Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Latvia is "in" for 2014!

The Washington Post always does a pop-culture oriented and somewhat nonsensical "In/Out" list on January 1. It denotes which actresses/food trends/etc are "out" for the new year, and which TV shows/fashions/etc are "in" for the coming year. This year's list, posted online on December 31, has me far more excited than most, as it named Latvia as being "in"for 2014. Given that Latvia joins the Euro-zone tomorrow and that Riga is a European Capital of Culture for the year, it is not immensely surprising to see Latvia spotlighted, yet such an occurrence is a bit rare in mass pop culture. The list gets read and dissected (mostly tongue-in-cheek) by many in Washington.

With that I wish my five readers a very happy New Year! May your activities in 2014 be fun if not stylish! (And stay tuned for a super-exciting post about Christmas Eve, yet don't expect one about New Year's Eve - what happens in 2013 shall stay in 2013!)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas outings in the Midwest - 2013 Edition

Wintry weather notwithstanding, my visit to Michigan over Christmas was lovely.

My sister and I made time to attend a yoga class, which was the first time we'd done that together. Naturally, she and I also baked cookies. After all - what is Christmas without cookies? We will never manage to live up to the Christmas cookie standards of our late aunt, who was famous for preparing at least a dozen different kind. But I baked three separate batches, my sister whipped up one, and mom brought two -- I think six is a respectable number.

As a family we went on a couple of great outings (in addition to the unexpected 'staycation' at the hotel.) For a city its size, Grand Rapids has many wonderful activities to keep everyone entertained - even on the coldest days.

My favorite spot in GR is the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which is well worth a visit any time of year. Depending on the season, you will see and enjoy different sights. The gardens and park encompass 132 acres, most of it outdoors. Some of the sculptures on display are by well-known artists, including Auguste Rodin, Keith Haring, Dale Chihuly, Alexander Calder, and Joan Miro.

"Seven Saints and Sinners" by Marshall Fredericks
There are also several indoor greenhouses, along with a visitors' center; that is where we spent our time during this visit. (The 20 degree weather was not particularly conducive to a stroll through the gardens.) If visiting during evening hours, a walk outside allows one to enjoy colorful Christmas lights. For an extra fee, one can even take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the grounds.

Naturally, my nephew most loved the toy trains in the greenhouse, although those were moving very slowly. The gardens were among many others in the area without power, and the greenhouse was running on emergency generators. In addition to many bright red poinsettias and a few other holiday flowers, the greenhouse holiday display features area buildings and landmarks - everything from the Holland MI lighthouse to the baseball park made from natural materials. Every year a new one is added.

The hallways of the visitors' center feature Christmas trees and displays with decorations from various countries and regions. Although there is no Latvian tree, the Lithuanian tree with its natural straw decorations is similar to a very traditional Latvian one.

Christmas tree with Lithuanian decorations
I did also take a moment to admire the glass sculptures currently on display, although I was chided by a security guard for leaning too far over a railing to get a closer photograph.

On another day, we ventured into downtown Grand Rapids to visit the public museum. Here I loved the Streets of Old Grand Rapids, and my nephew and I enjoyed searching for 15 different Santas around the museum (hints were provided by in pamphlet, which was helpful, as a couple of them were overhead and not so easy to spot!). The museum also has a wonderful old carousel housed in a special pavilion right on the river.

Enjoying the carousel. When one is four years old, sitting still for a photo is not an option!

Santa waiting for the train in the Union Depot railroad station, at the entrance of Streets of Old Grand Rapids
Finding a Latvian connection anywhere and everywhere is, of course, one of my specialties. From a previous visit I knew that the exhibit "Newcomers: People of this Place" mentioned Latvians, but back then I didn't have a blog audience with whom to share that information! Many Latvian immigrants made Michigan their home in the 1950s and later; they settled in the Detroit area, as well as in Saginaw, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Latvian immigrants are mentioned in the exhibit.

Also featured in the exhibit about immigrants is a replica of bar from a Polish community center; it reminded me quite a bit of various Milwaukee community centers, halls and bars I've been to.

