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Simon van Gijn had the good fortune to be born wealthy. After studying law in Leiden, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a banker. Then he married into a wealthy family. Despite his wife’s penchant for hobnobbing with high society, it seems to have been a happy marriage.

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Simon had an interest in the arts and he was encouraged at a young age to start collecting historical prints. The pursuit became a passion, and his interests as a collector expanded as he aged– from prints to arms, model ships to coins, silver to ceramics. He needed a large home for his ever increasing collections, and the canal house at Nieuwe Haven 29 in the old city of Dordrecht would do just fine.

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The house was built in 1729 for Johan van Neurenberg, a wealthy regent. There is a wide hallway, reception rooms, a ballroom, a dining room as well as plenty of bedrooms upstairs and rooms for the servants. Simon purchased the house in 1864 and lived there until his death in 1922. He left the home and most of his collections to the Old Dordrecht Society. I was not expecting to be impressed after visiting the van Loon property in Amsterdam, but a big fish in a small pond can live very well indeed.

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Dordrecht was not always a backwater. In 1220, when the town was granted its charter, it was the most important and powerful town in Holland. It remained that way until well into the 16th century. Dordrecht was one of the first cities to declare against the Habsburgs, so it was the obvious site for the Free Assembly of the United Provinces. Trade took off when the city was granted “staple rights” in 1299. All ships that transported goods over the river were obliged to store the goods and trade them from Dordrecht. Large warehouses and town houses went up on the banks of the river.

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The St. Elizabeth Day flood of 1421 destroyed over seventy towns and villages in the surrounding area, killing over 100,000 people. It permanently altered the landscape, helping to establish what is now called called the Biesbosch, a large wetland unique in Europe.

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Dordrecht hosted a whole slew of doctrinal conferences in a constant attempt to mollify the various factions of Protestantism, who argued more vociferously with each other than they ever had with Catholics. In 1574, the hot topic at the Synod of Dordt was whether or not church organs should be dismantled so as not to inflame the emotions of the church goers. In 1618, the Remonstrants took on the Calvinists over the issue of predestination.

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We had come to Dordrecht to test ride some recumbent bikes and trikes at one of the only dealers in the area. When I checked out the selection of available accommodation, I was struck by one place that was totally different from every other place we have ever stayed. Villa Augustus used to be a water tower. How could I resist?

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Construction was started in 1881 and the tower was finished in a year. With a height of thirty-three metres. (about one hundred feet), it was a squarely-built building with four octagonal towers surrounding a large, round water basin. Two towers accommodated a spiral staircase between the staff residences and the reservoir. One of the towers contained the chimney for the smoke emanating from the steam engines pumping up the water from the basements to the reservoir.

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The fourth tower was intended as an outlet should the pressure inside the reservoir run up too high. The smaller towers were eliminated in 1938, when the reservoir was raised by means of a metal shaft. The tower silhouette looks rather like a castle. The floors above contained five apartments for the operators. As an extensively remodelled hotel, the building is bizarre but quite stunning. The old pump house has been transformed into a huge restaurant and shop for foodstuffs. The restaurant certainly does a roaring business on Saturday night.

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Our ride took us on some bike paths through the Biesbosch, and we were fortunate enough to enjoy some fine weather on Saturday. I had booked us in for an early dinner, which was, in hindsight, a mistake. The restaurant does a thriving trade in family dinners on Saturday, and the staff are simply overwhelmed. Think Disneyland and you will not be far off the mark.

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Sunday mornings are quiet. After a good breakfast, we wandered through the old part of the city, which seems to have survived the war and urban planning pretty well. By early afternoon, some of the stores were starting to open, which happens just once a month in Dordrecht. Sunday shopping is a rare event in the Netherlands, something which must drive most Americans to distraction.

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I suspect the Synod has it under advisement.

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OK, Holland, we get it! You have all the nice things! Organic food, cool little local shops, bikes, green energy. Way to rub it in.

