The first time I saw an effigy burned  I was five, and my family was living for a year living in England. I didn't quite understand the meaning of Guy Fawkes Night. We stood away from the crowd, in the dark at the local oval.  At some point in the proceedings, which seemed to involve a lot of fireworks and "catherine wheels", we watched the crowd throw a life-sized doll onto the bonfire, and everyone cheered. I was confused. It all seemed barbaric and wild to me, especially at that young age.

Next time was at the turn of the millennium. I was almost 30. A New Years Eve party at Straddie. Our loveable (mad) architect friends fashioned a huge chickenwire millenium-man and filled him with combustible things. He stood burning on the beach at Amity point as we danced around the bonfire. Jem was dressed as a zebra and I was a butterfly. I don't remember anything else about the night. What did we eat?  Were we the only ones to get dressed up? What other entertainment was there? Its all a mystery to me. Anyone else remember?  I wonder if my sense of catharsis and elation was connected in some way to that 5 year old watching Guy Fawkes burn?

Something strangely atavistic, symbolic and slightly disturbing about this whole process, I have often reflected.  No wonder the KKK used it as a tool of terror. A simple version of this in Latvian traditional culture is the dragging and burning of the yule log - where at Christmas a log representing everything from the old year is dragged around the farmstead for luck and prosperity in the new year. Afterwards you burn it up, along with all the bad stuff from the past year.

My last public effigy burning happened a week or so ago - totally spontaneously, on December 31st, Jem made a 2013-man to put on top of our awesome iron fire sculpture. We lit him up just after midnight calls of "Happy New Year" and champagne and fireworks. He burned in a spectacular and prolonged fashion, showering sparks and stubbornly refusing to burn completely. The kids - ours and our friends' - stood there dumbstruck, a bit excited, a bit freaked out - and asked sensible questions, as the flames rose up to engulf our 2013 man. A thrilling and mysterious way to mark the change - leaving behind the old, and welcoming the new.

So goodbye, 2013 with all your good and bad. Bring on 2014!

 Today before it got dark, we strode over the sodden field, down the hill towards the mist over the big pond. The field and the forest and the road and the sky were all muted grey and brown. Usually at this time, at the very least there is a bit of snowfall on the ground, and the temperature freezes your fingers and nose. This year it’s all drizzle and grey, melting into darkness in the mid-afternoon. I don’t actually mind it at all – there is a quiet beauty to it, if you are brave and rugged-up enough to venture out into the elements. The landscape is dreamlike in the fog, droplets of rain speckle the otherwise still water on the pond, the far end is shrouded in white. Trees reflect black in the water, and sounds seem muffled and distant – a car engine, the occasional crack of a hunter’s rifle.

This year, the lack of freeze and snow seems to be favouring some of the forest animals. As we huddle up by the fire underneath our twinkling Christmas lights, the wild boar outside are digging in the mud under the oak tree, looking for acorns and tasty roots and tidbits, and leaving behind huge patches of muddy moon-craters in our front yard. I can’t help wondering, though, whether it would be entirely positive to not have the freeze and snow that is usual for Latvia at this time.  Surely, like in Australia where bushfires are needed by certain species of trees in order to regenerate -  the ice and cold must serve its purpose… hmmm?

Striding down to the misty pond this afternoon, and lighting up some sparklers just for fun, I  couldn’t help also a small patch of reflection on the last year and that which is to come. The quiet, secretive calm and beauty of the winter country landscape is actually a good analogy for what I will try to find in the next year – I want to prioritize and make peace with moments of calm and regeneration within my own life. They may not be flashy, boastful moments, they will not be excitable, hyped thrills –  but much-needed moments of calm, and breath, and quiet, like nature taking its winter breather between periods of budding, flowering, fruiting…

Way, way back a couple of years a go we spent a few weeks in Mexico, where we had the perfect beach holiday. Our days consisted of going down to the beach, ordering Coronas and sitting in the shallow waves drinking beer while the kids played in the water. We would then go home for midday naps, and in the afternoon, go back to the beach and order a couple more beers. We've had similar beach holidays in Oz, and for me, these are the ultimate holidays.  Slightly sunburned, salty skin and bare feet and minimum effort or planning. 

Latvian beaches, on the other hand, rarely present the opportunity for a holiday of this kind. Mostly this is weather related - having a SOLID week or more of amazing hot and sunny weather is a rarity. Although I have noticed since living here, that the last week of July and first week of August are pretty much always hot and sunny ...  so this year, I got busy, threw caution to the wind, and I organized us a beach holiday right here in Eastern Europe.  

And it was absolutely bloody beautiful.

