“Gezellig” (Dutch): untranslatable, vaguely meaning Homeliness

I recently finished reading a book that I really enjoyed, which a friend had suggested I read ages ago but I only managed to get to over the past weekend.

Home – A Short History of an Idea by Canadian-American architect and professor Witold Rybczinski is a history of the concepts of “Home” and “Comfort” within the (largely) European cultural tradition.  The book was very engaging and there were many ideas that resonated with me, given my own background as a Singaporean of Chinese descent, and my experience of having lived in and visited the homes of people of different European and East Asian cultures.

In the book, Mr Rybczinski argues that the Dutch were the originators of “Home” as a concept and as a reality, their egalitarian merchant society giving rise to the kind of small, self-sufficient family units living in spaces that served (for the first time in history) as fully private residences.  These 17th century bourgeois households were the precursor to today’s modern home. It is curious, however, that having placed the Dutch so centrally in a discussion of home and comfort, he does not then go on to discuss the Dutch notion of gezellig.

In the past 10 years of my life, I’ve been living with a European of mixed Dutch and English descent, and I’ve also had very close Dutch friends and neighbours.  Sometime 6 – 7 years ago, one of them (finally) introduced me to the term gezellig, which, as she explained, was at the core of Dutch culture and civilisation. She also added that it was impossible to translate the word into English. It sort of kind of meant “cosy, friendly or warm” and could be applied to homes, spaces in general, people, things, events, etc.

It was hard for me, as a Singaporean of Chinese descent, to initially understand what gezellig meant, as applied to the home, at least. Many Singaporeans lived in households that were the least gezellig places on earth – illuminated with bright white flourescent overhead lights that made them seem more like operating theatres that living spaces; and often harboring extended families of 6 to 8 people under one roof and within a confined area.  It is very common for single Singaporeans who are in their late twenties and thirties to still be living in their parent’s houses, and to even be sharing a room with their siblings!  The very idea of privacy and cosiness doesn’t quite seem to exist within the Singaporean / Asian mindset.

Which, incidentally, was a point Mr Rybczinski made in his book: that Asian cultures just did and still do not have the same conception of comfort and private space that Western cultures (thanks to the Dutch) have.

But back to gezellig

Over the years, I have inevitably been trained to recognise and to re-create gezellig within my home. It largely involves the creation of warm pools of light in a comforting almost-darkness through the use of (standing and table) lamps and candles strategically placed in the living area to allow for cosy and organic nooks and corners.  Overhead lights are taboo.  Furniture would always prioritise function and comfort over design, allowing users to curl up with a glass of wine and a conversation, or with a good book.  A large Turkish or Persian rug would cover the floor, ensuring feet never touch cold tile or concrete.  Cushions and a throw would be strewn haphazardly on the couch and the carpet so surfaces are all soft and fluffy to the touch.  Jazz or other soothing kinds of music would invariably be playing in the background.  People would necessarily be having deep conversations or leaning back to enjoy the music and environment.

The power of gezellig is quite astounding.  In the course of the many dinner parties I’ve thrown for friends and family, I have found that guests stay for an average of an hour to two longer than they expect to (and declare that they would) stay.  The combination of low light, soft, textured surfaces, non-intrusive music, over good food, wine or conversation transforms the space, making it welcoming, relaxing, magical! And guests indulge and luxuriate, even the Singaporean-Chinese ones.

Interestingly, there is a term in Chinese (and I’m sure in Japanese as well) that captures the sense of gezellig much better than any word in English can.  The word is 亲切 (pronounced qin1 qie2), which roughly translates into “intimate, warm, friendly, nice” and can be used also to describe living spaces, people, objects, etc.  One can say “this person is very 亲切”- meaning génial, sociable – or “this place / space is very 亲切” – “domestic, invoking nostalgia.”

The sense of this untranslatable term is pretty much identical to gezellig except for one key difference – it can be used to describe a crowded, noisy place as much as a quiet, cosy one.  You can step into your Grandmother’s brightly (fluorescent)-lit house on Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day, when all your relatives are gathered and describe it – in the same breath – as “热闹” – “full of buzz” – and “亲切” – “warm, cosy, friendly”.  Similarly, you can look through the large windows of a ground-floor apartment in Amsterdam, see someone reading by the light of a standing lamp while curled up on the couch, and call it “亲切”… well, just about anyway.

In that light, I suppose gezellig remains unchallenged as being the most efficient and unique encapsulation of a most complex, intriguing, important and enduring concept – the concept of “homeliness.”

Gezellig in Hamburg.  The Germans have a similar word gesellig, but it doesn’t quite mean the same thing….

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
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