Witten's Christmas Letter for 2009


626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
December 30, 2009

So much for predictions! We ended our letter last year preparing for a big family Christmas in Belfast, after which we anticipated returning home for "a quiet year next year." What a joke! We've just trawled through the calendar, and not only were we incessantly traveling but it seems that even when home we rarely had a quiet evening throughout the entire year. And there were a few other predictions in last year's letter that didn't come off--so this New Year's resolution is to smash that crystal ball. This letter is rather long, reflecting the year's activity: it's written in the vein of family history rather than something that we think you will want to read right through.

Our first winter Christmas in more than a decade was full of family fun. Ian's sister Pippa had a full house from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. Not only was her extensive extended family there (four kids, countless grandkids), but also Nikki and John, and Ian's mum. Needless to say the cocktail shaker saw plenty of use.

We departed for Dublin at the crack of dawn on 27th December for what we knew would be a frenetic week or so. (Little did we realize that this would set the pattern for the entire year.) We returned home--only for a day. Then it was off to Woodside House on Waiheke Island for New Year's. We went there several times this year: let's tell you about it. A couple of years ago our friends Craig and Kirsten, who live in Manhattan, bought a small country estate on a secluded bay on Waiheke Island, a short ferry trip from Auckland--or an hour or two's sail from Beulah's home at Pine Harbour Marina. Woodside is an historic old house that used to be the Post Office and church in the early days. Today it is kept by our friend Neil, gardener in residence, general handyman and caretaker; and we are lucky enough to be able to take refuge there whenever we want.

Anyway, not only were Craig and Kirsten in residence for New Year's, but also Martin and Andrew from New York and their twins, with whom we ate the most fantastic Thanksgiving Dinner in San Francisco in 2001 (the menu, framed, still adorns our wall)--so we invited ourselves too! Having been separated from his love Beulah for the entire second half of 2008, Ian was itching for a reunion, however brief, and we stopped past the marina on the way to the Waiheke ferry. The weather was so inviting that, even though we were not really suitably kitted out, we decided on a whim to sail Beulah to Woodside. We spent a most enjoyable night, and on New Year's Day we took the incredibly energetic, dauntingly intelligent and altogether delightful 8-year old twins Julia and Lucas for a sail before they departed for home with their parents. These New York sophisticates thoroughly enjoyed not only sailing but also "fishing" with string and dry crackers. At one point Lucas, having run out of crackers, betrayed his 21st Century upbringing by telling his sister "we need more ammo." He meant bait.

The next day, 2nd January, we returned Beulah to Pine Harbour, visited Pam's mum Peggy in Auckland, and drove north to Oakura to Jeannie and Peter's bach, where Anna, Dan and Riley had been for a couple of weeks. Oakura was the site of the wedding of the century two years earlier. It was great to be back. Again we had a wonderful time. Peter, Dan and some others went fishing and found a huge clutch of crayfish: we have a picture of a couple of dozen of them sprawling on the grass in front of the bach. We ate, drank, and admired the beautiful blue-eyed red-headed baby that we had all produced together.

But only for a couple of nights. Then back to Waiheke! Riley had his first boat ride when Craig, Kirsten and Neil picked us up on the mainland to ferry us across in their Sea Legs, an amphibious speedboat with legs (and wheels) that lower for land travel. We parked in the carpark at Maraetai, and to the amazement of a bevy of onlookers the boat drove right up the ramp and parked beside us! Having transferred all our bags--and the baby--we drove into the water and sped off to Woodside. Again a glorious time with Craig and Kirsten, but only for a couple of days before we all Sea Legged it back to Maraetai, picked up the car, and drove home.

Brother Brian arrived near the end of January for his and Ian's annual sailing fortnight. The usual routine: he landed in Auckland (all the way from Britain, via a brief stopover); we hightailed it to the supermarket; stocked up on food and--especially--wine; loaded up Beulah; and set sail into the sunset. Pretty soon we were swinging at anchor in Calypso Cove, feasting on oysters and mussels. We made our way north, slowly at first because of light breezes but increasingly quickly as the wind strengthened until, way out to sea off the Bay of Islands, the starboard chainplate (a stainless steel rod that anchors the shroud, which is one of the wires that hold up the mast) gave way. Something similar had happened not far away on our trip a few years ago. As before, quick action and (mainly) good luck saved the mast. The next day we limped into a boatyard for repairs; amazingly, we were out that day, duly fixed up. A big hand for Graham at Ashby's boatyard in Opua.

