Going Dutch

In Amsterdam, Chris Colin asks why the locals are so friendly, so relaxed, so … tall. A search for the untranslatable.

Amsterdam, Going Dutch

Amsterdam is so much more than giggles about the Red Light District and “coffee shops.”

Photo by Rene Mesman

I’m not a religious man, but when death comes for us and Prufrock’s eternal Footman finally escorts us from this plane, the miracle of the pyramids and Proust and photosynthesis and sheer human existence receding dreamlike into oblivion, I believe a deep voice of reckoning will wash over us for a final instant: Really? An hour of Facebook every day?

It’s not that we’re unhappy, Amy and I. We make pudding, and draw elaborate animals for our daughter, and say down undah at nonsensical times in atrocious Australian accents. But life has a way of depleting even the hardiest participants—perhaps more than ever in this strange and overstuffed era. Too often the attention span is divided, the in-box boundless, the gym unvisited, the offspring unrelenting, the house unclean, and at the end of the day, that moronic FBI show lures us to the couch with dinner. Once we heeded its call with irony—Ha ha, eating in front of the TV. Now we just heed. During commercials we catch up on texts owed, maybe scrape some old yogurt off the couch.

Something has felt askew for some time. I suspect everyone feels this in one way or another these days. Unlike everyone, I have dragged my wife, two-year-old daughter, and parents across nine time zones to fix it.

And now Amy and I are on a boat. A houseboat, to be precise. It is long and skinny, effects neatly ordered per nautical custom. This is our first night in Amsterdam, and two very tall Dutch people are murmuring over in the galley. Cora, our daughter, is safely across town with her grandparents for the evening, so Amy and I are free to eat and drink and begin our quest in earnest. The goal: Smuggle home a new mode of living.

Tell people you’re going to Amsterdam and some will make a dumb stoner joke, others a dumb Red Light District joke. But from those who have actually spent time in the Dutch capital, you get a different reaction, a kind of vague swoon: Outsiders fall in love with the city, muse about relocating there. Houseboats, narrow buildings, picturesque canals: yes, yes, very nice. But something deeper grabs people.

The Papeneiland Café in Amsterdam is most famous for their Dutch apple pies.

The Papeneiland Café in Amsterdam is most famous for their Dutch apple pies.

Photo by Rene Mesman

I was grabbed, too, a decade ago—shaken, actually—by the unfamiliar flavor that suffused the city. An appealing simplicity governed the place, as in a Richard Scarry book: Here’s a man in a delivery truck, here’s a woman selling cheese! All the rest—the tedious buzz of modernity, the twitchy typing and scurrying and worrying of daily life—had been magically excised. I would have doubted my impressions had a group of Amsterdammers not confirmed them at a bar on my last night there. We have a word for this whole vibe, they said. Gezelligheid.

So I’ve come back, family in tow, to find this thing. Heh-ZELL-ick-hide; clear your throat on the ick and you’ve pronounced the organizing principle behind all fine things in the Netherlands, a definition of the Dutch psyche itself. With muted pride, locals say the word is untranslatable.

Bah. Roughly it’s a kind of cozy conviviality, an aesthetic as well as a style of socializing. Picture the warm yellow light of a small cabin on a winter’s night, occupants laughing inside over fondue. Or a mellow afternoon in a little bookstore with your partner, rain drizzling down the windows. Or that funky little neighborhood bar where you and your friends always sink into the same booth and laugh over the same jokes.

As a visitor from the land of chain stores and exurban sprawl, I succumb to the appeal of a nation wrapping its social fabric around this rather gentle and nuanced idea. In opposition to sterile, anonymous, or otherwise cold environs, gezelligheid emphasizes homey atmospherics: Pillows. Old postcards on the wall. Cat in your lap. The recipe is ever refinable. Soft, warm lighting can nudge things toward the gezellig. A long winter outside the door helps. The right music helps. Pace helps, too—the slow living trend is de rigueur here. Ditto human-scale architecture, as opposed to more corporate and generic spaces. Ditto being a little more present.

Writer Chris Colin and daughter Cora, enjoying not watching television.

Writer Chris Colin and daughter Cora, enjoying not watching television.

Photo by Rene Mesman

And here we are, on our cultural cherry-picking expedition. Our hosts tonight, Lennart and Anna, are, like us, in their 30s. They have not lived in their one-bedroom houseboat long, but apparently coziness gets unpacked on Day One. Music plays softly, and a few lamps here and there give the narrow, colorful space an intimate feel. A presumably alive beagle sprawls legs-up on a futon. We sit at a small wood table, geraniums off to the side. No more than a fogged glass door separates us from the quietly sloshing dark water.

