The key to Dutch culture is “gezelligheid”. It has no direct translation, but roughly means the “coziness” or “togetherness” to which all Dutch people aspire. As a small country with no natural resources and surrounded by powerful neighbors, the Netherlands has been successful only by its people working together. But is it more than a management strategy. Gezellig is a philosophy of life which leads to a general contentment in the country.
Many Americans visit the Netherlands briefly while travelling through Europe and never actually see it. They spend a day in Amsterdam visiting a marijuana coffee house in the daytime, and stop by the red light district to gawk at night before continuing the tour to another country.
The best way so see the real Netherlands is by train. The trains are fast, clean and efficient. The entire country is only half the size of Scotland, and you can travel across the whole country for less than 50 Euros. There is a main train station directly under Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. You can get off the airplane and take an escalator directly down to the trains.
Last Spring I took the train from Schiphol to Weert (which is in the south and pronounced “vert”). It was startling that just outside Amsterdam the country abruptly changed from city to rural, with the lush green grass of hundreds of small dairy farms stretching off to the horizon. The Netherlands is completely flat with very few trees, so it feels like the farms stretch to the end of the Earth. It was an unusually sunny day for a country known for rain, and the brilliant light shined on the black and white cows grazing contentedly. There were no fences, since the farms were separated by small canals rather than barbed wire.
The train itself was filled with teenagers going to a concert at an arena which is one of the stops on the line. Most were dressed in costumes which were types of hand-made togas and fake gold jewelry. They were all very excited about the event. Coming down the aisle was a young man wearing a large metal backpack. The backpack turned out to be a container holding the coffee, tea and soup he was selling. It looked impossibly heavy, but he carried it with ease. The soup was very popular among my fellow passengers, but I did not feel adventurous enough to try eating soup from a backpack. The soup seller seemed to love his job, and joked with all the riders.
In addition to the teenagers, there was a group of senior citizens (who really loved the soup). There were also about fifteen very large Dutch soldiers in full camouflage gear. All the different groups interacted and spoke to each other in a way you just don’t see Americans do. Instead of staying isolated in their separate groups they actually mingled and spoke at length to each other.
The teenagers got off at the arena, and a few stops later the soldiers got off at Eindhoven, which ironically had been the site of a famously bloody World War II battle. By the time we got to Weert, it was dark and the only people on left on the train with me were the senior citizens. When we all got off in Weert, the senior citizens, in true Dutch fashion, got on their big heavy metal bicycles, and peddled off into the night leaving me standing alone in front of the train station.
That was when I realized I had no idea which way the hotel was, and there were no taxis. I stood for a long time outside the station with my rolling suitcase trying to remember the directions. Then a woman crossed the street towards me. I have to admit I was very suspicious that she might be a prostitute or a thief. In perfect English she asked me if I was lost, and gave me walking directions to my hotel. I thanked her and started to my hotel, feeling very guilty about my initial suspicions.
The night had turned quite cold, and I was chilled by the time I reached my hotel. Opening the door of the hotel, I could hear the crackling sounds from the warm fire in the lobby fireplace, and smell the aroma of roast beef coming from the dining room. Two young Dutch women with gold hair greeted me from behind the desk.
I stepped in from the cold night into the warm lobby, happy to be part of the gezelligheid.