Undeterred, the intrepid voyagers continued north. We dallied neither in the beautiful Cavalli Islands nor in the peaceful Whangaroa Harbour that we visited on our 2006 cruise, but sailed through with spinnaker set to anchor in the Mangonui estuary, home of the world famous fish and chip shop familiar to every visitor to Northland. And then further, to gorgeous Matai Bay, where Pam and Ian had camped in the summer of 2000, reporting in that year's Christmas letter that "of many amazing sights the most stunning was Matai Bay, on a remote and deserted peninsula with no services except a campground: a beautiful, symmetrical, double bay, with white surf and golden sand, backed by lurid green bush and, once beyond the vicinity of the campground, apparently untrodden by human foot." Never in his wildest dreams did Ian envisage dropping anchor there in Beulah--it's just too far north, on Cape Karikari, the last major peninsula before Cape Reinga at the very tip of NZ.

But would we get back before our stock of wine ran out (and, incidentally, before Brian's plane departed for the UK)? It was touch and go. Luckily the wind was with us, and with much use of the spinnaker, and occasionally the engine, we made it all the way in time. We took a tiki tour of the Cavalli Islands. We even stopped at Ashby's boatyard for a day to replace the other chainplate, which looked dodgy. As we passed the twin peaks of Elizabeth reef Brian penned this ditty in the logbook:

The charms of Elizabeth Reef
were really beyond belief.
Seductive--her eyes,
so shapely--her thighs.
And as for her bosom--good grief!

It was clearly high time to abandon ship.

The sailors returned to Matangi on 5th February. Meanwhile Pam had been visiting our friends Lyn and Dudley in their bach at Piha, one of the famous surf beaches on the West Coast near Auckland. Theirs is an archetypal NZ bach: tiny, made of scraps, with two rooms, an outside loo, and a solar shower in the bush. Set on a high ridge, it has an absolutely stunning view of the beach below. You can see the rollers breaking and observe the dreaded rips that take unsuspecting swimmers far out to sea form, disappear, and re-emerge somewhere else. On the way back Pam visited her mother in Titirangi and stayed with brother Graham in Swanson.

Two days later Ian's sister Pippa arrived, and we spent the afternoon at Kawhia on the West Coast celebrating Waitangi day with the Māoris at the kai (food) festival there. It was lovely. Swarms of nutbrown kids plunged off the wharf into the sea below, amazingly missing (or almost missing) each other. We had mussel fritters in little hand-woven flax ketes (baskets) and ate smoked kowhai to compensate for Brian and Ian's ineptitude at fishing. Back home for a barbecue--we were tremendously impressed with how Pippa stood the pace after arriving that morning direct from the UK. The next day we all drove to Auckland again for a nice wee sail in idyllic weather before delivering Brian to the airport to return home.

As usual, we had a relaxing couple of weeks with Pippa, including another lovely day sail. Then it was back to Woodside House, this time with Ian's PhD students, for a long weekend retreat. Our group had won an NZ computer science prize, the "research publicity prize," for a series of newspaper articles about our work--and the prize was cash, which we decided to spend on a long weekend away. Woodside was an ideal venue. There were about a dozen of us, some in the house and many consigned to tents in the grounds. Pippa, an honorary member of our group, stayed in a nearby B&B that provided a kind of refuge for her and Pam, and joined in our activities each day. We had sailing and yoga lessons, and learned to play Mah Jong. In a Chinese cookery session we watched the preparation of a huge feast: we had to scour Waiheke Island for chopsticks and eventually cadged some from a local restaurant. We tried poi dancing, a Māori art that involves swinging balls on ropes in interweaving circular patterns. We had to take our practice seriously because at night the pois were lit and we--at least, the brave/foolhardy amongst us--swung balls of flame twirling in fiery arcs and ellipses. We sat outside the house in the dark and watched our expert instructress sinuously dancing with fire against the backdrop of a huge, lit-up pohutukawa tree and the dark sea beyond. As Neil wrote afterwards, "the natives of Maraetai across the bay are still agog at the strange extraterrestrial objects seen on the sky over Waiheke and have launched an investigation involving NASA; they are hoping that in the future they can set up a tourist industry with all the attendant kiosks, motels etc for watching these strange fireballs. Rumour has it that they have started a new religion and are building a church as we speak called The Church of the Holy Lights." After fond farewells Pam took Pippa to the airport, and Ian sailed his students back to the mainland.

