The Time I Met Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan
I met him twice, actually.
The first time was in 2011, during troubled times. Geert Wilders was in the Dutch governing coalition, after calling Dutch society a ‘multi-culti nightmare.’ And then came the day VVD politician Frits Bolkestein suggested that Jews might want to leave the Netherlands because of an alleged Islamization: Islamic anti-Semitism getting out of control. As l luck would have it, that same day there was an event scheduled in Amsterdam called ‘Jewish Moroccan Night.’ The organizers wanted to celebrate the links between both communities in Amsterdam. There were singers and dancers and storytellers. I was the comedian.
They said the mayor might show up. (They always say that.) But that day the mayor did show up. Labor (PvdA) Mayor Eberhard van der Laan showed his face, and a buzz went around the room. He took the stage and gave a speech, blasting the VVD party’s ‘scare tactics.’ He even ended with a personal plea: ‘If anyone here is so afraid you’re seriously thinking of emigrating, call me. If you feel threatened, please talk to me first. Call my office. I’ll take the call, 24 /7.’ It was one of the more powerful speeches I’ve ever seen.
The second time I met Mayor van der Laan was an interview for AmsterdamFM’s ‘Expat Radio.’ The idea was that the show would be in English. Luckily, when Mr. Van der Laan arrived, his English was perfect. But before we went on the air, he said he planned to do the interview in Dutch. Well, specifically, we’d do the interview ‘ieder zijn eigen taal’ – I’d ask questions in English, and he’d answer in Dutch. We agreed – if anyone was actually listening – it would be good for their Dutch.
Amsterdam’s previous mayor was more ambitious. Mayor Job Cohen once appeared in Theater Stadsschouwburg to speak to an international crowd, and he spoke English. He came onstage, and – instead of saying ‘Good evening, good evening’ – he said, ‘Good night, good night.’ He got a huge laugh. And he smiled, as if to say, ‘I guess I’m funny.’ But we were in the audience thinking, ‘that was the shortest speech ever…’
At the radio interview, I relayed that anecdote to Mayor Van der Laan. He said that he’d had English coaching, and he’d heard that there’s a big pitfall for Dutch politicians: ‘the moment you tell yourself “I can speak the English fluid.”’
Eberhard van der Laan, you were a class act. Rest in peace, Amsterdam’s beloved mayor.