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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Now in the rear-view mirror
- Kinderdijk, Unesco World Heritage site of 19 working windmills
- Apeldoorn, home to Paleis Het Loo, the Dutch equivalent of Windsor Palace
- Gouda, where gouda cheese is not actually made
- 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.
Coming next: los Sevillanos