Saturday, November 20, 2010

Through the window at night

You would think that a small country stuffed with 17 million people would be obsessed with privacy.

In many ways, it is. The Dutch are very aware of privacy in their gardens and certainly the security of their bank accounts.

But, then there is the situation of the front windows.

Almost every house in our village has a large front picture window. This is a good thing considering how dark it gets here in the winter. We need all the light we can get in these houses.

But almost no one covers these windows. No sheers, curtains or blinds separate passer-bys from the house inhabitants. Every person out for an evening stroll can look right in on the tableau of a family eating their dinner, watching tv, or in the case of our house, having a big argument over why a certain 10 year old should be “forced” to study Dutch.

I’ve heard several explanations of why the Dutch do not cover their windows.

The first was historical, stating that during the Spanish occupation of Holland in the 16th century, all Dutch homes were ordered by law to have undressed windows so that the Spanish occupiers could enforce a nighttime curfew and prevent the rebellious Dutch from organizing.

The second was cultural, that Dutch families were so proud of their tidy and cozy (in Dutch “gezellige”) homes that they encouraged all of their neighbors to look in and see.

The third was a kind of subtle boastfulness. The Calvinistic Dutch, as a rule, do not like to be conspicuous. It is not very Dutch to own a fancy car or wear an expensive watch. Even Princess Maxima will occasionally ditch the limo and ride a bike to my grocery store sans tiara. This does not stop the Dutch from being competitive, though. Maybe they keep their curtains open at night so that everyone can see how affluent they've become.

Whatever the reasons for the naked windows, tradition or pride, naked these windows are.

When we first arrived, Walt looked dubiously at our blaringly empty living room window and it's immediate view of the sidewalk. He’s always been a private person. Of course I naively reassured him, “Oh Sweetie, these people have been living on top of each other for so long, they must know not to look in the windows at night.” I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Do these neighbors, friends, and outright strangers avert their eyes as they parade past my house? No, they look right in. You can almost hearing them asking, “Hey, watcha eating? Is that a cannoli?” I’m surprised I’ve not yet found nose prints on the window. Strangers will frequently stop and admire what we are watching on tv. Friends biking past will smile and acknowledge me as I’m straightening up the house in my bathrobe and bunny slippers. I’ve stopped coming downstairs with a towel in my hair.

The thing is I love that naked window. It’s huge. It brings an extraordinary amount of light into the house on the darkest of days. It looks out on two lovely pine trees. It breaks my heart to think of covering it with sheers and diffusing that low clear light found only here in Holland.

Tonight I’ve been looking out into the darkness, watching my neighbors watch me as they walk their dogs. One stopped to wave.

Maybe it’s time.


  1. Well put. I love to gaze into those front rooms, but unlike others always feel the need to look away if someone is home. There's something really odd about making eye contact with a person relaxing in the intimacy of their home.

  2. I love it. I'm going to send you an email now. LOL

  3. Hi, just happend onto your site. Great stories!
    a comment back to BlondbutBright; you're not supposed to look in. If you inadvertently do (curiosity is hard to curtail) you should quickly look away. I heard it has indeed to do with Calvinistic belief that one should have nothing to hide .... (a bit odd realy but VERY Dutch),

  4. I found this extremely weird in the beginning as well. You sort of wonder, where should I look? On one of my first evenings in NL, I was walking down the street with a colleague and we noticed an elderly woman sitting on the ground in her apartment. (I sort of felt embarassed about the fact that I had been peering into her window, but I pointed it out to my colleague anyway.) The elderly lady had fallen and literally could not get up. We were able to get into her house and wait with her until an ambulance got there (which took about half an hour!). Though I know this has nothing to do with the historical origins, I do think that having this open picture window encourages some sort of contact with the rest of the community. It's a fine line I can begin feeling invasive when people look in, but I have decided to embrace it! I really like your stories and will keep checking back :)