Rome.  How I love the fact that we could accompany Jem on one of his work junkets,  I mean, trips. After the three hour flight from Riga we arrived past midnight, and I found myself all sweaty in the heat of Rome, looking into the red eyes of my overtired (and still very excited) kids, thankful that we lived "nearby", and hadn't just made the 24-odd hour flight to Europe from Oz.   While Jem sat in meetings for the most of four days, we tramped around the city, followed our noses, ate mountains of gelati, marvelled at lots of art works, walked many kilometres, almost caught a few pigeons, and generally had a great time.  I love travelling with the boys - they are good company and hardened travellers, as long as you do things at their pace and there is a gelati incentive after every 2 or 3 hours of classical art.  Tiss loved it so much that he was in tears on the last night, thinking he would never eat at "our" pizza shop again.  I consoled him that after pitching 3 coins over his shoulder into the Trevi fountain, a return to Rome was definitely on the cards.   Mikus has developed at an amazing pace over the last few days, insisted on carrying his bag himself EVERYWHERE, and has not uttered a sentence of "baby talk" while we have been away.  So hopefully Rome has cured him of that habit.  As for me, it was an inspiring break.  Next time I visit I want to do it without the "just built a house and live in Eastern Europe with matching wages" conditions ... mmm.... walking past the leather shops all I could do was instruct the boys (and myself) to breathe in DEEPLY and savour the smell of new leather handbags.  Anyhow, without any further ado, here's a small selection of travel snaps.  If you fall asleep looking at other people's travel photos, then save yourself the trouble and go to bed.  Now!

Obligatory tourist stop #1 - the mouth of truth.  Just checkin' to see if my kids are being honest.  Mikus is looking nervous...  (according to legend this mouth will bite off the hand of anyone who is a liar)

The first day was dedicated to the Colosseum and "rabbit ears" photographs.

Before the rain.  The skies grew dark every afternoon while we were in Rome, reminding me of Brissie - those muggy days when evening rain and lightning bring relief.  In Rome, the rain also brings annoying umbrella street-sellers that follow you around, especially if you are dragging two drenched kids through the downpour.

Museums sported lots of lovely marble busts!

Kids starting to look out for that gelati incentive

 Happier now. In Campo de Fiori.

Mmmm, which flavour?  Jem joins us for an evening ice-cream. (No Mum!  It's not ice-cream!  Its GELATI.  And they aren't sandwiches.  They're PANINI.)  Can I just say that Italians are stylish.  My God, are they good at font work - and clothes.  Understated elegance in all manner of apparel.  I swear I saw about 20 Sophia Loren lookalikes in one day alone!  And not a hint of a bedazzler in sight.

This scene had me singing Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) for the rest of the day...  I think I see the light, coming through me, coming to me... so shine, shine, shine...  
In the churches we visited Mikus was curious at the graphic statues and paintings of Jesus on the cross, and we got to talkin' - and for the first time he heard the story of Jesus, from beginning to end.  Followed up the next day by tapestries and paintings in the Vatican, and combined with what he saw in a movie about the history of Rome - the bloody murder of Caesar  (Et tu, Brute) - the little boy has enough gruesome food for imagination to give him nightmares for the next few years!

The Rome metro is disappointing for the metro connoisseur.  It is, for want of a better word, scummy.  No design, no decoration, no pride in appearance, no elaborate network of far-reaching tunnels. Only thing it's got going for it is the simple, oh so simple ticketing, with electronic cards that beep and open plexiglass gates.  Now THEY were a bit of fun combined with kids and a dumb mum who didn't know what was going on.

Kilograms of pizza.  Served on big cutting boards, hunks of mozarella, eggplant, salami... you name it

The boys saying goodbye to "our" pizza man (Tiss oh so sad) - who wasn't Italian-born, incidentally.  Offered amazing Turkish-Italian fusion cuisine (yeah, I mean kebab meat on a pizza base, as pictured above).

Anubis and Mr. Tough-guy in the Vatican Museum.  I didn't sneak my camera out to get a snap of the roof of the Sistine Chapel.  Sorry folks.  I figured you've seen it on enough postcards already. 

