Time for the obligatory early winter post about light, sun and lack thereof - we're now full-on into the darkest time of the year, where the street lights are switched off when I'm dropping Tiss off to school at 8.30 (meaning that dawn is only breaking then), and it is pitch black night again by the time I am leaving work after 4pm to pick up Tiss from school. Other years I have had a more positive take on this period - see Let there be light, - but this year its hitting me hard. Perhaps it is because it is also relatively warm for December - hovering around 5 degrees. In some ways this is good, because its not freezing when you go out. In other ways,it sucks: the warmer weather means the skies are constantly covered in thick cloud cover, and everything looks dull and veiled, the precious few hours of daylight you do have are murky, dusk-like affairs. If it dropped down under zero, at least it may snow, leaving the world bright and light, and if it dropped down another five degrees, we might even have blue skies, those crisp, bright, clear days with sun sparkling on crunchy snow.
I think I realised that I had the propensity to suffer from "SADS" (Seasonal Affective Disorder - depression stemming from lack of sunlight) way back when we were living in Melbourne, when the constant drizzle and grey of Melbourne winter had me vegetating in our unheated St Kilda apartment, curled on the sofa under the doona not doing much. Then the sun would come out, and I would be dancing around the flat, making the bed, flinging the dirty washing into a basket, singing as I wrote my Uni assigments and waiting for Jem to get home from work. Kinda psycho-pschizo stuff that seemed to be brought on by cloud cover and the lack thereof. (a quick aside: an audio memory that comes back from that time in St Kilda is the screeching of our first-ever modem as I logged in to my email - h, that was so 1996).
This year, however, unlike other years, I am feeling the looming SADS much earlier - normally the Christmas lights and excitement off the festive season manage to stave off the winter blues until late January, or February, when all I can think about is selling everything I own and buying the first ticket to Egypt or the Seychelles, or Ibiza... or Queensland, I don't care, anywhere, as long as I can get to see some sun. This year I've been googling plane flights already!! Air Baltic had a sale on flights to Dubai yesterday, and I had to stop myself from getting out my credit card.
The idleness and depression seem to have sprung up from nowhere - well I suppose it could be a combination of factors that are making me feel so desperate and hopeless lately: watching any chance of that sun-drenched holiday be whittled away by every-increasing building expenses on our legendary "renovators delight", for a start. They have almost finished putting the tin on the roof today; yesterday I signed my life (and bank balance) away to the plumber who is doing all of our pipes and heating - radiators, boilers, thermostats etc; I have been getting quotes this week from window making companies who are making ambit claims because obviously no one has told them WE'RE IN A CRISIS, goddamit! This stress combined with my current work situation which is lonely, frustrating and quite disheartening(I won't go into detail), Mikus not coping very well with kindergarten and Matīss talking non-stop have made me a bit fragile: add two months of NO SUNLIGHT into the mix and I find myself crying whenever I am alone, wallowing in the depths of despair and snot and running mascara.
A few years ago we invested in a "Daylight therapy lamp" - multitudes of megawatts of fluorescent light covered in a toilet-lid shaped piece of white opaque plastic - which, if switched on daily, is meant to dissipate the worst of SADS after a few weeks. Its worked for me before, needless to say I've had it cranked up recently and am hoping the effects kick in soon. Who knows, it may already be working, because I actually have the energy and motivation to write something today, and the effort to care what you, dear internet, would have to say about the matter.

Mikus was born on a drizzly night in April, 2005. The labour was fast and furious, 1.5 hours long, complete with a break-neck drive to the hospital and the actual birth in the Accidents and Emergencies department of the Royal Brisbane Hospital.  As it turns out, it seems that the intensity and purpose with which my youngest son came into the world was also an indication of his temperament and purpose as a person!.  In the pic above, Mikus is around 1/2 an hour old.  He was well over 4 kg (about 2 weeks overcooked), and his head was so big it didn't fit the newborn hat we had brought to hospital with us.  So the nurses thoughtfully knotted a "Queensland Health" baby singlet to keep his head warm...

Next morning in hosptial.  A very proud big brother, with his cheek full of jelly beans.

