Friday, January 31, 2014

Comments - or Lack Thereof

I've heard from a couple of readers that they have been unable to comment on my posts. Naturally, this makes me horrendously sad, as I see from Blogger's helpful statistics that quite a few people from many different countries have accessed the blog, but thus far very few have commented. (Liels paldies to those who have!) All I can say at the moment is that I, too, have had problems commenting on both WordPress and Blogger based blogs, but that after a couple of tries I have usually been successful. Additionally, I will try to look into the problem (i.e. I will Google it and see if that yields anything!).

Thank goodness it's Friday! And that we might be one day closer to spring. To help us all (especially anyone in the Midwest, Northeast or Latvia) remember what less harsh seasons are like, I leave you with a photograph from a warmer time of the year.

Sunset somewhere on Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Thanks also to those who have not commented directly on the blog, but have let me know that they are enjoying reading my ramblings and checking out my snapshots. Your comments are also very much appreciated!

Enjoy your weekends, and look for another exciting post soon!!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Best Ever Note to Tooth Fairy

Thank goodness my mom saved and even dated this!

Dear Fairy,
Because this is one of my last teeth, I would like more than 25 cents (75 cents would be good).
Thank you very much,
Daina (fake middle initial and real last name - more on that later)

1. Clearly, handwriting has never been my strong suit.
2. I have loved parentheses from an early age. (And - really - who wouldn't? Such a great tool for those of us who are wordy!)
3. For a child born in the United States, I had damn good Latvian skills. Paldies, mamma un tēti!
4. Although, unlike my father, my mother does not save many papers and mementos, she made an awfully good choice with this one. She and I actually cracked up with laughter when she gave me this little note to me about a year ago.
5. I need to find the note again to see what (if anything) is written on the backside, as the many arrows on the right seem to indicate that the reader needs to flip the paper to check out the back!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Latvian Connections and Digging into the Past, Part IID

The last couple of days of my vacation were spent further exploring the Netherlands. Groningen is a lively university town with plenty of history.

Goudkantoor - built in 1653 for the tax collector

The university was founded in 1614, and has 27,000 students. That, of course, means plenty of bicycles. Few students can afford cars, and there is precious little place to park them in the city.

Main university building - with hundreds of bicycles parked out front
Naturally, university students move frequently. What is one to do if one does not have a car, and most motorized vehicles can barely navigate the narrow old streets, particularly in the center of town? Well, then one can rent a bicycle/pick-up truck hybrid! These were some of the cleverest things I'd seen in a long time.

It being the Netherlands, there is also plenty of cheese in Groningen...

And, it being Europe, good coffee...

Upon leaving Groningen, on our way back to Belgium, we stopped in Giethorn, known as the Venice of the Netherlands. The vast majority of the town is only accessible via canals.

We did spot some wildlife here. Both a stork and two adorable dogs were patiently sitting at the side of the canal, apparently waiting for something - lunch, maybe?

As in most Dutch towns and villages, the homes in Giethorn are very well cared for - manicured lawns and hedges, beds of spring flowers.

In all, my vacation in Belgium and the Netherlands was absolutely wonderful - chilly weather notwithstanding! Luckily, the adventure we had on the very last evening - almost getting locked out of the parking garage in 's-Hertogenbosch (yes, that's the actual name of the city where we'd stopped for a late dinner; it is typically referred to as Den Bosch) - ended the way it needed to, and the next day I was on my way back to the States. As always, I was so grateful for the kind hospitality of friends, the opportunity to see new places and meet new people.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


This post will be relevant only to Latvian speakers. :-)

Someone I follow on Twitter retweeted the graphic below. I found it quite interesting and informative, and thought maybe three of my five readers would, as well! The original source is here.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Latvian Connections and Digging up the Past, Part IIC

After several days of exploring Belgium, a trip to the Netherlands was in order. My friend's cousin lives in Groningen, and she was celebrating her 30th birthday, which required a trip north to help celebrate. Thanks to having lived close to the Dutch border while in 7th grade, and also to my sister having lived in the Netherlands for two years, I have seen a fair amount of the country. However, I'd never been as far north as the university city of Groningen.