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Well, maybe not the other half, maybe the quarter of one percent. We are talking about Willem van Loon, who had the means and the good fortune to get in on the ground floor of one of the most profitable companies in history– the Dutch East India Company. On a recent trip to Amsterdam, we dropped by to see the family home on the Keizersgracht. It is one of the grandest historic canal homes in Amsterdam.

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By 1602, various traders from Portugal, England and the Netherlands had made fortunes bringing back spices from the Moluccan Islands. In the summer of 1599, Jacob van Neck sailed back with a ship laden with nearly a million pounds of pepper, cloves nutmeg, mace and cinammon. The commander and his men were feted as heroes, paraded through the streets of Amsterdam while the city’s church bells rang.

Dutch East India Company Warehouse

The profits were so extravagant that the spice trade threatened to turn into a nautical gold rush with one country against another, cities against cities. Amsterdam merchants responded by petitioning their delegates in the States General, which represented all the provinces of the Netherlands, for a total and exclusive monopoly.

This outrageous demand was rejected, but the Attorney General realised that some sort of Dutch monopoly was essential. He insisted that small investors from across the country be included. On March 20, 1602, a deal was struck and the VOC came into being. It was known as the Seventeen, for the number of men on the council. It was awarded a monopoly for 21 years.

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Just eleven days later three ships were dispatched. They were ordered to establish trading links with Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and the “other spiceries,” sail to China and open up trading houses there as well. Military action was both permitted and expected. The VOC is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world. It was the first company to issue stock. It possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies.

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The Dutch East Indian Company eclipsed all of its rivals in the Asia trade. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC put almost a million Europeans to work on 4,785 ships, and netted more than 2.5 million tons of Asian trade goods. The fleet of the British East India Company was a distant second with 2,690 ships and one-fifth the tonnage of goods carried by the VOC.

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In 1619 the Seventeen established a capital in the port city of Batavia (now Jakarta). Over the next two centuries the Company acquired additional ports as trading bases and safeguarded their interests by taking over surrounding territory. It remained an important trading concern and paid an 18% annual dividend to its shareholders for almost 200 years. The van Loon family did very well.

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For the stunning profits there was a price to pay, and most of it was paid in the Far East. On one journey to the Banda Islands, a Dutch crew became incensed that they had to eat putrid beef while plump cattle and buffalo roamed freely in the streets. To the Singalese, they were holy animals. The captain paid lip service to the wishes of the King, but allowed his men to butcher and roast some cows. After getting his guests drunk at an elaborate banquet, the King and his people took their revenge, killing the Vice Admiral and all those who were with him. Massacres among all the players in the spice trade were not uncommon.

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The history of the spice trade is absolutely fascinating, and I’m sure there are many wonderful Dutch books on the subject. The only narrative I am familiar with is told from the British point of view. It is a work of popular history by Giles Milton called “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg.” The ending is astonishing. Read it and you will never look at New York City in quite the same way.

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For those of you who think that Tulip mania was a bizarre, but short-lived economic bubble that took the Netherlands by storm in the middle of the 17th century, let me assure you that it has not gone away. My wife and I can both testify to that, having braved the hordes to see the Dutch equivalent of a horticultural Disneyland. It is called Keukenhof and it is spectacular, drawing 800,000 visitors every year. There is a direct shuttle from Schiphol Airport, should you wish to bypass the capital city and head straight for the home of flower power.

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From March 20 to May 20, this floral wonderland offers bulb growers the opportunity to show off in a big way. The park covers thirty-two hectares (about 84 acres for the decimally challenged among us). However, and this is a big caveat for those who don’t like crowds, the equivalent of the entire population of Amsterdam goes through the turnstiles during those two months. And, being human, they procrastinate, waiting for warmth, sunshine and the best blooms. In other words, they all go in May. This year, the so-called spring weather in the Netherlands has been a little late, to put it politely.

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In the 15th century, the land belonged to Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria, who lived in Teylingen Castle. In the courtyard, herbs were collected for the kitchen, hence the name– “kitchen courtyard.” Flash forward to 1949, when a group of bulb growers and exporters came up with a plan for an open-air exhibition of spring flowers in the park on the Keukenhof estate.

To say that their bright idea was brilliant is the understatement of the century. Eighty-five exhibitors, growers, and exporters donate SEVEN MILLION bulbs, the very best in their inventory, to create this astonishing park. And every one of those bulbs has to be planted by hand. The bulb business is a billion euro industry, attracting some ten thousand growers in the Netherlands.

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It all started in the late sixteenth century, when Carolus Clusius, a Dutch botanist and one-time gardener to the Habsburgs, brought the first tulip bulb over from Vienna. It had been brought to Austria from somewhere in Turkey. The tulip flourished in the sandy soil of the Netherlands.

The tulip was different from every other flower known to Europe at that time, with a saturated, intense petal colour that no other plant exhibited. The appearance of the non-pareil tulip as a status symbol at this time coincides with the rise of the newly independent country’s trade fortunes. No longer the Spanish Netherlands, its economic resources could now be channeled into commerce and the country embarked on its Golden Age. Amsterdam merchants were at the centre of the lucrative East Indies trade, where a single voyage could yield profits of 400%. The new merchant class displayed and validated its success, primarily by erecting grand estates surrounded by flower gardens, and the plant that had pride of place was the sensational tulip.

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Tulips were so highly prized that they fuelled a speculative bubble. At the peak of tulip mania, in March 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. Rare bulbs were supposedly traded for canal houses in Amsterdam. The most spectacular, striped flowers were the result of a virus that, by its very nature, limited the supply.

This list of goods was allegedly exchanged for a single bulb of the Viceroy tulip. At that time the currency was the florin.

Two lasts of wheat 448ƒ
Four lasts of rye 558ƒ
Four fat oxen 480ƒ
Eight fat swine 240ƒ
Twelve fat sheep 120ƒ
Two hogsheads of wine 70ƒ
Four tuns of beer 32ƒ
Two tons of butter 192ƒ
1,000 lb. of cheese 120ƒ
A complete bed 100ƒ
A suit of clothes 80ƒ
A silver drinking cup 60ƒ

Total 2500ƒ

Semper Augustus

Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip marts. Every one imagined that the passion for tulips would last forever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would pay whatever prices were asked for them. The riches of Europe would be concentrated on the shores of the Zuyder Zee, and poverty would be banished.

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People were purchasing bulb futures at higher and higher prices, intending to re-sell them for a profit. Such a scheme could not last unless someone was ultimately willing to pay such high prices and take possession of the bulbs. In February 1637, tulip traders could no longer find new buyers willing to pay increasingly inflated prices for their bulbs. As this realization set in, prices plummeted.

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Some were left holding contracts to purchase tulips at prices now ten times greater than those on the open market, while others found themselves in possession of bulbs now worth a fraction of the price they had paid. Even though the contracts were torn up, hundreds of investors were ruined. Calvinist ministers rubbed their hands in glee, eager to redeem the lost souls.

Yet tulip mania is not gone, believe me, it lives on multi-coloured splendour, embedded in the brains of tourists from every country on the planet. They arrive, they eat and they photograph. Get thee to Keukenhof, your time is running out.


If you want to blame anyone for all the fuss and the fact that church bells are clanging away as if a Crown Prince had just been made King (which he has), I think you would have to lay it all at the feet of William the Silent, Prince of Orange. Take a wander out into the walking street of Wassenaar and you will see more orange articles of clothing than any right-minded citizens anywhere should have in their possession. You will also see multitudes of children attempting to flog all their unwanted toys, puzzles and books, but that is another story.

