Nov 20th, 2021, 03:27 PM

Exploring the Dutch Aversion to Curtains

By Erin Flanagan
Homes without curtains along a canal in Amsterdam | Photo Credit: Erin Flanagan
Walking around Amsterdam, I noticed that most houses along the main canals were without curtains. Where does this openness come from?

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I found myself enchanted by the slow-flowing canals, precariously tilted buildings, and bicyclists whizzing across the arched bridges in the city center. Amsterdam is a uniquely charming city with a rich culture and history far beyond its notorious reputation for access to marijuana, the Red Light District, and the legendary electronic music scene.

While wandering around the cobbled streets, however, I noticed something strange. At least, strange for me as someone who has spent most of my life in the United States. Nearly every house I walked by had something in common. No, it wasn't the narrow, tall shape of the buildings or the peaked rooves. Each time I stopped to admire one of the homes, something was missing. I wasn't able to put my finger on it until I locked eyes with a man standing in his kitchen, wearing naught but his boxers, cooking eggs while a stranger was staring into his home.

Blushing a brilliant shade of red, I quickly looked away. Then I waved apologetically and hurried on. I didn't want him to think I'd been staring (though, of course, I had been). In a hurry, I moved on to the next house, relieved to escape this awkward moment. Now I came across an elderly couple reading in street-facing armchairs who glanced briefly up from their books, kindly smiled, and went right on reading.

Horrified that I'd been caught twice now, I scurried on next door, where I stopped yet again to marvel through a window framing a room filled floor-to-ceiling with a grand bookshelf and a ceiling painted with an Italian fresco. Here, I lingered because there was no one to see me, likewise with the home next door where a lovely living room with a bright orange rug was scattered with children's toys.

"Curtains," I exclaimed, alarming the small Dutch woman passing by me on her bicycle. None of these homes had curtains. View this post on Instagram


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Memories surfaced of my mother frantically closing the curtains after dark so our neighbors couldn't see in. But why I now wondered? Was she worried they would see us playing "Slow Down Jeopardy?" That is when you play regular Jeopardy, but you pause after each question, so you have time to think, thus defeating the purpose of Jeopardy. It had to be about more than that, something fundamentally different in the cultures. 

I was absolutely baffled by this openness, particularly in a city like Amsterdam packed to the gills with tourists. How is it that the locals didn't seem not only not to mind strangers looking into their homes but actually seemed to encourage it with their wide-open windows?  I'm not the only one who has left Amsterdam asking this question. It seems that privacy is a looser concept in Amsterdam than in other cities I had visited. But researchers haven't been able to sort out "why people in the Netherlands care so little about their privacy." Some people think it's a way for the Dutch to ostentatiously show off their wealth. Though somewhat cynical, there could be some truth to it. I saw homes that were beautifully and uniquely decorated, so maybe it was a way to impress those walking by.

Lindsey Varkevisser, a Dutch undergraduate student at AUP, has a different theory. When I asked her if she had noticed the lack of curtains, she laughed, saying, "I never really thought about it, but yeah, my family doesn't have curtains." She paused and then explained that maybe it was because the Netherlands doesn't get a lot of "natural light," so they "don't want to lose any of it." This seemed reasonable to me. The weather in the Netherlands can be quite gray and gloomy. Plus, houses, especially in Amsterdam, are unusually narrow, so keeping windows open adds the illusion of space along with some feeble rays of sunshine.

Still, the most popular explanation has a different source: religion. And not just any religion, but a specific Protestant sect that took root in the Netherlands in the 1500s. Calvinism sprouted up after the Protestant Reformation emphasizing "the honest citizen has nothing to hide."  While the majority of Dutch today are not religious, this honesty and straightforwardness could spring from a religious tradition. So maybe, these peeks into people's homes are a symptom of a culture that emphasizes values of openness and transparency fostered throughout Dutch society.

I still can't say that I know for certain the origins of this cultural quirk. It's likely a mix of all three theories. But I still wanted to know: is it okay to look? When I asked Lindsey for her thoughts, she gently explained that it's generally a "social norm" not to look into people's houses.  

So my apologies to the people of Amsterdam. I wasn't trying to be creepy, I promise! I was just charmed by the small vignettes of your life that I was able to glimpse through your windows. But next time I'm in town, I'll do my best to act a bit more Dutch.