A tourist in search of something increasingly hard to find.
Since being in Amsterdam, I’ve felt out of place, which must be karmic justice for all the times I’ve laughed at tourists’ faux pas in San Francisco. There was something mesmerizing about watching waves of them wash over the kitschy, knick-knack-driven economy of Fisherman’s Wharf, or up the winding, brick-laden Lombard street, past the homes that no one’s ever seen anyone walk out of because as far as I know, no one does. When I’d see those tourists walking I’d find myself compelled to get out of the car, shake them, and say, “No, not there. Literally anywhere but there.” Now I’m left to wonder if I’ve taken their place; if I am doing the same in Amsterdam as I sit at a café whose authenticity I doubt less than that of Fisherman’s Wharf, but nonetheless displays the classic signals of an establishment bowed to the wants of the market, like a tree to wind.
As with most coffee shops, the wood on my table is dark and ridged and reclaimed, and the sugar that rests in the sealable Ball jars on top of it is brown and raw and granular, like a handful of a younger Sahara. The heart drawn on my latte begs for an iPhone and an Instagram filter like an urban center mural or a flower-headdressed Coachella-goer. I see only one person on anything other than a MacBook, but even more telling: everyone’s headphones are white. Books rest just out of reach on sagging shelving made of the same particleboard that my dad and I used to outfit my 6th grade locker, light and cheap, but the books on it look heavy and dusty, so it’s doing its job, and has been for a while.
I find myself hoping that someone’s read those books, or at least once intended to, because that would mean they’re here for a reason other than the aesthetic. But they look bone-dry and dusty like the top of the dresser in the spare room of my grandparents’ house, and they’re in a coffee shop, not a library. Next to those books are speakers of a different era that might still work but probably don’t, and certainly aren’t responsible for the music echoing softly off the walls; the same music, in fact, that plays not so gently in Apple’s AirPods spot and probably at least a thousand other coffee shops at this exact moment: “Down,” by Marian Hill.¹ And above it all, lamps clamped to frames rest askew, their cords scattered helter-skelter along the ceiling among bits of exposed ductwork, functionally functional but practically useless; there’s a skylight above and a garden out back and the light from both is more than enough for the entire place.
As you walk into the shop, there’s a sign to the right that says: “A day without coffee is like…just kidding, we have no idea,” which is clever, because it means they haven’t had a day without coffee in so long that they can’t remember what a day without coffee is like. The two baristas — one man, one woman — look like this could be true for them (they work in a coffee shop, after all), and they’re pleasant, wearing neon watches and black everything else, tattoos on their arms and white Reeboks on their feet. And the woman is beautiful, her hair white and her eyes blue and her smile welcoming and her English flawless because of all the practice she gets taking orders from people like me who walk in here unsure whether this is a local haunt or a tourist trap or a place for trapped tourists to escape and feel like locals. And it’s places like the last one that have gardens in the back with fountains or benches that people have been photographed on to look authentic, pictures laden with words strung into captions that, once posted, elicit public gasps and private groans while failing to calm the poster’s anxiety that this trip wasn’t living up to their projections of everyone else’s expectations of what the trip would be. Because that’s what matters, of course.
As I sit, I can feel the shop wondering why I sit here judging it, unwilling to admit that a coffee shop might just be a coffee shop, or that this chair might just be a chair. And as I enter minute one hundred or so sniffing around for inauthenticity, it occurs to me that I’ve been doing this the whole trip, and perhaps my whole life, so intent on finding the hypocrisy or hidden agendas within everyone and everything that I’ve neglected to ever simply take something as is. As a child, I would spurn recommendations from waiters and waitresses because I was convinced that what they were recommending was either relatively more lucrative for them or close to going bad and they needed to unload it, and now I’m here doing the same: analyzing the lamps and the chairs and the wood and the jars in an effort to make sure I’m not being played. Maybe it was growing up in a touristy area that conditioned me, but then again maybe not; not everyone who does, after all, does this.
