Fancy a dance with death? That's what you have to do for good luck and a prosperous new year around these parts. Last night we and a group of friends went Ķekatās around the centre of Rīga. It's the first time I've ever taken part in this Latvian pagan equivalent of Halloween or the English tradition of 'Mummers' - and it was fantastic!
In Latvian traditional culture the time of Ķekatas stretched from late autumn to early spring - the time when everything is the darkest and you are waiting for the sun and warmth to come back to the land. People would get dressed up as gypsies, animals, and even "death" (the grim reaper) - and go from house to house singing and dancing and being generally boisterous. Ķekatas bring good fortune to any house they visit - provided you treat them nice! You have to let them in when you hear them knocking at the door - be kind to them, offer them treats to eat, alcohol, dance and sing with them. Each Ķekata character has its own role to play - the bears growl in all the corners of your house to bring it luck, you have to dance with "death"for health in the new year, the crane asks you riddles, the gypsy tells your fortune, etc.
This tradition isn't really that easy to practice in a capital city where people bar their doors and turn on their alarm systems - so we picked friends who we knew would understand what we were up to and danced around the city. As you can see I was the grim reaper, Jem was a squirrel, Mikus and Matiss were bears, our other friends were a motley assortment of cross dressers, gypsies, goats and others. One of the best parts was when we were hammering on the door of one friend, who was taking her time in answering, when the neighbours opened THEIR door - so we danced into their apartment- only to find out that they were also acquaintances of ours who have moved to Latvia from Australia! Weird coincidence.
Walking from one house to the other we also made sure we did some twirls with random passers-by - some of which understood the sentiment and graciously participated - while other people (the security guards outside the parliament building in particular) grumbled and chased us off. Spoil sports!
To my joy the boys also got into the spirit of Ķekatas - they started off a bit freaked out by the costumes and disappointed that the whole ritual was more about singing and dancing rather than getting lollies (I had explained to Tiss that it was a Latvian equivalent of Halloween), but as the night wore on the boys were more and more in their element, and their calls for "going home" changed to "another house!!".
Anyhow, suffice it to say I have a bit of a hangover today after dreaming strange, colourful and noisy dreams. I certainly now understand the tradition of Ķekatas more than theoretically. The whole concept of masking/taking on another personae does help when you have to barge into other people's houses or dance with complete strangers! It gives you a lease to act the way you ususally wouldn't! And it's fun! So here's to more Ķekatas next year...



While I'm on a roll with breaking the blogging drought, thought I'd share some snaps from our brief outing yesterday on 18 November, Latvian independence day. We have all been grossly sick with a cold/flu/fever thing so there was minimum celebrating at our place, but we did manage to make a pilgrimage to the freedom monument to put down some flowers for Latvia. Tiss insisted on two red flowers and one white (like the Latvian flag). Afterwards he also insisted that we "go to that big yellow "M" over there" (meaning, the golden arches), which after a lot of umming and aaahhhing and saying that he really should be eating sauerkraut or piragi on day like today, we broke down and bought the kids happy meals all round. Why not make it a real celebration, we figured, and for the kids - there's nothing better than McDonalds, they get it so rarely... I drew the line when the lady at McDonalds offered the kids little paper McDonalds flags - I thought a Latvian flag in one hand, and McD's flags in the other would be pushing the celebration a bit too far.

It's finally happened - we are now the proud new owners of a house in Āgenskalns, Rīga. This time, I'm worried I've bitten off a bit more than I can chew! The deeds were all signed off about a week ago and since then I've been racing around trying to organise a fence to be built around our patch of dirt, to get the house insured, to find an architect, an engineer, etc, etc, etc. None of these tasks has proved to be easy. If the price of fences in Rīga is indicative of the kind of prices we will pay for renovating, I'm afraid we will still be heating with 8x wood fire stoves and have no bathroom long, long into the future! Needless to say we have a bit (!!)of work to do before we move in. But I'm hoping that in a little (or a long) while we will have a semi-habitable house to move in to. I must admit that I am a bit excited - no matter what all those "oh-my-god-you've-bought-a-piece-of-shit-with-sloping-floors" people say. I happen to think sloping floors will be easier, I will always be able to find the kid's marbles when they roll away. And I think peeling paint is just charming! The prospect of having a back yard is also very exciting. We have already planned where the swing and the treehouse will go., Matiss and Mikus are very enamoured of the slag heap in the yard which I haven't told them will be going very soon...
Ps. Thanks for the "Wiggles" beanie, Oma, Mikus loves it and refuses to wear any other hat. I think he looks a bit ridiculous in it - like a parakeet - and tried to hide it whenever we were going out, but he keeps insisting that I find it for him!

