Witten’s Christmas Letter for 2018


626 Tauwhare Road
RD7, Hamilton
New Zealand 3287
+64 7 829-5887
Jan 5–7, 2018

Dear friends,

Writing a Christmas letter has become easy, for Google just emailed a summary of pertinent facts. In 2018 we visited 94 places, 42 cities, 9 countries. We travelled 65,642 km (1.6 times around the world). We walked 398 km, cycled 1,743 km (Ian, that is), and drove 19,318 km. Our furthest trips were to Buenos Aires and the UK; the longest was to the US, Ottawa, and Norway. Notable places visited included our local supermarket (6 trips only, according to Google), KBB Music in Auckland, and the Great Mall at Milpitas (near San Jose). Attractions include Hamilton Gardens, Washington’s National Mall, and NY’s Central Park. We enjoyed food and drink at the Point Café (wherever that is), the Roaming Giant pub in Hamilton, and the Puhoi Pub north of Auckland. We visited Milan Linate airport, along with 15 others.

According to Google, those were the highlights of 2018 (which also, according to Google, had only 319 days). But if you need to know more, read on.

On New Year’s Eve (2017) we sailed across to Waiheke Island for a night at Woodside House with Riley and Stella (Anna’s kids). It was a beautiful day, and they loved it. Approaching the bay we were buzzed by an enormous insect, which turned out to be a drone. To our dismay it swooped alarmingly close, again and again — until we twigged: it was Craig’s (who owns Woodside). Then the kids started to perform, and the result was a fine personal movie. We celebrated New Year’s in style with all his family — and the following day we celebrated both his mother’s and his sister’s birthday.

Riley and Stella often come down for a week or so during school holidays. And, of course, we drive to Whangarei (4 hours) and stay with Anna and family. We were there for each of their birthdays: Riley was 10 in May and Stella 8 in December.

We keep them busy: the local indoor climbing wall (which, we’re told, is world class), trampoline park, skateboard park, indoor golf, ... We had fun at “Splashy place”, a local art and pottery studio: you select a clay object and paint it, then they bake it. The kids both chose cats; we both chose bowls — which we actually use. Once Anna brought the kids down to Auckland and we told them we planned a night at anchor in Beulah, to which their response was “can’t we go straight to Hamilton?” — nice that our home is still an exciting attraction! But we spent the night on Beulah anyway, at Pam’s favourite island, Motuihe, a conservation island with sheltered anchorages, cliffs, white-sand beaches on both coasts separated by a narrow isthmus, native plants, birds and lizards, and even a bit of history. The kids enjoyed beachcombing, and the night at sea was a bit of an adventure.

Pam gave Ian a stand-up paddleboard for Christmas (for him it’s a fall-down paddleboard), and the kids run from one end to the other, passing in the middle. Stella even does cartwheels — sometimes two, with a final plunge into the water. “Iayyyun, how come I can do cartwheels and you can’t even stand up?!” But now I can stand up, after diligent practice. The idea is to improve my sense of balance, which has been rocky for years. Sometimes I take to the seas, but am defeated by enormous tsunamis — even in sheltered water.

Anna’s two-year separation has settled down; both have new partners. She and Dan are flexible with regard to sharing the children, who stay with each week in week out. They seem to be coping fine with two different homes, and two different sets of rules. Anna’s partner Jared has no kids of his own, but dotes on Riley and Stella. He’s very good with them, firm but understanding; indeed, they seem to take instructions from him better than from anyone else. He’s vegan (for ethical reasons, he says) and loves to cook; but he does cook meat and eggs for the kids. Anna’s mostly vegan now too, not for ethical reasons but because Jared does all the cooking — and she certainly likes that.

Early in the year they bought a house in Onerahi, just outside Whangarei. It’s a charming home, with numerous arts-and-crafts-style touches: stained-glass doors to built-in wooden cupboards, a cutlery drawer that originally opened one way to the kitchen and the other to the dining room. It’s in need a bit of TLC, and much renovation is planned. It must have been surrounded by fields originally, with views over distant hills and the nearby Whangarei River estuary, but more recent development has taken over. Nevertheless, it’s a quiet and pleasant neighbourhood. They have a pohutukawa tree in the front yard and a swimming pool in the back.

