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.


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