Additionally, the museum has a small exhibit of musical instruments, of which one is a Latvian kokle. Interestingly, the kokle was made by my grandfather! My grandmother kept records of all the kokles he made and sold, and luckily my mother kept that list. Thus, my mother was able to confirm that the woman who donated the instrument to the musuem, Tereza Valdmane, was the seventh person to purchase a kokle made by my grandfather!

Kokle on the bottom. Sorry for poor quality of photo! The instruments are behind plastic.

After the museum visit, we ventured to one of Grand Rapids' newest attractions, the Downtown Market. Here we greatly enjoyed incredibly delicious ice cream from Love's Ice Cream, picked up fresh salmon for Christmas Eve dinner from the Fish Lads, and I purchased a bag of coffee from Simpatico (a low-acid coffee which I've been loving and will probably order online!).

Monday, December 23, 2013

Midwestern Winter

Living in the DC area means that experiences with winter weather are few and far between. To be honest, I prefer it that way. Having grown up in the Midwest means I had my fill of snow, ice, temperatures well below freezing and all the inconveniences that these bring. Many folks in the DC area have little knowledge of the terms "wind chill factor" (which is an integral part of any Midwestern winter forecast) or "lake effect snow" (which is well known to anyone residing along the shore of several Great Lakes). Washingtonians are typically impacted by snow or ice only a couple of times a winter, whereas in the Midwest, it is a weekly occurrence.

Almost every year at Christmas I have traveled to spend time with family in the Midwest. Previously that meant flying to Milwaukee, then in later years to Kalamazoo, and in the last few to Grand Rapids. (The only exception was the year a friend and I visited her parents in Vienna - what a beautiful place to spend Christmas!) Inevitably, this means being prepared for real winter conditions. This year winter has already been quite snowy, icy and cold in Michigan, and I was greeted by all three when I landed. Luckily, I was also welcomed at the airport by my sister and nephew, whom I had last seen in September when they came out to Maryland for a long weekend. My brother-in-law and niece, whom I had last seen in July, waited at home.

My sister lives in a neighborhood where many families decorate their homes and yard with lights and other Christmas decorations, a tradition that seems to be far more prevalent in the Midwest than in the DMV. I must say that  I miss this type of "senseless beauty" in my region.

On Sunday evening, however, the Christmas lights on my sister's home went dark. Due to the ice accumulation, this home and many others in Michigan found themselves without power. Luckily my mom had just finished preparing a delicious dinner for us, and we enjoyed that by candlelight. Afterwards we packed up and decamped to a nearby hotel. Because so many (close to 30,000 homes and businesses in Kent County alone) are without power, it might take several days for it to be restored.

When we awoke Monday morning, my brother-in-law drove over to check on the house, and we were overjoyed to hear that power had been restored. Thus we were able to resume some of our many planned activities, including a great deal of cookie baking (both my sister's mint chocolate chip and my improvised gluten-free chocolate chocolate chunk seem to have turned out well!). Considering the weather forecast for this area over the next several days - very cold, more snow - I really feel for anyone who cannot heat their home - either due to the power outage or other reasons - this Christmas.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Winter Solstice the Latvian Way

Latvian winters are cold and - most of all - dark. In Riga on December 21, the sun will rise at 9:00am, and set at 3:43pm, which calculates to a mere six hours and 43 minutes of daylight. Before Latvians were converted to Christianity, they celebrated winter solstice with songs, fire, food and various festivities. Because, really, if you are experiencing 17+hrs of darkness on a daily basis for several weeks, how else are you going to spend your time to ensure you don't go insane?!

I have been fortunate to celebrate the winter solstice Latvian-style a number of times. The Latvian folk music group, Sudrabavots, with which I sing began this tradition quite a few years ago. Due to my travels to the Midwest for Christmas, participating in these celebrations has not been possible every year, but the ones I have attended have been great fun.

The most distinct tradition is "bluku vilksana", or the pulling of the log. A heavy rope is tied around a large log, and everyone grabs onto to the rope, proceeding to pull the log around the house three times. This action pulls all of the bad and negative spirits, memories and energies out of the home and into the log. While pulling the log, everyone sings and makes noise to further scare off bad spirits.

