They used to call Riga "Little Paris", or so I'm told.  Apparently this is because in the early 20th century, Riga was following on the heels of Paris in terms of its art nouveau architecture (called Jugendstil in these parts).  The Jugendstil was something that I found spellbinding when I first lived in Riga for an extended period in the 1990s.  It's the fact that you can live in Riga for years, but still you can walk through the centre of town, look up at the buildings around you, and find some Jugendstil detail you've never seen before - some gargoyle or cherub or pattern or floral arrangement tucked in under a windowsill or next to a door frame.

When we were here in the 1990s all of the buildings were in dire need of repair.  50 years of communal property ownership meant that the facades were all crumbling, dusty and neglected.  Back then you really felt like an adventurer discovering buried treasure as you picked out some fabulous scene on a building you passed.  Most of the stairwells to apartment buildings were unlocked and you could sneak inside them to marvel at the depth and colour of the tiling and the graceful sweep of the stair bannisters, as long as you didn't mind the broken panes of door glass and the smell of piss wafting from under the staircase.

One gutsy Englishman, Arnold, had managed to secure for himself a massive apartment on the most famous Jugendstil street for $10 000 - by buying the privatization rights from the four Russian families that lived there communally.  I don't know what drugs those architects were on in the early 1900s, but Arnold had a curved balcony surrounded by demons, fantastical beasts, and screaming, eyeless faces.  I was jealous as hell.
A friend I made later on had lived in the same building, and was mildly bemused by my wish to own a Jugendstil apartment of my own.  Life on the inside of the building had not been as glamorous as the outside, apparently, and the impossibly long and dark corridor that comprised the core of her apartment was evidence of the fact that the architects of those times had invested a lot more time in designing ghoulish exteriors than labouring over "livability" for the inhabitants.

Today Riga has been cleaned up.  Slowly tour operators have realised the value of Jugenstil, there is an art nouveau souvenir shop on one of the most famous Jugendstil streets, many of the buildings have been bought up and the stonework on the facades has been restored - made smooth and white and neat.  Of course it is impressive.  But there's something in me that liked the crumbly treasure aspect of it before it was all so polished and expensive.  So on my walks around the city, I take delight in some of my favourite buildings which have not yet had the full restoration treatment - and marvel at their splendour visible under the humble surface of years of dust and neglect.

See the curvy window on the top floor with the little iron balcony?  That's the one I want...

...we're almost there!  After so long struggling with this house project we are close to moving in (and our bank balance is close to being empty!).  The size and the scale of this, our "first home" renovation, has run us off our feet.  We do nothing else except for eat, breathe and sleep this house.  Oh, and between breaths go to work and keep the kids fed.  The scale of the project has been the most difficult - because instead of buying and renovating a small family home, we have been working on a house which has our home in it, two "granny" flats and a larger apartment for rental.    So, instead of going to the hardware to agonize of which one tap I will have for my bathroom, we go to the shop and buy 7 bathroom taps.  And 4 kitchen stoves.  And 22 door handles.  And 50 light fittings!  The boys have been traumatised by our neverending trips to Depo (Latvia's Bunnings), and no amount of playstation DS while waiting for us to make our selections is consolation enough.  We are all losing stamina, but still pushing through, encouraging ourselves with the thought that we are moving in soon. Estimated time of move is early April!  So instead of complaining about all of the compromises we have made in regards to the house (which is what I normally do!), here's a sneak preview of a couple of things I am happy about:

Old doors!  Our wonderful two workmen took pity on me and agreed to mount old doors in our downstairs corridor - a much harder job than putting in new, standard size, perfectly straight ones... Also the brick entry, which is made of bricks salvaged from the historic Kuznecov porcelain factory.  

Old door handles!  Jem went out and braved the biggest, baddest Latvian junk market to find some fabulous (in need of a bit of TLC) door handles to install in our old doors.  Locking the door when going to the loo will be an exotic experience on account of the big heavy iron key you have to turn.

Oak floor boards!  Yay!  I've only ever lived with pine boards, and jumped at the chance to put in these oak boards - off cuts from a sawmill - best thing about them is that we have OILED them, instead of putting on estapol, so the grain has come up and they are matt and smell like linseed oil.  The double doors  are also going to be stripped and restored.

Alternate tread stairs - salvaged from a farm building and fashioned/refurbished by Jem.  Steep, but the only option for the small amount of space available for the upwards climb.

Mum was over the other day for a sticky beak.  Choosing stuff for her and dad's apartment. Looks like someone said something funny!

Miraculously, the temperature has climbed to above zero in the last week.  The air is moist and earth-scented, and the huge piles of dirty snow everywhere are starting to slowly, slowly melt.  Roofs are dripping, and birds are singing, and you can go outside and forget your gloves, or scarf, or hat, and not be in danger of frostbite!  We are all elated that there is an end in sight to the six months of winter we get every year.  So much so that we took a break from endless trips to the hardware store to go on an excursion today.

