The boys are using the blackboard now to leave us some hints. The chocolate, ice cream, Wii games and money are expected but "Patches for Tiss' pants"?? Why is it that every pair of pants he has have rips in the right knee, is his right knee sharper than the left?

Tiss goes to volleyball training twice a week at the Riga Volleyball School.  He didn't want to go today, had a tanty before getting in the car.  I ask you:  who wouldn't want to go to volleyball when they were greeted with this lovely mural everytime they entered the building? (that's only a detail above... you should see the whole thing). 


It's all misty and muddy in the country at the moment.  We were there on the weekend and went for a long ramble through the fog.  Hid our first geocache, amongst the oaks, looking over the water.  See who else is brave enough to trudge through the mud, and find it under a mossy rock...

About ten years ago I bought an old album at the local pawn shop.  I normally stay away from the old black-and-white photos on sale at antique stores – because although the images are often fascinating, they are also totally removed from the context of family ancestry or historical setting, and I find the ethics of ripping apart old family albums to make a few dollars totally odious.  But I couldn’t stop myself from paying 4 lats ($8) for this album.  It was an instinctual thing at the time – what caught my eye was the fact that the album was completely intact.  From the old leather cover with a metal floral decal, to the inscription “To commemorate your confirmation, 26 May 1927”, to the carefully placed photos on every page.  When I noted to good condition of the album – the cardboard pages printed with green acorns – I imagined someone else buying it, removing all the photos and throwing them away, so that they could put their own photos in.   So I bought the album: to protect it, I guess.

Who knows how the album got there.  What kind of person sells their family photos?  Could it have been stolen?  Or was it trucked off with a load of stuff when someone was cleaning out the house of a deceased estate? Of course when I bought it, I had the idea that I might be able to locate the family and return it to them.  Latvia is such a small pond, so it is not a totally crazy idea.  I thought I might have been able to identify places, times, find names written on the back of the pictures - something to lead me to the family.  But this was to no avail.  None of the photos have any notes on the back of them.  Apart from the fact that the family lived in Cēsis, in the Vidzeme region of Latvia, I’ve got no leads. 

The album is the record of a family and their life over a period of around 40 years – I think the pics range from somewhere pre-1920s to the 1960s. My guess is that the album belonged to a certain man with wing-nut ears, who appears in many of the pictures. Throughout the pages we see Wing-nut as a young boy with his parents, on his confirmation day, on a nature walk, on his wedding day, in a portrait with his wife and young baby.  Later there are pictures of what I assume is Wing-nut’s grown son, pouring him a drink, pictures of him in the garden, now an aged man, braces holding up his pants.  Wing-nut and his wife look simple, but kind.  The people in the album are not particularly glamorous, good-looking, or rich – just ordinary people, like you and me. 

Towards the end there are photos of his wife in a hospital bed, and pictures of a funeral – not sure if the two incidents are related.  There is also a poignant picture of friends posing in an orchard – one man is in a Soviet army uniform, a young, dour woman has perched his army hat on her head.  The album comes full circle by finishing with more confirmation photos – this time a young man with a Beatles haircut and armfuls of flowers.  Wing-nut, face now wrinkled, without his wife at his side, poses next to the boy in a group shot.

In historical terms, without any kind of identification of places, people or events, the album has no value.  I see enough significant photos in my line of work, help to interpret them, preserve them, publish then in exhibitions.  The pictures in this mystery album are typical family photos of any other people who lived in Latvia at that time – without the personal information. 

But the romantic side of me cannot get the album out of my system.  All of those family pictures in sequence –the small joys of belonging to a church community, of having children, your wedding day, sitting in the garden, and putting on your best clothes to go to the photographer.  All of those eyes, and smiles, and lives caught in black and white, carefully sorted and stored in an album. 

Then again, maybe the family story isn’t as rosy as I imagine it. Perhaps Wing-nut worked for the Soviet regime and sent people to exile in Siberia?  Maybe he was a philandering fool, whose wife died of heartbreak early?  Or a less-dramatic version – maybe in his older days, Wing-nut turned to drinking and estranged his family, so that no one was there to collect the album later on? 

Whatever the story was – I have the album now. Stored in the bottom of my drawer.  And occasionally, once every couple of years, I take out the album and pore over the pictures – find faces, now familiar - admire the clothing, wonder about the people, their fates, their families.  And in a strange way, I feel that I know them, and that I have saved the memory of these people, who lived at one time,  in a regional town, somewhere in Eastern Europe.

It's spring break this week. We can't go to the country because there is no one to heat it before we arrive, and the water pump is broken. So we are at home in Riga. I can't get the boys out of the house no matter how hard I try. They are totally enamoured with hanging out in their pyjamas, playing Star Wars Lego and Star Wars on the Wii, pushing each other over, tickling each other and laughing hysterically.  Gotta love those dudes. They have recently discovered Weird Al Yancovic and his myriad songs about Star Wars: "Yoda" instead of "Lola" and "Be a Jedi" instead of "American Pie". Oh, Lordy, Lordy. Here's a word of warning for any parent of kids even vaguely interested in Star Wars: don't play them these songs. Unless you want to spend a few excruciating weeks listening to the choruses being belted out anywhere and everywhere.

