I first visited Western Europe at the age of 25, three to 10 years later than many of my peers. The recaps of their trips always sounded a little too spring break-y for an experience I felt should have been equal parts intoxication and cultural indoctrination. Waiting a few years, I reasoned, would give me the maturity to achieve a higher-minded consciousness once I went, and wouldn’t put me in debt to boot.
For the most part, I was right. Sure, my friends and I occasionally got hammered, but it was a slower, more vino-centric soiling than it would have been at 22. But Amsterdam really tested our mettle, and not due to its legalized grab-bag of narcotica. I was at a bar one afternoon with a friend when we encountered a similarly-aged tourist from the Middle East. My friend had a cursory knowledge of French, while I had a cursory understanding of Spanish and Italian. These cursory understandings got us nowhere with our new friend, and yet we somehow communicated through gesturing and what I can only describe as telepathy (helped along, perhaps, by the hash). Occasional grunts came out of our mouths, if only to prove to one another that we weren’t deaf-mutes, but verbal communication proved entirely inessential.
Nine years passed before I experienced a case of déjà vu in regards to that Amsterdam afternoon. This happened in the unlikeliest of places: The Beachcomber in Skyway, an ethnically diverse, staunchly middle class, largely unincorporated neighborhood which occasionally intertwines with the city’s southeastern boundaries. While The Beachcomber isn’t actually on the beach (it’s up the hill), it has a gorgeous neon-blue sign befitting a Hermosa Beach dune dive. It used to be owned by the proprietors of Mike’s Chili Parlor, the Semandiris family, whose longtime residential headquarters actually sit on the lakefront below. Hence, the bar’s kitchen is held to a higher culinary standard than most, and its delicious, gigantic homemade jo-jo’s are more suited for dinosaurs than humans.
But back to Amsterdam: On the afternoon before Thanksgiving, at approximately 1:30, the bar began filling up with regulars, not one of whom had to tell the bartender, a friendly middle-aged woman, what they wanted to drink. She knew exactly what each of them preferred as soon as they walked in the door—’tender-tippler telepathy, if you will. If you want to know what keeps great neighborhood bars afloat, then, it’s as simple as communicating with a foreigner with whom you share no linguistic common ground.