Just a few snaps of us preparing for Christmas eve. As you can see the snow at Kugures was quite spectacular - especially when the skies cleared and turned a bright Brisbane blue! The boys have been so excited over the last few weeks - that preparing and celebrating with them is just so much fun - they throw themselves into any Christmas related activity, heart and soul.
Here's wishing y'all a bright and wonderful Christmas! Sorry I am so slack with Christmas greetings of any sort - I haven't even emailed any this year. Thanks to everyone who has remembered us! Let's see what the New Year will bring....

Posing with the tree we just picked out in the forest!

Bringin' it home...

Starting to decorate the tree... to be continued!

This post begins with an apology to my father and you, dear reader, for leading you astray in this post last year. Dad has just started reading the blog (hi, dad!) and insisted that I amend some information I wrote about the Doukhobors. For a quick recap - whenever the subject of a surplus of material possessions comes up in my family, my dad never fails to mention the Doukhobors - what I thought was some mythical African tribe, who supposedly burn all of their dwellings and belongings every seven years and start all over again. Well as it turns out (and this is where the apology comes in), the Doukhobors are not mythical. And they are not African, or, for that matter, a tribe. The idea of them burning down their houses every seven years is also a distortion of the truth. So I would like to offer my humble apologies for my complete lack of ignorance - I suppose those who live in Canada or British Columbia would be well aware of the Doukhobors, and the things in this post would be nothing new to them. But for me, this small piece of history has been a surprising and fascinating, gripping tale, which has answered a few questions, and raised many more in their place.
The Doukhobors are a Christian sect that originated in Russia in the 18th century. They were real indpendent thinkers: they believed that God was in every person, and rejected secular government, Russian Orthodox priests, icons, all church ritual, the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. What a list! As you can imagine, the church and the authorities in Russia at this time didn't quite know what to do with them. So when in doubt, just banish people to exile, right? Doukhobors took up the offer to resettle in what is today known as southern Ukraine, and were also exiled to regions of today's Georgia and Azerbaijan. By the 19th century, the pacifist Doukhobors had sworn off the use of tobacco and alcohol, strongly resisted conscription, and staged a public burning of their rifles, to avoid the temptation of using them even if in defence or emergency.
As repressions such as conscription, exile, arrests and public beatings didn't dissuade the Doukhobors from their beliefs, the Russian government agreed that members of the sect could leave the country, which many did in the late 19th century, most of them settling in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Unfortunately, this move didn't bring all the peace the Doukhobors had hoped for - some of the more radical groups , and one in particular called "The Sons of Freedom", were dissatisfied by the requests of Canadian authorities to swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown - which had always been against Doukhobor principles - compulsory education in government schools, and issues of private land ownership, and reacted through mass nude protests and arson. Gotta love those nude arsonists. What amazed me in reading this, is that we're talking the early 1900s here... what a form of dissent! Particularly interesting is that this was not just practised by men - women would also disrobe in public, for example, at public speeches by politicians, if they disagreed with the speaker.
To cut a long story short, Doukhobor protests and communities continued right through the 20th century. As far as my scant reading shows, the protests and arson got particularly serious in the 1950s and 60s, with arson attacks on school and other government buildings, as well as Doukhobors burning down their own houses and belongings to protest perceived injustices. So Dad, you got a bit of the story right, I guess. Incredible stuff. Of course there seems to be a massive contradiction for a supposedly pacifist sect committing arson to get their way - and you can't condone these activities, particularly if they lead to a loss of life - but for me there is also something quite admirable about people who have the conviction to take such radical action to stand up for their beliefs. Materialist or not, standing naked watching your house and possessions burn to the ground, even if you deliberately lit the fire yourself, would be a tragic and monumental experience.
Today an estimated 20,000-40,000 people of Doukhobor heritage live in Canada, with around 4,000 claiming "Doukhobor" as their religious affiliation. There are also communities in the USA, Russia and neighbouring countries.