Shortly thereafter we were back at Woodside House in March for the second anniversary of Anna and Dan's wedding with Jeannie and Peter. We're the only parents we know who celebrate our children's wedding together, in a style that almost outdoes their own celebration! One of the many trinkets at Woodside is a cake decoration of a bridal couple standing, hilariously, back to back, arms defiantly folded; we put it to good use. Along with many other treats Neil bakes to-die-for sponge cakes to perfection on his ancient wood-fired stove, stuffed with strawberries and cream, for the occupants of the house. He is truly caretaker sans pareil.

We attended a memorable barefoot wedding of (another) Craig, one of Ian's current graduate students, at Raglan, on the West Coast. This Craig is from Calgary and had the same MSc supervisor as Ian. In fact, Ian was David's first graduate student and Craig was his last--and now he has come to NZ to be Ian's PhD student. Talk about keeping it in the (academic) family! The wedding was a relaxed, laid-back affair in beautiful sunshine on the beach--almost in the sea. And just a couple of days later we were at a posh black-tie dinner in Auckland with (the other) Craig and Kirsten to celebrate Craig's "World Class New Zealand" award for people who promote the country's growth and development by sharing expertise, building global connections, and enhancing NZ's reputation on the world stage. We were honoured to share a table with Craig's family--including his 96 year old grandfather, who when the evening ended took a taxi by himself back home, where he lives independently. We really enjoy sharing in past and present graduate students' life events and successes.

It was not long before we visited Woodside House again, this time with Anna, Dan and Riley, on their way to Dan's sister Katie's wedding in Northland. Ian took Beulah over while the others caught the ferry, and so we were able to take Riley for his first sail. (He didn't like it much.) The previous month Peter had tried fishing with a longline from the shore--such was his desire to make a catch that to our utter astonishment he purchased best-quality salmon to use as ammo. Peter's limited success was Dan's cue to outdo his dad, so he and Anna spent a quiet couple of hours in Beulah, anchored in the bay, equipped with a surfcasting rod. The snapper began biting at sunset, and much to our delight the pair scored many sizeable fish.

At the end of April Ian departed for Pohnpei, Micronesia's largest island; you get there from Honolulu on the "island-hopper"--Pajero, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei. But first, I gave a talk in Honolulu, and, more unusually, played in a couple of jazz clubs. A Calgary student Dan who now lives there is a talented jazz pianist and took me around. I played dreadfully, but Dan was most encouraging and when I visited him on my way back a week later said they were still talking about that Kiwi clarinetist (perhaps with their hands still over their ears).

Pohnpei was both rewarding and exhausting. Just north of the equator, it has the highest rainfall on Earth. This was the "dry" season, with extremely heavy downpours that last for anything from a few minutes to an hour, whereupon they blow away and the sun comes out. You're drenched in seconds if you go outside, but no-one bothers with raincoats or umbrellas--getting wet is nice! Even when it's not raining the humidity is around 100%. Again you get soaked in seconds, this time with sweat. The constant heat and humidity was draining, and Ian was perpetually exhausted. He slept under a mosquito net, in a room with open sides (though with flyscreens), a hotel fale in the middle of the jungle. Ah yes, on a waterbed. Water, water everywhere.

