Witten's Christmas Letter for 1997

Tauwhare Road
New Zealand
January, 1998


Well, hello again. We're making a desperate last-ditch effort to get our "Christmas" letter out--though Christmas is long past--so that you'll know we're still alive. We had practically abandoned it, but we received so many Christmas letters in which people said they were wondering what would be in ours that we thought we'd better put in a final effort to end the news blackout. Pam wrote much of what follows last November, but we lost momentum in the final weeks at Calgary and our relocation back to New Zealand. For yes!--we were on the move again last year, and spent Christmas, though thanks to El Nino a not-quite-white one, in the Canadian Rockies, a perfect end to our six-month visit to Calgary. But let's begin at the beginning ...

New Year's Eve 1996 saw Ian and Pam on board Beulah, anchored in a secluded bay off Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf. As the sun set we drank champagne and watched the traditional Kiwi bonfires and firework displays on the beaches before retiring to bed at 10:30 pm. Maybe it was post-Christmas exhaustion, or the fresh sea air, or maybe we just can't take late nights any more, but midnight saw us sound asleep.

Once the New Year was well established we set off on our summer holiday. Ian sailed Beulah to Great Barrier Island. Anna made her own plans to visit friends (as your children grow, you sometimes just don't want to know exactly what they're doing). Nikki, given the choice between cruising around the Island with her parents or painting 50 m of picket fence along our front boundary, chose the latter. And Pam followed Ian a couple of days later, taking the two-hour commercial motorized catamaran trip to join him at Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier. Meanwhile Ian had sailed there with a friend, also called Ian, and his son--a 10-hour voyage across open water. To be more accurate, Ian (the friend) and son sailed while Ian (your hero) lay groaning on his bunk, suffering from a curious stomach ailment. By a strange twist of fate a partner in our doctor's practice, a family friend, was at Great Barrier Island on her own family's boat, and Ian was tested on arrival, diagnosed not with plain old seasickness but with a grumbling appendix, and put to bed on the hospital ship (the doctor's boat) following a preliminary radio call to the marine emergency centre in case a helicopter had to be summoned during the night. However, by morning said appendix had returned to hibernation (though it did re-awaken a few times during the year at equally inopportune moments).

A gale struck just a few hours after Pam arrived. Fortunately Port Fitzroy is on a large, almost completely enclosed, inlet which is incredibly sheltered, so we spent a calm couple of days pottering around the inlet until the storm blew itself out and we were able to explore some of the many islands on the seaward side and their small sandy bays. We frequently encountered small pods of dolphins--quite big dolphins, not the little ones that we normally see from Beulah--and flocks of rare brown teals. After five days (and rather more bottles of wine) we were joined by another friend who had gallantly offered to help Ian sail Beulah back while Pam returned on the "Quick Cat." Ian and Tony motored across the treacherous passage to the Coromandel Peninsula in a glassy calm, past the Watchman and his Dog, two tiny rocky islets in the middle of the ocean with a lighthouse and immense crashing waves that seem to arise out of nowhere, through the ferocious tide rips at the end of the Peninsula, past Elephant Cove on Happy Jack's Island, a little enclosed rocky bay in the centre of an island that is not much bigger, holding just one or two boats (it was already occupied), and down to Te Kouma harbour on the Coromandel for the night, before heading home.

Later in January we flew down to Christchurch where Ian was examining a Ph.D. The following day he played in a band for the (successful!) candidate's wedding reception (in fact, he played at other weddings on two previous nights: three weddings and an oral!) and the next day we set off for Akaroa to walk the Banks Peninsula Track. This is a four-day walk around the south spur of the peninsula, staying in hostels overnight. The track is limited to a dozen or so walkers a day and is booked many months in advance. Thinking ahead is not one of our strengths, and we had phoned just a couple of weeks before, hoping for a lucky cancellation. The organiser informed us that the only vacancy was in the "two-day option," laconically remarking that this was only 15 to 18 km per day and therefore perfectly straightforward for anyone of moderate fitness. Of course we rose to the challenge.

