Witten’s Christmas Letter for 2013

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
+64 7 829-5887
December 27-30, 2013

Dear friends,

The best thing to happen this year, and one that has dominated our activities, was that Anna and Dan and their kids Riley and Stella moved back to New Zealand. Having grandchildren close by (1 1/2 hours drive) has made the year hectic in a way that is excitingly different to our usual world travels. And it will make this letter shorter than usual, for if you have grandchildren you already understand the joy of all those little moments, and if you don’t there’s no way we can succeed in communicating it, particularly by letter. Just to summarize the other events, so that you can skip the rest if you want to: Nikki and John still live in N Ireland and will return home briefly to get married in February before moving to California sometime in 2014; Ian still works full-time, unlike almost everyone from whom we have received Christmas letters; Pam was vice-president of the local branch of Zonta and has played a leading role in many of their activities; playing, practicing, and performing all kinds of music remains central to our lives; we did a little travel, once to the UK and US, and again to India and Sri Lanka; Beulah is still afloat; and big changes are afoot.

Anna and Dan spent Christmas 2012 in Brisbane and returned to NZ early in January. Dan had already landed a job in Auckland, but they took a couple of months holiday first, much of it at Dan’s family bach in Oakura, Northland, where Anna and Dan were married nearly seven years ago. They visited us in January, and in February headed off for a week’s well-earned resort holiday in Thailand, leaving the kids in our tender care (gulp). Looking after grandchildren when their parents are far away is an awesome responsibility when you’re unaccustomed to it. It was particularly strange for Riley (then 4) and Stella (just 2) as well, because they’re not familiar with our house and the way we live. However, they were absolutely wonderful, and we soon recalled how, years ago, our own kids seemed to undergo a strange and unlikely transformation into well-mannered little darlings when left in other people’s care.

Pam had it all planned out. (Ian retreated to work for some of the time.) She scheduled different activities for each day: trips to the zoo and visits from friends with children of similar age. Our swimming pool was a godsend. We used to wonder occasionally whether it was really worth keeping it going in a household with just two oldies; thank goodness we did. Riley and Stella swim like fish. Well, Riley swims like a fish—he spends most of his time underwater and occasionally surfaces very briefly for air, blowing and panting, with only an ear-to-ear grin visible above the water. He jumps in, and even back in February could turn himself around and return safely to the side of the pool. Stella operates under the assumption that anything boys can do girls can do better. So she jumps in, just as readily and just as unexpectedly, goes under for a bit, pops up laughing, and assumes that someone will be there to rescue her. So swimming always had to wait until both of us were around to supervise, and one always had to be in the pool. It was a great week, hard work, but fantastic fun, and I think the kids enjoyed themselves too.

Anna and Dan live in Auckland, which has a well-deserved reputation as having one of the world’s most expensive housing markets and being one of the world’s greatest commuting nightmares. After some exploration they found a nice house to rent, just one exit along the motorway from Dan’s work. Riley was to start school on his 5th birthday in May (that’s how they do things here), so being in the catchment area of a suitable school was a top priority. And they quickly learned that this is far from easy. In fact, rental properties in the neighborhood of schools with the best reputations are effectively non-existent. They settled for a school that may not top the affluence scale but has turned out to have absolutely excellent teachers and a very high morale. They also like the fact that Riley is exposed to something of a racial mix because the area has some Samoan and other island immigrants.

Notwithstanding astronomical Auckland prices, they bought a house when their 3-month lease expired. It backs onto the school; the playground may be noisy but it’s confined to certain times of day and it’s a happy noise. It’s a rather small two-bedroom house, but a nice one, under Mangere mountain (one of Auckland’s many extinct volcanoes) and close to the sea. It’s perfectly livable as it stands, with a fair-sized garden, a large deck for outdoor summer living, and a huge garage that doubles as playroom and storeroom. They have plans to extend, but that will have to wait. Meanwhile they have bought a classic restored 1970s 20-foot caravan, complete with lurid orange décor (remember?) and huge windows, which sits in their yard and doubles as a spare room.

