Witten’s Christmas Letter for 2014

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
+64 7 829-5887
December 31, 2014 – January 13, 2015

Dear friends,

This year’s highlight was Nikki and John’s wedding in Matangi on 21 Feb, a beautiful summer’s day. Other notable events include Ian’s partial retirement, an extended N Hemisphere summer holiday (we had two summers this year), plus other holidays including a cycle trail in NZ and an elephant ride in Jaipur. Nikki and John moved to California. Anna and Dan and their kids Riley and Stella remain in Auckland and we see quite a lot of them, which is lovely. We’re both in good health, and so are our mothers (considering that they’re 95 and 99); but there have been intimations of mortality among some of our friends. We’re still playing music in various groups; Pam’s still involved with Zonta; and Ian has taken up watercolours to while away those long idle hours of retirement (yeah, right). And – glad you asked! – Beulah is well; very well, in fact.

We spent New Year’s Eve with our New York friends Craig and Kirsten in their holiday home on Waiheke Island, along with Craig’s entire family and numerous others. Kirsten came up with some novel games: for example, we all wrote New Year’s resolutions on scraps of paper and picked them out of a hat, leading to much hilarity guessing who had written them and who’s bad habit they intended to rectify! Of course, we had come by sea, in Beulah, and on New Year’s Day Ian took Craig’s sister and family from England for a little sail around before the two of us headed off. We anchored that night in Home Bay, Mototapu, and watched the sunset (“took 3 million photos,” records the ship’s log), before heading up on a little cruise to Kawau Island for a few days. We walked, swam, saw wekas and heard peacocks, and, by chance, met one of Beulah’s previous owners.

Nikki and John’s were married in a country park just minutes from our house. The ceremony took place outside, by a small lake, in glorious sunshine; we both walked her “down the aisle,” through the woods. The venue has various garden areas and little forest paths, with many quirky features including a long-defunct railway siding, a small on-site brewery that proved a popular spot for cooling off, and an excellent restaurant/café that took care of all the catering. Nikki arranged almost everything from N Ireland – very different from Anna’s remote beach wedding a few years earlier, where the parents organized every little detail. The previous August Nikki and Pam had found a lovely dress on a shopping trip in Ireland, in a small village near Ian’s mother’s home.

Ian’s sister Pippa and brother Brian, with his wife Ros, came for the wedding and stayed with us for about a week; Pam’s brother Graham and Julie came from Auckland; Kirsten came from New York. And there was the invasion of the Irish! An astonishing number of Nikki and John’s friends flew out from Belfast for the occasion. Although they didn’t stay with us – John’s family had a spare house that served as a bunkroom – they spent much time here, swimming and barbequing. The Irish were a large and noisy presence at the wedding itself, which was full of laughter – neither of us can remember an occasion where there was so much laughing. As the evening progressed they donned surprise T-shirts brought from Ireland: Nikki and John Northern Ireland Supporters’ Club On Tour, with a loving photo on the front and one “with attitude” on the back.

The only snag with the venue was a midnight curfew, so we rented a room above a bar downtown and a bus for the revelers. We didn’t go. Anna and Dan returned around 4 AM, but apparently they were early leavers! We heard that whereas the Kiwis flaked out early on, the Irish were dancing energetically until all hours, and on being ejected at closing time the party continued at John’s family’s house, finally ending with take-out pizza around 8:30 AM. The next day, when John and Nikki returned from their honeymoon night in a hotel, he had to sooth the neighbours, which everyone took to be the sign of a great party.

Earlier letters have mentioned our orchestra’s spectacular outdoor Sunset Symphony concert, which rounds out the summer arts festival in Hamilton Gardens. This year it was immediately after the wedding, but we had nevertheless decided to play – Ian on clarinet and Pam on percussion. So: wedding Friday; rehearsals Saturday; concert Sunday. Despite this insane schedule everything went well. We also played in the June concert, which featured a stunning young local clarinet soloist playing Weber’s 2nd concerto; and early the following morning we flew out on our 3-month trip. Upon landing back in NZ we immediately commenced an intensive rehearsal schedule for the next concert, which celebrated Hamilton’s 150th birthday, along with a large local choir. Fitting musical events in with our travel schedule has been challenging!

