Witten's Christmas Letter for 2010

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
December 28, 2010

Dear friends,

Hello! Guess what: it’s been another frenetic year. At the end of April we reckoned that what with visitors staying with us and our own mini-trips, we’d spent no more than three consecutive nights at home by ourselves since the year began. A month later we departed for several weeks to Trinidad and Tobago, on to Belfast, and then (to maximize the culture shock) Japan—and, of course, Brisbane on the way back. Brisbane seems to be en route to everywhere: right now we’re spending Christmas here, and just hours before our arrival Anna produced the nicest present ever—a lovely wee granddaughter, Stella (she and Dan had been planning for months).

At the close of 2009 we spent a couple of convivial days with neighbours Lyn and Dudley in their gorgeously located (but undeniably primitive) family bach on the West Coast near Auckland, overlooking Piha Beach with its legendary surf. In NZ they’re always going on about “rips” that catch swimmers and surfers: well, from up on the headland you can easily see these rivers of flat water flowing rapidly through the sea, right out to the deep ocean. What happens is that massive rollers crash in one on top of another and sweep in a huge volume of water that can only escape by flowing sideways, parallel to the beach, and back out at a place where no waves are coming in. Terrific currents shift the sand and constantly change the geography, and the rips shift accordingly. We wandered over the bluffs to the next bay, inaccessible by vehicle and virtually deserted, where Edmund Hillary’s family bach still stands. With the wild surf and dense tropical vegetation, it seems a long way from Everest!

We set off on Beulah for our traditional New Year’s sail on Dec 28 and spent the night in a lovely isolated bay. For breakfast the ship’s log says “curried happy-face banana pancakes”; we’ll leave you to imagine that. Then we sailed around a bit, but with a gloomy forecast for the next few days—30 knots gusting 40, which for you landlubbers is a lot—decided to head home and write the Christmas letter. We set sail again on January 1, lunching on beer, oysters and focaccia bread. But after a couple of nights we were again stymied by high winds and failed to achieve our New Year’s goal of the Coromandel Peninsula. On the return trip we caught sight of an extraordinary water-borne sculpture called The Bung: a huge 2-meter exact replica of an ordinary bath plug that floats, anchored, in one of the bays off Waiheke Island.

Over the next few weeks we made several trips to Waiheke. First we sailed across to Olena’s (an ex-student) 30th birthday party for drinks and a nighttime fire-poi-dancing display, for which Ian provided the music. Declining to sleep with all the youngsters on the floor, we launched the dinghy into the surf in pitch dark, with considerable trepidation, and rowed back to ship for a bumpy night, to be awoken early by another student hailing us from the beach for a ride home. That night we took in Avatar, in 3D IMAX, which was stunning.

The next weekend Ian’s brother Brian and sister Pippa arrived from the UK. After a couple of nights to recover, the boys took off in Beulah and headed north, going great guns in 20–25 knots of wind. We had an ambitious plan to meet up at Oakura, just south of the Bay of Islands, where Anna and Dan’s wedding had taken place three years earlier. And two days later, having landed (and jettisoned) two small fish and played with a few dolphins, Beulah swept into the bay for a triumphant “sail past” to the welcome sight of the girls waving from the shore. The four of us spent a delightful day sailing, anchoring for lunch in the unaptly named Bland Bay—which is absolutely idyllic. On the way back Pippa caught a large (no, huge) fish and handed the line over to an expert for landing, whereupon it got away. We consoled ourselves with negronis on board in the warm evening sun before rowing ashore for another night of luxury in Jeannie and Peter’s (Dan’s parents) Oakura bach.