Nikki and John are still living in Belfast. However, their circumstances have changed—and very much for the better. They moved from their shabby two-up two-down terraced house in a scuzzy area of Belfast, flanked by vacant, derelict, properties, into a rather fabulous modern two-story apartment with an open internal spiral staircase, in a very nice apartment block near the centre of town. Pam and I visited in June, and thought that their lovely apartment wouldn’t look out of place in New York.

You might recall that Nikki had a frustrating time finding employment in economically depressed Belfast, eventually managing to land an unpaid internship at Oxfam which turned into a temporary paid position. This has continued, and has recently been extended for a further year. She’s Community Development and Events Executive Assistant for Oxfam Ireland. Ireland is apparently still united as far as Oxfam is concerned, and she travels to Dublin by train once a week because that’s where the main office is. As part of her job she organizes and co-ordinates fundraising collections on street corners and at community events—she particularly likes the free entry to rock concerts. She now has overall responsibility for the Irish version of Trailwalker, Oxfam’s marathon team endurance hike, which was the basis of her internship last year.

In mid-year John landed his dream job as Senior Software Engineer for Apple, working on a high-end video editor called Final Cut Pro. They hired him even though he would have to work initially from the UK because of the notorious difficulty of getting a US work visa. The rest of his team is at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, which he visits regularly. Luckily he doesn’t have to move to Apple’s London office but is able to continue working from Belfast. He started in October, and he and Nikki plan to relocate to California by next October, if not before—apparently there’s a small chance of obtaining a visa in April. That’s if there’s any such thing as “definitely” in today’s employment world.

Nikki continues to hike regularly with the NI Young Walkers, including many weekends away in other parts of Ireland. John does not hike but joins her for their pub quizzes during the week. Nikki has also stepped up her running, and this year completed some 10K runs. We should mention that Anna is running too: having visited NZ last year for her first half-marathon, in Kerikeri in Northland, she followed up with another half-marathon this year, this time in Whangarei where Dan’s family live, and finishing in just over two hours. It seems strange for us to have produced such fit and energetic progeny! Nikki has been busy preparing for her wedding next February, which will take place at a country estate not far from our house. When we visited in June she and Pam bought an amazing wedding dress. Apart from that, the wedding seems to be organized entirely over the Internet.

You are probably delighted to have come this far through our Christmas letter without any mention of sailing. This cannot last. Here’s how the year began. On 31 Dec 2012 we woke before dawn on an uncomfortable lee shore off one of the many islands in the Hautapu channel just west of the Coromandel Peninsula, the wind having changed direction and strengthened during the night. Departing hastily, we left the shelter of the islands to encounter mountainous seas and tempestuous winds, putting paid to our plans of returning to the Auckland area. Instead we tucked in behind nearby Waimate Island and spent the last day of 2012 anchored in bright sunshine, with occasional blasts of wind hurling round the point and into our bay, reading and strolling on the island. Dinner was a 5-course feast featuring chicken cacciatore à la Beulah and bananas Foster. Went to bed at 10:30 and slept soundly until the next year. Some idyllic days followed, much of which were spent slapping on sunscreen. We landed in Coromandel town for lunch among the tourists, and visited Waiheke Island for a glass of gorgeous syrah at the Man o’ War vineyard. There’s nothing quite like nice wine in its own vineyard, particularly when you have anchored in a sandy bay and swum ashore (rowed in Pam’s case).

A week or two later Ian picked up brother Brian at Auckland airport for our annual cruise. We stocked up with provisions (both solid and liquid), headed for the marina, loaded up Beulah, and set off to M ori Garden Bay at Rakino Island for the night. We were woken early by some wine bottles falling over in the wake from a passing fishing boat; luckily the bottles remained intact. Little wind that day, so we sailed and motored through a pod of dolphins to nearby Kawau Island for the night, and watched fireworks on the shore. The next day we made the voyage to Great Barrier Island, despite light winds, and dropped anchor in Nagle Bay, the historic site of an early boatyard.

