Completely surreal. That has to be the first impression as you explore Amsterdam. Drop into an innocent-looking coffee shop to rest your weary legs, and you come out high as a kite from inhaling second-hand marijuana smoke. Take a walk into the old city in the evening, along the picturesque canals, and it's like walking past high-class lingerie shops - but they all have live models in the windows.
In the rest of the city the roads are as wide as in the US, the pavements (or sidewalks) are wide enough for ten people to walk abreast, and the ever-present cycle tracks are as wide as most English country lanes. And down the middle of the roads run the trams - crossing the whole combination to get to the other side of the road becomes a life-threatening gamble.
And those trams. Following the reputed Dutch traditions of totally efficient, yet rather "laid-back" service, they run absolutely to time. And the conductors never fail to announce the stations as they approach - but in such a thick Dutch accent so as to make it only intelligible to locals who have lived there all their life. Tourists? No chance!
Yes, surreal is a good description - but what about the conference? Well, in some ways, "surreal" applied here too. The famous RAI Conference Centre certainly lived up to its reputation for efficiency, yet seemed strangely deserted and eerie at times. A huge lake, but only three ducks. A one-ton spherical lump of granite slowly turning on water jets. Automatic rotating doors that started rotating just in time to trap your foot if you weren't constantly aware.
Yet, once inside, the familiar atmosphere of a computer programmers' conference. Multi-lingual attendees speaking their own languages in small groups, and eating equally multi-lingual (if unidentifiable) food. At the same time an air of speculation about the future, excitement about Microsoft's .NET software, questions about what route to choose through the increasingly frenetic software development cycles. And, on so many lips, "Yes, but should we be doing Java?"
As a speaker, I marveled at the superb conference rooms. Excellent acoustics, good lighting, comfortable chairs, fabulous sound quality from the PA - and an engineer on hand all the time. Unlike certain other conferences, there were no half-working radio mikes or fire alarms going off at regular intervals. However, I did notice the occasional load "bing-bong" over the main conference speaker system - yet nothing else. I kept expecting "The train now standing at platform two is the eight-twenty to Chipping Norton..." but no - just "bing-bong". Very strange.
Of course, what really makes a conference is the interaction with other attendees - especially where beer is included in the process. Most I spoke too seemed to be tempted by .NET, yet already well down the road of other technologies like traditional Microsoft ASP, or open source platforms, or both. I tried to advise on technical issues, give "broad-brush" approaches to technologies like XML and .NET, help out with specific problems, and I even give one attendee some tips on how to approach an interview. He's probably got no chance of the job now.
Overall, it seemed to be very successful. All the attendees I spoke to said they were finding it useful and stimulating. And I only saw one nodding off during my sessions. While the turnout was somewhat smaller that in the US, the interaction - and two-way process of trying to introduce, demonstrate and explain technologies - worked just as well. Shame that my live samples seemed less than completely stable this time - maybe they were picking up some of that "laid-back" spirit from the surroundings.