Witten's Christmas Letter for 2016

626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
+64 7 829-5887
December 30, 2016

Dear friends,

Another year of travel and adventures, and music, and sailing, and children and grandkids, and some (but very little) quiet time at home. We travelled in USA, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, UK, China, Bhutan, India; including a memorable N Ireland family wedding. Nikki and John still live in California, and early in the year Anna moved from Auckland up north to Whangarei, where she's living with her kids Riley and Stella. We're all well—very well, in fact. But Ian's mum passed away peacefully in December at the age of 101, and three dear friends have gone too. Time takes its toll.

Let's begin with travel, because it really has been an amazing year. [Below are a few haiku that we wrote together. Some you might understand. Others you might get after reading this letter. Still others … well, you really had to be there. And, if you're interested, there are drawings and watercolours here.] Our annual 3-month N Hemisphere jaunt began with two weeks with Nikki and John in Sunnyvale, between San Francisco and San Jose. Staying with them and two energetic kittens Bumblebee and Megatron (remember Transformers?) in their tiny one bedroom flat was nice, if a little squishy. The lowlight was watching the Brexit disaster unfold on TV. The highlight was a three-day trip to Yosemite National Park, our first visit there—and we loved it. The scenery is spectacular and the dappled, resin-scented forest trails made for delightful walking. While Pam (with new hips) wasn't up for strenuous exercise, she cheerfully hiked a couple of moderate trails while Ian and Nikki did a full-day grunty one. We're happy to report that Pam's bionic hips worked brilliantly, dispelling those “old age blues”! We looked for climbers on El Capitan, a multi-day epic rock face, but a ranger told us they were hiding from the heat in crevices. Like many animals, El Cap summer climbers are crepuscular, preferring dawn and dusk hours. We were not tempted. We also went with Nikki to Big Basin, California's oldest state park, and had a city adventure in San Francisco, including a visit to the Museum of Modern Art and a ferry ride to Sausalito. Once again Ian was barred from entering a cocktail bar on account of wearing sandals.

Off to Manhattan for a lovely, hectic, week with long-standing friends Kirsten and Craig, whose other houseguests included another of Ian's NZ ex-students and his son. They brought in a cook, waiters—even a wine waiter who stood at your elbow and implored you to desire yet another martini—for an unforgettable al fresco gourmet dinner party on the rooftop patio. We spent a few nights with them in upstate New York, and returned to the city for the Independence Day fireworks, which we watched, between skyscrapers, from their rooftop.

Next stop was the Languedoc region of France. We were on the trail of the Cathars, a sect, led principally by women, that flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries and was deemed heretical by the Church of Rome and eliminated in the Albigensian crusades. The crusades were effective in erasing all traces: nowhere we visited (Toulouse, Carcassonne, Conques, Cordes, Albi) displayed any information about Cathars.

We loved exploring this picturesque and historic area. Toulouse's downtown pedestrian area was much nicer than we expected. Our Airbnb was right in the centre, down a secure alley—compact, great location, and quiet, even after Les Bleus won the World Cup semi-final. We hired a car and drove to Carcassonne, a medieval fortress with dozens (53, in fact) of towers and barbicans to stave off attacks by siege engines.

Then to Albi for a few days. The cathedral is an architectural contradiction. From the outside it's a squat, solid, brick fortress, designed to intimidate the few remaining Cathars of the time, yet inside are towering gothic arches, a beautifully patterned blue ceiling and delicate filigree wood carvings. We had a spin down memory lane to Pampelonne, where Pam's brother used to run the pub, and on to Conques, a medieval village on the Santiago de Compostella route, perched precariously above a tree-covered ravine: lovely stone houses with round-edged slate roof tiles. Passing through one small town we happened across a travelling circus, with live animals, a sad, saggy-humped camel and a cage labelled tiger. Didn't know these things still existed in civilised countries.

We enjoyed the food (duck and more duck, and cassoulet), wine (Gaillac), and cider. Just down our street in Albi was a lovely little crêperie, which we visited one day for dinner and the next (to their surprise) for dessert. On Bastille Day we spent a lovely calm evening by the river Tarn watching spectacular fireworks and surrounded by a celebratory crowd of thousands of families. The news from Nice the next morning of the carnage that night made us heartsick.