Nan Madol is one of the world's most amazing archeological/anthropological mysteries. Just a few metres off Pohnpei is a 200-acre site dotted with a hundred square, artificial islands separated by canals--the Venice of the South, it's called. Most of these islands contain large walls and buildings, now ruined, constructed like palisades and log cabins. The only thing is, they're made not of logs but of hexagonal basalt columns, like the ones at the Giant's Causeway in N. Ireland. These huge rocks were carried from a long way away. It's as though all the rocks in the Giant's Causeway were hacked out and spirited across the ocean to be used for walls and buildings on artificial islands. No-one knows when this was done (1500 years ago?), no-one knows how, no-one knows where they came from, no-one knows by whom, no-one knows what happened to this civilization, except that it disappeared some 500 years ago. Legends speak of flying stones, like airplanes--some are 20 feet long--with human pilots sitting astride them. And really that seems to be the most likely explanation!!! People tried recently to make palm-tree rafts and float some small rocks as an experiment, but they sank immediately. It's the most incredible thing I've ever seen. While there I had an interesting dinner with Pohnpei's leading Nan Madol scholar.

On my first day there I took a tourist trip by boat. We motored at high speed round the top of the island and then down to Nan Madol. We landed on the best-preserved little island--it takes ten minutes to walk right around it. There's a double wall about ten feet high, and a building in the middle that was some kind of temple. Everything was constructed from the huge basalt columns, laid horizontally and piled one on another. We paddled around some of the canals in kayaks. We saw the island where the pregnant women lived, the island where they went to have their babies, the island where the Royal Guard lived, the island where a big cooking site was. It was strange to paddle through the jungle on 5-metre wide seawater canals. The canals are shallow and the islands rise straight up, maybe a metre high, usually with a border of these rocks.

Then we shot off to a sandy cove on a tiny islet for a picnic lunch. Pohnpei is volcanic and has no beaches--the whole island is bordered by muddy mangrove swamps. It's ringed by a coral reef, with a few islets inside the reef. Next we went to see a waterfall. Waterfall schmaterfall, I've seen hundreds--but this one turned out to be unusually pretty. The island rises to 2500 feet in the middle, and the high ground is always shrouded in cloud. With all this rain there are plenty of streams and waterfalls. Then to the reef for a little snorkeling. I have never snorkeled around a tropical reef before. Wow. It really is like being in a huge aquarium. Dozens and dozens of different species of fish, most of them ridiculously gaily-coloured, usually in little shoals, swimming around the coral--which is interesting in itself. And the water is warm!--like a slightly cool bath. I could have stayed for hours.

That was the playday. Monday through Friday was a workshop. It was lovely; the nicest I have ever given. Eighteen attendees, each with their own brand-new laptop, supplied by the organization that funded the workshop. People from all the islands: Palau, Guam, Chuuk (used to be called Truk), Pohnpei (used to be Ponape), Kosrae, the Marshall Islands, and also from as far away as Pago Pago and Apia on the Samoan islands. Some were from the outer islands surrounding these four main centers. They were truly lovely, welcoming people--we had many laughs--all brown, mostly large women. When they stood up to introduce themselves at the welcome meal I started scribbling "large female", "missing teeth" on the list beside each one as a reminder. Pretty soon I had abbreviated to LF, and then stopped altogether--almost all attendees were LFs!

The workshop was at the Micronesia College Campus, and nearby is ChickenShit Mountain. Legend has it that a large chicken flew up from the shore and ... well, you can guess the rest. It's not high, but the top half is a 100 metre vertical outcropping of bare hexagonal basalt columns. One theory is that this is where the rocks from Nan Madol came from, but it's too small--and transport across the island through the jungle would be impossible. One day at lunchtime a Canadian who was helping to organize the workshop and I decided to climb it. The locals were concerned for our safety and sent us off with a local boy as guide. It was challenging, and there were a few heart-stopping moments. But we made it to the top, about the size of a small room, falling away steeply on every side. This guy used to climb up with his schoolfriends and beer, get plastered, and slide down (they must have grazed themselves very badly!). It was exciting, and the workshop attendees thought it was a heroic expedition.

Ian bade the class sad farewells before departing. They gave me a lovely ceremonial axe from Palau, blade fashioned out of a segment of giant clam shell. A traditional "stick chart" from the Marshall Islands that tells how to navigate the Micronesian islands by taking account of wave patterns. And a beautiful lei made out of different kinds of shells, a model Marshalese outrigger canoe, and all sorts of shelly decorations.

Meanwhile Pam went to Brisbane for a week to help celebrate Riley's first birthday, including a party at the zoo. We returned home on the same day.

