Only a few days before Brexit, project manager Liam moved from County Durham in England to Denekamp in Twente. He writes a series of articles about what it is like to live and work in the Netherlands as an Englishman.
Part I: Language
Language is intrinsically linked to culture, in the same way that music, fashion, food and sport are. Culture, in a sense, gives birth to language. For instance, the advancement of technology over the last century alone has spawned new words such as television, astronaut and email. Sport has introduced us to concepts such as dribbling and strikeouts. Kitchens around the world have given us delicacies like sushi, goulash and lasagne – each word, like the foods themselves, as varied in their textures as they are their histories. And all of these words, whether derived from Latin or Greek (or both, in the case of television), portmanteau of existing words or repurposed from other meanings, reflect human culture and experience.
Indeed, like food and sport, language and its usage (including – crucially – borrowing from other languages) can tell us a lot about what that culture values and what people experience in their day-to-day lives. You have probably heard of – and perhaps felt – schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure in others’ misfortune or misery. English, for example, borrows it (in place of its own – although highly obscure – epicaricacy) because of the need to describe what is an admittedly common sensation. We have all had feelings of nostalgia, too: when a song comes on the radio that you hadn’t heard in years; when you catch up with old friends from school – but only in Portuguese is there a word to describe the feeling of longing that often accompanies it: saudade. While emotions are typically universal, saudade has a long and storied history in the Brazilian and Portuguese literary canon, and as such has become something of a stereotype of the temperament of their people.
If you were to describe the stereotype of the Dutch temperament, it would probably include adjectives like ‘direct’, ‘busy’ and maybe even ‘rude’ – though of course, like most stereotypes, these descriptors are not necessarily true for everyone. Certainly, my own experiences in the east of the Netherlands – far from the bustling capital, from where I can imagine the stereotypes springing in the first place – have often contradicted these notions. However, like a lot of stereotypes, there is an element of truth to them; Amsterdam-based literary translator Sam Garrett aptly explains that the directness and ostensible rudeness of the busy, hard-working natives – in whose day-to-day lives there isn’t necessarily time to waste on niceties – is like “shouting in a storm”.
This brings me to gezellig. Like the German gemütlich and the Danish hygge (which was bizarrely yet wonderfully illustrated by a bicycle-riding Mads Mikkelsen in a lager advert some years ago), the Dutch have their own word for that cosy, warm feeling you get when you’re snuggled up under a blanket with your significant other, celebrating Sinterklaas with the kids or enjoying a nice drink on a Friday evening with friends. You might even find your mother-in-law putting candles on the dining table for the gezelligheid. The striking thing for me, though, is that in English – the language of the home of afternoon tea and Sunday roasts – there is no direct translation for gezellig. Yes, we have ‘cosy’, but that can be used in situations where you don’t have company. Indeed, we also have the obscure ‘convivial’, but that describes a more cheery, jolly atmosphere than a relaxed, warm one. Gezellig sits snugly between the two, a stroopwafel perched upon its cup of rooibos tea.
“But”, I hear you cry, “That doesn’t fit with the logic that language reflects the culture or temperament of a people!” On the contrary, in a culture where people work so assiduously and are so busy in their everyday lives, it makes sense that many would place such a high value on their time with family and friends after a hard day at the office, factory, or such. Indeed, if I had to pick one word that sums up my feelings about life here, it would be gezellig.