Last time, I blathered on a bit about what my Dutch neighborhood, the Slachthuisbuurt in Haarlem, looks like on the outside. Now, let’s go inside.
The Dutch have a habit of keeping their front curtains and blinds open, at least partially. This gives the nosy observer a fleeting glimpse of life in that one room at the front of the house. Well, a glimpse of how the Dutch want you to think they live, anyway.
Those walking by pretend not to look in, but they do. I know this because I sometimes “work” while sitting on the couch at the front of our living room, and I often leave the blinds cracked ever so slightly, so that I can see what’s happening on the mean, mean slaughterhouse streets.
This is actually how I met my neighbor, who always shyly glances at the blinds when he walks in front of our house. Then he usually stops a and looks a bit harder. Finally, I’ll notice his head bobbing up and down between the slats. After a few more minutes of intense scrutiny reveals that I am, in fact, sitting there, he shoots me a friendly wave and walks on.
I’m told that the whole idea with the open blinds is this: “I’m a good Christian and a decent person, so and I have nothing to hide and here’s the proof. Go ahead and look, there’s nothing untoward going on here. Oh, and did you happen to notice this new dining room table that I am not at all interested in showing off to you? Look at the fine wood grain! Yeah, that’s right, stare a little longer. Suck it, Stijn and Annemieke!”
Many of these front windows also feature another common Dutch domestic ornament: a cat. My favorite is a little gray down the street. I call him Cone Cat, because he’s had one of those protective cones on his head since we moved in a few months ago. He and his cone are often draped across the top of a sofa, also gray, that backs onto the front window. I sometimes stand in front of the window and try to get his attention, but he never bothers to look up. This will become a recurring theme.
The truth of it is that the houses in the Slachthuisbuurt look so orderly and tidy inside that, as a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, ” I can only assume there’s a room just out of view where everything is a complete and unmitigated disaster, where dust and unworn clogs are allowed to accumulate for decades. It is a space, I am sure, that is also littered with the skeletons of unfed cats. It is also, I suspect, where the home owner has been holding a neighbor (the aforementioned Stijn?) for ransom…for about a decade.
Why so long?
Probably (and I’m just spit-balling here) it’s because Stijn and his wife were too cheap to pay for “ransom insurance,” or any of the other hundreds of types of Dutch insurance that might (partially) cover this sort of thing. Whatever the case, Stijn languishes in the dusty Dutch darkness, being fed exactly three cheese sandwiches a day by his captor. Meanwhile, Stijn’s wife, Annemieke, tries to work through her grief.
Through a gap in the curtains, I can just about make out the scene in the front room of Annemieke’s house.
She and a neighbor are sipping coffee at a new dining room table. It looks very much like the one Annemieke couldn’t possibly have glimpsed earlier when she was decidedly not looking through the blinds of another house down the street.
“Besides,” she is telling the neighbor, “Stijn was kind of a loud, fat, judgmental bastard anyway. Honestly, it’s been a relief that someone kidnapped him ten years ago.”
The neighbor raises an eyebrow. She remembers that she needs to buy more cheese.
“Plus, you get more quality time with Cone Cat,” the neighbor eventually says, running her hand longingly over Annemieke’s smooth and lustrous tabletop. Annemieke smiles quietly to herself, then squints through the blinds to watch a child launch himself off the playground swing and high into the air.
Next Monday: “Fear is something Americans are afraid of.”
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