Once the triple rotation around the abode is done, everyone gathers round the log and takes turn chopping it. While chopping, each individual deposits their bad experiences from the past year into the log. Afterward, the log, all the small pieces and even tiny wood chips that have been chopped off are burned to rid the world of last year's negativity.

During 'bluka vilksana' a couple of years ago. (Photo: A. Rutins)

Naturally, there are many folk songs to sing, and various other traditions that are celebrated during the winter solstice. We have always had delicious dinners via potluck - one person preparing a pot roast, another bringing sauerkraut, other contributing piparkukas, etc. It is a lovely, heart-warming way to celebrate the shortest day of the year, and I am grateful that I have friends with whom to do so.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Highlights of 2013

We all love lists nowadays, don't we?

Best novels read:
  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Adelle Waldman)
  • Wonder (R.J. Palacio)
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
Latvian novel I wanted to like but could not even finish:
  • Latviesi ir Visur (Otto Ozols)
Loveliest state park visited:
  • Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania
    One of 17 waterfalls seen during the 3.2 mile hike in Ricketts Glen SP

 Best new (to me) city visited:
Best "finally crossing off my bucket list" places visited:
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Grand Teton National Park
Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park.

Best family event attended:
  • Youngest niece's baptism
 Best non-family event attended:
  • Andra and Aleks' wedding
    Old Latvian summer high school classmates - Aleks in the middle was the one getting married
Most interesting and thought-provoking documentaries seen:
  • The Stories We Tell
  • Miss Representation (highly, highly recommended for everyone, especially those raising children; it's available on Netflix)
  Most off-the-beaten-path place visited:
  • Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
 Best concert attended:
  • TRIO: Smite Karkle Cinkuss at the DC area Latvian Center
 Trip that deepened my waterfall obsession:
  • Shenandoah National Park, where two hikes included waterfalls
    Contemplating life at a waterfall in Shenandoah NP
    Best random find (although I cannot take credit for it):
  • Mesa Falls in the Targhee National Forest, Idaho
    Upper Falls of Mesa Falls (view of Lower Falls is far less impressive)

Best random adventure I can take credit for:
  • Visiting the Eastern Idaho State Fair 
New U.S. states visited:
  •  Idaho
  • Montana (although I definitely need to return to see more of it - particularly Glacier NP)
  • Wyoming
  • South Carolina (need to return to see Charleston and that side of the state)

Friday, December 13, 2013


D.C. is a big theater town, but due to the cost of tickets (typically $45 or $55 and up at the better theaters), I rarely take advantage of this. Yet, when a friend let me know about Mikhail Baryshnikov performing in a play based on Anton Chekov stores, I barely hesitated in buying a ticket (although I choose one in the $45 section, not in the $85 section!). Baryshnikov is, of course, best known as a ballet dancer, but nowadays spends his time producing and performing theater, and has also popped up on television, including as Sarah Jessica Parker's love interest in the series "Sex and the City."

Latvians have a special affinity for him not only because he wisely chose to defect from the Soviet Union in 1974, but also because he was born in Riga. It was not surprising that other than the three Latvian friends with whom I attended, I was seated one row over from another Latvian-American woman.

The play was very modern and interesting, and much of the acting superb. I cannot claim I fully followed and understood all of it. The first story was funnier and more entertaining than the second, which was short and quite sad. Baryshnikov himself danced only a bit, but even from that one could tell what an excellent dancer he is.

Afterwards one of my friends asked, and we were able to meet him for several minutes. He still speaks a tiny bit of Latvian, but seemed to assume that we were all from Latvia (which was true of only one person in our group) and that we all spoke Russian - which luckily two individuals did.  Either way, he was a nice and unassuming person - he spoke fondly of growing up near the Laima chocolate factory in Riga. I'm glad I had the opportunity to see Baryshnikov perform and to meet him in person. I only wish I'd had the chance to see him dance in his younger days!

