On Monday morning I was in the back of a taxi heading from my house to the airport. As we swept through the quiet suburban streets I noticed something similar about so many of the houses. In this corner of Essex —like many other towns around the UK — most of the windows were screened with net curtains. As a result the houses gave nothing away, no clue of what might lay inside.
Then I arrived in Amsterdam. And the contrast couldn’t have been clearer. Walking around Jordaan, there’s an openness that I think is indicative of a more open, perhaps more grown-up, culture. Walking through side streets at six pm no-one is hiding from their neighbours. There are no net curtains at windows.
There is a confidence on display. Residents are apparently happy getting on with their lives, visible to passers-by. At a breakfast bar a child and her mother work on their respective MacBooks; through another window a woman brings a pot from the kitchen over to the table; a woman eats soup facing the street; a cat sits in another window; a dog asleep on cushions in another. Through the window of an adjacent house, there’s a pile of Lego on a table; through another window I can see toy cars litter the wooden floor. And through most of the windows I can see buggies, bicycles, coffee machines, wine bottles, books, pictures on the wall, and vases of flowers (I counted only one television screen).
It may look attractive, but in fact it’s also very utilitarian. Kitchen work surfaces and tables are busy with coffee makers, pepper pots, fruit bowls and spice jars. Nothing is tidied away.
I find this openness attractive. It makes me feel at home. Here in this city I feel creatively fuelled; I feel inspired to come up with ideas, face challenges and be productive. And I get lots of that fuel just by walking around the streets, looking through these windows.
I’m not alone in my feelings. Alain De Botton shares a very similar experience in ‘The Art of Travel’, where he talks of his love of Amsterdam and a dissatisfaction with a ‘net-curtained mentality’ back in his own country:
“In one street lined with uniform apartment buildings, I stopped by a red front door and felt an intense longing to spend the rest of my life there. Above me on the second floor, I could see an apartment with three large windows and no curtains. The walls were painted white and decorated with a single large painting covered with small blue and red dots. There was an oak desk against a wall, a large bookshelf and an armchair. I wanted the life that this space implied. I wanted a bicycle. I wanted to put my key through the red front door every evening, I wanted to stand by the curtainless window at dusk looking out an identical apartment opposite and snack my way through an erwentsoep met roggebrood en spek before retiring to read in bed in a white room with white sheets.”
I don’t think our seduction with what’s beyond that red front door is a search for a better life. It’s simpler than that, it’s that this is a city that speaks to me. It welcomes me. And, like Alain, part of me would like to stay…
And here’s a little video I shot in Amsterdam on the importance of ‘place’ in driving our productivity and creativity:
Ian Sanders is on a mission to get people fired-up so they can do their best work. Through workshops, presentations and one-to-one sessions, Ian brings his passion for doing things differently, creatively and energetically to inspire and engage others, whether that’s for organisations, teams or individuals.