Best place to bathe newborns - the kitchen sink.  Bloody annoying when they grow too long and you have to revert to the standard baby bath.  When Mikus was born, all of the midwives and nurses kept commenting that he looked like an "old soul". "He's been here before!" many of them commented. Their comments come back to me quite often - I sometimes suspect they were right.

The post-feed knockout

Mmm, toast in one hand, baby in the other...

When Mikus was around six weeks old we flew back to Latvia and fairly soon after drove out to a remote country property to celebrate midsummer's eve.  This is one of a series of photos we have taken "breast feeding in exotic locations" - but that's a whole other set of posts ;)

Matiss had his first fencing competition last night and did extremely well for someone who has only been doing it for a few months. He won one bout ( fight, match ?? Ive got to learn the fencing lingo) and came home with a trophy. One very pleased little boy!....look for the fencer with blue trackpants, white piping...

A small video (kid on the left)

Some more pics

Everyone is having babies at the moment:  two of my sister-in-laws are pregnant or have newborns, friends are announcing their 2nd or 3rd pregnancies, cousins are busy picking baby names and buying strollers. Now I'm pretty sure that my time of pregnancy and newborns is over, but all this talk of breastfeeding and sleepy, milky bundles is making me a little nostalgic.  So I looked through some of our baby photos the other night and thought I'd share a few. Here's a few pics of Tiss in his first month or so of life.  Next post will be devoted to Mikus ;)

 After a 9 hour labour, Tiss came into the world around 11am on 28 August 2002. We stayed for a whole week in the 5 star luxury that was the Mater Mother's Hospital in Brisbane.  Tiss obviously still remembers sleeping in the womb!

It was August - spring in Australia.  In the background you can see my abandoned "chicken tractor".  I loved having chooks! 
Sleepy post-feed

Māra, I told you Tiss had a tinge of red hair when he was born ;) 

On Monday we marked a sigificant point in the reconstruction of our "renovators delight" by celebrating the traditional "spāres svētki", or roof-beam celebration. Apparently this tradition is not exclusive to Latvia, it is also celebrated in other countries in Europe and the US.
Monday was a fairly cold day, but we had got to the stage where, after many months of preparation, the roof beams were finally completed. I took an old oak wreath from Midsummer's eve (I should have made a huge, fresh, leafy wreath, but all of the leaves are now gone from the trees, and in here wreaths made from pine or spruce needles associate with funerals, so I wasn't going to go there) and the carpenters raised it above the roof on a wooden post. We perched for a while under the beams, me clinging on for dear life, and later climbed down to the second floor to drink homemade honey moonshine and eat freshly baked raisin scrolls, to raise our glasses to the carpenters and the longevity of the roof, and to the peace and harmony of the people who will live beneath it.
This day marked what I hope is a turning point for us with the house. After my last post about the building process, things got a whole lot more desperate. The second storey ended up having to be totally demolished on account of its apalling condition, our rented metal scaffolding was stolen from the building site which ended up costing megabucks, the rainy season started in earnest with days and days of sleet and freezing rain soaking through our roofless building an our backyard full of rotting, sodden wood. I had many moments of gnashing my teeth and wishing I could give the whole property back from whence it came. I have great hopes that with the christening of our new roof structure, things will begin to take more shape and along with that encourage a more positive outlook to the project.
Organising the "spāres svētki" was a pleasant surprise, mostly because it was the builders who insisted we celebrate. It was heartening to see that these young Latvian men, who are modern by every standard, and are fairly scornful of the idea of preserving the old, be so adamant about maintaining this pre-christian custom. They told me that it is considered very poor form if the owner does not stop work to celebrate and treat the builders, and if this happens, builders tend to put up a pair of holey trousers in place of the wreath.
Once the roofing is put on to the beams, the wreath is taken down and put into the attic space, to be kept there for the life of the roof. Let's hope it will be there for a long time to come!

This weekend we completed the first scene from Star Wars Uncut - Scene 105, Tusken Raiders ride a Bantha. The boys drew masks and got themselves dressed up whilst I had to crawl around in the mud with dodgy looking horns coming out of my head. They learnt alot about costuming, continuity and editing and hopefully our scene will get selected. We have to redo the audio during the week but you can hear in this version the original Star Wars audio. Mook wants the next scene to be the "Help me Obi-wan, you're my only hope" scene so perhaps you might get to see her with coffee scrolls on the side of her head.... the boys though might want to do a Jawa scene. I , on the other hand, reckon I could pull off a long haired Luke Skywalker!

