Witten's Christmas Letter for 2002

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December 31, 2002


It's the last day of the year. As Ian's Dad used to say all those years ago, if today you walk down Royal Avenue (the main street of Belfast, staunchly loyalist as ever) you'll find a man with as many heads as there are days in the year. Dad died this year (as you'll read later), blissfully unaware to the very end of the true awfulness of his jokes -- the ultimate fate of all dads? And today, here, it's high summer: Ian is sitting in the garden, man and his laptop, with birds chattering in the trees in front and a sheep gently complaining in the paddock behind, a sleepy-eyed cockerel, jet-lagged or otherwise time-challenged, in the distance. Arcadia. Half an hour ago a bird banged into the low glass half-wall that surrounds our patio and swimming pool, which we erected a few years ago (at great expense, and at the Council's insistence) to fence out possible, and mythical, stray children. No children have drowned, but the bird population has suffered terribly. This one stood dazed for ten minutes before repeatedly, and for obvious reasons unsuccessfully, trying to fly off in the direction of the glass right beside him. Perplexed, another bird came to sit on the fence and watch the frustration before flying off effortlessly to show how easy it is. A metaphor for our year? -- but which bird are we?

Last year we wrote of Christmas in Chennai ("how awful," some friends responded -- but in fact we loved it). We arrived home on Dec 27 after our six-month traveling sabbatical to find the house spick and span, the lawns beautifully mowed, and the flower beds professionally tidied -- everything except the roses had been pulled out. This gave Pam a fine opportunity to start again with the help of cuttings from friends' and neighbours' gardens. Now everywhere is awash with flowers and ablaze with colours. When things grow in New Zealand, they grow phenomenally quickly, and the recent weather -- plenty of showers interspersed with serious heat and real sunshine -- has encouraged unprecedented fecundity. A momentary lapse of attention and our garden becomes a jungle. On Dec 31, 2001, we went up to Beulah after six months apart, ate lunch on board and debated the wisdom of heading out in a stiff 25 - 30 knot breeze. We prevaricated until 5 PM, when the wind dropped, and headed out for our customary New Year's Eve spot at little Opopoto bay, off Waiheke Island. With a few other boats we watched the sunlight fade and shore lights twinkle on, with occasional bursts of fireworks as midnight approached. Then the big countdown from several parties at nearby Onetangi beach, ending with a display of rockets. Why aren't we there today? -- see next year's letter for the dismal story!

Visitors began arriving almost as soon as we returned, starting with Maria and Martine, a Colombian friend who had been our host in New Orleans and her young son, for a few days early in January. Real life intervened all too quickly as Pam returned to school at month's end. Mid-February found us frantically mowing the lawns and clearing up our garden again -- to the great bewilderment of our neighbours, who wondered whether this unaccustomed spate of activity was due to an impending visit from the Governor-General, or what? In fact, the honoured guest was Ian's sister Pippa, who, with her husband John, was coming to visit us for the first time ever. (She had once complained that we moved on from Calgary without giving them a proper chance to visit; we were only there eleven years. Seeing that this is number eleven here, she decided not to risk postponement.) This was their first time in New Zealand, and Pippa's first, proud, use of her Kiwi passport, flaunting her dual citizenship inherited by us all from Dad. We're not sure whether they were expecting to like it here, but they certainly did. We had suggested, contrary to their well-traveled friends' advice, that they not bother with the South Island on this first trip: there's enough to see round where we live, within day-tripping (or overnighting) reach from our home, without reaching further afield to the (quite different) wonders of that other island. They liked it so much that they're coming again a year later, for longer, and still planning to leave the South Island for a subsequent trip!

