In the 1930s there was a campaign in Latvia for locals to be tourists in Latvia itself: "Apceļo Dzimto Zemi!". I have always thought that this was obviously the way to go - to know your own country as well as travelling around others - but until now, for one reason or another, we had not done very much travelling in Latvia itself. This year, mostly because the kids are bigger and no longer scream during long car trips (thanks for the Ninteno DS, Oma and Opa!), and partly because we are not travelling anywhere overseas this summer, it is the Summer of Local Tourism. I had also decided to begin to actively take people up on vague offers of visiting them at their country houses (people tend to put out "you must come and stay with us in the country this summer" invitations quite often), and so when the parents of Tiss' school friend invited us out, I purposefully set a date and this weekend, we packed up the car and headed out to their place in Latgale.

After an almost 5 hour trip (which was meant to take 3 hours but lengthened because Mikus began to vomit and wouldn't stop - and this was even BEFORE he started playing the DS), we turned up at their place, way in the middle of a wheat field, right by a slow-flowing river. The river was perfect for swimming, not very deep, with a sandy bottom, and the boys spent the next day in the water. This country property also had a melna pirts - or a black sauna - which we went in that evening. I won't go into the cultural description of saunas in Latvia - that is a post that has been brewing for a while - but in short, a black sauna is a traditional sauna which has no chimney, which means that the smoke from the fire fills the room and is let out before you go into the sauna to wash. The walls of the sauna and the stones on the stove are black with soot. This was our first time in a black sauna and it was very pleasant - the heat felt a bit different, kind of softer, I guess, and visually, people look so good against the black walls! We spent most of the two outside, eating by the river, swimming, the boys did a lot of running through the fields, all of the menfolk went on a boat ride, and that evening the boys slept in a tent, with their freshly home-made wooden swords for protection.

Next day we kept on driving, and apart from stopping at every lake we passed (the region Latgale is called the "land of blue lakes"), we also took part in the "unpacking" of a potter's kiln. This part of Latgale traditionally has many potters' workshops, and you can visit the artists at their homes. We were lucky enough to turn up during a kiln unpacking, and got to see the pots coming out gleaming and hot. We (and everyone else in the crowd of people who were there) helped carry the pots outdoors, where we chose the ones we wanted to buy. The boys were most interested to see the kiln and the wares emerging from it, and Jem and I scored some beautiful pieces at sensational prices, straight from the artist himself. Not only that, but it was great to hear the local dialect being spoken by people around us - singing in the Saucejas we have learned many songs from this area, in the Latgallian dialect, but to hear a conversation between Latgallians is an experience in itself. To my surprise and pleasure, I actually understood everything that was said today, and found myself wishing I could speak the dialect as well.

Boy, kite and dog

The sauna is heating up...

A few of our pieces. Pieces of grass mean "this is reserved"

One of Latgale's many beautiful lakes

Latgallians are Catholics, so you see the roadside crucifixes along country roads. Reminded me of Tuscany!