And after less than three weeks at home we were back in Brisbane for a week of solid grandparenting--it's surprising how Brisbane now seems to be "on the way" to everywhere--before departing for Siena. At least, we tried to depart for Siena, but failed: our plane eventually took off 22 hours late. After fond farewells Anna dropped us off at the airport one evening, only to find us knocking on the door at midnight. We spent 24 hours in the Bangkok airport hotel: these days, travel is never easy! Our friend Marco picked us up in Florence and took us to his home in nearby Santanuovo for a night to recover from the trip before driving us down to Siena.

Ian had been awarded a "Santa Chiara Chair" at the University of Siena. This multidisciplinary teaching award involved staying for four weeks and giving a series of five lectures aimed at PhD students in the humanities on topics related to how the web is changing our lives and will continue to do so in the future. (Several Santa Chiara prizes are awarded; another recipient this year was the Italian medievalist and philosopher Umberto Eco, though we didn't get to meet him.) Delivering lectures to a non-technical audience at the PhD level was an interesting challenge. Ian told them about research that his graduate students are undertaking, and described the international impact of open source Waikato projects like the Greenstone Digital Library Software and the Weka data mining workbench. He also included material from his book Web Dragons. One highlight was that Pam attended all the lectures!

Unlike our previous visits to Siena we stayed at the Refugio at Santa Chiara College, an old convent that is now a university residence. The University was founded in 1240, and the Refugio must have been of similar vintage. It was like staying in a museum! The spacious marble-floored hall outside our bedroom contained works of religious art and roped-off antique chairs. Our window overlooked the garden of the Niccio contrada. We waxed lyrical about contrada (neighbourhoods) in previous Christmas letters, but this was the first time we were able to observe first-hand both the daily routine and festive occasions in a contrada garden. At 6:30 sharp every evening the drumming practice started, which became our signal to head out for an aperitivo. The only disadvantage of the Refugio was that they don't do evening meals, so there was nothing for it but to dine in Italian restaurants every night for a month.

One memorable day we visited the group in Arezzo who arranged Ian's Chair; humanities PhD students (mostly librarians) working at the Arezzo campus, led by Caterina. Leonardo took us behind the scenes of the City Archives to the conservation department where we were shown the fascinating processes involved in restoring ancient manuscripts. Next we visited the City Library where we saw many books and scrolls that had been restored. It was a hands-on experience: we actually turned the pages of fabulous illuminated medieval books. No-one wore cotton gloves to handle these treasures: on expressing surprise we were told "but they were made for touching!" After lunch with Leonardo we were tracked down by a grave library custodian who reported that one of the priceless books we had examined was missing. Alarm and consternation! Of course, we assume he thought we'd stolen it. Leonardo returned to the library with him and emerged after an anxious half hour to report that the book had been mis-filed and was found. Phew!

One weekend we packed a picnic lunch and hiked south out of Siena's Porta Romana along the Via Francegina, an ancient pilgrim's way that runs from north of Florence to the Vatican City. We strolled along roads and footpaths across the lovely countryside through farmyards and fields of wheat and sunflowers to the next small town, 10 km away. Then we turned round and walked back! We needed a few beers to recover. There had been a violent thunderstorm early that morning which lasted for several hours, at times right overhead--in fact it had been rumbling around nearby all night. The temperature dropped from 31 to 21 degrees, so the air was lovely and cool for hiking.

On another walk the heavens opened when we were in the middle of the country, miles away from anywhere, and two extremely damp Kiwis managed to hitch a ride back. More storms were forecast, and we discovered that while the forecasters may not get the timing quite right, the storms always eventuate and are not to be taken lightly! Nevertheless, we did plenty of hiking in the Tuscan countryside, walking from one medieval, walled, hill-top village to another, along wildflower-bordered lanes through vineyards and olive groves. One day we walked from San Quirico d'Orcia to Pienza, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and very pretty; another day we walked from Pienza to Montepulciano. The Val d'Orcia is one of the most picturesque parts of Tuscany, and our walks were fuelled by local wine and cheese.