Anna’s thriving in her job as an interior decoration consultant. She works in a furnishings store, and is sent out to advise people in their homes and supply them with what they choose. She has a delightful way with clients, and that side of the business is clearly flourishing because they’ve hired an assistant for her. With kids and a demanding job, we think she’s too busy. But she managed to find time for winter holidays in Fiji and Hawaii, and in July (mid-winter) she did “The Beast”: a super tough 7 km course over rolling countryside, rugged and uneven terrain, navigating swamps, river crossings, mud, and some steep hills. Her verdict: “It was muddy.” The things our kids do for fun!

This year Nikki and John received their US Green Cards, and seem committed to the California lifestyle for the indefinite future. Early in the year Nikki accepted a position as Community Engagement Manager for “Our City Forest,” who plant trees in San Jose. It seemed like a nice step up — managing their volunteers, corporate engagement program, and some staff. But it didn’t work out: the person who hired her, who she was eager to work with, left the day before she started, only to be replaced by the boss from hell.

In July she landed a job as Disaster Program Manager for the Santa Clara County chapter of the American Red Cross (that’s Disaster-Program Manager and not Disaster Program-Manager!). For the first time since moving to the US she’s with a charity with “name brand” status that’s recognized outside the local community. Under her are several hundred volunteers, with a management structure of senior volunteers, and she’s the only professional staff for the disaster program. But the timing of the move was terrible! She was thrown in at the deep end with volunteers already in Hawaii (the volcano) and Guam (the typhoon), soon to be followed by Hurricane Florence in the eastern US, and of course the raging wildfires in California.

She doesn’t visit disaster areas, but works closely with first responders (police, fire chief) and puts everything in place to support the volunteers she sends. Locally she’s involved with more routine events like house fires. For example, a couple of weeks in five large families lost their homes to a wildfire. Fortunately all had somewhere they could stay — always preferable to staying in a shelter — and she arranged financial assistance to help them get back on their feet. She sometimes has to open a Red Cross evacuation shelter. Her team have it ready and staffed in no time, but occasionally she heads out in the middle of the night to check how it’s going.

In December, to our astonishment, Ian (of all people, who never uses Facebook) received a friend request from Scott, who — as some of you may remember — spent four years with us in Calgary as our (challenging) foster child. Some months before our move to NZ he was relocated into a “First Choice” foster care home — a special programme for difficult older children. His new foster parents had extensive training in child care and psychology, and privileged access to Alberta Social Services that were not available to “ordinary” foster parents like us. We caught up with Scott twice when re-visiting Calgary, but eventually Social Services denied our request for information on his well-being and whereabouts, and we heard nothing for 20 years.

We have now had a couple of email exchanges. Apparently he sustained a serious rooftop fall while on a work experience placement. After a long recovery he has got himself together and lives on a disability pension with his cousin in Whitehorse, Yukon. We were so pleased to hear from him — not knowing whether he was alive or dead — and that he has apparently made contact with his birth family, of whom we had no knowledge.

As for us, life continues as usual. Ian works quarter-time: with a bit of favourable rounding that amounts to 6-day weekends, from Thursday morning to Tuesday evening. It’s great: everyone should have 6-day weekends! His job is to babysit his three free online courses (MOOCs) on data mining, each running twice a year — a total of 15,000 enrolees during 2018. Although this seems large, the number who actually do any work is far smaller.

But still, life is far too full, and he’s beginning to understand all those Christmas letters from retired friends who complain about how busy they are. In fact, he tells younger colleagues to tackle all the projects round the house and garden while they still have time, before they retire. (This advice doesn’t go down at all well.) He participates in a sketching group in Hamilton Gardens on Mondays and a watercolour class on Fridays, and cycles everywhere.