Generally I pride myself on not having to pay to make friends. But then I heard about Dine with the Dutch, a small new venture in which visitors are inserted, for a price, into the home of some locals for a night. Spending our first evening with Amsterdammers in their natural habitat seemed a perfect step toward getting a little more of the G-word.

Soft cheese and crusty bread appear before us. Lennart, a cheerful and wry Internet entrepreneur, opens a bottle of wine. Anna, a child psychologist, politely asks what the hell we’re doing here. Amy and I describe our setup: our Airbnb rental for the next eight days and the parents imported from Washington, D.C., powerless to resist the chance for a week of granddaughter spoiling.

Then we explain our gezelligheid quest. Life these days feels so hectic and fractured, we tell them, not bad so much as … unbalanced. And we’re hoping to glean something, however small, that might cascade into bigger shifts. I want these for myself but also for Cora, who strikes me as waking each day to a fork in the road: Down this path, a stressed-out, increasingly atomized American life. Over here, a groovier existence, with jokes and music and loved ones in a room full of pillows.

“It’s hard to think about what the heart of gezelligheid is because it’s used in so many ways,” Anna says. “It’s such a big part of life. A café can be gezellig, or a night out.”

Lennart goes on to emphasize the communal component—the ideal isn’t compatible with rugged individualism. “You’re thinking about the collective when you talk of something being gezellig,” he says.

By the end of the night we’re friends—it was a lark, this pals-for-a-night arrangement, and larks make for good dinners. We all pick at the last of a dessert experiment, some sort of swirled berry concoction. Was this— this night here—gezellig? I ask. Lennart and Anna laugh and say yes, though it’s the kind of yes that means “it’s more complicated than that.” No problem, we’ve got a week. With that we debark and head off into the night.

Three stories of brick and slightly wider than a telephone pole, our rented house is 500 years old—but somehow in better shape than the 20th-century digs Amy, Cora, and I inhabit back in California. The wide floor planks have an ancient patina, while the kitchen and bathrooms are ultramodern: neat but not antiseptic, simple but not ascetic. We’re a five-minute walk from everything good—the main ring of canals, the fashionable Nine Streets shopping area, the cool and ethnically diverse De Pijp neighborhood—but a happy distance from the feisty backpacker zone. Across the street is a lush park, Frederiksplein, which some enlightened government official thought to outfit with built-in, Cora-size trampolines. It’s April, excellently, which means it’s no longer chilly, not yet crowded. Trampolining weather.

The last time Amy and I were here, we were childless and footloose. It was not hard to love the place in those circumstances. Now we’re older, saddled. We work too much. So do my parents, though technically my dad retired this year. Five occasionally restless humans under one roof, one an inveterate pants-wetter. In total, we come with 200 years of neuroses to bounce off the soft wood floors. Our potential for gezelligheid is debatable.

Writer Chris Colin and his wife, Amy, find Gezelligheid at Pata Negra, a Spanish restaurant in Amsterdam.

Writer Chris Colin and his wife, Amy, find Gezelligheid at Pata Negra, a Spanish restaurant in Amsterdam.

Photo by Rene Mesman

Somehow, though, things start promisingly. The first morning after Dining with the Dutch, we wake to laughter. Laughter! Amy and I stagger to our third-floor bedroom window. Below, in the dappled shade of a dozen linden trees, every child in the Netherlands is arriving via squeaky bike at the leafy school at the edge of the park. They show up giggling and chattering, in child seats and wicker baskets and jury-rigged plywood boxes, helmetless, protected by the sheer joy of being Dutch. We gawk, foreheads to glass. I’m resolutely indifferent to children not my own, but it’s hard not to be struck by all this good cheer.

From there a ritual takes shape: Amy and I trudge down the stairs into the kitchen, where my parents have already begun rearing our daughter for the day. Cora sings about koalas as I scramble eggs and others report on the latest attractive passerby—as with so many Dutch residences, ours looks directly onto the sidewalk and the sidewalk looks directly into ours. Curtains schmurtains.

We graze in the bright and airy dining room as goals for the day are called out. Vondelpark! Tulips! That restaurant inside that greenhouse! I remind everyone not just to have a nice time, but to let the gezelligheid wash away their many faults. And then we’re off.

No screens, steering wheels, or recorded entertainment for us this week. Just walking, biking, and tramming. Up the Prinsengracht, down the Herengracht. Always a boat or a narrow walkway in sight, not so often cars, never large buildings or chain stores. One’s natural GPS is up and running in two days.

