Witten's Christmas Letter for 2008

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
December 23, 2008

Dear friends,

Not much happened in the first half of the year. Straight after Christmas Nikki and Ian risked their lives amongst rain and sandflies in a 3-day wilderness ocean kayaking experience in Doubtful Sound (NZ's deep south). Pam and Ian spent New Year's at Woodside House on Waiheke Island, where at midnight Pam cut the ribbon to open Witten's Way, a new trail through native bush. Ian's brother Brian came over for their usual sailing jaunt. Not to be outdone by Pam's epic voyage (see last year's Christmas letter), he and Ian circumnavigated Great Barrier Island. Pam's brother Steve came over from France for their Mum's birthday in March. Shortly afterwards Nikki left home with her boyfriend John to travel overseas, and ended up living and working in Belfast, after being admirably hosted by Ian's sister Pippa. We had many other summer visitors: Tim and Judith from Christchurch, Gary from Glasgow, Joan and Wolf from Lethbridge, John from Paris. Ian went to Kathmandu for a few days. Anna and Dan had a baby boy, Riley, and Pam made a few trips to Brisbane to see him.

OK OK, Riley is pretty awesome. What is even more awesome is to see Anna in her new role as mother, at which she excels (of course!), and Dan as Dad. Ian realized a 30 year old dream by holding Riley until he cried and then gave him back saying "you can look after him now." It's really nice to finally join the "G" club. We could go on and on about this, but will spare you the details, or leave them to your imagination.

Now for the rest of the year. Pam and Ian spent six months in Europe. Here is a series of emails from Pam to various friends.

Siena, 7 July

On sabbatical. We began with a week's holiday in Brisbane to get a fix of baby cuddles and it was good to spend time with Anna and Dan too! Our plane was delayed nearly 24 hours, so we had longer there than expected. No great hardship, as you can imagine. Because of the delay we had an extra day in Bangkok awaiting our connection to Frankfurt, so Thai Airlines put us up in the swanky new airport hotel and covered all our meals. We were impressed that there was a real, live harpist playing in the foyer. Classy! We spent lots of time in the lovely swimming pool, because the humidity was too overwhelming for us to even consider sightseeing. Our friend Marco was at Florence airport to meet us and drive us to Siena. It's as fantastic as I remembered.
Next day we went to the Palio -- the crazy bareback horserace around the main Piazza. The jockey for "our" contrada fell off on the first round (there are three). What a loser! But it was a real spectacle with all the flags waving and a huge parade of representatives from each contrada dressed in medieval costume. We felt sorry for the guys in full armour as it was very hot, even at 7 PM. More on the Palio in a previous Christmas letter (2005).
We went to a medieval festival in a real medieval fortress called Montereggioni yesterday and heard lots of music, mostly shawms and doodlesacs and drums, but no recorders. There were knights in armour, wenches, stocks, wandering pilgrims (complete with a pantomime-style camel!), jousting tournaments -- what amazing horsemanship -- and medieval food (but it tasted just fine). Many people were in costume. My most enduring image is of wandering around the stall-lined streets at night with everything lit by candlelight and looking up to the ramparts to see a tall figure with a sword, his cloak blowing in the breeze, all silhouetted by the moon. Quite fantastic!
We're having a heatwave just now, but the sun's very different from NZ because we don't burn at all. We haven't needed sunscreen but did buy sunhats. Ian tried on a white one with a black band but decided he looked too much like a member of the Mafia so ended up with a cool little straw number. He looks good in hats. Each evening huge thunderheads roll across the sky and we long for a good storm to clear the air. Maybe tonight.

