Witten's Christmas Letter for 1989

2429 Cherokee Drive
Calgary, Alberta
November, 1989


It's really hard to think of Christmas. We're writing a bit earlier this year, in a desperate (and probably doomed) attempt to meet the deadline for getting this to you by surface mail. It's Guy Fawkes day (not that that means anything to us Canadians [We just asked the kids. Nikki thought he was a guy who killed himself with a fork. Scott thought he was brother to Terry Fox, the famous Canadian cancer victim who ran halfway across Canada on one leg some years ago. Anna thought he was arrested for selling drugs, cocaine probably. On being informed that he was hung, drawn, and quartered, the kids said "Oh yeah, just like William Shakespeare" (they meant William Wallace, of whom more below).]); the kids are scoffing their Hallowe'en candies; the adults have already finished their home-roasted pumpkin seeds. The morning sun is shining brightly out of a clear blue sky, the thermometer reads plus, and the mountains, resplendent in their light and fresh winter mantle, beckon on the horizon, mocking those who stay inside writing letters! Last week we went for a gentle walk at Lake Minnewanka ("sparkling water"), a 20-mile gem set in a high valley near Banff, and were surprised to be greeted by fresh snow a few centimetres deep -- causing the kids, who were wearing runners instead of winter boots, consternation. We didn't walk far (but it was lovely), and afterwards built a great fire in a log cookhouse, warmed feet, dried socks, and sat outside in the sunshine drinking soup and contemplating the sparkling water.

It's certainly been a full and busy year. And ... disaster has just struck. Ian's diary, which keeps a faithful record of all we do, has vanished. It was here yesterday; maybe it got lost on his bike ride with Scott in the afternoon. No doubt it will get returned (he lost his diary a few years ago while hiking in the mountains; it came back in the mail the next week!), but meanwhile this epistle will have to be constructed from hazy and blurred memories.

It was an exceptionally cold and snowy winter. Snow lay round Calgary from January to March, and the warm, friendly Chinook wind modestly hid itself throughout. But the skiing was very good. You could ski round the city parks most of the time. On Christmas eve Ian took Anna to the mountains for cross-country skiing; it was beautiful, out in the wild, with a light snow falling, no-one else for miles around, and hot chocolate in a cafe on the way back. Pam and Ian got rid of the kids in March to go and stay in an overgrown log cabin in the Kananaskis area. The accommodation was delightful -- light, airy, and wood- grained, deep snow all around, in a valley ringed with high and glistening peaks. The place was run by a German couple, and the food was wonderful and rather unusual. The waitress had just arrived from Germany; we had to use our execrable German sometimes to communicate! After breakfast they laid out bread rolls and plates of meat and cheese, vegetables, fruit, and you packed your own lunch. We went with several friends and skied for three days. We skied from Canmore to Banff, behind Mount Rundle: 20 kilometers of very gentle downhill, through a completely deserted valley, the only sound the swishing of skis. We skied up a steep, narrow valley towards the French glacier where Ian and Anna had backpacked the year before. The powdery snow was so deep that if you fell over you disappeared -- and needed a daunting expenditure of energy and effort to get out. With a companion, Ian skied on up almost to the beginning of the glacier (not that you could tell where it was), up slopes so steep that the only way to get down was to telemark -- but he couldn't, so he fell at every turn instead. On one of these falls he caught his eye on a small twig growing a foot out of the snow. For a nasty few minutes it seemed as though the eye was doomed; as it turned out it was merely black, blue, and bloody, with a slightly scratched cornea. (On returning to Calgary the hospital gave him an eyepatch; he wanted black but had to settle for white.) It was real backcountry skiing, just fantastic. The third day we skied to Chester Lake, a favourite spot, where the snow was so deep that a five- foot pole, plus an entire arm-length, failed to reach bottom.