Finally, its summer in Latvia. We may start later than everywhere else in the universe, and it all ends sooner, but what we lack in duration, we certainly make up in intensity. The honey-scented countryside with its decadent green is doing its thing - if you sit still enough you can actually HEAR the plants growing rapidly around you. I have been working two (LONG) days a week in Riga and spending the rest of the week with the boys in the country. The temperature the last few days has been in the high 20s, which is a HEATWAVE for the locals, and is predicted to last for another week or so. We have spent a couple of days at the beach, and now are living outdoors under the trees. Jem is right now outside trying to fashion a home-made slip 'n' slide for the boys - do you remember the slip 'n' slide? I never had one, never tried one, but when I was around 10 I watched those happy kids squirming around in soapy water on the tv ads and tried to curb my envy.
It is so good to have a relax in the country now, because the last few weeks of our lives have been the busiest weeks of the year - before Jani my bosses turned up from the USA, which means I was "on call", Jem's parents also arrived for a three week visit - which meant a pretty intensive time of playing and visiting and touring, and was WAY too short, might I add - and the museum had its first exhibition open, for which Jem did the design. And although all of these things were very positive experiences and enjoyable, they mean that we have been working and socializing way too hard, which is all wrong - in this kind of weather you need to lie on a lilo in the middle of the lake and not do much. Beer in your hand.
Anyhow, back to the country. One of the big joys of the last few days has been Mikus in bare feet. TWO bare feet on the grass. A couple of days ago Jem + Mik's doctor + his splint maker between them worked out that Mikus' splint doesn't need a part under his foot any more - that his ankle doesn't need to be supported. Now the splint just compresses and wraps around his lower leg like a leg warmer, in order to protect the bone if he gets a direct blow to the leg. How cool is that! I don't know who is happier - Mikus or us - to see him racing around the front yard with two bare feet. The muscles in his ankle need strengthening, and he has moments of limping when he gets tired, but give it another few weeks and he will be running faster than the other kids.
On to Matiss - who has finally discovered the joy of reading. Both Jem and I were avid readers as kids, and it has been quite frustrating for me to watch my 7, almost 8 year old struggle with reading in the last year at school. He was only doing it when he was forced, and then only reading the minimum requirement. At the beginning of his holidays we pushed Tiss to read a chapter of Winnie the Pooh a day, and when he actually finished that (a few days ago) he was puffed up with pride. We bought him a little book light to celebrate, and ruled that if he couldn't fall asleep, he was allowed to read a chapter or two in bed with the light clipped on to his book. What an incentive! That, coupled with a trip to the library, and we've got a bookworm on our hands. He finished another (comparatively long!) book between last night and this morning, and I can see, finally, that a love affair has begun. Amazingly, Tiss can also read English - this happened without any training, apart from telling him the sound for "th" - he just picked up a reader for kids his age and ripped through it. Probably totally normal, I'm assuming if you have the skills for reading one language it can be transferred fairly easily to another, but to me its seems like a miracle.
As for me, I've been watching frogs in our little pond near the house. Totally delighted. There's brown ones and green ones, with spots, or stripes, and if you sit quiet enough, you can also see tritons (or are they called salamanders in English? Lizards that live underwater). In Queensland, in my childhood, there were green tree frogs that lived in the bush around our house: they were so prolific that occasionally you would visit the toilet to find a green leg sticking out from under the rim - they would crawl in under there to enjoy the cool water flushing downwards. Later, the frogs began to die out, and by the time I was at uni a whole movement had been established to try and recreate frog habitats in suburban Queensland, to encourage them back into our backyards. Jem and I spent hours digging in our hard, rocky earth on the hilltop to make a tropical pond, lined with black pond liner and succulents planted around, so that we could have frogs in our yard. As a result, we had a lot of cane toad spawn in our tiny pond, though I do also remember being excited about a couple of miniscule green tree frogs that made an appearance. But it was a struggle. Here, frogs are obviously pretty common - and because we don't farm or have any pesticides or fertilizers, our land is a frogs paradise. The kids can spend ages with little nets catching hem by the pond, holding them in their hands and letting them go again. You walk along the edge of the pond, accompanied by the plop, plop, plop, of tens of frogs leaping in the water to evade you.
A last highlight of the past week - berries. Strawberries to be precise. Strawberry season is coming to a close, and every opportunity I get I take off to the market to inhale the aroma and to buy a kilo or two or dark red, mushy, sweet berry goodness. I haven't started making jam yet, but will be doing so presently, because at this time of the year you have to make the most of this, the most yummy of fruits.
So, that's what's happening at our place. I'm not sure I will get motivated to do another post for a while. Outdoors is calling...

Things are moving. Slowly, slowly, but surely. The builders keep telling me that if they can just get a few more boys on the job, we could be moving in by autumn... personally I think Christmas is a more likely scenario, but, whatever. Come 2011 I may be almost properly equipped to take on visitors from Australia!

At first these photos seemed very macho and technical, but I'm starting to get an appreciation for the Jeffrey Smart-esque lines and placement of certain items, and the colours. Jeremy's been photographing every time we go to the house, and we have a growing folder documenting the progress of the building work.


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