In honor of living in this house for almost a year, we thought we should start painting the rest of the unpainted walls. Should have started around 12 months ago. We did the first wall on the weekend: a blackboard wall in the kitchen. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I'm not so sure.  We now have a big black post in the middle of our kitchen.  Huge. And. Black.  Dividing up the whole kitchen and making it look smaller and fussier.  Oh well, we're going to have to live with it for a while and see if it grows on us.  Lucky that we have budding artists at home to decorate the post with... Star Wars pictures.  Oh, yeah.  That's going to make the wall SO much more palatable.

Ironically, Tiss is being interviewed by some British filming team tomorrow - for a doco about kids around the world and their traditional cultural interests.  Tiss looked stumped, and a little crestfallen when I told him he couldn't list "playing Star Wars computer games" as a traditional cultural interest.  And that reading "The Wimpy Kid" books did not make for a scintillating account of what he likes to do on the weekends.  Or does it?  Depends on who you ask, I guess.

Oh and - this is one for my good friend Mel.  This post in her blog reminded me about the joy of cubby houses made with sheets.  Tiss was not convinced about making a cubby house today - he is, after all, at a ripe old age of 9, where that kind of thing is almost uncool.  So Mik and I made one in the lounge room.  As it turns out, both the boys played in it all afternoon.  How come? - you might ask.  Easy.  Any age can play in a cubby house when your lounge room is a part of the Dagobah solar system, and the cubby is actually Yoda's house. Of course.

Latvia's got a bit of a "contemporary image crisis" happening at the moment.  Our international image is somewhat formless, and our "branding" specialists don't seem to know how to market our talents.  Are we scandinavian, stylish, cold, eco-friendly, or what? How much traditional Latvian culture should we bring into the mix? How do we preserve aspects of traditional Latvian culture in a world which is getting smaller by the minute, and more homogenous in terms of culture, language and style?

Well I don't know anything about marketing, I must say, but one thing I DO know about, is mittens.  I am smitten with mittens.  Latvian traditional mittens.  If you ask me, if there is one part of traditional Latvian folk costume that can easily and seamlessly be introduced into a contemporary wardrobe, it's colourful woollen patterned mittens ....just ask my husband (above).

Mittens hold a special place in Latvian culture - there's the obvious practical uses, considering this country is bloody cold for most of the year - but also mittens have been used for centuries as ceremonial gifts at weddings and other significant life events.  Knitted at home, with regionally specific colours and  designs, gloves have always been special and meaningful items of apparel.  I love the fact that the Latvian word for mitten literally refers to "dūres" - fists.  Because that's what you do, when it's really cold - you draw your hand up into a fist inside the mitten, and this keeps your hand toasty warm.  Impossible to do with finger gloves!  I also love the fact that they are unisex fashion accessories, and come in a rainbow of different colours and designs, and the best of all are 'double' mittens - the ones that have been artfully crafted to include a knitted lining on the inside. Mmmmm.  They look fabulous with any outfit.  There are hardly no two pairs the same.  Most of the designs bear powerful Latvian designs, among them  signs of the morning star or hope; the sun; Mara, the goddess of the earth, and more.

So with all that going for them, I don't understand why you don't see very many traditional mittens out on the streets these days.  In the mornings when I get on the tram, I play "spot the Latvian mittens" and sadly, out of a tram carriage full of around 30 people, you will only see one or two pairs. Why?  Do people perceive them as old-fashioned? Daggy?  Expensive to buy?  I suspect part of the reason is definitely price, and availability - it's much easier and affordable to buy some of those cheapie  supermarket specials - you know those nasty acrylic finger gloves.  Thinsulate and Chinese knitting machines seem to be winning the fight!

So Latvians, here's a suggestion from me on how to solve our national image crisis...  you guessed it.  The humble, yet spectacular, traditional mitten.  Let's start a mitten revolution!  All you young hipsters - learn to knit and make 'em yourself - or talk your granny into making you an exclusive pair!  Go on trips to the countryside and buy them at a stall at the local market! Wear 'em loud, and wear 'em proud!

Special thanks to my begrudging hand model Jem...  Ironically, he is the reason I have been pondering the perfectness of mittens lately.  Because around Christmas he needed a new pair of gloves, and he couldn't find a good pair of personality-less thinsulate numbers at our local shopping centre.  I tried to sway him into a pair of traditional gloves, but he held out on me.  Too itchy, he reckons.  Feel like little sacks on the end of my arms, he groans.  Well, I dunno, I reckon he looks pretty sweet in all of the pairs above... wouldn't you agree?
PS. These are three pairs I have hanging around the house - the top ones are my favourite, bought for me by a friend from an old granny in the deep dark countryside of Latgale.  There are heaps of more gorgeous ones out there :)  


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