23 July

Well, we've just had a lovely weekend. We were invited to spend a few days with Ian's host at the University. He lives in a small town near Florence and commutes to Siena for work. Anyway, Marco and Cecilia live on the outskirts of this town in a modern house overlooking farmland. From our bedroom window we had a great view over a field to an old, empty farmhouse and on to the Appenines.
We spent each morning walking in the countryside along winding, hilly, country roads, past vineyards, olive groves, and old stone farmhouses and through small hamlets. It was charming, and oh so Tuscan!
Lunch was a typical Italian weekend event with extended family, sitting round a huge table in the garden eating delicious home-made pasta, cold cuts (prosciutto, salami, roast beef), various local cheeses (different varieties of pecorino, parmigiano) and chunks of crusty bread, washed down with Chianti. Wonderful!
Then it was time for a rest before heading out to do some sightseeing at about 4pm. We went to Lucca, a walled city between Florence and Pisa. Several people had told us this was a "must see" so we were delighted to be guided around by Edmundo, one of Marco's friends. A big international music festival is held here each summer: Sheryl Crow and Leonard Cohen are among this year's attractions but we left before the evening events started. What we did see, though, was some wonderful Romanesque architecture (mostly churches, of course), and several works of art by Renaissance artists such as Ghirlandaio and Filipo Lippi which I had heard about in my art history lessons at school: it was exciting to see those in real life, so to speak. Lucca has an interesting central Piazza which is egg-shaped. The buildings surrounding it are simple, 3-4 storey flat-fronted houses painted in muted ochres, pinks and yellows with the standard dark green shutters, and it has a nice 'ordinary' feel about it, unlike the main Piazza in Siena which is strikingly flamboyant.
A short walk along the walls; then back to the pad for dinner, which was much like lunch with the addition of ribollita (a very thick soup featuring bread and beans) and a cooked green beans, tomato and garlic dish served cold. Dinner, like lunch, lasted for several hours and was a terrific leisurely, social time. Ian sang, or rather played, for our supper, which was appreciated by the family -- and also the neighbours for miles around!
Back in Siena it feels as if we spent the entire weekend living in an Italian movie!

6 August

Actually it's as hot as hell here. Hotter. Even the Italians are walking in the shade today. We sometimes have humdinger thunderstorms towards the end of the afternoons which are very exciting at the time, but the city's like a sauna afterwards. Most evenings we eat on our tiny balcony overlooking the street and try to catch some cool breezes. Luckily Ian's office is air conditioned so after we've walked down the road for a slice of pizza for lunch I head back to work with him and send emails, like now.
Ian's sister and brother and wife were here for five days. They left last week to return to England and NI. We took them to see the medieval towers of San Gimignano. Brian laughs as loud as Ian but none of the towers fell down; they knew how to build them in the old days. It was good to take our visitors out of town a couple of times, though the public transport system takes a bit of working out, especially the timetables. The computer scientist and traffic engineer in our group were very confused by it all. Luckily Rosaleen speaks pretty good Italian and was able to bail us out a few times. We ate and drank too much for the entire five days, so it's a water, fruit and salad regime for us for a while so our digestive systems can recover. Ian's little brother is a bad influence.
Manhattan Transfer gave a concert in the Piazza del Campo last Friday to kick off the annual Jazz Festival; they put on a good show. Since then, several contradas (neighbourhoods, but also closed societies which govern the lives of their population) have hosted an evening jam session in their gardens and we've been to them all. Not because the music is particularly good but because we're curious to see what's behind those walls. They vary greatly in size but the ones we've seen all have a treed grassy area, terrace, and several buildings housing meeting rooms, a kitchen where food for the contrada feasts is prepared, and a bar. That's as far as we could see ... there are probably torture chambers and certainly meeting rooms downstairs and along passages the public isn't allowed access to.

