Our city has its own professional children's puppet theatre.  It's got puppet masters who have trained as such in the Soviet era, its own building in the centre of town, and a very active programme with a number of new shows every season.  It's always seemed super cool and super unusual to me that children's puppet theatre is taken so seriously here, that "professional puppet master" can actually be a real job description, and that many families opt to take their kids to see the puppets instead of go to the movies.
Well a couple of months ago I got a call from one of the said puppet masters, asking me to translate one of their plays that they had been invited to play at a festival in the US (as a freelance team).  I accepted immediately, excitedly, and was a little taken aback when she told me that they had no money to pay me for the job... but they could offer a barter.  A play, put on at the date and time of my choosing - or a wonderful Father Christmas, or an enchanting Easter Bunny... Long story short, I agreed, and tonight we held a puppet party at our place, as a Christmas gift for our godchildren and their families.  It was great fun.  The play itself was hilarious, with the mirth heightened by the fact that the performance happened at such close quarters in our lounge room. We all laughed and laughed - adults and children alike -at classic fairytale forest animals were infused with naivity, slyness, fun and comedy.
So good, that I'm hoping I get another barter deal from them again, so we can have another Christmas play next year!

Last year, when we were in the last throes of finishing off our house, I made a vow that on the next Christmas I would go into "pretty homemaker" mode.  I promised myself that I would have a triangle of advent candlesticks in every window, and that the apple tree in the back would be a mass of twinkling fairy lights.  I was going to have a big Christmas tree in Riga and another one in the country.  Oh, and choirs of angels singing all December, and a permanent freshly baked gingerbread aroma wafting from the kitchen.  So as Christmas  approached this year, and I watched November swallowed up by work trips, and made plans for exhibition openings, I realized that my American dream home Christmas special was going to have to be trimmed - and I don't mean the tinsel and baubles kind of trimming...

At any rate, we ended up getting a couple of triangle advent candlesticks (ok, so they are faux candlesticks these days with electric bulbs).  They are the most wonderful part of solidarity in Riga at this time of year.  The darkness is so all-pervading - I swear this morning daylight only fully appeared around 9am, and at 4pm it was already dusk.  So after dusk (and many people just leave them on all day) - many, many shops and houses and apartments switch on their golden sparkly advent candlesticks in the window.  Gives a bit of warm glow both inside the house and out.  Driving along the road in the almost permanent darkness, the little lights in everyone's windows lifts your mood.  Or at least they lift MY mood.

The apple tree lights seemed like way too much logistical effort for our work-addled brains, and as for the big Christmas tree - I settled for a smallish fir tree, in a pot.  I bought it with the boys at the local craft markets last Saturday, and rashly (and proudly) told the man selling them that I would carry it home by myself.  He offered to take it in his truck.  "Oh no!" I scoffed.  "I've carried children around for the last 9 years!  I'm strong as an ox!" and proceeded to have my arms almost drop off over staggering home 5 blocks through the sleet.  Anyhow, on getting it home, I realised that our city abode has no Christmas decorations to put on the tree.  And this, dear reader, is where this whole waffling post was going.  To my brush with the magical disappearing antique shop (cue Harry Potter music).

By chance, I stumbled into the magical disappearing antique shop a few roads up from our place when walking to kindergarten one day.  A brand new shop, never knew it was there, I ducked in and snooped around, and spied the big bowl of old Soviet glass Christmas ornaments for a laughable price per piece, noted them, and went on my merry way.  Well last Saturday, after realizing that we had no Christmas ornaments in the house, I made a beeline back to the antique store....   and it was gone.  I'm not saying it had closed up and moved away - it had completely disappeared.  I couldn't even find the building where it had been.  There was the photo salon, and the fruiterer, and the hairdressers, but the antique shop - in fact the whole building - had vanished.  Freaky.  In the following days I walked or drove up the street a few times, wondering if the shop had all been a part of my overactive imagination.  I could never find it, nor any sign on any of the buildings heralding an antique store.  Then, today, coming back from the tram stop with Tiss, there appeared a quaint, squat little wooden house with shutters and lit windows - the antique store was back!  Without further ado we crashed in there, made straight for the bowl of ornaments - which was, amazingly, still full of glass baubles, and picked out the best of the bunch.  Totally wondrous. The bearded shopkeeper, who looked like a friendly Hobbit in a flannel shirt, smiled knowingly when I told him I had lost his store, and silently wrapped the ornaments in scraps of old Soviet newspaper.

