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It seems like opportunities for father/daughter bonding are coming up more frequently now, every other year or so. I wrote the first of these posts in London when Stephanie came over to the UK for a week-long visit after we had already lived in the City for awhile. I was able to show her around a metropolis that I myself had been rediscovering following a very long absence.

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I was able to point out where my picture had been taken at Trafalgar Square during the protest over the bombing of Cambodia– the photo of me with long hair, a cape and a North Vietnamese flag that showed up in Paris Match a week later. A friend from Paris spotted it and sent me a copy. You can see the photo if you do a search for the original Tour Dad post.

Fifteen years ago, when Stephanie was only ten, we were in the Philippines for a year. She was a reluctant participant in an adventure my wife and I had decided to do together, climbing what is left of Mt. Pinatubo. Many of you will know that the peak blew up in 1991, throwing up a huge amount of ash into the stratosphere, changing the planet’s weather for a year. The ash cloud from the volcano covered an area of some 125,000 square kms (48,000 sq mi), bringing total darkness to much of central Luzon, the large island where Manila is located.

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The terrifying effects of the eruption were compounded by a typhoon, which brought the ash down over fertile farmland in rivers of acidic mud. Volcanic material fell over most of the South China Sea and ashfall was recorded as far away as Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. The pyroclastic explosion was ten times larger than the Mt. St Helens explosion in 1980, and that was no small change. Our adventure started in Angeles City, a town near Clark air base, where hangers collapsed from the heavy ash.

Pinatubo is peaceful now. It was a strange trek over an area that seemed like the surface of the moon. Like Frodo in Mordor, we followed a sulphurous stream coming from the caldera. On one side were cliffs of gray ash, towering talcum powder, the other side held regenerated jungle. Our daughter lagged behind for a long time, resenting the forced march in the hot sun.

Then two young German boys powered passed us and she was soon on their tail, easily leaving us in the dust. We reconnected by the lake when I heard her cry for help. She had managed to trap herself on a rock ledge. Dad to the rescue! The lake in the caldera was a gorgeous green, although it looks blue in this photo. There were streams of bubbles coming to the surface. It tingled the skin as you slipped in. It was swimmable, but only if you didn’t mind tenderising the body. You did not want to overstay your visit.

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Stephanie’s visit to the Netherlands was far less dramatic, but I was poorly prepared as a tour guide. Only a couple days earlier, we had joined a group tour of Lieden led by Jos Hooghuis from NIAS. Leiden is the oldest University town in the Netherlands, and the town is laced with lovely architecture.

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Jos led us on a fascinating tour of the city, but the day I took my daughter to Leiden seemed jinxed. Everything that was enchanting about the first visit brushed us brusquely aside on the second. There were locked churches, assemblies of people in the middle of museums. The sunshine had seduced us into wearing too little for what proved to be a cold and windy day, and it was a Monday, so the shops didn’t even open until noon.

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The visit to The Hague went more smoothly. At the suggestion of a friend, I had targeted the Gemeente museum, which is located in a fascinating Art Deco building designed by the most famous architect in the country. The Mauritius museum, home to the premier collection of Dutch old masters in The Hague, is currently closed for renovations, but the Gemeente is hosting the very best of that collection. And we caught a temporary exhibition of Caillebotte paintings, their Mondrains and sampled everything else.

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In addition to showing off her cooking skills by making dinner for us several times, Stephanie attended a NIAS lecture on the origins of music, was invited to a great house party, bicycled with me in the dunes, and walked us both in the wooded areas of Wassenaar. To cap it off, we spent a day together in Amsterdam. We started with a visit to the newly re-opened Rijksmuseum. I’m happy to say that I can join the choir of Yea sayers. Two thumbs up. It is stunning.

We were joined for lunch at the American Cafe by fellow cyclist, blogger, Amsterdam and Sydney resident, Richard Tulloch. I had met him on the Great Victorian Bike Ride at the end of 2007, and hadn’t seen him since. We had a good deal to catch up on, since our first meet up had been brief. Richard keeps himself busy, so I was pleased that he was able to join us for a leisurely meal.

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Then he dealt me a low blow. Turning to Stephanie, “How would you like to see the biggest handbag collection in the world?” Richard walked with us to the museum, then shepherded us through. It was in a lovely house along a canal, and housed a great collection of old, wooden lunch boxes that children used to take to school, in addition to the innumerable women’s handbags.