22 August

It was super to have Nikki here for ten days. We met her in Florence and spent a couple of days there in a hotel suggested by a NZ friend (thanks Prue!) doing the sights and catching up. She's very well and has made many friends in Belfast, having joined a book/dinner group and also a hiking group that meets socially between hikes. I'd just read a fascinating book about the Medici family (The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert), and knowing something about how they influenced life in Florence -- well, all Italy actually -- really helped to bring the city and its art, architecture and history to life. The Medicis were basically in charge from 1350 to 1750. What a family! You see their coat of arms everywhere. Even here in Siena, after a long siege (where over half the population died of starvation) they put it on already existing public buildings and also built a huge fortress on the edge of the city, just to let the Sienese know who was boss. Quite ruthless, really. Nikki was keen to visit the Uffizi gallery and we spent several hours there till our feet, eyes and brains were sore. But we strategically went in the heat of the afternoon so managed to stay cool and avoided the line-ups by buying our tickets in advance. A great move.
Back in Siena with Nikki we caught up with Craig and Kirsten who were en route from New York to a wedding in Paris. They hired a car and took us to Montalcino for a day. It's a pretty little hilltop town, very clean, traffic-free and with a small castle. We'd wanted to go there last time we were here to taste Brunello, the local wine, but hadn't managed it. We had a superb lunch in a little restaurant tucked down a narrow side street -- I had chunks of veal simmered in balsamic vinegar, which melted in my mouth, and Ian had a rabbit stew which was equally delicious. Nikki had the local pasta with a lovely sauce. And of course the Brunello. We did a vertical tasting of two bottles from the same vineyard: a 2003 and a 1993. I've never done that before, and it was really interesting to see, smell and taste how different they were. Both delicious but I definitely preferred the older one. The five of us shared a Tiramisu with our coffees. Yum!
Kirsten and Craig left the day John arrived.
Our favourite coffee shop has a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campo (the main square) and we like to sit there with our morning cappuccino and people-watch. It makes an ideal meeting place when friends and family are visiting. We also happened to be there when the horses for the recent Palio were given out to the contradas, so we had a birdseye view of the goings-on. Nikki loved the Palio (John spent much of it playing games on his iPhone!), but it was our third one and we feel Palio'd out. Don't mind if we don't see another. That evening we had a gastronomic adventure when we inadvertently ordered eight starters for the four of us instead of two starters between us, which we'd intended. A little Italian is a dangerous thing! We put it down to the lunar eclipse we saw that night.

26 August

Last Saturday we took a bus for a day trip south to Montepulciano. Driving through the Tuscan countryside was lovely. It really is such a picturesque part of the country, with the rolling farmland, many fields ploughed to reveal clods of the grey, ancient-looking soil, the inevitable vineyards and olive groves, lots of beech woods, and villas or small walled villages and towns on most hills. Just like the postcards. This time of year there's a lovely soft misty glow to it all and the mountains on the horizon form a hazy blue backdrop. And we liked Montepulciano very much. The bus dropped us off partway up the hill and we walked into town through a gateway in the wall and along the cobbled main street. It winds gently up between stone buildings, with enough bends that you can't see more than a few metres ahead, but with glimpses out to the countryside along steep little alleys on both sides. The street is lined with enotecas (literally, "wine libraries"), restaurants and boutiques. We found an icecream shop that sold the best dark chocolate gelato ever! Near the gate is a clock tower with a large bell and an old mechanical Punchinello who strikes the hours. At the other end of the street, near the top of the hill, is the inevitable church and just beyond that a small fortress, Medici-built of course. We spent the day exploring and had a delicious lunch (accompanied by the local wine) in a small, secluded courtyard where a wedding party was taking place, but with a handful of small tables for non-wedding guests. We were made to feel welcome, greeted with smiles and nods when we arrived there. That was very interesting.
On our way back down the hill we stopped to visit a medieval cellar. It was a warren of brick-lined, low-ceilinged caves, dark and cool with a deep well and quite spooky. We could imagine all manner of nasty deeds taking place there over the centuries. Now it's used for cellaring huge barrels of red Montepulciano wine and a small amount of Vin Santo. We did a tasting and bought a couple of bottles. Then back to catch the bus home ... or so we hoped. There were several buses but no people at the bus station. Ten minutes after our bus was due to leave we checked our timetable and yes, we had the right day and time. At last a bus drew up which we made for but the driver assured us he was going off duty and no, he was not going to Siena. What to do? As you know, the buses run like clockwork here and ours should have left 15 minutes ago. This was Saturday's last bus, and there are no buses to Siena on Sunday. We were considering our options when at last our bus arrived, we got on and the driver turned it around and immediately set off back to Siena -- not even stopping for a pee or a coffee. No-one else was on board so we sat at the very front so as to get a good view. Big mistake! The driver was determined to make up his 20 minutes on the 1 hr 15 min, drive and hurtled along the narrow country roads and through the villages at breakneck speed, the bus lurching from side to side while we hung on for dear life expecting to tip over at any time. And he did it! We arrived, trembling, at our stop right on schedule -- and needed a stiff Negroni to recover!

