Sunday, March 30, 2014

Take a Trip: Pizza, Wine and Snow in Leesburg, Virginia

Yes, that word "snow" in the title does not belong! It is quite unusual for the DC area to experience the white stuff as late as March 30, but this year has proved to be highly irregular.

Initially I had hoped to take a daytrip to a town slightly further away, but that outing would have involved a fair amount of time outside. Although the weather forecasts did not really call for snow during the day, it did call for a yucky day - rainy, windy, cold. Thus, a friend and I came up with another plan, which is very easy to do in this area, given the plethora of options.

We drove through the pouring rain to Leesburg, Virginia, first stopping for some bargain shopping at the local outlet mall. While picking out a million things to try on at a certain clothing store, I looked out the window - only to see enormous snowflakes being whipped around by the wind. This made the rest of our shopping trip very quick, as running between stores while being assaulted by snow and wind was less than pleasant.

We headed into historic downtown Leesburg for lunch. Due to my diet (gluten-free), I prefer to do some research before eating out, to ensure that I will have viable options and that the restaurant has at least decent reviews online. The restaurant which had initially caught my attention only serves a $27 brunch buffet on Sundays, and that's a bit more than I prefer to spend on a typical weekend meal. Instead, we dined at Fire Works Pizza. The restaurant is rather small, and it being the busy lunch hour, we choose to sit at the bar instead of waiting for a table. We were very ably served by the friendly bartender, whose intriguing accent made me question him about his heritage (something I rarely do in the DC area). Turns out he was born in Albania, but grew up in Greece. But back to the food! The options for constructing your own pizza were fantastic - six different sauces, eleven different cheeses, and so on. Thus I chose to top my gluten-free crust with basil pesto, local goat cheese, and roasted red peppers. The pizza was wonderful -- I particularly enjoyed the tangy flavor of the goat cheese. The restaurant even offers gluten-free desserts, plus a variety of Virginia wines, and huge assortment of beers. Overall, it was a great meal, and I would certainly return.

After lunch we ventured a bit outside of Leesburg to one of Virginia's over 200 wineries. Zephaniah Farm Vineyard turned out to be a real gem! We drove up to the house, parked, and were quickly greeted by a friendly woman who said, "Please, do go in - it's much warmer in there!" Once inside the door we were immediately met by a gregarious man: "Hi, I'm Bill! Welcome to Zephaniah Farm!" Then he showed us a photo which included his grandfather who began farming on this land. The farm has now been in the Hatch family for over sixty years, although they have been growing grapes for only about a decade.
Stairs behind the house, leading to vineyards. Probably lovelier in the spring or fall!
The tasting room is located in the living room, which was being warmed by a fireplace. Bill introduced us to the two people (one was his wife, Bonnie) sitting beside the fire -- both of them had spent all morning bottling wine outside in the cold and snow! Bill had not participated because he occasionally still works very early Sunday mornings in DC. Naturally, I was curious to find out what type of job caused him to commute at such an early weekend hour. It turns out he spent over thirty years working as an engineer at ABC, and worked on the long-running morning news show, "This Week." The show is now hosted by George Stephanopoulos, but for very many years - including when my father was a loyal viewer - it was known was "This Week with David Brinkley."
With vineyard owner Bill Hatch
The vineyard offers tastings for $7. The tasting included several wines and--it still being March--also a mulled wine. The first wine was a Chardonnay, which is the one I liked most of the regular wines. The mulled wine was absolutely wonderful, and I certainly could have spent a while longer sitting beside that fireplace while drinking it! The tables in the tasting room also offer plates with small pieces of excellent dark chocolate, which was great with the red wines. Additionally, they provide glass milk bottles from which a visitor can pour fresh clear well water.

After appreciating the wines, I walked into the home's library, and was struck by the sight of a large old library card catalog. I opened a drawer to find perfectly organized cards, and immediately had to ask Bill about it. He explained that the entire card catalog had come from the college his children had attended, and that his wife had the genius idea of converting it into a wine library. The top drawers now hold wines (beginning with 2007, when the winery was first licensed to sell their products), while bottom drawers still have thousands of cards.
The wine/card catalog - love it!
However, someone also had a clever idea on how use the old cards themselves. They have stamped the winery's name and logo on the back, and utilize them as calling cards. As someone who used to "play library" with her little sister, and who spent a semester in graduate school thinking she wanted to be a librarian, I absolutely loved this smart use of an old item.

