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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