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Joe's Neighborhood

What do the Dutch mean by cozy?

11/27/2019

“Joe, it’s not so cozy.”

Really? “It’s not so cozy”? They have great fries. And I love their coffee. And look at their apple pie.

“I’m sorry, but it’s not so cozy,” repeats my Dutch friend, Margreet. And that is the end of the discussion. We move on.

And everybody in this Dutch world gets it. A house might not be cozy. A cafe might not be cozy. A situation might not be cozy. “Gezellig” is the untranslatable Dutch word for this idea of coziness. Something is not gezellig? You might as well pack up and go home. Good night, Irene.

The Dutch all nod their heads with understanding when you say something is not cozy. Clearly, not-coziness is to be avoided at all costs. It may be worse than murder in the Netherlands. At least when you murder someone, you can still have a cozy prison cell with a cozy meal. Not-coziness has the sour smell of bad manners. Why aren’t you making me comfortably cozy? Fine. I’ll go elsewhere.

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Well, if not-coziness is so serious, how does an outsider from Iowa determine what is cozy? Especially because when I was growing up with seven other brothers and sisters, there was never a not-cozy moment. In fact, things were too cozy. At our very tight dinner table, if you raised your left arm too suddenly, you smacked the poor kid sitting next to you causing a chain reaction down the entire table until the tuna noodle casserole was knocked to the floor where Sam the mangy dog waited with tongue hanging out. No, being not so cozy was the goal in my family.

But the Netherlands is a different place in a different time.

So, Margreet, what is cozy?

“Flowers, candlelight, and dim the overhead lights please,” she says matter of factly.

Really?

“Of course.”

Let’s check this out.

I go to Frederik Hendriklaan in The Hague on a shopping Saturday. Flower sellers seem to be everywhere on this popular street of small businesses. I stop at one flower stand and talk to the owner as he bustles around with customers.

So, who is actually buying all these flowers, I ask, while I watch a young girl, an old man, a woman carrying a baby, a dad pushing a stroller, a smartly dressed teenager, and a man with his dog, all pull flowers from the various buckets.

“Everyone.”

No, I think you don’t understand, how many Dutch folks buy flowers?

“Everyone.”

Okay, this guy clearly just knows one English word.

I go to the next stand a little ways down the street to try again.

How many Dutch folks buy flowers?

“Everyone,” the busy, smiling Dutch woman says.

Really?

“Most of the Dutch have flowers because they live inside. It’s the weather. Other parts of the world, Italy and Spain for example, they live outside.”

And that’s that. Back to work she goes.

I think about this as I watch bike rider after bike rider peddle down the road with bouquets held with the blooms pointing down, stems clutched tightly, and usually a child or two strapped on the bike for good measure. It all seems crazy. But, having tried it myself, the flowers actually arrive home unsmashed. As for the hapless children with their little blonde hair plastered to their foreheads by the rain and cold and wind, they seem none the worse for wear either.

Fine.

And candles?

I started noticing in grocery stores and small soap shops and convenience stores whole aisles devoted to candles. Small votive candles, long taper candles, wide stand-alone candles, scented candles, unscented candles, candles for romance, candles to calm your mind, candles for energy, and even the “Lumberjack” collection of candles — “great gifts for him.”

I’ll be darned. Where have I been?

And lights? Do the Dutch have the neon lights of America with their crackling buzz of electricity? Lights that turn on back home with a blinding flash of alarm when a squirrel dares to pass near your front door? Lights that are so bright in U.S. convenience stores that it is possible to actually see people’s DNA?

So at dusk I bike through the various neighborhoods and look through the large Dutch windows into people’s homes. I admit, a very un-Dutch thing to do. In spite of my bad manners, I still notice the soft glow from the ever-present chandeliers. The light is golden. Warm. Inviting. Intimate. And, dare I say, cozy?

And it’s not hard to imagine that behind those Dutch windows is a woman smoothing the worry lines on the forehead of her partner with her cool firm hands, a grandpa rocking his grandbaby as her eyes flutter closed as both fall sleep, or an old man dreaming of a heron flying low over a Dutch canal as a gentle mist falls. Yup, coziness in action.

Coziness in action?!! How could I forget . . . eating hot fries with mayonnaise in a large paper cone.

Margreet, can we please eat at this cafe?

She grabs a candle from another table, adjusts the flowers, asks the server to dim the lights, and then she gives a big sigh of satisfaction.

“Of course.” ♦

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