The next few days were less successful. From famine to feast, the wind got up—and stayed up. The forecast was identical from day to day: stormy winds today and tomorrow; fine breezes the following day and thereafter. Which would have been nice, except that tomorrow the forecast had both changed and remained precisely the same: stormy winds today and tomorrow; fine breezes the following day and thereafter. And tomorrow and tomorrow, day after day. Worse still, the wind was from the wrong direction, southwest, and its strength prevented us from going anywhere except downwind towards … er … Peru. We sailed up and down the east coast of Great Barrier Island, nice little trips, with dolphin sightings almost every day. But one day the mainsail was suddenly blown out in a small gust, rent from luff to clew (i.e. right across the sail). Old and tired, it owed us nothing, but this was an unfortunate time for it to give up the ghost. Beulah can sail OK with just the foresail, but to return home, beating against strong winds and big waves, was out of the question. And our little auxiliary engine is not powerful enough to make progress in such conditions.

Except for the worry of being stranded for life along the coast of Great Barrier Island, we had a pretty good time. Fortunately our wine supply held out. One day we went ashore and hiked for a couple of hours to a wonderful cluster of natural hot pools, deep in the forest and populated by a gaggle of water nymphs. Another day we climbed the mountain to an old kauri dam. Finally the weather forecaster relented and promised merely reasonably strong adverse winds for the next day instead of very strong ones, and we resolved to make a break for it and try to beat against the wind all the way back to the mainland under jib alone, with occasional assistance from the “iron tops’l” (engine). Which we did, departing at daybreak and making painfully slow progress against wind and seas for a mammoth (and slightly nerve-wracking) 12 hours to get back to the safety of Kawau Island. A couple more days saw Beulah back home in the marina. We had been at sea for our usual week and a half, but had ventured nowhere near as far as on our usual cruises.

Pam and Ian had a few short trips during the year: days, weekends, and occasional long weekends. We took Anna and family out a couple of times, anchored off a desert island, and all ended up swimming—you just can’t keep these kids dry. They were a little nervous at first in the inky, shark-infested waters, but Riley conquered his fear of the deep and swam all the way round the boat. The young crew nearly mutinied when we decided to head back without rowing ashore, so we went for a quick run up the beach and even spotted a pirate tractor!

Easter weekend was spent with Craig and Kirsten and some New York friends in their luxury “cottage” on Waiheke island, rowing unsteadily back to Beulah each night and returning in the morning for mimosas and gourmet breakfasts. Later in the year the Tall Ships descended upon Auckland on their way round the world, and we farewelled them in Beulah on their way out. There were four of us, three photographers and Ian, who manned the tiller and kept a beady-eyed lookout. The Tall Ships paraded along out of the Waitemata Harbour in fine style: full-rigged brigs, brigantines, tops’l schooners, plus a smattering of large ketches and yawls: a glorious sight. They were accompanied by a joyous and carefree bustle of assorted vessels, mostly under sail, with no intrusive police or coastguard presence—quite different from our America’s Cup spectator experience several years ago. And, talking of the America’s Cup—oh, let’s not talk about it. Tragedy in slow motion.

Ian’s sister Pippa and Brian’s wife Rosaleen arrived from the UK soon after we disembarked from our Great Barrier Island cruise, and the five of us set out for a mini-tour to Wellington. We came back through Martinborough, a tiny, charming, sleepy, world-class wine village, and since Pippa and Brian are experienced and knowledgeable winos—I mean oenophiles, of course—we had a great time tasting, and drinking too. Pam and Ian had to hurry home to get back to work, but the following weekend we met up with the others (who had spent the intervening days in Napier) at Pukehina, a tiny East coast village where we stayed in a friend’s gorgeous classic holiday villa, right on a deserted beach, miles and miles of it. Strolling on the sands Pippa bumped into a man with an Irish accent who turned out to be a friend who had played rugby with her husband in Northern Ireland 50 years ago!

