PROLOGUE. It is 2007. I'm in Mumbai and I look ridiculous. In a time of aesthetic delirium have I managed to opt for an "artsy rat-tail" which mostly resembles the hideous haircut that the Italian footballer Roberto Baggio decided to disgrace himself with in the mid-nineties. I wear T-shirts made of hemp with dancing mushrooms in the logo and I never walk a step without my copy of the deeply overrated bestseller Shantaram. I am obviously a confused young man that in the bitter retrospective can seem as both an envious and embarrassing creature.
The sweat is pouring down my face as I clearly can't handle the copious amounts of black Afghan that has entered my body. The seconds that I am not too occupied with keeping my anxious brain from blowing up or listening to the rats that are running inside these hostel walls of papier-mâché, I stare at the man in front of me. His name is Julius and he does frightens me a bit. A tall, white man in his late forties he has for the one hour or so that we have known each other been rolling up joints in a frenetic pace while babbling on about his late mother that recently left him with a big inheritance. As uncertain and hypomanic as his appearance, Julius great plan is to spend all those money by travelling the world just sampling all of the different types of cannabis that there is to try. In many ways a great and admiring vision even though I can't stop questioning if he really did need to travel all over the world to do this. Julius is namely from Amsterdam and he can probably score most of that at his local coffee shop.
As the hazy night in Mumbai progresses we are obviously interacting with each other more and more as our archaic relatives, the Homo neanderthalensis. We have miraculously found out that our respective languages are quite similar and a natural consequence of this is that we are comparing the pronunciations of our body parts, Julius on Dutch and me on Swedish. Julius points at his nose and moans a primitive neus. For me it is näsa which is quite similar. I respond by beating my chest and then uttering a distinct bröst. Julius pounds back and reveals a matching borst. We fall out in mad ecstasy as we understand the linguistic breakthroughs that we are currently deciphering. We continue until we run out of things to compare and as we are eventually getting dramatically hungry we decide to drag our intoxicated bodies out on the streets of Colaba for some dubious night grub. After this I have never seen that man again. Julius from Amsterdam. END OF PROLOGUE.
It is a slow night at Café Chris. There is only me, a handful of devoted regulars and the owner Nel. Old eighties ballads give warmth to the cold December night outside and so does the shot of Jenever in front of me, of course poured to the top just like how the Dutch spirit is supposed to be served. I am in Amsterdam over the night as I intend to visit a couple of the city's most iconic old bars. My objective is clear and specific; I want to understand the genealogical ancestry of Northern European bar culture. I am referring to those places that is most commonly described as brown bars, no matter if in Holland, Belgium or Denmark. They are old, simple drinking dens where the wallpapers have turned brown because of years of smoking inside and they are most often associated with the working class that emerged side by side during the rise of the industrialised modern city. As anachronistic these bars can appear in an era of glorified "speakeasies", Korean burritos and the global epidemic of fro-yo shops - as self-evident were they once before. These were social institutions to be found scattered on every block, by so being the epicentres which daily city-life revolved around. And as with all beautiful things in life they are naturally an endangered specie today, making them ever so enthralling to explore. It is this cross-bordering culture that I wish to learn more about. This is my reason for coming here.
I feel slightly bewildered after a couple of small beers at Café Chris. The light that beams out of the white-blue Bols advertisement on glass feels almost misleadingly biblical as it rises over the covered pool table in the middle of the room. Together with the high, scenic windows and the printings of Latin numbers in the roof beams one could actually believe to be in a mini cathedral of some sort. Whatever it is, it is definitely not a place where I am used to get my buzz on. I feel very much abroad. I feel very much away. What kind of mystic country is this anyway? Holland. So close, still so distant. Between the weird names, the chocolate sprinkles on the breakfast toast and the casual attitude towards window-shopping sexual services - I don't know what I know about this country. Does these people actually exist? My experience of Dutch culture appear as collected from fairy tales and urban myths. Amsterdam is only an eight hours drive from southern Sweden, yet at its most potent and peculiar state it seems to exist in a parallel world or a forgotten time. Just look at this bar. It is like a scene from Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven. "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December".. Apparently Rembrandt used to come here. Only that. Anne Frank went to hiding in a house just a stone's throw away. There is a staircase in the back that leads to the owner Nel's apartment. She lives upstairs just as the premodern ideals of burghers and merchants would suggest. Another interesting feature is the old toilet cistern that is being flushed inside the bar area as there is no space for it inside the small men's room that is squeezed in behind a secret door. Standards of modern society, fuck off.
I like Nel. If she was a little bit younger and I was a whole lot older I would probably have asked to move in with her in the apartment upstairs. Then this beautiful bar would be mine and I would change my name to Chris. Chris Van Buyten maybe. No, I am just fooling around. I got a wife and a kid. But really, she did take care of me like a terrific hostess just knows how. She kept this lonely drinker company and showed him around the bar. We talked some about the history of the place and about the neighbourhood it happens to be a part of, the picturesque Jordaan. She had herself been guarding this jewel since about fifteen years ago but before that there had been a whole lot of other people running this place. 1624 was the year the first liquor license was granted to this bar, then being a "lunch facility" for the construction workers of the astonishing and nearby Westerkerk. At the time, the café had separate entrances; one for ‘workers" and one for "masters" and it was here the former went to collect their wages.
1624. That's 394 years of being in business. I felt almost ashamed to draw comparisons with the eighty year old brown bar youngsters I usually frequent up in Copenhagen. They are greenhorns compared to this antique. And the fact that this is still a neighbourhood's joint. That is absurd. I am of course aware that the summer draws a bigger tourist crowd, but still. Places like these don't usually survive in this reputable manner. They provide oversized t-shirts with the matching logo and charge a month's salary for a drink. But not Café Chris.
But how much for my overambitious endeavours of mapping the brown bar culture in the European north as a pattern of transnational resemblance? As I watched the centuries old beer mugs that were hanging over the bar counter I was not so sure about my case. In vain they had been waiting patiently for their regulars to return for such a long time that I wondered if I haven’t overestimated the relatedness of things. Beside the common term - is there really that much that unites these places of brown shades? Café Chris served drinks before Galileo was taken to court for his heliocentric beliefs. Long before there was any pavements on the streets. During those days there was nothing but barbarian woods where I’m from. People were burning witches and speaking freaking Danish. I don’t know what is most disturbing. Anyhow, it seemed like a far-fetched comparison considering that this pre-industrial relic stands on its own history, much distant to the working class culture of the 20th century that I associate the brown bars with. I wondered; is there really a connection and why do I even bother?
I thought about Julius and that hazy night ten years ago in Mumbai. This was after all his city. I smiled a bit when remembering our rambling dialogue at the hostel room. It was of a lowbrow nature maybe but linguistically we did share something in common, me and him. Language as a mirror of nature. The great philosopher Richard Rorty once argued that there is no world to connect with outside of language. Did this include two stoners like us as well? If so, what could the similarities within the Germanic language family say about the affinity of my main concern, the brown bars? Once again I felt foolishly confident. I needed to get out and explore this further more. More of Amsterdam. More of the bruin cafés. Thank you, Nel. It was indeed a pleasure. Julius, I'm on my way! To be continued.
Drinks? Behold the culture of the beer foam scraper making even the serve of a watery Amstel taste delicious. It's art.
Munch? Behold the Kaasstengels which is some sort of Dutch-Indonesian cheese cookie in the form of a stick. Also art.
Where? Bloemstraat 42, 1016 LC Amsterdam, Holland.
I'm always on the lookout for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I´ll stop by!