It was hard work!--particularly when we stopped for a late lunch at the first hostel after a heavy day's walk, knowing that we were only halfway whereas the four-day walkers could take off their hiking boots and head for the beach. One consolation was that there were four other people doing the two-day hike, but since they were all in their early twenties and straight from military service in Israel, it was actually small comfort. But while the walking was arduous at times, the landscape and views were varied and stunning--at one point we even caught a glimpse of Mount Cook far away in the central South Island. Always on private land, we hiked up steep hills, along beaches, through forest, across farmland, down gullies, along cliff tops, and through a native bush reserve. (New Zealanders' disinclination to exaggerate makes the term "native bush" misleading. It should be interpreted as "impenetrable forest.") The accommodation, which was beautifully kept and boasted all mod cons, was equally varied, ranging from purpose-built hostels to converted farmhouses. Our favourite had the shower built inside the hollow trunk of a huge tree--hot and cold running water. Much to their amazement we managed rather better than our charming Israeli army friends (one of whom had suffered from heat exhaustion) and they confessed at the end--rather patronizingly we felt--that they'd been worried about the likes of us embarking on the same athletic venture as the likes of them. Ha!

And so back to work. Anna wisely decided that since she hadn't saved enough (i.e. any) money, she would postpone her planned overseas trip and take the second year of her Travel and Tourism course, which with postmodern educational flexibility allows the student to graduate after one year with a Certificate, two with an Advanced Certificate, or three with a Diploma. We told you last year that she returned home "temporarily" at the end of the year after flatting: well, she seemed to like it!--and stayed with us until forced to move out when we left for Canada and rented our house to another family. Nikki, despite parental agonizing and some inspiring teachers, remained determined to attend the local high school for her final year rather than continue at St Peter's where the inflexible rules, draconian discipline, and school uniform were not, she felt, helping her make the transition to the real world and university life. Pam and Ian just picked up from where they left off in December, with Ian making his annual pilgrimage to a conference at Snowbird, Utah in late March, returning via martinis in San Francisco (see below), and Pam adding to her numerous activities by getting deeply involved in setting up a new music school in Cambridge for local primary-aged children.

Ian turned fifty on March 4. We celebrated with a party, roasting a sheep ("anyone we know?", people asked, but in fact it was not one of ours) on a spit by the pool, skilfully skewered by Ian from--well, rather than going into anatomical details let's just say one end to the other. The cooking instructions were simple: just throw a few apples and onions in the belly, put on rotisserie for four hours or until done, then serve. Carving was a bit daunting, but was skilfully undertaken, with the help of tools that he had thoughtfully given Ian as a birthday present, by the above-mentioned Ian (the friend). Did you know that one sheep only serves seventy? Though it was absolutely delicious and each person ate a lot. And the aroma was also delicious, all evening. Before the night was out Ian had been chucked in the pool, and responded dripping wet (spectacles still at the bottom of the pool) to a toast by Anna with a little speech. It was an excellent, "*excellent*," evening, and Anna was heard to say, when most people had departed leaving just a few lingerers idly sipping whisky in the wee small hours, "I wish I was fifty, so I could have a party like that"!

In late autumn (i.e. April) Pam and Ian returned to Great Barrier Island for a few days in a rather different style, this time flying over and staying in a communal house or "whare" belonging to Liz, one of Pam's friends in the Auckland recorder group, along with the rest of the group and their husbands. It was a great weekend with lots of music--recorder quartets in the New Zealand bush, accompanied by native birdsong--walking, and good food.

Just before Easter, Pam's boss was seconded to the Waikato Special Education programme for three months, and Pam was invited to stand in until her return. Flattery overcame common sense, and she became Acting Resource Teacher for the Intellectually Handicapped, responsible for eight intellectually handicapped children and for supervising their ten aides. There was a huge variety of need amongst these children, ranging from Down's syndrome and autism to severe intellectual and physical disability. Indeed, one child had exceeded his expected lifespan so there was the real possibility that he might die any day. The job involved liaising with parents, outside workers such as physio, speech, and occupational therapists, and class teachers, to set up an individual programme for every child and to oversee its implementation and monitor its success. As well as teaching, the programme often involved toiletting and medication. Far from simply maintaining the status quo as Pam had anticipated, there was real decision-making to be done, and the Government didn't make things any easier by rescaling the aides' grading and salaries and also restructuring the children's financial support, all of which meant long and difficult consultations and discussion, and huge amounts of extra paperwork. As a total newcomer to this job Pam often found it overwhelming, but everyone survived and now she can look back on it as what is euphemistically called "a worthwhile personal growth experience."

