Affected by the GFC, our friends have rented out one of the rooms in their apartment to a German student on some kind of university exchange program - to make ends meet in the short-term.  They befriended the student on Facebook, and were amused by his first status update after arriving here: "Latvia is just like Africa, only colder".  ..... What the fuck?!  I am intrigued about the parallels this young German sees between Latvia and Africa.  I am the first to admit that people here don't have the earning capacity they do in the West, but besides that... I'm stumped.  I'm wondering if our relatives currently living in Africa, who have also lived in Latvia have to say - any ideas?  Mara, Joel???  I'm guessing the "poverty" in Latvia has been a challenge for Hans (not his real name), and yes, obviously there are some drawbacks to living here instead of the "West" - but there are also so many perks!

One of the perks I have been considering lately, is that in comparison to living in Australia, we get to travel internationally when living in Latvia.  I mean, a lot.  A month doesn't go by without Jem or I having to get in a plane to go somewhere for a work meeting or what have you.  Family travel happens less frequently, of course, because we are the ones who are paying - but we still do get to see different corners of the world with our kids occasionally.  Mind you, travelling for work is not all it's cracked up to be, as many of you would know.  Most of the time you work from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, except for the free hour or two you spend frantically trying to find a toy-shop to buy some kind of Chinese import that you can take back as presents for the kids.  That and the fleeting city tour you get out of the cab window on the way back to the airport.

I remember when I was little we travelled internationally with my parents a bit - because dad was an academic and tended to get sabbaticals in other universities.  From this experience I was well and truly bitten by the travel bug, and I remember having "career" conversations with my parents, something along the lines of.... Them: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Me: "I don't care, as long as I can travel overseas lots".  Them:  "You do realize that with most jobs you don't get to travel overseas. Most people in Australia live in one place, and work in one place, you have been lucky to travel this much but you can't sustain that in adulthood".  This, of course, was in the day when there were no budget airlines, and the internet wasn't invented yet.  There was no such thing as working prolonged periods from home, or easily booking hotels (because you had to do it by phone, with no internet hotel listings to refer to...).  I was distraught at the prospect of no more jetting overseas!  Luckily for me, lots of things changed.

Latvia is positioned in such a way that you can easily fly to Western Europe, but the interesting East is right there as well.  And my singing group Saucejas has taken full advantage of this, singing in concerts all over the place.  This Sunday we are flying to Moscow to sing at a Latvian embassy do, and I'm not sure if I'm excited or trepidatious or both.  I can't say Moscow has ever been on my list of "places to see" - St Petersburg was lovely a few years ago, but the lure of Red Square hasn't quite overcome my squeamishness around the cyrillic alphabet.  Mind you, when I found out we were invited I had a moment of "got to see Lenin in his glass coffin before the put him underground"!  But now that I am actually faced with standing in line outdoors in sub-zero temps, to see the mummified corpse of a man whose ideas wreaked so much havoc on my country and family, I'm kinda losing my enthusiasm.  Dunno.  I guess I'll see how I feel when I get there.

So that's the first trip of the year, with quite a few more before midsummer. One of these will be a special trip - meeting Jem's parents SOMEWHERE to celebrate Jem's big FOUR-OH in early June.  We were thinking Marrakesh, but watching the news in the last week is making us wonder if it's such a good idea!  Wherever it will be, though, we are grateful for the proximity of so many amazing places to where we currently live.  Even if where we live IS like Africa, only colder.

PS. Pic above is from getting on the plane after a daytrip to Helsinki with a friend in August last year

It's been cold the last couple of days.   I mean REALLY cold.  So cold, that you can feel your nose hairs snap-freeze the minute you leave the house.  So cold, that the morning radio has notified us that kids in the earlier grades don't have to go to school.  That is, minus 20 degrees celsius or under.  I'm a mean mother though, and have made the kids go to school anyway. In Oz, I could totally understand the concept that you shouldn't be forced to go to school if the temperature is over 40 degrees, and you have to sit in a demountable building with a corrugated iron roof with no air conditioning.  But here, although it's cold outside, we drive our kids to school in heated cars, and there's ample heating indoors....  so why stay home?
Best thing about days with temps this low, is that the constant thick layer of grey cloud actually clears, and you are guaranteed of a gorgeous blue-sky day.  This meant I had a chance to get a reasonable shot of Mikus in front of his kindergarten yesterday.  His kindy moved house last november, and now resides on the ground floor of this old manor, which is just two blocks away from our new house.  It was designed by a prominent Latvian architect Eižēns Laube in the early 20th century, and is the most spectacular wooden house on the block (ok, ok, it also looks a bit like the Addams family live there).  Needless to say, I/we were thrilled!  The kindy is a lot more spacious and beautifully renovated, and best part is the park across the road, with well-worn sledding tracks and a pirate ship playground.  What more could a boy and his wooden-architecture loving mum ask for?