With a strongish wind forecast, the boys set off for their destination, the Bay of Islands, where they anchored near Paradise Bay—which may sound seductive but isn’t a patch on Bland Bay. Meanwhile Pam and Pippa drove along the winding coast road for a day in Russell, NZ’s original capital (it used to be dubbed “the hell-hole of the Pacific”). High winds forced the guys to stay a couple of extra nights, pootling around islands and inlets. The ship’s log notes that martinis were shaken with ice on day six of the voyage: not bad for a boat with no fridge. Finally we managed to escape southwards to Tutukaka Bay, spotting on the way a flying fish leaping 100m. But then the weather closed in and we were stuck for three days in this nice, safe anchorage, risking a missed flight home for Brian. Finally, off at dawn for a record-breaking sail—past more dolphins—to a peaceful bay off Moturekareka, with two other yachts and crew silently reading (we called it “Library Bay”). We spent a quiet night, a considerable relief from the howling winds and bouncy waves of Tutukaka. Up early and off, past a 1.5m shark, to meet the girls at Woodside Bay, Waiheke Island.

Meanwhile said girls had spent a relaxing few days at Oakura before driving south to Whangarei to spend another couple of days with cousin Lorraine and her husband Rod. They made their way back to Auckland and boarded the ferry to Waiheke, arriving at Woodside House on schedule—but days before the boys. The next day we went out for a nice, relaxing sail, not quite making it to The Bung in dying zephyrs, whereupon Pam took Brian back to Auckland airport to fly home while Pippa and Ian sailed Beulah back. Pippa recorded in the log that she had never seen so many yachts, fishing boats (catching and landing), gin palaces, ferries, all enjoying this sparking, idyllic piece of water, with a backdrop of islands to the east, Auckland skyline to the west, and away in the distance to the south-east, as we approached Pine Harbour marina, the purple hills of Coromandel. It was a perfect day’s sail; then back home, where Pippa stayed just a few days more.

Our next visitors were friends Marco, Cecelia, and Eddie from Florence and Siena. We sailed them to Woodside House, and Cecelia wrote in the log: “una esperienza fantastica, sensazionale; la prima volta su una barca a vela: un vero sogno [dream] sull’ Oceano Pacifico. Opazie di tutto, grazie di questo Paradiso.” Our Italian’s not that great, but we think she liked it. On Waiheke we basked in the sun, swam in the sea, drank cappuccino, tasted local olive oil (including an international prize-winner in a competition in Italy), and visited a winery for a gourmet pizza (sic) and wine. They now think NZ is more Tuscan than boring old Tuscany!

Our next visitor, at the end of February, was … Nikki. She returned from Belfast for a further year at Waikato University to convert her degree into an Honours one. She’s still here—but will return to the wintry north in mid January, lured by love. It’s been fantastic to have her here. She’s living in Pam’s apartment in downtown Hamilton, and aced all her courses—straight A’s. Despite hard work and diligence she had not done as well as she deserved in her degree a decade ago, and it’s been so lovely to see her rewarded at last. She’s studying anthropology and loving it, and is currently writing a dissertation on whether today’s rise of far-right political parties in Europe can be attributed to Islamophobia or the economic downturn. We have interesting conversations!

In March we visited Christchurch for a few days for Lyn and Dudley’s daughter Melanie’s lovely wedding. During the reception Ian played with the band—a decade earlier he had played in their garden at her 21st birthday. We stayed with our long-term friends Tim and Judith, and took the opportunity to visit other friends too, in Christchurch and Akaroa. Fortunately all these people seem to have survived the recent massive earthquake without significant damage.

There was a special celebration on 24 March: Ian was declared a World Class New Zealander. Our letter last year mentioned a posh black-tie dinner in Auckland to celebrate Craig’s “World Class New Zealand” award for people who promote the country’s growth and development by sharing expertise, building global connections, and enhancing NZ’s reputation on the world stage. Well, this year it was Ian’s turn: he received the Research, Science, Technology and Academia Award, joining an elite group of winners since the awards began seven years ago. At vimeo.com/11151172 you can see Ian, all dressed up with a dicky-bow, receiving a “Tall Poppy” statue reminiscent of the Oscar and giving a speech that closes with an impassioned thank-you to all his PhD students. Waikato University sponsored a couple of tables and we were able to invite some friends, all dressed up in their finery.

