By Divya Susan Varkey
Looking out of my living room window, I see my neighbor’s house decorated for Christmas – Santa Claus, Christmas lights, reindeer and elves hanging in various angles across the wide glass. Walking past it, though, I never know whether I should take a closer look or how long I can look without intruding upon my neighbor’s privacy.
For, as with most Dutch households, the curtains are drawn back and taking a closer look puts you in a position of seeing into your neighbor’s lives – or worse still, seeing things that may be difficult to ‘un-see’. Ten months into life in the Netherlands, and this part of living here is something I can’t seem to get used to. Walk through a street with houses on any given day and one can be certain to see, beyond the wonderful window decorations, people going about their daily life – watching football, sending e-mails, reading books, having their meal or taking a nap. Depending on the time of the day (and the neighbors you have), you may even happen upon someone changing their clothes, putting on makeup or brushing their hair. In our previous house, there was even a window facing our shower, which I obsessively closed every time I was in the vicinity! The thought of anyone looking in on me while I went about my daily life, whether in the shower or just having a meal, was (and still is) unnerving, to say the least.
For the Dutch, leaving their curtains wide open seems the most normal thing to do. With a strong influence of Calvinism in everyday life, the value of ‘nothing hidden’ or absolute transparency is evident in this cultural peculiarity, which also reflects the friendly and open Dutch spirit. Some writers prefer a much less philosophical explanation than Calvinism though: it is said that in the olden days, Dutch men were often away at war or on sailing expeditions and that their women were left behind. Leaving the curtains wide open just meant that the woman of the house was being faithful while her husband was away, whereas closed curtains raised suspicion. It was also a kind of neighborhood watch, where everyone kept an eye on each other’s safety while the men were away. One tends to think that the second may be a more plausible and easy-to-connect origin to the tradition. However, it does not discount the fact that most Dutch are indeed very open and welcoming.
‘Leaving the curtains wide open just meant that the woman of the house was being faithful while her husband was away’
Living in an entirely Dutch neighborhood in Oud Scheveningen, we experience the openness of the Dutch people on a daily basis. In fact, quite on the contrary, when looking for housing at the beginning of our stay in the Netherlands, a friend from Amsterdam had suggested against living in a purely Dutch neighborhood, worrying about whether we would be made to feel welcome what with our rather ‘tinted’ selves. Looking for housing, though, whether or not there were colored people around us was not our priority – we simply needed a house for five (we have three kids) and more importantly, one that would suit a dog, AND, preferably, one that did not look into other people’s homes. This can be a challenging proposition in the densely populated cities of the Netherlands, where the typical Dutch staircase houses are the overwhelming majority in terms of what’s on offer. We lived in one of them for the first seven months and I wondered out loud more than a few times – “How do these Dutch keep their kids alive in a house like this?!” We had two flights of stairs to climb to get to the main area of our house and another flight of stairs that led to our bedroom! Maneuvering up and down those stairs required a certain amount of concentrated and strained effort; the steepness and narrowness of the steps curving through the height of the house could be unforgiving of any minimal mistake on the part of the maneuverer.
Some scholars attribute the prevalence of tall Dutch houses to the taxation system (houses were taxed according to the width of the façade), while others blame it on the real estate prices, leading to the ever-pragmatic Dutch building upward rather than on expensive ground level. Whatever the reason may be, combine the bicycling everywhere with hiking up the steep staircases a gazillion times a day, there is no wonder that the people here seem so fit! And don’t get me started on carrying up your weekly groceries or worse still, if you buy a bit of new furniture!
The Dutch pragmatism though, is truly admirable. The old merchants’ houses in port cities like Amsterdam are constructed taking into account this little inconvenience – some of the houses are built with a little tilt forward and a hook attached near the top door or window. This way, when heavy loads had to be taken to the top floors of the house, a rope would be attached to the hook and the goods pulled up… and there was no danger of the package swinging and damaging the glass windows, because of the tilt in the house! Genius!
A truly curious feature about houses in the Netherlands though, is the funny little toilet that almost every house seems to have. In almost all the houses, beside the living room, is a little guest toilet. This isn’t unusual by itself – what is curious is the size of the room and the design of the toilet. The guest toilet is a square room, a couple of meters at the most in dimension. Imagine having a good stretch of the arms while sitting on the toilet… well, here, you just won’t be able to. It’s a room as practical as the Dutch – just do your job and get out. You can barely turn your body around to wash your hands in the little sink that may as well be made for elves and goblins and back yourself out of this claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. If that isn’t curious enough, the design of the toilet bowl is something of a jaw-dropper. The infamous vlakspoeler – or the inspection shelf design – is enough to give you culture shock; unlike toilets around the globe where your ‘deposits’ go straight into the water, the Dutch have a shelf where it settles first and goes down only with flushing! Again, various explanations have been offered for this rather inconvenient-to-clean design, ranging from health checks to water pressure, but for a non-Dutch, along with the aforementioned open curtains and steep staircases, this can take some getting used to. The Dutch are even known to hang their birthday calendars in this little room – with all the birthdays of the year listed judiciously in it. Now who wouldn’t want their birthdays remembered while people sit on their toilets?!
TOILET BOWL DESIGN
'The infamous vlakspoeler – or the inspection shelf design – is enough to give you culture shock'
For a family comprising Indians and Spaniards, cooking is an important feature of our daily routine. We like our curries and our paellas, which pose the next challenge in our Dutch existence: the houses usually have open kitchens connected to the living rooms. This works just fine when one’s culinary repertoire is limited to bread and cheese or the occasional worst. However, when cooking involves chilli and masala or garlic and pepper, the smells linger around the living room much more than one would like them to. Finding a house with a separate kitchen is a bit challenging in the Netherlands, and it was a compromise we were willing to make for fewer stairs, a garden for the dog and privacy.
For the most part, these are but little inconveniences of daily living in the Netherlands, which we have learnt to complain about (along with the rather indecisive Dutch weather), in keeping with the little complaints that are part of everyday Dutch conversations. As for the rest, life in the Netherlands is gezellig (a word the Dutch like to use a lot and which translates to "cozy"), and now, as I walk past the neighbor’s house with my dog, I am always greeted by a friendly wave as they look up from their television screens. How gezellig!
Divya Susan Varkey is an Intercultural Communications Coach and Trainer based in Den Haag. She is certified by Hofstede Insights in Intercultural Management and Organizational Culture and specializes in bridging the gaps between Indian and other cultures.
Read more on her Linkeindin profile