Friday, May 30, 2014

What Are You Doing This Summer?

Over at UnbraveGirl, Sally has an impressive summer bucket list with twenty activities she would like to complete this summer. Her proposed adventures include attending five summer festivals, hosting a fancy cocktail party, and wholesome all-American activities such going watching a movie at drive-in theater and baking a pie.
All-American summer activity: visiting Dr. Seuss Memorial in Springfield, MA in 2011.
Same day, same outfit - but I'm in Vermont!
In a similar vein, it is time for me to think about my annual summer resolution. This is a novel (at least I think so!) idea I came up with several years ago, and have completed religiously since 2009. Every summer I resolve to do something new every week in the time between Memorial and Labor Day weekends. (In case you are unfamiliar with American holidays, Memorial Day falls at the end of May, while Labor Day is celebrated at the beginning of September.) Those of you who know me realize that this does not imply trying skydiving one weekend, and going sea kayaking the next. Given the constraints such as my fear of open heights, my job and my finances, this typically means exploring a park that's new to me, or checking out a cafe or bookstore that I've never visited before. Even with seemingly little things, it has been fun to discover new places. Naturally, anytime I have gone on a summer trip, all of those experiences have been included in my summer resolution. For example, last year I had the opportunity to visit both Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the gorgeous waterfall-filled Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania, while in the summer of 2011 a four-day trip to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island meant seeing plenty of new spots. To keep track of my adventures, I use my Yelp review account.
One of many waterfalls, Ricketts Glen SP, summer 2013.
At the beginning of this summer, however, I am feeling a tad tired and overwhelmed. My two-week long vacation in the Baltics included many new places, and post-travel jet lag and work stress mean that I am feeling less than energetic. However, I suspect I might feel lazy and unaccomplished if my summer resolution fell by the wayside this year!

What are your summer plans?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kicking off my Euro-month: EU Open House & Eurovision Party

The day before leaving for Latvia was a busy one. One of my favorite annual DC events, the European Union Embassy's Open House Day, took place, and the group I sing with entertained visitors with traditional Latvian folk music at the Embassy of Latvia for a couple of hours.

Afterwards, my friend S and I headed to the Embassy of Denmark for a special Eurovision Song Contest watching party. That was oodles of fun, and I hope to attend next year's event at the Embassy of Austria! There's nothing like some cheesy European pop music and good old fashioned European hospitality.

S is a huge Eurovision fan; she taken time off of work to watch the semi-finals online, and had a clear list of favorites. Seeing as the Latvian entry, Aarzemnieki with "Cake to Bake", had not made it into the finals, we rooted for the Netherlands, which is S's ancestral homeland - plus I really liked their song. We did also root for Austria, and a couple of other countries such as Montenegro.
Fancy Post-Its! (Photo by S.)
The party was jointly sponsored by the Embassy and by Eurovision Americas, Inc. I'd known nothing about the existence of such an organization, but as they explain on their website, Eurovision Americas is headquartered in Washington DC, and "provides a constant stream of news video to the networks of Europe, the Middle East and Africa." S and I loved the party, and were very excited by the awesome Post-it note pads we received as gifts that evening.

It was a tiring but fun day, and a good way to kick off my European adventures.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Back to Real Life After a Two-Week Vacation

My wonderful two weeks in Europe came to an end on Sunday morning as my cousin drove us (my travel buddy and me) to the airport. After the 1.5 hour flight from Riga to Copenhagen, a ridiculously expensive and deliciously spicy chicken red curry lunch at the Copenhagen airport, and the long 8.5 trans-Atlantic flight (enough time to watch three movies and do some reading), I was back in the DC area. Today is Memorial Day, a federal holiday, so I was able to sleep in, spend some time unpacking, go grocery shopping, catch up with a few folks, and even enjoy a cookout in Rock Creek Park with friends.

Tomorrow will be my first day back to work, i.e. the real wake-up call about vacation being over. It will also be interesting to see how quickly or slowly I recover from jet lag, as it seems to be an growing problem for me. When I arrived in Latvia, it took quite a while to adjust to the seven hour time difference. The problem was certainly compounded by the early hour in which the sun rises at this time of year - currently the total hours of daylight in Latvia are 2,5 hours longer than in Washington!

The time I spent in Latvia and Lithuania was quite fantastic. I saw many beautiful and interesting places, spent time with relatives and old friends, and made some new friends. It will take a good while to write up blog posts about all of my adventures and pick out the best photographs (the good news is I found my camera shortly before beginning the trip) so I hope my regular readers (all eight of you!) will be patient. I plan to insert quite a bit of detail in order for the posts to be useful for other travelers, as there is not necessarily a huge amount of easily accessible information in English about many of the areas we visited.