Just a couple of days later Anna and Riley visited for ten days—and Jeannie and Peter came for a weekend too. We celebrated Nikki’s 30th birthday with a huge sushi feast courtesy of the two girls. And then the five of us caught the ferry over to Waiheke for a couple of days to join Kirsten and Craig at Woodside House—they had come to NZ earlier for the award ceremony—who took us for a lovely birthday lunch of tapas at a hilltop winery with magnificent views around the island.

I know you’re wondering why we didn’t sail across. (I’ll tell you anyway.) Beulah was in hospital! A square foot of her hull had to be cut out and treated because the wood had decayed due to electrolysis (which seems virtually unknown back in the UK, but is not uncommon here). It was a pretty radical operation, and involved being laid up for quite a while, removing the inside furniture, drying out the hull, and treating an area of the inner skin. Luckily the operation was a success and the patient seems to have fully recovered.

Mid April and off to Wellington for the NZ graduate student conference that Ian started in 1992. As the “father of the conference” he gave a welcome speech on the Marae, opening and closing in Māori. Pam came along to catch up with a former colleague, and had a lesson from her former recorder teacher. Then for Mother’s Day in May we went with Nikki to a favourite hotsprings area, Orakei Korako, where we boated across the lake and ambled around geysers and bubbling mud pools. Back home Nikki cooked up a rich and lavish meal, with Ian as souschef. We began with baked ricotta and roasted red pepper salad, followed by roast duck, and, to finish, strawberry souffl¬é—which is delicious and, according to Nikki, easy: we served it with a nice dessert wine.

Nikki has cooked us quite a few gourmet meals. In July she treated us to mid-winter Christmas in her flat, along with Trish and Cliff, the parents of her best friend Kirsty (who gets married later in this letter): roast chicken with all the trimmings. For Pam’s birthday in August Nikki whipped up a celebration dinner for a little party of nine: brother Graham and his partner Julie, neighbours Lyn and Dudley and Pru and Ross, and the three Wittens. We began with aubergine rolls stuffed with goat’s cheese, pine nuts and tapenade; continued with slow-roasted leg of lamb rubbed with rosemary, anchovy and lemon zest and served with leek bread pudding and green beans; then a lemon and mint granita to cleanse the palate, before birthday cake. We slaked our thirst with martinis, washed the meal down with wine, and finished off with cheese and liqueurs. Everyone had a good time—as Nikki observed, the photos from the night are full of laughter. And next morning—home-made cinnamon buns for breakfast. (All the recipes are on Nikki’s blog at suburbanlush.typepad.com.) In November we hosted Thanksgiving dinner for friends and neighbours: turkey with all the trimmings (Pam); pumpkin pie and pecan pie (Nikki).

But it’s not all food: we’ve done many other noteworthy things with Nikki. We took her (and friends) sailing a couple of times. We all enjoyed an evening of light opera songs by her friend Evelyn, the high point being when the resident dog joined in Rossini’s Cat Duet with yips and howls, bringing the house down. Pam took her to the Royal NZ Ballet Company’s Christmas performance of the Nutcracker while Ian was playing clarinets on Waiheke. Ian and Nikki scaled Mount Tongariro in appalling weather while Pam was visiting Brisbane.

At the end of May Ian played Scandinavian music in an orchestra concert. This year he’s vice-President of the Waikato Orchestral Society, as well as continuing to blow away on second clarinet. This concert involved some pretty challenging works, including Sibelius’ 2nd symphony—Ian never dreamed he’d ever be playing orchestral music of this complexity—and Grieg’s celebrated piano concerto. The next musical event was a conductor’s workshop, where we ran through familiar classics under several different student conductors; another interesting experience. In July Pam joined the orchestra as deputy assistant stand-in percussionist for a performance of Peter and the Wolf to a very appreciative schools audience.