We have been taking the boys to swimming lessons since September. Once a week - Mondays - each boy goes to their own class at the Riga Olympic centre - a beautiful, super-modern, brand-new public swimming pool, which is on the third floor, and it has two big glass walls so that you can look out over the city as you swim.
Because the boys are still at drownable stage, we get in the water with them, and encourage them as best as we can. I figured it was high time that Tiss learned to swim, because although not that many kids can swim at his age in Latvia, I am still judging bits and pieces of child development by Australian standards - and a six year old that can't swim in Australia is just not normal.
So anyhow, we've been persevering with swimming lessons for a couple of months now. And both Jem and I have had moments of concern, because, unfortunately, I think Tiss takes after me in the physical agility stakes. Meaning, he has trouble coordinating arms and legs. He also takes after me in the "drama" department - highly developed skill there - so that combined with the coordination issue makes for some interesting swimming lessons. We've had lots of swallowing water and crying and "I don't want to put my head under" issues.
But last week, it finally happened! And I've got to say I'm not sure who was more excited - Tiss or me. Tiss can actually swim!!
What I found the most interesting and instructive in the whole process, was that it proved that you can't rush a kid to learn something - they have to do things in their own time and their own way. Although I'd heard this theory a hundred times - especially because we've flirted with Mrs Montessori - I'd never really seen it in action so obviously. The earnest instruction of the swimming coach, Eddie, has been constant, but (and sorry to all you PE teachers out there) I'm not actually sure that Eddie's efforts were the most important influence here. Last week, when Eddie and I forced Tiss to do something we both knew he could do - push off from the side with his legs and kick over to where I was standing 1 metre away - Tiss freaked, struggled, and sank down under the water with a panicky gurgle. Then Eddie went away. And I cuddled a howling 6 year old, and told him that it was cool and that he would do it when HE himself was ready... then he calmed down, and stopped freaking out, and held my hands and put his face into the water. Then he let go of my hands and floated... and then kicked a little... and then floated some more. Then he put his head up out of the water and said, "Eddie forgot to say that you need to get that floaty feeling before you swim. Let me get that floaty feeling first, then I can do it". And he did it!!! After Tiss had swum around for a while we both just stood in the pool smiling and laughing like crazy, and floating some more, and laughing some more. It was truly incredible! To see the moment it all clicked together - to watch a child really GETTING something for the first time - suddenly they're swimming, while a minute ago they were sinking.
By the way, I'm not trying to devalue the input of the swimming coach. Without a doubt, a lot of the exercises that we have been doing for the last three months have helped Tiss to FIND "that floaty feeling" - how to kick and use his arms and get him used to the water etc - but ultimately, the big step had to be taken when Tiss was ready, not when the teacher decided he was ready. Anyhow, this post isn't meant to be a comment on teaching philosophies - I know nothing about them - all I DO know, is that seeing a child learn a new skill is one of the most amazing, exciting and beautiful things I've ever seen. You lucky primary school teachers you!
PS. The pic above is of Thailand 2006 - When Tiss was still well and truly wearing floaties and clinging to any available uncle. We keep saying that on our next trip (to Mexico!) Tiss will be able to swim by himself in the resort pool!!!

This is a family portrait we took last week - styled by Tiss. I love it. Unfortunately it didn't "make the cut" into the new blog that we have just launched - www.4windows.blogspot.com.
4 windows is a photo blog whereby the Smedes brothers and their families post a photo a week from their respective corners of the world - which are Latvia, Indonesia, Australia and Africa. A way of keeping in touch and hopefully will give viewers an interesting peek through our respective "windows". There's not much on there yet (bar family portraits), but keep checking back, it should get more interesting as time goes by!

Just a few pics of our winterwonderland of the last two days. These first ones are of the boys out in the forest in the blizzard of yesterday (no, we couldn't convince them to wait until the high-speed winds had stopped before we went out). Jon and Courtney, those beanies you brought back from South America have been put to good use!

And here are some snaps of today's trip to the park. The boys ganged up on me in snowball fights, which quickly degenerated into "great big hunks of snow" fights. A good time was had by all.

