"Would you like a bowl of beef, sir?"
The question was asked by a blonde server as I stood in the main hall of the Rijksmuseum on a bitter cold evening in Amsterdam. The museum was closed, of course, but it had been opened for the several hundred attendees of the Virtuoso Winter Symposium. I was attending because I thought it would be newsworthy to sail with the "Dutch Armada," a riverboat convoy heading out of the city in two days.
I reached for one of the lovely bowls on the tray the server held in front of me. Then I wandered away, seeking out a quiet spot. I don't much like cocktail parties, and I certainly don't enjoy eating out of bowl while making small talk. I am, I suppose, shy in some ways. But I did head in a particular direction, thinking no one would notice.
A few feet away, I was able to stand just under the exact location of Rembrandt's "Night Watch," secure in its private chamber on the floor just above me. It is a painting I appreciate because of its size (about 12 feet by 14 feet), its age (painted in 1642) and its magnificent use of light and shadows. It was, as I look back on it, one of my favorite snacking moments.
I want to share a bit about the boats and the conception of this trip, an example of meetings-planning expertise that ought to be studied in incentive travel graduate seminars. First, however, I want to share a few impressions of Amsterdam with you.
This is a city I have visited many times before but not in such awful weather and not in the company of some of the world's greatest living travel practitioners and suppliers. I had to do my due diligence, and I had to challenge myself to find the essence of the place. I also had to totally ignore whatever the tourist bureau wanted me to read.
What is this place about? I had an inkling on the KLM flight over. I was seated next to an American business consultant who had moved to Amsterdam as a young man. He fell in love with a Dutch woman and was determined to find a way to prosper in a foreign land. He vowed he would never leave and said that every visit to the States reaffirmed the notion that the Netherlands provided an "intellectual safe haven free of hatred and nonsense."
I remembered thinking that the tourist bureau might want to use this eloquent description in some future ad campaign.
Thinking back to my prior visits to the city, I was always struck by what I came to see as the "miniaturization" of urban life. Amsterdam has a scale that is unique. It starts with the canals and ends with the fact that this city of just under 900,000 residents supports a population in which 40% of all adults and students commute to work via bicycle.
Walking the city's streets, I wondered if this is a metropolis or some kind of giant urban park. Its landscape is clearly one of the most water-filled on Earth. There are some 60 miles of canals, so living next to one is rather common. There are 90 islands that surround the city and so many bridges that no one really knows exactly how many there are, although the number is usually estimated as more than 1,500.
On my first evening in the city, staying at the Conservatorium Hotel in a room so modern that it took three days to figure out the light switches, I wandered out for a walk at about 9 p.m. It was cold and had started to rain, but I was amazed to see the bike lanes filled with folks of all ages returning from work or heading out to bars and coffee houses.
I stood and watched as friends left a huge bar up the street from the Van Gogh Museum to hop on their bikes for the ride home. They were laughing and kissing each other three times from left to right -- normal behavior, except that there were no taxis in sight, and it was no warmer than 30 degrees with a strong wind chill.
There are a lot of things that the Dutch just don't let upset them. Apparently, the outside temperature is one of them.
I had a driver the next day, and he was bright and intuitive. As I got to know him, I posed this question: "Let's imagine that you are driving a car full of journalists from the States around town. How would you summarize the essence of this city? What is it about Amsterdam that makes it different from any other city in Europe?"
He didn't have to think very long about it. He opined that it was the level of tolerance and the "almost complete" lack of racism. He said a Dutch family would likely have little problem if one of the children brought home a person of another race whom they were planning to marry.
"There would be no judgement," he said with emphasis. "My father came from Morocco and my mother came from India, and no one, absolutely no one, cares about that. They judge you here by who you are. If you are writing about this place, you must write about tolerance. The Dutch people just do not do racism."
I started noticing things after that. The integration of groups of kids as they left school, the couples on the street, the total integration one observed while dining. This is all the more impressive when you consider that just over half of the children living in Amsterdam are non-Westerners. They are found, it is true, concentrated in certain neighborhoods like Nieuw-West, Bijlmermeer and Zeeburg.
This is a city that has more residents of foreign ancestry than of Dutch descent. There is widespread diversity, much of which is legally mandated. The city claims 180 different nationalities, making it one of the most diverse populations in Europe. Amsterdam wears this diversity as a matter of pride, and the city devotes considerable energy and funds to preventing the formation of ghettos.
While we seem preoccupied with our Second Amendment and our God-given right to be cowboys, Article 1 of the Netherlands' constitution forbids any discrimination based on a person's beliefs, race or sexual preference. The city also insists that the composition of the civil service in the city must reflect the ethnic make-up of Amsterdam. The full emancipation of women has been built into the anti-discrimination laws.
Amsterdam is not, of course, perfect. Some might even say its tolerance has, from time to time, gone too far. But I still believe that this is a city that walks the walk -- or rather, bikes the bike. How many other cities with this diverse a population have handled tolerance and its promotion as a core value so effectively?
There are lots of stories in the big city. Sometimes it is hard to find the right story, the one that most encapsulates a sense of place, a true moment in time. This is a city often characterized by its acceptance of cannabis consumed in "coffeeshops." (But don't get caught riding your bicycle while high; that is a crime in the city and is taken seriously.) It is a city characterized by a historical and still active red light district and by a vibrant, thriving museum district.
But for me, the setting of this trip, and my desire to try to capture what it is all about, comes down to its sense of justice and equality and its abiding respect for treating others with large measures of tolerance.
Now I'm ready to join the Dutch Armada.