Our outings involve my idiotic excitement—for example, over the hundreds and hundreds of Amsterdammers walking alongside us at Sarphatipark, and at Dam Square, absolutely none of whom are speaking on cell phones. Not an earbud in sight. The people just … talk. And … walk.

Presumably to buy flowers. Everyone here, it seems, regardless of class, has lilies or tulips or amaryllis in their windows, on their stoops, and probably in their linen closets. Then there’s the chatting thing. Find any flat surface in Amsterdam—just a spool of cable on its end at a construction site—and invariably someone will bring two chairs over and a conversation will erupt. One fellow tells me that everyone stops working at 9 or 10 each morning at his father’s Amsterdam bakery. People just sit and chat for half an hour. If a customer comes in, sure, they get up and go behind the counter. But then they sit again, talk about whatever they did the night before. “Being chill is gezellig,” the man tells me.

Not for the first time, it occurs to me that we have our work cut out for us with this gezelligheid-finding mission. Then again, our ancestors didn’t spend every waking moment converting marshland to solid ground.

“From the very beginning, the Dutch have been fighting back the sea,” Kees Kaldenbach explains to us on our third day. We’ve made our way to the quaint, once working-class Jordaan district to meet this fellow, an art historian who gives tours of the city. He is tall and slim, an Amsterdam building incarnate. I’ve asked him to show us the roots of gezelligheid. As he explains it, they lie in water.

“Dealing with the sea was a full-time job, and there just wasn’t time for infighting,” Kaldenbach says. “Catholics and Protestants and Jews—we all learned to live together.” On cue, a massive Seussian machine hammers a replacement piling into the side of a nearby canal.

Putting aside the thorny matter of World War II and the resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiments in recent Dutch politics, tracing the country’s history of tolerance to the North Sea and the Rhine makes a certain sense—and leads right to gezelligheid. Throw in some cold winters and a healthy economy, our guide explains, and you’ve got people who get along well, doing so in nice, cozy homes.

We spend the rest of the tour peering into the nice, cozy homes of the Jordaan.

“Why don’t we just move here?” my dad asks at around 5 p.m. that day. We’ve joined the rest of the country in ducking into the nearest bar for a glass of genever, a maltier version of gin, served straight and bracing.

My mom reminds him that she has a job and that also, well, that would be crazy. But I can see she, too, is struck.

It’s not just religions that learned to intermingle here. Owing to the 26-pounder in our midst, a fair amount of our attention this week is focused on kid activities. At first blush, taking a child to Amsterdam sounds a little like taking a grown-up to Disneyland. To my surprise, Europe’s theme park of adult indulgences turns out to be the most kid- centric place I’ve ever seen. Everywhere you look there are creatively designed playgrounds, welcoming restaurants, and inventive activities. But rather than take over and vanillafy entire neighborhoods (see: Park Slope, Brooklyn), the kid stuff here is woven, casually and artfully, into the adult landscape. This might seem a trivial detail unless you are also a frequently mind-numbed mom or dad, in which case you will fall on your knees in blubbering gratitude.

The good life defined: bicycles, flowers, and cafes.

The good life defined: bicycles, flowers, and cafes.

Photo by Rene Mesman

Gratitude is only part of what Amy and I feel when, after nap time one afternoon, we stumble across the broad expanse of the Amstelveld square. This array of playground equipment, café chairs, and assorted leafy trees at the intersection of the Reguliersgracht and Prinsengracht canals looks eerily familiar. Did we pass this way yesterday? Suddenly we realize this is where, five years and one child ago, we staggered around on our first night together in Amsterdam. We’d been in foreign cities before, but this one laid us flat: unpretentious, substantial, palpably centered. Every glowing living room in sight seemed to shine with a different perfect color, highlighting another comfy couch-and-bookshelves tableau. Good God we were stoned.

Now we see this same plaza through crow-footed parents’ eyes, and it is no less grabby. Unlike the U.S. variety, this playground is fenceless and wholly integrated with the scene; there’s even an adjoining soccer pitch, so the teens can be part of society rather than skulking off in exile. Cora eyes the built-in sandbox, then us, then the sandbox before informing us “Pooh Bear cannot eat sand.” Then she’s on her belly, rolling off toward the other kids and cackling. You can’t always tell how people feel just by looking at them. But every single person here is deeply, maniacally happy.