We visited and revisited many other places, including Volterra, a walled hilltop town founded by the Etruscans and more recently the background for the Twilight books, the lovely little Monteriggioni and nearby Colle d'Val d'Elsa. A highlight was a second visit to Marco and Cecelia's home in Santanuovo. As luck would have it, we arrived on the day of the local church Festa, a community festival, where Cecelia was helping out. It was like visiting another century. We sat outside eating local food: deep fried frogs and bomboloni. The former were unidentified frog pieces full of tiny bones that we tried to pick out and the locals just crunched down. Marco tried to describe the latter to us, unsuccessfully, and we were astonished to discover that they were ... doughnuts!--delicious freshly made ones. Then the band struck up and there was a rush for the dance floor. The vast majority of people 40+ danced, and very well too--waltzes, quicksteps, foxtrots. We tried jiving in a corner of the floor but conspicuously failed to start a trend. Then we waltzed slightly sheepishly around the edge in our simplistic manner. We watched a complex line dance, expertly done and clearly well practiced.

We checked out Pisa for the first time since 1976. Ian was giving a talk, and we stayed on for the weekend. The Leaning Tower still stands, sort-of. We had forgotten the other marvels of the Piazza dei Miracoli--its fabulous cathedral and baptistery. But our most unexpected discovery was the other Pisa. Just minutes from the camera-infested school-trip-plagued tourist area, abounding with lithe young Italian pre-teens making out on the grass, is a really nice little town, with streets ancient and modern, lovely coffee bars, antiques markets, and an old busker who made his living blowing huge soap bubbles. We loved it.

And on to Belfast to visit Ian's mum and Nikki and John. As usual we stayed with Pippa, and of course we saw most of her brood again. Ian went sailing with his childhood friend (and best man) Greg in his fancy new boat Clodagh, round from Bangor and into Strangford Lough. Then Carol and Pam arrived and we had dinner on the boat. Greg has treated himself to Clodagh for his forthcoming retirement; seeing friends retire is something that Ian is going to have to get used to. Meanwhile Nikki and Pam made their usual pilgrimage to Marks and Spencer.

Then off to Dublin to begin the journey home. We broke the trip to Auckland with 45 minutes in China. Our flight was via Frankfurt and Shanghai, and to our dismay the airline could only check our bags in as far as Shanghai--which meant that we would have to enter China to claim and recheck them. But we had no visas! The staff in Dublin were adamant that this would be OK since we had NZ passports--easy for them to say, of course. At Frankfurt it transpired that the travelers joining us there had indeed checked their bags all the way to Auckland, as we had expected to do. Our discomfiture heightened when a white-gowned and surgically masked Chinese medical team boarded the plane in Shanghai to take our temperatures--this was at the height of SARS. We passed the test, but not the young Chinese guy beside us. On the ground we nervously queued to enter China, got in (all our worrying was needless; the Dublin people were right after all), picked up our bags, and queued to get out again.

During the year there was plenty of music. Ian played in two Waikato Symphony Orchestra concerts. The orchestra has improved enormously in the last few years, and it's a real privilege to play with them. Ian is now beginning to take the rehearsal schedule into account when planning his overseas trips. He played a little jazz at Graham's daughter Emily's 21st birthday, and felt honoured to be asked. He also played in the pit for a local school production of Guys and Dolls, a wonderful show. It was a huge commitment, with six performances in a week and rehearsals for most nights during the preceding two weeks, but extremely rewarding--the kids were terrific. Throughout the year the clarinet group continued to meet at our house every week: sometimes duets, sometimes trios, sometimes quartets. We had a musical long weekend at Woodside House, with incessant playing of clarinet trios, and duets with piano accompaniment, interspersed with gourmet meals. And another excellent clarinet weekend in Auckland, during which time Pam enjoyed a recorder workshop in Hamilton tutored by Katrin Eickhorst-Squire, recorder teacher and performer at Victoria University in Wellington, and entertained two of her Auckland musician friends who were also there.

In August Pam started work again! She auditioned as a reader for a new series of English language lessons for BULAC (Business Language Testing Service), an assessment service for companies for showing language skills in English. Sample readings were sent off to Cambridge University, who run the service, and she was accepted with a side note that her pronunciation was RP (in other words the Queen could understand her). She works a couple of hours a week and it's been an interesting experience. Sometimes she's the narrator; sometimes she participates in conversations. She's enjoyed learning about the technology of recording, and the high standard required--no hesitations or faltering. Normal conversational language is surprisingly difficult to replicate in a recording studio, where every utterance is played back and scrutinized.