In May Ian set off on an adventure of a different kind: he sailed to Fiji. Not in Beulah, in Ilanda, a fifty-foot steel yacht belonging to a friend, substantial and heavy, an ideal foul-weather boat. Which was a good thing, because the weather was foul. While motoring down the channel to Auckland the cellular phone rang (sailing is not the isolated experience it once was): it was a friend saying he'd just heard that a surprise tropical cyclone had formed and was about to hit New Zealand. We put into Whangerei further up the east coast and spent the next three days or so riding out the cyclone at the town pier, eating pizza and drinking cappuccino in the nearby restaurant. In fact our first taste of blue-water swimming was at the dead centre of a cyclone, on Sunday morning in the Whangerei town pool. Because of the tides we left this mooring before the bad weather had completely passed (otherwise we would have had to wait a further day and were already champing at the bit), convinced that we could weather the tail of the cyclone. Well, we did, but spent over 24 hours running under bare poles in four metre waves with no sails up at all. There were four of us: three-hour watches, with a communal watch from three to six in the afternoon so that watch times rotated every day. You come on deck at 3 AM in pitch black with the boat tossing about and only the angry swirling foam around you visible, at 3:00:30 AM a wave comes over and drenches you completely, and you're alone with just shivers and thoughts to keep you company until being relieved at 6 AM, still pitch black. After two days of rough weather without hot food or drink Ian decided to make a cup of tea: a hazardous experience. You need one hand to hold on (otherwise you're thrown immediately onto the floor), one to hold the cup (it's quite impossible to put it down), and a third for the kettle, a dangerous bomb full of evil boiling water and the nearest doctor eight days away. After 45 minutes of life-threatening work we all had half a cup of tea, the top half having spilled away immediately. You're probably thinking Ian really enjoyed this trip--and you're dead right! We saw nothing for eight days, no land, no lights, no other ships, no aeroplanes, nothing except for two albatrosses and a school of flying fish. (Pam says this sounds like hell!) One memorable morning he saw the dawn come up over the Pacific while listening to Orff's Carmina Burana at full volume on his portable CD player. We had some calm when we reached the horse latitudes in the middle of the trip, but after that when we picked up the trade winds they were not gentle, consistent, tropical breezes as advertized but gale force for three days. Sailing in through the reef at Fiji at 8 AM into the calm was an amazing experience, duly celebrated with rum. Unfortunately Ian spent just one day there: he had to fly home immediately to help pack up the house for the next trip.

Pam and Ian left in late June, a tearful (for us, at least) departure in Auckland airport leaving the kids behind for nearly six months. We spent our first days with Kirsten and Craig in San Francisco. The city is fantastic. Everywhere you look is a fascinating building, a surprising glimpse of bay or bridge framed by skyscrapers, extraordinary people. We walked for hours downtown and revisited our youth with a stroll around Haight Ashbury, which at 10 AM seemed stricken with a terminal hangover. Unknown to us, our visit happened to coincide with the Gay Pride Parade, and Craig and (especially) Kirsten insisted on expanding our small-town minds by taking us to watch--no, experience--it. This was a real extravaganza, unsuitable for prudes and the faint-hearted, led by dykes on bikes (five hundred female rockers on Harleys) and followed by drag queens with enormous bosoms, fishnet stockings and high boots, (male) cheerleaders in sexy (well, revealing anyway) cheerleader costumes, jugglers, go-go dancers, a super-abundance of greased, muscular, near-naked young male bodies oozing blatant sexuality, aids victims ... no women (once the Dykes had gone past)--well, no real women, anyway--and precious few in the good-humoured crowd either. And absolutely no children. Our feelings were confused. For Ian, the press of the crowd took on a new and unwelcome meaning! We felt alternately voyeuristic, amused, and sad. Overall it was certainly a very vibrant affair, upbeat if somewhat tawdry.