With Mikhail Baryshnikov after the play "Man in a Case" at DC's Shakespeare Theater

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

European films / Snow / Christmas cookies

The EU Film Showcase offers the fantastic opportunity to see many different films which would otherwise be inaccessible to an American audience. A friend and I spent part of our Saturday afternoon enjoying an Estonian/French co-production called A Lady in Paris. (Talk about a great combo of languages to listen to - both the many-voweled Estonian and the universally loved French!) The lady in question was an older Estonian woman who left her country at the end of World War II, and spent the rest of her life living a rather French lifestyle in Paris. After a suicide attempt, a caretaker from Estonia is hired. The movie offered some interesting insights and commentary on what it means to love, to belong and to adjust to life in a new culture. (Interestingly, I am also currently reading a memoir, Almost French, about a young Australian woman who falls in love with a Frenchman and moves to Paris to live with him. She writes in great detail about the difficulties of fitting into a different culture.)

Yesterday the threat of snow paralyzed the DMV, and many workplaces closed for the day. It did snow somewhat heavily in the morning, but stopped earlier than forecast. I decided to make the most of this sudden day off, and convinced a friend to join me for a two-part German movie, Der Turm (The Tower). The film was set in East Germany, and spanned the years 1982 to 1989. It was a riveting look at the life of a privileged East Germany family during that historic time period, and I can now recommend it in addition to the two German movies I mentioned in my last post.

With Christmas a few weeks away, the local Latvian church hosted its annual Xmas bazaar this past Sunday. When I arrived, I quickly made a beeline for the stand selling baked goods. The church ladies spend many days preparing a variety of Latvian goodies, including the popular Christmas cookies known as piparkukas. I'd talked these up to a couple of friends and thus needed to snag some of these fantastic Latvian seasonal delicacies.

For a number of years, some friends and I would get together well before Christmas to make the piparkukas dough according to a recipe that my mom has used for quite a while. The recipe had come from a woman in Milwaukee named Anna Pukite. Last year I did not meet my friends and make the dough, but one friend shared the recipe and lesson with a family visiting from Latvia. Lo and behold, this month the recipe was described published in a Latvian magazine by the woman who had learned it here in the U.S., just once again proving how small the Latvian world can be.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kick off (not of the football sort)

Thanksgiving week was a wonderful kick-off to the holiday season. I was incredibly fortunate in that I celebrated Thanksgiving three separate times with three different groups of friends (both Latvian and American). Additionally, I helped a friend celebrate Hanukkah twice during the week. All of these parties and celebrations were truly a fantastic way to begin what is known in the U.S. as “the holiday season.” 

Generally all of these holidays and celebrations are very food-oriented. I am not much of a cook, but I do enjoy baking, thus I happily contributed pumpkin bread, brownies, almond spice cookies and pumpkin spice cupcakes with cinnamon cream cheese frosting. Because I gave up eating gluten almost two years ago, I've been missing the traditional Latvian Christmas cookies, piparkukas, that I used to make with gusto every December. And that might be why I gravitated towards baking goodies with lots of spice in them. The almond spice cookies had a taste very similar to piparkukas, thanks to my decision to add cardamom and extra ginger.

In the month of December I look forward to flying to Michigan for Christmas to visit family, as well as to a couple of Christmas-themed events here in the DMV. However, there is another event that looms large on my calendar: the annual AFI European Union FilmShowcase. In previous years this great series took place in November, but for whatever reason it is scheduled for December 5 - 22 this year. I will certainly make time to see a number of films, including the Estonian one. The EU Film Showcase is just another reason to love living in the DC area; other than the opportunity to see so many European movies, occasionally directors or actors from the movies are present at the screenings and answer questions after the movies. Over the years I have seen a wide variety of movies, ranging from wonderfully comedic to darkly depressing and everything in between. Many of the films are never shown in regular theatres here in the United States, while others premier at the showcase. Last year, for example, I saw both Quartet and Barbara, which were shown in arthouse theatres several months later. I can recommend both; the German film Barbara in particular was excellent – similar in theme and style to the popular The Lives of Others (which was awarded the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006). If you are at all interested in life in Eastern Germany during Communist times, I highly recommend watching both Barbara and The Lives of Others.