Last week, I represented my group withiin Microsoft (Microsoft.com Community & Collaborative Development) along with my colleague, Betsy Aoki at the annual Microsoft TechEd Conference for software developers and IT Pros in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Here are a few random and incomplete reflections of a non-technical nature on my experience "doing business" in Amsterdam. If you've never been to Amsterdam and you are planning to go there for a business trip sometime soon, this post is for you.
In the Netherlands, boundaries are ever-present and rules are firmly and consistently enforced by regular citizens. As a foreigner, I admire this strong national trait but as a visitor who doesn’t know all the rules yet (like, DO NOT walk in bicycle lanes or assume you know the difference between a sidewalk and a bike lane) it also made me nervous. I never knew when I was about to ‘cross the line’. You can ride a motorized scooter in a bike lane in Amsterdam but you can't do so on a motorcycle. Amsterdamers routinely ride their bicycles around with unhelmeted young children. Don’t put your feet on the tram seats for a moment. Please stand behind the line. You can’t go there. You must not sit there. Please don’t stand… Don’t get me wrong, I love Amsterdam but I don’t know that I could enjoy living here right off.
Before and during the TechEd keynote address by Microsoft VP Andy Lees on Tuesday morning, I tried to hand out little "Ask Me about Gotdotnet" buttons to a number of the convention ushers. Not one of them would agree to put on my lovely Gotdotnet flair. Not one. I was polite, did not press, and informed them that Gotdotnet is a website that most developers and some IT Pros already know about. I tried to bribe them with a one-Euro coin. I spoke glowingly of their country and Amsterdam. I refrained from telling them idiotic American jokes (like, ‘Where did Hamlet live around here?’). I tried levity, telling them about the movie OfficeSpace--none had seen it--and flair. I explained that we’ve been investing heavily in Gotdotnet performance and availability for the last few months, as well as flair ;-). "Even Jennifer Anniston wears flair," I implored them, evoking polite giggles and curious looks. My buttons just disappeared, quickly and discretely, into pocket after pocket. None were refused and none were put on. Finally, a particularly assertive young nederlander said confidentially, "I’d be happy to wear it but I need to obtain permission from the conference organizer." Perhaps they thought of their Team System t-shirts (another product that was being demonstrated at the conference) as uniforms, the honor and dignity of which must not be sullied by superfluous flair. I thought but did not say, "But you wouldn’t hesitate to pull out a bong in Museumplein, would you?" Suppressing mild exasperation, I said firmly and flatly, "I am the conference organizer," without adding the all important, "thrice removed." After all, I was wearing my official Microsoft shirt, had a "Staff" badge, and could very well have been one of the event organizers for all the temp worker knew. I was convinced that this guy was the tipping point: win him over and the sheep would follow. Nope. The tall, young nederlander had other thoughts. "May I see your identification?" he demanded. In the United States, I think that I may have been able to convince at least one of the four or five event ushers to wear a button. In the Netherlands, this was a pipe dream.
In the Netherlands, all bananas must be of standard length, perfectly respectable citizens stroll through the Red Light district as if they are in a grocery store, all cucumbers must be and are straight, and the only thing that’ll happen to you if you get caught with a pound of cocaine on a flight from Curacao (nowhere else) is a direct flight back. Coming from anywhere else, you're busted.
In Amsterdam, seemingly everyone rides a bike. Bicycles appear to outnumber cars by a factor of 2:1 and bicycle theft is a major problem.
The police (Politie) are not allowed to lie, per Netherlands law. So the next time you’re in Amsterdam and a person who looks like a heroin junkie tries to sell you a bike (or anything else of dubious origin) on the street, be sure to ask them if they’re a police officer before withdrawing your cash. Bicycles can be rented from most hotels.
Cultural Notes for Conference Organizers
Miscellaneous Travel Notes