This is a little description for our friends and fam in Australia, who have not had the pleasure of living in a snowy climate - for those of you who already do, it won't be interesting at all! Snow is a wonderful thing. I think most people who live in Latvia have a love/hate relationship with it. When we first started living here, it was more love, than hate. After a couple of years though the relationship is starting to balance out a bit.
The boys, of course, can't get enough of snow. Especially because they are so into battling and projectiles - huge mounds of snow all around just means "snowballs"to them.
For us, the more responsible ones, though, yesterday's snow blizzard means much more. For a start, everything is gorgeous and white, and the world is suddenly not so gloomy and grey anymore. There's a strong childish urge to stamp big footprints when you see a field of untouched snow, and the wonder of the world you know suddenly being so drastically transformed.
But then, there's the painful part - you have to dress the kids in an extra layer of scarves and waterproof gear and woollen socks everytime you go out (which is no mean feat). Getting anywhere takes twice as long, especially if you are on foot and with kids. The footpath is slushy and slippery and you have to proceed as a shuffle as to not fall over. The boys are constantly running off to make another snowball. A small side trip to the shop a block away becomes a major expedition. And you are constantly in danger of having big heaps of snow fall off the roof and onto your head! This almost happened to me today walking along the street, a huge pile of snow came off the 5 storey building I was walking past and landed - with a huge, whumping shudder - one step in front of me. If it fell on me I'm sure I would have survived but it definitely would have knocked me down and given me a massive headache.... And then there's footpath cleaning, if you own a house. And this we do - so Jem has driven off with Mikus this morning to clean the footpath in front of our place in Agenskalns. Many people pay janitors to do this for them but the guy who did our footpath last year was ripping us off - and we got sick of him, so this year we've decided to try to do it ourselves. See how long we last!! Jem's certainly worked out a way to make the job easier - see the photo he just blogged a minute ago from his mobile phone (below).
But for now, for me, the "love" part is reigning over "hate".... we'll see how I feel come late February and it's still snowing!!

First proper snow - boys are happy

Ok so here's the Latvian 90th anniversary celebration roundup! Someone up high smiled at us benevolently this year and gave us a four-day weekend to celebrate. One of the highlights was definitely the light festival that was held over the long weekend. I'm glad I wasn't on the organising committee for the celebrations, because if someone would have pitched the idea to me: "our major event for Latvia 90 is going to be a festival where we light up objects all over Riga" I would have told them to go away and come up with something more interesting. But oh, what a mistake I would have made! The light festival around Riga was nothing short of brilliant. Familiar landmarks around the city were lit up with the latest in lighting technology - and while each separate 'light installation' was a fairly quick view, the overall experience was quite inspiring and exciting. Our local park, Vermandarzs, was filled with huge coloured floating globes, and the old oak and linden and fir trees were lit up individually, so that you noticed (for the first time ever) how sculptural the trunk was, or what a space was created by the shape of the branches. There was a certain eerie wonderment to strolling through such a familiar environment which was lit more like a moonscape than a park. Other highlights included the national theatre (where Latvian independence was declared), lit up in faded willy wonka candy colours - like an old, hand-coloured photograph; the fountain in front of the opera house covered in a big plastic bubble - like a snowdome - and the lady inside lit to look like a mermaid underwater; the dome square laden with moving projections of birds and clouds and flowers; and burning posts of fire grouped together outside the Arsenal art gallery, whereby a man would periodically come and dump a bucket of fuel of some kind in the top and sparks would rush up skyward. The whole of Riga was out and about on these nights (which started around 5pm when it was already pitch black!) and the city streets felt alive, happy and bustling.
And then... there was independence day itself. Every year we put down flowers at the freedom monument - this year we had to do it in the dark because during the day there were so many concerts and official proceedings in front of the monument we couldn't get near it. The boys went to the military parade and apparently were very excited by the helicopters and guys in uniforms in armoured personnel carriers.
My own personal excitement on independence day this year was participating with "Saucejas", my singing group, in a piece of music that was composed especially for this occassion by one of Latvia's well-known composers. We were lucky enough to be involved from the beginning, and the part that we sang was written especially with us in mind. Other groups that participated were the "Suitu sievas" (for those who know them) and "Auļi" (a bagpipe/drumming group), a well-known opera singer, the Latvian symphony orchestra and the Latvian radio choir. It was a real experience going to rehearsals over the past few weeks - to see up close the discipline and professionalism of the symphony orchestra and their conductor was impressive. I've got to say that "calling" a song while I had the symphony orchestra accompanying was also pretty cool! So most of my day was spent in a last-minute rehearsal and then in the concert itself, but well worth it. The piece was based on interpretations of the song "Put Vejini", and was quite moving at times. My parents actually made the trip up from Saldus to attend the concert, which was a treat for us, because they come to Riga so rarely these days.
Anyhow, while on the subject of Latvia 90 I should also give an update on the suiting issue for Tiss - I ended up making a compromise and buying him a nice shirt and slacks (sans jacket) for the occassion. Tiss himself was very happy with the outfit, and he fitted in perfectly :). I've added some pics below. One part of his little concert that moved me to tears (you know, laughing and crying at the same time) was that aside from the poem that Tiss said, something along the lines of "Latvia has big rivers, big forests, and a big sea...", he also got to do some solo song "calling", which he hadn't told me about, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that my son is a good singer, confident and very serious on stage!