The next day we boarded the slow train through the Pyrenees to Barcelona (the route is not obvious). Never before had we been to Spain, and we greatly enjoyed the friendly, welcoming and tolerant people we met and the eclectic and diverse mix of cultures—not to mention the food and wine. Our hearts were warmed by a huge banner over the City Hall that proudly proclaimed Refugees Welcome. The standout highlight was Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral. Bizarre and unearthly from the outside, the interior is full of light, colour, grace and space, with an unexpectedly calm atmosphere after the tumultuous exterior. Simply breath-taking. We'll be back when it's finished (2026?).

Next, Italy. After a couple of days in Verona (a favourite) we took a train to a little village high in the Dolomites and began a multi-day bicycling adventure in Sud Tyrol, following the Alte Adige river valley from close to its source down to Trento, through interesting mountainous territory. An easy (though opinions differ) 45–85 km/day downhill all the way (yeah, right) on excellent (mostly, but the exceptions were abysmal) paved cycle trails through orchards that intoxicated us with the cidery aroma of ripening apples and vineyards where Gewürztraminer originates, powered all the way by decadent Eiskaffee mit Sahne. The region was given to Italy after WW2 but remains steadfastly Tyrolean in language and culture, food and drink, wine and coffee. It was extraordinary to find ourselves speaking German and eating dumplings in Italy, and we oscillated indiscriminately between si and ja, danke and grazie/gracias, a Spanish hangover.

In Bolzano we visited Ötzi the iceman for a fascinating glimpse into a life lived 5,300 years ago. Viewing his preserved body felt voyeuristic, but the reconstruction brought the man vividly to life and we were impressed by the workmanship of his tools and clothes. No copper-age ruffian this, though why he was murdered will forever remain a mystery.

After the cycling ended and our bottoms had revived we spent a lovely few days with friends, first in a small town deep in a valley in the Dolomite foothills, where the local coffee speciality, caffè corretto, is “corrected” with a generous slug of grappa, and also where we first encountered the aperitif that was to see us through the Italian summer, Hugo spritz (elderflower syrup, mint, prosecco and soda). Then with Marco and Cecilia and family in Santonuovo (outside Pistoia, near Florence), where we enjoyed enormous, lazy, prolonged Italian family meals, and much laughter and music.

Next to Siena, borrowing Marco's bijou apartment in Castelvecchio, the oldest and highest point in the city. We had views of the magnificent Duomo over terracotta-tiled roofs, and, craning our necks, we could spy the tower of the Palazzo Publico on the Piazza del' Campo. We unpacked our suitcases for the first time since leaving home. That felt good.

We have visited Siena often in recent years, usually for a month or two, and it has often been described in previous Christmas letters. We attended the August Palio: saw one or two practice races live, then watched the stately medieval procession as it set off from the Piazza del Duomo on its way to the Campo, and finally saw the real thing on TV in a lively bar that hushed to total silence during the 80 second epic race. (Lupa won, to tears of joy and disbelief—they had also won the July Palio, which is unprecedented.) Compared to joining the overheated scrum of 60,000 in the Campo for a few hours, this gave us the best of all worlds: some live horse action, an extended close-up of the procession, and a great view of the race itself amid contradaioli both excited and devastated. We (accidentally) attended the blessing of the palio (which is actually a banner) in the Duomo, with ten contradas waving flags competitively and beating drums loudly, a truly unholy racket. In Siena we also heard some more civilized music: a contrabasso concert with ten double basses all playing together; the Italian Youth Orchestra; and a busking quartet with bassoon, oboe, violin and viola.

We had the usual bus-trip adventures into the countryside, occasionally strolling through idyllic Tuscan countryside from one picture-perfect village to another: San Quirico d'Orcia, Pienza, Montepulciano, Colle di Val d'Elsa—we're name-dropping here, but the names roll off the tongue, redolent with Tuscan delights. We hit upon Montalcino, the last outpost of the Sienese empire to fall to the Florentines, on the very day of the annual archery contest between the four contradas, which takes place under the walls of the Fortezza and is conducted in medieval dress, accompanied by lords and ladies of each contrada; and enjoyed yet another medieval procession (yawn).