Well we finally settled on a name, in the end Tiss insisted on calling our new kitten Fizzgig (after I showed him a pic of the character Fizzgig from Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal") - so she gets called Fizzy most of the time. Kinda suits her because she is very effervescent! I'm amazed at how social and playful a cat can be - that's kittens for you I suppose. Fizzy follows me around like a puppy most of the day, crawls into my lap at any opportunity. When I am working she sleeps on my desk with her head on the mouse mat so that I bump her head with my hand every time I move the mouse. (yes, its gets irritating!). She is incredibly patient and tolerant of the boys, she plays with them readily, her favourite toys are marbles that she bats up and down the hallway (even at 3am) and pretty much anything the boys are playing with. She has moments of total craziness - racing through the apartment, paws sliding out on the lino - and definitely has a strong character of her own. Matiss has started drawing series of cat pictures while Mikus' favourite toys at the moment are six little plastic cats he got a the toy store. So there you go! An irreplaceable family member already!
(Oh by the way, Māra F., thanks for the antique tsar-era basket... its now Fizzy's favourite place to sleep...)

I'm not really a political animal. Opinionated, certainly, but I don't usually immerse myself in the minutiae of political life, reading newspapers avidly and keeping up with the names of ministers and their lackeys. But when important things happen, like elections, I make sure I read up on the necessary information so that I can take part in the democratic process knowingly...
There's not an election on at the moment, but lately, even this a-political mum has taken to the streets.
I'll try not go into a rant about exactly what's happening in Latvian politics - if you're interested I can point you to a few political opinion websites - but basically, the government's level of shameless corruption and pure self-centered greed have hit new heights. As the latest in a recent succession of dodgy power-grabbing moves, our premier illegally sacked the head of Latvia's anti-corruption commission last week, for a set of accounting misdemeanors, the kind that would usually earn a stern talking-to at most.
When watching the political process in Latvia, you often end up feeling a little like you're watching a sci-fi movie - things don't seem quite real. You often sit there wondering how this could all be allowed to happen.... I suppose the answer is that the government is the highest power and a law unto themselves, and they can do whatever they want - who will stop them (especially if you fire the head of the anti-corruption bureau! Oh, and instate a new Prime Minister who is a surgeon and publicly admits to having taken bribes!).
So to cut a long rant short, FINALLY more people have got fed up, and a few days ago there was a protest outside the Saiema (Parliament) in Riga. It was the largest protest gathering since the protests calling for Latvian independence. Over 5000 people turned up, although it was early morning, cold and pouring rain - and I think it was well worth it. Both politically, as it seems to have sent a message to the government, which have gone into 'crisis mode' since the event with ministers stepping down etc., we will see how things unfold - but also personally. It was a very heartening experience to take my personal despair at politics out on the streets, and to see that others feel the same. It was inspiring to be amongst a throng of people, pensioners and students and well-known academics, writers and musicians - and feel a sense of solidarity. This is not something you see that often here - people rarely wear their sense of social responsibility on their sleeves - and I often feel like there are only a few of us who make choices based on other principles rather than "me first". It was also a great feeling to be actively involved in caring about this country - instead of passively listening to the news and shaking my head and switching off in despair.
So here's to taking to the streets - with husband and kids in tow next time! And I expect the next time will be soon, as the Saiema will be voting on the dismissal of our sorry anti-corruption chief in the next few weeks... Will keep you posted!

