I've been itching to write but have been so busy finishing an (internet) exhibition, that I have barely managed to keep the children fed.  The exhibition was finally released into the world today which is a huge weight lifted from our collective shoulders, as Jem was doing the designing.  The launch went well, I managed to get out of speaking, but simply paraded around in a retro 60s "Jackie O" suit inherited from my grandmother.  There is no amount of washing that can remove the aroma of Chanel No.5 from my grandmother's threads.  She was a classy lady, no mistake.

Anyhow, I've been wanting to share the revelation I've had, since Jem's brother's family stayed with us for three weeks in July.  A happy reunion, as we have not met for two years. And during this three weeks I realised that sisters-in-law are awesome for lots of reasons.  Obviously, I always knew they were good to hang out with:

But this visit, I realised that certain SILs are good for PAVLOVA.  This is a food I haven't eaten since we were last in Oz - four years ago.  Pavlova has to be the most divine dessert known to man.  And my sis-in-law knows how to make 'em.  On the last night they were here, she made two.  One for the guests and one for me :)

But last, and definitely not least. SILs (with a little help from their partners, I guess) provide you with nieces and/or nephews.  Which is even better than pavlova, I reckon.

We spent the last week at a family summer camp.  I originally had the idea  because going to camp is a big part of diaspora Latvian life, and some of my best memories come from being at camps as a child. Latvians are good at living in camps, having had a lot of experience at this in the five years following the second world war, when Latvian refugees lived in refugee camps in Germany before being relocated to their new "homes" elsewhere.  Latvian camp in Australia or the USA for us, children of the first generation migrants, was a "shot in the arm" of Latvian spirit, language and culture.
Last year I realised that my kids had never had a similar experience, and so this year we spent a week together living at a boarding school in the country, taking part in all sorts of interesting activities, with us adults also having to organize a few ourselves.
I must admit it was a bit of a shock to the system for all of us.  Although we all had a great time overall, there were certain aspects that took a bit of getting used to.  For me, it was the "happy campers" all around us.  The kind of people who comment completely inane, yet friendly and positive things, to people they don't even know: "Well, we've really earned this drink of nutritious plum juice, because we did such a GOOD JOB raking the grass this afternoon!".  Or, "So, you certainly look like you've had a great family time on the ropes course!".  These comments mainly came from people who were trying to make us fit in and feel welcome, though, and after the first couple of days, I began to get used to their cheery inclusiveness.  I may have even said something equally inane to other newcomers who looked uneasy.
Another interesting aspect was food.  Country food.  Apparently we, the inhabitants of the camp, ate two whole pigs over the course of the week.  Meaning, we ate everything.  Lots of hearty country pig fat sauce and traditional meat made from boiled pigs heads.  Well there's a first time for everything I guess.  There were other interesting aspects of the eating process at camp - the boys ended up trying all sorts of things they would never eat at home (eat the pig fat, Johnny, or there's nothing else for dinner).  I also realized two things about myself, not necessarily positive: firstly, that I have been completely in  control of my own eating schedule over the last ten or so years, and I'm getting old and crotchety and don't appreciate it when other people tell me when I can ingest.  Secondly, that I am addicted to coffee.  Totally addicted.  Because the camp kitchen didn't provide enough of the coffee, dammit, and I found myself in the early hours of the afternoon dreaming caffeine fuelled daydreams.
Despite these few grumbles, though, camp was cool.  The boys loved it, and can't wait to return again next year to meet their new friends and run around in the summer meadows - playing snipers, or cowboys and indians, or "capture the flag" or "Werewolf", or suchlike.  Jem and I also ended up enjoying the company of the happy campers, and the various small personal triumphs that come from teaching others something you know.  We left this morning, Tiss howling about having to say goodbye, packing the car with felted camp crafts, exhausted, sunbrowned kids and memories of a happy week.
So without further ado, the visual demonstration...

Jem and the boys made a homemade bow and arrows, which, amazingly, were amazingly effective.  On the last day they had an archery competition, where Matīss got a prize for the best in his age group.  That's my boy!  One day we went on excursion...

 To the largest lake in Latvia, where there is a brand new viewing tower

To an instrument museum and workshop.  The boys stand fascinated by a demonstration of accordions.  I said ACCORDIONS!  