It's always lovely to see things that have become commonplace to us through the fresh eyes of visitors. Every day Pam walks the dog around the rugby ground just down the road run by the local Maoris; John struck up such a good relationship that they are arranging tickets for him to a Waikato Chiefs' game during his upcoming visit. Pippa raved endlessly about the simple pleasures of the daily barefoot lawn crossing through early morning dew to pick grapefruit. We visited our favourite hotsprings (at Okorori) where you hire a private pool for an hour (pool number four, the one with sand underfoot and tropical vegetation all around), treat your body to sensuous tickles by trickles of rising bubbles, open a bottle or two of chilled Chardonnay -- the only irritation being having to keep your glass raised to prevent it heating up. Pam took them on a day tour towards Tauranga, on the East Coast. They crossed the Kaimai mountains to the east of where we live and drove north along a valley known for its wineries. At a place called Bethlehem (a more peaceful version of its namesake) they stopped to visit the well-established Mills Reef winery, and sampled the wares of another couple of establishments before continuing to Katikati, known for its numerous outdoor painted murals. After lunch they pressed further north to the Karangahake Gorge and followed the river back through the Kaimais. A trip full of picturesque views of very different kinds. Pippa is a discerning wine buff, but a very modest one (an unusual combination of virtues, in our experience), and charmed us all with her apt and sophisticated descriptions of what she smelt and tasted. ("But, goodness, I know nothing," she'd protest, "just drink it and enjoy it, that's all that matters.")

At the same time, but for a much shorter period, Ian's brother Brian visited us. (He also is coming back a year later, also for longer, and this time with his wife Rosaleen.) Unlike Pippa and John this was not his first trip, and he came for the sailing. During the days following his arrival a series of fronts passed through, which meant we couldn't get out on the water, but we made up for it later. Ian and Brian spent their first night at Rekareka island, in a bay which curiously enough contains a wreck. Many years ago an out-of-commission cargo ship was towed there and sunk deliberately to form a cheap breakwater that sheltered the bay, but the operation was not a great success because the hulk shifted as it settled, making the protected area too small to be of much use. Then a ten-hour trip across open water to Great Barrier Island (not the reef of the same name -- that's Australia!), one of our favourite places. Great Barrier has an enormous, and very sheltered, harbour called Port Fitzroy, not unlike Strangford Lough in N. Ireland where Ian learned to sail as a child -- but with far more dramatic scenery. On an adventurous day we left this haven and sailed north in blustery winds through dauntingly high seas, almost out of sight of land, alone in the vast Pacific seascape, to a tiny outcropping of islets called Mokohinau topped by a prominent lighthouse. It's an automatic light now; the isolation apparently drove the first lighthouse keeper mad! Feeling a very long way indeed from any humanity -- there were no other boats out there at all -- we steered nervously through a narrow, rock-bordered channel between islets, the heavy ocean swell crashing to left and right, to take a peek at an incredible anchorage, almost unseen from the outside world except through a large hole in the huge rock that protects it from the elements. To enter would involve a far narrower, riskier, passage, and at this point our courage deserted us and we headed back for the "civilization" (or so it seemed from out there!) of Great Barrier, vowing to return. Will we make it? -- see next year's letter. Then we threaded our way through the Broken Islands -- incredibly picturesque hunks of rocky islets that lie scattered along the coast of Great Barrier like seeds broadcast by a giant. Bowling Alley Bay was that night's destination, but spotting a couple of giant motor-cruisers (potentially noisy party-boats -- real sailors share the same healthy disrespect for motor-boaters that cross-country skiers have for their less pure downhill brethren), we pioneered a new anchorage in a small side bay that was surprisingly sheltered. But, as with many pioneers, emulation came quickly, in this case taking the form of a huge trimaran that wanted to share our pristine emptiness. The next day we sailed to the Coromandel peninsula, where the following day we met up with Pippa and John who were driving up. We picked them up and sailed round the corner for lunch. Jumping into the water, Ian swam ashore to the golden, sandy beach, closely followed by Pippa who waded out with a big grin saying "I've always wanted to do that!" The simple pleasures we take for granted in New Zealand are apparently completely unknown in a lifetime of sailing up the coast of N. Ireland and Scotland.

One weekend with Pippa and John we sailed Beulah to Tiritiri Matangi Island, the closest you'll ever get on this earth to the garden of Eden. It's an open sanctuary run by the Department of Conservation with wild and exotic birds -- saddlebacks, with their distinctive marking that includes (surprise!) a red saddle on their back; tuis, who sing the most beautiful liquid song ever heard, in an enormous variety of tones; big flightless takahe, swamp birds that have been rescued from the brink of extinction (you'll recognize them because they resemble a large pukeko); kokako, who sing a slow string of very loud, rich, mournful, organ-like notes; the stitchbird, like an English wren with an upturned tail. It seems the birds welcome you -- they come to greet you as you walk past -- but the truth is more prosaic: your passage stirs up insects and all you're doing is serving lunch. The island is an ecological success story: it used to be farmed but is now a wildlife sanctuary. Sheep paddocks are turning into native bush, and all mammalian predators have been eradicated in the last twenty years.