The pre-school Independence day concert

Rehearsing with the orchestra

Only after quite a few years of living up here in the top part of the Northern hemisphere have certain things crystallized for me - it's taken me a few years to realise the magic of this time of the year. It's all pagan and patriotic and mysterious. It's a time when nature takes a deep breath - after the furious flowering and fruiting of summer and autumn have ended. The world gets very dark - it's not yet dawn when you get up in the morning and twilight already in the afternoon. And misty. Latvians call it "veļu laiks" (the "time of ghosts/spirits") - a time which coincides with the "death" of nature - when traditionally on a certain night people would put out a feast for the ancestors. This also coincides with the christian All Saint's Day (yeah, trust the church to usurp a pagan celebration, wouldn't be the first time, hmmm!).
After 7 years of living in Latvia with these extreme seasons, I have come to love this time of mist and darkness. As we descend into the next few months of winter, things indoors get cosy. The heating at home comes on, woolly jumpers come out, cups of tea abound, and lighting become an important feature - in many shapes and forms - sparkly christmas decorations appear in shop windows, fairy lights in the trees in the park, candles everywhere day and night: at kindergarten, on shop counters, at home when eating breakfast.
Around mid-november there are also three celebrations which fall within the space of a week, and it is always a busy and special week when you get very little work done. The first celebration is "Mārtiņi" - the day which marks the end of all the autumn work and the start of winter. It's the beginning of the time of "mummers" (see last year's post abou Ķekatas - the Latvian version of Halloween), a tradition of masks and merriment related to the sun and awaiting its return. Then there's "Lāčplēsu day" - which is equivalent to Anzac day in Australia, marking the day when the Latvian army drove the Bermont-Avalov forces from Rīga in 1919. On Lāčplēšu day there are concerts and army parades, and in the evening everyone goes to the Rīga castle and lights candles - lots and lots and lots, they appear over the castle walls with hundreds of people coming to put down their own candle there or at the Freedom monument. Then on 18 November there is Latvian independence day - which this year will be a biggie, because it's Latvia's 90th birthday. It's a public holiday with concerts and solemn parades and flags and flowers and a really beautiful patriotic and celebratory feel. We are in the middle of this special week right now, and tonight while sweeping up in the kitchen I realised for the first time that I love this week every year, and I love "veļu laiks". I've been particularly enjoying it this year because the boys are big enough to understand bits of what is going on, and we are busy learning the Latvian anthem and lighting candles and going to concerts and making costumes. Life is rich and full and bright, despite the approaching winter, and the darkness all around.