Occasionally we hired a car for a day to visit places beyond the reach of public transport. For example, Chiusdino is a hill-top village with the windiest, steepest cobbled streets ever—a sort of three-dimensional medieval maze—so narrow that you can stand hands-on-hips in the middle of the street and touch buildings on either side with your elbows. Here in the 12th century was born San Galgano, a ruthless warmonger who was visited by a vision of Archangel Michael entreating him to change his ways. He responded that this would be as easy for him as it would be to stick his sword into this here rock, which he struck. Guess what?—his sword went right in and remains to this very day. Thunderstruck, he embarked on a life of good deeds. We saw said sword in a nearby church, but our ambitions to emulate King Arthur were thwarted by a Perspex cover and CCTV.

For the first time we went to Assisi, another walled, hilltop city that would be lovely were it not for the bustling throng of tourists. We learned about St Francis, who as a young soldier returned, crestfallen, from a war with Perugia and vowed to adopt a new life as a pilgrim of peace; and admired medieval frescoes in St Francis's Basilica. Luckily we missed the devastating earthquake that struck nearby a few weeks later.

Onward. We bussed to Rome and flew to Budapest. What a difference! From carpaccio and rucola with Chianti to goulash and dumplings with beer. From Roman and medieval origins to the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg empire. From suave Italian civilization to (unfortunately) English youfs, bent on getting drunk as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Hungarian food includes innumerable varieties of sausage with varying degrees of spice, potato, onion, cabbage and paprika. There's always a bowl of pepper sauce on the table. Sweet cottage cheese and poppy seeds feature in the delicious desserts, topped off with the local alcoholic speciality, barack palinka (apricot brandy). Very different from the light Mediterranean diet we enjoyed in Tuscany. One of our favourite movies, Gloomy Sunday, is set in Budapest. We searched the Jewish quarter for Lazlo's restaurant, in vain, but discovered a delightful outdoor eatery, complete with pianist, that served excellent food and wine.

The comparison with Italians' diet, body shape, general demeanour, and dress sense is striking. But then, Italy was never under Soviet control. Quite by chance we were there for the National St Stephen's Day holiday, which we spent by the castle sampling local food from an eclectic collection of stalls and admiring the handicrafts on display. Entry to the magnificent neo-gothic Parliament building, one of the world's largest, was free that day, and our hour's wait queuing in the sun was worth it. It is gorgeously decorated to impress, with St Stephen's crown, 1016 years old, the centrepiece. The day ended with a stunning panoramic firework display along the Danube that outshone both July 4th in New York and July 14th in Albi. Earlier, strolling along the Danube, we encountered a moving Jewish memorial comprising scores of diverse pairs of well-worn sculpted shoes—men's, women's, and children's—commemorating where members of the large Jewish community had been ordered in 1944/45 to remove their shoes before being shot, their bodies carried away downstream.

Historically Budapest is interesting, and confusing. As a result of numerous destructive invasions the oldest buildings date from the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Soviet-style buildings filling the WW2 gaps. A guided walking tour taught us a lot about the history and way of life, including the fact that Hungary has distinguished itself throughout the ages by repeatedly allying itself with the losing side. Here we had the first day of rain since we left home. Our Airbnb studio apartment was perfectly located in a quiet street close to the city centre, and we walked, in pouring rain, to the covered market. Unfortunately all the other tourists in Budapest had the same idea!

The next stop was to visit friends in Seville. Of course, Seville in August is insane, but our friends had a nice big cool house out of town, with a swimming pool. But their car broke down at a wedding in England; parts had to be shipped from goodness knows where (right-hand drive car in left-hand drive country); they missed their ferry booking; and because they were towing a caravan the next available slot was in October! Woe! But Airbnb came to the rescue, with a little apartment in the centre.