All of us -- Pam, Ian, Pippa, John, Brian, and Pam's brother Graham down from Auckland specially for the occasion -- celebrated Ian's birthday together, then Brian departed, term began for Ian, and a few weeks later Pippa and John left too. It was sad -- but they left with memories which, as we now know, are vivid enough to bring them back again the following year.

On April Fool's Day, appropriately enough, a year of insanity began: the insanity of travel. During a ten-month period Ian made six trips to the Northern Hemisphere (the last one coming up in about a week's time). The itineraries may make boring reading, but here goes! The first was the annual trip to Snowbird, Utah. Ian has gone there every year at the same time for eleven (or is it twelve?) years. This year he had the honour of being the conference's "invited speaker," which was probably his swan song because the conference is about data compression and he has really moved out of that area of research. As we mentioned last year, every one of those years he hasn't been at home for Nikki's birthday, and last year, on her 21st, she came down from Vancouver for skiing. Since she's still in Vancouver (and from a S. Hemisphere perspective, it's so close!) we decided on the same again this year. And -- woe! -- this was when Ian finally had to admit that he is now outskiied by both daughters: Anna, in her reckless way, has long outshone him; now Nikki, quietly and conservatively competent, is just that little bit faster. Following Snowbird Ian came back via Vancouver so that he could spend a couple of days there with Nikki. Whiterock, where she lived, is just south of Vancouver (strangely, a namesake of that very place on Strangford Lough where Ian spent childhood summers) and a charming seaside resort, just far enough away to be out of the city but near enough to get in when you want. We visited all Nikki's favourite places, met her friends, strolled the promenade, ate sushi cross-legged in a seaside restaurant, visited the Starbucks where she worked. So that trip was not so bad. Ian came back via a few days in Lethbridge, Alberta (two hours drive south of Calgary, near the US border), where we are considering spending a few months later this year -- in fact, we're currently locked in the throes of indecision. But that's another story.

Ian's next trip, in June, was a short one, to Atlanta, Georgia, where he had been invited to contribute to a session at the American Librarian's Association Annual Conference. It was quite an experience: thirty thousand librarians all in the same place. The highlight was a show by the "Good Ol' Girls," four writers and musicians from the deep south. In a lovely southern drawl we were told of a woman who was invited in by a lady on whose door she had knocked, seated herself, leaned towards her host and informed her, "Honey, your husband's been cheatin' on us!" But Atlanta and back for a few days is not really much fun, though the Greenstone digital library system that Ian described was later written up as the "star of the show" (not the whole show, just the session to which he contributed).

In July Ian visited both girls in one trip! First to a conference in Sydney, prior to which he spent a lovely weekend in Manly at Anna's flat. Hadn't seen Anna for nearly two years, so it was quite a reunion. She has lost all visible body piercings and grown dreadlocks, now mature, which look really nice and suit her very well indeed. (Ian is considering growing them.) Manly is north of Sydney on a narrow neck of land that separates Sydney harbour from the Tasman sea. From Anna's flat you can walk a few minutes to the ocean beach, or in the other direction to the relatively placid harbour. Staying in a flat populated by a relatively transient crowd of migrant young people is a bit of an eye-opener, taking you back to student days and the joys and occasional horrors of communal living. We took the ferry to Sydney, did the tourist things, and went on a lovely long walk (two or three hours) around the harbour shore ending up at Manly, with stunning harbour views. At one point we stumbled by accident across aboriginal rock carvings showing pictures of kangaroos and whales (in one picture, both together) -- which apparently remain unadvertised to help preserve them by reducing visitors. We visited Steve Matheson and Phil McCrea, old co-conspirators from Essex university all those years ago, who hadn't seen Anna since she was a toddler! From the Sydney conference, where Ian was giving a tutorial on the Weka machine learning software produced at Waikato, he flew to Portland, Oregon, where he was giving another completely different tutorial on the Greenstone digital library software. This trip, via Honolulu and Vancouver, involved entering the US on two separate occasions in one day, an unenviable record in today's post-September 11th world of suspicion. The way back from Portland was through Vancouver, where Ian again stayed with Nikki for a couple of days. But she had moved! -- from Whiterock to a flat in an interesting area near downtown Vancouver, a sort of updated Haight-Ashbury. Nikki's best NZ friend Kirsty was also visiting, and it was nice to catch up with her too. We walked in Stanley Park, drank at Starbucks's again, caught up with Christine, Nikki's best Canadian friend from Whiterock, and had a memorable dinner where Nikki, at Kirsty and Ian's urging, discovered she did like oysters after all ...

