Aug 23, 2005

slate has a nice little essay about amsterdam. it's funny how american commentators tend to equate income and personal wealth with a high quality of life. in europe, though, they tend to value other things: vacations, long meals, simple joys like taking walks and riding bicycles. the dutch, apparently, really enjoy what can best be described as "coziness."

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."

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