Chasing Gezellig

Sharp Delft night
We are now in Andalucía, Spain, for nearly a month, but we can’t move on to the land of flamenco and sherry without at least a brief backward glance at the first three weeks of our five-month travel adventure—our house exchange in Groningen, the Netherlands.

Groningen is where Doris’s few and far-flung immediate family members—Greg, Carole and Abby— live, work and play. On the surface, we spent our time there hanging out with the kids, learning our way around the youngest and bikingest city in the country and taking overnight getaways to fabled Dutch destinations.

Underneath it all, we were being gezellig.

Men with fish
Old friends, sharing fried fish on a bench in the sunshine – gezellig.

Gezellig (pronounced pretty much like it looks but with a lot of throat-clearing on the g’s) is such a uniquely Dutch concept that it is considered the essence of untranslatability to English: a word for which nothing comparable exists in the language. The most common translation the Dutch use is “cozy,” but that is too limited. Gezellig is more like a state of mind, a sensation of being snug, warm and sociable, with quaint thrown in for ambience. It is invariably positive and so essential it has been called the heart of Dutch culture, even a national religion. When President Obama made his first visit to the Netherlands in 2014, it probably was inevitable he declared the visit “truly gezellig.” If someone were to make a word cloud of all the online reviews written by Dutch people for hotels and restaurants, “cozy” would take over the whole cloud.

And places are just the start of it.

Woman on bike
Parents biking babies is invariably gazellig.

The English-language story hour Carole has started at the Groningen library is gezellig. Home birth (still quite common) is gezellig, as is the enviable Dutch policy of providing every new mother a full-time nurse at home for the first week after baby’s arrival. Doting grandparents are gezellig, along with the day a week retired ones commonly spend taking care of their grands. Foursomes spending an afternoon playing cards in the corner bar are gezellig. Music, the moon, a cuddle with your cat can be gezellig. (People walking their cats are fantastically gezellig in my book.)

Pixelmeter corrected
Connecting with animals definitely counts.

Gezellig’s opposite is onzellig or “not cozy” and, seriously, if you hear anything in the Netherlands is onzellig, it’s the direst of warnings: Don’t go there.

On our trip, an afternoon nibbling snacks and drinking beer with Greg and Carole in a pub with a playground for Abby was gezellig, the Delft hotel with a room in the gypsy caravan pictured on Partout was gezellig, and the magical Il Illusie apartment in Gouda that we entered through the flower shop below was fragrantly gezellig. Beer may not technically be gezellig, but since it is so often shared with friends in cozy place, it may well be.

Beer in bar

By any name, gezellig was the essence of our three weeks in the Netherlands, and we flew south to the sun of Spain wrapped in the cozy warmth of it.

Abby on swing
Many playgrounds in the Netherlands have cafes and bars in them, the better to promote gezellig.

Now in the rear-view mirror

    • Kinderdijk, Unesco World Heritage site of 19 working windmills
Windmills, by provenance, are gezellig.
  • Apeldoorn, home to Paleis Het Loo, the Dutch equivalent of Windsor Palace
  • Gouda, where gouda cheese is not actually made
    The gezellig welcome at Il Illusie

    Heit Loo
    A gezellig table in the royal family’s palace
  • Apenheul, a primate reserve where monkeys are on the loose and among the guests
  • Delft (pictured at the top), home of Vermeer but not to his paintings (which were all sold out of town)
  • Leeuwarden, capital of ancient Friesland and the only Dutch province with its own official language (West Frisian). Visiting the local museum, we learned it is also the birthplace and girlhood home of the convicted (and executed) World War I spy Mata Hari, who was little Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod back home.

    Mata Hari of Leeuwarden … not so gezellig.

Coming next: los Sevillanos

Couple at brown cafe
You need not be warm to be gezellig, just connected and cozy.


20 thoughts on “Chasing Gezellig

  1. Haha! All gezellig! There are so many things that are gezellig. You can “gezellig zitten” sit gezellig, for example on a terrace having a good time with friends. The exclamation: dat was gezellig! ( that was gezellig) sums up a whole evening, dinner, vacation, you name it. It is in my view identical to Hygge. There are also “gezellige mensen” gezellige people: those you really want to hang out with. You just know you will have a good time with them. They are warm, friendly, outgoing, and take their time to spend time with you.

    Another very Dutch thing is how long you stay for a get together, at least in my family: arrive around “borrel tijd” that is cocktail hour, spend an hour or so having fun talking, laughing, perhaps helping in the kitchen. Then dinner, coffee and then: no one leaves until the wee hours of the morning.

    Perhaps you know the book “The Undutchables.” It will tell you about all kinds of things the Dutch find very normal, but others are baffled by their customs.

    And, if you have not seen this short clip made right after the most recent presidential elections in the US, do see it: America first, but the Netherlands second. Produced by a famous Dutch talk show host, Lubach, it set off a whole slew of similar clips from many other countries.

    When it comes to other politics, the Dutch are often not very gezellig , but rather very critical of their own government and of those of other nations.

    French fries! Super lekker! That word everyone must know! More later on that topic!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Doris and Louis, just entered into your blog. It is a great joy to read your wonderful stories.
    Never read such a nice, warm, extensive and humorous explanation about the word gezellig. Just reading about it gave a very gezellige feeling!


  3. I think your charming blog will help us all get through winter!! What a great synergy of your writing and Louis’ photography!!


  4. It also sounds exactly like the Danish hygge (coziness and conviviality). I guess that’s not surprising; the two countries are pretty close. But it’s interesting that the two words sound so different! Wonderful photos.


  5. Lovely photos! It actually makes me think of the Irish concept of Craic, warm, and often used to describe a pub where musicians gather and people sing and make merry!


  6. So just the facts, maam. Did Louis take these photos? I thought, they look very professional, but then I remembered…


      1. Makes sense. God help us if you ever start a high fashion website or something like that. Imagine the entourage.


  7. Doris…you don’t know me…friend of Karen and Tom and Louis had dinner with my sister Brit and Cleve. I am from Norway and yes lots of gruelling also goes on there. Love the blog


  8. Many many wows on this study of gezellig. May we all snuggle in and smile and wiggle our toes in their thick wool socks and hear divine music this morning! Thanks.


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