Check out the title of this book!

As an added bonus, in addition to revealing various interesting family stores, Bonnie and Bill told us about their former neighbor - the famous ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev had lived right next door for a number of years! Before relocating to the Leesburg area, he had lived in the same New York City apartment building as John Lennon,  and after Lennon's murder moved out very quickly. Apparently Nureyev had plans to build a ballet studio in his home, but those had not materialized.

After buying a bottle of wine and thanking Bill and Bonnie for their hospitality, we got back on the road to head home to Maryland. Snow had continued to fall, and while in the Leesburg area it melted upon hitting in the ground, it turned out that the accumulation in Maryland was quite noticeable.
Red barn, white snow. How is this almost April in Maryland?
On the way home, we made a quick stop in Tuscarora, Maryland at Rocky Point Creamery. I had visited once for ice cream last summer, but this time I was more interested in buying local free range eggs. However, seeing as we were in an ice cream shop, it was difficult to leave without buying any frozen dairy. We decided to top off our day by splitting a kiddie sized twist (vanilla and chocolate) soft serve with rainbow sprinkles. Although there was nothing spring-like about this day, it was a fun way to "get out of Dodge" and experience some new things.

Important note: All the great photos in the post: credit B. Main.

Final note: Inspired by Bevchen at Confuzzledom, I have decided to participate in the "Take 12 Trips" project. Because this year is already in its third month, I will aim to take ten trips over the next ten months. The trips will vary - some might over the river, others might be over the ocean; some trips might have a Latvian theme to them, others might have different themes. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

DC Favorites, Part II

Continuing a list of some of the best that the DC area has to offer...

Favorite pan-European events:
1) European Union Open House Day
While some of the larger embassies regularly host public events, many smaller embassies do not have the space and staff for that. However, once a year, every May, all EU embassies throw open their doors for one Saturday. Begun only a few years ago, this has become an immensely popular event. Some embassies offer food and drink samples and kids' activities, others allow you to meet and greet the ambassador, while others fill their buildings with live music. If a visitor is committed to seeing a number of embassies, then picking up a passport is a must - you'll get a stamp at every embassy you visit.
Quite a few embassies are within walking distance of one another on Massachusetts Avenue (otherwise known as Embassy Row), including the Latvian and Estonian missions. Shuttle buses are provided in order to allow visitors to more easily reach embassies that are a bit off the beaten track, including the Lithuanian.
This year's Open House is scheduled for Saturday, May 10. 
The folk music ensemble "Sudrabavots" entertains visitors at the Embassy of Latvia (credit: P. Alunans)

2) European Union Film Showcase at AFI movie theatre
Where else can a film lover see 44 different European films in a two-and-a-half week time period? I've seen many interesting, enlightening and entertaining movies here, and look forward to this event every fall.

Favorite free non-European event:
National Book Festival
Only a decade old, this is annual book lovers' event is already a mainstay on the DC area cultural calendar. Initially suggested by First Lady Laura Bush (a former librarian) and organized by the Library of Congress as one-day festival, it has grown into a two-day festival where one can hear dozens of authors, get their signatures, and pick up all sorts of book and reading-related freebies (although, really, how many bookmarks does a person need?). For its entire existence thus far, the festival has taken place under large tents on the National Mall, but apparently the National Park Service has now booted it off the Mall due to damage caused by the tents and by the festival's 200,000 (!) visitors. This year the new location will be the Convention Center, certainly a less picturesque spot, but one that is more conducive to DC area weather, as I've skipped more than one festival due to rain. DC is full of incredibly literate individuals, and it is not unusual to see visitors who bring along small rolling suitcases, full of books they wish to have signed by authors participating in the festival.
For each festival a poster is commissioned, and these tend to be quite whimsical. The three below are a few recent examples (apologies for the less than stellar quality; you can find all of the posters here). My favorite is the one with Abe Lincoln, and the third one is just for my friend Liene and her mom.
Artist: Suzy Lee

Artist: Jon J. Muth
Artist: Jan Brett

Monday, March 24, 2014

Warmer Days: Vilnius & Trakai

Winter does not want to loosen its grip. After a rather lovely Saturday when the temperatures eventually climbed up into the low 70s, we were greeted by another chilly unpleasant day on Sunday -- and this morning the mercury was struggling to get into the mid-20s when I left home. The threat of possibly more snow tomorrow means that I have to resort to recalling warmer sunnier times instead of enjoying a typical DC spring. Thanks to perusing Shutterfly the other day in search of something, I remembered a short trip to Lithuania.