We were lucky enough to have a close family fried with a house near the beach, which we rented - not as easy to find as it sounds.  My resolutions for that week, which I achieved with style and panache were 1) to not get into the car at all  (check!) 2) to eat icecream every day  (double check!) and 3) to wear shoes as little as possible (check!).  

The house we stayed in was a part of a "colony" of houses in a beachside forest near Rīga.  This  was established in the 1980s, when a large Latvian factory made a gift of blocks of land to all of their employees - 600 m2 blocks all next to one another. (That's right.  Free land to all employees! Gotta say this perk is the best thing to ever come out of the oppressive regime that ruled here for 50 yrs) The location of your block was determined by lucky draw, and after that you were responsible for clearing the land and building a house yourself. This was not an easy task, considering the lack of materials and opportunity for people in the Soviet Union at that time.  Nevertheless, a village of sorts was established, with all manner of 80s soviet silicone brick monstrosities being knocked together. 

Today, the colony is still going strong, and abuzz in the summer months. Everyone has gardens bursting with berries and apples. The neighbours on one side always have their radio up too loud, and the Russian pensioner on the other side tends to spend her days wandering the fence line dressed in her flowery dressing gown. Supplies in the little corner store have been depleted by the middle of the week, and you spend most of wednesday morning wondering when the new shipment of ice-creams will arrive. When they do, you pad down to the beach along the sandy track, finishing the ice-cream before you get to the beach and wade straight out into the waves.

Although the water was not as crystal blue as Mexico, the beach is perfect for kids, because of its relatively calm waves, and heaps of rocks and shells on the shore, and even a stream flowing in to the sea, which could be dammed, and dug out, and re-dammed, and diverted. Exploring the streets of the colony also had a certain charm...  

Because it was so close to Rīga, we had an endless stream of visitors while there. Friends coming up for a couple of days. Because it was already August, we could all see the end of school holidays in the distance, and there were countless toasts drunk to the last hot day of summer.  Amazingly, those hot days just kept rolling on.

All good things come to an end though, and now it's already late September  in Rīga. Our holiday seems like a distant dream, as the rain keeps coming down - the heating is already on again, and the closest thing to the beach is the massive puddle that is growing in our back yard.

 OK I'm going to try and return from my extended summer frolic and ease slowly back into responsible blogging with short posts about summer.

One of the reasons I've been offline is because I have been reading the Harry Potter series to my dudes over the 3-month long holidays.  We started with the third book (not well thought-out, I know, but when I randomly picked a book off the shelf that night before bedtime I didn't think it represented hours of reading the whole series!).  I totally loved reading the HP books years ago when they came out - waiting for the next one to be published.  So having kids who are just as interested in the story as I was/am is fun. I'm not sure who enjoys reading the books more. Although the boys are already familiar with the whole HP series from watching the movies, we have been slowly, painstakingly revealing all of the detail through the books. I think I have finally convinced the dudes that the book is pretty much always BETTER THAN THE MOVIE.

We love to go outside on these warm sunny days and find a great spot where to sit down and read. Jem has managed to visually document a few of these instances. Here they are...

The shortest night of the year has passed.  Even the fact that it rained most of the night didn't stop us from enjoying ourselves.  This year I relaxed, and though we were the hosts, we didn't stress about too much.  When, after it had grown dark, we realized the rain was not going to stop, we pushed aside the furniture,  musicians pulled out their violins and accordions and drums and we danced indoors. Jāņi came and went so fast - a huge bustle of song and friends and food and ritual - flowers and oak leaves and wheels of homemade cheese.  Jāņi is the most exciting and even sacred celebration of our year.  Every year it is different, and every year I am sad that it is over.

Jem the firestarter with his ill-fated masterpiece - instead of rolling down the hill in a ball of flame, it was waterlogged, and took a long time to catch fire... and broke apart on the first push down the hill.  Oh well.  Better luck next year!  His other fire constructions worked admirably, despite the rain. 

Two ladies looking fabulous.  Photo title: "...not our babies!!!"

My little traditionalist

Decorating, decorating...

Mazākais Jāņa bērns un Jānu māte (ha!  Sound downright weird in translation:  the youngest child of Jāņi and the mother of Jāņi)

Tea parties


Ooops!  Rain's cleared - lets pass the food down the line to get it back on the table

Saying goodbye to the sun

So it starts pouring.  Again.  Ilga and I decide to chase away the rain single handedly, by singing, singing, singing....anything.  Everything.   .... didn't work!

So what to do - move the party inside

With a break in the rain, we lit up our new fire sculpture - made by a Rīga artist of welded together bike parts.  Awesome.  

Amazingly, the kids managed to stay up until dawn this year.  Other years most of them have passed out.  Mikus, of course, led the charge, and was a full participant and initiator of all of our different rituals. Here he is letting a "sky lantern" go before dawn - to bring back the sun

The day after - hanging out with our dear friends who came all the way from Brisvegas to enjoy the festivities.