6 September

We had a fantastic four days in Padua and Venice last week. It was my birthday present from Ian -- I'm glad he decided to come too! We stayed in Padua, in another hotel suggested by a NZ friend (thanks Sarah). What a great find! We arrived there early on Friday afternoon and spent the afternoon walking around the charming old city along its cobbled streets and arcades. We decided to spend Saturday in the main part of Venice to get a feel for the city and see some of the sights, and take a waterbus across the lagoon to the outer islands on Sunday.
Neither of us had been to Venice before and we loved it. I hadn't realised just how many canals there would be, or that the entire city would be traffic free -- not even bicycles. We crossed many small bridges and got a feel for the city rather than going out of our way to visit museums and sights. That said, we did cross the Rialto, spot the Bridge of Sighs and visit St Marks Square and the Basilica with its overwhelming Byzantine mosaics.
The outer islands were interesting too. Murano was a real tourist trap and we preferred Burano with its lace workshops and brightly coloured houses. Lido was an eye-opener. Row upon row of identical beach huts, four or five deep, and crowds of people. We've been spoilt by NZ beaches! The Venice film festival was on, but we didn't manage to see Brad or George. We spent our last morning in Padua looking at bits of St Anthony in the basilica -- including his vocal cords! Ghastly. We reckon his tomb is just an empty marble box as there couldn't be much of him left to put in it. Puts St Catherine's head and thumb (on display in Siena's Franciscan church) to shame, if you like that sort of thing. Anyway, the trip was a lovely break and we're so pleased to have been.
Last night we went to what we thought was to be a concert of jazz and klezmer in the Synagogue. Turned out it was an illustrated lecture, in Italian of course! However the music samples were fun and we'd never been in a synagogue before and that was interesting so we stayed for the duration of the talk. Ian had to wear a yamulkah and looked quite the part. What a hoot! You'd have been proud of him, Sarah!

10 September

Ian's finishing up the work he's been doing here. Did I tell you about his workplace? It's the former psychiatric hospital, which was being remodeled as university offices when we were here three years ago. The hospital was built about 200 years ago but what is really interesting is that it was built around an already existing chapel, which was by then several hundred years old. The chapel still exists, right in the heart of what is now an ultra-modern workplace. It's been deconsecrated but when it was in use the inmates weren't allowed inside for services. They had to watch through lattices near the roof of the chapel on the third floor of the hospital, because they were considered "unclean". So cruel. Anyway, the whole building is rather like a Russian doll with an 18th Century outside, followed by a 21st Century layer and a 16th Century heart.