We did lots of things in San Francisco. We were duly amazed by the Phantom of the Opera, and afterwards we were blown away by martinis in the Redwood Room of the Clift Hotel--which, following a tip-off by an ex-Californian with whom Ian played jazz in Hamilton, is now a must on every visit to San Francisco. It's like stepping back to the twenties, into a huge tall elegant redwood-panelled room with a jazz duo and killer martinis (vodka ones with a huge olive stuffed with roquefort cheese): no-one has ever had more than two and lived to tell the tale. We drove over the hills to the coast: it is astonishing how after a maze of inner-city freeways surrounded by concrete industrial wasteland you emerge quickly into narrow country roads winding through rolling farmland and sequoia groves. We lunched in sleepy La Honda, an old-world backwater just half an hour over the hills from the bustle of Silicon Valley, and went down to the beach to paddle in the "other" side of the Pacific Ocean. It was cold.

We arrived in Calgary on Canada Day, just in time for the Stampede. We went twice--couldn't resist the thrills and spills of the rodeo and chuckwagon races. Pam wanted to inspect the sheep in the Agricultural Centre: longing for home? I guess we're country people now.

Remember the Titanic?--our Calgary car, I mean, a 1970's Oldsmobile Delta with eight huge cylinders (not usually all working at the same time), power everything, two barn doors, red plush interior with bench seats, furry dice hanging from the rearview mirror, radio stuck at full volume on the country music station, passes everything on the road except gas stations? Not being able to bear selling her after our last Calgary visit, we left her marooned in Jim and Marie's field at Camrose, near Edmonton. Well, when we arrived Jim upped anchor and got her under way for us, then we put her in dry dock for a safety check and got her back cruisin' around. Being completely outrageous, the Titanic is great fun to drive--on a temporary basis at least.

We made a big trip down through Southern Alberta, across the Crowsnest Pass and into Western Montana: redneck country. A huge surly American immigration lady reluctantly admitted us to the US where the welcome sign says "no speed limit in Montana, drive as fast as you like--we're proud to be free" (or something to that effect). We drove west through the Idaho panhandle, which was under construction (or so it seemed), and into Washington State where we camped on a NZ friend's property. One evening we sat by the broad, smooth-flowing Columbia River to watch the sunset and were treated to the sound of native Indian drumming and chanting drifting across from the reservation on the far bank. Pam had a scary experience with a tarantula in our friend's disused outside loo: there she was minding her own business when a scrabbling above her head--mouse?--appeared as a black furry ball which slowly extracted a wing and launched itself in her direction. No, not a spider, just a bat from hell. We went to a small-town rodeo in Silverdale, quite a different experience from the Calgary Stampede which is rather glitzy in comparison. This one opened with a local schoolgirl singing The Star-Spangled Banner and (astonishingly) O Canada solo over the PA system: well, these are not easy tunes and she degenerated into an embarrassingly audible "Oh shit" halfway through the latter, somewhat defeating the solemnity of the occasion. The bronc riding looks easy at the Stampede. You have to stay on for eight seconds and practically everyone does, being judged on points for "style." But here in real life virtually every rider bites the dust, painfully, in a second or less, and few survive for the second buck. Eager moms volunteer tiny kids from the audience for the "mutton bustin'" event, and many kids end up close to tears having been raked mercilessly around the corral by them pesky critters. It's tough growing up in Silverdale, Washington. We visited a survivalist store in tiny decrepit Addy, run by an eerily insane couple who muttered about freedom--"having never really experienced proper freedom you people from abroad probably find this hard to understand, but it's important to us Americans: it hurts when them DC politicians start restricting freedom, and we need to get organized and fight back." If you want a bumper sticker that says "Gun control works--ask the experts (Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gadafi)" you know where to go. As pinko liberals, we found this place scary.

Back in Calgary the weather was perfect for hiking and we made the most of being so close to the Rockies. They really are stunning. We hiked along canyons, through high alpine meadows filled with wild flowers (and the occasional ptarmigan), by azure lakes, past lofty waterfalls, up to crystal glaciers riven by huge crevasses, and over many passes. We gazed in awe at breath-taking vistas. Not having children we could go that much farther in each day hike, and despite our familiarity with the region we found a whole new world of places we had never before visited. And never once did we hear a plaintive "are we nearly there yet?"

