Christmas this year was all about initiative and hardcore family tradition.  The boys turned a corner, whereby they transitioned from being passive pawns in our larger plans of "the Christmas experience", to being the driving force and dictators of events. 

Christmas this year arrived with a cold snap a few days beforehand, and we found ourselves in the country in minus 15 degrees, with a windchill factor of minus 500.  Or maybe it was 1500.  That night we slept in front of the fire, partly for warmth and partly so that we could stack it with wood every couple of hours and heat the house up quickly.  In the morning, when the house was only 12 degrees warm despite our efforts (and sleep deprivation), we suggested to the boys that we may have to abort and celebrate Christmas eve in Saldus at their grandparents' house.  "NOOOOOOO!!!" their sad little voices wailed.  "We ALWAYS have Christmas in the country!!!  We can't have Christmas ANYWHERE ELSE!!!", they cried, as they shivered and put on layers of extra woolly socks.

So we kept on heating, and ignoring Mikus' insistence at going out to chop down our Christmas tree in the local forest. Eventually it was moving towards afternoon and Jem gave in to the begging, packed the boys into the car and drove through the blizzard (yes, by now there was also a blizzard) to try to find a Christmas tree.  After almost getting bogged in the middle of nowhere in the snowstorm, with no chance to stop the car or turn it around on account of all the snowdrifts, Jem gently suggested we buy a tree at the market in town.  "NOOOOOO!!!!!" our little traditionalists screamed.  "We ALWAYS get our own tree!!!  We can't POSSIBLY buy a tree from the MARKET!!!".

So the boys devised a plan B - leave the car at the house, and WALK to the nearby forest to get the tree.  And lash it to a sled.  And drag it home.  Jem - poor sucker - agreed to their plan, and our heroes set out in the darkness, through the swirling snowflakes, with miners lights strapped to their heads - operation Christmas tree had begun.

Amazingly, everything from that moment on went well.  The tree was chosen, cut down, dragged home along the road, dodging snow plows and occasional cars.  What totally stunned us was the fact that the boys were the ones to motivate, organize and execute everything this year.  Up until now, we have had to encourage and cajole them into really taking part - into decorating the tree, help putting it up, making gingerbread etc.  This year they insisted on trudging out in inhuman conditions to make sure tradition was observed - and Jem says that neither of them complained, not even when Mikus was literally up to his waist in snow.

So there your go!  Turns out that the combination of Dutch stubbornness, Latvian tradition-observance and Australian spunkiness makes fine young male specimens!  If I do say so myself...

Here's hoping y'all had a wonderful Christmas with your own minor miracles - no matter how hot, or snowy it might have been.








 I had a fond memory of my grandmother today.  Margarita was trained at the Latvian Academy of Art before the war, and when she came to Australia she ended up teaching the Adelaide high society ladies to paint in the 1950s and 60s.  She was an incredibly "modern" person, an eternal optimist, forever interested in things and making new friends.  She also had a charming set of prejudices.  Apart from recoiling from men with beards (Is there a name for beard phobia?  ...just googled it. Its pogonophobia.  Seriously.), she also often wondered aloud why the women with the biggest backsides wore the tightest pants?  And she also hated the new hairstyle that "all the tv presenters have" - layered hair.  Another pet grouch of my grandmother's was framed, mass-produced prints of famous paintings, found on the walls of many Australian houses (hello, IKEA!).  "Why would you have a print on a wall?" she would rant.  "You should never resort to having a print on your wall!  You need to have ORIGINAL art!  There are so many art students out there!  Anyone can afford to buy art at student shows!"

And you know, although I dearly loved and greatly respected my grandmother  - I kinda like a beard on a man. And my own hair, well...you could call it layered.  I won't comment on the size of my derriere, or the tightness of my pants.  But I have to say, I think grandma hit the nail on the head with her art show comment.  REAL art rocks.  And there is no better way to illustrate this than by making a stop at the Latvian Art Academy students' Christmas market which opened yesterday.  We try to make it every year - Jem and I raced in there at lunchtime today and were bowled over by the range of stuff the students were selling.  Amazing talent and creativity, all crammed into the one hall.  Every year we pick up a little something for a good price - probably cheaper than that framed ikea stock photo - something totally original, and completely beautiful, something to be kept at home on the wall to be enjoyed by family and visitors alike.







In our neck of the woods, you could be forgiven for believing that the end of the world was nigh. It's  4 p.m. and it's just getting dark.  There is a snowstorm outside - it's about minus 5 - so the snow is swirly, powdery and fine.  It's like Mrs God up in the clouds has gone crazy sifting the flour for gingerbread... or something.
The lights in our windows are twinkling hopefully, and I can hear the wood pellets jingling as they are fed into our wood furnace.  Fizzy is cosily crunching on some of her catfood, kids are snuggled in front of the TV.  Tiss asks me why I'm smiling - I didn't know I was.
"Because we're warm, and we're at home, and it's snowing outside", I say, realizing that it doesn't take much to be truly happy - not really.



