We sat at a rough hewn, oak table that runs twenty feet in either direction, topped with light blue and white diamond table cloths. To my left and right, drinking companions who have accompanied me here, to this shrine, in a battered, white Fiesta. Opposite, an elderly gentleman – possibly in his ‘80s but it’s difficult to pinpoint – unremarkable except for his deeply wrinkled face, crinkled embroidered collar on a brilliant white shirt, a velvet green bridle across his chest slightly shrouded below his waistcoat, and on his head a small, mole brown feathered trilby. His drinking companions are similarly attired. In moments the new world meets the old – jeans clad English lads in a social stand-off with three gentlemen from an earlier age.
Three huge, monster, glasses – they must be all of two pints¹ – of beer are placed in front of us, and, as if a switch has been flicked, the elderly gent in the middle fixes me directly with his gaze, stands up, proudly slapping his black lederhosen, raises his similarly mammoth glass of glistening, bronze beer, smiles and duels me with a toast:
Moments later, at the far end of the tent – far enough to appear like footballers viewed from the back of the North Stand – a deep, reverberating string of notes wobbles over to us, ‘Ummm Ummm Um Um Um Paaaah!’ Recently arrived puzzled tourists like me scan around nervously as everyone rises, lifts their glasses and starts to sing: “Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit….”
Spin on a few years. A business trip to the southern Netherlands, near Maastricht, down in the pointy bit on the map. We’re touring a brewery with a view to importing one of their beers. The brewery is almost pastoral – verdant green hills, shapely oaks, ash and poplar trees shape in the immediate hinterland – the word ‘bucolic’ was made for this. The brewery itself faces directly onto the road, barn like in appearance, with large, triple hinged wooden doors hiding the shining, modern set-up within. At lunch we break to a small bar just round the corner from the brewery and enjoy a bowl of waterzooi – this being with welly-wanging distance of Belgium after all – and a Summer wheat beer. In this part of Holland, speaking English is less common than further north; nonetheless our brewery guide – a Brewster no less, raises her glass and gently says,
“Ah thies is soo gezellig”
I looked it up. Gezellig? Gezellig? I hear it a lot but no one can translate it. The Dutch being proud in fact that ‘Gezelligheid’( with the gargling ‘z’) You have no word for it in English’. I did the same with Gemütlichkeit , although knowing a bit of German I was aware the story was similar. How come in English – English of all languages – with a vocabulary more extensive (and growing faster) than either German or Dutch – how come we don’t have a translation? And as they are so central to the beer situation, this only made it worse. Our beer culture is rich too – surely we can translate these words? If only to reduce the lexicological one-upmanship
The Wikimeister was the first point of call. Gemütlichkeit being ‘an environment or state of mind that conduces a cheerful mood and peace of mind with connotation of a notion of belonging and social acceptance. And apparently the Nordic countries, many of the Balkans all have a similar word. In Russia their word, yιom, “carries almost identical connotations”. As for Gezelligheid ‘depending on context, can be convivial, cosy, fun, quaint but can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones….or general togetherness”. I understand these words. I get them wholly. The emotional connotations make absolute sense to me, yet, yet… we don’t have a word. I struggle to express that familiar sensation in our language. They are either too lacking in nuance (like convivial) or else you need a phrase and that’s cheating.
But I want to be able to express this word. I reckon that it’s a bit of gezelligmütlichness that we Brits could do with. Because just as we may not be able to translate these words, so our neighbourly continental languages don’t have an expression for our way of drinking and what that means, how that feels for us. And no, I don’t mean getting lashed on a dozen pints, but rather that fuzzy, somewhere in-the-middle drinking that’s two too many to count as a ‘quick pint’ and two too few to constitute a ‘sesh’. That’s where the spark plugs fire without sparks flying and causing a raging inferno. It’s the sort of occasion, with your friends, that you could easily do a couple of times a week and still function the next day, without feeling piously or piteously out of it.
There’s a more serious need too. Put to one side our current economic difficulties, the perception amongst politicians and legislators of the effects of beer, and alcohol, on how ‘we’ drink is still stuck in a different age. ‘Minimum Pricing’;’Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy’, talk of advertising bans, sponsorship bans, self regulation vs legislation – these are warning signs that the chasm of understanding between those in power and those who want to enjoy a relaxing couple of three pints exists and is a threat. And it is a threat – to think, as I read in a quality daily recently for example, that minimum pricing in the off trade will lead to people going back to pubs again is folly. We need to put gezlligmütlichness at the heart of a positive political agenda for beer – supporting not just good pubs, but encouraging bars and restaurants to serve a decent lower alcohol drinks range (beer) as well as a decent wine list – and putting a new way of drinking, a little, often and good quality at the heart of licensing, rather than simply demonising supermarkets from stacking it high and selling it cheap.
In an earlier blog you may recall the journey my brother and I made to Czechoslovakia and Franconia just after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Mere sprats we were, still on a hideously giggly voyage of beer discovery – it could have been one long trip of drunken debauchery and leery British embarrassment on the continent. Yet one night, we sat in a wood clad bar drinking dark lager and Dunkel, having a conversation with the locals yet utterly unable to converse in their language. And then, to paraphrase the Good Soldier Svejk, ‘it did happen to us that we drank one beer after another’…modestly so I like to think. Of course, we’ll never meet those chaps again, but for all talk of ephemeral European Harmony, legislated by endless Treaties, perhaps it would be more constructive to just share a few beers and enjoy some gezelligmütlichness.
¹In fact, it turns out to be a 2 litre glass – or ‘mass’ which in German feels almost onomatopoeic.
© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012