At Easter we cycled the 4-day Otago Rail Trail in the S Island with Anna and long-term friends Tim and Judith and son Andrew. Ian cycles to work every day, and Pam joined him as training; we also cycled the more recent (and not nearly as good) Hauraki Rail Trail close to home in three separate 1-day stages. We flew to Christchurch and met Anna in the airport. The next day, Good Friday, Tim and Judith were arranging the music for a meet-up of 7 churches, so we all spent the morning there. One pastor said that the Resurrection wasn’t the only miracle to be celebrated: another was that he would preach for only 5 minutes because that was all he’d been allotted. He told us he came from a Māori family that spent Friday and Saturday nights drinking and fighting, before going to church on Sunday. He saw the light one Sunday afternoon: the family were arguing as usual at his home when the Holy Spirit visited to tell him that there was Another Way. “And that, my friends, was my first experience of a home invasion!”

That afternoon we set off for Alexandra, near the beginning of the trail, stopping to see Anna’s good friend Louisa in Twizel. Incidentally, Anna’s kids call Pam “Za,” a diminutive of “Louisa,” because Pam visited them in Brisbane long ago, shortly after Louisa. Young Riley overgeneralized, and miraculously the name stuck. Next day we drove to nearby Clyde, mounted our bikes, and began the journey with a gorgeous cycle path beside the Clutha river. While the rest of the country experienced dismal storms, a little bubble of calm, warm, sunny weather followed us all along the trail. The trees were turning colour: it looked and smelled like Alberta in the fall. Aaahh! We had lunch near where the annual Easter Bunny hunt was being adjudicated. Teams are given an area and 24 hours to bag as many bunnies as possible; they bring them to the park to lay out in clusters of 5. Apparently this year’s haul was disappointing: a mere 9,743 bunnies (the winning team scored 894). We didn’t stay long because the corpses were beginning to reek.

Judith drove the support vehicle (aka The Ambulance) most of the time, meeting us at pre-arranged pubs or cafés en route. We continued through the barren countryside and along a charming creek, defined by snaking yellow willows. In fading light we cycled to Ophir, trying to recollect snippets of Masefield’s poem Cargoes (“Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir ...”), and sought out the widely renowned Omakau pie shop for excellent venison and mushroom pies.

The real challenge of this trail is not cycling but digesting all the food involved. All along the way we found unfailingly excellent coffee; a great variety of food, delicious and beautifully presented; calm and friendly staff despite a continuous stream of customers; well-maintained loos. At one point we bought homemade cookies at a miniature trailside stall with an honesty box. On reaching the end our dinner was accompanied by the local I survived the Rail Trail Pinot Noir. Everywhere we stopped had enough parked bikes to accommodate the Tour de France, but the actual trail wasn’t the least bit crowded. All the “Rail Trailers” we encountered were friendly and encouraging. Ian was by no means the oldest; the youngest was 6 and independently riding his own bike.

Mountain ranges line much of the second day’s route. The Poolburn Gorge has dramatic scenery, two tunnels to ride through and a viaduct to cross, before opening into a fertile valley. Lunch sustained us for a continuous steady climb to the trail’s highest point, where a sign says it’s all downhill from here. Yeah, right!

We stayed for two nights at historic Gladbrook Station. What a treat! Owned by the eccentric 60-something Elizabeth, this homestead was built by her great-grandfather over 100 years ago and has been in the family ever since, though she has reduced the land to a mere 500 acres (“I was finding more land too hard to manage”). The house is all rimu and kauri, walls lined with portraits of fierce-looking forebears, a deer’s head in the vestibule whose antlers are casually adorned with a riding crop and stirrups, and a bell in every bedroom to summon the maid. Brilliant breakfasts set us up for the road ahead: lucky it was all downhill!

Afterwards we spent a few days in Christchurch, our first visit since the devastating earthquakes of 2011. It was sad, and moving. Downtown has been completely destroyed, affording lovely views of the Port Hills from anywhere in the city. An open-air installation contains 185 empty white chairs, all different, commemorating each individual victim of the quake. But out of the tragedy has emerged a funky, quirky ethos. A simple open-air wooden dance floor, surrounded by car-park wasteland (lots of those), sports bright lights and a launderette washing machine, modified to connect your own MP4 player to an amplifier. For a $2 coin you can dance, and are urged to encourage passers-by to join in. We did, and they did. NZ is littered with “convenience stores”: well, in Christchurch there’s an “inconvenience store” – an art space that deconstructs the notion of convenience in consumption. Every week someone new totally transforms and runs the store according to their interpretation of the name. The Re:Start container mall is an outdoor retail area comprising temporary buildings made from shipping containers: you have no idea how attractive a container can be! We went to both a jazz concert and a church service in the Cardboard Cathedral, which does not in fact disintegrate when it rains.