Here he is, our new friend! He/she's half feral - we rescued him from the street last week. We figured that little kittens didn't stand a chance if there was a cold snap (which is coming, soon!) or vicious dogs around. I have always harboured a secret desire of owning a cat again, so we figured that this was a good a time as any to adopt. The boys were over the moon, of course, until they realised that he wasn't that easily coaxed out from under the bed, but over the last week he has got more used to us and has started to play like kittens should. The only catch is that he won't let us pat him! He'll sit on my lap, rub up against our legs and chase us around the house, but patting or touching with hands is strictly forbidden. I wonder if he has been traumatised, and associates hands with bad things? Who knows. Hopefully, he will slowly get used to us.
We haven't got a name yet! The list just keeps getting bigger, so I thought I'd 'throw it out there' for some votes, please! If you're reading this then express an opinion. it might help give little whatshisname an identity. We are tossing up: Fizzgig (my choice), Grover (Matiss' choice), Pūka (Latvian for "Fluff" - Jeremy's choice), Scrappy, Beelzebub, Snowy (yep, just like 'bluey' for a redhead), Slinky Malinky, Scarface Claw (Mikus' choice) and others. Any more suggestions?
An early morning game of "catch the string" with Tiss

Well, it's been and gone already... three months of Latvian summer. We packed in as much as we could. So here it is, a pictorial summer round-up...
Lots of hangin' out at the beach

Playing 'tea parties'

Playing 'shops'

Playing 'explorers'

Plenty of outdoor dining

And other outdoor activities

Camping in the rain

And Jem built a bbq

We kept working on dodgy fix-its for the well... and we still had a water shortage

A water shortage calls for desperate measures... a bath in the sink

Great-great-granny's high-energy reading corner

The Saldus ballooning festival

This is right before the security guards came and told us to STOP!

Visiting friends at their country house

Oma and Opa came to visit from OZ

And I got to be rockstar for the day when I sang with Latvian post-folklore group 'Ilgi' at the Riga birthday celebrations

So that's about it... next post will be a birthday round-up... because late August is always HUGE in the Smedes/Auliciems birthday stakes!

When I was a teenager my dad used to always mention "The Dukabors", some mythical African tribe which were meant to have the tradition/philosophy of burning down their homes and all their worldly possessions every seven years, and then starting all over again, only to burn it all up seven years down the track, etc, etc. I think dad probably made this tribe up, and I tired of him mentioning them: "Mazais, have I ever told you about the Dukabors?"...
But I have finally started to understand my Dad. And those mystical Africans. I am SO sick of all my stuff. MY stuff, HIS stuff, THEIR stuff. Stuff is the bane of my life. STUFF always gets in the way when I'm hurrying, the wrong type of STUFF gets thrown away and the useless kind of STUFF keeps hanging around (yes, they are my kitchen shelves above). Of course it doesn't help that Jeremy and I are hopeless hoarders. And that my job is that of museum curator and collection manager - I have spent most of my professional life trying to justify why certain STUFF is important, even though no-one else thinks so.
Our onslaught of stuff has started to overtake everything we do, we amassed all our stuff onto the cover of a CD that Jem designed a few months ago (see below).
I have started to have daydreams of being in a witness protection programme, in which my family and I get moved to a completely new place, an anonymous setting, an apartment with generic furniture and accessories, with no character, no personality, and have to just pick up life where we left off, without all of our STUFF following behind. To start my relationship with material possessions all over again - move somewhere with nothing, and every item that I chose to live with, would be chosen with purpose. Every item would be totally functional. Every item would have its place, and its reason for being in my life. I'd like to believe that in this ordered, functional world, my thought processes and my time would be a lot more ordered, too. Mind you, I have a certain two year old who would probably take great delight in following behind me and swapping the locations of all my rationally placed tools...
Most sane people seem to be able to achieve this clarity by ordering in a mini-skip - or 'the crusher' - and clearing out their old junk. But this seems like a total impossibility to me - I have neither the time nor the mental fortitude to do so. I get the feeling a few people in my family have this disease - we have left behind a double garage of (now mouldy) stuff in Brisbane, packed to the ceiling - and lord help the poor sucker who gets to unpack that baby. Mind you, it'll probably be me!
I realise that our impending move to our new (also mouldy) house in Agenskalns is the perfect opportunity for me to weed out the old stuff and just keep that which I need. But come on: you and I both know it's not going to happen! The best I can hope for is that I unpack the useful stuff, and the USELESS stuff stays in the removalist boxes and gets put down in the HAIR BASEMENT (that's another story) to make a partner to our double garage in Brisbane. And let my kids worry about cleaning it out some day!