As the week progresses, our days assume a mellow rhythm—you can hurry only so much when you wish to stare into each and every houseboat window. Throughout, we latch onto different pieces of our Dutch experience. Amy and I wonder how much more bicycling we could do back home, and also how much Dutch cheese we could eat. My dad speculates about Dutch real estate. Mom can’t get over Dutch height. What happened to these people? she asks after an egregiously tall couple passes. Civilizational gezelligheid happened, it turns out. As we read later, it’s theorized that the Netherlands boasts the world’s tallest people because of the relative class equality they’ve achieved— fewer poor, hungry, short people dragging down the numbers.

Cora, for her part, discovers a city designed with her species in mind. One moody and gray afternoon we pedal to a 30-year-old institution called the KinderKookKafé. The small building in Vondelpark looks like any café, except for one key difference: The cooks come up to my waist. Cora piles a small tray with ingredients of her choosing, then proceeds to spread icing on cake, sprinkles on icing, and M&Ms on sprinkles until her very first culinary creation is complete. This is hardly Chez Panisse, but the lessons of gezelligheid are unmistakable: Relax, mess around, and learn to enjoy cooking from a young age. I haven’t seen Cora this comfortably contented in a while—though it might’ve been the icing.

In the Jordaan District, Café de Tuin is a mellow spot for live music. Nearby, modern houseboats line the Prinsengracht Canal.

In the Jordaan District, Café de Tuin is a mellow spot for live music. Nearby, modern houseboats line the Prinsengracht Canal.

Photo by Rene Mesman

At some point in each day, I peel off for the Official Business of interviewing this or that expert on some aspect of Dutch culture. This might be a silly enterprise. Note-taking and gezellig vacationing have no natural affinity. But my periodic grillings do introduce me to the variety of realms where the idea plays out. On a brisk Thursday, I bike over to meet the food writer Marjan Ippel at Festina Lente, a boisterous old “bruin café”—a type of Dutch pub— jammed with young and old people, and surrounded by row upon row of junky old cruisers. As she explains it, Amsterdam’s culinary scene is returning to the city’s low-key, slow-cooking, small-dining-room roots: “Restaurants are seeing it’s more gezellig this way.”

Like all good interviews, my conversation with Ippel is best when it goes off the rails. By the bottom of our beer glasses we’re talking not about food but about child-rearing—it is the rare parent who can resist. Ippel says gezelligheid is a central concept not just to her and her husband, but also to her kids. Every Friday they insist on “family drinks,” which boils down to sitting around the house together and chatting.

“It’s all about the home,” Ippel explains. “There are so many wonderful restaurants and cafés in Amsterdam, but the cultural center is very much the living room.”

I proudly report what I learned in a conversation with Jeroen Dewulf, director of the Dutch Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. After throwing off aristocratic rule in the 17th century, the Netherlands reinvented itself as a liberal republic ruled by businesspeople. Society’s focus shifted from the royal palace to the home of the citizen. At this moment the modern conception of the home, as an attractive and desirable—and gezellig—place, was born.

Like every Amsterdammer I speak with, Ippel seems both startled and pleased to have an outsider express interest in this quintessentially Dutch idea. We bid fond farewells, and then she’s off to family drinks.

Is it working? I ask myself throughout the week. Gezellig becomes my LSD: Am I feeling it? Has it kicked in? I loved that café with the “laptops aren’t gezellig” sign out front—but will I really take that message home? Are we really traveling in a newly laid-back way, or are we still trying to un-gezelligly hit everything on that big American to-do list?

I’ve started to despair when, on a Saturday morning, everything seems to come together. As a perfect family unit, with a spring breeze at our backs, we all set out pedaling—Amy, Cora, and I heading to a park playdate with a friend of a friend, Joanna, and her two kids; my parents at last on their way to the Van Gogh Museum, which they’d been keen to visit. We pass a man playing an organ in a small boat—not for money but for joy. My dad stops to take a picture of a happy Dutch garbage truck. We sing as we pedal, and then we take off for our date.

The three of us meet Joanna and her kids at a freewheeling (and free) section of Westerpark called Wild West, seemingly designed by Huck Finn. We step inside a rickety gate to find two small children jamming raw chicken onto a stick. Nearby a four-foot-high associate is stoking a campfire unattended. Cora’s eyes widen, and ours probably do, too. For the next hour we roam these enchanted and utterly unregulated acres. Here, a teepee some kids had lashed together. There, a makeshift pontoon being used to ford a stream. We hit it off with Joanna instantly—the gezelligheid of fellow parents whose kids are happily entertained. The kids, for their part, regard each other from a distance, then take to running through a tunnel of tree branches. Is it cozy conviviality? Hard to say, but our girl does seem to appreciate the excellence of it all. The adventure ends, as all should, on a zip line—wonderfully unchaperoned, just grab your kid like a monkey and zip.