It's becoming an autumn ritual for us - almost every year when the leaves turn golden we go to the Tērvetes nature park and go for a walk in the fairytale forest complete with wooden sculptures of Latvian storybook heroes, mushrooms, dwarves and elf-sized cubbyhouses. Kids love it. Every time.

Autumn fashion show at Mikus' kindy

A Latvian wedding tradition is for the bride and groom to choose a vedējpāris to acccompany them in their wedding ritual instead of a bridesmaid/groomsman: the vedēji are a couple who are already married, who the bride and groom are close to, and whose partnership they admire or respect to some degree. The vedējpāris traditionally do a lot of the organising of the wedding - MC functions, getting together parts of the ritual, pitch in with work and finances and whatever else is needed in the whole shebang that is a wedding.

This year, Jem and I have been fortunate to be asked to be vedējpāris in two weddings - although the responsibility of doing lots of organizing was taken out of our hands on both accounts, which was a bit of a relief, to be honest - we go the glory without having to do the work!

The first wedding was the reason for our Mexico extravaganza earlier this year, and was a wonderful blend of beach, Latvian pagan tradition and classic wedding celebration, all made very special by the fact that it was our beloved brother/brother-in-law/uncle/godfather Joel who was groom.

The second wedding was only a few weeks ago, and was very different to the above, but equally moving. The happy couple have lived together for years and already have a son - and had finally decided to make it all official and exchange their vows - in a church, no less. When asking us to be their vedēji, the invitation also came with the condition that the wedding was to be secret - and that no one (except for their son, the priest, the photographer, and us!) could find out about the wedding beforehand. Of course we were thrilled to be asked, and enthusiastically agreed - though I did feel a bit funny about the fact that none of our mutual friends, or their parents knew about the upcoming nuptials. For me, weddings are very much about family and community, so not being able to tell anyone about what we were about to share in was difficult. But they wanted to get married without the brouhaha - fair enough - so we prepared secretly, with me arriving back to Latvia that morning from a conference in Germany, while Jem dropped the kids at our parent's place in Saldus.

The day was drizzly, the leaves were beginning to turn golden, and inside the church was bone-chillingly cold. At first it seemed quite lonely - walking up the aisle of the empty church to stand right in front of the minister, hearing his words about love and autumn and harvests spoken for just us four. But after the first few moments of awkwardness, the wonder of the situation began to take over, and I began to enjoy the intimacy of the ceremony. There was no "audience" to watch the show - the whole ritual was just about these two people, who were officially pronouncing their love and commitment for each other - for no-one else's benefit. As I always do at weddings, I found myself weeping during the romantic bits, especially when they exchanged their vows, which were so heartfelt and dramatic in Latvian translation (the traditional "to death do us part" translates as "līdz kapa malai" - literally "until the edge of the grave"), and so sincerely delivered.

Afterwards there was the obligatory wedding march and flowers and photos, and later we went down to the beach, right near the church, where the newlyweds danced their first waltz, while Jem and I sang "Waltzing Matilda", Jem on "high ukele" and me on the shaker. What fun! (for the record - I had never really appreciated "Waltzing Matilda" in any context outside primary school music lessons - and let me tell you, this song in the context of an old time waltz ROCKS)

We abandoned the idea of taking a yacht ride into the Baltic Sea, because of the heavy rain and storm that had set in, and went out for a celebratory dinner and champagne. It was a truly amazing day, and a real privilege to share it with our friends. So here's to weddings! And love! And doing things your own way!

