equivalent of the pigeon, tail feathers splayed, strutting its stuff saying: “Check me out!” It convinced me that this was beyond intelligent design for the simple reason that, like all winter sports, ice skating is faintly ridiculous and inherently nonsensical. Most artificial leisure is so. Yet nature must have had a reason for it to develop. Evolution might have been about the randomness of acts and transmutation, but ice-skating humans could have only developed for the survival of the species. And that meant jiggy-jiggy. Even on ice.

With the evolutionary debate settled, I turn gracefully (three times) and with an axel and a lutz, hobble back to the ice. Yes it was time. Time to unleash the all-in-one, skintight, spandex speed suit. Time to take down those inveterate show-offs with bus passes. Time to fall on my arse.

© RJ Barratt 2014

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