The townhouses bear the hallmarks of Dutch design, with their distinctive stepped gables, narrow footprints, and cheerful facades. Many stand near the harbor, overlooking a continuous traffic of cargo through the city's busy port facilities.
Well -- no.
Actually, it's Gdansk, about 600 miles away on the Baltic coast.
Yet many of these old-town structures were indeed built by Dutch merchants, who were doing business in Poland 400 years ago -- just as they have been doing business damned near everywhere that mattered over the past four centuries.
South Africa? India? Central America? Indonesia? Australia and New Zealand? Netherlanders were there -- and usually first on the scene, if a guilder were to be made. Even in the closed society of 17th-century Japan, the Dutch were ensconced on Dejima wharf in Nagasaki, quietly engaged in trade as the only foreigners not only tolerated but actually welcomed by the Tokugawa shoguns.
And, of course, Dutchmen had a little something to do with an out-of-the-way island called Manhattan.
It is, all in all, a remarkable history. And it isn't over yet. In fact, if I were looking for a gateway location to enter European markets, establish a European manufacturing presence or partner with an existing European company, the Netherlands is the place Id go.
With only 16.3 million people on just 13,000 square miles of land, the Dutch generate amazingly disproportionate economic activity. As of 2003, for example, they were the eighth largest exporter of goods and services in the world. That put them ahead of Canada (with double the population, and almost 270 times the land mass) and only a little behind Italy and -- if you can believe it -- mainland China. Per capita gross domestic product that year was EUR27,900, which was higher than that of Germany, France or Spain.
The Dutch long ago foresaw the value of having a populace educated in the universal language of commerce, and they spared no effort to achieve nationwide multilingualism. Today, almost everyone in the Netherlands speaks English flawlessly, thanks to decades-old government decisions that put a priority on language education from the earliest school years. Its one of only a minuscule number of countries that imports American and British television programs and airs them with their original English-language soundtracks intact.
That's the sort of far-sighted, detail-oriented people we are talking about. And with 67 percent of their population currently under the age of 40, the odds are that the Dutch will only get smarter -- and more competitive -- in the years to come.
Their levees work pretty well, too.