If you ask me, there's nothing better than a jar of homemade jam. Especially if you crack it open on a cold winter morning so that you can decorate your porridge with strawberries or cherries or blackcurrants which you picked long, long ago - when it was sunny and you could walk around barefoot...
Homemade jam for Latvian-Latvians is no big deal. During the Soviet era you couldn't really buy mass-produced preserves from the shop, so every granny and person with a garden would make their own jam, jelly, cordials, pickled cucumbers and salads etc. Typically, gran always made WAY too much and lots of my friends seem to have memories of getting jars of jam from the cellar which had been there for years, and remember feelings of frustration because gran kept making new jars, before the old supplies could be finished off. Even today it is accepted that the store-bought jam is the 'posh', high quality stuff. But not for me!!
A few years ago I thought I'd try my hand at making jam, and haven't looked back. No pectin, though. You just boil the berries with lots of sugar, let it cool, boil it again, let it cool, until it thickens and then just whack it into jars. I know that I'm probably meant to have thermometers and bottling accessories and recipes and stuff, but I don't want to overcomplicate things. And also - why bother when the kids slurp down my strawberry jam faster than I can make it? One little touch that does make a difference, though, is a kiddie-drawn label.
So it all starts in late June with strawberries - last year my aim was to make enough jam so that I wouldn't be forced to buy that soul-less, smooth supermarket version. Let me tell you, there's nothing more heartbreaking than a pot of burned strawberry jam. Ask Jem what a grown woman does when she burns it!
We have berry bushes all around our house - blackcurrants and gooseberries, and there are also red currants and raspberries just down the hill. When Mikus is sleeping and Tiss is otherwise occupied, I am partial to plonking myself down next to one of these bushes with a little bucket and picking berries. Those tiny balls of flavour and vitamins. Mmmmmm. When we first moved over here, I was intrigued and just that little bit offended when the workers building Kugures mentioned that there were some great wild strawberries and raspberries growing on our property - and they had just been eating them. When I asked them where, they answered: "Not telling!" And they meant it. If you know a good wild berry patch in Latvia, you certainly don't share the info around.
My triumph this summer is making jam from rowan berries, pīlādži in Latvian. They turn red/orange when the weather gets colder and are small, hard, bitter berries with a black cross on the end. A pīlādzis is a magical plant in Latvian folklore. Good against witches and other evils. Anyhow, I made jam with rowan berries, some apple, and a dash of good gin. Mashed through a sieve to remove the hard stones. And it worked! Great with meat or a tart jam to put on a grown-up toast.
My biggest jam-making disappointment this year were the cherries - we usually have oodles of sour cherries from the trees around our house, and this year was shaping up to be a BIG year. Ages ago I gave up making "Latvian olives" - hours of painstakingly removing stones from cherries and then layering them in a jar with rum or other such spirit, leaving them soak so that around Christmas time you can spend many sozzled evenings remembering summer and the fruits of the harvest - because soon after making the 2 five-litre jars of Latvian olives, I got pregnant, and had to miserably watch everyone ELSE eating them that Christmas... so I got into making cherry jam instead. Much more politically correct and child-friendly. BUT this year it was not to be. One weekend, when we were away camping, a flock of birds flew down and ate everything off the trees. It must have been a big flock because when we returned from our 2 days of camping (me with my jam-making pot ready to go), there was NOTHING left. Not even a sole cherry stone on a stalk. I felt very ripped off, and still do. So next summer you will see me running around the orchard like a madwoman, hanging bits of alfoil and nets over everything!
I could go on and on about berry culture, but I'm sure I've said enough.
PS. Above is a friend, Kaija Moore, enjoying wild strawberries we picked in a Kūgures field this summer - yep, I gave away the secret location