View of Groningen
We arrived late, but were then up until 2am helping the birthday girl celebrate. The following day the locals had work to do, so we needed to make ourselves scare, which was not a problem - we had planned an outing to the Dutch countryside. The daughter of one of my co-worker's was spending the month working in a glass blowing studio in a small museum in Orvelte, not far from Groningen. This was a off-the-beaten track type of place probably never visited by American tourists (the museum's website is only in Dutch!), but we enjoyed our visit and particularly learning about the art of glass blowing.
Typical tidy Dutch home in Orvelte
Glass blowing studio in Orvelte, with artwork by resident master
Glass blowing master at work
Traditional building in Orvelte

We also decided to make a quick stop in a lovely town called Kampen. Unfortunately it was too late in the day, and most everything was closed, but I loved the many well-preserved historic buildings here.

One of many gorgeous old buildings in Kampen
Kampen street scene
A number of buildings in Kampen were in the Art Nouveau style
That night I had decided to book a hotel room for myself. My Brussels friend and her Groningen cousin needed time to catch up, and I needed time to sleep. If you are ever in need of a place to stay in the center of Groningen, I can highly recommend the Asgard Boutique Hotel. Although breakfast is not provided in the price of the room, the hotel is quite new, very clean and comfortable. The next morning I was grateful for my decision, as it turned out that the party had essentially continued - everyone in the cousin's apartment had been up until the wee hours of the morning, while I had peacefully slept in the quiet hotel room for a good nine hours. As I was checking out and signing the guest book at the front desk, I noticed that a couple who'd signed the book the previous day was from Latvia. Upon further inspection, it turned out I knew them! Yes, it is a VERY small world when one is Latvian!

Rīga - Capital of Culture 2014

This year is an important one for Latvia. The country joined the euro zone on January 1, meaning that Latvia is now one of eighteen European Union countries using the euro as their common currency. 2014 is also the year in which Latvia's capital and largest city, Rīga, is one of two European cities selected to be a Capital of Culture. The Wikipedia entry provides a nice history of the source of this idea, and a list of cities which have participated thus far. Interestingly, this is the last year in which cities will hold the title for an entire calendar year. Beginning in 2015, a city will be Capital of Culture only for three months. Liene at Femme au Foyer did an excellent job of describing one of the weekend's big events, the Chain of Booklovers, and I will not attempt to one-up her!

Other than the book chain, many other events took place over the weekend - from famous pianists performing on a grand piano in the city's bus station to one of the country's best choirs breaking out in song in the Central Market's Fish Pavilion, from the world fire sculpture championship to various exhibit openings, it seems there really was something for everyone on this cold winter weekend. The Riga 2014 website has a 6 minute video with an overview.

I was fortunate in that I managed to catch about ten or fifteen minutes of the online broadcast on Saturday; specifically I saw the fantastic fireworks show. Set on the river Daugava, with the new National Library building in the background, this carefully choreographed show was absolutely breathtaking.

If any city can pull off a fantastic series of cultural events, it is Rīga. The city has a long history of organizing and hosting large events such as the Song and Dance Festivals and Rīga's 800th anniversary celebration. Riga and Latvia are wonderful places to visit at any time, but it seems this year will be a particularly good choice. That's just one of the reasons I'm so excited to have purchased a flight to fly to Riga in May!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Latvian connections, and Digging up the Past, Part IIB

The following day was Sunday, and we did what most Europeans do on the weekends - we went to the market. How I love a European market! So many fresh delicacies to purchase, and so much people watching to do! I was particularly impressed by the enormous stand that sold nuts and dried fruit. I purchased a small bag of raw almonds; upon later tasting them I immediately realized I should have bought many more - they were by far the freshest and most delicious almonds ever eaten.

Our main goal for the day was to spend time with yet other Latvian friends, so we drove out to the suburbs, and enjoyed an afternoon cookout with them. In the evening, on the way back to the city center, we stopped at one of Brussels' most recognizable landmarks. The Atomium was constructed for the 1958 World's Fair. I had already seen it in the distance during daylights, but the scene is much more interesting and impressive at night! However, Mini Europe, which is right next to the Atomium, is sadly not open at night in the spring, so that is something I will need to see another time.
Atomium and the moon

The following day I got a kick out of Latvian signage at European Union headquarters. Although I did not make the time for a tour, there is a nice information center where one can pick up a plethora of brochures, pamphlets and maps about the EU in all of its languages.

