The Virtue of European Tolerance
Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act
09.01.09 | 10:23 AM ET
I am hopeful that Europe can overcome the challenge of its new ethnic mix because of its proven track record for pluralism. While Europe has no shortage of closed-minded, knee-jerk opinions, most Europeans consider tolerance a virtue to be cultivated.
At the leading edge of this thinking is the Netherlands. Historically, this corner of Europe saw some of the most devastating Catholics-versus-Protestants fighting in the religious wars following the Reformation. They learned to be inclusive, welcoming Jews when others wouldn’t and providing refuge to religious refugees (such as our nation’s Pilgrim founders). And, as a major maritime power during the Age of Discovery, the Netherlands became a gateway to Europe for emigrants and immigrants (and their ideas) to and from all over Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Based on lessons learned from their history, it seems the Dutch have made a conscious decision to tolerate alternative lifestyles.
When I’m in the Dutch town of Haarlem, I’m struck by the harmony and compromise people have worked out between tradition and modernity, virtuous lives and hedonistic vices, affluence and simplicity. People live well—but in small apartments, getting around by bike and public transit. While the frugal Dutch may keep the same old one-speed bike forever, they bring home new flowers every day. The typical resident commutes by train to glassy skyscrapers to work for giant corporations in nearby office parks, but no skyscraper violates Haarlem’s downtown cityscape, which is still dominated by elegant old gables and church spires. In Haarlem, the latest shopping malls hide behind Dutch Renaissance facades. Streets are clogged with cafe tables and beer-drinkers. The cathedral towers over the market square with its carillon ringing out its cheery melody as policemen stroll in pairs—looking more like they’re on a date than on duty.
Two blocks behind the cathedral, a coffeeshop (a place that legally sells marijuana) is filled with just the right music and a stoned clientele. People, enjoying a particularly heavy strain of marijuana, stare at their rolling papers as if those crinkly critters are alive. Others are mesmerized by the bubbles in their bongs.
And down by the canal, a fairytale of cobbled lanes and charming houses gather around a quiet little church, creating a scene right out of a Vermeer painting. But this neighborhood is different. Lonely men, hands in pockets, stroll as they survey prostitutes who giggle and flirt from their red-lit windows.
I recently happened upon a gay pride parade in the Netherlands. The entire gay community was out, it seemed, doing its flamboyant best to share their particular love of life. The streets were lined with tens of thousands of straight and more conservative Dutch people. I happened to be observing from the curb surrounded by what seemed like a senior center out on a field trip. I was struck by how all the leather, sex toys, and delirious mooning from a long line of slow-moving flatbed trucks was seen simply as entertainment and a celebration of freedom. Try as they might, all that in-your-face gay hedonism couldn’t shock the straight and elderly crowd of onlookers.
That’s European tolerance for you.