In the summer of 2005, younger sister and I were both in Latvia for longer periods of time, and we decided we needed to explore Lithuania a bit more. Previously I had only been to the Hill of Crosses (highly recommended if in the area!) in northern Lithuania on a day trip from Latvia. So, sis and I planned a bus ride down to Vilnius, with a side excursion to Trakai. Vilnius is a lovely old city with more churches dominating its skyline than Riga's. We stayed at a guesthouse that is still in operation nine years later: Domus Maria, a former monastery which is located relatively close to bus station, and just inside the old city's gates, making it a perfect spot to stay when checking out the old town. I also recall the pancake breakfast being absolutely delicious!

Two other differences we noticed between Vilnius and Riga: the beggars in Vilnius were more aggressive, coming up to us as we were sitting in outdoor cafes (whereas in Riga, at least at the time, we had only seen them standing quietly on street corners, hands outstretched), and there were fewer expensive luxury cars in Vilnius than in Riga.
View of Vilnius
Another view of Vilnius
Trakai is a town relatively easily accessible from Vilnius. I say "relatively" because if one had a car, I'm sure getting there would be a breeze. Sis and I were dependent on public transportation, which worked out just fine, but was slightly frustrating due to the excessive summer heat and general lack of clear information. Considering that Trakai Castle if one of Lithuania's most famous tourist sites, I hope that by this point in time, the information about public transit to and from Vilnius has been improved. However, we did enjoy our outing, as the castle has been beautifully restored.
A view you'll see on any Lithuanian travel advertisement: Trakai Island Castle
Construction of the castle was begun in the 14th century by Kestutis, the Grand Duke of Trakai who governed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the time. Work on the castle was continued by his son Vytautas. Through the years it passed through many hands, serving at times as a royal summer residence and at another time as a prison. It was damaged during a 17th century war, and eventually fell into disrepair. Interestingly, reconstruction plans and work were made and begun by various authorities throughout the 20th century, although it seems most did not amount to much. Imperial Russian authorities were the first as early as 1905, but Germans got in on the action during World War I, Lithuanians and Poles later. Amazingly, the vast majority of reconstruction happened in the 1950s, during the Soviet Period.

As you may be able to tell from the photographs, the castle is located on a small island. Lake Gatve also has twenty other islands. Additionally, there is an another old castle on a peninsula located between this lake and Lake Luka. In other words, the Trakai area is worthy of a stop if you are in Vilnius - particularly on a sunny summer's day as Sis and I were able to enjoy!
Bridge leading to the castle. (Yes, that's my shadow in the photo!)

Friday, March 21, 2014

More Etsy Finds

Below are a few more lovely things with Latvian connections available on Etsy.

Wrapture by Inese has gorgeous infinity scarves and wraps.
Mohair Mountain Meadow Infinity Scarf - Wrapture by Inese

Happyment sells cheerful enamel jewelry.
This colorful flower pendant from Happyment caught my eye.

LeLeni offers a variety of cute infinity scarves.
The spring colors and sale price appealed to me in this scarf from LeLeni.

MyAlphabetShop has cute magnetic alphabets in several different languages, including Latvian.
Fun way to learn Latvian letters from MyAlphabetShop.

Melns currently only offers one item, but it's a neat one.
Handy poster to help you remember when to celebrate traditional holidays such as solstices.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Well Do You Recognize Foreign Languages?

The Great Language Game is fascinating! It's a multiple choice quiz: listen to a language, and try to figure out which language it is. I was quite pleased with my scores when I played it twice several weeks ago.

How well did you score? Did you find it too challenging (i.e. frustrating), or was it an interesting or fun experience?

I wish I were more multi-lingual than I am; the languages that I do speak are really only thanks to immersion a child, but somewhere deep inside of me lurks a linguist, because I love hearing different languages and trying to decipher what they are. Naturally, living in the DC area means I hear and overhear a variety of languages more frequently. Just last night I was in a children's clothing store, overhearing a couple speak in a language that I recognized as Slavic, but could not place precisely. I typically don't walk up to strangers to ask what language they are speaking, although it's something I have experienced myself many a time. One of my favorite (or least favorite) experiences in that regard took place ago many years ago in the Midwest. If I recall correctly, my mom and I were out shopping, and were asked what we were speaking. One of us responded, "Latvian," to which the questioner said, "Latin? I hear that is a difficult language!" Sigh...should we talk about the complete lack of geography education in this country?