Heidelberg, 6 October

Thought I'd let you know how we're adjusting to Germany. It's quite the culture shock. Not just the temperature (I went from wearing summer dresses and shorts to digging out the jeans and long sleeved sweaters overnight), but also the food. We're hallucinating Tuscan food. German food is herzlich -- hearty -- not haute. That means dumplings. And thick gravy. And potatoes. And sausages. And more potatoes. It also schmecks gut -- tastes good. That means the dumplings and gravy and sausages and potatoes have strong tastes. Subtle is not part of it. Neither is green vegetables, nor anything raw or crispy. Things are cooked thoroughly here. Desserts are sweet, sticky, and -- usually -- chocolate. Wine is thin, white and sweetish. (Mark Twain, who visited Heidelberg for several weeks, declared that you can tell it from vinegar by the label.) Beer, however, is excellent. And so are the cakes. I'm buying a longer belt.
Heidelberg is lovely -- well the old town part is. I'm really pleased now that we've moved into the city and feel more a part of things, though Ian is still the only person I talk to. Puts an 'interesting' perspective on our relationship! Only pedestrians and bikes are allowed in the cobbled streets. Nice clean, tidy, well-looked-after 400 year old buildings. The city is in the Neckar valley, bordered by steep hills. The hills are covered in dense deciduous forest, mostly beech trees, so it will be stunning when the leaves get their autumn colours. They're just starting now. And the walks through them are lovely. We spent our first weekend here exploring hiking trails on the hills on both sides of the river. One of them led us along the Philosophers' Way and up the hill to a ruined monastery which was built on top of a Roman temple, which was built on top of a Celtic ... There are the remains of Celtic fortifications in the form of a double wall several kms long and encircling the top of the hill. On our way to explore this we came across an amphitheatre, hidden among the trees, which was built in the 1930s for political rallies. It held up to 13,000 people and it was easy to imagine the Fuhrer there on stage winding up the crowd. Scary. We walked back over the Old Bridge and through the city.
The river Neckar is huge -- wider than the Waikato. Lots of locks and heavily-laden barges. We hired bikes last Sunday, took them upriver on the train, and cycled back along bike paths, past several ruined castles. 35 km! It was a beautiful autumn day and we had lunch in a (not ruined) castle en route ... plus cake and coffee at a riverside cafe. Very civilized. We felt saddle sore for a few days. That evening we went to a super concert in one of the churches in town. Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah. It was excellent but Ian went to sleep! I don't know how because we had cheap seats right behind the basses, timpani, trombones and tuba. You'd have thought they would keep him awake, but no.
Our new apartment is on the fifth (top) floor with super views over rooftops and spires. No lift, so we'll get fit climbing the stairs and hopefully burn off the delicious and irresistible cakes the Germans are so rightly renowned for. The apartment belongs to a young couple who are touring NZ. What a coincidence! It will be fun living like students for a while, and we're enjoying being able to stroll to restaurants and events. There's a jazz festival here right now and we went to a concert by Ornette Coleman (I'd never heard of him either) who was an enfant terrible of the jazz scene in the 1980s. Ian really liked the music and I enjoyed the lighting effects! However a couple of days later there was a fabulous early music concert in a church a block from our place -- much more my scene. I was hoping I might have lessons from one of the recorder players (The music department here is not a practical one but concentrates on theory and history, which is a disappointment) but it turns out they live in Freiburg. They were very helpful and have taken my email address with a promise to see what they could find for me, which was very kind, so I live in hope that something or someone will come up.
We've just returned from a walk through the beech forest on the other side of the river to a restored Benedictine monastery where we stopped for coffee and cake (there seems to be a pattern here ...), making the most of the day before the promised rain arrives.

21 October

We recently returned from a lovely few days with my brother Steve and family. They live in the depths of the French countryside in an ancient farmhouse and barn that they've practically rebuilt to make it habitable, pretty well single-handed, keeping as much of the old stonework and beams as possible. It's awesome! But my goodness, such a lot of very hard work. They're not builders by trade so had to research each step. They rent it out in the summer, moving themselves into the stable across the yard. Their place is in a small hamlet (no pub, no shop, no church) in the middle of a farming community set in gently rolling countryside scored with steep wooded valleys. It was lovely to see them (and speak English!). We went on a few country walks, scrumping blackberries on the way. Came across a deserted old farmhouse with ripe figs and walnuts in the yard -- yum! We gathered pockets-full of sweet chestnuts that we roasted on the BBQ and washed down with Steve's home brew. A visit to Albi -- half an hour drive away -- to explore Toulouse Lautrec's birthplace, and the amazing cathedral was very interesting. Steve also took us to Conques, an ancient little village perched on the side of a closed valley. It has a simple cathedral and is on the route of an ancient pilgrims' way from Toulouse to Spain. It's very picturesque (though rather 'poshed up' for tourists) and definitely a place to explore again at leisure, along with some of the walks around there. Why not go and see for yourself? -- at www.adventurefrance.co.uk.

