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.

Oranj You Glad You’re Here?

The French are Les Bleus; the Brazilians samba to green and yellow; the Swedes were designed in blue and yellow; the Americans bleed red, white and blue; the Kiwis are All-Black; the Irish are an ode to kerry green; and the Chinese are red.

Graffiti makes light of gravity in Amsterdam, making its mark in orange. © Desiree Koh

The Dutch are orange, a nod to William the Silent, Prince of Orange, leader of the Protestant revolt in the Eighty Years’ War that led to independence from Spain in 1648. The feisty flamboyance of this hue that plays on the bright side flares on in Amsterdam, bringing along happy friends red, blue, yellow, pink, and green to the party that is murals, graffiti, art, and public design. The Dutch keep it inside, too – walk along any of the historical townhouses lining the canals and peek into the windows at decorations so vivid in color they overwhelm the pallor of the darker seasons – the Manhattanites and Parisians can have their black and the British their brown sauce, but the Hollanders levitate their spirits with tones on the higher end of the spectrum. Put it this way – Van Gogh painted “Sunflowers”, not “Lilies”.

The autumn leaves don their national colors. © Desiree Koh

This élan is everywhere in Amsterdam.

In the Dam, the medieval womb of the city where Amsterdam sprouted from a cluster of fishing boats in 1275, these waffles add fun to a fair on the square.

Rainbow bright. © Desiree Koh

Even Nieuwe Kerk – the New Church, only because it was built in the 15th century as opposed to Oude Kerk in 1306 – pops up in pink.

An Andy Warhol exhibit pretties Nieuwe Kerk up in pink. © Desiree Koh

Down in De Pijp, the city’s first 19th-century slum that is now its lively pipe dream of working class laborers, dreaming artists, new immigrants, old intellectuals, burgeoning bobos, and little cafes, Taart van m’n Tante puts Willy Wonka to shame with its princess-pleasing decor pumped with plum gobs of crazy pastels, its pastry case of pies, tarts and cakes so comforting that the most chiseled Stanley Kowalskis would flaunt his inner Barbie – and no one would bat an eyelash.

Everything you’d expect your favorite aunt’s kitchen to look like, filled with your favorite pies. © Desiree Koh

At the famous Bloemenmarkt, the “floating” flower market, a floral florescence surges down the arc of this part of the Singel canal, as you tip-toe through tulip bulbs that promise to bloom amid any doom and gloom. Here, budding gardeners can kick-start Versailles-worthy lawns with seed money – 50 different flowers with just 10 euros – and fingers seasoned with green can Mother Nurture flowers that look like anything from purple astroids to magenta starfish.

Flower power at Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt. © Desiree Koh

Even at night, rather than conceding to the darkening sky and shadows lurking in the alleys, luminous glows cut their ways across canals and bridges, lingering in the trail of boats and bicycles with an authoritative aura. It’s funny – it could be a starless night, but everything is glittering in the water, which seems less murky in dusk than during the day.

Moonlight serenade in Amsterdam’s canals. © Desiree Koh

And at Olympic Stadium, the start and end of the Amsterdam Marathon, everyone will be walking on sunshine once they cross that 26.2-mile (42.195-kilometer) line. There will be people from 85 countries making the final victory lap to a glossy finish – no matter how much the Dutch love their oranj, a single color can only go solo for so far. It will be a United Nations indeed, and these colors will run.

We can’t all be Olympians, but anyone can be a marathon runner. © Desiree Koh

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

Canals x Cycles

Cities that are spoken for by bicycles are a tireless whirr of cranks, creaks and circular motion, and when you round that up with canals, the scene becomes undulatingly more picturesque. A stream of people and pedals gliding over bridges at speeds a tricycle time trial faster than the sploshing beneath, a quayside campaign with a trail of swans bobbing along like a left-wing peloton, leaf-littered water making room for reflections of the city always going somewhere – more often than not, forward.

Wheels up on Amsterdam’s Keizergracht canal. © Desiree Koh

Within the last three months, I’ve straddled two European cities big on canals and cycles; now that I’m in Amsterdam, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two, like one might between Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Breaking Away. In Copenhagen, gears are built into the Great Dane DNA, in which muscle fibers are juiced with an innate dedication to the outdoors and fueled by a ceaseless cadence which if stopped, would be defying a major law of physics. Copenhagen cyclists propel purposefully even when life-threatening wind chill and Scandinavian winters throw up stop lights all across town. The mechanics of motion are graceful, and their Nordically hardy steeds are pimped.

Park and ride in Copenhagen. © Desiree Koh

In Amsterdam, every other storefront is a café with cakes, tarts and pies that make your heart stop instantly (also eventually, if you heed the beckon of beautifully baked goods at each appearance; every other storefront in Copenhagen is a bike shop), which might explain huffs and puffs are sometimes audible as the city’s cyclists step on it up canal bridges. Despite the infamous Red Light District, Amsterdam bikes are not built to hustle – they are old-fashioned fat tires, occasionally rusting, often heavy, and a means to an end, rather than the start of a day that probably also includes marathon training and beer drinking, and all the other routines that ensure the Danish finish strong. In Amsterdam, they’re happy to pull their own weight, and that of a pillion rider on a bicycle built for one. They go down waterside lanes side by side, chatting and sometimes romantically linked by holding hands. In Copenhagen, they’ve turned cycling as a common commune into a science – bike lanes have their own traffic signals and off-ramps. Here, the lap of pleasure in taking the longer, slower route is an art and also, artful dodging is rampant in the face of abstract jay-cycling.

Gember koek, a tart filled with almond paste and piled with candied ginger, that Lansdroon Café has been baking since 1908, part of the fuel that powers Amsterdam cyclists. © Desiree Koh

After years of rebellion (the Eel Riot of 1886, student occupations in the 1960s, the abortion debate of the 1970s, and an anarchist named Bart Huges who drilled a hole in his forehead to show how open-minded he was), you can hardly hold it against Dammers for letting their bike chains hang loose. Brown cafés revolutionize friendships, the “I AmSterdam” welcome policy has almost 50 percent of the city’s population comprised of non-Dutch people (you hear accented English as often as you smell fresh frites – every street corner) and of course, you’ve heard about Amsterdam’s liberal arts (and I don’t mean Van Gogh and Rembrandt). Ramshackle, bare-bone houseboats drift on the waterfront next to millionaire houses on gilded canals such as Herengracht.

On Prinsengracht canal, Golden Age mansions loom over houseboats, who never feel like they have to keep up with the Johanns. © Desiree Koh

All this progressive thinking is part of the reason why Amsterdam and its bikes are on the right track. Two wheels are better than four – less pollution, more exercise, more fresh air, less stalling – a victorious cycle. Everything else is just water under the bridge, little of it troubled.

Like that story of the dog who waits patiently for his master to get off the train every evening, Amsterdam bikes faithfully take a brake as their owners take care of business in the city’s trademark brown cafés. © Desiree Koh

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