Pam’s still involved with Zonta, and the club’s fundraising highlight was hosting a cocktail evening with our former Prime Minister Helen Clark as guest speaker. She gave fascinating and illuminating insights into the workings of the United Nations, having served for several years on the UN Development Programme. Speaking of Prime Ministers, we’re pleased with (and proud of) Jacinda Ardern, who hails from nearby Morrinsville and attended Waikato University. We hope she heralds an international trend of vibrant, caring, young women winning top political positions and taking the world in hand.

Pam served on an interview panel to select intermediate-level schoolgirls for a scholarship in memory of her dear friend and fellow Zontian Margie Slater-Kaplan, who passed away a couple of years ago. She delivered to the Women’s Refuge in Hamilton 100 washbags filled with essential toiletries that her club had put together, exceeding their aim of 365 for the year. Sadly, this is not enough to fill the need.

Music is still a big part of our lives. Pam remains a somewhat reluctant trying-to-retire orchestral percussionist, while Ian plays principal clarinet. Early in the year our outdoor Sunset Symphony concert attracted an audience of thousands on a warm summer evening. Ian surmounted a once-in-a-lifetime challenge when the May concert included Rhapsody in Blue. That opening glissando rent our domestic tranquillity a dozen times every evening for three months (and not once since): luckily it went well on the night. Our November “Waikato Proms” featured all the usual jingoistic stuff — Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia, Now is the Hour — and roused the audience into an enthusiastic frenzy that even the threat of Brexit failed to dampen. We opened with Carmina Burana, an exciting piece that is particularly satisfying for the percussion section.

A dozen players attended Pam’s annual weekend recorder hui. Kamela Bain, one of her former recorder teachers now living, teaching, and playing in Wellington, led the second day — a reunion as well as a great musical experience, for many attendees know her. Pam plays fortnightly with an Auckland group and weekly with her Hamilton group. She also enjoyed a full-day workshop run by Bart Spanhove of the Flanders Recorder Quartet, a kind and expert teacher. And she has taken up taiko drumming. Is that music? It’s certainly a mental — and physical — challenge!

Ian plays jazz (and drinks martinis) with some friends most weeks; now and again he plays klezmer. During university term he plays clarinet duets with Sarah, with occasional meet-ups in Auckland. We had a clarinet trio at Woodside House at Easter, and Sarah (who is Jewish) regaled the kids at dinnertime with a gripping account of the Passover. They were rapt, as were the adults! On another weekend there, without kids, a recorder player came over for duets one day, a clarinet player the next.

As well as play, we listen! We attend concerts whenever we can, and are regulars at the University’s weekly lunchtime series, where we get to hear some excellent international musicians. But the student performances are the best: full of youthful vibrancy and surprise, coupled with amazing talent. We love to see and hear the students grow musically as they progress through the years.

Ian’s brother Brian came over from the UK for the annual sailing trip, this time with Ros. She and Pam attended the opening of the magnificent Hamilton Gardens’ new “Concept Garden” — beside which is tethered a steampunk airship! Whimsically billed as the latest piece of gardening equipment, it’s designed to glide through the night delivering plants for the gardening team. The opening was preceded by an intriguing and fun steampunk fashion show. Another new garden is taken from a short story by Katherine Mansfield, NZ’s celebrated novelist, called The Garden Party. This luxurious garden is fictitious, but based on Mansfield's childhood home. We sat overlooking it and read the story, ticking off the items — open-sided marquee on the tennis court, goodies set out on long tables, piano, cello and flute, ancient car in the drive — all extremely realistic, but all made of concrete!

We spent some days with Pam’s brother Graham and Julie at their timeshare in Paihia, visiting Anna en route. Julie has recently landed an administrative position in Whangarei hospital; they’ll be moving from Auckland in the next couple of months. A few years ago Nikki’s in-laws moved there from Hamilton. The lure of Northland! — perhaps, eventually, we’ll succumb.

We were devastated when Dora, Pam’s young dog, began to suffer occasional seizures, which rapidly became stronger and more frequent — despite maximum medication. Tragically, we eventually had to have her put to sleep. Then our cat Ari came out worse in a battle with a slow-moving vehicle and lost an eye (Jared quipped that we should rename him “Arrrr”, Ari without an “i”, and get him a piratical eye-patch). Some months later he somehow made it home after suffering serious tail and internal injuries in a dog fight and had to be put down. Sad days. And, inevitably, some old friends passed away. Our own health is good: Pam had a basal cell carcinoma removed from her leg, no problem.