Anna went on her first big school trip to Mascouche, near Montreal, for ten days in April. Her school has an exchange with a school there. They were forbidden to talk or read English, though the family she was staying with, who as it happens used to live in Alberta, took pity on her. She had a great time (for Anna a good time means shopping malls!). The best thing, she says, was the dance; the worst thing speaking French all the time. Her twin came to stay with us for the return visit. Anna and Ian decided to take her cycling in the mountains, up a road that's closed in winter and makes for comfortable wilderness cycling, on an excellent paved surface, before opening in Spring. Driving there I asked her if they often went out at weekends at home. Oh yes, she said; my Dad takes us out every Saturday. Where to? -- Dunkin' Donuts for a treat. And often on Sundays to Dairy Queen for a milkshake. Not quite what I had in mind. Anyway, when we reached where the road was closed the sun was hot, and the snow was all around except on our path. We cycled for 10 or 15 minutes -- it's a bit uphill, of course; I had in mind to get to a pass an hour or two away -- when the snow closed in across the road and the going became impossible. So we had to stop for lunch, looking over the achingly bright, snowbound, landscape, and turn back. It was probably just as well, for that ten minutes or so was really all that Karine could take. So we all left with happy memories and not too much exertion.

Late in May we left for England. We marched up to the Air Canada desk at Calgary airport and asked for five separate seats, well spaced out along the plane. They didn't see the joke, and admonished us for not reserving seats together in advance. Unfortunately (for us, but perhaps fortunately for the rest of the passengers), they nevertheless found us a whole middle row together so that we could suffer each others' company for the next eight hours or so, undisturbed by any distractions such as a window view. Scott was beside himself. It was his first trip with us away from home and car and tent, his first time on an aeroplane, his first trip abroad, the first relatives he'd ever met, his first visit to places we used to live -- we expected him to be agitated, but this was really something else. When we arrived it was a muggy, thundery day. "Don't they have any air in England?" said our child of Alberta, unused to any kind of sticky heat. It was only on reaching the car park that we knew it was going to be all right, for Pam's brother Steve has a jeep-like vehicle and Scott was in seventh heaven.

We stayed with Pam's parents in Bookham, Surrey, for a few days, took the kids to London on Bank Holiday Monday and actually, through luck, saw the changing of the guard; plus the statue of Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament to which Pam's granny had chained herself as a suffragette, Westminster cathedral, and picnicked in front of Big Ben waiting for it to strike. Ian spent a day in Exeter as a guest of the graduate students there (their invitation had said they had a small sum of money for inviting interesting people, normally other graduate students; he was so flattered at being considered perhaps that interesting that he accepted on the spot!) It was a great day, living as an honorary student and having to say to the profs and other high-ups that sorry, you couldn't stay and talk, you had to get back and see the grads; except that he was in shorts and a teeshirt and had forgotten to take even a sweater -- you don't do that in England! -- and British Rail made him stand up on the train all the way back from Exeter.

We left for Stirling via a couple of nights in Wivenhoe. Imagine a family of five, plus luggage for nearly three months, on the underground through London. It was organized like a military operation, with roll-calls, checkpoints, battle-orders. Wivenhoe was lovely, just as we had left it -- even the tide was in. We stayed with the Fosters, saw old friends, spent an evening in the pub, just like old times. Nikki visited the hospital where she was born, as Anna had done in Ottawa a few years ago and Scott did in Maclennan last year. Ian prowled the corridors of Essex University and found he had no yen to go back! Reluctantly we caught the train to London, and thence to Stirling. Again Scott was beside himself (we found this always happened on public transport journeys; there's a familiarity about being together in a car -- even a hired one -- whereas a plane or train is strange, threatening). Again we arrived ragged-tempered, but this time he met an old friend, for Harold, our host at Stirling, has stayed with us in Calgary and knows Scott well.