Not long after the rellys (as we call them here) left, Ian played in Sunset Symphony, our orchestra’s annual spectacular outdoor concert, which rounds out the summer arts festival in Hamilton Gardens. Pam reluctantly gave it a miss because it conflicted with grandparent duties when Anna and Dan were away. We played music from Handel to Gershwin, Bizet to Bernstein, Sondheim to Strauss (both Strausses, in fact), culminating with the tempestuous Finale from Verdi’s Aida, with a huge choir and a big firework display. Again the weather smiled that evening, and according to some estimates the crowd was 15,000–18,000 strong, sitting on the grass, picnicking, sipping wine. In mid-year, just before we departed for the UK (see below) our orchestra put on a Bruch violin concerto and Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World. Then we played three short concerts to 1,000 schoolchildren before rounding off the year with Verdi’s magnificent Requiem, with another large choir. Ian describes himself as “not a Requiem kind of guy,” but Verdi’s is absolutely stunning and very moving to play. The next day he flew to India (see below). These days, overseas trips are arranged around the musical calendar.

Music is on the increase: it has occupied much of our time this year. Pam joined a recorder group of excellent players in Auckland. They play on many different instruments: soprano, alto, tenor, bass, great bass, and the massive contrabass, two metres tall. She often goes up to Auckland to play with them, and also hosted a meeting here at our house combined with Ad Hoc Baroque, her local group. An Ensemble Assembly. This year saw the NZ Recorder Society’s 60th anniversary; a wonderful weekend of recorder playing (including one or two founder members!), where Pam caught up with many old friends. Ian’s clarinet group continues to meet weekly in our house during term time; it’s usually a trio or quartet, but occasionally duet or quintet. He also spent a weekend in Auckland playing clarinet quintets and sextets. He participated in an intensive long-weekend workshop in Wellington on Mahler’s massive First Symphony, with a huge orchestra of local amateurs plus visitors from elsewhere in NZ. The slow movement is a funeral march based on the tune Frère Jacques, but in a minor key, and halfway through it sounds as though a raucous group of Jewish klezmer musicians strolls through the solemn funeral procession. Ian has also been entertaining at a tapas bar in Hamilton with a little trio—the vocalist is a school friend of Nikki’s! They play most Thursday evenings for martinis and tapas, and have done a few other gigs too, mostly for friends. And this year we hosted a house concert in our home, with a recorder player who invited Pam to join her for a couple of Telemann duet sonatas, and a pianist. A musical highlight was a Paul Simon concert, a little man with a huge voice and a fabulously versatile backing group, featuring much percussion. At one point eight people were playing percussion instruments at once! Another highlight of a very different sort was seeing England’s famous Tallis Scholars in Auckland on their 40th anniversary world tour.

We mentioned earlier that Pam is vice president of the local Zonta group, an international organization that works to advance the status of women. In April she organized a very successful launch of the Women’s Empowerment Principles in Hamilton. These are principles for business that offer guidance on how to empower women in the workplace and community. It’s an United Nations initiative, and Pam, in her role as Chair of the Hamilton Zonta Committee, worked not only with local organizations like the Waikato Chamber of Commerce but also with the national branch of UN Women New Zealand, centred in Wellington. She was invited to the 120th anniversary celebration of women’s suffrage, held in the parliament building. (NZ was the first country to give women the vote.) In May the local Zonta group hosted the Area Forum, attended by representatives from Rotorua, Tauranga and Thames, while later in the year she helped organize Waikato’s contribution to “Zonta says no,” a vigorous campaign comprising 16 days of activism against gender violence. This included an interview with Pam by the local paper.