Generally speaking, 2018 was a disappointing year for sailing. The weather was indifferent: winds tended to be too strong, and nice weekends often coincided with orchestral commitments. But Brian and Ian set out for 12 days in January. We sailed as far north as beautiful Whangamumu Bay, just south of the Bay of Islands, passing close by the Poor Knights Islands on the way, a marine reserve and diver’s paradise. These are so far offshore that we have been unable to reach them before, but conditions were just right. We didn’t have time to stop (or dive!), but enjoyed their muscular rugged beauty.

On the return trip we encountered challenging conditions. At one point, beset by merciless waves and a strong and rising headwind, we made the difficult and disappointing decision to turn tail at midday and retreat to our starting point. Fortunately that was near Whangarei, and we salvaged the day by meeting Anna and Jared for a pub meal on dry land. However, due to strong winds it was hard to get back to Beulah afterwards, and the ship’s log records that the day’s sail was repeated in microcosm on the row back. In the days that followed we struggled against foul winds (though nice weather otherwise), just managing to return to the marina before the booze ran out.

On June 15 we flew from Auckland to Buenos Aires for a 10-day extended stopover on the way to Europe. A few years ago we spent an enjoyable couple of months there, but that was in November — summer. With our present schedule, the trouble with visiting places in the S Hemisphere is that they have winter at the same time as NZ! We knew that, but hadn’t anticipated such freezing temperatures; luckily it was nice and sunny. We caught up with friends, had barbecues, revisited familiar places and restaurants, and explored new ones. Argentina is all about meat (especially bife chorizo): by the time we left we craved vegetables. Unfortunately we both developed head colds, which made it seem appropriate to visit Evita’s family mausoleum in the famous Recoleta cemetery, just round the corner from our Airbnb. We also partook of medicinal martinis in the swanky Alvear Palace Hotel. We love dulce de leche ice cream, which Pam says disappears too quickly to photograph.

We spent an unplanned extra day in Argentina due to a national transport workers’ strike. It didn’t involve Lufthansa pilots and cabin crew, but it did include air traffic controllers and ground staff. We flew to Frankfurt and Dublin, hired a car, and drove north. A 20 C increase in temperature! — unprecedented for N Ireland — and gorgeous weather at Pippa’s place.

Shortly after arrival we set sail with Greg and Carol on their boat Clodagh to the Isle of Man — new territory for us. We spent four days in the marina in Peel, a former Viking stronghold with a majestic fortress, containing layer upon layer of well-preserved Manx history. We happened upon the World Championship Viking Longboat races, a unique event that seems to involve a great deal of drinking. The IoM is a self-governing Crown dependency, not part of the UK or even the EU, and as clean and tidy as Switzerland. It has the air of a gently fading popular British holiday destination now superseded by low-cost flights to European beaches with warmer seas and better weather. Being a tax haven it’s wealthy, but not ostentatious.

Pam left N Ireland early for a couple of days with brother Steve and Maggie. Steve is Assistant Estates Manager at the Yehudi Menuhin school of music, with special responsibility for the grounds. He loves it: knows all 70 kids (age 10–17). They took Pam, with niece Lindsey, to an extraordinary end-of-year concert there. Their parents often used to attend these, so it felt like a real connection for her.

Next day was Pam’s 50-year (gulp!) reunion of graduation from teachers’ college, attended by 40 class members (half the original intake) — almost none of whom she had seen for 50 years. It was heartening to recognize and be recognized, despite wrinkles, and re-connect with a couple of good friends she’d lost contact with over the years. They vowed to keep in touch for the next 50 ...

And then to Siena, for what we reckon is our seventh time. We met at the luggage carousel in Florence airport, Pam from London and Ian from Dublin via Paris, and took the bus to Siena the next day. We awoke in our eyrie apartment every morning to the high-pitched squeaks of swarms of excited swallows as they wheeled and dove past our shuttered windows. They fly so fast and close that you can hear their wings when you throw the window open. Then the Cathedral bells at 7 AM called the faithful to prayer, followed by the laid-back cooing of pigeons casually exploring the terracotta roof tiles three meters away across the alley. Time for breakfast before the heat sets in!