As if Rome wasn't enough - more questions about Jesus.  Tiss ran through this Catholic church reading about the stations of the cross in the the local dialect (which is also different in written form).  Afterwards, of course, came the story about poor old JC and the suffering.  This must be the summer for bible stories.

I was responsible for taking the 18+ kids of the camp traipsing through the country, finding old ladies in their farm houses and interviewing them about life, the universe and everything.

Finally got to have a go at traditional Latvian weaving.  That's it, I've got to get a loom for our country place so I can weave rag rugs.

Nope, kids refused to eat this one.  The Latvian summer classic, cold betroot soup.

Jem taught the kids juggling, and even got to perform a fire routine at the flag ceremony on the last day...

We're in the country...the deep dark country, four hours from Riga by car, in a part of the world where people speak in a barely understandable dialect and when you go into the local store, you get asked what you're doing around here by the lady at the till  - who is having a beer on the job. You know. Serious countryside. Kilometers of dirt road and even horses and carts taking hay from the field. This is a very Catholic part of Latvia (most of the nation is Lutheran), and I have been enjoying the roadside crucifixes and colourful folk art that is characteristic of this area (we took a trip here last year as well, it's described in this post). More exotic than a trip to Argentina, I tell ya. Yesterday I wandered down to the local graveyard , after asking for directions at the local store ("whaddaya want to see down there?" asks the boozing shopkeeper).
Latvians are seriously into their graveyards. They maintain the graves of the ancestors with great dedication and love. I like to think this is a link with their Baltic pagan past, when people took special care of the spirits of the ancestors, making them feasts as food offerings. My grandmother didn't abandon the graveyard-tending cult after moving to Australia: I remember she used to visit granddad's grave EVERY SATURDAY without fail, to put down flowers and spend some time just thinking and remembering, I guess. She even got a speeding fine on the way to the cemetery, once. Now that I have seen and experienced Latvian graveyards, though, I feel sorry for the sad bed of roses on burnt-out lawn where my grandparents are buried. Australian cemeteries, as far as I have seen, are places of regulations about flower containers, well-trimmed bushes with uniform plaques in a row. Neat, functional, respectful - but not great for sitting and having a chat with a loved one you have lost.
Now let me open the gates into  Latvian cemeteries.  The entry is usually through the old bell tower - and the path in usually leads you into a forest  - with old, romantic trees flowing above. The graves are higgeldy piggeldy amongst the trees, and you have to know where to find your family cross. Inside the gates you are surrounded by nature: it is shady, cool, and peaceful. There is probably an old well with a bucket,where you get water for the flowers. Put them in any container you like. Family members take great pride in tending the family plot, and raking patterns in the sand around it, or planting flowerbeds on individual graves. In summer cemeteries hold annual cemetery festivals, which act as family reunions - everyone, including vaguely-known extended relatives  turn up with a picnic and catch up, and mention those who have passed and check out the neighbour's grave and the way it has been decorated. In November, on All Saints day, everyone trudges through ice and snow in the early winter dark  to light candles on the graves. To state the obvious, Latvians love their graveyards.
So yesterday visiting this little country cemetery was a real treat - seeing the regional traditions in crucifixes and headstones, reading the names and permutations and combinations of familiar names. I wandered around, completely alone, expecting at any moment some old lady with a headscarf and a rake to ask me what I was doing. She never appeared, though, and I spent the best part of an hour walking amongst the headstones, enjoying the many renditions of Jesus and Mary, and rusting iron crosses, and messages and tokens of love all around me.
P.S. Anyone get the Morrisey reference? Or am I living in the past?

Summer's flying by... not time for posting.  We have been busy with visitors, the junk in our back yard, eating lots of summer berries, playing paddock golf, working on an online exhibition at work, keeping kids amused in the THREE MONTHS that is Latvian school summer holidays, trying to keep cool in a house with no pool, watching kittens play.  Can I just say that kitten play is far rougher than the way my boys play.  And their mum doesn't seem to mind a bit. A few of these things merit a dedicated blog post, but not now.  I've got a camp to go to!

I found a home for little blue eyes on the left.  Tiger on the right is going to my brother's place. 

Blueberries with milk and sugar.  Gotta love purple milk.

