At the heart of gezellig is a sense of homey comfort. It was in the 17th century that the Dutch originated the idea of home as we know it today. Architect Witold Rybczynski, author of Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986), explains that the Dutch were the creators of the small, single-family house, because they had a thriving middle class before other European countries, giving them the resources to focus on domestic comfort. "The Dutch loved their homes," writes Rybczynski. "They brought together the "meanings of house and of household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection."
Thus, the Dutch are practiced in terms of hospitality- food, drink, and flowers are just the beginning. With typical polite helpfulness, they welcome visitors. Nearly everyone speaks English as well as Dutch, and often French or German. "We're a country of just 16 million people, so who's going to learn Dutch?" says a sociable waitress, fluent in three languages and studying Spanish "for fun."
All of this amazes visitors, whosee the Dutch socializing, eating, and drinking and wonder how they manage it. Such nurturing is "necessary for our emotional survival," says a busy hotelier, mother, and wife. "Winters are long and dark, and sustenance must go far beyond the physical." As for calorie-counting, Hollanders are among the tallest people on earth-average height for men is 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-2-and surprisingly trim.
"It's our walking and bicycle riding," confides the Dutch woman. "We work off calories so we can sit down with friends and eat while also having a laugh."
Holland-a third the size of California and half of that reclaimed from the sea-is accepted as the popular name for the entire country, although technically it refers to the coastal regions around Amsterdam. Culture is as ubiquitous as fine food and flowers. The country's happily split personality is shown in the strong thread of domesticity that permeates everyday life and exists side by side with an avant-garde spirit that celebrates bold, contemporary ideas, another of Holland's major exports.
And those bold ideas are often very practical. During last year's worldwide floods and water-related disasters, the Dutch went their way, continuing research on floating buildings, gardens, and other developments that can survive extreme water conditions. Hollanders have centuries of practice, symbolized by the mythic story of a determined boy with his finger in the dike, and they contribute some of today's best thinking about surviving nature's caprices.