I am savoring the seamlessness of the day when my phone buzzes. After my dad stopped to photograph the garbage truck, my mother’s text message informs me, they never reconnected. While Amy, Cora, and I cavorted in our Westerpark paradise, my mom spent three hours searching for a lost husband. No Van Gogh for her. The museum was one of the things she most wanted to see on this trip.

By the time we get home, my dad has found his way to our apartment and to an aggrieved spouse. Our mellow house is off-kilter. I put Cora down for a nap, and Amy and my mom nip out again on mysterious shopping impulses. My dad is alternately sheepish and annoyed. I attempt some minor relationship repair work: Maybe in the future they could establish a backup meeting place? We dissect human relations while inwardly I’m baffled: How does life’s messiness not mess up gezelligheid for the Dutch all the time? Isn’t someone’s dad always getting distracted by a garbage truck, and someone’s mom always getting annoyed about having to find him?

Meanwhile my own stress levels are creeping up. I have one last interview lined up, but after spending the afternoon in the squabbling parents thicket, I’m tautly aware that our time here is coming to a close. Was I gezellig about trying to get gezellig this week? How much has really sunk in? Drawing on deep reserves of charm, I cancel the meeting—the interviewee is relieved—and cook up a more appropriate plan. I deputize my dad for Cora duty, slip out to our backyard, smoke the joint I bought on Day Two—what, I’m not going to buy weed in Amsterdam?—and pedal off to find some answers from another time.

I love a museum under renovation. It is disarming, like when you visit friends and they didn’t have time to clean. I make my way past all the Golden Age sobriety on the first floor of the Rijksmuseum, a sprawl of stiff collars and pale bureaucrats: Here, The Departure of a Senior Functionary from the Port of Middelburg, 1615; there, The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster, 1648. I find my way to the second floor, where Vermeer draws the crowds, but a lesser Dutch Master holds the key to gezelligheid.

Within the Netherlands, the painter Jan Steen is considered a forefather of the idea. His scenes of daily life—some kids teaching a cat to dance, a lusty feast—capture a messy but warm vitality, an easygoingness. (How often can you say that about a 17th-century anything?) Often a group is gathered, pell-mell, around a cluttered table at a tavern. Heads are thrown back in laughter. The booze flows. To this day, the Dutch say you have a “Jan Steen household” if your lifestyle manifests this kind of disheveled jubilance.

But this is not what moves me. It is only after a good 15 minutes of staring that I realize: What’s gezellig about the people in these scenes is not that they’ve achieved some perfect calibration of warmth, intimacy, and casualness. It is that they are oblivious to this. They are utterly lost in the moments the painter captured. Unlike those starched functionaries downstairs—perhaps unlike someone determinedly trying to achieve gezelligheid on his trip to Amsterdam—they are just living.

I fall into a reverie. It’s not just America or Facebook that keeps us from this mode. It’s us, too. Somehow, with age, one has to work harder to be deliberate about what one’s living space looks like, what one does on a Friday night, how the hours pass. You don’t have to move into a houseboat to be gezellig—smaller steps will do. Gezelligheid happens when you’re deeply futzing with the espresso machine, or drunkenly sneaking into bed with your wife as your sleeping child snores, or rolling your eyes with your mom as you try to convince your dad his rental bike isn’t a bike made for girls. There is a serendipitous togetherness in those moments, even if they are forgettable, even if they lead to a moronic squabble 10 minutes later. That fact—not just the homey architecture, or the simplicity of the comfort food, or the cushiness of the couch—is what constitutes coziness.

The next day is our last in Amsterdam, and rather than cramming in a thousand activities, we make a point of sitting in our living room longer than usual. I sip my coffee and do not gulp it. There is a white shag rug, and a fat couch, and a huge window looking out onto the leafy school across the street. It occurs to me that someone should write an awfully long book about the wisdom of a culture that installs discreet heat vents right along the perimeter of its window seats. But then we’re out the door and in a boat—a boat! of our own!—poking lazily through the sunny city one last time. Someone informs us we’re celebrating bloesjesdag—blouse day, when spring arrives and the sweaters come off. Not once does it occur to me to tweet this.

Photographs by Rene Mesman. This story appeared in the September/October 2011 issue.

Chris Colin is a contributing writer for AFAR, the author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93 and Blindsight, and bassist for Baby and the Luvies. He was once in a film shot by chimps and teaches writing at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
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