Obama Visit 2023

Barack Obama in a field of Dutch tulips

Rory, founder of Amsterdam Tulips Tour, and a certain Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, in a field of tulips in Noord Beemster.

The Unlikeliest of Clients

My two brothers were in town for Kings Day on April 27, when Amsterdam becomes one giant open-air party. We don’t run any tours that day and last year I also wisely took off April 28. On that day, my brother Brian and I were taking the train from Hoorn, where I now live, to Amsterdam to pick up the tour minivan from Rachel. As one does, I checked my phone for email.

VIP Tulip Tour Inquiry

A message began, “Hello Rory, I have a VIP interested in a tulip tour.” The prospect unfolded: a VIP with personal transport and a security detail wanted a private tulip tour. Although we were fully booked, the allure of a VIP on tour sparked excitement. The mystery deepened as Rachel, Brian, and I speculated; Barack Obama was reportedly in town for a speaking tour. I had previously worked in the film business in Los Angeles and was familiar with Hollywood VIP-treatment. The preparations being mooted went far beyond those.

Presidential Style Treatment

While Rachel and Brian teased me for even considering the possibility it was Obama, negotiations with the mysterious VIP’s handler continued. We agreed to reschedule the tour for Monday. The client hinted at the VIP’s identity without revealing it outright. When I guessed “B” as the first initial, a knowing chuckle followed. The references shifted from security to the Secret Service, and the reality of meeting the 44th President sunk in.

The Big Day Arrives

On the actual tour day, protocol dictated a different experience than other tours (not that shocking!). As a former US President’s tour, there was no driving together or an extended tour. I awaited the entourage at the tulip field, ready to share the story of Dutch tulips.

Early on the tour day, I met with the handler (remarkably mild-mannered, though very thorough), a Secret Service agent, and Dutch security forces officers. The entourage, including Barack Obama, gradually assembled at the other end of the field. Anticipation built as I watched them approach, and those moments were the most surreal part of the entire experience. 

A Presidential Encounter in the Tulip Fields

I had been curious if I’d be nervous or relaxed, but Obama greeted me with a warm handshake and thanked me for taking the time to meet him and his friends. I responded that it was very gracious of him, but that I suspected I’d ultimately get more from the encounter than he would.

If you’re a right-wing American then I’m sorry to disappoint and report that Barack was relaxed, humorous, curious, engaged! Everyone was in a good mood, and the size of group also meant there was great energy in the air. I sometimes start by asking the group to estimate how many tulips they see in front of them. The answer is two million, but I give no context and this means answers can vary wildly from 10,000 to 30 million. Barack’s answer was furthest off: 80,000, and this got a bit of a laugh. I assume he never personally negotiated any agricultural trade deals.

 

Obama shaking hands with a tulips tour guide
Shaking hands with the man himself
Barack Obama and friends near a field of tulips
And then with his friends
Betsie shakes hands with Barack
Barack Obama with a tulips tour guide and a tulips farmer near Amsterdam
Obama was very curious and had plenty of questions for Betsie and me
Betsie explains how she harvests tulips bulbs using nets

The Bit With Bruce Springsteen

After about 15 minutes I explained that the field we were in was owned by the Betsie and Loek Konijn. They were nearby and so I beckoned them over. As a little aside, the evening before I had to reveal to Betsie the identity of the VIP visitor – this was because I needed to be sure that they wouldn’t cut the tulips a day or two early. Can you imagine doing a tulip tour without tulips for the most famous person in the world? Anyway, I told Betsie who it was and swore her to secrecy. To her credit, she didn’t even tell her husband!

Betsie and Loek came over, and started going into more detail about tulips with Obama. Famously, he and Bruce Springsteen are friends and just that week Michelle Obama had appeared on stage at a concert of his in Barcelona. The Konijns happen to be BIG fans of The Boss and even named their (female!) dog Bruce. This is quite a nice talking point and so I introduced it into the conversation. Barack then got out his phone and dialed Bruce Springsteen so that he could introduce Betsie.

Alas, Bruce didn’t pick up. It’s kind of fun to picture the Boss screening calls, thinking oh God, not Obama again!

Barack Obama with Dutch tulip farmers
Barack with Betsie and Loek (centre) and their son Niek and his wife Cristal

Winding Down

Ultimately I think the whole thing lasted maybe 30 or 40 minutes. Rachel had travelled with me too, but the handler had asked that she hang back and said that she’d get to meet Obama on his way back to the vehicles. Given the festive moment in the field and the fact that it was a 10-minute walk back to the cars, I sensed that the moment was going to pass by the time that was scheduled to happen. So, she got clearance to come and join the group, and she was able to share a few last tulip facts with Obama.

Barack Obama with two tulip tour guides in Amsterdam
Rachel(with her back to camera) and Rory saying goodbye to Obama

The Aftermath

During the event itself, it all felt very normal! It was me simply explaining tulips on a tulips farm, which is what I do most days in April. I went home and somehow felt – well, not underwhelmed. There was no press there and I had been asked not to take photos myself, so I didn’t. I was told I’d get some later in the week.  So, I didn’t have any photos to share. 

However, word started to get out in the local region that Obama had visited, and people at my day job knew that I was having a VIP client – I was sworn to secrecy but then they guessed. Then someone else sent me the picture taken above and I could send that to a few friends, and eventually a batch of photos came. And though I really dislike Facebook these days, of course I put one up there. And yeah, the amount of reactions and congratulations was quite gratifying.

All in all, thank you Barack (and also thank you to Barack’s handler for choosing Amsterdam Tulips Tour)!