Witten's Christmas Letter for 1985

2429 Cherokee Drive
Calgary, Alberta
November, 1985


Well, technology has at last caught up with us! Having finally discovered the Xerox machine we have realized how much time could be saved by writing Christmas letters the yuppie way, using computer and copier. If you are accustomed to receiving a traditional hand-crafted letter from us this time of year, our apologies -- it was inevitable that we'd eventually move into the 2Oth century. And console yourself with the thought that countless others will receive this missive who would otherwise have had to put up with ignorance of the Wittens doings for a whole nother year! You will be interested to hear that despite our new and trendy approach to letter-writing, we still do not have one of those awful telly things, although we have succumbed to car and telephone [(4O3) 289-5371 -- give us a call to prove it!].

As we write this in the midst of addressing Christmas cards early in November the weather has decided to play along and put us in the Christmas spirit. Yes, it's snowing. What's more the ski season opened a couple of weeks ago, some six weeks early. Ian has bought new skis already, and this afternoon spent a snowy couple of hours with the girls, six skis, six poles, a toboggan, and innumerable gloves and hats in a park round the corner. Imagine -- soft sugary white stuff, powdery, sparkling in the sun. The kids were great -- it was a lot of fun. However, early winter is a bit of a shock to us as we'd planned to miss the cold this year (as you will see if you make it to the end of this letter).

Now for the year. A run-down.

At Easter Pam's work with her Downs Syndrome pupil came to an exciting and rewarding conclusion when Heather was assessed by the local school board as being able to integrate in a standard kindergarten. Thus she became one of very few mentally handicapped children in Calgary to be allowed a chance -- even at the elementary (primary) level -- to share her education with able-bodied kids. That was a very emotional time for everyone involved.

From a year of one-to-one teaching Pam then went on to be temporary teacher/Director of a nursery school, teaching 40 children aged 3-4 in three groups during the week while the regular "boss" was on maternity leave. Three months of having a full-time working mother was an interesting experience for us all and we came out pretty well unscathed despite eating a lot of take-out pizzas!

At the end of June everything happened! Pam finished work. Anna finished school. Ian finished his 3-year sentence as Head of Department. Emily our cat finished living with us and went to stay with friends for a year. And to cap it all, just as visitors arrived from England (they were literally walking up the drive) Nikki nearly finished her knee by tearing it on the car-door ashtray. What a welcome for Ailsa, Lynne and Steve Matheson (ex Wivenhoe) -- not exactly the red carpet, but ... Anyway a quick trip to the hospital for Nikki, and a quick couple of brandies for the grown-ups, and a quick 7 stitches, fixed all that. And we settled down for an excellent week with the Mathesons, who did a terrific job of entertaining our girls while Pam packed up in preparation for Ian's hard-earned sabbatical. We talked a lot of old times and old friends. 'Course nostalgia ain't what it used to be, but we enjoyed it anyway. And we had some memorable events -- like a trip to what seemed the North Pole in a beautiful cirque near the top of a mountain, in late Spring snow and a vicious, cutting wind. And warming up afterwards, cooking juicy steaks on a blazing campfire, and sitting close by it to eat in a gentle swirl of snow. Smells of woodsmoke, chilly red wine, fabulous meat, coffee.

Then we all flew to Graz, Austria, where Ian was involved in a (non-stressful!) project at the University. It was a lovely, relaxed summer. We'd recommend Graz as a holiday spot (or even for work) to anyone. Warm weather, Excellent scenery. History, castles, and the European tradition of eating delicious food and drink at inexpensive restaurants. Close enough to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Italy for the occasional foray. But not in the least bit touristy. Although it's an area where many people wear traditional costume every day, it has yet to be discovered by tourists. We rarely heard English spoken except by ourselves, when our German wasn't up to the occasion. Our apartment was a garret on the main road to Yugoslavia, six stories above the main station and the graveyard (and no elevator). But we didn't need to spend much time in it. We did a lot of swimming, mooching, discovering castles, descending into caves, and sampling the local wine and cuisine.

The Great Austrian Wine Scandal came to light while we were there and it was a little disconcerting to walk into the local store one day and find the booze section almost empty! (We weren't following the news -- it was all in German!) However we found a local dry wine which was very much to our taste and hadn't been sweetened with anti-freeze; also the beer was very good. Of course we ate a lot of Tortes, Kuechen, and Viennese cream cakes, invariably preceded by dumplings. We discovered some amazing and unexpected desserts. Like Germknudel, which is delicious and a big favourite of Anna's, though we know you're thinking it sounds more like an infection than a confection (Germ means yeast I believe). Or Salzburger nockerl, a dessert souffle about the size of a rugby ball (although you do have to share it between two). And the icecreams were fantastic -- big bowlsfull stuffed with fresh strawberries, bananas, lashings of cream, chocolate sauce.