Pages are passing ... so let’s move ahead to our 3-month summer holiday. Ian retired at the end of May and started a new job at the beginning of June, the same as the old one but halftime; in between he had a weekend off. This new position allows him to take a long holiday in the middle of the year and work 3⅓ days/week for the remaining 9 months (do the math).

We departed mid-June for Belfast, and upon arrival almost immediately set sail with Ian’s school friend and long-ago sailing buddy Greg and his wife Carol in their yacht Clodagh, heading for the west coast of Scotland. After three leisurely days we sailed up the Mull of Kintyre, Ian playing Paul’s song on his clarinet, to arrive at the tiny island of Gigha (pop. 160), picking up a mooring in the bay for the night. Having explored the rambling, decaying, Achamore Gardens, we popped over to Islay (pop. 8 distilleries, down from 23 150 years ago) and anchored at the remote Ardmore islands, where we saw wild deer on land and countless seals on the rocks. We sailed north to check out the Bunnahabhain distillery. Unlike other distilleries they do things the old way, with huge, ancient, vats (“no computers here, laddie”). We anchored in West Loch Tarbert on the island of Jura (not to be confused with the other West Loch Tarbert not on Jura). This is a lovely secluded bay at the head of a long and beautiful loch, with nothing on shore but midges and a wee croft that serves as a hut for hikers and canoeists. This island is famous for the “paps of Jura”, three (three??!!) prominent steep hills.

We spent 2½ weeks at sea and had a truly great time. Two couples who hardly know each other, except that the guys were great friends 50 years ago, cooped up in a tiny confined space for more than 2 weeks, sounds like a recipe for disaster – the plot-line for a tragicomedy. But we got on famously, and no one had to take the get-out-of-jail option and hole up in a hotel for a night or two. We sometimes stayed in a marina, with hot showers and restaurant meals; sometimes on mooring buoys (safe and secure); and sometimes in remote anchorages with a couple of other boats.

The furthest north we ventured was Tobermory, a picturesque little village on the island of Mull. In fact, when we spent a summer in Stirling back in 1985 we took a ferry there from Oban, on the mainland, which at the time was full of fishing boats – today there are a mere half dozen. Tobermory has a thriving tourist trade with interesting, artistic, gift shops and no trash at all. We walked to a lighthouse for a view of Ardnamurchan Point, a great headland that intrepid yachtsmen round when cruising to the outer Hebrides, but we had resolved not to attempt this voyage. There we had an impressive glimpse of a couple of sea eagles, the UK’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan of up to 2½ metres, soaring high above us.

The nadir of our cruise, weather wise, was the trip from Loch Tarbert to Oban. It rained relentlessly all day, ceasing only when we finally arrived at our destination. In Oban we bought a painting that’s completely black on the top 90%, with a wee white cottage at the bottom: reminiscent of that gloomy day. The rest of the time we enjoyed great weather, with no storms but generally little wind, which meant we mostly traveled by motor rather than under sail.

So many highpoints. One was whizzing through the tiny Cuan Sound near the infamous Gulf of Corrievrechan, where tidal currents reach 7 knots. We swept along, frantically trying to keep pace on the chart with what was happening in real life. Another was Tigh an Truish – the House of Trousers – where returning Scots changed back into kilts from the hated trousers that the English made them wear. Beside this was a tiny pub (staffed by a NZ girl who lives down the road from us!) and the “bridge over the Atlantic,” which we walked across. A third, and the weirdest, was at Loch Melfort, where we awoke to find Clodagh surrounded by a pulsating gooey mass of pink jellyfish that stretched almost to the shore. We took the dinghy for a photo-op; it was like rowing through porridge. A fourth was the Crinan Canal, cutting across the base of the huge Mull of Kintyre peninsula. We spent a couple of days travelling along it in Clodagh, through the fields, with the odd car passing by – surreal! We operated the 15 locks ourselves, hard work. A fifth was the Isle of Arran, nestled in the Firth of Clyde: we hadn’t realized it was huge, mountainous, and very interesting. We spent a lovely day in the holiday cottage of Greg and Carol’s friends from N Ireland, meeting others who had many mutual connections with Ian from schooldays.

