Dutch culture is notoriously open-minded. Controversial topics such as abortion, drug use, euthanasia, homosexuality and prostitution are viewed as fundamental, autonomous human rights.
Sex workers sitting in public view in the windows of the Red Light District is seen far from scandalous or immoral behaviour, despite the area often ending up as a stomping ground for curious tourists or the downright outraged.
However, when I moved to the Netherlands, there was something more shocking than the Red Light District that immediately crossed my mind.
It was the windows across the idyllic city of Amsterdam, that offered an open and unshielded view into people’s own homes.
But the question remains: why are the Dutch so averse to curtains? 🤔
The answer lies somewhere between religion and myths
Religion, or lack thereof, is an important aspect of society that either directly or indirectly influences everyday life. As for the Netherlands, Calvinism played a huge role in forming the mindset of Dutch society.
Although the majority of the Dutch today consider themselves atheists, the characteristics of Calvinism — hard work (although not too hard), discipline, and frugality — still heavily influence the general mindset.
Catholics believe in the purchasing of salvation, by saving the soul from sin through Sunday donations and the tithe (donating 10% of your annual income).
Calvinists, on the other hand, believe that our destiny is already predetermined by God as sin inherently exists in each human as a result of Adam and Eve.
Consequently, a believer must prove their faith through their own economic activity and self-control.
READ MORE | Dutch Quirk #20: Be overwhelmingly stingy
The abundance of materialistic luxury that embodies the Catholic church is obviously a fundamental contradiction to any frugal Calvinist.
Historically, the clergy at the top enjoyed the benefits of financial gain, but always behind closed doors and — more importantly — closed curtains.
Conversely, the Calvinist mentality focused on an open door policy with nothing to hide and, accordingly, open curtains. See what we’re getting at here?
Of course, there are always a few fictional tales circulating. One popular myth is that back in the day, men often spent a lot of time at sea, away from their wives.
What better way to instil some good old neighbourhood watch vibes than by adopting a culture of open windows?
It ensured that these lonely ladies didn’t get up to any mischief while their men were away. Closed curtains called for suspicion, whilst open curtains kept any harmful gossip at bay.
It’s a tossup between fear and faith
Growing up in the aftermath of predominant Catholicism, it’s still common in Ireland to see semitransparent lace blinds dominate living rooms during the daytime. And, once the sun sets, some thick blackout curtains to keep the heat in and any peering eyes out.
However, in the Netherlands, not only are curtains a rarity, but windows are generally larger.
There is a compromise that some Dutch submit to — vinyl stickers pasted on windows that force prying eyes to work a little harder, whilst still maintaining a level of transparency, of course.
And a bit like consensual voyeurism
Apartment living in Amsterdam is tight on space, especially in my neighbourhood of The Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes).
Buildings are tall and — dare I say — uncomfortably close to your neighbour’s curtain-less living room.
Maybe it’s my natural curiosity or admiration for Dutch interior design, but sometimes I cannot help but look into my older neighbour’s beautiful living room.
But, any attempt at a friendly wave on my part is ignored as though I don’t exist. I genuinely don’t believe this is a scornful burn, but rather an internalised acceptance of a cultural norm that I was previously oblivious to.
I tested this norm during the historic 40 degrees heatwave of July 2019, parading around in my bikini, demonstrating some terrible dance moves, and performing some questionable activities. But, nothing, rien, nada, NIETS!
Despite this, and never having bumped into each other in the street or verbally chatted, in some weird way, I feel like I know this stranger.
In fact, I’ve pretty much memorised his daily routine!
He always eats dinner at 7 PM on the couch, his sons visiting from time to time, has no partner, enjoys reading the newspaper in the morning, and likes inviting his friends over to watch football (but only when AFC Ajax are playing!)
But it’s not only my neighbour and I: many people live in what can only be described as a shop window.
Large paned windows, often with no curtains and the contents of the household on display to whoever walks by.
If you have seen The Truman Show with Jim Carey, this manner of living can only be described as a conscious form of surveillance.
However, this is where you can go back to the aforementioned Calvinist idea of self-control — no peeking!
So should you just do away with curtains?
I’ve made two conclusions from living in the land of no curtains:
After living in the Middle East for a few years and internalising a more conservative outlook, I’m beginning to ‘go Dutch’ in more ways than one. It’s safe to say that I can get on board with this open-minded mentality!
I rarely close my curtains, and I can now dance around my bedroom listening to Rockwell’s ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ without having shivers go down my spine!
Don’t consider moving to the Netherlands to open up a successful curtain shop because it will more than likely fail.
What do you think about the Dutch and their lack of curtains? Have you been guilty of peering into someone’s house? Let us know in the comments below!
Feature Image: Noelle/Pexels
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in October 2019, and was fully updated in October 2022 for your reading pleasure.