The grade one teacher snuck me this letter Mik wrote to Santa this week.  For those of you who can't read Latvian:  "DEAR SANTA, ONE REAL TICKET TO AUSTRALIA. AND CHOCOLATE. AND ONE REAL KANGAROO.  Merry Christmas, Mikus"


Everyone's getting into the Christmas spirit over here.  Even milk at the market is putting on appropriate attire.  By the way, that festive looking bottle up there is actually a silent killer -  RAW MILK.  Shock, horror!  They sell it at all the markets here - and little Latvian children drink it down.  I hear ladies in New York have been rioting because it's against the law to buy raw milk for their offspring.  


All the bottles at our local artsy crafty organic foodsy market yesterday were getting cosy in the winter chill.  


We wandered down through the winter wonderland in the morning and tried all of the Latvian treats.  Tīss, my little feinschmacker, ooohed and aaahed over the fruit jellies and berry syrups and farm cheeses and bizarre jam combinations, and tasted every single item that was put out for testing. Meanwhile Jem and I tried the apple calvados in little paper cups and quizzed the seller why Latvia doesn't produce natural apple cider - we've got enough apples in this country!  He promised us that next year was the year for Latvian apple cider. Hip hooray...


Yesterday the snow was accompanied by a super blue sky and fabulous hoar frost.  Walking to the market was almost more exciting than eating all the free bits and pieces when we got there!





 

This advent wreath of moss and baby pine cones that I picked up last week has already had a work out - this time of year candles seem to burn all day on account of the all-pervading overcast-ness.  Not so bad since the snow has fallen though - this morning the sky is covered in clouds but totally white, almost as white as the snow settled on the branches of the maple outside our bedroom window.


Peaceful scene, huh?  Not really, if you turn around, this is what you see - Jem got bumped out by two boys iPad shopping for Christmas presents.  Those cold little feet under the covers.... brrrrrr




No words have ever rung true-er.  Because I tell ya, Oz is truly sunburnt - and I love her.  As I sit in the half-dusk that is Latvian "daytime" at this time of year, my visual memory of my recent trip is precisely that - bleached out beautiful over-sunned landscapes with crunchy dry foliage all around. And the fragrance!!  The amazing scent of eucalyptus and other Australian natives, which I never noticed quite so keenly before. 

 I had way too many fabulous moments in my whirlwind trip to make a long post of it - so I'll just leave you with a small and carefully considered list of the pros and cons of my lovable sunburnt country: 



PROS

1. Kindred spirits (you know who you are) and their offspring
2. Stradbroke Island
3.  Bright sunlight pretty much all the time
4. She'll be right mate
4. Schools designed to be child friendly (totally radical idea)
5.  Mango season + meat pies
6. Jacaranda trees, banksia men, trunks of gum trees

CONS

1. Those monocultural moments (ie. the daily occurrence where the wait staff/shop assistant asks in their sunny breezy manner: "Oh, so where's that name from/where have you just come from/what language are you speaking...?" and when you answer "Latvia/Latvian", their face falls.  And they go all quiet.  And they say something along the lines of: "Oh!!!  That's nice"! And keep beeping your groceries through the checkout.  Or they occasionally attempt "Oh!  Where's LATVIA?  I've never heard of LATVIA!"  At which point I start to feel like crawling into the ground, and say, with a friendly smile: "It's in Europe.  You know where Poland is?  No?  Ok then - Sweden?  No?  Um.  It's up from Poland.  Or across the sea from Sweden... how about under Finland.... ? Oh, doesn't matter.  It's in Europe."  At which case the shop assistant/wait staff feels reassured that they know where Latvia is.  But it all feels awkward anyway.  And you pay for you stuff and leave.)  Whoa - that was a big spewed out trauma right there wasn't it!   Something that I had not experienced on a daily level for many, many years.  Sorry for the rant.  It's over now.  I know YOU know where Latvia is.
2. Big cities with their sprawling suburbs and obligatory hellish no-brainer attempts at building shelters (calling it "architecture" would be a spit in the eye)
3. The slow, yet obvious extinction of the great Aussie backyard 
4. Paying $3.60 for chewing gum.  Seriously, Australia?







So after much serious contemplation during the 32 hour journey back over to this side of the world, that's what I've come up with. I think I could probably add another couple of points to the "Pros" section.  But I won't bore you.  Just go back to sitting bare foot on your verandah, listen to the cicadas, look out and see if the possums are going to get your paw paws.  And don't worry about it.