Had to write this down to remember it.....This morning, after sharply hitting my head on the corner of a window, I must have responded with a string of expletives. Whilst trying to rub the rising lump away Mikus came up and asked innocently, "Was that cheeses you wanted?" - Jem

We have been impressed by some new stencils that have appeared on inner-city Rigan footpaths a few nights ago. The stencils are huge – about 1 metre x 1 metre, and feature a famous Latvian storybook character, Spriditis, a little boy who sets off into the world to search for luck and happiness, only to find that it has actually been at home all along. The slogans are very in-your-face and relate to the mass exodus from Latvia that is happening at the moment. This highly political subject matter, combined with the excellent artistic execution (reverse graffitti – where you don’t use paint, but use some kind of solvent to clean the design into a dirty footpath) and gutsy, may I even say – DARING delivery (one stretch of a nearby street has these stencils every 4 metres or so!) have made quite an impact on us, the daily pedestrians of Riga. The stencils are signed „with the support of Andris Grutups”, which is a reference to a Latvian celebrity lawyer with all the wrong political connections, and we are not entirely sure if this is actually a marketing campaign sanctioned by the lawyer himself, orchestrated by some savvy ad agency, or a reference by the stencil artist because Grutups is very outspoken about the amount of people leaving Latvia.

Whatever it is, it’s impressive!

I don’t know the statistics of people leaving the country – but it is an issue that has gained huge momentum since the crisis began in January. Over the last 10 or so years, it has been a common thing for country folk to leave Latvia to take up menial jobs in Ireland, the UK, the USA. These were people living in small rural communities, most typically unskilled labourers, and never really touched me personally. But over the last few months it seems that everyone is getting „on the train”, so to speak. Several of our emigre friends, who have lost their jobs or whose work prospects are poor, have found Australia (or their other country of origin) friendlier to them in terms of unemployment benefits and future work opportunities, and have left or are in the process of going. Other educated aquaintances and friends are moving away in the hope of employment and better conditions elsewhere – a landscape architect we know has found that her work has completely dried up here, and decided that Sweden, a place where she had done garden projects before, was a better option. Our friends from Saldus – a tv producer and a builder – have just moved to Norway, where the building industry loves cheap Latvian labour. Every day we hear about people of all calibres, education levels and persuasions leaving – and many friend who have not left regularly express the opinion that „so and so should leave, there’s nothing here for them”, or „if I can’t find work I’ll leave”, etc. People feel that there is no employment to be had here, and even if you can get a job, that the wages and conditions are so poor that they would rather be doing menial jobs overseas and scraping by, living in shared flats with other desperate floor-scrubbers , rather than trying to do it here.

This situation is starting to freak me out... For the record, I am not judging the people who have left or are leaving. They have their reasons - my God, if I didn’t know what I was going to feed my kids tommorrow I would also be willing to travel anywhere for work. But the staggering rate at which this seems to be happening IS worrying. It seems to be a bit like one of the psycho manias that take over big crowds of people or animals, and have people blindly following without thought – you know, like all that Hitler worship and lemmings of cliffs etc. If you’re having a shit time in Latvia, then what do you do? First reaction – you consider leaving!

What I also find disturbing, is the attitude that „those who are left behind” seem to be adopting. In conversations with people who have not been THAT ravaged by this crisis, people who are still making a living, I rarely sense any real loyalty to Latvia, or a love for this country – that they believe that while life here may be tough, this is where they want to live, that they feel loyal to Latvia. Few people seem to (outwardly) care for Latvia - I rarely hear talk of a responsibility or an admiration for our language, our culture, nature or people – everyone pretty much concludes that this country is a sinking ship and we are stupid for living here. I agree, the politics here are f**cked up. The economy is also rooted, and the regard of those in power for the rest of us plebs makes me sick. But after I get over all the doom and gloom and crisis and bankruptcy, I really do love this country, and I want to be here. I have my diaspora-Latvian emotional blackmail nationalistic upbringing firmly rooted in my psyche, and still feel a patriotic sense of responsibility for this country. I feel worried and sad for Latvia’s future – not so much because of the economy, but because there seems to be such a lack of people who truly care. Obviously there are exceptions, and obviously, I can’t assume that because people don’t pledge these allegiances out loud, they don’t feel them. I suppose I should count all of my friends who are staying put for the time being as being patriots too!

So there’s some societal context for the stencils we photographed today. Certainly hits the spot!

(translation: "Don't give in! Don't leave!")

(Build Latvia, not another country!)

(The Lucky Country is right here! Don't leave!)

(Over there, your grandchildren won't speak Latvian!)