We both read Iris Origa’s War in Val d’Orcia 1943/44 and spent some time on the trail of this book. Pam’s father was a POW who “fell out of a train” (his words) in Italy and eventually made his way over the Dolomites to Switzerland, so she feels connected to these diary entries even though her Dad was probably not in Tuscany. (He was always reluctant to talk about it; even Mum knew very little.) But clearly he could never have made his long and arduous journey, fraught with difficulty and danger, without the assistance of local Italians, and Origa’s diary records what they were prepared to risk to help in spite of their fear, deprivation, and the horrendous consequences if caught. Courageous people. Iris herself sheltered and aided refugees of many stripes — escaped Allied POWs, Partisans, local young men wanting to avoid Fascist conscription, refugee children from bombed-out cities.

It's a fascinating book, and over the years we’ve been to several of the places mentioned. We re-visited picturesque San Quirico and crowded Pienza, and set off on foot for the tiny hilltop fortress of Monticchiello. But the hills, heat, humidity and the timetable for the last bus to Siena got the better of us (maybe a touch of anno domini too?).

We hired a car and drove to Iris’s home at La Foce, toured the gardens, and admired stunning views across the Val d'Orcia to Monte Amiata. Unfortunately we couldn’t see inside the house. We took a scenic self-guided tour around wooded Monte Amiata and the extraordinary Crete Senesi, through the charming little towns of Lucciolabella, Chiarentana and Castelluccio — and finally Monticchiello, at last.

While in Siena we spent the traditional weekend with Marco, Cecilia and family in Santonuovo (outside Pistoia, near Florence), enjoying enormous, lazy, prolonged Italian family meals, with much laughter and music. Leaving Siena we travelled deep into a valley in the Dolomite foothills, to stay — as the only guests — at the haunted Hotel Bellante at Cavalese that belongs to our friend Eddie. We visited his delightful partner Alessandra in the tiny village of Panchià (pop. 830), where she has lived all her life and knows everyone from birth. Such a different world! Together we hiked a couple of dramatic Dolomite trails, accompanied by the gentle clang of cowbells.

Following a month in Italy we spent a long-anticipated fortnight in Norway with a small group, organised in NZ, none of whom we knew, on a tour for “Active over 50s.” We started with the famous Oslo–Bergen train, which begins and ends at sea level but climbs to 1200 m, and then made our way slowly to Tromsø on three overnight cruises (the Hurtigruten line) up the coast and into fjords, spending a few days on shore between each. We explored Ålesund, Åndalsnes, and Hamnøya at the southern tip of the Lofoten Islands. We crossed the Arctic Circle, where Neptune came aboard and poured buckets of ice down everyone’s neck, and saw the midnight sun. The trip involved some strenuous hiking with stupendous views, and much sightseeing. One highlight was Troldhaugen, home of Edvard Grieg, and the garden hut where he did his composing. Our favourite area was Lofoten, with tiny, isolated fishing communities, pristine beaches and stunning scenery. A sad fact: people buried in the old coastal graveyards are 80% woman, because men were lost at sea. We were told that in Norway summer is over by August, and while the evenings were cool the days were fine and mostly sunny. It was a wonderful mixture of unforgettable experiences, great food, excellent guides, and convivial company.

From Tromsø to Ottawa to see the Sheens, Ian’s second family who looked after him in Canada over 50 years ago. Joan, in her 90s, is losing her memory (like us!) but still delightful; we stayed with Pippa (another Pippa) and her artist husband Tony. We had another reunion, re-connecting with Pam’s Canadian bridesmaid who we’d lost touch with decades ago when her marriage broke up. (We’ll be visiting her this year).

