I used to do something quite different, I played games for a living: backgammon, poker, gin rummy. My former road buddy quit this profession about 10 years before I did, and said, “If you become a tour guide, you’d still be one of the youngest”. I was about 45 so I said ‘You’re kidding me”, but he said ‘No, it’s really like a lot of seniors, like elderly ladies, especially in Holland, you’ll still be one of the young bright stars”.
I speak my languages fairly well, so I thought I might have a small edge in that department and I’ve always had a keen interest for especially history. I had to do quite a bit of work to fill in some gaps in my knowledge in art and architecture especially. I like to deal with people, that’s always been my forte, and I like to read – as a tour guide you end up doing quite a bit of reading – so it looked like this would be a good career move and I think it turned out to be so.
How did you make the transition to becoming a guide?
For the first half year I went along with a couple of these guys I work together with closely [now]. I visited a lot of museums, and did a lot of reading, and Googling, finding out stuff. I also followed the official course to become a Dutch tour guide, although it’s not a protected profession in Holland.
It took me about eight months before I started, then I thought, “Okay, I just have to try it now, otherwise I’ll just keep studying and studying and studying”. It’s better to get going and learn as you go along. Of course, people asked questions and I would honestly say “Well, I really don’t know the answer”, but if I had time, I’d probably quickly Google it and if I still couldn’t find it, I would give people my business card and say “Send me an email and I’ll answer the question in detail for you at a later stage”, and then of course I would learn some more, so that’s basically how I progressed.
What does a typical day look like for you?
At the moment, it’s crazy busy and it looks like tourism is booming still, although Amsterdam is already of course a major attraction , or has been a major attraction for many years.
So, yesterday for instance I had three bookings, which is kind of unusual, but two bookings per day at the moment is fairly normal.
What I usually do is walking tours, a roughly three hour walking tour, I think that’s the most booked one, a three to four hour bike tour – occasionally I do a six, seven or eight hour bike tour if people really want to go see the countryside and they’re really good bike riders, we cover quite a bit of ground. I also end up doing a lot of guiding in the Rijksmuseum and the van Gogh [museum]. Sometimes I work for architectural firms that want to delve deep into modern architecture.
I show people the Begijnhof; people do find it, but it’s not something you run into, you really have to do your own research otherwise you don’t find it because it’s one of these hidden courtyards.
It’s interesting for the story of the almost civil war between Catholics and Protestants, and [the fact that] on the other hand, Amsterdam was basically a safe haven for Jewish people. So Catholics had to content themselves with so called hidden house churches, whereas the Jewish people at the time were allowed to build by far the largest synagogue in the world, so it brings the history alive a little bit. And it’s just a lovely little courtyard with some nice architecture, some nice old houses and gable stones, and there’s a beautiful wooden house, so there’s a lot to see, basically with one visit you cover quite a few thematic things in Amsterdam.
There are two churches in that courtyard, one is the former Catholic church these lay sisters were using, of course the church was closed down, like all the Roman Catholic churches and institutions, but the ladies were allowed to build themselves a hidden church; it wasn’t so apparent from the outside but everybody knew it was there, so it’s linking the past and the present.
That’s how I try to guide, I give ‘infotainment’, as I call it, not just boring facts and numbers…I try to spice it up with funny stuff, anecdotes, and try to explain why some things are happening today due to things that happened in our past, and explain the Dutch mentality.
Do you have a certain style of guiding?
As a former poker player, I think I’m pretty good at observing people and quickly trying to determine what their interests are, so if they’re more into hearing all kinds of historical and architectural details or if they’re more longing for light hearted stuff and anecdotes and funny stories about the red light district, or the gay community or actual stuff that’s happening.
Being flexible, and infotainment, those are my two strengths.
What is the best part of your job?
Hanging out with people that are in a good mood, that are in holiday mode and just trying to have a good time. In my previous job, I was just trying to make money from people, taking their money basically, and of course, that would lead to some negativity and people complaining, whereas now people are just enjoying themselves, having a good time.