Now that the boys have started new schools/kindergartens our daily routine has changed considerably. I work in the mornings, and then around lunchtime race to pick up Mikus from kindergarten. The other kids stay there until around 5pm, but we did not want to leave him there that long - mostly because he's only four, and I think it is important for Mik to have more time at home with us for a little while longer. This has proved to be a great step - because Mik and I are spending a lot more time together on our own than ever before. Usually, our interaction is mediated by input from Tiss, who tends to dominate, and as a result Mikus hasn't ever had that one-on-one attention the way Tiss did when he was little.

So, these days around lunchtime Mikus and I enjoy going home and playing lego pirates, or just doing the grocery shopping together, or chatting about things in general. The other day Mikus announced he wanted to go to a cafe for a "special something", and I agreed that we would go together the following day. Mik's choice was interesting, he insisted on going to "Istaba", which is a super hip art gallery/cafe where the chef is Latvia's equivalent to Jamie Oliver - has his own tv show, there's no set menu but you just tell the chef what you like to eat, etc. As you can imagine, the place is also pricey!

So the next day I raced to pick up Mikus, after having a work meeting over a coffee and cake - feeling slightly queasy from the sugar and lack of lunch. Mikus (with his infallible memory - he's an elephant) reminded me straight away about our cafe date, and we proceeded to "Istaba"... where we were informed that the kitchen was closed, and all they could offer us was cake. One type of cake - marzipan cake. So I ordered this, thinking Mikus would eat it and I would watch, on account of my queasiness . To wash it down we also ordered a mega-sized babychinno (for all you childless people, its cappucinno milk froth, sans coffee - just the warm milk).

Of course, you can imagine the rest of the story. Mik takes one bite of the hideously expensive cake (which was amazing - thin slices of ice cream layered with almond-flour biscuit, with a luscious icing of red soft marzipan) and scrunches his face up: "I don't like this!". Then takes a sip of the babychinno and shudders: "that's not nice milk!". I force a patient smile. "Come on dear, try one more bite, this cake is yummy!" But the kid is not to be convinced. I watch the slice of sweetness slowly melting on the plate in front of me. "Ok, I'll have to eat it then..." and I do. Offering every bite to Mikus before I force myself to eat it. Not that is wasn't good. Oh no, far from it. I was just caked-out from my morning meeting and the sugary treat did not sit well with my already swelling nausea. I decided to take a few sips of the milk as well. uuuurgh... Then Mikus starts getting upset. His special meal with mummy, and he has nothing to eat. So we compromise and order him an apple juice, the safest thing to order, and they bring it out. And I should have known.... no groovy alt-cafe like this one would just have the pour out of the tetra-pack apple juice, would they?! No, they've got to have the cloudy, organic-just-squeezed-by-a-local-farmer kind of juice (that costs 3 times more per glass than the regular juice)! Mikus' face falls. He takes a tentative sip - and the disappointment on his face is palpable. "It's sour!" he wails, and I take a deep breath to try and still my rising anger. "Don't worry sweetheart" I murmur, dumping sugar into the tall glass and stirring with the straw. Mikus takes another few sips and abandons the glass next to the half cold cup of milk froth and the rapidly dissolving ice-cream.

And at this point, I remembered that kids are about teaching adults to be patient. I had worked this out a long time ago, but had forgotten the wisdom somewhere along the way. Mikus is legendary for trying my patience in terms of refusing food, and my usual reaction would be to start muttering about spoilt children and starving kids in Africa etc, etc, but this time, somehow, I stopped myself. I sat back and thought about the beautiful food and the gorgeous surroundings we were in, the joy of my youngest son as we decided to eat together, his excitement as we came in and picked where to sit, and the fact that the cake and the milk and the juice didn't really matter in the grand scheme of the experience. I took the situation in which both Mikus and I potentially (and typically) would have lost the plot, and relaxed. And ate cake, and felt like spewing, and funnily enough, enjoyed every minute of this afternoon spent with my youngest, very dear young man.

Tiss has started drawing cartoons - dunno if its an influence of the "Animation" interest group he's joined at school, or his appreciation for the "Boomerang" channel. Whatever it is, I love this pic, because of the sense of space it gives, with the tiny cars down below and the big high rise building in the foreground.


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