Last day - Vatican museum.  Over the rabbit ears, thankfully

Finally.  Mikus has started to write.  It's been sorely testing my patience.  You'd think I'd remember valuable lessons from Tiss' road to literacy, described in this post.  And partly, I did - I remembered that new skills come as a sudden explosion, one minute they refuse to write, can't read anything, and the next day they write a whole sentence and you wonder how it happened.  Well I've been waiting for the explosion.  And waiting, and waiting.  And this week it's happened. Mikus has started to write.  It started with an age-old motivating tool - providing an "incentive".  So when Mikus started wheedling about wanting to watch TV this week, I told him he could do it if he wrote me a letter about it.  Voila, there I suddenly had a determined literary genius on my hands.  Since the first "I want TV", we have progressed to "I want popcorn", "I love chocolate", and the inimitable "I like Scooby Doo" (in Latvian, above).  Admittedly, he has started a whole year behind his brother, who started writing at 5 years, but I suspect that this is the new lesson I'm meant to learn - that you can't assume that all your kids are the same.  Appreciate the difference. Enjoy the nuances.  And watch some great Hanna Barbera cartoons along the way.

I love this wonky, sunken house we stroll past every morning on the way to kindergarten.  Its obviously on its way out.  But lovable nevertheless.  Even more so with a blooming cherry tree in the garden.

Speaking of blooming, we made an ultra-quick visit to the country this weekend.  So much there is flowering, all perfumed and delicious.  Golden fields of dandelions, cherries, apple trees, lilac.  I can't wait to de-camp  to the country in a couple of weeks when summer holidays start.  Incidentally, Latvian schools have the longest summer holidays out of all the countries in the EU.  3 months, from 1 June to 1 September.  Gotta make the most of the sun, I guess.

We are totally disregarding the dates of the school term and are taking off a week early - the boys and I are going with Jem on a work trip next week.  He's going to the Italy office, while we're going to eat lots of pizza and gelati.  Oh yeah, and see a ruin or two.  Gotta say we are all super excited!

The boys practised their dance moves this arvo.  I wanted to call it Jazzercise, but I'm sure it's not.  What the hell IS Jazzercise?  Why do people do it?

... and should a mother be worried about the future of their children if they dance like this?

... how did that song go again?  This post has been building for a while.  I'm just not sure where to start - so I've decided to break it up into manageable chunks.  We start the story in an inner-city suburb of Riga, Latvia - a suburb which historically was a place of wooden manor houses.  Later, in the late 19th century, the area was built up with two-storey wooden apartment houses for the workers.  Today many of these houses remain - buildings right up along the side of the road, with large green communal courtyards, or backyards, behind them.  This is what our house had behind it when we bought it - a big yard shared by the inhabitants of three houses - nothing much else but dilapidated wood sheds, some grand old oak and maple trees, and some shabby lawn.  Oh, and the wooden table and benches in the middle where the daily piss-up would happen - in the summer, anyway.  You see, many of our neighbours - the people living in the other two houses - are ageing alcoholics down on their luck.  May not be polite to say it, but its the truth.  Our suburb is like what West End in Brisbane used to be before it was gentrified.  Or Footscray in Melbourne.  A bit, well...  scummy.  Huge potential.  But scummy nevertheless.
Not to worry, we thought, and whacked a huge fence up through the middle of the courtyard when we finally settled on the house - this was about 4 years ago.  Most of the ramshackle, built-by-uncle-Sergey-with-scrap-wood sheds were torn down, the piss-up table was removed, and we had our own backyard.  All 400 square metres of lawn, apple and cherry tree, acorns and dirt.  Of course, the neighbours were mildly annoyed - they were still left with some space, but a part of it was now inaccessible.  And I felt a little uneasy about bringing the first whiff of gentrification to our courtyard.  But we struggled on with the house, and after the building crews began to find all the rotten internal and external walls, our new back yard started turning into a timber yard.  We had a supply of rotting beams that kept on growing.  At one point we thought the pile of wood would be higher than the actual house.
Long story short (I'll leave some more detail for parts 2 and 3), but after the building work was completed and we moved in, the yard stayed as it was.  Bits of firewood and piles of 100 year old brick and building supplies and old beams stacked in piles.  The spring came and melted our beautiful blanket of snow, and there it all was in front of us.
Needless to say we have not yet gathered the stamina to order 10 huge mini skips to pile everything in.  That's one of the many jobs I see round the corner.
What we did do today though was start pulling down the last remaining wood shed, which was full of treasures from when we took over ownership of the house all those years ago.  The boys thought we were in junk-lovers heaven, and kept dodging rotten beams to dart in the shed and drag out finds.  An interesting thing about our house is that it has a commercial space which has been a hairdressers, a shoemakers and an op shop at various times in history.  In its last incarnation it was a second-hand store, and the cash registers, clothes racks (sans clothes, unfortunately) and scales (clothes were sold by weight!) were still left.  Not to mention the big "used clothing" sign above the door.  All of these treasures were in the shed today, besides a few more.  Everything filthy, musty and very "lived on" by alley cats.  Nothing a good scrub won't fix though...  if the 'treasures'don't go to the tip, that is!