In August Pam turned fifty, and we had the brilliant idea of spending the day trail riding. We found a back-country lodge near Yoho park that specializes in pandering to this kind of loony whim, and managed to persuade six foolhardy friends to join us for the three-day adventure. In honour of the occasion we received the "honeymoon bunkhouse" and awoke to look over horses peacefully grazing in an avenue of trees leading towards a ridge of high mountains behind. We had lots of fun, but Pam found six hours in the saddle enough to make her feel her age! We developed a real "rodeo roll" in our gait that could only be alleviated by long sessions in the sauna with occasional dips in the ice-cold spring-fed stream, the effects of which could in turn only be alleviated by a long rest in the bar. The lodge staff having been tipped off in advance, we celebrated the birthday with gorgeous gooey chocolate cake and champagne, and ended the day sitting round the campfire singing Everly Brothers songs in the gloaming, surrounded by pine trees. Pam was serenaded out on the trail by a string of urban cowboys and at suppertime in the lodge by the assembled guests--and also back in Calgary at another party that her friend Chris threw for her, by which time she was begging for mercy.

Ian had a quick conference trip to Philadelphia in July where he was disgusted by the Liberty Bell--not only is it much smaller than ones he used to ring, but it's cracked for goodness sake, and a botched repair job has failed to fix the problem; nevertheless American tourists practically fell to their knees before it to worship the history it represented (ok, ok, it's symbolic, but a cracked symbol?). On the way back he made a brief diversion by plane, small plane, tiny plane, car and boat to the Sheen's cottage on an island on Sand Lake on the Rideau Canal between Ottawa and Kingston where, trusty chainsaw in hand, he cut firewood for the winter. In late August he flew to London, staying in student accommodation up the Mile End Road for a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies--his interests, or at least the places they lead him, seem to get more eclectic by the year. A few days in Northern Ireland visiting parents, still living independently in the country at a ripe old age, a bit of sailing (in the rain!) with sister and family, up to Sheffield for a weekend to see brother and family, down to darkest Surrey for a meal with Pam's family, and two days visiting Middlesex University--it was a lightning, exhausting, trip, only to arrive back in Calgary just days before the course he was teaching began. Meanwhile, Pam was acting as tour guide for visitors from Auckland who arrived in Calgary the day before Ian returned.

Having decided on a separate trip to Europe, Pam went in October to check up on the family in Britain. Also, as it was "so close" she included a short trip to the south of France to visit her brother Steve who moved his family there in January to run a small village pub. Lindsey, Pam's eight year old niece, is appalled yet fascinated by the French penchant for eating unusual things, and on discovering a large frog squashed on the road outside the pub said "cor look at the size of that--you'd have thought someone would have nicked the legs off of it by now"! It is quite stunning to hear her nonchalantly chatting away to the locals after only a year of immersion in French. It had been three years since Pam last saw most of the UK contingent, so she found quite a lot of change, and apart from a couple of quick forays to visit friends spent the time catching up with family. An added bonus was being able to walk some of the ancient footpaths in glorious autumn sunshine, and a very eerie foggy walk on the Derbyshire moors to a circle of standing stones the day after Hallowe'en. She also visited some of the National Trust homes close to her parents' Surrey home, and revelled in the sense of antiquity that's lacking in North America and New Zealand.

Most of the time in Calgary we stayed in the basement of our very welcoming and long-suffering friend Joanne, who seemed remarkably unfazed by the fact that her kitchen cupboards got re-arranged every time we emptied her dishwasher, and didn't even bat an eyelid when, on more than one occasion, she answered her front doorbell to find young wandering Kiwis straight from the airport who'd heard from a friend of a friend that "Anna was in town and please could they have a bed for the night?" But we were fortunate to be invited to house-sit for Saul and Judy who live in Canmore, just a few miles east of Banff in the Rocky Mountains. Not only did we enjoy being able to hike to our heart's content without first having to drive for an hour or more, but we also appreciated returning to their beautiful home afterwards and relaxing in the hot tub with a cool glass of beer. This year saw a lot of bear activity in the mountains, which added an extra dimension to the sense of adventure each time we ventured up a trail--indeed we were unable to hike one of our favourite trails at Moraine Lake because a naughty little grizzly had developed a liking for the contents of hikers' backpacks, and so the park wardens closed the area for the summer. Luckily the only bears we saw were from the safety of the car, as they fed on berries by the roadside, but we saw lots of coyotes, and Pam glimpsed her first real, white, shaggy mountain goat and once even had a rather unexpected close encounter with a moose!

