Notes on Amsterdam

This week I had a business trip to Amsterdam to meet with colleagues from the Amsterdam Stock Exchange (the oldest stock exchange in the world) which is now part of the same company as the New York Stock Exchange -- NYSE Euronext. This was my first trip to Amsterdam and although it was only a few days and I had only a few hours of free time for exploring the city, I had a wonderful experience and learned a great deal about the city.


Amsterdam is a city built on water. Well, it's built on land, but it's very wet land (in fact it is named for the dam on the Amstel river). In addition to the port on the river, there are canals running throughout the city. Over 100 kilometers, in fact. The city is 85 square miles; over 20 square miles of that is water! These canals make for a beautiful and pleasant city experience with more than 1,000 canal bridges.


Soccer is the most popular sport in Amsterdam (and I hope to catch an Ajax game when I go back), but cycling has got to be a close second. No, I don't mean that they are big fans of the Tour de France. I mean that everyone rides a bike! They ride their bikes to work; they ride their bikes to the store; they ride their bikes to restaurants; they ride their bikes everywhere. I watched in disbelief as men in suits pedaled their way to work past older folks riding to the store. And in the evening young folks dressed up in their "bar scene" best hopped on their bikes and rode to the club.

For the most part everybody rides inexpensive, cruiser-style, one-speed, pedal-brake bikes. You don't need anything too nice -- the city is built on water so there are no hills anywhere that might require more than one gear.


Heineken and Amstel Light are two of my favorite brands of beer -- both from Holland -- so I had high expectations for the beers in Amsterdam. I wasn't disappointed. We enjoyed many Dutch and Belgian beers as well as a Dutch gin called Jenever.

Beverages in the workplace are different in Amsterdam. People don't just get up and go grab themselves a coffee, water, or tea. Instead, they grab a tray and ask everyone whether they would like a drink. Sharing beverages together and serving each other is an important part of their culture.

My flight from New York left at 6:30 Monday night and arrived at 8:15 Tuesday morning. After arriving, I went straight to the office and began a blurry-eyed day of meetings. Needless to say, I drank and enjoyed coffee for the first time in my life on Tuesday.


I have visited many countries where English is not the native language. In those cases, I have usually managed to get by with my very poor Spanish, German, or Italian. And when I could not manage, there was almost always someone nearby who spoke English and could help out. But sometimes I could sense impatience or resentment from those helpers and others in the room that were subjected to this foreign language called English.

In Amsterdam, however, English is pervasive in spoken form. Whether it was a worker at my hotel, a clerk at the bike rental shop, or a random person that I stopped to ask directions -- they all seem to speak great English and don't mind at all. As for written language, the official signage is almost always in Dutch. But storefront signs, menus, advertisements, and most anything else that you need to read are written in both Dutch and English.

Realists vs. Optimists?

When I met one of my Dutch colleagues, I noticed a good-sized paperback on his desk entitled How to Work with Americans. Since our merger, my company has been learning about the cultural differences between the US and Europe when it comes to workplace practices and attitudes. The Amsterdam office had recently brought in an expert to speak with them about what to expect when working with Americans. One of the biggest differences that he pointed out was that Americans are generally optimists and Europeans are generally realists. This manifests itself in many ways in the workplace, usually with Americans wanting to dive right in to new strategies or product lines, while the Europeans are much more cautious and deliberate in their approach.

I was mindful of this when, during a conversation at dinner, one of my Dutch colleagues mentioned the "golden years" when answering my question about the prominence of Indonesian culture in the city. I recalled from one of my business school classes that The Netherlands was the economic world power during the 17th and 18th centuries (after the Italians and before the British). Their colonization of Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies) allowed the Dutch East India Company to become the most successful company in the history of the world. I am hypothesizing that this may explain the optimist vs. realist situation in which we find ourselves... we Americans are living in the midst of our economic dominance; we think we are invincible.

Thinking about the famous Dutch business acumen, I'd also like to mention here that our association of Holland with tulips may have different origins that you may believe. The Dutch are not famous for growing tulips; They are famous for their tulip market -- selling options on the tulip crop! Isn't it easy to see how New York evolved from New Amsterdam?

Global Warming

Another dinner conversation was about American politics. They are actually very aware of our presidential race and asked questions about Hilary, Obama, Bloomberg, McCain, and Giuliani. It was clear that they really had just one issue in mind -- global warming. They are big believers that human actions are shaping the climate and that they have already seen some changes in Amsterdam. I had seen An Inconvenient Truth just a couple weeks ago and mentioned that Amsterdam was featured prominently in a section of that film. They said that they were very hopeful when that movie came out that it would initiate a big change in American policies. They asked if I thought there was any chance that Gore would join the race for president and whether I thought he could win if he did. It was hard to break their hearts.

Pulp Fiction

Yet another conversation at dinner turned to films, including Pulp Fiction. One of my Dutch colleagues mentioned that it was not until she saw Pulp Fiction that she realized that the rest of the world might put something different on their french fries:
Vincent: You know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
Jules: What?
Vincent: Mayonnaise.
Jules: G-- d---!
Vincent: I seen 'em do it, man, they f----n' drown 'em in that s---.
Jules: That's some f----d up s---.

And I fulfilled a curiosity that I have had for 13 years:

It was delicious, but I couldn't finish the whole thing -- their mayo is much richer than ours!



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