I also visited the Musical Instrument Museum, which in and of itself is quite interesting. Additionally, it is located in a stunning old Art Nouveau building, which in a previous life had housed a department store.
 After learning about, looking at and listening to many different instruments, I made my way to the top floor cafe, from where one has a scenic hilltop view of Brussels. There I drank a leisurely cup of coffee, which led to my question of the day: why do Americans never serve coffee this elegantly?
My final stop for the day was back at Grand Place, where I toured the Museum of the City of Brussels, probably best known for its collection of outfits that have been sent for Mannequin Pis.
The Little Man himself - sans an outfit
The Latvian folk costume sent on the occasion of Riga's 800th anniversary

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Latvian connections and Digging up the Past, Part IIA

Two years ago, in March 2012, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit friends in a lovely locale, and thus an amazing vacation in Belgium and the Netherlands took shape.

My friend lived in apartment in the heart of Brussels - mere steps from the Royal Palace. I was able to spend a couple of days exploring the city, which I found to be more interesting and attractive than word on the street has it. Of course, I might have been unduly influenced by the vast quantities of chocolate I snacked on! Just as major American cities have a Starbucks on every corner, Brussels seems to have a gourmet chocolatier on every other corner. As a chocoholic and true chocolate snob (dark chocolate, please, and don't even try to pretend that a Hershey's Bar is worth eating or that Special Dark is actually true dark chocolate!), I was on cloud nine.

Grand Place, Brussels' main city square, is quite attractive in the daytime, but in the evening hours, shortly after the sun has set and the sky is still blue, the square takes on a soft romanticism with the ornate historic building beautifully lit.

A building on Grand Place on a gray day

A view of city hall on Grand Place at dusk
Fantastic night view of Brussels from Mont des Arts
On a weekend day, my friends and I ventured to the gorgeous towns of Ghent and Bruges. While Bruges is better know, I was also impressed with Ghent, which is Belgium's second largest city. The historic center of town, however, feels quite quaint. Unfortunately, the weather was quite chilly and gray, although we were later blessed with a few rays of sun in the afternoon. In Ghent we warmed up by enjoying a traditional Belgian meal of waterzooi, a chicken stew, at a cozy restaurant.

Another spot that I loved visiting was a store called Dille en Kamille. I was introduced to this fun shop when my younger sister lived in the Netherlands. The best American comparison would be
Crate and Barrel, although maybe a slightly less expensive version and without furniture. Later I found the same store close to my friend's apartment in Brussels, so was able to stock up on various gifts and souvenirs there, as well. If you are ever in the Netherlands or Belgium, I highly recommend hunting down a D&L location!

On the main canal in Ghent

After wandering around the charming streets of Ghent, we drove onto the better known Bruges. Unsurprisingly, the historic center of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can see why tourists flock to it. Earlier in the year, the New York Times had written its "36 Hours in..." travel piece on Bruges, so I had a couple of places I absolutely wanted to see. Naturally, two were chocolate shops. While many chocolatiers in Belgium have traditional-looking shops, Babelutte by Bartholomeus has a much different feel to it. Shying away from the brown color palette favored by many, the interior walls are stark black and white, with the boxes of chocolates providing splashes of color - very modern. As for the chocolate, it was delicious! I regret not purchasing a box of white chocolate with strawberries and basil -- that was wonderful.

We were happy to spot the sun for a while during our walk around town. There are innumerable beautiful buildings and scenes in Bruges. Neither my words nor my snapshots will do it any justice.
Scenes from Bruges
Soon enough I was ready to sit down and enjoy a traditional Belgian snack, so we found the small bistro, Chez Vincent, mentioned in the New York Times, for fries and other fried snacks.
Such a lovely presentation of fried food!
Spending a mere day between Ghent and Bruges was not enough - I look forward to returning in the future!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


This morning's weather got me to thinking about language. In every language there are some words and phrases that have no equivalent in other languages. I believe that the Latvian word "drēgns" is one such term. The temperature was on the cool side, but the humidity and grayness added a certain discomfort and bone-chilling aspect to the day. In Latvian, a day like this is called "drēgns," and I do not know of an English language equivalent. Indeed, if one looks the word up in the dictionary, the definition is "cool and humid." How awesome that we have one word that does the work of two!