Stirling was lovely. The campus is beautiful; they say Exeter is England's nicest campus, and Stirling Britain's; we can only agree. The Forth River meanders lazily through a wide, flat valley on its journey to Edinburgh and the excitement of the sea. Set in the middle of the valley is a granite knob, topped by a castle (much nicer even than Edinburgh castle) and skirted by a little town. To the north side of the valley is a little knoll where the 13th century Scottish hero, Wallace, hid with his men until the Sassenachs were crossing the river before racing down to block the bridge and murder the stranded army. Past it, up against the line of hills and glens that flank the valley, is Stirling University campus, with its low buildings, lake -- oops, sorry, loch -- golf course, rolling banks and leafy glades. Outside the old stone wall that marks the campus boundary a tree-covered hillside rises, Hermitage Woods, and beside it stands guard the ancient mountain of Dumyat, topped by a roman fort. Just inside the stone wall is our house, along with half a dozen other visiting staff dwellings. We sat one day at the dining table overlooking a rough field to the old stone boundary wall beyond -- what's that? said Scott -- it's a tree, child, don't be silly, get on with your food -- no no, it's moving -- it's a deer! They often went there to nibble the roses in the garden of the old stone house. Once we watched a couple of roe deer gambolling, flirting, on the lawn, the female leading the male a merry dance with little noises and squeaks of delight. We heard owls in the woods beyond the wall, saw rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, field mice, squirrels, almost (but not quite) moles, a family of swans, ducks of course. Down the lane is a forest of rhododendron bushes where the children spent the summer, rain and shine, building dens and hiding from each other.

We had an unexpectedly busy time in Stirling. The first couple of weeks were quiet, rainy, and Pam wondered how she was going to pass two months enclosed in our little house, car-less, with three wild kids. We had to walk to the nearby village, Bridge of Allen (it gets a mention in R.L. Stevenson's Kidnapped), for shopping, and walk back with backpacks laden. (The first day we went we found a charity book sale, and returned with our packs full of books instead of food.) But then the weather turned sunny and hot, and stayed that way; our friends took Pam on weekly shopping trips to the supermarket in Stirling; the girls registered for canoeing lessons on the loch (that's what they were called but they were kayaking lessons actually -- in Canada there is a difference, and it's a big one); we discovered the squash courts and swimming pool.

We spent a long weekend in Oban, travelling by train (quite an adventure) along the bonnie bonnie banks of you've-guessed-it. We found by chance a bed and breakfast with an incredibly crazy landlady, Morven, who poured breakfast milk out of a carton that moo'ed and wore a chef's hat with false nose and ears to amuse the kids (commercial break: can't recommend it too highly -- "Kathmore" (0631) 62104, treat yourselves, mention our name). The first morning we all made the dreadful mistake of asking for "the works" for breakfast; left food enough for an army. We spent a day on Mull. It was too hot to rent a car and drive two hours across the island to Calgary Bay and back ("there's nothing at Calgary, what would you want to go there for?"), so we walked and swam and rode the miniature island railway -- real steam trains -- and sat outside a pub for a pint or two in the sunshine. We spent a long weekend in a Forestry Commission log cabin with our friends the Thimblebys -- a total of seven kids, four adults; fortunately two cabins! One day we hiked down a long, misty valley, frequented in former times by outlaws like Rob Roy (did you know the word "blackmail" originated from the protection racket he ran, charging a ransom for immunity from plunder?), romanticized by RLS; over a low pass, down to a lake the other side. Another day we climbed a mountain (at least Ian did), picnicked in a meadow, dammed the stream. We constantly fought midges, the little devils, and spent king's ransoms on foul-smelling repellant.

We had a long weekend in York with old friends from Colchester, both parties delighted to discover that though time had rolled on, the others were still as crazy as ever. Not York actually, but Upper Poppleton, whose image is as quaint, peaceful, slightly dotty, as its name. The Longs live by the green (which still boasts a real maypole), across from the pub and church (all amenities, plus salvation too). Their son sings in York Minster choir, so we went there for evensong: fabulous. We walked the walls of York, Graham Long proving a veritable mine of information, visited the much-vaunted Viking museum (amazing experience, but a bit of a rip-off), the Castle museum (better value for money; could have stayed for hours more, but chagrined to find so many of our childhood relics being exhibited as museum pieces).

Ian had to do some work for his money (our trip was partially supported by the British tax-payer; thank-you all). He gave a seminar in York. He spent a most enjoyable weekend at a workshop in an ancient castle on Loch Lomond. He flew down to Guildford to give a talk at the opening of Canon's European Research Centre, and to attend their incredibly extravagant country club celebration lunch. He spent a week in University halls of residence at Leeds -- a dreary prospect which was greatly enlivened by nightly trips to Bradford for late-night curries. Ten quid each way for the taxi; two for the meal. The taxi- drivers were amazed ("Do you realize how many curry places there are in Leeds?" "Sure hope you lads find this worthwhile"). We all visited Dundee for a day; while Ian went to the University the family explored Cap'n Scott's Discovery and gazed at the site of the Tay Bridge Disaster which, in McGonegall's immortal words, shall be remember'd for a very long time. He did some work at Stirling, too, and dedicated Guardian readers will have noticed the little article on 21 September describing some of the fruits of his labour.

