The Quest for Gezellig

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Click here for a slide show. 3: The Quest for Gezellig

The overriding vibe in Amsterdam is coziness. It’s like a municipal mission here. Every cafe has a cute little cat in the corner licking its paws. Every canal house blooms with a window box of tulips. Every hooker has doilies on her bedside table. (I’m guessing about this last thing, but it feels right.)

There’s a Dutch word for their tyranny of cuteness. The word is gezellig, and it’s difficult to translate. You just know it when you see it. For instance: Friends enjoying a picnic on a canal bank, laughing fondly, sharing a bottle of red wine … this is clearly gezellig. A slob wolfing down fast food as he sprints to a meeting … not so gezellig.

(This is a side note, but I find it sad that eating while walking—or worse, eating while driving—is the great American pastime. The Dutch almost never do this, except maybe with an ice cream cone. Having been here for a while, I’ve now decided I’m firmly on the side of the Dutchies in this matter. The notion that you wouldn’t take time to slow down, sit at a table, savor your food—and, better yet, break bread with a couple of friends—seems weird to me now. And please don’t start in about lost productivity and the demands of ruthless capitalism. I maintain that you can make money and also make time for a half-decent lunch.)

The larger point is this: They live much better here. They carve out cozy, delightful moments anywhere they can find them. They bring their families on candlelit, nighttime boat rides through the canals. They chat with their friends at outdoor cafes as the sun sets. They leave work by 6 every evening. And these are not special, once-in-a-blue-moon treats. This is how they live, all the time. Even in my short stay here, I’ve found myself drifting into various gezellig moments (involving, for instance, good food, thoughtful friends, copious pints of Heineken, and a rainy afternoon inside a bar that played only Al Green records).

I realize I’m in grave danger of sounding like a Euro-snob. So, let me be clear: I don’t think they’re any smarter or cooler than us (though they’re certainly taller and slimmer). And yes, of course, we’re capable of living beautifully in the States. But the gezellig lifestyle is a national priority with the Dutchies. I’m not even sure what our shared priorities are in America. Getting rich? Appearing on television? It’s fair to say that coziness is not high on the list.

So, each time I come to the end of an Amsterdam visit, I wait for my plane at Schiphol Airport and I swear to myself that this time I will bring a little gezellig back home with me. That I will slow down, and savor, and live with grace and elegance. And then I land at Dulles and immediately eat fast food in my car.

4: The Crushing Weight of History

My hotel is maybe a hundred yards from the Anne Frank house. At night, lying awake in my room, I can hear the pealing bells of the Westerkerk. These are the same bells that Anne could hear from her secret annex—until they were removed and melted down by the Germans. (She noted in her diary how much she missed them when they were gone.)

I started reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl on the plane ride over here. I hadn’t picked up this book (or thought much about it) since at least the fifth grade, and as a child I wasn’t really capable of appreciating the exquisite torture Anne endured. Beyond the obvious horror of the situation, she was forced to live through puberty, adolescence, and first love (Peter, the teenage boy who lived in the annex), all while locked in a stale, huddled cluster of rooms with her parents and her sister. It’s like an obscene psychological experiment.

I got up early one morning to view the Anne Frank Museum before the tourist rush. There were only five or six people in the annex as I walked through, and the first thing I was struck by is just how small these living quarters really were. Even after reading the diary and visiting the annex, it’s still unimaginable that eight people were trapped in this drab little rabbit warren for season upon season.

I can’t stop thinking about a passage in the diary where Anne starts sniffing at window cracks. She’s desperate to breathe just a bit of fresh air. Later, she sits alone in the annex attic, staring at the moon and stars, and she ruminates on not having set foot outdoors in nearly two years.

Frankly, I don’t enjoy living in the shadow of history. I don’t like to be sitting at a sidewalk cafe, enjoying my coffee, when I suddenly flash on the image of Nazi boots tromping through the intersection. Each time this happens, I feel heavy with meaning and guilt. I can only take it in small doses. Give me some newborn American soil, with its blank slate and empty memory. History may be a nice place to visit, but I’m not sure I want to live there.