Look behind you!  On a neighbourhood ramble searching for new street art.  

Our backyard is slowly being emptied of junk.  VERY slowly.  With a few recycled timber benches built along the way.

We've been enjoying having an extended family tribe here for the last couple of weeks.  Love hanging out in a gang.  The youngest tribe members obviously love it too :)

 I'm sure I'm not going to win any parenting awards for admitting this.  On long summer evenings we occasionally take our kids to bars, where they sit and play computer games while we drink and socialize.  Our summers are so short, and everything happens so intensely in such a short time period, you gotta take advantage.  Will there be any childhood trauma associated with this? I doubt it.  But I guess we'll have to  wait and see. 

At the risk of sounding like a travel blog... I was in Gotland, Sweden last week for work.  And I wanted to share some pics with you - because Gotland was magic! And can I just say (again) - I have NO idea why it has taken us 10 years of living in Latvia before we start travelling in Scandinavia.  Especially to a place like Gotland, which is a big island in the middle of the Baltic Sea, one of the closest destinations to Latvia you could choose.  This is why thousands of Latvians ended up in Gotland at the end of the Second World War - when they got into small fishing boats and travelled over the Baltic Sea to escape the oncoming occupation by the Soviet Army - Gotland was the closest bit of land to the Latvian coastline, that wasn't about to be occupied.  And this is why I ended up there last week, following the trail of these people, talking to locals who still remembered the "boat people" arriving in the autumn and winter of 1944.
But enough of history, I thought this was a budding travel blog.  On our first day the tour guide in the city of Visby set the tone for the rest of the trip: "I am descended from vikings.  All my ancestors were vikings.  And Visby is a viking city...". So without further ado, here are some real viking rune stones:


What amazed me about these stones, especially the rune stones (as opposed to older and rarer "picture" stones above), was that the whole story of the person was described on the stone.  So there we stood in the gallery, reading the message from the parents, who had erected these three stones to honour their three sons, who had been killed in battle defending their interests from the other terrible tribe.  And how their sons had been brave, and strong, and kind.  This had all been carved in the 9th century, or something.  And we "remembered" them.

Now I know nothing about sacral art, but seeing the artwork in the churches of Gotland was truly something.  It was naive folk art - nothing like any of the other churches I've visited. I couldn't help wondering if there was still a bit of pagan viking lurking in the psyches of the artists...

And then, of course, there was Faro island, where Ingmar Bergman lived, and which had rock formations to rival the Twelve Apostles....

... and sunsets over the sea, which as someone who has grown up on the East coast of Australia, seems awfully exotic, and romantic. Thus endeth the travelogue. Amen.

There's a patch of woodland just down the hill from our house in the country.  The boys call it "The Wild Square".  Every year we go exploring there.  From the outside it looks small but once you break into it through the line of shrubs on the periphery, you realize its huge, with bits and pieces of swampy terrain, grassy spaces and trees.  The Wild Square is home to wild boar and deer.  We know because we see them come in and out of it.  We see the patches where they have slept - but luckily, we have never met any wild animals while exploring.  So today the boys packed a VERY IMPORTANT backpack (rope, sharp knives, matches, newspaper, little jars, some sourdough bread.  You know.  Important hiking gear.) and we went down to explore.  Oh, I forgot to mention the golf clubs, for indiscriminate bush whacking.
We struggled through the bushes and oohed and aahed at anything out of the ordinary.  Bugs with red spots, ant mounds, animal poo.  Herbs and grasses.  On emerging on the other side of The Square we found ourselves in a patch of wild strawberries, and we hopped and skipped through the fields collecting berries.  Dodging big stands of nettles and thistles.  Boys decided the best way to eat the strawberries was by squashing them onto the bread - instant jam, they said.
The fields at this time of the year are incredible.  All the flowers and grasses and pollens and bugs.  A short time in paradise, before descending again into autumn.

 I was telling the boys about the tigers back in 'Nam.  The Wild Square could definitely have tigers.

 I wandered up the hill to see if I could find more strawberries. (The Wild Square pictured in the background) A baby deer freaked and gave up its hiding spot in the stand of thistles just in front of me.  Crashed away over the grass. Not sure who jumped higher...


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