In other words - stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Springtime in Northern Michigan (Digging Up the Past)

While I'm traipsing through Europe enjoying gorgeous northern nature, strong coffee and ancient Baltic languages and cultures, I figured I could pre-write at least one blog post about older travels so that my five or six loyal readers would have something to peruse during my almost immeasurably long absence. (Ha, who am I kidding?! I live in the United States, meaning I'm incredibly lucky I can manage a two-week vacation for the first time in my life!)

In the spring of 2009, the wedding of my old friend Roberts to Liene (aka Femme au Foyer) and the birth of my newest nephew called for a trip to Michigan. I decided that it was time for me to also explore some new places, as it seemed that every time I traveled to Michigan, a lot of time was spent in just the southwestern corner of the state. Therefore, I borrowed a car and headed north. In just a couple of days I discovered what quickly became one of my favorite corners of the world. Old Mission Peninsula and Traverse City are absolutely gorgeous places to explore, and I wish I had the time and resources to spend a week there every year!
Other than admiring orchards with blooming trees (northern Michigan is best known for its cherries, and apples), I drove the entire length of Old Mission Peninsula, a small and peaceful place - particularly in the off season. The peninsula is 32 square miles large (only 22 miles long - in some spots you can see water on both sides as it is quite narrow), and Mission Point Lighthouse, built in 1870, sits at its very tip.
On my road trip I also drove through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is yet another beautiful place to include on your bucket list. The 7-mile long Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is worth your time, even if you do nothing else in the park. I did walk out to the dunes at one point to find a fantastic view of Lake Michigan - the different shades of blue were breathtaking.
A view of Glen Lake from the scenic drive
Dunes overlooking Lake Michigan
During my trip, I treated myself by staying at the wonderful Korner Kottage Bed & Breakfast in Suttons Bay. I also savored an amazing meal at the cozy (might feel too cozy at a busy time) but outstanding restaurant, The Cooks' House, in Traverse City. At the time, they were open for lunch, which is when I dined there, but it seems they have altered their schedule to only serve dinner.

The following year, in the spring of 2010, I had scheduled a spring trip to Europe. However, a tiny thing called Eyjafjallajokull - otherwise known as the Icelandic volcano that kept erupting and grossly disrupting international air travel - changed those plans. Suddenly I had vacation time to use up, and needed a place to go. Easy and inexpensive way to solve that problem: visit family in Michigan! Mom was game for a short road trip to northern Michigan, so I was excited to revisit a couple of places I'd seen the year before and discover new spots.

The roadside contrasts of white blossoms, yellow dandelions, green grass and blue skies impressed us as we explored the wineries of Old Mission Peninsula.

Too early for grapes, but dandelions were plentiful!
We visited three wineries that day (I was designated driver, so my wine intake was minimal!): Peninsula Cellars, Bowers Harbor Vineyard, and Chateau Chantal. Our favorite - by far - was Bowers Harbor. In addition to the wine being excellent and to the vineyard's mascot being a big fuzzy friendly Bernese Mountain dog, the gentleman working in the tasting room at the time was very personable and helpful. In chatting with him, we found out that he had lived in the Washington, D.C. area for many years, and had traveled to Riga several times for his government work. A serious benefit to visiting these types of establishments outside of their peak seasons (mom and I were there in the middle of the week in the middle of May) is being able to speak with and interact on a more personal level with owners and employees. We enjoyed the riesling so much that I purchased a bottle for mom as a Mother's Day gift.

Mom and I also ventured further north, stopping in Elk Rapids and Charlevoix before our final stop in Petoskey. I will not try to outdo a professional writer, Ann Patchett, who published an absolutely fantastic piece on Petoskey in the New York Times the following year. I dare you to read that essay and not wish to immediately book your next summer vacation to northern Michigan!! As Patchett writes, "Within 10 minutes I started to wonder how I could spend the rest of my life in Petoskey."(Well, a Michigan winter might cure her of that desire, but we understand what she's getting at.)