The next trip, in early September, was the big one. The schedule was for Ian to leave New Zealand for Florence, traveling east via Singapore and Rome, one day, and for Pam to leave the next day for the same destination, but west via Los Angeles, London and Frankfurt. O the life of modern jet-setters. However, the plan changed: Ian departed a few days early to fit in a quick trip to Belfast, where his father had just died. Dad was 96 and led a full, eventful, and happy life, but there comes a time when, as they say, a man's work on this earth is done and it's time to move on. Dad began to feel this on his birthday in May. He died a few months later, of old age, peacefully, in his sleep. Ian managed to arrive home just too late for the cremation, but in time for the interment, with Mum, Brian and Pippa, and their families. Dad had to move into a home three years ago, which was the real bereavement for Mum, and she found his final departure from this earth something of a release. She's mostly blind (macular degeneration), and lame (a painful replacement hip), and lives by herself; but when Pam phoned a few weeks later and asked how she was, she declared "I'm just fine. If only I could see, and walk, I'd be the merry widow!" Dad will be remembered as a stubborn old codger who insisted on enjoying himself no matter how adverse the conditions. (Nikki has just announced her intention to plagiarize this epithet for her own dad's epitaph.)

Anyway, we rendezvous'd in Florence as planned: Ian gave his talk the first day and Pam arrived that evening. The next evening we learned how quickly Italian waiters can move when they want to. There was a mistake with the bill, Ian complained, the waiter corrected it, returned with the extra money, apologized profusely. Ian (waving his hand magnanimously): "Oh, that's all right." The waiter: "Thanks a lot" (disappearing rapidly with all the change). Florence was lovely, but crowded; the cathedral magnificent from outside, but the queues too long to enter; the Ponte Veccio quaint, but touristy. We had been there, done Florence, in the mid-eighties. But the star attraction of this trip was Siena, which was new to us. We bussed there and stayed several days inside the city walls in a hotel room with a balcony that sported a commanding view across the valley over ragged medieval streets to the central core of the old city. Ian was an invited speaker at the Italian Artificial Intelligence conference, which was mostly (apart from his talk) in Italian, so he didn't feel duty bound to spend much time listening to the other conference talks. The districts of old Siena are named after animals -- turtle, fish, dolphin, caterpillar, panther -- each with its own medieval-looking flag and decorated lampposts. We spent much time just hanging out and drinking excellent coffee. We discovered a barista extraordinaire who made cappuccino in a great athletic performance as though breaking the world record every time, tossing cups with flair from one hand to another, expending enormous energy in every motion. We ordered drinks just to watch them being prepared. Busloads of tourists arrive from Florence every day around 11 AM, spend the heat of the day there, and depart at 3 PM leaving the town to the locals (and us). The tourist attractions are legion, sometimes grotesque: in San Domenico's church we examined Saint Catherine's 800-year-old thumb in a glass case, near her head in a glass jar on an altar -- and her self-flagellating whip. Italy's patron saint, she was recently promoted to the European Union's patron saint. Born in Siena (we visited her house), she became a bride of Christ at the tender age of sixteen. We admired many magnificent churches. We were surprised to see lots of Romulus and Remus statues, which we had previously associated only with Rome. The story has it that it was Remus's son Senius who founded Siena. A drummer serenaded the town, practicing his marching drum in a different spot every evening -- but his well-meaning attempts to spread himself around were fruitless, for the contours of the city were such that he could be clearly heard all over, regardless of where he was actually standing!