29 October

We've been exploring one by one some of the little towns and villages we cycled through on our first weekend here in Heidelberg. A couple of weekends ago we went to the Eberbach Apfeltag festival. It was hilarious -- oompah bands, German folk dancing, 40 metres of apple cakes, apple juice from an old fashioned press, half metre hot dogs, dinner-plate sized pretzels and a lot of dour Germans who didn't look as if they were enjoying themselves at all. And tons of apples. Despite our initial misgivings we really enjoyed it. Walked back along the bike path by the river for a couple of hours to the next town to catch the train back, stopping at a little country pub en route for a Pils. Well, it is Oktoberfest elsewhere!
Then last Saturday we again took the train up-river and this time hiked to a little village high on a hill with a castle and a commanding view along the Neckar river valley, having first fortified ourselves with coffee and cake at a small cafe on the other bank. It was a beautiful day and we hiked through steep beech forest nearly all the way. Most of the trees have their fall colours now and the sun was shining through the bright yellow leaves making a lovely dappled light, with patches of green mixed in and brown underfoot. There isn't much left of the castle (first mentioned in 800 AD), but there was a medieval workshop for kids in the courtyard and we watched them making bows and arrows, eyeing the huge cauldron on a tripod over a fire where their lunch was cooking, hammering and sawing goodness-knows-what and generally having a good time. Some of them were wearing ragged sacks over their clothes for effect and there were lots of dogs and even a goat to add to the general mayhem. It looked like a lot of fun but I felt I should be providing some medieval music and dance activities!
We spent several hours wandering around the village before sauntering down the hill, across the bridge and back to the cafe we started from where we watched the sun go down behind the hills while we had beer and fries to tide us over the train ride back to Heidelberg. A lovely relaxing day.

13 November

I returned from visiting Nikki in Belfast on Monday morning. It was lovely to see her and suss out where she lives and works, and also meet her very nice flatmates. Although the area she lives in looks a bit like Coronation Street there are two lovely parks close by, and also the towpath along the Lagan river, so we did several nice leafy walks together, as well as lunches and shopping trips of course. She's fun to hang out with! Her job started off with a flourish but she no longer finds it a challenge and is making enquiries to universities in Canada to do a masters' in Anthropology, starting next September. Early stages yet, but an interesting idea and she's always liked studying. She looked into doing it at Queen's in Belfast but would have to pay foreign student fees of œ8,000/year, despite being a British citizen, whereas in Canada she would just have to pay local fees. Nikki and Pippa arranged a Witten/McGimpsey family dinner at an Italian restaurant and luckily for me everyone was able to come so I met the two new babies, one a bit older than Riley and the other six weeks younger, as well as catching up with Pippa's tribe, many of whom I haven't seen for a few years. At one time or another they've all been over in NZ to visit us, pre-babies. Seeing the babies made me impatient to be home and seeing Anna and Riley. I visited Ian's mum (93) a couple of times and also spent quite a lot of time with Pippa who did some soul-baring about (her) John's Alzheimer's, which was very difficult. He's 65, in a hospital, and spends most of the time in bed. Pippa thinks he sometimes knows who she is. Such a tragedy when they should be enjoying retirement together.
I had a rather fraught journey back to Heidelberg, as the 11 PM bus from Frankfurt airport was canceled and the next one was delayed a further 50 minutes -- till 1.45 AM. There were quite a number of us waiting and we spent most of the time in the airport caf‚, but it closed at 12.30 and there was nowhere to sit so we all went to the bus shelter, which wasn't really a shelter at all. It was blowing hard and raining hard so we had a very wet and cold wait. I got to the front door of our apartment just as the clock was striking 4 AM. The irony was that when the plane landed at Frankfurt they played a big "Ta daaa" fanfare and proudly announced that it was yet another Ryanair flight to arrive at its destination on time. A fat lot of good that did me!
There's a film festival on and I was told that movies with English titles would have English dialogue so went to see Alice's Restaurant yesterday afternoon. It was dubbed into German! Luckily I saw it when it first came out (about 40 years ago) so had some idea of the plot. Next time I'll check first -- there are a few films that look really interesting, if I can understand them.