Later in the year, in November, we both participated in a tremendously exciting concert, including music from the world-famous-in-NZ transvestite composer and percussionist Gareth Farr and pieces from Disney’s 1940s movie Fantasia—Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Night on Bald Mountain, and Danse Macabre with a young, sexy, and incidentally very accomplished electric violinist—followed by Jupiter and Uranus from Holst’s Planets suite. The programme was a true baptism by fire for a neophyte percussionist. At one point in Bald Mountain our conductor had urged Pam at every rehearsal to “hit that gong harder!” Well, during the concert there was a hiatus as the gong seemed to fall off the back of the stage accompanied by a loud crash (which, though extemporized, fitted quite well with the music). The show went on, though the players struggled to keep a straight face—luckily our conductor didn’t even flinch. In fact, another percussionist had tripped in her rush to damp the gong, knocking it over and stepping on a cymbal, turning it inside out, in a futile attempt to recover her balance. However, the conductor congratulated Pam afterwards for finally complying to the letter with his repeated request—and, needless to say, no-one enlightened him!

The year saw a lot more music. Ian’s group of 3–4 clarinet players and Pam’s group of 3–4 recorder players continued to meet weekly (separately). Now and again we had long-weekend playing binges at Woodside House: Pam with two excellent players from Auckland, and Ian with his regular cronies. On occasional days and weekends we took off for clarinet quintets and recorder sextets in Auckland. Ian has also hosted some jazz-and-martini evenings with Evelyn (mentioned above), who wants to sing more jazz. However, they’re in danger of going the same way as his weekly dinner-and-clarinet evenings, which are slowly evolving from a music group that eats first to a dinner group that plays afterwards ...

We also had some trips, carefully arranged around orchestral commitments. The day after the May concert we departed for Trinidad and Tobago where Ian had been invited to give a week-long workshop on his Greenstone Digital Library Software at the National Library—and of course Pam came along to keep him out of trouble. We went the long way (40 hours), flying to LA, Miami, and Port of Spain on Trinidad. We spent our 16-hour California stopover at the beach. Taking a bus to Santa Monica, we had coffee and croissants at an outdoor French caf¬é and walked to the beach and along the pier. It was Memorial Day, and a large area of sand was covered with crosses, stars of David and crescents, each commemorating a member of the US forces killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were interested to read a sign acknowledging that if they put a marker for each Iraqi civilian killed in the conflict it would cover the whole beach. Then we walked along the beach to Venice Beach with its tawdry sideshows and shops. Favourite ads: Botox on the Beach and Medicinal Marijuana.

Tropical Trinidad is nice but not perfect. Think of a dodgy port city like Suva (or Glasgow) and add a dollop of some African oil-rich nation like Nigeria, with razor wire everywhere. Our nice hotel was in a “good” area of Port of Spain, along with the foreign embassies. Everyone we met opened the conversation by warning about crime and personal security. The offshore oilfields are making Trinidad increasingly wealthy, but there is a huge gulf between the middle class who drive around in new cars and the destitute majority in shantytowns who see foreign tourists as easy targets for financial gain. Seems you’re lucky to just get mugged and robbed—being kidnapped and ransomed is far worse. While Ian worked Pam took little excursions, not straying far from our hotel and always telling the staff where she was going. She strolled to nearby Queen’s Park Savannah, past historic houses, the stunning new Performing Arts Centre, through the Botanical Gardens, and on to a nearby shopping mall—but only in daylight.

One day, a public holiday—they have lots in Trinidad because of all the different nationalities—one of the National Library ladies and a driver took us to a nature reserve in the rainforest mountains deep in the island’s interior. Leaving the main highway we wound along a long, steep, narrow, rutted road through the forest, past occasional decrepit shacks and a few better maintained, plastered and brightly painted homes set close to the road. The small roadside store where we stopped to buy bottled drinks and peanuts was fortified with thick wire mesh instead of windows, and a metal grille through which goods and money were exchanged.