From Siena by bus to Rome. We stayed within walking distance of most major sights, but found that the crowds had grown alarmingly since our last visit together in 1968 -- the Trevi fountain, for example, was almost invisible under the press of youthful American bodies. Pam particularly enjoyed the Byzantine mosaics in the early churches. We were duly awed by the cleaned-up Sistine Chapel -- though she preferred the smoky version she saw in 1968 because of its greater air of mystery. In her humble opinion, Michelangelo was a more accomplished sculptor -- we saw David in Florence and the Pieta in the Vatican -- than painter. And negronis -- we were delighted to discover a little bar in Rome where the negronis are almost as stunning (the word is used literally) as the ones in Matangi. We had the gastronomic highlight of the trip in an accidentally discovered gem of a restaurant down a little alley within stumbling distance of our hotel.

In Rome, we split up. Pam flew to London to visit her Mum for a week, then to Calgary for three days -- typically Calgary, it was sunny, rainy, and snowing on three consecutive days, followed by more sun the day she left -- including a trip to the mysterious Lethbridge. She then spent three days in Vancouver with Nikki, visiting Whiterock, Stanley Park, and the inevitable Starbucks, before returning home. Ian flew to Kuala Lumpur and then Singapore, giving two-day commercial courses in each place, back-to-back. It was exhausting, particularly as he picked up a nasty cold on day one, and on his return home he spent several days in bed. Except that he had to get up to dig a grave for a sheep that had unaccountably died. ("Why?," he asked Graham, our country neighbour who knows everything. "No reason. When you've got livestock, you've got to expect deadstock," he explained wisely.) A sheep's grave is huge -- big enough for a person -- and when it was dug Ian was on the verge of falling in himself. But fortunately he had returned from the grave when Pam came home a week later and was at the airport to meet her.

One more trip to go -- discounting a small trip to Wellington and two to Christchurch in between. In November Ian went to Lubeck, Germany, for a conference, then to London to give a seminar and a one-day workshop at University College, London, then back home to N. Ireland for a week to see how his Mum was getting on (just fine!), then to Johore Bahru in Malaysia for a day to visit a university, then to Singapore for a conference. He gave invited talks, on different topics, at both conferences. He returned after three weeks thoroughly sick of all this travel, as you can imagine.

More interesting was Anna's trip home in October, her first visit to Hamilton in 2 1/2 years. She arrived in Auckland on the afternoon of her 25th birthday, and we celebrated with a posh meal followed by port and cigars in a private lounge opened up just for us, courtesy of Pam's brother Graham who's a regular patron there. Before we awoke next day, Anna went for an early morning walk (my how things have changed!) and found the local Kiwis really friendly -- everyone said "hello," even the ones she didn't know. Back home we polished off a bottle of Chardonnay in the Okoroire hot pool (number four, of course), took her sailing, she went off to Whakatane with a girlfriend from school. Having lost his skiing supremacy to Nikki earlier in the year, Ian suffered the ignominy of losing his cycling supremacy to Anna: they went for a long ride, and she led the way home. Anna, at least according to her parents, looks fantastic: very petite, attractive, fit, happy. She's working in Just Jeans in Manly, and now has a steady boyfriend living near Sydney (a Kiwi) who we haven't yet met.

And now Nikki's home for a few months. She arrived early in December, having suffered a sudden and terrible bout of irresistible homesickness after two years away, mostly in Vancouver. It's lovely having her here. We really think of both girls as in their "gap decade," a delightful phrase coined in a friend's Christmas letter to extend the traditional British "gap year." Nikki has had many interesting times in Vancouver, including the Gay Pride parade, participating in the Aids walk, and a wild weekend with friends at Lake Okanagan in interior B.C. She's planning to return around August and enter a one-year legal secretary course, with the eventual intention of combining her love of anthropology with her fascination for native North American culture by getting involved with Indian rights. Meanwhile she's job seeking in Hamilton and cooking up a storm at home, much to Pam's delight.