Seeing as we've had another cold snap, and it was minus 10 degrees yesterday (Sunday) morning, we decided to go for a swim at the local indoor pool.  We don't do it very often, as it is a whole intense post-Soviet experience, and not for the feint hearted.  Mind you, if we wanted to pay 25 Ls ($50 AUD) we could take the family to the local spa pool, complete with 10 different types of saunas, complimentary smelly body soap, a overheated swimming pool and jacuzzi, mosaic tile version of Klimt's "The Kiss" and waterfalls....  but no.  Not for us!  We're tough.  (And cash-strapped).  We opted for the local school sports complex pool.  To cut a long story short - this involved a fact-finding mission of ringing the pool, only to get hung up on by the crabby attendant, pre-defined swimming times of 45 minutes with no entry permitted at between times, taking along your obligatory pool slippers, being growled at by the pool "Commandant" (yes, her job title was actually "commandant") because we offered to pay in cash not with a card, traipsing down into the soviet basement to find the changerooms, having to shower naked in a communal basement shower room with loads of other eager swimmers (mostly pensioners), being mildly scolded for not all having the obligatory swimming caps, being assigned a lane in which to swim UP and BACK.  Coaxing kids into the less-than-warm water.  Being chastised by the aforementioned pensioners because my children were not swimming UP and BACK but blocking the road by duck diving, swimming OVER the lane and stopping half way.  A quick stop in the sauna to warm up and get my kids' lips back to a normal colour other than blue, another naked shower with the ladies, and then, to one of the most fun parts of the trip.   The hair dryers.  You gotta love those retro hair dryers all along the wall in a row.
Now this may sound like a complaining kind of post, but in actual fact I would call it more descriptive.  The culture shock of pool rules and regulations has worn off for us many years ago - you just get a thick skin and go with the flow, ignore the really stupid parts, and have fun.  The boys certainly loved swimming (despite blue lips), and we decided that we definitely have to go swimming again soon.  Only I might save up the 25 Ls for the spa pool next time...

Hear no evil...

Our apartment has become a more important place since we've had kids - a space that is practically the entire world for the little people who live in it. Since we are about to move house, I've been evaluating  this art deco, not-renovated-since-the-late-soviet-period apartment, and what it will mean for the boys to leave it. I've come to appreciate the world of play that children create: their  tendency to re-label what is around them, giving special meaning to certain places around the house and making up kid legends about them.

Over the years Matiss and Mikus have woven a tale that spreads over the entire apartment.  They call their game "Toyworld" (imaginative name?  Methinks not), of which all their toys are inhabitants (obviously).  All of the rugs on the floor constitute the earth.  The spaces of brown Soviet lino between the rugs are sea, on which friendly and not-so-friendly pirates roam (as they do).  The king of Toyworld is a meerkat  called Toby which is Tiss' oldest and dearest stuffed toy.  There is a neighbouring world, called "Puffy world", which is confined to our bed with its big fluffy duna (naturally).  The king of Puffy world is King Coco, who is an anonymous Lego man.  I have no idea what features of this Lego man make him King Coco, but the boys can tell him apart from the others.  He goes missing for weeks at a time.  "Here's King Coco!" I yell, when opening a cupboard under the bookshelf and finding a Lego man with a crown and armour on.  "Mum, THAT'S not King Coco", they complain in disgust.  Previous versions of Toyworld have been destroyed by various natural disasters , including a monster tornado, and the most evil of bad guys, "Sticky man", who also goes missing for weeks at a time and then appears to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting Toy world inhabitants.

It's weird which toys get a special place in the games - not necessarily the newest and coolest ones.  For example, out of the many matchbox cars, the most legendary is "Bananery" (photo above), a battered yellow sportscar which is one of my old matchbox cars from the 1970s.  I have trouble keeping up with developments in Toyworld, and occasionally have to fill in Jem when he gets home from work, or am surprised to find a pile of yellow lego bricks (Toyworld gold) in an unexpected corner of the bathroom - obviously the scene of some deal or treasure trove or robbery.

I can't help wonder how Toyworld will transpose to our new house.  The boys have expressed concern about this, although lately they have been adding certain features of the house  to the story.  Today I was happy to see them playing with the dimmer switches in the kitchen when we visited the house - great excitement there because now Toyworld could experience sunrise, daylight, then dimming into twilight.  There was also a sigh of relief when they found out there would be carpet in their bedroom, and it would be blue-ish.  Dunno why, but obviously fits some important Toyworld criteria.

So Toyworld - and our real world - is about to undergo a big change. I'm sure the new house will be quickly assimilated into a new version of their play-scape.  We'll have to wait and see how.

Couldn't resist putting up this pic of the kid's Latvian "happy meals" today -  bees made from mashed potato and meat patties from our favourite Latvian restaraunt Lido... gotta love those decorative tomato sauce feet and feelers...  They are preserved strawberries swimming in the glasses of strawberry juice.  "Taste like rat's brains" was Tiss' comment.


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