Friday, August 29, 2014

Best Laid Plans Often Go Awry (or: How I Ended up in Hershey)

I had planned a wonderful long weekend getaway to Cape Cod for the end of August, but several things led me to cancel that trip at the last minute - something I don't remember ever having done before. However, looking on the bright side, it meant that I suddenly had time for a Saturday outing with friends to HersheyPark, an amusement park in Hershey, Pennsylvania! I had not been to an amusement park in many years, and I'd heard good things about this one. It definitely has more charm and character than another park I visited a few times as a kid. I did not have my camera along for this fun outing - so all I have are a couple of poor quality pics from my incredibly old cell phone. :)

King sized candy bars at $1.50 a piece were best food value in the park!
Milton Hershey - founder of The Hershey Chocolate Company
In addition to the park, another attraction we visited was Hershey's Chocolate World, which includes an entertaining ride that shows how Hershey's products are made, and an enormous store which sells every imaginable Hershey product - everything from the chocolates themselves to t-shirts, stuffed animals, Christmas ornaments, etc. festooned with various Hershey product logos. Other activities in Chocolate World require a fee, although if I do visit again, then I will be happy to pay $15 to make my own candy bar - complete with personalized wrapper.
Cows extolling virtues of fresh milk used in Hershey's products (Source: Chocolate World)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GVV Golden Anniversary (or: How I Partied in Michigan)

This year GVV (if you're asking "What's GVV?" - see here) celebrated its 50th academic summer with a weekend full of events and festivities.

I flew to Michigan on Friday, and spent that day visiting with family, which meant we weren't able to make it to the Friday evening campfire. However, on Saturday sis and I drove to Garezers, and immediately jumped into the events. We did hear that the campfire had been fun, with several well-prepared skits, particularly one by the current GVV principal and her two predecessors. The premise was that they had retired, and now all lived in the same retirement home, but just could not leave their time at the school in the past.

Garezers is a shareholder organization; it is owned by many different Latvian organizations - congregations, clubs, fraternities and sororities. However, part of its operating budget and financing for special projects comes from individual donations. One wonderful tradition that exists within the Latvian-American community is memorial donations. When a person passes away, family members select an organization to which donations can be made in their memory (often said to be in lieu of flowers, and usually listed in the obituary). In some cases it might be the person's congregation, in other cases it might be a scholarship fund in Latvia, in yet other cases it might be Garezers.

Earlier this year, some unexpected and rather severe environmental damage had ruined the patio area (which often serves as a gathering point) of GVV's largest building. Donations made in memory of  an individual who had recently passed away were used to rebuild the patio, and on Saturday afternoon the area was officially unveiled and blessed. I had known the individual, so I'd donated in his memory, thus it was nice to be present at the unveiling and see the good that these donations had brought.

Afterward we attended an art exhibit opening, something most people wouldn't picture when thinking of a camp in the middle of the woods. However, Garezers has an impressive art collection, which is actually the largest Latvian art collection outside of Latvia. There is also a nice gallery space where two different exhibits are held each summer. For this occasion, GVV graduates and employees were asked to participate in an exhibit. Twenty-one artists - both professional and amateur - were represented, with a wide variety of works. Some of them were for sale, and a couple certainly spoke to me, but I didn't break out the checkbook due to transport issues.
A selection of the artwork
Couple of prints by my old friend Laima
The painting is by Janis Kalmite, famous Latvian-American painter and longtime GVV teacher
My sister and I also had the interesting experience of being interviewed by our friend, filmmaker Māra Pelēcis. She is making a film about Garezers to be shown next summer when the entire center celebrates its fiftieth birthday. Māra already has two documentaries to her credit, one called "Starp Latvijam" (Between Latvias) and another called "Souvenirs: Healing After War." Because sis and I have spent so much time at Garezers, it was difficult to recall specific favorite memories, given that we have hundreds. I was also reminded that my talents tend to lie in writing more than in extemporaneous speaking.

