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It’s a common descriptor on German, Austrian and Swiss vacation home listings, but what does gemütlich, or its noun equivalent Gemütlichkeit, really mean? Candles? Cookies fresh out of the oven? The short answer is that it’s hard to explain, but we’ll give one of Germany’s best inventions our best shot.
Gemütlichkeit is often defined in English as pleasant, friendly or cosy but none of these descriptors are really accurate as all are just parts of what makes up a gemütlich situation. The Danish concept of hygge is roughly similar to gemütlichkeit, though in Germany the idea is not necessarily centred around the home.
Gemütlichkeit is a feeling, not an object, that everyone who’s present in a room recognizes since everyone contributes to it in some way. Gemütlichkeit can happen between two people, or partners or many people, but not to someone who’s alone. It is not necessarily romantic and is difficult to achieve with small children, mostly because they aren’t usually able to be quiet for long periods of time.
Flopping down on the couch and watching ‘Fuller House’ is not gemütlich. Sitting in a coffee house with a companion and never speaking to each other while you both read separate books is definitely gemütlich. Actively making time to be still and recharge (rather than lapsing into a temporary vegetative state) is an important component of Gemütlichkeit. If you feel recharged afterwards and not more tired, you’re doing it right.
Gemütlichkeit cannot be experienced alone because one of its necessary components is having a sense of social belonging. And we’re not talking about being at a dinner and having everyone stop by at your table to talk, or being the life of the party. It’s more about doing something, like spending an afternoon at a beer garden, that everyone in the community recognises as a pleasant but largely pointless activity.
Sure, those are all common elements in a gemütlich situation, but what makes the concept so difficult to translate into English is that even having all of those things, plus maybe a slowly darkening night, fresh snow, church bells, some piano music in the background, a comfortable chair or something nice to read, doesn’t necessarily add up to gemütlichkeit.
Anyone selling cashmere socks will have you believe otherwise, but Gemütlichkeit is more than just ‘stuff’. It’s about people and good feelings coming together to make an essential nothing—the pixie dust that makes an afternoon magical.