Looking back at the photos, they are pretty much the same as every other year.  That's tradition for you, I guess! The most beautiful night of the year is over, and I am already counting down the days until we celebrate it again...

So obviously, this is why I haven't been around.  Things have reached their regular summer intensity around here. The snow melted in mid April, and within a couple of weeks we were thrust into full-blown riotous greenery and summer frivolity.  The weather has been  stupidly fabulous since then - everyone, even the winter-hardened local are feeling bowled over by the full-on summer that has just descended on us.  I know they say bamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world, but "they" have obviously never seen Latvian lawns after a long winter.  We arrived in the country a few weeks ago to find the lawn had grown up to our waists.   Totally insane.

So to cut another weather related post short, I ask you - why blog when you can be enjoying your summer school holidays:

Reading Harry Potter under the oak to a rapt audience

Having a water fight


Frolicking in fields of poppies

Mowing the grass

Reading in bed before you get up in the morning

I've got to admit that another reason why my blogging has slowed of late is because Jem bought me an iPod. And I am finally able to post my "status updates" in visual form on Instagram.  So most of you blog readers don't know what I'm up to, while the 3 people who follow me on Instagram are getting hourly photographic updates on my life.  Scintillating, I know.  To those 3 people, let me reassure you - the shine will wear off soon! And to those of you who want hourly updates, look for me: hellolatvia

Must work out how to put my own Instagram feed on the side of the blog - the one you see now is Jem's.  Hmmm, maybe the next rainy day...

How is it that velour tracksuits were all the rage a couple of years ago, and I missed out?  I looked at them fleetingly in the shops but somehow never quite pulled out my wallet.  They seemed kinda (VERY) daggy but also a bit tempting.  But tonight - oh, in the last few months actually - I have decided I totally need one of those soft cuddly tracksuits.

Perhaps not quite as trendy as my brother's ex-girlfriend, who wore a leopard print head-to-toe velour number first time she came to stay at our country place. I think she also had matching slippers.  And to think she was a psychotheraphist!

So I'm in the shower tonight - after working a long, long day at the office on a Friday, suffering from a sore throat and fighting a cold, and wondering who was going to make me a gin and tonic, and about the earliest time I could con the boys into going to bed.  And then I realized - if I could put on one of those comfy velour tracksuits after getting out of the shower, everything would be ok. Preferably it would be in a shade of mauve. I would slip on my leisurely lounge suit and complete relaxation would be achieved.

C'mon, you know it.

In other news, perhaps what's adding to my need of relaxation is the HOLIDAY the family took last week.  It was the type of holiday when you need a holiday after taking the holiday.  It was awesome, mind you.  My singing group had been invited to perform a concert in a theatre in Montmatre, Paris.  And yes, it was almost as glamorous as that sounds!  Jem and I decided to make a whole week of it and flew down with the boys to get a glorious belly full of croissants and art galleries and DISNEYLAND and riding on the Parisian metro.  I won't go into details, but rather present you with a series of short observations (which seems to be becoming my signature lazy style of summing up a trip abroad):

1) Although at first  we suspected that a visit to Disneyland was just a dream for our generation. But the boys soon understood what all the fuss was about.

2) I am no longer the cutest person to ever have worn a pair of mouse ears.

3) Certain legendary roller coasters at the big "D" are just an excuse to physically and psychologically abuse the visitor.

4) There's a bargain for everyone to be found in Parisian flea markets.  Why does my buy look like I got it at a country fair in Latvia?

5) Putting concerns of responsible presentation of indigenous cultures aside for a wee moment - the Quai Branly and its dazzling array of ethnographic sculpture is awesome.

6) A well-planned educational iPad application can entertain children in an art museum for 3 HOURS! I kid you not!

7) In the event of the museum NOT having an educational iPad application, just risk giving your 7-year-old your camera.  They will be amused for ages taking blurry shots of anything.  EVERYTHING.

8) The reason why the Eiffel tower is such an over-photographed and over-promoted piece of Victorian  metal construction is because it is stunning, and surprising, and elegant.  Still.

9) Unlike Latvia - spring has well and truly sprung in France.

10) The French are so cultured, they even build hotels for the insects in the parks.

11) Celebrating your 8th birthday with your family in a tiny little apartment in Paris ROCKS.

12) Singing your heart out for an hour to an interested and enthusiastic audience of French is a rewarding experience.  And signing autographs on CDs after the concert is, well - simply hilarious.

So that's about it for me - and him. As usual, a very comprehensive post about the ins and outs of our travels, eh. Bonsoir!


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