And Pam's Mum is also staying with us. She flew from London before Christmas and has been staying alternately with Graham, some friends in Wellington, and us. She and Graham and his daughter Emily spent Christmas with us, and she is currently trying to decide whether to spend the rest of her life in England or in New Zealand -- not an easy decision with all her friends in England and two out of her three children in the Antipodes.

What else? We're nearing the end of major renovations to our house. For a long time we've been wondering what to do with the back end of the house, and Brian made some concrete suggestions when he visited that an architect friend then worked on and produced some drawings. In July we started looking into builders. At last they have left (they did a great job) and Pam the painter has nearly finished. Hopefully we'll start moving our stuff back in soon. It's been a complicated exercise: the laundry room has moved into a bathroom, the bathroom into a funny corridor/boxroom area, a study into the laundry room, and a rather unsatisfactory corridor-like bedroom has been made into a proper one. Our neighbour, who was born in this house 70 years ago and now lives next door, came over and declared that we had unknowingly moved the bathroom back into the place where it originally was!

Music? Yes, Pam's been playing, the occasional wedding, advent concert in a Hamilton church. She picked up a quartet of crumhorns while visiting Calgary, a gift from a fellow recorder player there. What's a crumhorn? -- come visit us and see. But be warned: the sound has been likened to "tuned farts" (and if you've heard of the French classic Le Petomane, this will, ahem, resonate). However, Pam's group Ad hoc baroque have enjoyed the challenge of learning to make music with these instruments, and have introduced them into their recorder concerts. There's nothing quite like a blast from a crumhorn quartet to wake up a snoozing audience! Ian's been playing too, including two concerts with the orchestra (plus out of town performances in Rotorua), a jazz trio gig or two, the clarinet quartet (more often a trio or even duet) that meets weekly (in principle) at our house, and an occasional practice with the Hamilton Big Band. But travel has interfered: it's hard to keep up your end when you're off overseas every couple of months, and sadly little playing was done in the second half of the year -- except that he did a spot with a pianist friend at the conference dinner in Lubeck, and sat in with a four-piece professional group playing at the conference dinner in Singapore.

This year Pam taught her last: she retired at the end of term in December. Kristy, her special needs student (who is autistic) left the school, and Pam had resolved to see her out and then quit. As well as teaching music, leading recorder groups, and assisting with Kristy, she has been teaching ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) to three young S. Korean children who are visiting the school. In one lesson which centered on cooking they made coconut ice. On hearing the recipe -- which began with melting butter in a pan -- her 10-year-old charge quipped "not coconut ice, coconut hot drink!" For him New Zealand is a great culture shock: he has been compelled to help his sisters shopping, cooking, washing and drying up. Pam made him carry the shopping basket round the supermarket, which he thought very infra dig until she pointed out other men carrying shopping ... told him he'd make an excellent Kiwi bloke.

Ian's work has proceeded apace, and his new book How to build a digital library was published by Morgan Kaufmann in San Francisco in July. He has been getting too many invitations to give talks, which he is flattered into accepting, but is now realizing that he will have to start turning things down to preserve sanity. UNESCO is distributing Greenstone, his research group's digital library software, and promoting its use particularly in developing countries -- courses on it have been given in Bangalore, India, and an African course is planned in Nigeria. This time last year he had just finished a two-month visit to Google, and the fruits of his work there have recently been revealed. Check out Froogle (froogle.google.com), their new electronic shopping site (the name a play on "frugal"): Ian's contribution was concerned with semi-automatic ways of extracting data from existing electronic commerce sites like Amazon (and he's still not allowed to tell you more, even if you are interested!).

Well. It's now nearing the end of the last day of the year, though, at 6:30, the sun is still high in the sky, and I'm still sitting outside listening to the birds (now in my swimming trunks after a midday dip), though sheep and cockerel have both long given up. We wish you lots of love and belated seasonal greetings. We hope your New Year is happy and fulfilling, and that you will travel to see us, for we are resolved to travel less ourselves (except maybe Lethbridge?) The world is an increasingly alarming place, and we feel fortunate in being tucked away in our remote corner, far from the centre of things. May peace be with you: our prayer grows more fervent with each passing year.

Pam and Ian, Anna (remotely) and Nikki