In September we house-sat for several weeks at Tammy and Danny's home while they went to China for an adventure. Actually we were cat-sitting, and as Calgary has appallingly strict pet control rules the two poor animals were only allowed outside on a leash. One liked to sit and eat grass, the other to chase squirrels; so with a leash in each hand Pam found herself stretched to the limit in order to satisfy each cat's requirements simultaneously. The house is in an old residential area close to downtown Calgary, so we experienced inner city living for a short while. It was fun! We frequented the local coffee bars regularly and discovered that the best Martini joint in town was well within staggering distance, much to Ian's delight.

So what were our daughters doing all this time? Well, Nikki was finishing her last year at high school, with final exams in November. She stayed in Cambridge with Polly, an American lady who is now considered Nikki's second mum, and several cats. The two of them got on extremely well and had a great time. Nikki felt that it was advantageous from a studying point of view not to be living at home, because all her storybooks were elsewhere and there was nothing to do but work! She sat her exams and we now know that she did well, obtaining university entrance with no trouble at all. She also spent a lot of time with her boyfriend Jake, who she claims really kept her nose to the grindstone. Nikki had an excellent year at school. The new school suited her well, giving her a bit more freedom. Her school ball was a real success; she fell in love with a rather expensive white dress and looked gorgeous.

Anna moved into a house in Hamilton with two friends, and continued her Polytechnic course on Travel and Tourism. She too seems to have got more deeply involved in study than before, showing a real aptitude for consumer law. This didn't really surprise us as she's always had an innate sense of justice and been quick to leap to the defence of anyone who she's felt has been hard done by--an admirable trait. She graduated from her year with no problem. Sometimes when Polly was away Anna moved in with Nikki, and by all accounts they got on really well together (at least for the first week or so). While we were away they had various vehicle problems. Our van was overheating seriously, despite them taking it to the garage for checking, and it overheated once too often, seizing the engine solid. Our little red car had a minor accident (not all by itself, but let's keep this as anonymous as possible) which damaged the radiator; there were various difficulties in getting and installing a replacement from a wrecker's yard. Luckily for us Jake and his father are skilled in car maintenance and saved us a fortune in mechanics bills. Without their help both girls would have been without a vehicle--and public transport is virtually non-existent here. On the whole the girls coped really well on their own, with the help of some friends: we began to wonder what parents are for! Maybe they coped better than their parents, who missed them a lot and worried quite a bit.

Music continued apace throughout the year. Pam plays in several recorder groups in both Hamilton and Auckland. Apart from weddings in Christchurch, Ian found himself performing at places ranging from a rather dingy jazz club in Hamilton with his trio, through the University Club, to the Waikato Sympathy Orchestra. He has been getting deeper into jewish "klezmer" folk music, and provided the entertainment at the Israeli Independence Day celebrations in Hamilton, first with a clarinet quartet that he leads and then in a klezmer duo with the guitarist in his jazz trio. This electrifying performance (with all due modesty) brought the house down, and old ladies were seen weeping, exclaiming that they had not heard such music since they left Eastern Europe forty years ago. (The tears, Ian maintains, were of emotion rather than pain.) Whereas Ian's musical activities slowed down when he came to Calgary--unfortunately rehearsals of the University Symphonic Band, in which he played before, clashed with the course he was teaching, and all he had going were a few very enjoyable jazz sessions with an ex-student who plays wonderful piano--Pam's accelerated. Luckily for her, several of her former music friends were still playing on a regular basis and she was warmly invited back into the fold. Between the five of them they could manage four recorders, three viols, a flute, a piano and a harpsichord: the combinations were many and varied. For Pam this was a real treat.

Now we've brought you up to the beginning of December, when the girls and Jake arrived in Calgary and life changed pace for us all. Next year we will tell you of our exploits and how we left Anna there to fend for herself (very successfully, by all accounts) while we returned to New Zealand. In the meantime, lots of love and belated seasonal greetings. We hope your New Year is happy and will continue to be so. May peace be with you and Christmas letters come earlier this year.

Pam, Ian, Anna, and Nikki