So here's the thing. Latvian parents have a penchant for dressing their young sons up in mini suits for special occassions. This isn't an age-old tradition, it's definitely stemming from the Soviet era. On important days of the year - particularly related to things on the school calendar, like the first day of school, last day of school and various seasonal concerts and celebrations - the kids get REALLY glammed up, and the boys (some as young as three!) turn up in suits. The full deal - shirt, shiny shiny shoes, matching jackets and slacks... and even ties. Sometimes even bow ties. Now a few parents and various others may think that this is cute. Well maybe, if the kid is a pageboy at a wedding for once in their life. But mostly I think it's just gruesome. All of these little people who are dressed up like big people - particularly like big-business people. They self-importantly walk down the street on their way to school with their backpacks on, hair spiked and jacket buttoned, clutching mum with one hand and a bunch of flowers with the other. It's just not natural. Making your son into a mini-me on days that are meant to be celebrations for kids not adults. Of course I see the merit in "dressing up" for special occasions - the feeling you get when you are wearing something special., the respect that it shows for the occasion if you do put on your "sunday best". But surely there are other more appropriate ways to dress little children!
Up until now we have managed to escape this small aspect of post-Soviet Latvia - our kindy is "out there" and none of the alt-groovy parents of the kids at our kindy would ever dream of suits on their sons (bar Tiss' freaky best friend who used to wear a bow tie on regular kindy days - bow tie and a buzz cut. No wonder Tiss idolised him). But this year Tiss is also going to a more regular pre-school . Next week the pre-school is holding a celebration of Latvian independence day where the kids will be reciting poetry etc - and Tiss has been notified by the teacher that he is required to wear white shirt, black pants. I queried the secretary about the "dress code": "When Tiss said he needed a white shirt... do you mean he should wear one of the mini-me suits?" And the lovely lady answered, that he needs to wear his best clothes - and yes, suits would be preferable, it would look lovely, but it wasn't necessary if we didn't have one. And you see, I KNOW that all the other boys will probably have the suits on - because last year (at the tender age of 5) they all had the suits on for the Christmas party (see above)!!!!
So I'm in a bit of a dilemma. And I don't even know why this is so important to me. But there's something inside me is SCREAMING about not wanting to put Tiss in a dress suit at the age of six. But as Jem and I agree, who am I serving by not conforming to this standard? Do I just buy him a dress shirt and slacks and not-so-shiny shoes, so that he can look like the "dressed down" version of his friends, and possibly feel out of it? Or do I flaunt the current cultural norms and let him wear and absolutely beautiful traditional linen Latvian shirt (which also has cuffs and a collar): although it's white it's not really following the spirit of the "business dress code" - but in my mind it's a much more appropriate piece of "formal wear" for a young 6 year old? I reckon this is a good option, but I worry that Tiss may be disappointed because he feels that he doesn't fit in. He is a fairly 'different' kid already who has had a bit of trouble settling in, and I suspect it's because he comes from quite a different background than the other kids.... Or do I just stop worrying about all this because boys really don't care what they wear anyway and noone (important) will notice and/or care anyway?
I know it seems like a small concern, and it is. But I just can't step back and get an outside perspective on this one. Mind you, I've spoken to Tiss and he is happy with a linen shirt. Not so keen on the suit anyway. Dunno why I am reacting so violently to the situation! I suppose maybe because it's not an isolated incident, I have to try to formulate our family's "policy" on this kind of thing now, because when Tiss starts a public Latvian primary school next year, it'll be on for young and old. To suit, or not to suit..... thoughts, anyone?

Drove out this morning to Ķemeri National Park to go for a walk in the marshland there. Never been in a marsh before! Kinda eerie, beautiful in a same-ish kind of way. Very, very still and quiet. An obviously clean, untouched piece of nature there. The boys had fun running along the path and falling into puddles, and after 3km of slippery wooden planks they were both pretty muddy, tired and happy as well. Seeing as Jem has to work for the rest of the weekend it was a good morning away...

Marianna was off to Venice with Mara for the weekend so it was just me, the boys, McDonalds, the circus and the trilogy.


The weather has finally given us a break in the cold and rain - on the weekend, although it was chilly (and let me have a whinge here - they still haven't turned on the central heating and we are frozen both indoors and out), both days were fabulous sunny, blue-sky days. I abandoned all thought of translating responsibilities and we went out with our friend Mara (who is back for a month to pack up her stuff and ship it back to Oz) to her family's gorgeous yet dilapidated country manor - to gaze at the splendour of Latvian autumn. It didn't disappoint. Even the boys, who lately have to be coaxed outdoors, were excited by the excursion and exploring.

Māra and the Mēmele river - lazily sliding past the property's fields

Plenty of grand yet grotty woodwork begging for restoration at the manor...

In the forest over the road - looking for the woodpecker we could hear up in the tree.

On the way home we stopped at Bauska castle (13th century ruins) and climbed the (not very) high tower. This is where the differences in personality in the boys was demonstrated:

In regards to heights, Tiss is more like me: heart beating fast, clinging to the edge and peeking over, wondering how he's going to climb back down the ladder...

While Mikus, on the other hand, is more like Jem: racing up the next ladder so that he can jump around at the top of the highest point. Exhilerated and fascinated.


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