Much of our weekend time we spent hiking in the mountains. They were lush and lovely and full of wild cyclamen -- beautiful in a quiet, gentle way; quite unlike our own stunning Rockies. For starters there were no bears -- though we did see adders. But we found the mountains in angry moods too. Once we were all high up at a cirque, sitting beside a lake having lunch, when CRACK the thunder started right over our heads, preceded by the tense air and little ripping sounds you hear when lightning is ever so close, and rumbling interminably round our little valley. Then the hail, making the lake instantly white, vicious little balls thudding into our bare arms and legs. We hid in the bushes for what seemed like ages. But although it had eased off a bit, the storm suddenly got fiercer again. We were all scared of the lightning -- it was ever so close -- when eventually Nikki broke up and cried. So we picked up the kids and ran with legs freezing and stinging for ten minutes back to the alpine Gasthaus, for well-deserved hot chocolate. There were lots of electric storms in Graz this summer, though we didn't get caught out in any others. Most of our hiking was exceptionally peaceful. Lush alpine valleys, full of contented cows tinkling gently as they grazed. Quiet open woods. Cascading, rushing torrents, deep and narrow gorges with wooden bridges and ladders clinging to the bare rock. (Another memory is our Austrian host suddenly plunging into a deep pool for a swim. Of course we followed. I suppose "refreshing" is the nice word. "You're crazy," we said. "Thank you," he said politely.) And JausenStations. Jausen is like afternoon tea, except that you have beer, cheese, and sausages; not dainty cakes and cucumber sandwiches with the crust cut off. And almost every walk ends up with a JausenStation at the turning point, be it at the top of a mountain or beside a sparkling lake. We took to Jausen like ducks to water.

We had visitors in Graz, too. The Brosters, old friends from Wivenhoe like the Mathesons, took advantage of our convenient location on the main road between Dover and Yugoslavia and dropped in for a few days. With them we swam in lakes and visited zoos, and Pam had an introduction to nudism as a way of life (she liked it but not in the snow at 20 below, thanks very much).

And the highlight of our trip was a week in Prague. The whole family took the train from Vienna, to stay with a Czech family we had met in Calgary in 1969! It was a magic time. Prague is a dreamlike, mysterious city with fantastic, precisely-sculpted fairytale spires that cannot possibly be real. The main bridge across the Vitava (but there are uncountable other bridges) is equipped with sculptures every few yards, on each side. And it is for pedestrians only (hooray!). Prague castle contains a cathedral, unbelievably ornate, and tiny little houses actually built into the castle walls. Truly an amazing city, steeped in history. We wanted to go to the theatre, but this presented a bit of a challenge since our Czech is quite rusty (!). Undeterred, we went to a mime show which riveted the whole family to their seats. Anna caused quite a stir by announcing in a loud stage whisper that she did mime too, at school, in French! It's always surprising how many people understand English. And we all went to a concert in a church. We were surprised that our hosts wanted to get there so early, until we arrived with 20 minutes to go and found the place packed. They were sitting in the aisles, on the floor, even in the confessional booth! Standing room only. It seems the people are hungry for music.

Even though it holds all these marvels, Prague's best part was the house where we were staying. We were treated to hospitality quite unlike anything we're used to. The kids were made a great fuss of and spoiled terribly. We all got on really well with our hosts and their grown-up children, and talked of many things both light and serious. It was a week we won't forget.

But the people of Prague are not carefree and gay. The city is beautiful, but the system is difficult to live with. Nowhere is this more obvious to the tourist than when shopping. Shops and shop assistants do not seem to be there to help you, but treat you as an unfortunate intrusion into their day. And goods are desperately lacking. We looked for a while for hiking boots for Ian, who needed a new pair, and everyone knows Czechoslovakia makes good footwear. Well, we looked and looked and looked. All the shoe stores seemed to have one style of boot which was not very attractive, but no other. Eventually we cracked and decided to try on a pair, since there was clearly going to be nothing else. So we joined the line-up (line-ups are everywhere). Eventually we reached the short-tempered salesgirl, only to discover that the boots were available in one size only -- for giants! So much for buying boots. To make up for this, though, we did see some wonderful clarinets in a second-hand music store, and brought one home. While trying them out Ian was enlisted by another customer to try out saxophones for her -- could this be the beginning of a new career?

So arriving back in Vienna, to thronging, happy streets with open-air cafes full of chattering and laughter was quite an event for us. And soon Pam and the kids were winging their way back to Calgary, in time to start school at the beginning of September; while Ian drove back to Graz for another month there. While it rained and snowed in Alberta he had a week in the sunshine of Crete. It wasn't supposed to be a week, just a couple of days to give seminars at the University and at a research institute there, but you can't get a flight for less than a week so he had no choice but to kick his heels on Mediterranean beaches for the rest of the time. And then at the beginning of October he returned to Calgary, leaving nothing in Graz but memories.

But soon we're off again. Mid-December we fly to New Zealand via Disneyland for a few hours. The hours are in Disneyland, not NZ; we'll be there for some months. First a week camping at the Bay of Islands. Then Christmas in Dargaville (get out your Atlas, please) about halfway between Auckland and the Far North, with Ian's multitudinous relatives. Then New Year with Pam's brother in Wellington. Then to Christchurch, to work at the University of Canterbury there. (Yes, the mailman knows about it, just address letters, parcels etc to c/o Dr John Andreae, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Canterbury, Christchurch 1, New Zealand.) Near the end of March we all go to Sydney, Australia to see Phil McCrea -- another old Wivenhoe crony -- for Easter. Then Pam and kids return home, with a few days holiday in Fiji, while Ian returns to Christchurch to sweat out another month there. Then ... wait for it ... Ian to Sydney, then Hong Kong. Meanwhile Pam to Vancouver, then Hong Kong. Rapturous reunion in Hong Kong then one month in China, spending most of the time at Wuhan (told you to get the Atlas out), then Nanjing, then Beijing (Peking to non-cognoscenti), and back to Calgary via HK again. And the kids? -- glad you asked. They stay in Calgary. Ian's parents fly out from Northern Ireland in April to experience the joy of looking after two little monkeys for five weeks. And by the way -- its still not too late to buy shares in Air Canada.

In our next issue -- "... did it really happen that way?" -- on the newsstands Christmas 1986. Don't forget to request your free copy by sending us at least a card. You can also renew your subscription by phone!

Lots of love and Christmas greetings,

Pam, Ian, Anna, Nikki