So now they are hanging on our tree.  Still need to find a star for the top.  I've got to say - I love those ornaments.  The pics don't do them justice - many of them are clear glass, with shiny colour painted on the back, so that in real life the baubles have real depth and mystery when you look at them.  Mind you, I know that certain readers will find the ornaments shabby, or too much reminiscent of their own Soviet Christmases.  But for me, they are just perfect.  Part of the sparkly lit up Christmas miracle...

Best thing about living in Riga is that it is a small, small pond.  Pretty much anyone who is anyone with half a brain and an ounce of creativity knows each other.  Also, as a Latvian who used to live in Australia, we used to act as "homestay" families to Latvian celebrities who travelled around the world doing concerts and lectures etc.  Sort of like if you were an Aussie living in an obscure place and having Michael Hutchence come to stay, because he's short on cash and needs a free bed for the night. 
Because I've sung with a Latvian folklore ensemble for 10 years, improved and learned more about my traditional singing technique, but mainly because everyone knows everyone in Riga,  I've had the chance to sing in some fun projects along the way, including with this totally legendary folk band on one of their albums.  Last Saturday they were celebrating their 30 year anniversary (yep, they started singing when I was 9), and everyone who was on their albums got invited on stage to sing a couple of tunes.  Lots of fun being a rockstar for a few numbers - the crowd was well over 1000 strong, and there were lots of colourful lights, and there was a professional lady out the back who did my makeup (orange lipstick, mmm, wish she had had time to do something about my HAIR), and lots of back patting and dancing afterwards.  A wonderful slow way to "come down" after my weeks of sun and interviewing in Brazil. The whole stardom trip would have been complete if I could have played the tambourine to complement my backing vocals.  Maybe next time.
Mind you, today I had the crash to reality, with the sleet and darkness, and occasional drudgery of motherhood, work and bill-paying and no prospect of further stardom anywhere to be seen.  That's why I started surfing to look for cheap flights to Morocco for a family trip next year!  You gotta dream, eh...

I'm finally back.  First off, I'd like a round of applause for Jem for keeping the home fires burning - not only in terms of keeping our children alive and relatively happy, but for building a whole lot of shelves in all the right places, and lastly - for keeping this blog going!  SO happy he took over posting about Riga life, I hope he is now a permanent addition to the hellolatvia crew....  so are you, Jem?  And by the way, wtf happened to our sleek, minimalist design???

The trip to Brazil was intense.  Mega huge workload, from getting up to late in the evenings - mostly interviewing and visiting and collecting for the museum.  I won't go into details, only to say that I have now had a crash course in interviewing while wearing silly headphones and holding one of those ridiculous fluffy microphones that look like a dead cat.  Met a lot of wonderful people (mostly aged over 70), heard some truly amazing stories. A few Indiana Jones moments, a couple of cachaca fuelled moments, mostly lots and lots of shut-up-and-listen moments.

I pretty much fought tears through the first week of being in Brazil though - probably a consequence of jet lag  but mostly because the places we went were in many ways SO similar to the Brissie backyards of my childhood.  Greener, wilder, with HUMMINGBIRDS, but basically the same.  Paw paw, mangoes on the ground, umbrella trees and blady grass and eucalyptus.  Cicadas in the evening and sweltering afternoon sun. I didn't think I would react so violently, but on the first day when I picked up a frangipani flower and smelled it, I dissolved into tears, as my primary school playground days of bare feat and stringing together frangipani necklaces came back to me.  

Travelling and working with two people who are workaholics and super achievers in their field also gave me time for reflection when away.  I spent many long inland road trips thinking about my own scheme and commitment level to various projects - and have returned with a new resolve to work harder, more carefully, more frequently. More resolutions than a sinner on new year's eve.  Feels good for now, we'll see how things a going in a couple of months!

