Eyes Wide Open

The winter nights in Amsterdam are long. In part, I think, because I don’t remember them being as long in southern Canada, and one doesn’t think of Holland being farther north than Toronto or Vancouver, or even Calgary, but it is. And in part because the days are so bleak that really the only difference between day and night is merely a few shades of grey.  

But one of the bonuses of nighttime in Amsterdam (aside from the obvious, which don’t really interest me) is the view, and I don’t mean this kind:

No, I’m talking about peeking into people’s houses.

The Dutch have a centuries-long practice of not pulling their curtains shut, or having no curtains at all.

It started back in the Golden Age, when people left their drapes open to let by-passers see how rich they were. If you walk along the canals even now, the mansions are all lit up, and you can see centuries of wealth on display,

through large, smudge-free windows, but you’ll also find the habit exists in the less wealthy parts of town.

But I suspect the lack of curtains have got to do with a number of other things as well. Light, for one. Claustrophobia for another. Houses are relatively small and squished together here, and if you’re ever in one with the curtains shut, the lack of space tends to close in on you fast.

And although I wouldn’t call this latent voyeurism a national pastime, it’s certainly acceptable to look inside.

In the interest of privacy, I didn’t take any photos with people in them, though it’s quite common to walk past an uncurtained window behind which a family is having dinner, or watching television, or reading the paper in their pajamas.

My grandmother found the habit distasteful, but I love it. I was once biking along a dike north of Amsterdam on an early winter morning, and happened to see the then-minister of finance in his kitchen, and his underwear, making coffee. It thrilled me to bits to be able to see him at home, doing something perfectly normal, exposed and at all not minding it. I developed a small crush on him after that, not because I found him attractive, but because he felt accessible, like one of us, and the idea of an honest politician has always set my heart racing.

Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea. But being able to look into houses gives one the impression of a rare kind of directness, an openness, that there’s nothing to hide. Or at least that there’s an accountability for how one lives. And being on the inside looking out has its bonuses too. It keeps you aware of what’s going on. It prevents you from sheltering yourself against what you might not want to see.