Sorry to anyone who actually reads my ramblings - I haven't been writing much lately. Partly because I've been computer-deprived, but mostly because I've not had much to say! Too relaxed and busy picking berries. Berry picking will definitely have to be the subject of my next entry.
Being in the country has been so wonderful, but soon we will be returning to the 'mean streets' of Riga. During the summer we have been back a handful of times for various commitments - and returning after so much time in the country is always a bit of a shock. When you live here you get used to that fine, black street dust that covers everything, but after the vivid green of Kūgures, Rīga is looking greyer and dirtier than usual. It seems as if everyone in the family feels it: this time the kids went psycho the minute we walked in the door of our apartment, I felt a big stress ball descend on all of us.
I had forgotten my big mental wall of resistance I usually have set up when in Riga - the wall that deflects all of the 'agro' you feel when out on the street. I'm talking about that hard city-stare and those elbows when you're queuing. Too many people who put way too much time into thinking about what they are wearing rather than about how to respect and care for their fellow pedestrians and neighbours. People who believe that if they can scam/earn/steal enough money to buy a luxury car, they have the right to park where they want and drive how they want: and by extension anyone who doesn't have a car like theirs is a lesser human being. It's a crass, simplistic, 'nouveau riche' style and attitude which rules the streets in Rīga, and after a while of living amongst it, it starts to affect you in all sorts of ways. You become self-conscious if you have run down to the corner store in your tracksuit pants (yes, Joel, even YOU); you fret if the kids start yelling too loudly in the park; and worst of all - you find yourself slowly but surely, looking at others who aren't following the "dress and behaviour code" as strange - or even inappropriate.
I know this is the story for a lot of cities - but Rīga seems especially good at it.
I have spent quite a while watching and trying to analyse this and I know the background, there's lots of reasons for it to be this way: previous enforced Soviet conformity and oppression; the influence of our large (and often tasteless) neighbour; the influence of the seemingly priveliged West; the rapidly changing economy; the fact that our neighbourhood has turned into an yuppie, sought-after area lately; etc, etc. I know there's good justification but it's annoying nevertheless. So I have to start building that wall again, I suppose. Oh, and keep the kids' yelling down to a dull roar!

Well, we've now moved to the country for the next few months - the day Matīss finished kindergarten we got into the car (along with the kindy guinea pig) and headed straight to Kūgures (our country house). So that's why we haven't been answering emails or phone calls. The first few days are always a bit stressful because we don't have an internet connection down there - or a landline for that matter - and so I feel like I've cut myself off from the world.
The country is so INTENSE at the moment - we've just celebrated Jāņi, the summer solstice, and paid homage to the sun (at Jāņi, the longest day of the year, it never really gets properly dark, and the sun technically sets for a few hours) and basked in the gloriousness of the countryside at its peak. On the day before Jāņi I did the traditional thing for girls to do, wandered out into a field to pick flowers for my wreath - and sat down amongst the staggering array of wildflowers. The sight was amazing - dozens of different flowers and plants all 'doing their thing', with the heavy honey aroma enveloping me and the sound of a million bees buzzing all around.
So who cares that it was raining all morning - a warm summer rain - we waded out through waist-high grass to cut branches from oak trees anyway. Then managed to bog the car and had to walk back home, gathering cornflowers and poppies along the way.
It was the first year we celebrated Jāņi at Kūgures. About 40 Jāņa bērni ('Jānis' children') came to help us, and we spent a day involved in pagan ceremony. Here's some pics. I won't go into the whole ethnographic explanation. Suffice it to say that I don't believe in all the new-age mumbo jumbo, but I am convinced that at Jāņi the whole of the country vibrates some kind of magical energy. If you don't believe me, come over on the 24th June next year and see if I'm right.


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