Walking through the streets of Groningen, we have all experienced the discomfort of locking eyes with a stranger when peeking through a house’s inviting, curtain-less windows. At the beginning of my life in Groningen, I lacked the Dutch’s bravery to leave my curtains open.
The house is a symbol of freedom, which I thought could only be achieved by total privacy. The only place where one does not need to give explanations and curious eyes are obligated to knock on the front door before entering. I wouldn’t feel at ease if someone could have a peek through my window, watching my TV. Back home, life happens inside big walls and closed doors. There is no place for imagination or speculation.
Perhaps they expect us not to look, but we do. We steal pieces of them; speculating a life they might not live
Despite this belief changing since I’ve lived in The Netherlands, I still wonder if there are other societies that welcome strangers openly like the Dutch. The people here do not guard the borders of intimacy and dare to confront you with their private life. Perhaps they expect us not to look, but we do. We steal pieces of them; speculating a life they might not live.
In my Groningen home, my neighbours are only separated by a narrow street. Both of our apartments have huge windows and we leave the curtains open. I can look directly into a couple’s kitchen: a girl playing video games and a guy playing the guitar. It felt as if I knew them. After months of observing, I wondered if they were happy together. I began to ask myself if they were wondering the same thing about me.
Leaving their curtains open is so ingrained into their culture, that many Dutchies simply do not bother to think twice about it
When I asked my friend Reinout Velleman if he looks inside houses, he confesses:
‘Sometimes you’re walking by and the window is open, so I quickly take a peek. One dude in my street has a lot of cool guitars, so I always want to look inside his house.’
Do the Dutch crave intimacy but dare not speak of it? Using their windows as a way to open their hearts at a safe distance?
We can theorise all we want, but the truth is, leaving their curtains open is so ingrained into their culture, that many Dutchies simply do not bother to think twice about it. It’s just the way things are. How their childhood home was, and what their mum did, and their mum’s mum and so forth.
But where did it start? We can trace back its origins to Calvinism. Perhaps a few Dutchies will be surprised by this statement. They even might reject this idea, as the majority of the population are atheist. Nevertheless, in The Netherlands’ fight against Roman Catholicism, the Dutch took refuge in the principles of Calvinism, viewing them as a sign of freedom. The Bible was to be interpreted by each individual, as long as they were upright and honest. If these principles were followed, it meant that you lived openly and truthfully.
My mum always said that it was antisocial when people would keep the curtains closed all day
Wanting to prove they had nothing to hide, the Dutch opened their curtains, inviting the whole world to see. During the successive wars The Netherlands was entangled in, the neighbours would worry about the wives and kids left behind. They were able to take care of them quickly by peeking through open windows, seeing happy children laughing at the dinner table. It would be uncomfortable to ring the doorbell every time you wanted to check up on your neighbours.
‘My mum always said that it was antisocial when people would keep the curtains closed all day,’ says Reinout. ‘I don’t know what it is. I guess you’re just expected to be able to look into people’s houses, although it’s a bit weird. Sometimes, when you’re just sitting in your living room, your neighbours walk by and wave at you. You are expected to wave back. It just feels like you have to keep performing your duty even when you’re sitting in the living room in your own house.’
In his student room, Reinout keeps the curtains open. ‘I’m less worried about people looking in from the third floor, so it’s not really a big deal.’
Students don’t have much freedom to move around and shy away from prying eyes. Nevertheless, many students leave their curtains open to make the house feel more spacious, or to let the sun in. In a country where rain is the standard, sunlight beats privacy for many students.
My favourite explanation is bringing light into the darkness of winter
Personally, my favourite explanation is bringing light into the darkness of winter. The Dutch leave their curtains open to survive the dark and cold months by letting the light from their cozy houses pour into the streets. The exchange between the passersby and the family gathering inside would be a reminder of life’s joy, thereby making the streets more cozy or gezelling, which is the Dutch’s favourite mood.
As I walked along the streets of Groningen these past nights, I could barely see the inside of houses illuminated by cozy lamps. However, I felt lucky as I encountered a few decorations peeking through, or perhaps a cute cat meowing at glass windows. This city is home to thousands of international students who have their own way of living, so they often leave their curtains closed.
Nevertheless, after a few years of getting used to this strange phenomenon, I opt to leave mine open and hope that adopting this tradition would lighten up the winter blues.