In other news, Pam's mum Peggy turned 90 early in the year and underwent two major operations in September. She made an excellent physical recovery but has had her emotional ups and downs since. Pam's uncle and godfather Reg passed away in Manchester in December, shortly after his golden wedding anniversary. In March, Pam started playing squash with another lapsed player of similar vintage. They thoroughly enjoy tickling the ball to death on a weakly basis. The wheat bag gets a workout too, and we're thinking of buying shares in Tiger balm. Unfortunately her partner is the Vice-Chancellor's wife, who Pam thrashes every time--which could bode ill for Ian's career. Ian also started visiting the gym a couple of times a week (when he happens to be in the country) for a "resistance training" workout. As a further touch of vanity he now wears contact lenses.

In September Dan went to a conference in Brno, so Anna and Riley came for a visit. It was a welcome distraction! We spent half a day Riley-proofing the house by moving the wine, plants, CDs and wobbly stools to the sleepout before they arrived. At 16 months he's a bundle of energy and constantly exploring. We were exhausted by lunchtime and as soon as he was in bed we all sat down with a G&T and a big sigh of relief! But of course we loved having them here; it seemed quiet when they returned home and our house was back to normal again.

And then, more travel. Ian made his first trip to South America in October: two days in Argentina, three in Brazil, two on the plane; back within a week. It seems a pity to go so far for such a short time, but, well, time's tight. He loved Buenos Aires and wants to return soon. He had a workshop at Iguazu, which is where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet. Iguazu Falls are truly spectacular: a system of 275 separate waterfalls in thick jungle along the river. Niagara: eat your heart out. You take a boardwalk right into the centre of the raging river and stand almost underneath several falls. The effect was heightened by the fact that it was raining cats and dogs the entire time.

Meanwhile, back home, our swimming pool, along with the entire surrounding area, was completely refurbished, and the house, sleepout and front fence were painted.

The pace continues. We took Ian's PhD students to Waiheke again--over a dozen of us, including a few partners--under the same pretext as before: the Second Coming at the Church of the Holy Lights. As well as fire pois we learned kick-boxing and played music. And along with the now-traditional Chinese feast, we had a Ukrainian feast with borsch and wareniki (pierogis with strawberries) for dessert. And an Arabic feast, with many dishes prepared single-handedly by a Jordanian student who claimed that the last time he cooked was two years ago. It was fantastic. This long weekend was followed by a librarians' conference in Auckland at which Ian was guest speaker.

And yet more travel. In the last trip of the year Ian visited Sydney, Melbourne, Sydney again, and then Brisbane. He passed through Sydney airport four days out of five, and had to pack his bag and check out by 10 AM four days out of five. Following a quick weekend with Anna and Dan he took the bus to nearby Marburg to give another talk and back to the airport for a midnight flight to Chang Mai, Thailand. Meanwhile Pam had a disastrous episode with a local shuttle bus company: they arrived late and she just missed her plane to Brisbane. The next flight was the following day, so her four-day visit (and two-day overlap with Ian) was reduced to a three-day visit (and a one-day overlap). Hopping mad would be putting it mildly. Meanwhile Ian had three days in Chang Mai before returning home via a 16 hour wait in Singapore airport. Who said life would be easy?--and that this would be a quiet year for the Wittens.

Just before Christmas we hosted a neighbourhood Xmas party. We don't really know many of our neighbours, several of them new to the road, and they don't know each other: this was a great occasion for meeting people! Many kids enjoyed the swimming pool. Then off to Graham's place in Auckland for Christmas.

Nikki has been assiduously exploring Northern Ireland. She joined a hiking group and together they seem to have covered every square inch, and much of the South too. But finally her Belfast episode is coming to an end: she's returning to NZ in February. Her partner is staying in Belfast, at least for a while. As for the future--well, as we said earlier, we've broken that crystal ball. You can read about Nikki's life in her intriguing and well-written "Suburban Lush" blog at http://suburbanlush.typepad.com.

OK, that's it for the year. May peace be with you--more peace than we've had in 2009!

Pam and Ian