We had a blast. (The blast was mostly the air-conditioning, as we cowered in our rooms during melting 40C afternoons.) Do you know about tinto de verano? Popular with the locals (and us!), it's a highball of red wine topped up with Sprite, lots of ice and a slice of lemon. A refreshing pick-me-up on a hot day—more so than sangria. We drank it like pop. And the food is legendary. We particularly liked white gazpacho, dominated by garlic and almonds.

Seville is amazing. In 712 the Muslims moved in, and were ousted by the Christians in 1248. The result is a fantastic mixture of Moorish and Gothic architecture. For example, La Giralda tower was originally built as part of a mosque, and inside is a series of ramps designed to allow elderly Muezzins to ascend on donkeys five times a day to call the faithful to prayer. Today it is topped by a large Gothic belfry (20 bells), a cathedral has replaced the mosque, and tourists have replaced the donkeys. We visited the administrative centre of the Spanish Inquisition, and learned dreadful things.

Moving on to England, we spent a few days with Pam's brother Steve and family in and around Great Bookham. Then to N Ireland, where the highlight was Ian's niece Alex's fairytale wedding. Bob is a yacht chandler—good to have one in the family. The day was lovely, and a lovely, lively family reunion.

Not so lovely was the fact that a few days before we arrived, Ian's mum had fallen in the night and broken her arm. She was in hospital, confused, bewildered, and deeply unhappy. She couldn't attend the wedding service, and her 101st birthday was a complete non-event. After we left she moved to a very nice rest home, but remained unhappy. When after a couple of months it finally became clear to her that she would never be able to return home and resume living by herself, she gave up and died, peacefully. I suspect she really did lay herself down with a will, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in her favourite poem Requiem:

    Glad did I live and gladly die,
    And I laid me down with a will.

Returning to our trip, the next leg began the journey home. Our planned 3-day stay in Shanghai was truncated because Lufthansa treated us to a night in Eschborn, near Frankfurt—which was actually very nice. Then: home at last.

But wait—there's more. Just a few weeks later we set off on our next adventure, ten days in Bhutan. You can't just go there, you need to get someone to arrange your trip, including visa, accommodation and transport. The Bhutanese government insists on a minimum daily spend to prevent people from travelling “on the cheap” (sensible, in our view), and this is how they enforce it.

Pam and I had a car, guide, driver, and two nights in each of five places. Life was complicated by the fact that we were travelling via Kolkata, and the Indian High Commission in Wellington stuffed up our visas, with no time left to change them. The upshot was that we arrived in Bhutan with Indian visas that expired just before we returned (and the Indians are strict). So the first thing we had to do was apply for new visas at the High Commission in Thimpu, the capital. After a thrilling flight into Paro, Bhutan's only international airport, on Druk, their major airline, our guide met us and took us to the Indian High Commission, which was a far better experience than in NZ.

Before this trip we knew little about Bhutan. It borders the Himalayas, with Tibet to the north, across the divide. India lies on its southern, western, and eastern borders. Nepal is not far away to the west, Bangladesh to the south, and Myanmar to the east, but bits of India separate Bhutan from each. The country is small, poor, and very rugged, with a tiny population (800,000). We had heard of “gross national happiness,” which they regard as a better measure of a country's well-being than gross national product; our guide quickly assured us that this did not mean that everyone was happy all the time. It's a modern constitutional monarchy, women are elected to Parliament, education and healthcare are free, and maternity leave is generous. The major (only?) export is electricity, generated by hydro and sold to India. Bhutan is not just carbon neutral, it's carbon negative. In many ways it's a model that the western world should learn from.

It's hard to describe our experience. First and foremost, this was total immersion in a deeply committed Buddhist society. An average of four temples a day—six or seven on a big day. Prayer flags everywhere: each flap is a prayer being said. Prayer wheels inside and outside every temple that you spin as you walk past. Water-driven prayer wheels straddle streams, operating 24/7 on mankind's behalf.