Drēgns! Photo by Panagiotis Lianos. (Source)

Another such word that I love is "bezgaiss," which is another descriptive word - this one for (typically) a room that lacks air circulation. It is particularly apt for use during a hot Latvian summer when one is stuck in an old Latvian building that not only lacks air conditioning, but also seems to lack any air circulation whatsoever. The term can also be used to described a hot, stuffy day with no breeze, when the air and heat just seem to sit and envelop you.

What are you favorite Latvian words that have no equivalent?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Latvian sports: Men on Ice

Latvian athletes provided lots of excitement on Sunday, particularly on the international level. Brothers Martins and Tomass Dukurs placed first and second, respectively, in a World Cup skeleton competition. These guys are amazing world class athletes. In 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Martins won the silver medal. Martins has been on a roll recently -- he's been in first place in the last four World Cup races. I am greatly looking forward to seeing them compete in the Sochi Olympics next month!

Additionally, one of Latvia's 4-man bobsled teams -- captained by Oskars Melbardis -- placed first in a World Cup competition, and the team is currently ranked first in the world. They, too, will be fierce competitors at the Olympics.

Here in the United States, figure skaters competed in the national championships. Lukas Kaugars, an 18-year old Latvian-American skating in his first senior level competition, placed 15th. Eighteen is still quite young for a male figure skater, so Lukas has the potential to go even further in his career, which should be interesting to watch.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Latvian connections and Digging into the past, Part I

One of the best things about being Latvian is having friends in many different places. Over the years, I have been fortunate to be able to visit quite a few friends living in various locales - both exotic, and some not-so-much.

Interestingly, a cancelled vacation to Latvia in spring 2010 resulted in my traveling to Egypt later that year.

In November 2010, I combined visiting Latvian diplomat friends in Cairo with attending an American friend's wedding in Sharm-el-Sheikh. I am so very grateful that I did decide to journey to Egypt at that time -- only two months later, in January 2011, Egyptians revolted against their government and unfortunately many parts of the country became less safe to visit. My friends in Cairo were fantastic hosts; not only did they show me around Cairo, but I was also able to attend the embassy's reception to celebrate Latvia's Independence Day.

My fabulous Cairo hosts - at the Embassy reception
Very few Latvians live in Egypt, but like many northern Europeans, Latvians like to vacation in Egypt - particularly in the resort towns Sharm-el-Sheikh and Hurghada, both on the Red Sea. However, at the Embassy reception I did have the opportunity to meet a few local Latvians, including a couple of young women who were studying in Cairo and who shared numerous interesting experiences (not all positive!) about their time in the country. I also briefly met Latvia's honorary consul to Jordan, whose hospitality I would unexpectedly appreciate at the end of the trip.

This photo of the Giza Pyramids is deceptive - the city surrounds them!

Several fun days in Cairo included visiting pyramids (both the Giza and Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara), the overstuffed National Museum, the highly entertaining Military Museum, a couple of mosques, and the busy souk which is an enormous bazaar/marketplace where - among other things - a woman yanked my ponytail for some unknown reason. Then I returned to the airport to meet my great friend Nora and her wonderful family. We flew to Sharm-el-Sheikh for several days of rest and relaxation, and for Nora's wedding to her Egyptian fiancee whom she had met while living in Dubai. I had never vacationed in a all-inclusive resort; in some ways it was a very relaxing experience, yet at the same time I generally prefer a more active type of vacation - lying at the side of the pool or on the beach is not something I can do for hours or days on end.

In Saqqara. This must be where phrase "walk like an Egyptian" originated!
Pool at our hotel in Sharm with Sinai Mountains in the back
The wedding itself was one of the more memorable I've experienced. The reception took place outdoors, on a lovely expanse of green grass overlooking the Red Sea. The weather was perfect (think sunny, warm but not humid), the food was amazing, the music was entertaining, and the company was fun.