This has gotta be my favourite pick from the trip.  Discovery channel, eat your heart out

Part of one of the houses where we stayed.  Idyllic.
 For us eastern Europeans, walking over mangoes and avocados on the ground, dropped from the trees like apples in autumn, was heart wrenching.  The mangos we gathered up and broke open with our fingers, inhaling the contents...

Did I mention.... HUMMINGBIRDS??

Pounding the mean streets of Santos, near Sao Paulo

Lots of strange fruits and berries in Brazil.  Some of them are SOUR!  
And um.... no, I'm not pregnant. Just too much mango and lazy abdominal muscles

Every year we put together an advent calendar for the boys. This year's was inspired by the 30cm pieces of dowel lying around the house. Behold the advent mobile!! Minor flaw in the design I realised this morning....when the prize is taken from one of the boxes the whole mobile is unbalanced and almost collapses....doh! Luckily we have marbles lying around to even things back up again.

My eldest son is a list man.  Like his mamma, he likes to write lists of jobs to do and tick them off as they get done.  Yesterday he came home from school with another lurgy, and luxuriously wrote the above list of things he could do at home to keep himself amused.  Notice the fact that of all the things on the list that have been ticked, "ly down" (sic) is not one of them.  (BTW., I know the list above may seem like a complete failure in terms of spelling for a 9 year old, but I'm not too worried considering he reads and writes in Latvian at school.  Lord knows where he learned to read and write in English).
We've all been sick lately, especially Jem, who went multiple rounds with sinus infections and antibiotics of various strengths.  That's probably why I haven't had time to visit blogland for a while.  Mind you, we've ALL been sick, except for this young man.  And may I remind you that he doesn't eat ANY VEGETABLES.

Here he is dressed as an oak tree for kindergarten's autumn concert last week.  He totally surprised us by singing a solo, taking the lead in all the musical numbers, and generally being the kindergarten concert diva.  Turns out there's hope in the world!

I have also been writing lots of lists lately - because I fly to Brazil in a couple of days for field work.  Last time I went to Brazil for work it was a very intense 2 weeks of interviewing and recording and travelling. The closest I got to a tourist experience was pressing my face up against the window inside the car as we sped past Ipanema beach in Rio, watching all bikini babes and tanned hunks sunning themselves in a passing blur.  We did get 1/2 an hour out to see this dude, though, which made up for the rest of the time working.

Yesterday night we celebrated 11/11/11, like every year we lit candles along the wall of the Riga castle, and released a little raft of candles into the black swirling expanse that is the River Daugava.  Usually this would be my annual post about the darkness and how difficult it is to handle, for some reason this year it's been relatively warm and light and we haven't descended into the depths of late autumn despair yet.  It is interesting as the boys get older to see how they have soaked in our family celebrations - I've noticed that this year they both expect certain things to happen, and now we have family traditions that I can see continuing for many years to come.

I'm hoping Jem does a photo post of the 11 november... stay tuned.  But that's all from me for now - doubt I'll get a chance to blog in Brazil.  See you in December, with its fairy lights and letters to Santa and gingerbread aroma and magical excitement...

I have almost talked Jem into making regular photo posts on this blog.  It requires a bit of a rehaul of the site structure but otherwise not so difficult.  I've got as far as having him graciously provide me with this little photo essay of our local - Agenskalns market.  It is definitely one of the highlights of living in this part of Riga.  A big ornate red-brick building, it is no longer at its zenith.  I am expecting one day to wake up and read in the news that the building has been bought by an upstart developer to transform into a cinema complex/department store.  But until then, I love going there to do our regular food shop. 