To help him put up with an inescapable week-long trip to Paris, he took Anna along. They stayed with old friends the Chollets, whom we had met in Calgary in 1977, near Versailles. Ian took Anna and their daughter, Natalienne, to town for a day, taking in the Eiffel Tower, Rive Gauche, Notre Dame. Natalienne speaks no English, so it was an interesting trip. Though Anna speaks French, she prefers to snigger in the background while Dad tries to cope with the embarrassment of communication. Following a lovely weekend with the Chollets, Ian abandoned Anna there while he went off to his conference outside Paris for five days. By all accounts she was very quiet, but had a good time. We met again in Paris, had a final lunch in MacDonalds (yes! -- haute cuisine hamburgers and real French fries) by popular and unanimous request of all the kids, French and Canadian alike, and visited the spectacular Geode, an enormous shiny geodesic dome housing a magnificent hemi-spherical IMACS cinema, before heading back to Scotland.

What else? -- Well there were loads of other things in Stirling, from visits by both sets of parents (fortunately not together, for our accommodation was a bit limited) to numerous day trips. We went from Stirling to Dollar (yes) for a walk up the Vale of Sorrow to Castle Doom (or was it Gloom?) and back down the Vale of Despair (maybe we've got this the wrong way round). We took an old steam train to a clay mine. We walked to Dunblane ("There was an old man of ..."), climbed the Wallace monument, toured Stirling Castle. All too soon our time was gone. The girls left first, whisked to Northern Ireland by Ian's parents. Pam, Ian, and Scott left later, by train and ferry, with a delightful few hours in Glasgow with Tommy Whitelaw, Ian's old Cambridge tutor. On the train from Glasgow to Stranraer was an eager dad with his two kids, train-spotting (really!). Scott was intrigued ("You're doing what? Why?") and decided to join in, writing down numbers slowly and volubly, with lots of questions, being shushed by the eager dad as he was interrupted in the middle of yet another vital number. Slowly more passengers joined in listening (Scott has a rather penetrating voice). The climax came when Scott asked where they were going to, and the dad had to explain, bashfully, to the entire carriage by this time, that they were getting off at the next station and returning to Glasgow by train, and contend with Scott's inevitable interrogation ("Why? You're crazy!"), much to the amusement of everyone else.

And on to Northern Ireland, for a memorable ten days or so, including Ian's parents 50th wedding anniversary and a gathering of the clans for a celebration meal. We sailed in a "Flying Fifteen" -- all the excitement of a racing dinghy, packaged for the over-40s -- rowed the kids round the bay and landed them on desert islands, swam (kids that is), sampled the elixir of draft Guinness on its home turf and Irish whisky "in its bare feet." It was a lovely, relaxing time, and the kids really enjoyed all the activity with their four cousins living just 5 minutes walk (2 minutes cycle) away. Reluctantly we dragged ourselves off, flying back to London for a few more days with Pam's family, joined by her brother and family, now living in New Zealand, for the christening of her other brother's baby. And a lunch with some of Pam's college friends, catching up on old times and new times. ["Maybe we'll get a mention in the Christmas letter," they asked eagerly. So, Vinnie, Wendy, John, and kids, will a footnote do?] All too soon we were on the plane back to Canada, Scott just as wound up with the thought of going home again. And while it was really sad to leave, it was lovely to get back home, to a full-sized house all of our own, our friends, and the mountains.

A few words about the kids. Anna at just 12 last week is a real North American teenager, heavy metal flashing visibly (courtesy of our dentist) and audibly (courtesy of the ghetto-blaster) as she passes by, typically in a snit about something or another. She's a very physical child, with boundless energy (we just now came back from the YMCA, Anna swam 40 lengths, or over a kilometer, while Pam and I were playing squash). Fortunately for us she's learning tennis, which presumably uses up some of her energy. She's also adjusting to the rigours of her first year at Junior High school, and quite some adjustment it is too, with lots of homework and project work. She walks to school, which starts so early that she normally has to get herself up and breakfasted and off while parents remain in bed.