If you do play the Great Language Game, leave a comment -- you don't need to divulge your score, just let me know what you thought of the experience!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Random Recommendations

To read:
  • "The Paradox of Choice"- Basic premise: the more choices we have, the more difficult it is to make a decision, and the more fraught with anxiety the decision-making process becomes. clearly see this in my own life, and am hoping to become more aware of how I make decisions, and how to stress out about them less.

To see:
  • Exhibit "American Cool" at the National Portrait Gallery (through September 7, 2014)   
As described on the Gallery's website:
“American Cool” is a photography and cultural studies exhibition featuring portraits of such iconic figures, each of whom has contributed an original artistic vision to American culture symbolic of a particular historical moment. They emerged from a variety of fields: art, music, film, sports, comedy, literature, and political activism. “American Cool” is the zeitgeist taking embodied form. “American Cool” is captured by a roll call of fine-art photographers from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Annie Leibovitz, from Richard Avedon to Herman Leonard to Diane Arbus. 

To watch (one reasonably entertaining although wholly predictable films and one TV show):
  • "Last Vegas" - The tale of four old friends who get together for a bachelors' weekend in Las Vegas before a wedding.
  • "The Americans" - Now in its second season on FX, I've been watching the first season via Amazon Prime. Set in the DC area in 1981, the show features a married couple who are deeply embedded KGB spies.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Back in the day in Latvia...

One of my maternal cousins (technically she is my second cousin's daughter) in Latvia has done a great deal of genealogical work, researching our family tree. It was thanks to her work on that project that she emailed me several old photographs. This one I absolutely love - it was taken after a work bee (talka) on my grandparents' farm, Kalnini, in Kurzeme. My grandfather is the man on the left in the front.
The composition of and details in this photo is just amazing: the bicycles, the dogs, the violin. You can tell this group of young people were planning a fun, relaxing evening after their day of laboring in the fields. I like the photograph so much that I even printed out a copy and posted it above my computer at work. Maybe a photo of them working instead of resting would have been more inspiring, though...?

In 2005, one of my mom's cousins took my younger sister and me to the land that had been our grandparents' farm. The photos below were taken on that land, now overgrown with weeds. The old farmhouse was still standing, although in great disrepair. It had been many years since anyone had lived there, although after my mother's family left Latvia to flee the advancing Red Army in 1944, the house was inhabited for a number of years after that. Still, seeing the land in 2005, it was difficult to discern that this had once been a successful farm. However, you could see that it had once been a beautiful place to live, and aptly named Kalnini ("little hills").
Second cousin and me

Interior of the farmhouse

Getting in and out from the road was a bit of a hike.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Weary of Winter

Yesterday the DC area had yet another ice and snow storm to deal with, and it was dangerous enough that federal government offices were closed. I tried to be productive, doing things such as shredding old documents and organizing files, but also managed to bake some muffins and catch up with my sisters.

I do not know the author of this clever photograph, but I just had to share, as I know that many people in the Midwest and on the East Coast as just as tired of this long, drawn out winter with its seemingly never-ending snow and bitter cold.
Luckily the snow did not interfere with my big weekend plans on Saturday, which involved co-hosting a baby shower for a good friend of mine. Good food was had, gifts were opened, no cheesy shower games were played, and the guest of honor felt showered with love and friendship - as it should be.

An important DC announcement was made this morning: the National Park Service announced when the city's famous cherry trees should blossom. Due to the cold and long winter, the peak bloom (when 70% of the blossoms are open) is expected to be a tad later than usual, sometime between April 8 and 12. I moved to the DC area fifteen years ago, right at cherry blossom time. My mom and I drove here from the Midwest, my car packed full of belongings. My brother and his family graciously allowed me to live with them in the far-out suburbs until I found my own place. After spending that first night at their home, the following day mom and I took the Metro into downtown DC and walked around the gorgeously blooming trees at the base of the Washington Monument. Then mom headed to Union Station to take a train home, and I headed to a job fair. Fifteen years later I am still enjoying all that the DC area has to offer!