We visited with some friends before meeting up with mom for the big anniversary event. The dinner, concert, and dance were all held in an outdoor area called "Dziesmu leja," which literally translated means valley of song. Basically it's an amphitheater slash basketball court. Well, this basketball court had never looked as lovely as it did that night! 450 people people were attending the dinner, and we were all seated at beautiful tables with white tablecloths and neat centerpieces. At times it seemed that rain might threaten our fancy outdoor dinner, but luckily the weather held out. We were treated to passed appetizers, and then a buffet featuring pulled pork and a multitude of delicious side dishes.
Just some of the 450 dinner attendees
Cute centerpiece - but a tad disappointing that sign is in English!
After dinner, the  high school and middle school students presented a concert; these concerts at the end of the fourth week have become a tradition, and it never ceases to amaze me how talented some of the teenagers are, nor how much they learn in four short weeks. One particularly impressive performance was a duet of "Manai Dzimtenei," an immensely beloved choral piece that I'd never heard sung by only two singers. Considering the singers are only 17 years old, they did a fantastic job.
Joint GVV and middle school choir
Once the concert was over, a swarm of volunteers descended to remove the tables and chairs. Voila - dance floor! It was time to get the party started!! Earlier in the summer, two GVV graduates had asked the others to nominate favorite songs from the Saturday night dances. Nominations poured in, and from that long list, we voted on our fifty absolute favorites. The music played at these dances seems to have been eclectic for years already; I showed the poll to a couple of American friends, and they commented that it was a strange mix.  The top 50 list can be viewed here. The DJ started with 50, and counted them down one by one. At the beginning only a few people danced, but as the night wore on and the songs became more popular, the number of dancers grew. It was awesome to see graduates of all ages out partying - those who graduated last year and are only 18 years old, and some who graduated decades ago and are in their 50s. At times the dance floor held 200 or so happy dancing Latvian-Americans.

Many of the top 50 songs will be familiar to most of my readers, but the number 1 song, "Rasputin" by Boney M, might leave you scratching your head. Therefore, I invite you to check out this video on YouTube, and imagine several large circles of people, standing shoulder-to-shoulder/arm-in-arm, kicking their legs like Russian dancers. That is an old GVV tradition, which apparently originated in the late 1970s when that particular song was actually well known, but the song and dancing have been passed down through the years.

It was late when Rasputin was played, but plenty of people were interested in continuing to dance and party, so the DJ obliged, and provided more music by playing songs that had been nominated but hadn't made it into to the top fifty. By 2.30am, my spirits were flagging a bit, however. I hadn't danced like that in very long time, and it was enormously fun, but also quite tiring (particularly seeing as I'm a morning person nowadays, meaning staying up past midnight is pretty late for me!). Two friends and I were staying in a rental cabin near the lake, and one of them agreed it was time to call it quits. We chatted and visited while washing up in the communal restrooms (always fun to run into old acquaintances at 3am!), then fell into our respective beds. Although I was exhausted, I was also wound up from the busy and intense day, which included meeting and chatting with scores of friends and acquaintances. So very wound up that I couldn't fall asleep....and so accustomed to waking up early in the morning (downside of having gotten into generally healthy habit of waking up at 5.45am many mornings in order to be at the gym by 6am) that I ended up sleeping very little. However, the next morning, while much of Garezers was still sleeping, I enjoyed the peace and quiet for a while by relaxing at the lake shore.

After a breakfast of champions (beef jerky, blueberries, some kind of energy type of drink sis had bought and left behind, gluten-free cookies) and more chatting and visiting with a couple of friends, mom swung by, and she and I headed to the church service. I am not much of a church-goer in my daily life, however, I almost always enjoy services at Garezers. Every Sunday a different person leads the service - typically out of the six or seven-week season, four or five services are led by Lutheran ministers from different congregations, one by a Baptist minister, and one by a Catholic priest. Services are almost always enhanced by musical performances - sometimes by the younger camp kids, other times by the GVV students. Plus, you are sitting in the lovely outdoor church which overlooks the lake!
A GVV choir adding music to the service
The rest of the day was spent in true Latvian fashion - hanging out, talking to people, and eating Michigan blueberries. (Although I will also mention that mom and I drove into the nearest town, Three Rivers, for lunch and I do not recommend eating at Brewster's - my meal was incredibly underwhelming. However, if you are in Three Rivers and are a bibliophile or reader in any shape or form, I highly recommend checking out Lowry's Books on Main Street, as it has a good selection of new books and an amazing assortment of used books.) 

