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Double Dutch cosiness and a warm winter welcome

by Tom Morton -

The Dutch word ‘gezellig’ is one of my favourites in any language (pronounced He-SILL-ick or, I was taught in Seeland, very Scottishly as Chhh-SILL-icchhh). Its meaning, however, is as slippery as a twitching mackerel in the bottom of a fourareen. According to Wikipedia, it represents “a perfect example of untranslatability...(it) does not have an English equivalent. Literally, it means cozy, quaint, or nice, but can also connote time spent with loved ones, seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness.”

People can be gezellig (it's an adverb, so they would act, or to be precise, gezellige (adjective). A restaurant can be gezellig or ongezellig, depending on whether or not it is, say, The Peerie Shop Café or the (unbuilt) Lerwick branch of Burger King. On the other hand, any branch of Burger King (or McDonalds, Or KFC) can be gezellig if you’re in a group of gezellige pals.

When I visited the Netherlands years ago I was conscious of the cosiness and, well, compact and bijou nature of the houses in which I stayed. It was explained to me that was a gezellig thing. I fell in love with many aspects of Dutch life, notably Vla, the truly wondrous thin custard which, when I was there, you had delivered to your door in bottles with milk and a lovely drinking yoghurt. Gathered around the kitchen table, mixing the two and drinking strong black coffee...well, that was almost the definition of gezellig-ness.

Shetland of course has very strong links with Holland - Lerwick was founded in the 17th Century by the Dutch herring fishermen who used to anchor each season in Bressay Sound. We do not, alas, have our own version of vla, though the traditional Shetland drink blaand (fermented milk) sounds similar and is in some ways similar to that thin drinking yoghurt.

But in Shetland, gezellig is a winter way of life. The dialect phrase ‘in aboot da night’ conjures the scene perfectly, particularly when it becomes an invitation (or a demand): ‘Cam ye aa in aboot da night’. It’s untranslatable, but essentially means: ‘Come, on, everybody, come into the house, sit down next to the Rayburn and have a glass of this dark rum, a cup of tea, large amounts of soup, mutton, bread, butter and home made cakes of every variety, and listen to some stories, tell some stories, gossip, sing, play tunes on the fiddle and guitar. Or share my curry and watch this new Netflix series. More rum? Perhaps a Red Tin or an obscure and tasty local IPA?’ I told you it was untranslatable.

The key to this essential notion of hospitality is, for me, the Rayburn. Or shall we just say ‘stove’? I think we shall. It should be peat fired, as the pungent aroma, the reek of burning bog is part of the winter isles experience. It should be so hot it glows red, and controllable to the extent that it does not set the chimney on fire. In the past, it would have been the absolute epicentre of family life, providing food, heat, hot water and refuge from the darkness and cold (often moving very quickly) outside. It would never go out, except on the cusp of the aald new year, when it would be symbolically extinguished before being relit for the coming 12 months.

Now, in our house, the stove is a symbol of welcome, warmth and winter. It is pure gezellig, except when it’s unlit, cold and badly needing emptied of ash, when it is very definitely ongezillig. So excuse me, but I must go and sort out the Rayburn, sorry stove. It’s lunchtime, it’s getting dark and there are folk coming round. I have custard to cook.

If you want to know all about vla and other wonderful Dutch dairy products such as kwark and of course advocaat (alcoholic vla), this blog post is excellent: I am extremely grateful to Irene Beyer for pointing out the correct spelling of 'gezellig'!

The dialect phrase ‘in aboot da night’ conjures the scene perfectly, particularly when it becomes an invitation (or a demand): ‘Cam ye aa in aboot da night’.

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