Thursday, January 13, 2011


The second snowstorm of this winter has arrived. A priceless stillness has fallen over New York. The city that never sleeps usually moves to a fast-paced soundtrack of honking horns, wailing sirens, and rumbling subways. Music blasts from windows and stores; vendors shout to attract customers. Street preachers pontificate to their impromptu flocks. People talk and argue louder and faster than any place I’ve ever visited.
Not this day. Not outside my window. St. Nicholas Avenue and St. Nicholas Park are blanketed with snow; the parked cars are buried under mountains of it. No one walks, no one shouts in the street. Except for the occasional sanitation department snowplow, the street is sparsely trafficked. The pristine white, the serenity, the brilliance of the winter sun, the unique winter light are a miracle to me --- not the weather emergency it is for the rest of the city. I can sit at my desk and devote a full day to my novel, look up and out once in a while to take in the serene city.

“So gemütlich,” I think.

There is no word in the English language that accurately captures the meaning of “Gemüt” (mind, soul, disposition, heart) or “gemütlich” (comfortable, smug, and cozy).
The term originally meant soulful (voller Gemüt.) In the beginning of the 18th century “Gemütlichkeit” appeared in the writings of the Moravians in the sense of “Herzlichkeit” (cordiality, heartiness, warmth). In the Biedermeier period, “Gemütlichkeit” gained the new meaning of comfort or comfortableness and became a fashionable concept. At times “Gemütlichkeit” appeared related to nationalism and Teutonic mania and took on the negative connotation of laziness. The writer F. T. Vischer coined the derogatory untranslatable term "Vettermichelsgemütlichkeit" (cousin kraut‘s coziness?).

A word does not only carry linguistic and etymological meaning, it carries cultural as well as emotional meaning. In contrast to the common and valued emotional restraint, “Gemütlichkeit” is an acceptable way of expressing emotions in German culture. It’s a way of making oneself and others feel at home, to let down one’s guard and experience intimacy. My own etymology, origin and meaning of the word “Gemütlichkeit” stems from the Germany of the 60s. I was invited for “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) by my neighbor, Frau Stanke. Sitting across from her on the kitchen bench, I watched her set the table with ritualistic accuracy and care for her ten year old visitor with the linen tablecloth (picked up earlier in the day from the Heissmangel pressing service), the gold trimmed Sunday china, a platter of poppy seed cake, a cup of Muckefuck (ersatz coffee) for me and the cup of Jacobs Krönung for herself. She squeezed her massive body into the narrow space on the bench and slid closer to me. Then came the precious invitation in her charming Silesian accent:

“Lass es uns gemütlich machen.” Let's get comfortable.

1 comment:

Michael Scofield said...

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