Native Beneath The Nomad
“Hallo!” A cluster of ashy-haired Dutchmen catcalled at us as we sauntered into Reality Café & Bar on Reguliersdwarsstraat. Despite our entry to the bar having no forethought, we sifted through the mass of fifty year-old gay Dutchmen, heads high, walking with purpose, acting like we belonged.
Jackie, Emma, and I beelined for the bar with feigned confidence, suppressing the urge to laugh or to run or to show our discomfort. As I felt the cramped air and the dense falling sweat misting through the bar, humid on my skin, Jackie’s humored voice rings above the clamor. “Yep! This. Is. It! Exactly it.” Jackie punctuates every word in a staccato sarcasm; she’s the type of girl who considers being in a bar of old gay men to be a funny story for the kids, rather than terribly uncomfortable.
Reality Bar was not the bar we were looking for, as Jackie’s wit pointed out. The place radiated a vibe much older than we were pressed for, so we all downed a shot of jäger and rushed out of there.
Setting out for the gay street, Reguliersdwarsstraat, was our first attempt at free exploration of Europe. Our research told us it had a scene for everybody: bars for guys-into-black-guys, for young-guys-into-old-guys, chill-guys-into-chill-guys—the street should have had a good environment for all gays. Our run-in with Amsterdam’s Finest Dutch Daddies at Reality Bar failed to be our spot, so we found our way to a straight bar Jantjes Verjaardag to get some advice. The bartender, Ro, with his bangs gelled in ridges straight to the back of his head, sold us some drinks and sent us five minutes further down the street. “The good gay bars are five minutes down the road,” he told us, and then with a wry grin pointed across the street at Reality Bar, “I think there it’s a little more your scene than them.”
Our group of three straight guys, three straight girls, and three gay guys searched for something better along Reguliersdwarsstraat. We headed down past Vijzelstraat and Muntplein, crossing under an elaborate stone archway abuzz with tourists in polo shirts with collars popped. Down the road I absorbed the echoes of mirth and youth bounding off the brick buildings, and as we rounded the corner, my eyes widened at an enormous crowd of strictly handsome 20-somethings.
Amsterdam proves again and again to be a city of firsts for so many, and before my first travel weekend in Europe, I had never stepped into a mass of gay people openly gathered like this. Flirtation in many languages, ultra-tight shirts and eyes jauntily shifting in every direction: a rush of excitement shot through me as I felt myself making eye contact and being sized up by all different types of men.
As the bass from Club Nyx reverberated across the street, we slipped past a man in a gold speedo with a feather boa and ended up in another called bar SoHo. it appeared more laid-back, I hyperventilated a little at the sight of all the attractive 20-somethings, shoulders-sitting low, beers in their hands and powwowing around the bar. “EMMA!” I yelled, jerking at her arm. “I have never seen so many normal attractive gay men in one place in my entire life!” I emphatically spat out with cheesy-ass smirk on my face. It seemed unbelievable: men and women, straights and gays, all gabbed and roared with laughter, sitting placidly all around with wine and beer and merely enjoying the company of their friends.
The predatory American gay bars my friends from home tell me about just did not compare to this: here, I felt the warm simplicity of being somewhere you belong with people who are important to you. Comfort came to me in a gay bar full of foreigners, a place I never believed I could feel so at ease.
The next day, I trekked alone to Jordaan to stop at the 40th Jordaan Festival, a yearly celebration of Amsterdam’s folk music tradition. Again I was among a crowd, this time all gleefully intoxicated Dutch men and women of all ages rather than gay 20-somethings.
A female singer, Antje Monteiro, took the stage to sing her song “Butterflies” and the crowd lit up, drinking their Amstel and cheering unintelligible drunken Dutch. As the mob swallowed me up and shoved me around, I took that as my cue to go meet my roommates a few minutes north.
As I walked to the tram, two women came up to me and yelled “PHOTO!” at the sight of my camera and started talking to me in Dutch.
“Sorry?” I murmured, smiling when I saw that their eyes read my Americanness.
“’Is it free?’ is what we asked.” The red-haired one translated.
“Of course!” I laughed. “Just come right here.”
For the photo, they hugged each other real big and glowed with genuine geniality.
“Why are you alone, American?” The brown-haired one asked with inquisitive care.
They looked about my mother’s age, so I felt open with them. “Just wanted to get away. Jordaan seemed like a great place to get lost.”
“Well, you picked the right place, definitely. We’re from Amsterdam and this is the place to be!” The red-haired one beamed at me. “But this Festival is more fun with friends! Why don’t you come with us? We’ll buy you a drink, head with us to the festival!”
“Thank you!” I told them. “But I’m on my way out to meet my roommates.”
“Dank je wel!” I shot them a wave and turned to catch the 4 tram back up towards Westermarkt to meet Carter and Ian.
As I sat on the tram, gazing at the hanging holiday lights adorning the bridges over the Prisengracht, the same feeling of familiarity from SoHo lingered in my chest at the invitation of these two natives. It was a mere simple gesture, but it appealed to the native buried beneath the nomad, the American who craves the comfort of his family, his friends, his home.
The sun had long-set on the canals. As the yellow of the streetlights hovered across the muted ebb of the Keizersgracht, I let my mind wander across the ocean for the first time since leaving; memories of summer flashed into my head. In gay bars and at Dutch festivals, the solace of what lay 3,750 miles away seemed in arm’s length.