And as people filter in and out ordering food and coffee I realize that they may be doing it not because they’re trying to look a certain way or fulfill a certain aesthetic but because maybe they’re just hungry or tired, and I realize I have no idea what’s authentic and what’s not and I’m not sure anyone else does either. I know when something feels authentic; this coffee shop, after all, “feels authentic,” but in labeling it as such I’ve begun the process of rendering it decidedly not; something can be labeled “authentic” and remain so for a time, but only as long as the characteristics that make it so (reclaimed wood) are not then repurposed to sell more stuff, or hire more people (exposed ductwork, ping pong tables, etc.). And of course, the cases of that happening are fewer and farther between with each passing day; the preservation of an authentically-forged trait, after all, would mean fewer flat whites Starbucks could sell, or a lower star rating on Airbnb. (God forbid.)
We appear to have reached a point where “authenticity” has become so marketable that the delay between a trait existing authentically and being identified and reclaimed by the markets is so small that it may as well not exist. It did not take long, after all, for large corporations to adopt the “exposed ductwork” aesthetic; a characteristic of startups not because it was cool, or because it appealed to employees, but rather because the opportunity cost of covering up the ductwork would’ve been a month’s worth of runway. The idea of authenticity, then, at once a result of availability and affordability; of budget constraints and relative scarcity, is being eroded by the mechanism hailed as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the mechanism that pits traits and ideas and aesthetics against one another and determines what works and what doesn’t, and sits at the heart of economics: markets. Authenticity exists now only momentarily, swept up in hashtags and photographs that alert everyone else to what works so that they may profit until it no longer does, at which point there will be something else. Until, of course, there isn’t.
And so I am left to wonder if this shop’s aesthetic is a response to what someone like me thinks they are looking for when they travel or whether it had a hand in crafting that aesthetic. And if it’s the latter, I am left to wonder if someone else was led serendipitously to this table, where they photographed it and shared it under some hashtag like #liveauthentic, which probably used to mean something, like a high school diploma, or student council position. And I am left wondering, too, if I am that person, or just another in a long line of them; if this article is nothing more than a written version of the same aesthetic I observe in this coffee shop, a response to the market, because Medium has, for better or worse, become one for takes like this one, and this trip to Europe was not cheap.
And I may be. I am the only one in here taking photographs of the interior with a mind for how they’ll look in a Medium post that will echo the other ones being written about the “post-authenticity era.” But I’m taking the photos ironically, of course. I am not trying to share my “authentic” experience, rather I am trying to show just how aware I am that I might not be having one so that no one can call me out on social media after I post some of the photos (via this article) for not being “woke” or unaware that the coffee shop I thought I’d stumbled upon serendipitously was actually trending on Instagram back at the end of 2017 when Kim Kardashian came here and took selfies and then went and got high at another coffee shop down the street that is apparently “over” now.²
I am optimizing for insulation from criticism in the same way an Airbnb host or an Uber driver would optimize for 5-star ratings: don’t take risks; play to the median.³ If you’re the former, put out oranges, apples, and bananas, have coffee available, put reclaimed wood somewhere; if you’re the latter, god forbid you try to strike up a conversation without first being spoken to or roll down the windows unsolicited. The nerve. The audacity. But this is their reality, as dictated by the authenticity antidote: the market.
After sitting for a several hours, I decide to get up and actually walk out to the garden behind the coffee shop to stretch my legs, the last of the caffeine and alcohol from the night prior stuck in traffic on the highways out of my system. I duck under the doorway on my way out and am careful not to trip on any of the bricks, between which creep grasses and weeds and bugs and dirt. And as I walk out into the partial sunlight, I notice a pile of wood, reclaimed in the sense that it was claimed again by whoever owns this shop, probably to supplement the sagging shelves up front. And I look around for a bench but don’t see one, just heaps of wood left out in the rain for too long and bushes that have been hacked back to give people a view of what isn’t really a view, or at least not one worth photographing. But I do anyway. And as I do, I am suddenly conscious of just how bad all of this would look on Instagram, and am left to wonder if this coffee shop is bowed to wants of the market or determining them; if this coffee shop is a tree, bowed to the wind, or the wind, bowing the tree.
¹ No, I am not making this up.
² In Amsterdam, “coffee shops” are shops that sell marijuana. But you can also call an actual coffee shop a coffee shop. It’s weird.
³ And of course a 5-star rating on Uber or Airbnb is, for all intents and purposes, the median.