We saw few other vehicles—just as well, given the narrow road, steep drop and dearth of passing places. Some were parked by a bridge for river limin’ (liming = hanging out): a popular way to spend a holiday, picnicking, bbqing, and playing in the water. But for us it was onwards and upwards to the reserve, where we were joined by a group from a cruise ship for a 1½ hour rain-forest walking tour. The main focus was the exotic bird life. We watched gorgeous plumage, several varieties of humming birds and even (through a telescope) a toucan high in the forest canopy. Our guide named the native trees and vines and their various uses, and some of the creepy-crawlies we encountered (luckily the snakes and tarantulas weren’t around). We saw termite nests in some trees and were invited to taste one variety. “Don’t squash them or they’ll taste bitter. Just pop them on your tongue and shut your teeth quick so they don’t crawl out” was our guide’s advice. Our verdict? Very strong, carrotty flavour with a nutmeg aftertaste. Delicious—but the fresh mango daiquiris at our hotel bar were easier to swallow. Halfway round, a torrential tropical rainstorm hit (this was the start of the rainy season) and drenched us to the skin in milliseconds. Back at the centre we were offered towels, and with no change of clothing had to steam dry.

Then it was back on the road, down the mountain to the sea and along the surprisingly rugged coast. We stopped at Maracas, a popular seaside spot near Port of Spain, for a stroll on the palm-fringed beach (just like the photos!) along with hundreds of other people, but no Europeans. The sand was lovely and soft—like cornflour and almost as white. We declined to swim—much to the relief of our minder Margaret, who stuck to us like a limpet. Afternoon snack was Bake ’n Shark, delicious deep fried shark in a fried batter bun made with a savoury donut mixture. Then back to the city via roadside stalls selling Trini-Treats, various sweet and savoury delicacies—and very popular. We couldn’t resist a sugar cake, rather like brown sugar fudge with thick shavings of coconut embedded in it, and absolutely delicious.

After the workshop we flew to Tobago for a weekend, where we were met by one of the Library staff and driven to our hotel before being let loose. What a change from Trinidad! While we saw some new tourist hotels and a few modern houses, on the whole the oil wealth has not reached this island and it still has the easy-going, laid-back feel that’s how we’ve always imagined the Caribbean. We strolled along the streets to the beach, were greeted by everyone we passed, and felt very comfortable. We took a glass-bottomed boat to nearby Buccoo reef and anchored for snorkeling. Pam declined as she hates getting her face wet, but after a few minutes Ian returned and persuaded her to try. Wow! Once her breathing and heart rate had slowed down she relaxed, and loved the whole new and beautiful world under the water. In fact she was so comfortable that she several times filled her snorkel when following a particularly beautiful fish down among the coral. Back on board we motored to the famous Nylon Pool, a shallow area of dead coral in the middle of the sea, for a swim. The bottom looks like silver sand but is quite gritty, and the water is even warmer on the bottom than the surface. We stayed there for ages, just basking in the sea, enjoying the breeze and admiring the palm-fringed beach on the distant shore. For dinner we walked to the Kariwak Hotel (recommended!), had a delicious organic meal, and met the charming Canadian lady who founded it 30 years ago with her Tobagan husband. The next morning we took the boat trip again for more snorkeling—Pam was hooked!—and then practised limin’ on the beach before departing, reluctantly.

Next, N. Ireland. What a shock! The temperature dropped 20°C, skies darkened from blue to grey, and the north wind did blow. Away with tshirts and summer dresses and out with jeans, socks and fleeces. But while the weather was cold the welcome from Pippa was as warm as ever. We met up with long-time friends Greg and Carol for a lovely sail on Strangford Lough and overnight stay on their boat, took long walks around the local countryside, and visited Ian’s mum daily. Ian embarked on a gargantuan day hike in the celebrated (and beautiful) Mourne Mountains, bagging four peaks, while Pam and Pippa visited the local craft and coffee shops. We had a family get-together: four generations, 17 people, 14°C, rain and a bbq (the latter was at Ian’s insistence, and a mistake). A lovely, noisy, chaotic time with lots of laughs.

