Every year in early autumn, you can see Latvians gathering all around the countryside for a special collective working bee - the potato harvest. I have never really understood how it all gets coordinated - it's not written in the newspaper, or advertised on the radio, but somehow everyone knows that THIS is the weekend for potato picking. Farmers gather together scores of relatives and everyone goes out on the field to dig up the fields and fill up large sacks with starchy tuber goodness. Driving in the country on that particular weekend you see people toiling away, with lots of sacks on the side of the field. This has always mystified me, how everyone seems to agree on exactly the same day/s to do the work, and I have always felt a bit of envy because I have never had a chance to take part in this autumn tradition. Over the years I have hinted to my neighbour, who has never offered for us to take part in digging up her massive field. I don't know why, perhaps it is because each helper usually gets to take home a sack of potatoes?

So this year, my ambitious mum decided that we also needed a field of potatoes. She and Normunds, our trusty farmhand helper planted a modest field in springtime (around 50 rows, which is small for most locals), and we have watched the potato plants growing this summer, concerned for colorado beetles (which didn't appear), the weeds and lack of rain. When you consider the low commercial price of "Latvia's second bread", you may wonder why bother to plant your own field - but there's something about growing them yourself. I've always thought that home-grown potatoes taste better than store-bought ones, probably totally psychosomatic, or maybe because home-grown spuds are usually completely organic? Our ones this year certainly are - no pesticides or weed killers touched our field, that's for sure.

As the summer progressed and things got cooler, our thoughts turned to the potato harvest. Speaking to a few friends, I was alarmed around a month ago to hear that their parents in the east and north of Latvia had dug up their potatoes early this year, because of the rain, they were already rotting in the field. Other friends commented that the "word on the street" (at the market) was that potato prices were going to rise sharply at the end of winter, because this year's harvest was small, and of a bad quality. Almost everyone I met, including friends my age and younger, had some extra information on the state of potatoes, the future of the harvest, the dangers ahead, the importance of knowing when to dig... So I turned to our neighbour, a veteran potato grower, strode over to our place and looked at our field, the state of the stalks, dug up a spud, saw that the skin was still able to be rubbed off, and pronounced that they should stay in the ground a couple of weeks longer.

So we waited. I sat in Riga, watching the weather reports, watching the rain coming down, wondering how the spuds were going. And finally, we decided that this was the weekend. It wasn't raining and things had got a whole lot colder. I notified friends who invited us to social events that we were unavailable because we had to pick potatoes, and this was met with knowing nods and understanding comments. "oh, if you've got to dig the potatoes, then of course you can't make it". On the drive out to Kugures you could see the fields full of people with their sacks and pitchforks. We had struck it lucky and picked the right weekend!

Yesterday we started. The ground was rock hard, and getting the spade/pitchfork in under the clump to pull out the spuds was tough. Nevertheless the "buried treasure" aspect of digging overtook all of us, and motivated us onwards, and by the end of the day over half the field had been dug up. Even the boys stuck around for an hour or so, digging up their own plants and scrabbling in the dirt to find all of the spuds. We loaded the potatoes into a wheelbarrow, and spread them out in the shed to dry. All up we dug up around three wheelbarrows full, which will probably not last us all winter, but we all feel bloody proud anyway! In a couple of weeks, after they have dried, they will be put into the basement, in a cool place out of the light, ready to be eaten.

Now I'm feeling a little smug, because I've finally taken part in a potato picking expedition, and there's a bucket full of small and damaged spuds in the kitchen, waiting to be grated for potato pancakes. What more could you ask for?

And this is just a good post-potato-picking shot, taken by Mikus. Love the red apples!

The first of September has rolled around again, and today we braved the streets with a dressed-up son and bunch of flowers in tow, ready to start a new school year. Tiss wasn't too happy to be starting school again - which kid ever is? Although I think that on the whole he enjoys school. We all attended the first assembly today, including Mikus, who seems quietly excited that he will also go to school there.
One year into it, I have come to a reserved conclusion that the school he is attending is a good one. The Rīga Central Applied Arts Primary School is a public primary school, located in the old town - just a few blocks from home. It was established in the 19th century as a German school for applied art, and a number of well-known Latvian artists and craftsmen have gone there. Today, although it is still located in the same building, it is a regular primary school in which kids are taught all of the required primary school curriculum, but also get a double of the required dose of art and home economics. Most of the after-school interest groups are art related - ceramics, animation etc, and it seems to attract a lot of parents/families with an interest in the arts generally.
One of the great things about the school is its size - there are less than 300 students, from grades 1 - 9. As a result, you get to know most of the teachers and staff, and feel very comfortable walking into the school and finding out whatever information you need, and organising a personal approach to your own situation is no problem. The location is amazing - for excursions the kids sometimes walk around the old town, and this is also where the older grades have "plein air" pracs for the first week of the school term. However, because it's an inner city school, there is no dedicated outdoor area for the kids, which is a stark contrast from my own memories of lunch hours at school, spent outside playing hopscotch, sitting in the shade, playing on the oval...
One interesting part of primary school in Latvia is that your "home room" teacher is the same one for grades 1 - 4. This can be a blessing, if you happen to land a good teacher, who you can become very attached to over the first four years of schooling. Unfortunately for us, Tiss got an older teacher who has lost her love of teaching, and uses Soviet pedagogical methods - through instilling a great deal of fear in her students, putting them down and yelling. We have been trying to teach Tiss to get a thick skin in regards to this treatment, which has been hard, and we are very grateful that she is not the only one responsible for teaching his class.
In terms of work, last year the kids were basically taught about form, rather than content. There was a great emphasis on handwriting skills, which I found bemusing, but trust that at some point in the next couple of years the focus will shift from HOW Tiss writes, to WHAT he writes...
Apart from these and a few other things, school is good. Tiss takes after Jem in terms of popularity, and is friends with most kids in the class. When we arrived this morning you could see a real joy in the children being reunited after the summer break, and it was exciting for both parents and kids alike to wonder what this year of school will hold. The days have become suddenly colder and dare I say it, I am almost looking forward to blustery autumn and winter days, when we can sit indoors and concentrate on studying, reading and learning.

Assembly in the courtyard - very inner city...

Can you see Tiss?

Someone had the great idea of taking a class photo with all the kids squinting in the sun

Afterwards we had a celebratory cup of tea with school friends


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