Waiting for Gezellig

Some people read all of East of Eden only to find out, to their dismay, that their book report can summarized in just one word, and that’s only at the end of the 600 pages they’ve trekked across: timshel. Others sit through Citizen Kane for the sole purpose of getting down to the root of “Rosebud”, gratified 119 minutes later. Many emerge from Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, with just three words ringing in their heads: “Words, words, words”.

The Dutch spend entire lifetimes trying to find gezellig. You can try to define it, but you shouldn’t – it’s the same way the Swedish feel fika and the Irish cherish craic. It’s the umami of human unity, a setting, situation or sensation where every inkling of conviviality clicks into place so there’s no better place or position to be in. When words fail, gezellig (pronounced hel-SELL-ick) is a successive celebration of all that’s tip-top about the moment.

Gezellig enlivens Johnny Jordaanplein, a colorful square dedicated to a beloved musician known for levenslied – tears-in-your-beers ballads. © Desiree Koh

In gezelligheid, the state of being gezellig, you’ll converse, debate, sing, play, eat, drink, create, sleep, dance, work – truly, go about your life, but you’ll know it when you feel it. Gezellig is hardly a mere acquaintance – it’s a guardian angel for Dutch life, both the good and bad ones, existentialism in ecstasy. And unlike the Steinbeck, Welles and Shakespeare, you won’t mind devoting hours, days and travels seeking it out.

La Falote owner, chef and court jester Peter van der Linden plays along with gezellig accordingly in his diner. © Desiree Koh

As Peter van der Linden plays the accordion from table to table in La Falote, the diner he owns in Amsterdam’s Oud Zuid, gezellig pumps into the ambiance of dark-paneled walls, heartily stocked bar counter, family photographs, flea market knick-knacks, and football jerseys with each wheeze of “Home On the Range” or “Volare” (regulars from the neighborhood get classics and folk songs). Van der Linden himself is one of the best instruments of gezellig, generous with gregariousness and serving portions, finding room for everyone who comes into his place. “We just want it to feel like home,” he says, the bistro’s only cook who uses these musical interludes as an excuse to carve out time for himself outside the kitchen each evening. “You like it, sweetie?”

Handmade gezellig at Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs – climbing steep, narrow slivers of steps to get to pancakes? Extra gezellig points. © Desiree Koh

Pannenkoeken, Dutch pancakes and perhaps Holland’s national dish, can sprawl up to a foot in diameter, all the better to wrap itself around the concept of gezellig. At Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs, the menu is not complicated – after all, pancakes are simple pleasures. Cheese, cheese and ginger, bacon and tomato, apple and cheese – a specialty would be the Bali, which is coconut, chocolate and cheese. Squirt schenkstroop (black treacle syrup) over your pancake, sweet or savory, and dine under an array of teapots hanging from the ceiling. At Pancakes! Amsterdam, flipping is more of an art form, made with organic ingredients, sustainably farmed produce and flour from the Eersteling windmill in Hoofddorp. But no matter what tops the pancakes, it’s what’s in the mix that rounds off the equation – on their own, each pannenkoeken glows with an aureola of aroma. A cross-section examination of the pancake – thicker than a French crêpe, thinner than an American flapjack, but enough to be layered with the best intentions – reveals softly rounded pockets in the texture, trapping wholesome flavors before releasing them as gezellig.

Gezellig – the gastronomical glue that holds together goat cheese, garlic oil, spinach, and pine nuts at Pancakes! Amsterdam. © Desiree Koh

A name like Récar de Fleur is already gazillions of gezellig, but that if you can believe it, gezellig was already emanating from my email before I arrived at this gentleman’s Studio Récar bed and breakfast in the city’s Museum Quarter. “It’s not a hotel, it’s a home,” Récar says several times, beginning his first note welcoming me to his townhouse that once used to be the graphic designer’s printing workshop, making sure any special needs I might have would be attended to (including an around-the-clock breakfast available in the kitchen, which is salvation for pre- and post-marathon chowing). With colorful paintings by Récar adorning the walls of my studio apartment with four beds, a kitchen, dining area, and living room – three times the size of a typical European hotel room, a transit map plotting out the route from the bed and breakfast to Olympic Stadium for Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon waiting when I arrived, and a check-out time whenever I pleased, I woke up every morning recharged with a full tank of gezellig.

The portrait of the graphic artist as a bed and breakfast gentleman of gezellig. © Desiree Koh

Gezellig is not getting run over by bikes which hurtle towards you each time you try to cross the street in Amsterdam – it’s a vicious cycle, and there is no insurance policy covering this insane insurgence. But unlike, say, China, where your mis-step might invoke a litany of liturgical swearing and spitting, the voracious velociraptors acknowledge your sorry state with a benevolent smile at best, but at least also put in a sincere effort to avoid running you over.

Rising from the ashes, after getting run over by an Amsterdam bike – that’s onzellig. © Desiree Koh

That may not completely be gezellig, but it’s one of the happy memories you’ll bring home to share. You’ll say, “Jay-cycling is rampant in Amsterdam!” to friends and laugh about it, forgetting that parts of your toes can probably be found all over the city, together with rainbow sprinkles fallen from waffles, puddles infused with genever, splotches of mayo from cones of frites, green entrails from brown cafés – tokens of last night’s gezellig.

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.

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