Anyhow, I hope none of you are missing me too terribly and that you are having a good week!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Meeting the Prime Minister of Latvia: Just Another Tuesday in DC

Laimdota Straujuma has been Latvia's Prime Minister since January, and this spring she made her inaugural visit to the U.S. I was fortunate to be invited to a reception at the Embassy of Latvia where she and Ambassador Andris Razans opened a new exhibit in the Embassy's Art Space. The exhibit "Latvian Voice in Glass" features exquisite glass pieces by artist Artis Nimanis, and can be viewed this month on Fridays and Saturdays. Ambassador Razans, Prime Minister Straujuma and the artist each spoke very briefly, then it was time to mix and mingle. I met and caught up with some friends I'd not seen in a while, chatted with a Latvian ambassador whom I knew when I was a kid but had not seen since, saw (but unfortunately did not chat with) the current U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Mark Pekkala and former Ambassador to Latvia Judith Garber. I also briefly met and exchanged pleasantries with the Prime Minister herself. She is a sincere and down-to-earth person, and I wish her the best of luck in this difficult job!

PM Straujuma meeting VP Biden during DC visit (Source:
As high-ranking foreign dignitaries, a visiting President or Prime Minister is protected by Diplomatic Security agents. These men look similar to Secret Service agents - dressed in conservative dark suits, some wearing communication ear pieces. The dignitary is driven around in a large black van with a small American flag on one side of the front of the car and his/her country's flag on the other side, and further escorted by a couple of DC police vehicles. I was outside the Embassy at one point when a family of tourists walked past, and noticed the police cars and the huge dark van with the flags. They immediately started talking amongst themselves, "Oh, look at that! What does that mean? Who do you think is in that car?" But for me it was just a somewhat typical Tuesday evening in the DMV.

For a short Latvian TV report on the exhibit opening, click here.

I realize that with no photos here to document my meeting the Prime Minister, you might think that I've dreamed all of this. These are a few photos on Latvia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Flickr page; I didn't make the cut, but a few of my good friends did. This is the point where some of my friends/family would say, "A smart phone would be great in such a situation!" so that I could have snapped a selfie with Laimdota. Maybe one day I will acquiesce...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Playing Tourist in DC

It had been a while since I had needed to show a first-time visitor around DC, but the last weekend in April afforded me this opportunity as K came to visit. We were fortunate in that the weather was appropriately spring-like, which always makes the DMV look its best. She arrived at BWI late Saturday morning, and after lunch and coffee at home, we took Metro into DC, getting out at the Farragut North station and walking toward the White House. Her comment: "It really is very white!"
The White House looks particularly lovely in the spring!
After checking out views of the White House from both sides, we headed in the direction of the Washington Monument, which is still closed for renovation following the 2012 summer earthquake. From there we strolled to the World War II Memorial, which was also being visited by many WWII veterans. Here we were a bit surprised that a gust of wind was strong enough to blow water from one of the largest fountains onto us, although we were a good distance away.
WWII Memorial. (Credit: K)
Fantastic panoramic view of the World War II Memorial. (Credit: K)
K had recently watched the movie "Forrest Gump," so she seemed to be most excited about seeing the Lincoln Memorial. Spring is a very busy tourist time in Washington, and the crowds of visitors taking photos prevented us from getting all that close to the President, but we did thoroughly enjoy the vast view from the steps of the monument.
Throngs of tourists visit President Lincoln (Credit: K)
Continuing our journey, we walked toward the Tidal Basin (where two weeks earlier the cherry trees were at peak bloom) and visited the newest monument, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which was dedicated in 2011.
Credit: K
We strolled along the Tidal Basin for a short bit before heading over to the National Mall. Here I enlightened K about the history of the Smithsonian Institution, which is quite interesting and unusual. British scientist James Smithson died in 1829, and left his entire estate to the people of the United States, even though he had never been to this country. In his will Smithson specified that the funds should be utilized “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Today the institution bearing his name is the largest museum and research complex in the world, encompassing 19 museums, as well as the National Zoo and nine research facilities.