To maximize culture shock after Trinidad, we next visited Japan. On the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo the urban sprawl seemed endless; then suddenly we were among steep deciduous forested mountains and paddy fields. Aizu-Wakamatsu, our destination, popped up out of the blue (green actually), a small and rather nondescript country town, but home to Japan’s (the world’s?) only computer-science-only university. Japan is a bizarre mix of outstanding natural beauty, lurid pastel-coloured plastics, and outrageous kitsch of the bunny rabbit, “Hello Kitty” variety. It’s all kinda cute—for about the first half hour.

Ian was in his element, spreading the Digital Library gospel to enthusiastic staff and students. He had to meet the University president and was told to wear a tie—first time for years! Luckily he had the foresight to bring one, and we also happened to buy him a Marks and Spencer’s linen jacket while in Belfast. Meanwhile, Pam was on her own without speaking a word of Japanese: challenging! Aizu isn’t on the tourist map and hardly any English is spoken—we saw only two other non-orientals in ten days, apart from those we were with. One day she plucked up courage and took a bus to the castle at the other end of town. According to the pictures, it’s a magnificent five-storey pagoda-style building, but is currently under repair, covered in scaffolding and death-defying workmen. However the museum inside was very interesting. She loved the clothing and old Japanese paintings; fortunately there were a few translated signs. And the grounds were lovely.

Our hosts for weekend daytrips were Canadian and Russian guys who have been on faculty here for several years, and Ma-san, a young Japanese student (now spending a year at Waikato) who came along with us. One day we drove south to Ōuchi-juku, a historic mountain village whose single, wide street is flanked with deep gutters filled with fast flowing water from the mountain. The houses resemble barns—long, single-storey wooden buildings running back from the road, with high thatched roofs that have a raised section in the centre like a thatched chimney. The roadside end is open and most are shops selling sake, local food specialities, trinkets and souvenirs. We climbed to a Shinto shrine, set amongst trees up a steep path.

Aizu-Wakamatsu sits in a valley surrounded by lovely mountains, the highest being an extinct volcano called Bandai-san. We drove there to visit the Salvador Dali museum. What a surprise!—and the experience was as surreal as you’d expect. A wealthy Japanese businessman had a private collection and built a mock Spanish castle deep in the mountains to house it. There are many works by Dali, mostly sculptures, and also a travelling exhibition of late 19th and early 20th Century poster art with plenty of Toulouse Lautrecs. After lunch (noodles and tempura in soup) we went to an exclusive spa to soak in (very!) hot pools. It was very posh, and segregated by sex. The ladies room had all sorts of bottles of goodness-knows-what (if you can’t read kanji). Pam tried some: she didn’t turn green so supposes they were pretty harmless.

We were looked after magnificently and ate like kings, a different style each night. We sometimes visited traditional Japanese restaurants: shoes off inside the door, tatami mats, low tables and cushions on the floor to sit on. It was a relief to sometimes find a shallow pit under the table for people with creaky knees, so we didn’t always have to kneel all evening. Much of the food was traditional—often a euphemism for disgusting animal body parts. We relied heavily on Ma-San’s advice, because there were no English menus, although a few restaurants had picture menus.

On the way home we stopped in at Brisbane for a few days of intensive and extremely enjoyable grandparenting with Anna, Dan and Riley. Pam visited again in November for five days to help Anna prepare for the baby. Boy or girl?—no-one knew. That is, until the evening of 19th December when Stella arrived in the world, just hours before Pam, Ian and Nikki landed early the next morning for Christmas. Born to order! We saw her in the hospital, only twelve hours old, and then watched her grow day by day over the next week or so. What a joy!