Ian continues to work full time. Over and over again our retired friends (that’s almost all of you!) say they cannot imagine how they used to find time to do everything and fit work in as well. What is it with you guys—does retirement make you sluggish? If so, Ian is still in the fast lane, or perhaps his job is simply easier than yours was. This year he was the first recipient of Waikato University’s “Lifetime research achievement” award. This had a strange effect and caused much reflection. After all, what do you do the day after your life’s work is finished?—it doesn’t bear thinking about! So at last he’s announced his intention to go halftime, probably on a 3-year contract (still to be negotiated), starting in June 2014. And we’ll begin with a 3-month holiday wandering around the N Hemisphere. This year he entered the world of Massive Open Online Courses by putting on NZ’s first MOOC, Data Mining with Weka. We had 6,600 enrollees in September, only half of whom actually did any interaction with the course, and issued 1050 Certificates of Completion. That’s a good success rate in the world of MOOCs, and about as many people as Ian teaches in an average decade. We’re putting it on again in March, and you too can join (Google “WekaMOOC”). Currently he’s working on a follow-up, More Data Mining with Weka, and enjoying it very much.

We did a bit of travel this year, though less than usual. In mid-year we went to England, Wales, N Ireland, and California. We stayed with Pam’s brother Steve and wife Maggie in Bookham, Surrey, near where Pam grew up, recuperating from jetlag and enjoying English village life for a day or two. We took the train to Swansea to see old friends Prue and Harold Thimbleby. We walked with Prue along the Gower Peninsula and witnessed the dramatic helicopter rescue of a young climber who had fallen from a cliff. We popped in to Cardiff, where we spent a couple of weeks last year. We stayed with Pippa as usual on our annual weeklong pilgrimage to N Ireland, and visited Ian’s aging Mum. It was lovely to catch up with Nikki and John and see their fabulous new apartment. In California Ian attended a workshop at Stanford University, including an evening at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf to see the July 4th fireworks, while Pam stayed with old friends Peter and Margaret from Essex University in their country estate up the Sacramento Valley. Pam left for home two days before Ian, which turned out well for her because a flight from Seoul crashed on the runway just minutes before Ian boarded his plane, throwing the airport into chaos and delaying him for a messy, disorganized, and nerve-wracking 24 hours. Indeed, when he finally boarded his plane it was not known whether it was heading for Auckland, or Fiji, or Honolulu (he confirmed this by asking a cabin attendant when boarding)! How can this be?—well, it’s a long story, and not a very interesting one.

Our other international trip was to India and Sri Lanka. Ian was giving keynote talks at three different conferences; New Delhi one week, Colombo the next, and Bangalore the next. Having seen it himself on a previous visit, he insisted that Pam join him in Delhi for a one-day trip to the Taj Mahal. How many times in life can you say “meet me at the Taj Mahal,” referring to the real thing and not some scuzzy Indian restaurant? Pam spent two nights in India, and the intervening day comprised hours and hours on the bus and an afternoon at the Taj Mahal. It really is an amazing, ethereal building, and looks so light that it floats like a cloud in the sky. On the ground, however, the word was “crowd” not “cloud”: the part where you go inside to see the tomb was unpleasantly packed. But Pam agreed the trip was worth it, and Ian loved seeing it for the second time.

The Taj Mahal was a detour on the way to Sri Lanka, alias Ceylon, alias Serendip (from which the word “serendipity” is derived). We spent a few days travelling with an excellent chauffeur, from whom we learned a great deal about the country, its history, the 26-year civil war that ended 4 years ago (the Tamil Tigers invented the suicide bomb, remember?), and Buddhism. Sri Lanka is like India with some of the nasty bits taken out (the teeming crowds, and the bad toilets). And its history is replete with invasions and immigration from the north. The sea between India and Sri Lanka is very shallow, consisting of a series of shoals—there even used to be a land bridge, passable on foot up to the 15th century when storms deepened the channel. We visited an elephant orphanage where Pam fed an elephant, climbed up to the amazing rock fortress of Sigiriya, and strolled round the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa. We spent one night at an incredibly luxurious country hotel (Kandalama, highly recommended), and saw a wild elephant (Pam didn’t feed that one). We drove through the attractive hill country of Sri Lanka where the British grew tea, and still do; we visited tea plantations and tea factories and, of course, took tea.