With Nora at her wonderful wedding
The day immediately after the wedding I, along with many other guests, had plans to return home. I had hoped to finish my vacation in a cooler locale - by visiting a German friend near Zurich, Switzerland for a couple of days. The weather gods, however, ensured that my trip would take a Middle Eastern detour. My morning flight out of Sharm was delayed for hours due to fog. Luckily, other guests were in the same situation and we kept one another company at the small airport. My flight into Cairo arrived so late that I saw the SwissAir jet take off as my plane was landing.

Naturally, SwissAir only has one flight a day out of the Cairo airport, and all of their employees had gone home for the evening. The employee of another airline took pity on me (I had no way of calling anyone!,) and took me to a back office so that I could use his company's telephone. I desperately called my friends in Cairo to let them know I was stuck for the night. Luckily, they were able to rescue me in due time. At their apartment I called United Airlines (I'd arranged my flights with United frequent flyer miles) and was informed that the soonest I could leave Cairo was the following evening - by flying from Cairo to Amman, Jordan (with a long layover there) to Frankfurt and finally back to Washington. I had no choice but to accept this option.

I'll be honest - I am not the most adventurous traveler, so the idea of spending many hours at an airport in Jordan - a country about which I unfortunately knew nothing - was not my idea of a fantastic time. I mentioned this to my friends, and quickly Latvian connections came into play yet again: the honorary consul for Latvia in Jordan would be happy to host me for dinner during the long layover in Amman.

After landing at the airport, I purchased a visa, exited the gate area, and found a chauffeur waiting for me. He drove me through the quiet and dark streets of Amman - after the chaos of Cairo (where I was terrified to even cross the street by myself!), it seemed very calm. The consul treated me to good French wine and a delicious dinner, offered me fresh olives from his farm, showed me his art collection, entertained me with stories of travels and business ventures. After a couple of hours, the chauffeur returned and drove me back to the airport.

When I saw the airport's packed waiting area, I was particularly grateful that I had been able to escape for a few hours. Everyone from German backpackers who looked like they had not showered in a week to Arabic women in full abayas and many enormous suitcases were sitting, lying, napping and sleeping on any available chair. Although Jordan is a relatively small country (population of about 6 million), and the airport is not particularly large, it happens to be hub for many flights to/from the Middle East. Finally my flight was announced, and I was allowed to check in and go through security. I enjoyed stocking up on Middle Eastern sweets at the large duty free shop, and eventually boarded the plane at some ungodly hour - may have been 3am or so. Irregardless, Lufthansa, being a airline that still values its passengers and their appetites, served an amazing breakfast after the flight took off. My layover in Frankfurt was great, as Germany is a country I love dearly, and the opportunity to eat a bratwurst and brotchen and buy many excellent German chocolates was much appreciated. Naturally, returning home at the end of fabulous vacation is anti-climactic, but there was one thing I could say with certainty to anyone who asked about my trip - I am incredibly glad I had decided to go to Egypt, as it was in many ways a once-in-lifetime opportunity.

Bonus: Movie recommendation: For a beautiful yet somewhat romanticized view of Cairo from a tourist's perspective, I highly recommend the film "Cairo Time."

Latvian sports: Hockey

You will rarely hear me mention sports. Unless those sports have something to do with Latvians, of course. For example, I have no problem admitting that about a dozen years ago I spent $20 to watch a Latvian soccer match in a Dupont Circle bar with some friends. (Those $20 did not include any food or drink - that was actually just the price to watch the game!)

This weekend I would have been willing to spend good money for tickets to a hockey game -- if only there were tickets available. However, the Washington Capitals had a very successful season last year, and they are as popular as ever, thus all tickets for Sunday's game with the Buffalo Sabres are sold out. Naturally, the only reason I'd be at all interested in seeing this match is because the NHL's only current Latvian player, Zemgus Girgensons (LOVE that name!), is with the Sabres. He was also recently named to Latvia's Olympic team. He just turned 20 at the beginning of this month, so let's hope he has a long successful career ahead of him!

The one Capitals game I attended many years ago was with a group of Latvians (of course!) to see them play the San Jose Sharks, when Sandis Ozolins was a member of the Sharks. We met him after the game - nice man. He was also just named to the Latvian Olympic hockey roster -- and, at age 41, is the team's oldest member.