Nikki is quite the opposite. Quiet and contemplative, she is a little horrified by the fact that she seems to be growing up. ("It's such a nuisance. Now I can't help worrying about my clothes and stuff.") She still learns the piano. She too is an excellent swimmer, though unfortunately she's not taking swimming lessons this term. She loves her goldfish, Amber, and her soft toys.

Scott, as you've gathered, is still with us, though we haven't yet taken the plunge and adopted him legally. The summer was to be a testing time, and -- apart from the actual journeys, which were awful -- he came through very well. Being with the family is just being with the family, it seems, no matter where you do it. Life in other places isn't really all that different, particularly for a child, for his needs are all taken care of "automatically." We were concerned that on our return everything would disintegrate again, but it hasn't, and other people -- like his teacher -- notice a real difference after the summer. He's much more settled and relaxed -- perhaps the fact that we all went away and nothing here had changed when we returned made him feel secure for the first time. We've had our share of professional help over the year. Scott's psychologist wanted the whole family to see a psychiatrist for "evaluation," which we did in May and received some extremely depressing reports about future prospects. The psychiatrist wanted us to see a family therapist, which we did a couple of weeks ago; she reckoned that we were doing really well and there was nothing she could tell us that we didn't already know (in fact she wants another interview with us to get some tips on how we've coped!).

Pam is thriving on music (still playing with the Early Byrds, whose major project was organizing and entertaining at a Renaissance feast in April), a little squash, and generally coping with family life. Ian still plays his clarinet and works all the rest of the time. Our big news is that we've ordered ourselves a new 7-seater "stretched" (i.e. with space behind the rear seat) van, which should arrive in a few weeks, for three times as much money as the total we've ever spent on transportation before (excluding air tickets). As the advertisement for our faithful old rusty station wagon says, "Yuppie aspirations force reluctant sale." We had to either train the kids not to argue incessantly in the car or find a way of separating them; we've tried the first and failed. With three rows of seats we hope we'll be able to isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes. We hope to spend a few more summers camping together before the kids refuse point-blank to be seen with their parents, and thought this luxury might keep us together a little longer. We're talking of making a big trip East next July, driving across Canada to Ontario.

Shortly after returning to Calgary, Pam and Ian took off for a very long weekend in St John's. (Just before, Ian had been on business to Vancouver and Victoria, so it was Pacific one week, Atlantic the next.) Ian had wangled an invitation as a speaker for their annual "Computer Science Days." With his expenses paid, and a free ticket available for Pam on our Air Canada "frequent flyer" points, it was irresistible. Newfoundland is the most hospitable place you can imagine. As distinguished speaker and Mrs distinguished speaker, we were dined and feted. They even found someone to show Pam round town during the conference, and bought her lunch at a posh restaurant. Some of our old friends were there, notably Hermann Maurer, our host four years ago in Graz. We ate nothing but fish the whole time, fish until our stomachs rebelled (and they did!). The local dish is cod tongues and "scrunchions," cubes of fried bacon fat. We had fabulous mussels too, stuffed and plain; scallops, cod, halibut. The local drink is "screech," scraped from the bottom of a rum barrel, and "screech parfait" was a real dessert hit. While St John's was just as we'd imagined it -- narrow three and four storey wood-clad brightly painted houses snuggled together along hilly streets -- the countryside was a big surprise. Instead of rolling open hills we found dark, twisted, Van Gogh style conifers that threatened to nudge us off the road and into the sea. Quite intimidating! At the south end of the peninsula the trees suddenly gave way to muskeg -- mile upon mile of open, boggy, rippling grasses: ideal caribou country. In fact we were taken to look for caribou and spent an unforgettable day wading through bogs and leaping across (or almost across!) streams that grew wider as the day progressed. We saw a whale (it was a minke whale traveling alone -- unusual at that time of year), and climbed up Signal Hill where Macaroni received the first transatlantic wireless communication, three short blips from Cornwall, in 1901. The stereotyped Canadian image of Newfoundland is the most boring part of the world's most boring country, but in fact St John's really comes alive at night, with lineups to get into discos at 1:30 on Sunday morning! We found nice pubs, good restaurants. It was a lovely break, Pam's holiday for the year.