Our holiday was 3 months. One in Belfast, sailing to Scotland, and staying with Pippa. Of course, we saw a lot of Nikki and John too – when Nikki wasn’t training for the Dublin half-marathon. The next month was in Italy. We flew to Florence and stayed for a fabulous weekend with Marco and Cecilia in Santonuovo, near Pistoia, in the bosom of an extended Italian family. On Saturday we visited Marco’s mum’s place nearby, with the whole family plus a few friends, for a lunch that extends from noon until late afternoon. Course after course of fabulous Tuscan food, wine, and lively Italian conversation, some of which is clear from the context and some is translated for us, and a great deal of laughter. Saturday evening we relaxed in the garden, with many requests for clarinet and recorder tunes. The next day the whole thing was repeated with Cecilia’s mum, sister, and family: another fabulous extended lunchtime meal, followed by a quiet evening outside.

On to Siena. This has become almost a second home, due to Marco and Cecilia’s great hospitality: we stay in their aerie hilltop apartment in Castelvecchio, the very centre. It’s a treat to be immersed in such an ancient city, and we feel comfortable there, immediately lapsing into old habits (coffee and negronis) in familiar haunts (a balcony above the Piazza del Campo and a student dive respectively), as well as exploring neighbouring villages and pathways by bus and on foot. Pam has always found Siena a photographer’s treat and this time Ian took to the architecture with pen and ink. We avoided the Palio season but not a Witten invasion! – Brian and Ros brought Michael across for a few days of gastronomic heaven (spleen on toast, anyone?).

We’ve never been to Trento before and were happy to visit Vivi, a friend from our Heidelberg days. We travelled by train with Eddy, and they spent a day showing us around this interesting city before we hired a car and drove with Eddy to his family home in Cavalese, a quaint village close to the Dolomites. “Home” is a large pensione that in days gone by offered fully catered one- and two-month family holidays. But fashions have changed, and it’s now closed. His aunt and uncle still live there, on the top floor, and we virtually had the place to ourselves: 18 bedrooms and 12 bathrooms! Marco and Cecilia joined us for a few days of exploring the local countryside and hiking in the stunning Dolomites, and we were also taken on a fascinating and very personal tour of Eddy’s childhood haunts.

Our final Italian destination was Verona, city of balconies, where we spent 3 nights in a luxurious hotel. Juliet’s balcony is impossible to avoid, but there is more interesting architecture to be seen, drawn and photographed, including a Roman amphitheatre. We visited during the opera season: we didn’t make any performances (next time!), but watched, fascinated, as the stage was set up for Turandot, using a huge crane to lift massive pieces of set from where they were stored in a piazza into the amphitheatre and place them with surgical precision.

The third month we spent in N America. We flew from Verona (Italian) to Frankfurt (German) to Montreal (French) to Calgary (English); a 4-language 24-hour journey. We love being back in Calgary, visiting old haunts and seeing family friends. Fran and Doug made us most welcome in their basement suite, lent us a car, and spoilt us with waffles and raspberries for breakfast. We were only in town briefly, so we arranged for everyone who could to join us in a Greek restaurant. Unbeknownst to her, Ian had let on that it happened to be Pam’s birthday, so she was amazed to be greeted with cards, gifts and birthday cake.

From Calgary we went to Lethbridge to stay with Joan and Wolf. They took us to Radium Hot Springs in BC with Joan’s cousin for a few days of exciting and adventurous hikes up to lakes and even glaciers in the Bugaboos by day, followed by martinis and recorder quartets in the evening. We returned to Lethbridge for more hikes by day and music by night. We visited Glacier Park in the US and Waterton Park in Canada, and did several hikes – some of them adventurous in the extreme (maybe even reckless) – followed by duets and trios in pretty well all possible combinations of recorders, harp, clarinet, and piano.

Then we went to stay with Saul and Judy in Canmore. We travelled by Greyhound bus, tripling the average age of passengers. Following a gruesome beheading in the back of a bus in 2008 (really), Greyhound has instituted laughable security procedures involving a rickety trestle table and a cursory inspection of one or two bags – do people really find comfort in such meaningless gestures? Anyway, we love Saul and Judy’s place, which is situated right in the mountains – indeed, they led Ian on a hike to a glacier that began just a few kilometers from home. Pam has been having some trouble walking (more about that in next year’s letter, probably), so we all took the ski lift to Sunshine Meadows, way up in the Rockies, where Saul, Judy and Ian hiked a high mountain pass into BC and back while Pam sat in the lodge and read about bears and wolves.