Unfortunately, according to NBC sports, "Latvia is unlikely to make it to the quarterfinals of the 12-team tournament, a fate it suffered in the last three Olympics." Yet, I should point out that just making it to the Olympics is a feat in and of itself. Plus, it will be a great opportunity for Latvian hockey fans to make themselves heard and seen again.

The Winter Olympics begin February 7, and Latvia's first game is against Switzerland on the 12th.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

DC favorites, Part I

This spring I will celebrate my 15th anniversary of living in the Washington, D.C. area. The city and region have so much to offer; its diversity of available experiences is probably the main reason I love living here.

The following are a few of my favorite places in the area. Because there so many wonderful and interesting spots (and I'm continually discovering new favorites!), I realized I'll need to break this topic into several posts.

Favorite bookstore: Politics and Prose
Polticis and Prose celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, but it has been a Washington institution for a while. Somewhat recently spoofed on Saturday Night Live, and visited by the likes President Obama and Hillary Clinton, calling the store anything other than an institution would be unimaginable. In addition to having a fantastic selection of adult books, P and P also has an amazing kids' section, incredibly knowledgeable staff, a good coffeehouse called Modern Times, and an impressive schedule of events. Some days as many as three different authors are present at the store, typically for both readings and book signings. More popular events, such as with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, are even organized at auditoriums in downtown DC.

Favorite museum: National Gallery of Art
One of the most amazing things about DC is the amount of free culture and entertainment any visitor can enjoy. All of the famous monuments are free to visit, as are the many museums that make up the Smithsonian. Because the National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian, even that can be enjoyed without paying an entrance fee. Tickets for the Kennedy Center's concerts, ballets, operas, etc are quite pricey, but every single day of the year, a free performance takes place in the center's foyer. Anyhow, you get my drift! Of the free offering and of all the museums (DC is also home to several that do charge admission), my favorite is the National Gallery of Art. It has a stunning permanent collection, and mind-boggling temporary exhibits. Every time I visit, I wonder why I don't make the time to stop by more often.

Favorite place for a stroll in nature: C&O Canal at Great Falls
The C&O Canal is a National Park that runs over 180 miles along the old Chesapeake & Ohio Canal towpath, beginning in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, and continuing into Maryland. My favorite spot is near the overlook for Great Falls on the Potomac River. It is beautiful any time of year, but these stunning photos show that the falls and river are gorgeous even on the coldest day in recent history. I typically go in warmer weather, and love seeing turtles sunning themselves on fallen trees in the canal, as well as herons patiently waiting to fish their dinner on the rocks in the river.

Monday, January 6, 2014

If I had a million dollars...

(Apologies for the slightly messy look of this post -- posting the photos was far trickier than it should have been in this situation!)
The pop group The Barenaked Ladies has a song titled, "If I had a million dollars" in which they sing about buying a house, furniture and a nice reliable automobile. This is a great video of a live performance.

If I had a million dollars, I would probably need to buy a house in order to have room for all the cool things I would purchase from Etsy (after I've given generously to some of my favorite charities and set aside funds for travel, of course!). In particular, it is wonderful to find items made by Latvian artisans - both in Latvia and outside.  Below are several things that I would be happy to own:
Linen Scarf-  Handwoven Multicolor & Violet
 Beach Blanket- Pure Linen-  Queen Size-  Beach Life Survival Kit
 33 Natural Handmade Wooden Latvian Alphabet Toy Building Blocks, Two-sided ABC Wood Building Blocks, wooden blocks
  Christmas Linen tablecloth Rain deers Santa Claus Elf Tomten decor Natural Linen Eco Friendly, runner , towel , curtains available ,eco GIFT
 Friendship bracelet, SARMA, with Latvian design (small 6 1/4 inches)

Amber items that I might find attractive are not listed here only for the simple fact that I already have quite a few pieces of amber jewelry which need to be worn more often!

If you are interested in items made by Latvian artisans on Etsy, all you need to do is search for "Latvian" in the Etsy search box, and you will be astounded by the variety of beautiful things you can order.