Well … there’s nothing quite like happening upon the hard-hitting environmental website Grist and reading the headline, “5 Terrifying Facts from the Leaked U.N. Climate Report” to make me think my next post, in which I planned to wax on about cozy homes, is, well, nothing short of inane and fatuous.
So I have to admit I didn’t read the article on Grist. And no, I’m not going to provide the link. In the first place, I don’t think I have the capability —
(Okay. Tell me — please? — that I’m not the only one whose brain has just chimed in with the deeply modulated phrase that preceded each episode of the 70s TV series The Six Million Dollar Man: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man.” )
Moving right along — trying to pretend that bizarre aside didn’t just happen — to the second reason I’m not going to provide the link: if I’m too scared to read these terrifying facts, why on earth would I provide them to unsuspecting others? I have to be honest: after sinking into a weeks-long depression after reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth this spring, I’m not sure I want to know any more. Quite frankly, the more bad news I hear, the more I just want to hunker down in my home, keep my loved ones close, and hope for the best.
Hmmm … hunkering down in your home. Well — if ever there was a segue to gezellig — that’s it.
Pronounced heh-SELL-ick — with that charming but difficult to emulate guttural roll at the beginning and end — gezellig is a Dutch term which loosely translated means cozy or comfortable, and while it can be used to describe a comfortable space (for example, a “homey” house is gezellig), it can also be used far more broadly than that. Sharing coffee and conversation with a dear friend in a quaint out-of-the way shop? Gezellig! Reading a book curled up in your most comfortable chair, a cup of tea by your side? Also gezellig. And for me, working through a pile of ironing while listening to Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café on CBC radio …
Yeah, I’m kinda weird that way. (And for those who don’t get the Canadian reference, an approximation would be Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon on NPR).
Gezellig is a word I heard often growing up. My mother emigrated from The Netherlands to Canada, met my German father, and began raising a family. Our home — an uninspiring 1960s box of a bungalow — was a little bit of Holland in our lower-middle-class subdivision. It was filled with minimalistic European furniture, table runners and embroidery and potted plants and books, and from the outside it was immediately obvious (well, obvious to fellow Dutchies, that is) that it contained a Dutch woman because hanging in a valence across the living room window were the typical lace curtains seen all over The Netherlands. And while it didn’t quite match the feeling you get in a true Dutch dwelling, I have to give my mother points for trying. Really, how could a newly-built cookie-cutter house in a bland suburban neighbourhood possibly compete with cobbled streets, with tidy brick houses older than Canada itself, with tiny well-tended gardens whose abundant greenery came from effortlessly breathing the mild and humid sea air?
Cozy spaces are something I’ve always had a hankering for, and home, for me, doesn’t feel right unless certain elements are in place. There’s got to be a sufficient quantity of potted plants and books, wooden surfaces have to be softened by linen or cotton runners, and our old and worn kitchen table has to be covered with a tablecloth (which, to be clear, would be necessary even if the table were shiny and new; to me, a kitchen table simply needs a tablecloth). A few pictures here and there — all of which have to be either loved or infused with some deeper meaning (or give me a blank wall instead) — and the house feels like home. Cue the sigh of relief as I walk in the door… In my mind, the best part about gezellig is that it’s a state that’s completely unhinged from style; it’s entirely obtainable by anyone with any space. Not only are interior designers and a copy of Better Homes and Gardens unnecessary, they may even be more of a hindrance than a help. After all, gezellig isn’t dependent on the latest-and-greatest; gezellig is in the heart and mind and eye of the beholder, and while a designer can certainly make a beautiful home, it won’t necessarily follow that it’s gezellig.
But while I yearn for coziness, and while I strive to create that feeling in our home, there’s a huge part of me that simultaneously battles and belittles that need. After all, I berate myself, isn’t it rather small-minded to spend time fussing about a tablecloth (a tablecloth!) when there are people in the world who don’t have enough food to eat, let alone a table and a pretty tablecloth to set it out on? And isn’t the process of making a home, an endeavour which often includes painting and buying furniture, and which can even extend to no-holds-barred renovating, more or less at odds with a green lifestyle? I sometimes — even nearly four years removed from the fact — think of the eight garbage bags which are sitting in a dump somewhere, filled with the wallpaper scraps my husband painstakingly peeled from nearly every room in this house prior to the rest of us joining him on his latest work relocation. Those eight bags occasionally gnaw at me, and in many ways they’ve become a testament to my first-world privilege and hypocrisy. I’m painfully aware that millions of people in the world would gladly have taken this house just as it was, in all its wallpapered and worn hideousness, and here I am, claiming to care about the environment, and yet — faced with the prospect of living in a house with an off-the-chart ick factor — I simply couldn’t do it. The weight-off-the-shoulders relief as the dingy and un-cleanable was carted away was positively palpable. And as I look around this house (formerly known as “that” house by realtors) and see how it’s slowly been transformed into our home, I feel both proud and guilty over what we’ve accomplished over three-plus years. Am I a hypocrite or am I being too hard on myself? I don’t have an answer to that question, and to be honest, I’m a bit nervous putting it out there. While I’m not seeking absolution, I’m not particularly keen on condemnation either. What I’ve come to, in the course of three weeks of hemming and hawing over this post in which I attempt to explain why gezellig is part of this blog’s name, is the rather unsatisfactory acknowledgement that this is an argument of degrees and relevance.