Many other noteworthy things happened this year. Craig received a Waikato Distinguished Alumni award in August, so we attended another posh black-tie dinner. It was an excellent celebration, and we were impressed (and slightly surprised) that our university could bring off a classy event with such panache. With Craig and Kirsten we had a private celebrity tour of Maungatautari, a nearby extinct volcano that has been established as an “ecological island” with many rare native birds and trees. In September Nikki flew to Rarotonga to be bridesmaid for Kirsty, a fabulous few days. Meanwhile Ian had a lightning trip to Toronto and back via Ottawa to give a keynote talk at a conference and catch up with the Sheens, his surrogate Canadian family from way back, and David, a long-time friend from Essex. At the end of September Pam’s brother Steve and wife Maggie came over from France to see their mum Peggy, the Iceland volcanic eruption having wrecked their April flight plans; they visited us for a weekend and (guess what?) we took them sailing. Later, Peggy was hospitalized for a week in October while everyone except Pam was away. Nikki was in Brisbane, helping Anna celebrate her birthday.

Ian’s work continues, and continues. He devotes himself as much as possible to his PhD students, and graduated three more this year (two last year). He also published a second edition of his book How to Build a Digital Library, and the third edition of his popular Data Mining is coming out early next year. The R-word is not much in evidence right now (though we have attended a couple of retirement seminars). This year he was invited to give several talks and workshops internationally (Aizu, Beijing, Toronto, Trinidad) and nationally. Pam has acted more locally by establishing a super vege garden, and her crops are growing apace: tomatoes and capsicums in the greenhouse; corn, peas, potatoes, spinach, beetroot, radishes, rhubarb, strawberries in five raised beds; numerous herbs and an olive tree (for martinis?) as a centrepiece. Talking about food—or rather the lack of it—she had a five-day fast at Aio Wira, a peaceful retreat in the Waitakere Ranges west of Auckland. And she joined Zonta, a worldwide women’s group that raises money for charitable causes to support women locally, nationally, and internationally. Pam’s particular interest is the Teen Parents programme at a local high school, which provides cr¬èche facilities and parenting advice so that young mothers and their partners can continue their education. And, despite increasingly creaky knees, Pam continues to play squash twice a week.

That’s about it. Except for one thing. In October Ian had a trip to China (and returned via Japan, a repeat visit to Aizu). He gave several talks in Beijing and spent a few days at a couple of universities in Yunnan province, western China. An impressive reception had been arranged in Kunming. On landing he was met on the tarmac, planeside, by a sign with his name and whisked away by car to the airport’s VIP reception area, welcomed with a magnificent bouquet of flowers, and drank tea while others retrieved his baggage. The high point of the trip was an week-long adventure of a lifetime up the Nu Jiang (angry river), including mountain hikes close to the borders of both Burma and Tibet. The destination was Bin Zhong Luo, one of three villages that lay claim to having inspired Shangri-La—and yes, it was indeed surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and peaches grew in the valley far below. We saw, and talked to, people from many Chinese ethnic minorities: Nu, Li, Li Su, Da Long, Bai, Yi, Nasi, Tibetan, and also Burmese. High points included a hilarious local dance in Bin Zhong Luo, extraordinary singing in a Christian church service, and flying foxes as routine river-crossing transport; low points included pig’s guts (to eat), voracious leeches (eating you) and a landslide four months earlier that erased an entire village of 96 people. The whole experience was too much to summarize—if you’re online you’ll find a lengthy account here.

It’s a few days after Christmas and we’re still with Anna and Dan, Stella (now 7 days) and Riley (2½), and Nikki, recovering from a stunning Christmas seafood feast. We spent the afternoon in the pool. Riley is an amazing swimmer. He can’t lift his head up to breathe but can swim away from the side, turn around and return just in time to grab on again and gasp for air. And with just as much aplomb and confidence he can swim vertically downwards, little arms and legs thrashing, and turn back to reach the surface gasping. Grandparenting is lovely, and our two are both gorgeous in their different ways. But if you’re a grandparent we don’t have to tell you that, and if you’re not you probably don’t want to hear us going on about it. So that’s it. It’s been another fantastic year for us. Once again, may peace be with you, and best wishes for 2011.

Pam and Ian