Café t Smalle

July 25, 1998

Last night we went back to the Cafe 't Smalle, a "brown bar" not far from where we stayed when we visited Amsterdam four years ago. An authentic brown bar, like this one, gets its name from the color the walls assume after exposure to centuries of smokers; it is rumored that others get that way from paint.

Although the Cafe 't Smalle is pretty small, during the summer this doesn't matter because the customers gather outside, in the narrow street in front and on the bank of the canal across the street. The crowd is a varied group: ages from 20s to 70s; singles, couples and groups; straight and gay. Their drinks are equally varied: many kinds of beers, mostly from Belgium; whisky, vodka, Calvados, and the native genever; expresso, cappuccino, and regular; and a sprinkling of fruit sodas. (Although gin has its origin in genever, which means juniper in Dutch, the flavor is very different. We tried it once and found it unpalatable – perhaps it's an acquired taste.)

There are several benches bolted to the sidewalk, and many wicker chairs, along the sidewalk and on another ten feet of dock to which customers who arrive by boat can tie up. These groups often provide a good part of the evening's entertainment. One night a boat pulled crisply into position and the captain stepped off the bow to make it fast while his passenger came ashore at the stern. The landlubber's inept attempts at knots were roundly derided by the onlookers, who provided plentiful suggestions on proper technique until the captain came to the rescue.

Boats of all sizes turn up, from 10 to 30 feet; most seem to carry as many passengers as can be crammed in. An exception was a huge Boston Whaler, occupied by only two people. Another boat equally as long but not as tall slowly cruised by with 17 people. At the time the dock was full and it continued up the canal. Some other boats passed by, then double- and triple-parked, tying up to boats already parked nearby. Nobody seems to mind the newcomers clambering across their boats to get on land, although they sometimes have a problem locating all the parties whose boats are blocking them in when it's time to leave.

The long low boat returned with only a few people and tied up at the now vacant pier; there was even room for the dinghy they towed. After a while, others congregated on board and we heard the sound of jazz. It came from a tape player, but soon was joined by a live saxophone and trumpet. My first thought was that we were being subjected to another group of buskers looking for donations1. But this was not the case, and after a couple of songs they slowly chugged away, continuing to entertain passersby as well as their passengers.

1There are some high quality acts. One group of jugglers occasionally appearing in the nearby Leidesplein works their way up to juggling chain saws and swords and concludes with them perched atop towering unicycles, tossing flaming torches to each other through a flaming hoop. However, most are "musicians" so amateurish as to be little more than panhandlers. Fortunately, unlike what we encountered in Frankfurt, there do seem to be some kind of rules preventing them from "serenading" captive café patrons.

The first day here we encountered a genuine panhandler; he started by asking if we spoke English, then asking for a guilder (about $.50). We rebuffed him but he later approached us in another part of town; this time we just ignored him. Several days later while having coffee across from the Leidesplein we saw another guy using basically the same approach, although he was claiming that he needed the money to buy a phone card. He seemed to be a good judge of character; he didn't try everybody, but in 20 minutes he had scored over a dozen contributions. Then the first panhandler appeared and they talked for a while – evidently they were splitting up the territory!

© Copyright 1998 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved