When Vincent van Gogh was thirty-one years old, in the fall of 1883, he travelled to the bleak moors of northern Holland and stayed at a tavern in the village of Stuifzand. The local countryside was hardly inhabited then"Locus Deserta Atque ob Multos Paludes Invia," an old map called it: "A deserted and impenetrable place of many swamps"but a few farmers and former convicts had managed to carve a living from it. They dug peat, brewed illegal gin, and placed poles across the marshes to navigate by. Any squatter who could keep his chimney smoking for a full year earned title to the land he cleared.
There is little record of what happened to van Gogh in Stuifzandwhether he got lost in the marshes or traded sketches for shots at the bar. When I visited the village, the locals mentioned him merely to illustrate an even greater national obsession: height. At the old tavern, which is now a private home, I was shown the tiny alcove where the painter probably slept. "It looks like it would fit only a child," J. W. Drukker, the current owner, told me. Then he and his wife, Joke (a common Dutch name, they explained, pronounced "Yoh-keh"), led me down the hall, to a sequence of pencil marks on a doorjamb. "My son, he is two metres," Joke told me, pointing to the topmost mark, six and a half feet from the floor. "His feet"she held her hands about eighteen inches apart"for waterskiing." Joke herself is six feet one, with blond tresses and shoulders like a Valkyrie. Drukker is six feet two.