I have been living here in Amsterdam for three months now, with my three children, aged three, six and eight, and My Lawyer, aged thirty-nine, who is married to me and refuses to represent me legally. It was My Lawyer who first noticed the disappearance of The People, as he worked from home, or rather, stared out of the window at home within office hours.
The People are one tall man and one short woman. They live on the second floor, as do we. The leafy branches of the tall trees between us provided a modicum of privacy over the summer, but now the leaves are falling, and the temptation to gawp is irresistible. The typically Dutch windows are huge, with no curtains, shutters or nets, and lend themselves perfectly to voyeurism.
Over the last three months, we have watched The People more than we have watched our television, which doesn’t really work here in the Netherlands, almost certainly because of Brexit. We have no friends and no babysitter. We order food in because we still feel a little like we are on holiday, and so are reluctant to cook. We stare out of our large window, sipping wine, numbing the worry we feel about the enormity of relocating our family, and we watch.
The People are fascinating. One time, they sat at either side of their glass table in the middle of their front room, and had a conversation. That might not sound weird, but think about it. When was the last time you and someone else sat opposite each other, without food or drink between you, and just had a conversation? Hands on laps, no devices, just talking? I mean, outside of a job interview? I can think of two examples from my own life. In one, I was dumping someone. In the other, I was being dumped. As they sat down, the man and the woman of The People, did the theatricality of the scene occur to them?
Another time, The People spent a long time getting ready to go out. Hours. My Lawyer and I were pleased, because we have three kids and no friends here in Amsterdam. It’s good to know that other people, The People, were going out and having a good time. Good for them. Maybe this was the result of Glass Table Chat. That looked intense. Go on, The People! Go out and get shitfaced! Have one for me! The man of The People was looking great in his crisp, white shirt. He did a little shimmy as the woman of The People walked carefully into the front room in high heels. And then… he put his hoodie on, and sat down with his guitar. She took her laptop to the glass table, put on her headphones and maybe wrote a blog post about the weird British family who are spying on them. We wondered: are they doing it on purpose? Are The People fucking with us?
It was shortly after the Date Night That Never Was that The People disappeared.
“Maybe someone is dying?” My Lawyer speculates, staring across to the empty glass table.
Our eight year old is always listening. I don’t know where he gets his propensity for prying from. “Who?” He asks. “Who is dying?”
“No one knows,” I say.
This might be a moment that resurfaces for the eight year old in a therapy session in twenty years’ time.
The People’s exposure to scrutiny is not unusual here in Amsterdam. Property here has historically been taxed on width, and so the buildings are tall, with people living on top of one another in high-ceiling apartments. Windows are large and removable so that furniture can be delivered – most old buildings have a large hook right at the top so that items can be winched up with rope.
In the evening, our street looks like the display window of a television shop; lights flicker on, with something different on each screen. The overall effect is comparable to a reel of Instagram pages-you-might-like; families gather for dinner, candles are lit, friends clink glasses. The Dutch would call this gezellig, which is comparable to the Danish concept of Hygge; that is to say, an atmosphere of coziness, familiarity, warmth. And almost impossible for British people to say or do.
And it’s the people in these scenes that draw your attention, because the rooms are otherwise sparse. The Dutch are minimalists; they don’t like a lot of crap around. And, just like on Instagram, the simpler the scene, the more you want to look. A table, some chairs, a book case. That’s usually it. The crime rate is low in the Netherlands. My theory is that this is because there is nothing to steal.
The table is the most important component of a Dutch living room. The table has to be big, because everyone will sit around it to discuss whatever people talk about when they do not have an iPhone in their hand. Problems are aired daily, because the Dutch like to keep everything out in the open. Oh, and sometimes they will watch you watching them, too. They know you’re there. They have nothing to hide, and so neither should you.
“Have you noticed,” wrote one British expat on a forum I saw recently, “that Dutch people stare at you?”
“Mensen Kijken,” replied a Dutch local. “People watching. What is more interesting than other people?”
This open nature can catch you by surprise, especially if you’re a zipped up, anxious Brit who is new to the city. A Dutch nurse came to our apartment recently, to chat about our three year old’s health and to check his immunisation records. She asked me how the three year old was coping with the move.
“He doesn’t really know what’s going on,” I shrugged, smiling. “I think you can do almost anything with a three year old!”
“Yes,” she said, “But you must be finding it hard I think? All your family and friends are back in London? You must miss them a lot?”
Homesickness is like jetlag; you think you’ve escaped it until it sweeps over you at the most inconvenient time, tipping you off-balance.
“London is only a 40 minute flight away,” I replied, which didn’t answer her question, but gave me enough breathing space to steady myself until the room stopped spinning.
The nurse nodded, and turned back to her form. “And has he had chicken pox?”
After a two week absence, The People return to their apartment.
“I was right about the bereavement,” My Lawyer says, with unqualified excitement. “Look! They’ve set the urn on the table.”
I squint through the window. The People look tanned. There are suitcases by the wall.
“I’m pretty sure,” I say, “that is just a regular vase.”
Here is what I can tell you, after three months of watching The People: The man is tall, the woman is short, and moving countries is the biggest challenge of my life. Because when you spend as much time as we do watching other people through their windows, it doesn’t take long for you to start wondering; what do people think, when they look through ours?
All images by Lauren Collett of @amsterfamily