We finished up in New York, staying with Craig and Kirsten in their award-winning penthouse apartment. Ian took the slide down to breakfast each day. We went to a Broadway show – Matilda: The Musical, based on Roald Dahl’s story about an extraordinary, precocious girl who, with her teacher’s help, escapes from a ludicrously dysfunctional family. We all drove to Warrensburg in upstate New York where Pam bought a lovely tenor recorder from Courtly Music, who stock everything for the recorder enthusiast. We checked out the World Trade Center Memorial, a moving negative-space sculpture on a vast scale, and the Museum, with a gruesomely detailed account of the events of September 11, 2001. We walked in Central Park, always an interesting experience. New York is fun!

And then: home, arriving mid-September and back into the old routine. A 3-month holiday with no work at all, staying with friends all the time (except for 3 nights in a Verona hotel). It was wonderful. But it turns out that three months is not long enough …

… and so we had more adventures later in the year. Ian’s retirement present was a trip for two to Whakaari/White Island, the world’s only privately owned island volcano, a couple of hours from land by fast boat. It’s extremely active: steaming fumaroles, boiling mud, an acidic lake that is many times stronger than car battery acid, many recent eruptions. You wear gas masks and hard hats, and are instructed on what to do in the event of an eruption (“if there are any survivors, meet for lunch at the boat”). A phenomenally interesting experience; what a great gift. We carried on around the East Cape, and climbed up to the lighthouse there. This is a truly remote part of NZ where shoeless children ride ponies bareback. We were surprised to spy Hikurangi, a dramatic volcanic dome whose summit is the first land to greet the sun each day, and drove on to Gisborne, where Young Nick’s Head was the first part of NZ sighted by Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769, named after a press-ganged cabin boy.

… and even more: we visited Jaipur in India for a week in mid December. Ian was giving talks at a workshop in Delhi, so we took the opportunity for a quick trip to the “pink city,” painted pink – the colour of hospitality – in 1876 to welcome Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. It’s a beautiful city in Rajasthan, a desert province. We saw camels pulling carts agonizingly slowly along the busy roads. We rode on an elephant up the hill to the Amer Fort; very bouncy it is too. Perhaps the most amazing sight was Jantar Mantar, an observatory established in 1728, with a surreal collection of huge, bizarre, outdoor sculptures – one of which is a mammoth sundial that tells the local time to the nearest 2 seconds! We visited a nearby park and saw tigers in the wild: a mother and two cubs playing in the distant grass. We also saw two rare Bhalu bears (the model for Baloo in Kipling’s Jungle Book).

Now for some family news. Both our mums are still around: Pam’s turned 95 in March, and Ian’s turned 99 in September. Might be a party later this year! We’ve had lots of great times with Anna’s family. She often brings her kids here for a weekend, and sometimes she leaves them here. We’ve all been to Woodside House on Waiheke Island for long weekends, centred mostly round the spa pool and swimming pool. Dan’s dad shares with them his fishing obsession: Riley and Stella bagged #1 and #2 biggest kid’s fish ever in a Northland competition! Riley competed successfully in the local Trolley Derby in a vehicle that Dan designed and constructed for him. And in one year Anna has completed two years of a course on interior design, while also working part-time in a specialist furnishings store while Pam babysat. She’s busy!

Nikki, meanwhile, has finally moved to California so that John can take up his job with Apple. In fact, he’s been working for them all year, but only obtained his visa in October. They’ve just moved into an apartment in Sunnyvale, in Silicon Valley. It’s a big change for them because they had a frenetic social life in Belfast and know virtually no one in California. However, Nikki has started to make new friends. She has already signed up for two volunteer jobs, and is joining running and reading groups, so her life is becoming busy again.

On a sad note, early in the year a long-standing family friend and colleague failed to recover from major surgery. Pam’s brother Steve had a surprise heart attack, which threw us all for a loop, but appears to be making a good recovery. And Beulah spent two months in hospital having her deck completely replaced.

The year concluded with a family Christmas at Graham and Julie’s place in Auckland, along with Anna and Dan, Stella and Riley, and the mums. Four generations, aged 4 to 95 years. We were staying in Anna and Dan’s caravan – their house is too tiny for visitors, but they have a vintage caravan in the garden – so we woke to all the joys of two excited little kids. Then, to round out the year, we went for a little sail in Beulah for a few days. In fact, the excellent weather is the reason for this Christmas letter being so late: Ian has spent most of the holiday season at sea and is only just getting his land legs. And so to next year, with another 3-month N Hemisphere holiday planned. Our idea is to double the number of summers!

Meanwhile, may peace be with you in this restless world, and best wishes for 2015.

Pam and Ian