4 December

Having explored all the small towns we passed by on our marathon bike ride along the Neckar soon after we arrived, we've set about taking the tram in a different direction -- not by the river but along where the hills join the plain. It really looks as if the landscape designer got tired of hills and left the paper completely blank. You can see miles and miles of unbroken flat land and the western horizon is huge. We were surprised to see lots of vineyards on the hills to the right, and factory chimneys in Mannheim and beyond on the left. There are many small, once fortified towns and villages nestled up against the edge of the hills. One time we went southwest to the Schloss in Schwetzingen, which has the most wonderful gardens modeled on Versailles -- very formal with lots of fountains (but not as OTT as Versailles) -- close to the house, and beautiful, extensive, park-like landscaping all around. We managed to get there while most of the trees still had their autumn colours, and it was gorgeous. There were all sorts of extravagant follies scattered around the park including a "ruin" covered in scaffolding for repair work, which we thought rather funny, and a beautiful mosque. It was all paid for out of local taxes, which kept increasing as the prince who built it got more and more ambitious. Apparently his chancellor's name is still used as an insult in the area, almost 250 years later! Another town -- Weinheim, to the north -- used to be the centre of the tanning industry in the 1400-1800s and it's lovely now but must have stunk something terrible at the time. I remember what the smell was like when we tanned the hide of our poor old ram Caesar. The Saturday market was on in the old Marktplaz, where it's been held for at least six centuries. A real sense of history continuing. There were stalls selling flowers, veggies, bread, and sheepskins -- an indication that some tanning is still going on in a small way. We bought cheese and stuffed olives and had a thoroughly modern cappuccino and cheesecake; then spent a lovely afternoon exploring the old town centre with its narrow, winding cobbled streets overhung with half-timbered houses, all higgledy-piggledy, then climbing to the ruined castle at the top of the hill, looking over the roof-tops to the plain beyond. There are quite a few places like this within an hour's tram ride, some extremely chocolate-boxy but all of them interesting.
Last weekend we went to visit Ian's Master's supervisor in Graz, Austria, for a few days. We'd spent a couple of months there back when the girls were little and I had an interesting day walking around the town while Ian was visiting Hermann's department. I could remember a few things such as the baroque buildings very ornately decorated, some with pargetting and others with trompe-l'oeil swagging around the windows, with tunnel-like passages between them leading into small courtyards, but had no sense of where things were in relation to each other. It was rather like waking up after a dream and only remembering snatches of it. Lots of "Oh yes, of course!" moments as everything fell into place. That evening it snowed -- big, wet, swirling flakes and of course we just had to go for a walk through the nearby woods. So peaceful and we looked like snowmen by the time we got back to the house! Next day we went to the mountains and had a lovely walk through the snow around a small lake in glorious sunshine. A real treat. I happened to mention that I was interested in Hundertwasser's architecture so Uschi took us to see a small church not far away that he'd designed. And I saw another Hundertwasser building yesterday -- an apartment block in the same unmistakable style -- when I went with Ian on a business trip to Darmstadt. Very eccentric, but lots of fun. Rather like something a child might draw but these actually got built. I'd love to see inside and get a sense of what it would be like to live there.

OK, that's it. There was more of course. Nikki visited us in Heidelberg and we had fun at the Christmas markets tasting the local adventskuchen and gluhwein. Then she accompanied us back to Belfast where we are now, getting ready for a big Witten family Christmas, followed immediately by a trip back home to NZ and -- maybe at last -- a quiet year next year. We'll tell you about it in due course. Until then, may peace be with you.

Pam and Ian