And to all those kindred spirits I met when I was there - miss you already!  xxxx

Pic from here

So I have been subconsciously dreaming of Brisvegas the last few weeks, in light of my quick trip "home" next month.  As I hinted in my last post - having been away for so long,  the city has taken on a bit of a legendary character for me.  The quality of the light, the humidity of the air, the memory of bare feet on hot bitumen when you hop out of the car, the sound of cicadas chirping in the bush at dusk.  You know, all that stuff. It all has a dream-like quality, and its hard to believe I will get a taste of it soon.

I also am yearning to go for a wander around my old stomping grounds - but goodness knows there will be no time for that!  I really wish I had a day or two to go walking the crooked streets of Rosalie and West End, drive down to Pinjarra Hills and out to the green lushness of Brookfield, go and see if there are still pineapple fields in Moggill, if the Valley still has that industrial low-fi charm.

And on that note - I have  a sad, yet cathartic confession to make.  I can't say I'm proud of this - but one place I really, really wish I could visit is Indooroopilly shoppingtown.   Now, as a disclaimer: I have read the articles in anthropology that described how shopping centres are becoming the modern-day town square.  And I totally understand that these gigantic retail monsters suck up small local businesses and permanently change the physical and cultural landscape of city suburbs.  I have watched this process happen quite recently in Riga.  I know the theory on why these places are popular and like magnets for the community.... but I never thought any of that theory applied to ME.  I am usually so "above" shopping centres.  In Riga, we only pop in to our local shopping centre to occasionally do grocery shopping - but that is rare.  Usually we go to the market, or the local grocery store.   Other times we might go to the sales, or to the food court for a bite to eat, but it is not a regular thing, and they are usually short "get in-get out" trips.

But every time I imagine special places in Brisbane, "shoppo" sneaks right into that list when I'm not looking.  Its a no-brainer I guess - I spent lots of time there in my formative years:  having lunch at the Myers cafe with my mum, going to sales and buying fabulous 80s fashion, working in my first after-school job, meeting up with friends there, watching the Tina Arena talent school performing on stage there.  You know, meaningful childhood experiences.  I'm getting teary just writing about it.

And sadly, I have realized that things are just like Charlie Brown (or someone) concluded - you can never go back.  "Shoppo" is all totally different now.  The rocket in the rocket park has been gone for ages.  The Myers cafe isn't on the top floor anymore.  I'll even bet Woolies has been changed around so I can't find anything anymore, and Tina Arena has been replaced by some other Australian starlet who I've never heard of.  So I'm not sure I will include shoppo in my "Brisvegas nostalgia" tour.   You said it, Charlie Brown.  You can never really go back.

Pic from here


The thought of blogging the past few weeks has made me feel....  kinda.... "meh".  Is that a word?  Is it included in any slang dictionaries?  Well I'm hoping you get what I mean anyway.  I guess it could be described as a contemporary form of "blah", I guess.

In my thoughts and dreams I have been travelling down under - I'm flying to Oz for three weeks in November for work, visiting people in all the capitals.  Amazing. I haven't been "home" in five years, and am wondering if Australia is really there after all.  It's been so long, that it all seems like a mirage.

Kookaburras are at the forefront of my dreaming, for some reason.  Maybe because they seem like mythical creatures to Mikus, who was asking me about them - whether I had ever seen one in the wild, or only in the zoo.  So I described to him how they used to laugh in the bush next to our place, and my dad used to kill brown snakes and feed them to the kookaburras when I was little.  My tale seemed  a little mysterious and nostalgic, in a Karen Blixen "I had a farm in Africa...." kind of way.

Then my friend Anita blogged this photo:
from here


...and last night I dreamt  that I was in a suburban acreage part of Australia -  where people have big wooden houses with verandahs on large blocks with manicured lawns and networks of roads with concrete curbs all along the sides.  And I was sitting in an easy chair on this one deck, unable to move, with kookaburras swooping, swooping, swooping all around.  And I was sitting there pondering how quiet life in the 'burbs seemed to be, and how neat, and how easy and sunny it all seemed.  Luminous and warm, with swooping kookaburras. I wonder what it all means?

It is strange to be returning to Oz in this way, on a super-quick work trip, without my family.  The brevity of the visit, and the fact that the boys won't be with me, means I won't be able to enjoy the visit the way I would like to - but hey, I'm not complaining!  It will still be incredible to do face-to-face catch up with dear friends and family.  And to go for a wander in the streets of my town. And visit Perth as well - where I have never been before.


Back on this side of the globe, in the "real world", things are getting cosy.  The temp has dipped in the last week.  Its not freezing yet but moving in that direction, and its been raining and raining and raining some more.  The autumn leaves are circling down outside, it's dark when we get up in the morning,  and downstairs is the jangle of wood pellets heating the house.

