No country in Europe has a more universally recognized image than the Netherlands. Windmills, tulips, wooden shoes, and the tall elegant houses lining Amsterdam's canals define the world's perception of the country called Holland. Today, this old-fashioned view coexists with an ultramodern Dutch sensibility seen in cutting-edge architecture (especially in Rotterdam, home of world-class architect Rem Koolhaas), beautifully designed home furnishings, and contemporary art, often displayed next to timeless Dutch Master paintings in museums and galleries.
That's backdrop. In the foreground of this small, meticulously kept country is a quality seen throughout daily life. The Dutch even have a word for it- gezellig, which roughly translates as cozy and convivial.
Epitomizing this warmth, informal bars called "brown cafés" are ubiquitous, taking their name from the natural woods of their aged interiors. Richly hued Oriental rugs often cover tabletops. Once considered too valuable for floors by the thrifty Dutch, fine handmade carpets are used on tables, an age-old custom that has endured. These gathering spots are good places to sample Dutch friendliness along with local beer and genever, the Dutch version of gin (made with barley malt for a very different-some say acquired-taste).
The sweet life is also found in the mouth-watering desserts, often long lists of them, in bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants. The Dutch love their sweets, and, indeed, they are something special. Even humble hot chocolate is served with ceremony, with dark or milk chocolate pieces melted in hot milk and served with freshly whipped cream on the side. What could be more typical of life-enhancing gezellig than such Dutch treats?
Even Amsterdam's airport terminals feed the spirit of gezellig. Cafés at Schiphol International are located just yards from the arrival gates. Why not sit down for a coffee, hot chocolate, snack, or delicious piece of Dutch apple cake while waiting for disembarking passengers? Also at Schiphol, a grand flower shop overflows with blooms, bulbs, plants, and creative floral accessories. Yes, you can find a few windmill-shaped vases, miniature wooden shoes, or other such tchotchkes, but the offerings are generally more interesting than those available at most airport concessions.
Hollanders understand the power of the sweet gesture, and are said to buy more flowers than anyone on earth-not surprising since they also cultivate more blossoms than any other country. No matter the hour, it's nearly impossible to walk down a city or village street without running into a local carrying a beautifully wrapped bouquet.