Of all countries Sri Lanka claims to be the most strongly Buddhist, and we learned about Buddha’s visit there from his birthplace in Nepal, and the story of how his left canine tooth was later smuggled in, hidden in a princess’s hair, following his cremation in India. We visited the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka’s old capital, and learned about some of Buddha’s many incarnations. Did you know that Buddha will return, and return again, approximately every 5,000 years, each time undergoing a cycle of reincarnations? Indeed, Gauthama, the last Buddha, is the 29th in the series. This system seems more sustainable than Christianity, with just one divine appearance, possibly followed by a second and final coming sometime in the future.

Following this tour Ian had his conference and we stayed in a luxurious hotel by the sea, with its own private beach. One of the restaurants had a rowboat full of ice, on top of which was stacked a huge assortment of different fish (recently dead, of course). You chose your fish, decided how much you wanted, how it should be cooked, what sauces and vegetables should accompany it, and all was prepared to your specifications and served to your table—with a smile. Sri Lankans are very good at smiling. While Pam flew home from Colombo (via Singapore), Ian went to his third and final conference in Bangalore and returned home a few days later.

Pam spent a lot of time this year on houses. Nikki had a house in Hamilton that turned out to have been trashed by the tenant—we didn’t really know the meaning of the term until they moved out and we could inspect it properly. Pam arranged for a friend to renovate it from top to bottom, and ended up effectively managing the project on Nikki’s behalf. The transformation was long and drawn-out, but ultimately amazing, and the house sold very quickly. She had an interesting, and eventually successful, experience with the Tenancy Tribunal, dealing with this disastrous tenant. We also made some improvements to our own house, including new skylights and a complete interior re-paint, and also added an outside spa pool that Pam adores. This Christmas Anna and family stayed for a week—Dan had to return to Auckland on Boxing day for work—and we spent our time hopping between the swimming pool and the spa. It’s not just the Witten residence but the Witten resort now.

For Pam’s birthday we spent a week at Woodside House on Waiheke Island. It’s the first time we’ve been there by ourselves, and Anna, Dan and family came for a lovely long weekend. Dan taught Pam to surf-cast. She pulled in one fish and then caught a tree; that was the end of that. During the year we actually caught a few fish from Beulah too. At Waiheke we go olive oil tasting (yes!), visit the 1960s-hippie-style weekly market, eat and drink well, laze around in the pool and spa, and go for occasional walks and swims in the sea.

During the year Pam’s brother Graham and his partner Julie, who live in Auckland, went overseas for seven weeks, which meant that Pam had to drive up to Auckland every weekend to visit her mum. Luckily she was often able to combine this with recorder-playing sessions. Graham’s daughter Emily was married in November to the son of good friends who live down the road, and Steve, Maggie, and their daughter Lindsay came over from the UK for some riotous family times—the first time in nine years since all three Foden siblings had been together.

The year concluded on the best possible note: Anna and family joined us for Christmas festivities. It was a truly joy-filled time! There’s nothing like being awakened at 6 AM on Christmas morning by two excited young children, and being able to share the thrill of each and every gift that Santa had left. Graham, Julie, Julie’s mum, and Emily joined us for part of the day. We ate turkey in the garden and Ian popped champagne corks right across the swimming pool to loud cheers from Riley and Stella. Now it’s Dec 30th, Anna and kids returned home this morning, and tomorrow we plan to sail to Waiheke to celebrate the New Year with Kirsten and Craig. Next year Nikki will get married, Ian will begin a long process that leads to eventual retirement, and we hope to spend mid-June through mid-September in the N Hemisphere summer. Meanwhile, may peace be with you, and best wishes for 2014.

Pam and Ian