Sometimes it feels like I’m not even working: on a nice day, when I had a four hour bike tour with a German doctor and all his staff, it was great weather, 26 to 27 degrees, so I basically went out in my shorts and t-shirt and my wife said “So, did you have a nice day of hard work?!”
I’m proud of my city, it’s fun to hang out with people and just biking around, walking around, it doesn’t really feel like hard work.
I must say, I haven’t had that many weird experiences. Actually my first bus tour that I did was kind of weird. It was a group of Vietnamese people. I was to meet with a guy who was Vietnamese but spoke some German, he was their representative for Europe. The group showed up with four big cardboard boxes and the whole day they were schlepping them along, and I was wondering what was happening.
I was telling stories about the landscape and windmills, and then I heard the guy – he was supposed to…translate what I had just said – but I had spoken about windmills and water management and I heard him talking about Julius Caesar and Napoleon, so I started laughing and at some stage I basically gave up and said to the guy ‘You just tell whatever you want to tell.”
Everybody loved me still, they wanted pictures with me and this and that, and at the end of the evening, we went to dinner, and they were still schlepping these four big boxes along; it turned out it was all bottles of vodka, so I had to drink vodka with them. I said, “It’s Russian, right?” and they said “No, no, in Vietnam, we also drink vodka.”
After dinner, we had planned to go with the whole group, about 60 people, [and] I would show them the Red Light district but in the end there was only one guy who could still stand on his legs. I took him for a walk for about 20 minutes, showed him a few of the girls behind the windows, and then said “I think this enough now, I think we should go back to the hotel.”
What stories from the city’s past do you tell when visiting the Rijksmuseum?[I talk] about the 17th Century. Amsterdam was, for some 200 years running, the wealthiest city in the world, the financial and commercial centre of the world. The Rijksmuseum is basically the first time in history when human life is very well documented, because the pictures are very realistic and they give you a good impression of how life was in the 17th Century. So you might like modern art or you might like van Gogh, then it’s more about the art, whereas the Rijksmuseum is about art but also it’s like a little history lesson.
I think both museums are a must, if you come to Amsterdam you must see the Rijksmuseum and you must see the van Gogh.
Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?
The thing I don’t like is that, now, I have to work very hard and a lot of weekends are included, which my wife doesn’t like. My kids are still very young but when they’re a little bit older I think we’re going to do stuff in the weekends. My wife works during the week so I’m probably going to switch to blocking all my weekends, which will hurt my business considerably, because a lot of people come for weekend trips to Amsterdam.
Also everything is crammed into seven months, especially in January up to 15th March, there are no bookings, so it’s kind of annoying.
But, of course, it’s my own decision, I can always block certain bookings, but I feel bad, there’s always an inclination to accept all bookings.
You miss out on a lot of stuff. Of course, you can walk around the city with your little booklet but it gives very little information and then if a question arises, you don’t have anybody there to answer the question for you. Nowadays, you could walk around with your iPads and Google all your questions, but you still miss out on nice places to go to grab a coffee, or funny little things like anecdotes.
If I now visit a city with my family, we always hire a guide, although sometimes I think it’s kind of expensive, we still do it because it really adds to the experience. I ‘d say it’s basically a must-do. Especially with the bike tours, I take people to lovely places they would never have come to by themselves.
Tell us something about Amsterdam that only a guide would know.
There’s a famous skinny bridge in Amsterdam, which is not a skinny bridge at all, it’s like five metres long, there once was a skinny bridge [there] about 95 years ago but of course, it’s still referred to as the skinny bridge.
I take people to the most skinny bridge, which is not even a metre wide and is a little hidden gem. It’s really nice to shoot a picture there and people can tell their friends, “This is the real skinny bridge”.
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?
A good tour guide adjusts to the needs of the people, their interests, and a good tour guide should know a lot of stuff but not be trying to prove that they know a lot. If the question comes, they should be able to answer it, of course, because that’s also what you get paid for, but not necessarily be blurting out information all the time. I think infotainment is more important.
And also a little bit of small talk to make people feel at ease, and not just be like some sort of school teacher, ranting on about years and numbers.
At the end of my tours, people feel that they’ve been shown the city by a friend.