A vast Buddha statue adorns a hillside overlooking Thimpu. On driving up we found thousands of monks sitting cross-legged in the courtyard (yellow robes—gurus—in front, red ones—students—behind) listening to a mantra being intoned in throat-song. It turned out that this was the first day of a mantra for world peace, a long one that would take 9 days for the full recitation (with breaks for tea, meals, sleeping). The guy intoning it was Bhutan's chief abbot; bet he was hoarse by the end. We decided not to wait out the whole thing. Ironically, two days after it ended, Trump was elected. Buddha works in mysterious ways.

The next day was a long drive over two high passes (more than 3000m), with stunning full-horizon views of snow-capped Himalayas, including seven peaks over 7000m (but not Everest; it's far to the west). At one pass 108 stupas had been built to commemorate a small war with Assam rebels. “How small,” we asked, “years, months, weeks?” “Only a day,” our guide told us. “Well, not a whole day, just a morning really,” he added. 108 stupas? Bhutan is weird, weird, weird.

The culture is fascinating. National dress everywhere, including our guide and driver. The people are lovely; very poor, but gentle. The national dish is red rice and chili cheese, and Bhutanese like their chilis plentiful and HOT. Fortunately we were always served large buffets with “normal” food—Buddists cook meat for the tourists. The days were warm and sunny, with blue skies, but as the afternoon wore on it became cold, really cold, well before the sun had set. We hadn't brought enough warm clothes!

The only downside was the driving. The single road from one end of Bhutan to the other is being widened all at once! It's at the “first dig up the old one” stage, right across the country, which makes for appallingly bumpy, lengthy, and uncomfortable trips. Inches away from a slippery, muddy, road are awesome precipitous drops. Cows and yaks shoulder you off. Fortunately our driver was excellent.

We spent a couple of nights in a beautiful, remote valley, hiking to a temple for a local festival complete with masked wild dancers. Walking is hard at altitude close to 3000m, but the views were stupendous. The highlight of our trip was a hike to the renowned “Tiger's Nest” monastery, which hugs the side of a vertical rocky cliff 1000m above the valley floor. Here Guru Rinpoche, the second Buddha, materialized 1300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. After meditating for three years, he set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. Would Pam's hips carry her there? Our guide, having observed her on steep monastery steps, was sceptical. The tigress was not available. Donkeys were, but that seemed unwise. So she walked all the way, and climbed all the steps. No problem! Never underestimate a determined woman.

We could go on and on, and on and on. Perhaps the haiku below will give you some kind of impression. And we could tell you about our one-day guided tour of Kolkata on the way back. Suffice it to say that this was the day of the US election. We left Paru airport with Clinton in the lead. The airport TVs in Kolkata showed sport, but eventually some news came up—subtitled in Hindi. We watched with a growing sense of horror as the scant video coverage focused mainly on the wrong candidate …

We have already occupied too much space to talk about sailing. Suffice it to say that Brian and Ian set sail on their annual jaunt to God-knows-where up and down the coast, and had an excellent time. Otherwise, the year has not been a good one for sailing, what with foul winds, holidays, musical weekends, and other commitments.

However, it was a good year for music. We both played in the Waikato Symphony Orchestra's outdoor concert at Hamilton Gardens to an audience of thousands. Ian is now playing first clarinet (though he would prefer second: less stress!). Pam plays percussion: snare drum, xylophone, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, plus many more. Ian played in the May concert, though there was no percussion part for Pam, and we both played in the Christmas concert and were sort-of tutors in a Rusty Player orchestral weekend. A dozen or so recorder players from Auckland and Hamilton attended Pam's annual January weekend hui at our house; she played Christmas carols in a church hall and organized a recital for her aging ex-teacher who is now too frail to attend concerts. We had weekly (separate!) clarinet and recorder meetings at home. Ian played some weekend workshops in Auckland. His jazz combo The Martinis continued to play (and drink, and laugh), with a couple of gigs at the local basement jazz club.

Pam continues to work for Zonta, the women's advocacy group, Ian's still half working, with a 3-month full-time holiday and 3+ days a week over the remaining 9 months. A fourth edition of his popular Data Mining textbook was published recently. His contract expires in May 2017. Will he continue?—see next year's letter.

