The Dutch have a word for a “cozy and warm” atmosphere. Gezeligheid (“he-sell-ick”) does not have an English equivalent, is one of those untranslatable words you find in those lists online. A feeling, rather than a word. It comes from the Dutch Gezel: a companion, or friend.
The way that English does not have room for ambiguities can be troublesome when you’re trying to understand experiences that are exactly that — ambiguous, inexact. Filipino does a better job. What were you? Ewan. What happened? Ewan! Basta, meron.
This is supposed to be a summer fling story.
Well, it’s not.
What happened was, I was in Brazil to kick off my gap year. I was there for six weeks, volunteering for an international youth organization. There were about 14 of us in the group — together, we looked like a Benetton ad. The thing was, all 12 of the volunteers lived in Salvador, the city center. I lived south, an hour or two away from everyone by bus, my only mode of transportation.
By Monday, I’d met two new additions to the group, one of which was supposed to live close to me. Our Brazilian tour manager sidled up to me and whispered, “You won’t be lonely anymore.” He winked. I saw why. The newcomers were both 6 feet tall, handsome, and Belgian. I hoped my busmate would be the “Neville Longbottom after he has longbottomed” look-a-like. Nope. I was stuck with the taller, angular, murky-eyed guy with shadows under his eyes. He looked suplado, and humorless.
A few days later, I learned that he was suplado, but not entirely humorless. I learned that his favorite band was Arctic Monkeys, just like me. I found these out through the bus rides we took together, just on the way home, at first. Later on, we took bus rides on the way to wherever.
“Okay, do me,” I asked him once, flirtatiously, because I am an idiot. “I mean, tell me something about myself.” We’d known each other a little more than a week. He put his hand to his chin and regarded me with a squint.
“You like to be with people, but you also like to be alone.”
“Lame. Try again.”
“And… I was gonna say, you like beautiful things. Beautiful, original things.”
“There’s a difference. You really seek them out.”
I paused to consider.
Our love for similar kinds of music (I found out later on that he also liked Franz Ferdinand) forged a bond that was compounded by our mutual dependence. There were the long bus rides, the tricky language, and the fact that Salvador was one of the highest rated cities for crime. In the whole of South America. One time, we even heard gunshots by our bus stop.
So, we went everywhere together. When navigating, I took care of choosing which buses to take, and asking for directions in my paltry Portuguese when we were lost. He was cautious about which buses to take, which to avoid. I tended to get on any bus that stopped right in front of me, without so much as a look at the destination.
What is this sense of normalcy with a strange new person in an even stranger place? We found our way, around the city, and around each other. One time, when we were with the whole group for lunch, I asked him to spot me for my meal. He gave me his wallet, and I paid for the both of us. We’d known each other two weeks. Sometimes, when we ate, he would reach out to my plate wordlessly, either to use my knife, or fork, or to finish my food for me.
We have a lot of moments like these. Like the fact that we had our breakfast place, and every time we entered, the guy behind the counter would ask, “The usual?” Whenever I waited at my bus stop alone, the men that I’ve befriended at the coffee stall would ask, “Onde está seu namorado?” (Where’s your boyfriend?) I never quite learned how to correct them.
I’ve never had a friendship like this before, in which the getting to know you stage was compounded with acting like we already knew each other. Over five weeks, our daily bus rides totalled four hours (or more) each day. We never ran out of things to talk about, always something new to be discovered about the other, things we took for granted with friends or strangers back home. I learned that he read car blogs everyday, or that he wished to be a pilot, or a mechanic, except that his parents would never let him. He learned that I was a feminist, or that I almost became a Theology professor.
“Forgive me for saying this, but you shouldn’t be stuck in a classroom,” he said.
“But you know there’s a senator in the Philippines and she—”
“Exactly. You should be doing things like that. You’re really special, and I mean—”
“Hold up. Did you just say I’m special?” I said. I smiled like that grinning Spongebob meme with his teeth up his head. He blushed and was unable to look me in the eye. “It’s okay, I’ll take it,” I said, smiling some more.
21 and never experienced kilig, or love, or a relationship. When I finally felt it around someone unavailable, I didn’t know what to do. What did it all mean? When I catch him looking at me, really looking at me across the table, I smile back awkwardly. I’ve never been regarded like that before. Never really felt like I was worth looking at.
Having been inexperienced in the Love Department then, never even having a boyfriend, could explain the obsession with knowing where this experience was in the scale of all possible romantic experiences. Most likely, nowhere. But surely it meant something that we liked the same things, and wanted the same things out of life?
Maybe this is what f**** me up, the having to know.
On our last night together, he and I got on the bus. We sat down, he put his arms around me, and we took our last selfie. I leaned towards him. We stayed like that for a long time. Wordless, until, he said, “I promise I’ll see you when you’re in Europe, like when you’re in Paris or London or wherever, I’ll fly in for sure.” “Long distance friendships never pan out,” I said, certain. “We’ll try,” he replied. I hoped anyway.
We got down to our stop, and slowly walked towards where I could catch my shuttle back home. He could also take a taxi there. We stalled, even when we saw the 10:00 PM shuttle coming in and leaving a minute after. One shuttle left, 10:30 PM. We talked about everything and nothing, while waiting, as usual, for the last time. I remember asking him, have you told your girlfriend, “I love you?” “Nope,” he said. “I don’t really know how.” They’ve been together six months. I figured, maybe it wasn’t the right time.
When I saw my shuttle approaching, I stood up. He followed. I faced him. “Hey, go down,” I said, motioning for him to bend down. Like a giraffe, he swooped down, closing the distance, cheek to cheek with me. This was it. “I love you,” I whispered to his right ear. Then, I gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. He smiled at me. “I love you too,” he said, and kissed me, too. Those three words were the last I ever spoke to him, because that was the last time we ever saw each other.
Often, we’re missing the magic right under our very noses, for want of something more. Why is it not enough to be friends? Cosmic connections notwithstanding, why is there a need for it to be something more? Either there is or there’s not. I did know. What we had was Gezelligheid. That had to be enough.
Our long distance friendship fizzled over Facebook. I was in Europe a number of times, but he never flew in to see me. Some long distance friendships pan out, but ours didn’t. Maybe it buckled under the pressure of what it was, and what it could have been. It hasn’t ended neatly as I wished it has, obviously, for I am still here. Maybe the magic is in the attempt to find the words to talk about this different kind of love.