Well, that's it. It's been a good year, and describing it has taken longer than we thought, even though we've had to miss out a lot. If you've made it with us this far, congratulations! Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.

Pam, Ian, Anna, Nikki, Scott

My First Encounter with Witchcraft

Anna S. Witten

Oh no! I promised myself I'd never turn anyone into a frog after what happened all the other times and now I have. I remember the first time. It was maybe 500 years ago, and I was only a young girl of say 15 or 16 years when I first decided I wanted to cast a spell. When I told Ruth about my longing to cast spells and how I would do anything to learn how she shook with fear. Then I remember her telling me about her aunt Anne whom everyone suspected was a witch and how she was very sick and wanted someone to whom she could teach the art of witchcraft.

Then it was me who shook with fear as I stepped up the last step and on to the balcony of "Aunt Anne's" house. I remember feeling my knees turn weak underneath my petticoats and my long full skirt. My hands were trembling with fear as I knocked on the door of the old house and smoothed down my skirt and hair, hoping I looked respectable. I remember entering the house and then sitting down on the rickety old chair and sipping a glass of elderberry wine and wondering about what would happen next.

As the days went by I was learning more and more things such as making wines, making strange brews, learning how to chant different magic for different cases and lastly, how to tell different herbs from one another and how to prepare and use them. Then I remember "The big day." It was about 2 months after the first day and I was going to cast my first spell. When I got to Anne's house we prepared everything, and then, it was time. I faintly remember seeing Anne standing there, just before closing my eyes. When I next opened them I couldn't see Anne anywhere. Suddenly I heard a croak coming up from the floor below me. I looked down and I saw a frog! I'd turned Anne into a frog. What was I going to do? "Oh" I thought to myself "I'm so silly!Anne's a witch so she can turn herself back!" Then I remembered that Anne was sick and she'd lost all her powers! What was I going to do? Then I knew I had to pack my bags and leave. It was obvious that if the witch patrol caught me they'd do the "witch test" on me and since Anne had taught me how to float, I'd be burned at the stake! As I walked through the village trying to look as normal as possible, I saw Ruth. Praying she wouldn't notice me I started a brisk walk. But alas I heard her call my name. The next few minutes were the worst and most suspenseful minutes I had experienced so far in my life but, little was I to know, that things like that would start happening more and more as my life went on. Finely I escaped by saying I hadn't seen Anne except for a few minutes.

Even now, I remember the fear I felt when I saw the strange look in her eye as she looked at me. When I turned and walked away I could almost feel her penetrating eyes burning two holes in my back.

Well that was my first experience with "Witchcraft" but unfortunately it was not my last. I guess I was never cut out to be a witch, but, I kept persevering. But now, that's all in the past. I wonder what will happen in the future! Will I meet up with other witches? And will I ever get mad enough to turn someone into a frog again? I hope not, but, I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

My fish Amber

Nikki C. Witten

I have a little fish,
Who lives in a big round dish,
His name is Amber,
And I pamper,
Him with treats,
But not red beats! [beets?]
My fish Amber

THE adventures of CAT!

Nikki C. Witten

Once there was a pussy cat who was a poor sailor's pussy cat. One day she went on board the ship. Suddenly the rope broke and the boat went drifting off in the sea. Two days after the boat crashed into an island. The cat got off the boat; she looked around but there was nobody there. "Where is everybody!" she mewed but nobody answered. It was cold, dark, and snowy so she curled up and went to sleep.

Suddenly she woke up, then she heard someone say "Whoo are you." She stood up, then she looked around but saw no-one. Boy was she scared. Then she thought it was a ghost so she ran away mewing. Suddenly she turned around, and ran back. Then she looked up and there she saw an owl. The next thing she knew she and the owl had started building a ship. Three days later the owl and the pussycat were on the seas. Two days later she saw the sailor looking for her. She mewed to him; he looked out and saw her; she came to shore and the pussycat, the owl and the sailor lived for a long time after!

The end (listen for number 2)