Then a few days in Washington DC. The highlights for us were the Korean War Memorial, and the “Newseum.” Unlike today, there was no garbage in the streets, and the museums were open. We took the train to New York City, staying with Craig and Kirsten. We love Manhattan and did many things that there is no space to record. Their local New York speakeasy, the Alleycat, makes an interesting contrast with a Waikato-style speakeasy cocktail bar in Hamilton that friends introduced us to recently.

We saved the best till last, visiting Nikki and John. As always, we greatly enjoyed San Jose. John took us to see Apple’s stunning new headquarters, whose massive scale and circular design has earned it the nickname of “the mothership.” The whole campus looks less like an office park and more like a nature refuge. Then we went to stay with Peter and Margaret, old friends from Essex days, in Placerville, central California (devastating wildfires? — not yet, but it’s a matter of “when” rather than “if,” they said). We picked up Nikki from the Caltrain for a few days at Lake Tahoe, which seems to grow more beautiful with every visit. Ever heard of the annual camel and ostrich races in Virginia City, Nevada? No? Well, they’ve been going for 59 years! It was a hilarious day out: races between three camels, interspersed with races between three ostriches — jockeys precariously perched on their backs. A little kids’ duck race: chasing rather than riding(!). Emus for the larger kids, again chasing — they run really fast! Virginia City is out-and-out Trump/NRA country, far removed from our other US experiences and intriguing in a scary sort of way.

While in the Bay area we caught up with some Waikato ex-students. Anthony Blake treated us to the most amazing prix fixe meal at the French Laundry, a 3-Michelin-star restaurant for the last 12 consecutive years, in an old stone farmhouse near Napa that really did serve time as a French steam laundry. An incredible once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience from celebrity chef Thomas Keller. Oh, graduate students are so good to us!

And then back home for a bit of a rest (and work).

Prompted by a wedding invitation from David Milne, another ex-student, we recently spent a couple of weeks in Australia, beginning with a walk along the coast to Bondi beach to see Sculptures by the Sea, an enormous variety of zany, thought-provoking, attractive and interesting pieces. Next the wedding, a simple, friendly affair; the reception was held at a yacht club on the harbour with a great view of the bridge. Guests were invited to make floral headdresses before the wedding, a thoughtful “getting to know you” touch for out-of-towners. After that we walked 11 km along Sydney harbour with Phil McCrea, an Aussie friend from our early married days whom Pam had last seen in 1986, ending at a microbrewery in Manly for refreshments and pub dinner while observing a ferocious thunderstorm across the water. Next we met up for a lovely day in Avoca Beach with Ian’s nephew Peter and family.

Then up the coast road almost to Coffs Harbour, heading inland for Barraba, NSW, to re-visit Ian’s distant sheep-farming relations who we’d last seen when our girls (now 40 and 38) were little. We drove along the Waterfall Way to Armidale through beautiful, green, rolling countryside and past stunning waterfalls. A large mother kangaroo and Joey stopped close by to watch us picnicking in a forest park. Then we took a back road to Barraba which we had been advised against “because of the miles of dirt roads and kangaroos” — but that just made it more enticing!

The NSW interior is in the throes of a prolonged drought, which seemed less disastrous than advertised — and nothing like the drought in Cape Town when we were there last year. (For example, we took showers and flushed the toilet as normal.) It’s probably worse further west. Much to their amusement our hosts, cousin Margaret and Kevin, received care packages from a drought charity, including several boxes of juice with a “best before” date of 2015! There was a thunderstorm during our visit, and next day the first question everyone we met asked was, “How much rain did you get?” — 12 mL in our case. Amazingly it took only a couple of days for the grass to green up, though the roots are shallow and it’s not enough to feed the stock. While it was a novelty for us to ride in the Ute with the dog and deliver hay to the animals, they’ve been doing it for years and years. Tragically, we saw many dead cows and sheep on the farm. And there was another reunion, this time for family at Josephine and David Witten’s extensive property.

After we returned it was up to Whangarei for Stella’s birthday — she chose a Turkish restaurant, rather sophisticated we thought — and Christmas. We were prepared for a vegan celebration and Ian was hoping to carve the tofu, but as it turned out there was plenty of meat.

Congratulations for getting all the way to the end! May peace be with you, and best wishes for next year.

Pam and Ian