This is my favourite - a wrought iron and brass bedstead.  This we found stashed in the attic after we bought the house - in the darkest corner.  Amazing that it was still there, considering how heavy it is and how most metal things get stolen and traded in as scrap metal around these parts.

A suitcase full of high-heel galoshes and old 1950s Russian sewing patterns.  Oooh la la!

 Selling clothes by weight with big old grocers scales - typical of the immediate post-soviet time in Riga. Another treasure we took home long ago was the shop's abacus - shop keepers would use the abacus back then to check if the cash registers were correct.  Go figure.

One of the cash registers still works - beeps and dings and the drawer opens when you hit the right button - awesome

So Tiss and Mik got all entrepeneurial and decided to take the "used clothes" sign out the front of the house and set up a stall, with some of dad's clothes from the dirty clothes basket.  They didn't sell anything, but one of the inebriated neighbours turned up at the end and they hot-tailed it back inside, dirty clothes and all...  

Eventhough we've lived near Scandinavia for ten years, in all this time I haven't visited much of it.  Kinda like living in Queensland and never having snorkelled on the Barrier Reef.  You know you'll do it someday, so you don't hurry to do it - and visitors from other parts of the world wonder if you have rocks in your head.
The last four days I was on a work trip in Norway - a country I visited for the first time.  Although we didn't do too much sight seeing, we enjoyed views of modest red wooden Norwegian country cabins on the edge of lakes, or in the middle of rolling countryside on the way up to the town of Hamar.
Norway, as far as I understand it, is one of the richest countries in the world.  Latvia, last time I checked, is one of the poorest countries in the EU.  So needless to say we found Norway hideously expensive.  In anticipation of the prices we (3 colleagues and I) had brought bags of food along, and we mostly opted for making our own meals in the museum apartment we were staying in, rather than buying crappy 700 crown (about $20) hotdogs for dinner.  A humbling experience - and seeing as we specialize in emigration, I kept having visions of WWII refugees living off loaves of Latvian rye they had taken from their homeland.  I've gotta say that after day four with a dwindling supply of rye bread and cheese made the Latvian refugee experience all a bit too real, and I broke out on the last day to buy food that made us feel human again.
We mostly spent time touring around some of the museums in and around Hamar, and were impressed by the resources invested by Norway into cultural heritage.  Norwegians themselves are reserved, and sincere, and in terms of character very much suit the Latvian disposition.  We felt comfortable with our Norwegian colleagues, and from the visit I think I better understand the equally  modest super-style of Scandianvian architecture and design.
After the trip I know I definitely want to return to Norway as a tourist, not a museum  professional - with a huge pile of cash and a wide-angle lens ...

Hedmark museum - medieval ruins preserved by a modern construction by Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn - a fabulous synthesis of new and old, creating a light, airy gallery for the artefacts within.

Hedmark museum also sported the most amazing medieval cathedral ruins surrounded by a huge glass "greenhouse" - making for a warm and echoing space of worship amongst the stonework

A couple more details from museums.  Above, the Alf Proysen museum (a Norwegian musician and children's entertainer).  He grew up in a fairly poor farmhouse, which was on the "shadowy side" of the valley - literally.  In Norway this is kinda like being from "the wrong side of the tracks".

Inside the church at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum - all these things (including the church itself) are items previously beloning to American-Norwegians, which have been relocated from the USA

Mmmm.  wooden door.

Double mmm.  Norwegian creme brulee ice cream - just what we needed to wash down our rye with cheese

How I want me a pair of them troll shoes...  clumpy, felted, gorgeous troll shoes! Maybe next visit...

Don't move!  Or I'll blast 'ya!
Today.  Star Wars Party.  For Mikus.  Things were good.  Some guests came in costume - even some adults.  Some did not.  We are tired.  Off to bed.  Some pics below.  PS. For you curious cats, you may be able to see bits and pieces of our (UNPAINTED!  UNFINISHED!) new house in the background

 Mikus welcomes his guests

Light saber swingin' in a room full of balloons

Two party pinatas getting smashed.  One death star pinata - I'm in the background worried a party guest is about to be accidentally smacked by a lightsaber.  With the second one - a face of darth maul - Mikus use of a 4x2 made for more effective smacking (of the pinata, not the party guests).  Note he has now changed his costume from Darth Vader to Luke.

My extremely complicated culinary masterpiece - chocolate cake with m+ms. 

 Uncle Joel (and also Mik's godfather) watches blowing out the candles through Skype video.  He lives in Angola, Africa.  Well how's that for technology and time zone coordination?!

Ewok party

Mikus gets tossed up in the chair 6 times!  By the girls.

And here's some lovely ladies in matching hair pieces

 Happy and tired, goodbye guests! 


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