Oh yes, the kids. Nikki and John continue to enjoy California. Both have become rather sporty, Nikki hiking and running—including a half-marathon over the Golden Gate Bridge—and John playing football and working out at the gym. They have many visitors, with whom they explore the western US in road trips. Work continues: Apple seems to promote John nearly every week.

We already said that Anna has moved up north, where she's living with Riley and Stella. Whangarei was originally chosen because it's Dan's home territory, but, ironically, they split up not long after the move. Things are up in the air right now; hopefully the situation will be clearer next year. You will understand that this causes our whole family a lot of heartache. Anna juggles childcare with a part-time job. We've spent a couple of long weekends together at Woodside House on Waiheke Island, including Anna's birthday in October. There has been considerable traffic on the 4–5 hour journey between Whangarei and Matangi.

We have just had a great family Christmas at home, with Nikki and John, and Anna and kids. The kids are amphibious, spending more time oscillating between pool and hot tub than on dry land. We're already planning next year, the highlight being a cycling trip from Victoria Falls to Cape Town. (What???!!!) Watch this space.

Meanwhile, may peace be with you despite the political anxieties of 2016, and best wishes for 2017.

Pam and Ian

Haiku from USA, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain, UK, China, Bhutan, India


In California:
Awesome delicatessens;
crap cappuccino

Statuesque redwoods
standing in tight circles, round
long-departed mum

Pea paté and toast
Blend mushy peas and lemon
Eat by shady pool

Everyone tells you
Yosemite is awesome
Now I know it's true

In Yosemite …
Wanna see a bear? – better
odds for a sasquatch.

Thirty four degrees.
Five mile hike with little shade.
Pass the water please.

Manhattan, New York.
The city that never sleeps.
Here I lie awake.

Today: Woke. Looked out.
In the shower, by the pool, was
a unicorn.      (true)


Stupendous fireworks:
Bastille day in Albi.      But …
now tears fall in Nice.


No matter how much
she provoked them, her bosoms
refused to jiggle

In the Dolomites
hiking through a beech forest
with our umbrellas

Today we cycled
Bressanone to Brunico
Uphill all the way

Caffè corretto.
Right the wrong, fix the problem
– just add some grappa.

Palio blessing:
contrada drums in Duomo.
Unholy racket!

Four Italian shops:
Phones, shoes, ladies' hair and clothes
          (mostly underwear)

Wonderful music.
All on the stage together.
Ten double-basses.

I will plunge my sword
into this handy stone. Good
Lord. It went right in!

The right place. Right time.
Electronic sign says so.
But no bus. Stop moved.

In Montalcino
Medieval archery.
Best contrada wins!


Hungarian signs:
extraneous zeds. E.g.
“ess zed ee eks shop.”


Gaudi's Sagrada
Familia. Weird, eh?
     But.  The
real thing is weirder!

Bathed with intense light
Startling primary colours
Gaudi's cathedral

Flamenco! Tempo
hots up inexorably.
Footfall fusillade!

The Inquisition.
Seven hundred years of death
by torture and fire.


Ahoy there, Clodagh!
Good craic, fair winds, sunny skies …
Wait! Where's my oilskins?


Shanghai via Frankfurt.
Dublin delay. Run. Rush. Gasp!
Shit. Night in Deutschland.

Typhoon rains beat down
on Shanghai. Everything's drenched.
But we're in Eschborn!


Prayer flags throng the hills
Bright red, yellow, green, blue, white
Each with its meaning.

Buddha sits serene.
Thousands below hear mantra
– intoned as throat-song.

Mantra marathon.
Hours of chanting, by scores of
shaven-headed … girls!

108 (!) stupas
commemorate a small war
with Assam rebels

Sparkling snow-capped peaks
stretch the entire horizon.
The Himalayas!

Black-necked crane-spotting.
Imperceptible dots. Count.
Four legs cow; two bird.

OF THE PHALLUS BAR!”, the sign
boasts. I kid you not!

Dragon's breath cocktail:
rum, hot apple, and honey.
Exhale and ignite!

Lace-up hiking boots.
Unsuitable for Buddhist
monastery crawl.


One billion people
waiting to have something stamped.
We've just joined the queue