William the Silent 1533-1584

William was a complicated fellow, born in Germany, raised a Lutheran, educated by Catholics, ending his days as a Calvinist.  He was married four times,  spent much of his life fighting the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands, despite the fact that he had been groomed to serve under the Habsburgs as a member of the court of Margaret of Parma, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands.

Favoured by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, he was rapidly promoted, and became commander of one of the Emperor’s armies at the age of 22. He was made a member of the Raad van State, the highest political advisory council in the Netherlands. When Charles abdicated in favour of his son, Philip II of Spain, in 1555, the gout-afflicted Emperor leaned on William’s shoulder during his abdication ceremony.

A brief summary of his life runs to several pages on Wikipedia. German born, he usually spoke French.  William’s resolve to oppose the King’s policies originated in June 1559 when he was sent to Paris as a hostage to ensure the fulfilment of the conditions of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis at the end of the Hispano-French war.

The duke of Alva and King Henry II of France openly discussed the extermination of the Protestants in both France and the Netherlands. William kept silent, but decided for himself that he would not allow the slaughter of so many innocent subjects. Suffice it to say that he was a key figure in the liberation of the Dutch from the Spanish yoke, even though he did not live to see it. Some of the legacy of William–

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He is the ancestor of the Dutch monarchy. The flag of the Netherlands (red, white and blue) is derived from the flag of the prince, which was orange, white and blue. The coat of arms of the Netherlands is based on that of William of Orange. Its motto Je maintiendrai (I will maintain) was also used by William of Orange. The national anthem of the Netherlands, the Wilhelmus, was originally a propaganda song for William. It was probably written by Philips of Marnix, Lord of Saint-Aldegonde, a supporter of William of Orange. The national colour of the Netherlands is orange. The orange sash of the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle was in honour of the Dutch Dynasty of William the Silent, since the order’s founder, Frederick I of Prussia’s mother, Louise Henrietta of Nassau, was the granddaughter of William the Silent.

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Willem Alexander and Beatrix

April 30th is Queen’s Day in the Netherlands, an official celebration of the birth of the Queen, even though she was actually born on my birth date, January 31. Nobody in the Netherlands wants to celebrate anything at that time of year. Beatrix wisely commandeered her mother’s birth date to celebrate as her own. Even though Beatrix did manage to alienate a sizable minority of the Dutch population by marrying a German, she has managed to maintain the popularity of the monarchy and the holiday. Rather than remaining at the palace and letting the Dutch people come to her, Beatrix usually visits two towns each year for Koninginnedag celebrations and she honours citizens for their service to the Netherlands.

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Koninginnedag is the one day of the year that the Dutch government permits sales on the street without a permit and without the payment of value added tax. ING Bank did a survey in 2011 and found that one in five Dutch residents planned to sell at the free market and estimated they would earn €100 per person for a total turnover of €290 million. Even the Queen has been known to buy at the vrijmarkt; in 1995 she purchased a floor lamp.

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While Queen’s Day celebrations take place throughout the Netherlands, Amsterdam is a popular destination for many revelers. Often the city’s 750.000 residents are joined by up to 1 million visitors. In recent years Amsterdam authorities have taken some measures to try and stem the flow of visitors as the city simply became too full. Those taking part in the festivities commonly dye their hair orange or wear orange clothing in honour of the House of Orange-Nassau. This colour choice is sometimes dubbed “orange madness”, or in Dutch, oranjegekte.

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This may be the last Queen’s Day celebration for quite some time, since Beatrix has decided to step down after thirty-three years and let her son, our neighbour, Willem-Alexander, take up the royal reigns. I am frankly grateful that Willem’s family overlooked my invitation even though I didn’t have anything more important on the agenda. Neither my wardrobe nor my Dutch is really up to dealing with an event of that importance.  But who says we can’t celebrate? Long live the King, or Prince Pils as he was called during his student days. He did enjoy his beer. I’ll drink to that. It’s Dutch as Dutch can be.

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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.”

NIAS

BIAS

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.”

NIAS

“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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