A Minor Incident in Amsterdam
In 2018, we commissioned 51 authors from 25 countries to write essays exploring ideas about freedom for The Freedom Papers, a publication produced in partnership with Gutter Magazine. Read on for Graeme Macrae Burnet's essay, and visit guttermag.co.uk to purchase a copy of The Freedom Papers.
Sometime last year I was in Amsterdam for a couple of days. On the first evening, before I went back to my hotel, I wandered the streets for a while. It was about ten o’clock. I went into a pub. It was a traditional kind of place: wooden floor, wooden counter, wooden tables, wooden chairs. As it was summer, most of the customers were sitting on the pavement terrace outside. One table inside was occupied by a group of men, who I surmised to be a mixture of students and university lecturers. Their conversation alternated between Dutch and French. Not knowing if a system of table service was in operation, I ordered a beer at the bar, paid, and sat down by the window. I took a book from my bag, but I didn’t read it. It was a prop to make me feel less conspicuous.
The establishment was run by two men in their mid- to late fifties, both smartly turned out in crisp white shirts and black trousers. I say ‘run by’, but I don’t know if they ran the place or were merely employees. I suppose on account of their age I assumed they owned it. One of the men served the drinks and set them out on the counter, while the other waited on the tables. The bartender was of medium height, stocky and balding, with a dark brown moustache. The guy waiting tables was tall, six feet two or three. His hair was grey and neatly combed. He worked at an unhurried pace, as if to demonstrate his lack of subservience. When he collected the glasses from the tables or emptied the ashtrays, he bent a little at the knee in a way that suggested his back was troubling him. Now and again, when he thought he was not being observed, he massaged his spine with the heel of his hand. It struck me that the guy behind the bar might have taken a turn waiting on the tables. As he was shorter, even if he had a bad back, he wouldn’t have had to stoop.
Most of the customers ordered their drinks from the waiter, but a few ordered at the bar. This latter group consumed their drinks standing at the counter, making small talk with the bartender, but I was nevertheless reassured that I had not acted wholly inappropriately. After a while I got up and ordered another beer. Of course, I could have ordered it from the waiter with the bad back, but this would have revealed that I hadn’t previously properly understood the system (that if you sat at a table you ordered from the waiter). This way it would just appear that I was the kind of guy who preferred to order his beers at the bar. In any case, I was sitting only a few feet from the counter, and it would have seemed needlessly complicated to order from the waiter; have him communicate my order to the bartender; wait for him to bring it to me, and then decide whether I was going to pay there and then or set up a tab – this with the additional potential complication that I had already paid for the first beer. I would furthermore have felt that we were somehow adopting the roles of master and servant, and that he would feel that I was deliberately setting out to humiliate him.
The following evening, I again had some time to kill before I went back to my hotel. I was free to go to another bar—to do whatever I liked, in fact—but I returned to the same place. None of the tables inside were occupied. I bought my beer, and sat down on the same chair at the same table as before. The division of labour was unchanged. As on the previous evening, a few men dropped in for a quick one at the bar. About midway through my second beer, the waiter with the bad back entered from the terrace and stood two or three steps inside the doorway. His tray was stacked with empty cups and glasses. A conversation ensued. No voices were raised, but it was heated. It all became clear. The two men were brothers. They had been running the bar together for decades. Finally the waiter had had enough. He was fed up running back and forth between the counter and the terrace, while his brother stood around doing nothing but pulling pints and chatting to the regulars. Years of built-up resentment poured forth. The bartender was impassive. What could he do? This was the way it was; the way they had always done things. If his brother felt so strongly about it, why hadn’t he said something before? They could hardly start changing things round now. Not after all these years. The waiter made no response. After a moment, he exhaled slowly. He placed the empties on the counter and loaded the fresh drinks that had been set out there onto his tray. Then he took them to the customers outside. The bartender glanced in my direction and I diverted my eyes to my book.
Other than myself, no one had witnessed the incident. I took my time over what was left of my drink, not wishing to appear disturbed by what had taken place. Of course, the conversation had been in Dutch and I had not understood a word of it. They could have been talking about anything. They were probably not even brothers. They didn’t even look alike.
Copyright © 2018, Graeme Macrae Burnet. All rights reserved.
Supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund through Creative Scotland.