I would be remiss to not mention a Latvian connection that the Smithsonian has. Joseph J. Hirshhorn was the founding donor of the institution's modern art museum named in his honor. He was born in Jelgava (in what is now Latvia) in 1899, but emigrated to New York with his family at the age of eight. Hirshhorn became a successful financier, who over the course of his life amassed a collection of almost 6,000 works of art, which he left to the people of the United States upon his death in 1981. Certainly, one of the things that makes this country so great is the generosity of its people, something one sees on both a small and grand scale regularly. While today the federal budget covers about 70% of the Smithsonian's budget, the rest of its activities are funded by private philanthropy.
Hirschhorn Museum. Roy Lichtenstein sculpture. I'm looking toward the sculpture garden. (Credit: K)
Joseph Hirschhorn (Source:
The following day I showed K one of my favorite places in the area: the C&O National Historic Park. She was impressed by the powerful falls and peaceful nature. What I love about visiting the Great Falls section of the park is the fact that it looks different every single time, depending on how much rain or snow or dry weather we've had. Because Maryland had a snowy winter, and because we'd had rain earlier in the week, the falls were quite impressive on this visit.
Just one of the many falls on Maryland side of Great Falls (Credit: K)
Then we drove down the George Washington Memorial Parkway (better known as GW Parkway), stopping at the Iwo Jima Memorial and Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, Virginia for the great views across the Potomac to DC and the colorful collection of blooming tulips.
Fantastic view of DC from the Netherlands Carillon in Arlington, Virginia (Source: National Park Service)
K's view from a similar spot at the Netherlands Carillon
Continuing down the Parkway, we took a coffee break at Buzz in Alexandria. K loved the generous piece of apple crumble pie she ordered, and I later relished the gluten-free brownie I picked up. On the way back, we stopped at Gravelly Point Park for yet another view of DC from a different angle.  
With K on Virginia side of Potomac, Gravelly Point Park
Soon it was time for a late brunch at Chef Tony's in Bethesda (sadly, the brunch menu does not feature their fantastic no-filler crabcake), some quiet time for me and shopping for K. Later we once again ventured into DC, this time to quickly meet a friend of mine, cruise a part of Embassy Row - stopping to take photos at the Embassy of Latvia, naturally - and finally make our way to the Capitol. The photo below makes it look like we had the grounds to ourselves, but that was not the case - there were plenty of visitors milling around at 7pm on Sunday evening. We particularly enjoyed discovering the Summerhouse, a small brick structure that contains a fountain (which provided drinking water back in the day), a grotto and seating. The purpose of the Summerhouse, constructed in the late 1800s, was to provide visitors a place to rest and cool off. It continues to serve as a peaceful place for visitors to escape the hordes of tourists!
Evening view of the Capitol (Credit: K)

The Summerhouse (Source:
Before K had to head home the following day, she found time to explore a few exhibits at the National Museum of American History. She said that she particularly like seeing the Star-Spangled Banner and First Lady Michelle Obama's gown from the inauguration.

Thanks to K for sharing her wonderful photographs! I think she enjoyed her inaugural visit to Washington, D.C. as much as I liked showing her my adopted city.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Super Social Saturday

When it rains, it pours. Funny how that is the case sometimes with positive and fun things, not just the cruddy ones! Saturday I was happy to have two social events to attend: a baby shower for a co-worker with whom I've become good friends (and whose absolutely adorable four year old son I occasionally babysit), and a Latvian ladies' afternoon tea at the home of an old friend. I actually began the morning with a visit to the hair salon; as it turns out the "disaster" haircut that I received in Michigan at Christmastime has worked out better than I had hoped, so all the stylist needed to do was trim my hair. Naturally, this being the DC area, I spent an arm and a leg just for that.

The baby shower was held at a restaurant, where we enjoyed Mexican food, and ooohhing-and-aahhing over cute baby items. The guest of honor is expecting twins - a girl and a boy - so double the excitement!

Afterwards I ran home to pick up the muffins I had baked earlier in the morning, then braved Saturday afternoon traffic (seriously! In the DMV there are few times when traffic is not a factor) to H's home. The collective experiences and wisdom of the women attending the tea was astounding; they are all individuals I know - some only a bit, others I am quite close to - but it is rare to have the opportunity to just sit in a leisurely fashion and chat -- without needing to run off to other events or obligations. It was an absolutely lovely afternoon. The weather was warm enough that we sat outside, and we discussed everything from travel to current events in Europe, from art to the Latvian-American community. It was 8pm and the group had shrunk somewhat by the time I bid my farewell -- but I'd been sipping tea, eating muffins and enjoying the company of these wonderful women for five hours by that point!
H actually has a lilac bush in her yard!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Awesome Latvian Link!

One of the coolest and most interesting websites currently in existence is called Humans of New York. Photographer Brandon walks the streets of New York City, arguably one of the most diverse places in the world, photographing and speaking with individuals he sees. Take a look when you have more than a minute to spare, because you will probably spend a fair amount of time wanting to look at another photo and quote, and another, and another... The things people say range from wise to funny, from sad to joyous. The website is so popular that it even spawned a book.

Thanks to a post on the site Life in Riga, I was very excited to recently find out that a Latvian photographer, Linda Araja, has started an equivalent Latvian project: Humans of Latvia. Her photos are on Facebook, but are accessible by everyone, even if you do not have a Facebook account. Right now it seems that the photographer is taking a break, as the last photo is from February, but I'm hoping that she'll continue posting soon.

Happy Friday! Enjoy your weekends!!
A scene from Great Falls on the Potomac River one early spring a few years back.