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It was a long wander back to the train station since I had forgotten the map, but we got “home” to Wassenaar in time for dinner. The next morning, Stephanie had to get up early to make her flight. She made herself a note. “Wake up at 6:30. (too early). Leave house at 7:30 (web site says 7:40, so no rush)… I’ll miss you guys a lot!”

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She went home happy.


Like Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels, we have landed in a small country of tall people. The average height for all adults in the Netherlands is 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 m). I am only 5 feet 7 inches (169cm) and my wife is even shorter. We are genetic throwbacks, small to medium in a land of large.

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Only one hundred years ago, a quarter of the men who attempted to join the Dutch army were rejected as being too short, less than five feet two inches (1.57 m) tall. There are taller people belonging to certain populations within countries, like the Maasai people, but, as a whole, the citizens living in the Netherlands are the tallest. Even people who have immigrated to the Netherlands from other parts of the world are taller on average than their racial groups in their countries of origin. Figure that out.

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Two weeks ago my scholar/spouse took up a fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, located on the outskirts of the town of Wassenaar, about equidistant between the cities of Den Haag and Leiden. Most of the fellows live on campus, but the fact that my wife brought me along made it possible for us to live in town. Since this is the Netherlands, our flat came equipped with two bicycles.

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Some 4,000 years ago the combined influences of the sea and the river Rhine, which at that time still flowed into the sea at Katwijk, resulted in the formation of a number of beach ridges. Initially these broad elevated sand ridges were exposed to the vagaries of both the sea and the Rhine. However, about 1,500 years later another such beach ridge was formed on the seaward side, this blocked off the sea, and marshy peat bogs formed along the creeks between these ridges.

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Only much later, around 1,000 A.D., did the present-day dune areas originate. Owing to this alternation of sand, marine- and river clay, a rich flora developed, which in turn attracted a large variety of animals. Even now, a number of distinctive animals, including weasels, polecats and stoats, are still found around Wassenaar. A particularly wide variety of birds make their home in the surrounding woods and dunes.

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Human inhabitants were present in this area virtually from the earliest times. The first human habitation is estimated to have taken place some 38 centuries ago, immediately after the first beach ridges had been formed. Fragments of pottery, flint artefacts, and occasional graves indicate the presence of a settlement already in the early Bronze Age, about 1800 B.C. It is clear that these earliest residents lived in rather precarious conditions: during floods only the beach ridges stayed dry.

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Today, Wassenaar is known for its wealth, good fortune and royal connections. It is an official residence of Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, his wife Princess Máxima of the Netherlands and their daughters. Since Queen Beatrix has unexpectedly decided to step down later this month, Willem will will be the first king of the Netherlands in over a century.

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In addition, several ambassadorial residences are located here, including those of Canada and South Korea. There is a large expatriate community of diplomats and business people in Wassenaar thanks to its proximity to both the international organisations and embassies in The Hague and to several international schools, including the American School of the Hague and the British School in the Netherlands.

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At lunch time everyone at NIAS has the opportunity to meet and chat with everyone else. It is a bit like being in an intellectual beehive in a monastery setting. There are academics of all persuasions, studying everything from 18th century terrorism to the properties of the canvas used by Van Gogh and Gauguin. A little over half are Dutch; the rest come from all over the world. David Mitchell, one of my literary idols, did research here in 2005/6 for “The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zuit.”

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Last year at this time, American born Leif Larsen, writer-in-residence, had this to say about his experience. “During my time at NIAS I planned on heavily editing the manuscript of my novel; I came in with my knives sharpened and my sleeves rolled up, ready to excise great swaths of text. Yet the problem with this stance was that I quickly found the environment of the Advanced Institute to be incredibly generative and resistant to excision.”

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“I could not help but be drawn into the various scholarly projects around me and soon witnessed how other Fellows’ work begin to infect my novel. After talking with the Pessoa Fellows, one of my characters developed a habit of writing under heteronyms. After lunch with a linguist, a father in the book began to record his son’s language development. And so instead of taking away, I ended up adding, enriching, deepening, and in retrospect I am incredibly pleased with this outcome. Eventually, in the quiet of my own home, I will cut and cut some more, but only after NIAS has performed its little fertile miracle on the text at hand.”

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I have a couple more posts to do from the UK, but I’m looking forward to seeing the art of the Netherlands, of course, and the landscape that inspired it. The Rijksmuseum is reopening after ten long years. Who knows, maybe we’ll be able to get inside the place before we leave. Click on any photo running alongside this post and you’ll be taken to my Flickr site for more pics.

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