Well, as promised I am posting about my last 3 days in Amsterdam.
We left Brussels on Wednesday via KLM airlines. I love their cute retro outfits and would have taken a picture, but I was seated next to what I believe was an air marshall and did not want to get wrestled to the ground and ejected off the continent.
Our team of five is a great one. Kristy Teskey, who works for the Bank of America Foundation; Amy Gardner, a partner in a Chicago law firm ( she thinks U of Chicago is the world's best law school, but we all know it's Tulane...); Bjorn Skogquist, who is the former mayor of Anoka, MN; George Walker, who works for the Victory Fund, a PAC that supports LGBT candidates around the country, and me. These are some really cool folks and we all seem to have the same travel mindset, which is great.
We arrived at the fabulous Hotel Ambassade, which I totally recommend if you visit Amsterdam, and set off to explore our surroundings and find food. We happened upon a great little restaurant and then did a little shopping. The cutest thing about that is the shop that sells only toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwash. I am not kidding.
I went back to the hotel before the others so that I could get a little rest. When I walked into the lobby I saw Liam Neeson's really attractive Dutch twin brother staring at me. I thought he was just being nice, but then he says, "Hallo Shannan, I am Bram." No, this was not a pickup line, Bram Boxhoorn is our coordinator and he knew me because he has all of our pictures (Rats, because I know y'all were hoping for a better story. Once we were all rounded up, he gave us an orientation to what has ended up being a wonderful trip. We then set out for dinner with some MMF alums at a great restaurant.
A couple of initial observations. The food here is really great; lots of veggies and fresh food, which is nice after the rich Belgian food we enjoyed last week. I have had some of the best salads and soups here. Amsterdam is a really beautiful city, and extremely clean. The canals, of course, are gorgeous. So are the people. The average height for women is 5'6" and 6'1" for men. The Dutch are also all really good looking. Of course I feel like a Munchkin, but they are also really nice and welcoming. The language is a non issue because everyone speaks English. It reminds me how most Americans are not bilingual. That is a real pity, as they say here.
Day 2 in Amsterdam was in introduction to immigration and integration. One thing I did not realize was the number of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands. They struggle with the integration issue just as we do in the US. We also watched a popular Dutch film that helped define some of the Dutch identity issues, such as euthanasia, gay marriage, abortion and soft drug use (their term). The director of the film was there, as well as a hospice nurse and the head of the worlds oldest gay rights organization. The film was excellent and I recommend it. You have to see the film to understand how all of this integrates into Dutch identity, so SUPPORT THE ARTS: SEE THE FILM "SIMON."
Day 2 continued with another great lunch and a meeting with a Dutch journalist, followed by a walking tour of the Red Light District with the program manager for the 1012 Project. This project seeks to improve the fates of the women, the residents and the overall image and safety for the Red Light District. Let me first dispel a myth. There is nothing romantic about it. There are sex shops, coffee shops (which don't sell coffee, by the way), and almost-naked women in windows at street level. It is really jarring at first to see the prostitutes, but when you start to look at how young some of these girls are, it is really sad. Human trafficking has been a huge problem, and there are many very young girls plying their trade. Gave me a different outlook on the "freedom" of legalized prostitution and drug use. We heard some really terrible stories. This day ended with a great dinner at the home of an MMF alum and journalist, Thijs Niemantsverdriet.
I have to take this opportunity to talk about our wonderful city Coordinator. Bram Boxhoorn has provided some amazing experiences for us and his hospitality is overwhelming. We all joke with him though, because he is really tall and a marathon runner, so he basically makes us walk at a 10-K pace. I thought I was going to have a heart attack on our walk through the Red Light District! We all had to beg him to slow down (except for George, but then he's just fabulous like that). This time in Amsterdam would not be the same without his careful, hard work and attention to detail. Thanks, Bram.
Yesterday (Friday) was great. We went to the Hague and met with a member of Dutch Parliament, Angelien Eijsink. She was great and we could have talked with her all day. We then went to International Criminal Court. This was an experience. We were briefed by the Counsel to the President, who is an American lawyer. We then got to watch part of a hearing of a Congolese war criminal. We were basically eyeball to eyeball with him. It was interesting, to say the least.
We ended the day by meeting with the Secretary-General of the ministry of Economic Affairs, and it was one of the best conversations we've had regarding Dutch/US relations. Bram took us to his organization, the Netherlands Atlantic Association, to meet with a Dutch professor on policy on Muslims in the West. We then went to the neighboring coastal town of Noordwijk to visit their seawall and hear about their success in guarding against natural disasters. This was of particular interest to me because of our issues in Louisiana. Noordwijk is a tourist town right on the beach, akin to Destin. We had dinner there with the Mayor and then returned to Amsterdam.
This morning we went to a dairy farm in Flevoland. I will admit that it was not what I thought it was. The Van Beek family has a dairy farm of 140 cows and they also have a windmill and a biogas operation that provides power for a neighboring residential area. That's right, the cows provide the power. I won't go any further than that. It was extremely interesting to see their operation, and the family, including their two daughters and son, were generous to welcome us into their home and farm. Even though I am a Southern girl, I had never really been that close to a cow. One of the cows had just given birth I got to see cow (or any, for that matter) placenta for the first time. It is an experience I won't forget. By the way, it is VERY cold here and even more so on the farm. Moms, good looking out on convincing me to take the thermals. Wow! I have a great deal of respect for people like the Van Beeks who work the land in an ethical and economically efficient way.
I am writing this post in my beautiful hotel room overlooking the canal. I am taking a much needed mental break and then we are headed for the Anne Frank museum. My mother will smile because she bought me this book when I was 10 and it quickly became my favorite. I can't wait to see where Anne's story played out.
We're going on a river cruise tonight and then tomorrow we'll hit the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. I have posted a few pix of the various things I've described. Until later...