Especially in summer and autumn, when local produce is sold there in the area outside. We buy beautiful home-grown tomatoes, chantarelle mushrooms and bilberries picked in the forest, freshly squeezed apple juice in big 3 litre glass jars.  Indoors we get fresh milk which is ladled from metal milk cans, and meat which is half the price and double the quality of supermarket meat, jars of honey straight from the apiarist.  In the little wooden shacks around the perimeter of the market, we can find little antique stores with rusty sewing machines out the front, second hand clothes stores with faded sheets and small balls of wool scraps, tiny holes in the wall offering every kind of screw or nail available to man.  If we were differently inclined, we could also get cheap shots of vodka at the cafe, rich and creamy slices of cake from the baker.  If we were more organized, we could get most of these products sans packaging - and filled into our own reusable containers - our own cartons for eggs, jars for cream, bottles for milk. 

What I love about the market is also that it is not a yuppy farmer's market - it is simply a continuation from a earlier time, when produce was local and container recycling was a given. Some of the meat sellers still have white Soviet vendor's hats and heavy blue eyeshadow, and beehive hairdos.  Not so inspiring in winter, when the market is smelly and freezing, and fruit and veg is mostly imported, except for big buckets of salted cucumers and jars of pumpkin in marinade. 

So this year Tiss started going to a children's Latvian folklore ensemble.  It's funny, but in some ways I think it was easier to educate your child in Latvian traditions when living in Australia - because participation in a folk dance group, a choir, Latvian language school was a must, the thing everybody did on the weekends - and a great emphasis was put on this cultural education in the Latvian diaspora.

However, when you LIVE in Latvia, the country and culture are all around you, and not many people make the effort to especially join folk dance groups or choirs or the like.  You have to go out of your way and find these opportunities, this folklore community, and infiltrate.  I had got to the stage of having a 9 year old and and a 6 year old that had never danced a polka or worn a folk costume!  Shock horror!  So that's why Tiss started singing in a folklore ensemble this autumn.  So far so good, he is a bit of a butterfingers when learning the "kokle", a Latvian zither-like instrument, but happy to sing, hassling me to sing in the car and when we have a moment at home.

It didn't all click initially though, on the very first day he was feeling a bit out of his element when he realised that most of the kids already knew each other and were mates, and I was already recoiling from the "mum, I don't like it and don't want to go" conversation I could sense was coming, when in walked V.  We had met V before at a music festival this summer.  She is around 10 years old, and her mother is Latvian and her dad is Australian.  A dinkum Aussie from Adelaide, he works in international banking.  They've lived in Latvia for 10 years or so.  And suddenly, Tiss' eyes were shining, and he was giggling, and BLATHERING ON IN ENGLISH to this little dark-haired Aussie-Latvian princess, and having the time of his life.  Desperate to go to ensemble again next week.  Oh, the irony - I take the kid to a group to get the big Latvian experience, and he only really feels comfortable in the company of a bilingual misfit like himself.  It's not that he can't speak the language - he is fully fluent in both - but culturally, spiritually, attitudinally, whatever, he is still a little bit different. Oh well!  I don't really mind.  As long as he gets his dose of Latvian folklore as well :)

Tonight was their first performance, and I was totally surprised by my own swelling feelings of pride and nostalgia when I saw Tiss in his costume, and felt his excitement at having it on and performing on stage. I could totally be one of those pageant mothers, I've realized.  Good thing I haven't got a girl.