We obviously don't get out enough these days (except for those trips to the hardware store), because the boys got SO excited before the trip .  Before we knew what was happening they had each packed backpacks with all the essentials needed for an excursion: chips, nuts, a peanut butter sandwich, a jam jar full of water, a towel, a tennis ball, toy binoculars and a mobile phone. Hmmmm.

We went to Ligatne nature park outside of Riga, where you can see Latvian native animals in big enclosures in the forest.  Morning was spent slipping and sliding over 5 kms of icy track, stopping for snack-breaks every 500 metres or so (we managed to stock up on a few more picnic essentials on the shop on the way through - to complement the sandwich and the jam jar of water).  It was glorious - one of those days where you are so grateful for the things you used to take for granted:  for the sun, and the warm(ish) air, and not wearing gloves, and handrails on slippery outdoor staircases.  As opposed to other times we have been there, today we managed to see almost all of the animals - other times there are some that are hiding so effectively that you can't spot 'em.  The best was when we saw a beautiful lynx - orange with black spots, pointy eared, short tail - in the distance, cleaning the fur of her kittens (is that what you call baby lynxes?) with her tongue.

Another dramatic moment was when Mikus lost his glove over the side of the WOLF enclosure.  Murphy's law. There we stood, looking at the forlorn glove about 2.5 metres below us over the edge of the walkway, with a serious-looking wolf pacing on sentry duty nearby.  Of course, Mikus lets up an enormous howl that rivals that of any wolf , and follows it up with piteous crying and snivelling, gaining rapidly in intensity.  Although Mikus' favourite gloves are mismatched (one blue, one green) he is pretty attached to them (or anything else that gets lost, broken, or needs to be thrown away), and both Jem and I knew that we were in for a long afternoon of hysteria if we didn't do something.  I was about to give the "we'll tell the zookeeper and when he retrieves it, we'll drive out and pick it up again, it'll be o.k. darling" speech, when Jem suddenly ripped his shirt open to reveal the "S" symbol beneath.  As I calmed the distraught children, Jem ran off into the forest and came back with a long, hooky stick, climbed half over the side of the enclosure, leaned down as far as he could and after a few anxious moments with all of us shouting "You're crazy"!  "Watch out!"  "Dad, don't!", he retrieved the glove.  One of those moments where you suddenly understand those situations you hear about in the news - you know, the ones where the guy gets mauled by bears after SCALING THE SAFETY FENCE to get into the enclosure at the zoo.  Well lucky for us, things turned out ok!

The rest of the walk was comparatively uneventful - lots of wild boar, moose, foxes, bears, all happily sitting in the melting snow, soaking up a bit of sun.  Like us, I think they were happy for a bit of spring in the air.

The peanut butter sandwich gets eaten

Gotta love them wild boar

Fishing for wolves.  Um, gloves.

The still-teary and relieved Mik with his hero

We are pretty strict about TV with our kids.  We limit the time they can watch per day, and try to feed them some kind of wholesome, educational downloaded children's tv (downloaded, because Latvian children's tv is pathetic, to be brutally honest - the  worst quality cartoons overdubbed by a monotone Latvian voice over, so that you can still hear bits of the original language underneath).  On weekends and Friday nights the guys get to watch kids' movies - Disney and others.  There are certain films that we have tried to shield the boys from, because we know what the consequences will be:  anything with a mild testosterone level and physical action will instantly be replayed in our lounge room, with the boys in the starring roles.  Tiss is usally the good guy, while Mikus relishes in the evil laughs and sinister trickery of the bad guy role.
It was like that with the (original) Star Wars trilogy - although the boys' uncle Joel is a star wars NUT, we didn't let the boys watch it for years. I remember a touching and humorous scene, with the boys both curling up with Uncle Joel for him to tell them a story:  "Once upon a time, there was a young, poor boy who lived with his mother in a desert, on a planet called Tattooine...".  You get the picture.  My boys knew the whole plot of Star Wars before they had seen the film.  Finally on Tiss' 6th birthday, we opened Pandora's box and let them watch Star Wars. It has since (predictably) become a household obsession.  The boys have long, boring conversations about the technical specifications of different types of droids, or want me to discuss  Darth Vader and why he couldn't survive without his special helmet on.  The most coveted toys and games are Star Wars themed, and they have even gone to the lengths of making up their own Star Wars episodes to make home movies around the apartment.
So we knew that we had to be careful in what other appealing sci fi/mildly violent movies we let them watch. One show that Jeremy always knew was a danger, was Monkey Magic. Anyone out there old enough to remember Monkey Magic?  A Japanese TV series about a monkey spirit, pig spirit, water spirit and Buddhist monk travelling over China, meeting all sorts of creatures and evil ghosts on the way - and, of course, fighting them.  Jem remembers watching Monkey Magic as a youngster and promptly finding an old broomstick at home, colouring it with felt pen and organizing Monkey staff fighting tournaments with his younger brothers.  Ah, the memories.
Well, while I was in Moscow, Monkey Magic was aired at our place.  With the obvious results.  The roles have been divied up and staff fights are held in all corners of the house at the slightest opportunity.  Mikus is Monkey, Tiss has begrudgingly taken on that of Pigsy, Jem is Sandy, and I've opted for the Monk Tripitaka ("that's because Tripitaka doesn't fight, and tells everyone what to do", commented Tiss).  So far, not too many bouts have ended in tears.  Gotta say that although I'm not in on the fights, I'm enjoying snatching a glance at Monkey episodes - they are pretty hilarious - and am loving the conversations at our place, about how Monkey summons his cloud, and who Siddartha is, and whether Tripitaka is a girl or a boy...  I'm just waiting for the conversation to start comparing Monkey with Star Wars.  It's any day now.  Who would win in a fight?  Monkey with his staff vs Obi Wan with his light saber...