We spent the weekend consciously avoiding the urge to invite friends over or meet up with people - we so rarely have days where we just hang out at home and don't do much.  We read, watched tv, did odd chores around the place, and generally hung out - apart from going out at Mikus' urging, to a Soviet-era health spa at the beach, for a swim in their pool.  We ran the gauntlet of grumpy pool attendants (see this post for a detailed description of post-Soviet pool trauma) to find ourselves in a very pleasant and super-warm, non-regimented pool, where the boys splashed around for ages.  Apart from having my towel stolen (surely, must have been a case of mistaken towel-identity, found it later in the men's change rooms), the visit was delightful.  I must be getting super thick skin living here all these years.  Or maybe its from the mineral-enriched therapeutic sea water? Or perhaps it was the purposeful social realist bathers-in-bronze out the front?



Autumn leaves are like snowflakes, or people.


Each one is unique.


 


 Each one has its own shape and beauty.




I am amazed by the infinite combinations of patterns and colour. 

Every year.


PS. In other news, if you have been following the instagram feed on the right, you may have noticed that Jem has been in Athens for a work trip.  Today they started a general strike, lucky for Jem he got out of the central square before protesters and police started to clash - tear gas, petrol bombs...  he is on a plane back to us in LV now.  Back to cold autumn and colourful leaves, and no petrol bombs :)


Every year  I have a wild time on the 20th September.  Thing is, according to the Latvian calendar, today is my name day. Latvians (and lots of other cultures, as far as I know) celebrate different names on different days of the year.  Everyone knows who's name day it is each day - probably because they have calendars on the back of the toilet door to remind them - and people make sure that they congratulate each Janis, Ieva, Mara, Peteris or whoever on the appropriate day.  The tradition with name days is that you are allowed go visiting uninvited - with birthdays you have to wait to be asked, but on name's days you can just drop in.  Otherwise they are pretty much the same as birthdays - people buy gifts, have parties, spoil the relevant Janis, Ieva or Mara.

The problem is, that we never really celebrated name days living in Australia.  The only person who ever reminded me of the significance of the 20th September was my grandmother, who would call me.  Otherwise it was just a normal day. So gauging the significance of  name days when living in Latvia has been a difficult thing - because I didn't grow up celebrating it, I just don't FEEL that excited.  Today, same as last year, I had forgotten the importance of today until we got on the tram this morning.  There was Tiss' school friend singing "Happy name's day" with a gift bag of home-baked cookies.  And then the text messages, and phone calls, and chocolates and flowers started pouring in.  Gotta admit I felt like a bit of phoney accepting greetings and gifts for something I had totally forgotten about - but any time is a good time for a party, right?

As it turns out, tomorrow is Tiss' names day.  And in a couple of days, it's Mik.  One year we will have to have a big combined names day bash.  The sunflowers in the pic (Van Gogh would be jealous) were given to me by Jem, when he also realized it was my 'special day'.  The thoughtful guy doesn't even have a name's day of his own - he gets lumped into the 22 May - the day for everyone who is not included in the name's day calendar.  That sucks, big time.  Years ago, Jem decided to celebrate himself on the 29 October - on Elvis day.  That's right.  ELVIS.


This must be the year for "the little tree who could".  First cherries, then apples.  Lordy, lordy - the little apple tree we planted a couple of years ago, is going completely BANANAS!  (I mean, like bananas-crazy, not bananas-the fruit).  Just got back from a weekend in the country with two huge baskets full of gorgeous, tangy, crispy rose apples I picked off the tree.  Only problem is, what to do with them all?  I have a few plastic bags full of windfall apples I am going to juice, make sauce etc with.  But what about all those fresh, crisp lovelies?

That's where the small village charm of Riga comes in.  Realizing I was in a race against time, this morning I loaded a fabric shoulder bag with apples.  And doled them out to everyone I knew.  Friends on the tram got apples, mums at school got apples, my work colleagues got apples, my translating client got apples, and so did 2 friends I met on the way to work/back home.  By the end of the morning I had a spring in my step and an empty bag, and was humming Billy Bragg's "I am the milkman of human kindness... let me leave an extra pint" happily to myself.


This arvo I made a favourite around this time of year - apple pancakes.  Terrifically tasty, even for kids who eat fruit with suspicion. My friend Ieva has a crackpot theory that bad people simply cannot make good pancakes - and I tend to agree with her.  As for me, my pancakes don't always turn out well.  Occasionally they turn out rubbery, or burnt, or like cardboard...hmmmm.  But today - today I must be a good person.  Because those apple pancakes were tremendous.

And about the top pic - I have realized that apple season coincides with the start of school - in this part of the world, anyway.  Kids doing their homework and crunching on apples.  Maybe that's where "an apple for the teacher" concept came from??

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