Birds of a feather - Tiss and his Aussie friend

 I ache. All over.  I've got muscles in my shoulders I never knew I had, and they are making me FEEL them this morning.  Reason is, because we finally cleared our backyard of junk yesterday.  A miniskip parked on the road, a wheelbarrow, some heavy-duty gloves, my husband and me.  Romantic, huh.
Our backyard has been a huge tip full of building scraps since before we moved in. When we were building this house it turned out they had to demolish a lot more of it than we had originally hoped - and instead of paying thousands to cart away a whole house worth of 100-year old timber, we held on to lots of it.  Mainly it was because we couldn't bear to throw away such beautiful, huge old beams and logs - because old wood has a character and depth that you can never get with new timber, not even if you do the "artificial distress and weather" technique to make it look old (ugh.). Salvaged timber yards don't exist in Latvia.  Except in our back yard.
Well, we've finally been clearing the yard bit by bit - stacking still-useable logs in one part, getting rid of firewood and old windows and pallets and sand and rotten stuff.  Giving away whatever we could to needy neighbours looking for firewood, or friends building houses in the country.  Yesterday, we finished the lion's share - amazing - and now we actually have 3/4 of a yard for our kids to run around in!  This has been the whole issue, ever since we started looking for a house to buy in Riga.  Although we lived for years on the 5th floor of an inner-city apartment, we couldn't shake the Aussie prerequisite of having a back yard for kids to hang out in - it just felt wrong for them not have a tree to climb, a sandpit out the back, a place to chuck a ball and run barefoot.  We bought the house 4 years ago, and have only managed to secure that elusive backyard yesterday.
We couldn't have done all this without the help of our inebriated neighbours, of course.  The ones I described briefly in this post.  Jem's brother was visiting this summer and we had a miniskip then, too, and Jem and Joel worked tirelessly for a day carting big rotten logs to the skip.  The minute the gate to our yard was open, some neighbours took the opportunity of wandering in to the yard.  Parking themselves on a convenient pile of timber, and watching the proceedings.  Main thing was to offer to help, and then not do anything but sit and tell us what we were doing wrong.  Give advice and criticism with slurred breath reeking of vodka.  "Its better than watching TV, watching you kangaroos work!" one of our delighted neighbours chortled.
The whole time we have lived here, I have been hyper-aware of our neighbours - mostly pensioners, many of them alcoholics.  We share a back yard in so much that our yard is a part of their once-huge, once- communal courtyard - we fenced our bit - and anything we do outdoors is under the scrutiny of everyone who lives in the houses around and can watch the proceedings through their windows.  We are total aliens to them - foreigners, who are renovating an old house that they tell me is terrible. Why would we want to live there if we could have a nice new house in the 'burbs?  In their eyes we have too much money and NO sense at ALL.  Sometimes the older folk stop to talk to me, like Betty, who was christened as Alvine Elizabete (but everyone calls her Betty).  She misses her husband, who died last year.  She still doesn't know how to make ends meet with her minimal pension, and fondly remembers the time after the war, when everything in the shops was so affordable: "But what can you do, you have to live, until you die" is her daily wisdom.  Then there's Ludmila, who only speaks Russian, and comes outside on pension days, full of moonshine and bitterness, floral housecoat and slippers on, mascara smudging, and rages at the world, yells at the sky, until someone leans out of their window and tells her to shut it.  Imants is good-hearted, but hopeless, and when he is not too pissed he tells me about service in the Soviet army, and about the sly easy down the road, that sells him 1 litre of illegal moonshine for 80 santims ($1.60 AUS), and about the operation he needs on his arm.
Some days it's hard to not get offended at these people.  Other days it's hard not to feel desperately sorry for them.  There have been sharp words spoken when they have 'crossed the line'.  I have the odd day where I wonder what the hell we were THINKING when we bought this house.  But the general rule of thumb for guaranteeing a happy existence in this yard, is that WE ARE THE NICE NEIGHBOURS.  Whenever I feel like yelling, or complaining that someone has thrown their rubbish over the fence into our yard again, or telling someone to go and slur and stumble somewhere else, I remember that I'm the nice neighbour.  And I smile, and wave, and ignore the criticism and say good morning! And for now, it seems to be the only way to make it work...

The back yard last week after re-stacking wood... almost there... just a couple of leaves to rake and about 50 windows to get rid of...  (feature pic above of the yard in April this year)

The back of the house - view taken standing on the place where all the piles of crap used to be...  planning to grass it in spring

 Wait!  Could that be a climbable apple tree?  Who knew it was there, 
it used to be covered up in piles of timber.

Still quite a bit of Soviet dodgy "charm" though, we are yet to knock down the old wood shed, that's a job for the new year when we get somewhere else to store our garden stuff.

Two of the "nice" neighbours.  The one on the right has his jumper on back-to-front.  But he's still nice.

The back of the yard.  Cherry trees and a perfect corner for a chicken coop.  
Or at least that's what I think. Go Cats!


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