I have loved metro systems as long as I can remember.  Those sleek underground trains that rumble through the basements of big cities.  I love the fact that every metro is different – each with its own interpretation of efficient people-moving through functional design,  public service announcements and stick figure diagrams.  I love the metro maps with colour-coded lines, and the fact that in most cities, once you are in the subway tunnel you are free to chop and change and jump on any train racing to different parts of the city.  The best parts of the metro is the wait on the platform – staring down the black tunnel, the anticipation, beginning to feel a breeze of stale air, and then the sound of the carriages reverberating in the tunnel, and small beams of headlights racing towards you until the train arrives with a gale of wind and the whine of brakes, spilling commuters out as new ones jump in.  I love the fact that the subway in New York is a steam-punk rattling  wonder, with decorative tiles around the names of the stations, and that it differs so much from space-age Washington subway, which is more like something out of a silver-clad futurist movie.  Whenever I travel I make sure I take a ride on the local metro to get a feel for  the local lifestyle, and the city’s very own inimitable metro styling.  If I was fabulously rich I would do a tour of the world’s metros, taking millions of photos along the way.

Spending the last four days in Moscow, though, I very nearly met the end of my metro love affair.  The metro in Moscow is serious stuff – a complex network of multi-level tunnels that act as the veins and arteries of Moscow, pumping the 11 million inhabitants to their various destinations.  The Moscow metro  is not optional – its a necessity of life.  The city is huge and sprawling, and traffic in the metropolis is a nightmare.  The only conceivable way of getting anywhere is by descending to the depths on that long escalator and joining the grey masses underground.  So that is what we did when in Moscow – we spent a good deal of time navigating the metro to get to our various concerts and tourist stops.  The crowds down there are well-behaved, the trains come every 30 seconds or so.  All of the signage is in Cyrillic, which was daunting at first, and as you stand on the escalators you are subjected to recordings of community service announcements recorded by a friendly Russian lady: about house fires and how they start, about how to be considerate of your neighbor, of the time of year and the corresponding Russian tradition.  It’s all good. But at some point, after spending your second hour down there that day, you can’t help thinking of parallels with moles, or ants, or other tunnel dwelling hoards that see daylight rarely.

 Built as palaces of culture for the masses during the Soviet era, many of the metro stops are decorated with soviet realist sculpture – each station with its own unique treatment.  Similarly to St Petersburg, it is not unusual to step off the train into a large hall with brassy chandeliers above head, or stone columns carved with images of hammers and sickles, children dressed as red pioneers, or soviet advancements of technology.  Some of the stations have huge backlit stained glass windows sporting art nouveau flowers and red stars.  Others  had over sized bronze models of women and children as revolutionary fighters sporting Kalashnikovs.  I took a few photos of some of the stations but didn’t go crazy – mainly because a slight feeling of claustrophobia and unease that I had, on account of the crowds around me, security cameras and the occasional militia man with a dog parading past.  It was partly also a feeling of distaste mixed with awe, as I looked at art works so obviously created for mass brainwashing, and as much as I like to laugh and wonder at the kitsch of soviet propaganda, the sheer scale and efficiency of the metro system and its ideological dressing was frightening. 

My trip to Moscow also involved some above-ground touring as well – including singing at the Latvian embassy with the ambassador in attendance, a visit to the classic Tretyakov gallery and the obligatory red square and tour of St Basil’s cathedral.  My dilemma about seeing the embalmed Lenin was solved for me, as apparently he is freshening up, and only open to the public some time in April.  Can’t say I was too disappointed though, because with the metro visits I certainly got more than enough soviet kitsch for one visit.

All locked up and not accepting visitors.  Vladimir Ilyich's tomb.

  Fancy a matrioshka doll?  Or three?


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