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Six phrases for dealing with Dutch hospitality

Hospitality in the Netherlands

In many cultures hospitality is a rule of law; in some, it is a virtue and in others, it is a right. From times immemorial, the Dutch have welcomed travellers to their small country and made sure that they felt welcome and safe in their homes.

Below are six key words and phrases that you should learn if you’re planning on staying at your Dutch friend’s house, or if you’re planning on hosting some guests while in the Netherlands.

1. De gastvrijheid (hospitality)

Isn’t this a lovely and heartwarming word? Gastvrijheid is a combination of two words: gast (guest) and vrijheid (freedom). The word “hospitable” is derived from the Latin word “host” which is related to the Germanic gast.

2. De gast (guest)

Let’s focus on the word gast, which is one of the oldest words in the world. It goes back to the Sanskrit verb ghas which means “to eat.” So, the original “guest” was someone who was invited to eat along with the rest of the family. Guess who’s coming to dinner tonight: yes, it’s een gast (a guest).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “guest” as “one who is entertained at the house or table of another.” In the Middle Ages, the word gast also meant “stranger.” Even now, een gast is a stranger whom you allow to stay in your house among your relatives and friends for a limited period of time.

3. Een gast en een vis blijven maar drie dagen fris (a guest and a fish will stay fresh for only three days)

This unique proverb is quite popular in the Netherlands, and it reveals a lot about the Dutch attitude towards guests. When there is a threat that guests will outstay their welcome, the first half of this saying een gast en een vis… may be muttered as a reminder that the time to go has come. A gast can have friendly and unfriendly connotations in the Dutch language: please be welcome and feel at home, but do not challenge the host’s or hostess’ patience!

4. De vrijheid (freedom, liberty)

So after having studied the many reverberations of the word gast, let’s have a look at vrijheid in the compound gastvrijheid. Does vrijheid here really mean the liberty of or for guests, as you expect? No, unfortunately the etymology of the word vrijheid shows that is a bit more complicated than what seems so evident at first sight.

Vrijheid does not refer to the meaning of “freedom” or “liberty,” but to the much older Dutch meaning of gulheid (generosity). In other words: gastvrijheid implies that the host will show some generosity to a “stranger” for a short while. Compared to other cultures, being gastvrij in the Netherlands is not without obligations. There are strings attached.

5. Gastvrij (hospitable)

In the 16th century, the Dutch borrowed this adjective from the German gastfrei and never gave it back. It looks and sounds similar to the other Germanic languages: gæstfri (Danish), gästfri (Swedish), gjestfri (Norwegian). Only English threw it out of its vocabulary and had it replaced by “hospitable,” which was stolen from French.

6. Gezellig (cosy, sociable)

Gastvrijheid and gezelligheid go hand in hand. The Dutch use these words very often and in many contexts. But watch out, even gezelligheid is not free from certain conditions and restrictions! The word gezellig is derived from the word gezel which means “companion.” So, gezelligheid literally means “companionableness” and must therefore be celebrated among companions and friends.

For guests, please remember the saying about the fish (see above): stay at some distance and keep it gezellig. Developing a true friendship with Dutch people will take some time.

Time to impress your hosts

Now that we’ve studied the words gastvrijheidgezelligheid and gastvrijheid, please don’t feel disheartened or demotivated! Dutch hospitality does come with instructions for use, but once you’ve mastered these terms and conditions, you’ll find that the gastheer and gastvrouw (host and hostess) will give you a warm and safe welcome and, who knows, in time they may even turn into lifelong friends.