We all have to live somewhere. I’d venture that the vast majority of us in North America fall somewhere in the middle between opulence — overblown narcissistic luxury — and nothing — sadly, a park bench and newspapers. The fact that our first-world middle-ground is a third-world country’s opulence is — as absolutely cringeworthy as it is to write this — largely irrelevant. Now, please don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean irrelevant in that it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter; on the contrary, it matters enormously. In my opinion, the inequality on our planet, and within our societies, is one of our greatest shames. We as individuals should recognize that; we should be thanking our lucky stars every. single. day. for having the good fortune to be living in Canada or the US (or Europe, or Australia; you get the picture). And if we can somehow work to alleviate some of the inequality (and there are many forms of inequality from which to choose) I think we should try our best to do so.
So when I use the word irrelevant, it’s only in the sense that unless we choose to live in the woods — homeschooling and off the grid — these pre-existing cities and neighbourhoods are by default our homes. Our desire, four years ago, to live near my husband’s office, to be in a particular school district, to be close to certain parks and amenities, dictated the neighbourhood we would live in and the house we would buy. It’s the simple fact of dreams bumping up against reality. No matter the fact that I really would have preferred something smaller (not that this house is large by North American standards), something newer (so we could have simply moved in, unpacked our belongings, and called it gezellig), something older (because really, my dream is to live in a quaint little character house with dormers and a tiny Dutch garden to match), something whatever opposite to what we found … all of that was irrelevant. These were our options, and it was a matter of choosing or going home and turning down the job.
So while I’ve reconciled myself with relevance, I find I still struggle with degrees: in a world of inequality, in a world being shaped by a changing climate, what exactly, on the scale of needs versus wants (with respect to home), is acceptable? If you think too hard on the matter (and clearly I have), if you’re going to wax philosophical and attempt to be responsible — with money, with the environment, with societal inequality — it’s altogether likely that you’re going to find yourself sucked into a vortex of indecision. After all, one can reasonably argue that everything — every. single. thing. beyond the basic needs of food, water, shelter, and clothing — is superfluous. So if those are the thoughts swirling around your brain, then how exactly do you make a decision to replace your worn living room carpet with hardwood? The only answer I’ve come up with is that you have to close your eyes.
(There’s a reason there’s been such a long stretch between Grey and Gezellig. This has been a difficult piece to write…)
So how does all this philosophical meandering tie in with gezellig?
I have to admit to being biased. The Netherlands, a country I’ve had the good fortune to visit on numerous occasions while growing up, and twice as an adult, is one of my favourite places in the world. If it’s a matter of relevance and degrees, I would argue that the Dutch, with their love-of-all-things-gezellig, have it right. Or at least, more right than we do. We in North America seem to have lost touch with the concept of enough. We have the space to spread out, to build big and opulent; we spend our days living to work in order to fill those cavernous spaces with things we don’t need; we take our coffee in paper cups with plastic lids, delivered through a drive-through window and set into one of the eight cup holders in our over-sized vehicles, and then we drive into our garages without acknowledging that we have neighbours. The Dutch, on the other hand, seem to live large while living small. The Netherlands is a tiny country with a large population, after all. They live in small homes, cheek by jowl, and if they’re known for their tolerance it’s likely because there isn’t room for anything else. They bicycle everywhere, sit at sidewalk cafés and sip coffee from cup and saucer, fork cake from a plate using metal cutlery, and while away hours visiting, valuing the camaraderie of friends and family. Do they wonder at the privilege of eating cake while others are starving? I honestly don’t know. I’m sure some do; others likely don’t give it a second thought. Do they calculate their coffee’s carbon footprint as they sit there drinking it? Given the fact that a huge portion of their country is below sea level, that a rise in the oceans would be catastrophic for them, I imagine that a fair few must be thinking of it. But are they eschewing the coffee and sacrificing their gezellig moments in the hopes of staving that off? I don’t think they are. And maybe that’s the rub: beyond the basic needs of food and water and shelter, isn’t it everyone’s desire to have comfort and camaraderie? Perhaps the argument can be made that the pursuit of spaces and activities which convey the feeling embodied in the word gezellig — the need to be cozy and loved and secure at the end of the day — is the very thing that makes us human. Perhaps that need stretches as far back as humankind goes.
I’m no anthropologist, so it’s very likely my imaginings are far from factual, but bear with me as I paint this picture: you’re out all day hunting and gathering, hoping you’ll be lucky enough to catch or simply happen-upon your next meal. You’re in a constant state of vigilance, because at any moment some hulking beast with unimaginably sharp teeth and claws could jump out from the bushes and drag you or your mate or your children away, you and/or yours becoming their dinner. Imagine your relief at the end of the day, when you and your family — hopefully with full bellies — finally get back to your cave. Perhaps you’ve acquired the knack of taming fire and your shelter is guarded and warm, perhaps there’s a domesticated wolf close at hand … I bet if they had the language to frame that feeling, that sigh of relief as they sat in their caves and peered out at the dark and dangerous world at their doorstep, and felt comforted and safe and together, they would have called it gezellig. And maybe, in the midst of all the scariness in the world — climate change, war, political and social unrest; all things we have little or no control over — the best thing we can do for ourselves and for our children is to cultivate (and be incredibly grateful for) a safe space to call home at the end of the day. Nothing too big, nothing too opulent, nothing that rudely demands privilege and a bigger-than-necessary piece of the global pie; just something that’s enough, just something that’s gezellig.
Oh, and look at this:
It’s a link! Whaddya know! It seems I do have the capability! It’s a bit of good news from Grist, and I have to say that a world has just opened up before this hapless, mainly inept blogger…maybe my next post can even include a picture…