It was a truly fantastic weekend to celebrate a wonderful institution, and I am grateful I could be a part of it.
Five pounds of Michigan blueberries - the best berries available!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Taking a (brief) hiatus...

Life has become a tad too busy, and as much as I'm enjoying blogging, it is time consuming. For a short while I will need to put my writing hobby on the back burner, but I hope to be back sooner rather than later.

I leave you with a couple of sunflower photos taken last summer at the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area.

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Explain Latvian Summer High School?

Every summer from age thirteen through age seventeen I willingly and happily spent six weeks in the woods of southwestern Michigan at the summer high school located within the Latvian Center Garezers. Founded in 1965 and known as GVV (Garezera vasaras vidusskola - Garezers summer high school), this school has been an integral part of the Latvian community within North America. Beginning with only a few students the very first summer, the school quickly became quite popular and beloved, and by the late 1970s and early 1980s around 200 students attended the program every summer. Nowadays the number of students has held steady around 100 for quite a few years. Teenagers travel from all corners of the continent (and even beyond - there have been students from Mexico, South America and Europe) to spend the majority of their summer studying and socializing.

You might be asking yourself "what exactly is a Latvian summer high school?" To understand that, one first needs to know that cities with large enough Latvian communities had/have Saturday or Sunday Latvian schools. Those typically begin with kindergarten and run through eighth grade. The academic year begins in September, and ends at the end of May or beginning of June, and a "school day" might be between three and five hours long. Typical classes at these schools include Latvian language, dancing and singing, and for older grades Latvian history, literature and geography. Usually religion (some of the schools are affiliated with the local Latvian congregation, and even if they are not, the Latvian congregations and church have played an important role in the communities) is a part of the mix, and sometimes folklore is, as well.

Latvian-American kids attended Latvian school in their hometown during the winter, and in the summer they would often attend a Latvian children's camp for two or three weeks. There used to be quite a few of them, but today only three remain: Katskiļi in New York State, Mežotne in Washington state, and the kids' camp and middle school programs at Garezers, and I believe Saulaine, Sidrabane and Tērvete in Canada are all still functioning to some degree; although of all of them Katskiļi and Garezers are by far the largest and most active. However, once a Latvian-American children graduated from the local Latvian school and aged out of the kids' camp, s/he typically didn't have any other opportunities to further their Latvian education. To fill this gap a man named Eduards Avots came up with the summer high school idea. Initially envisioned as possibly only a two-summer long course, GVV grew to have five grades (although it now has four since the founding of a middle school program) and certainly exceeded the founder's wildest dreams.

The basics have been the same for many years now. To attend the "first grade" (or 'freshman year' or 9th grade), a teenager should have graduated from their local Latvian school, or - if there isn't one in their city or they didn't attend it for some reason - be 13 years old. GVV typically begins at the end of June, and runs through the beginning of August. For a full six weeks the students spend their mornings Monday through Saturday attending classes. The classes include homework (for which there is a full one hour long study period every evening, but kids often have to find other time to finish their studies), tests and exams.

Afternoons Monday through Friday are reserved for activities: sports such as volleyball, basketball and soccer, pottery, Latvian jewelry making, yearbook. Saturday and Sunday afternoons are reserved for free time - often parents come to visit, and take the kids into town for earthly delights such as pizza or Taco Bell. Every evening Monday through Thursday there is a different activity for all the students. Some might be sporty: dodgeball, games at the lakefront, some might be cultural: a literary evening or concert, others are just fun: scavenger hunt, Latvian polka marathon. Friday nights are reserved for a campfire, complete with lots of singing and funny skits, while Saturday nights feature a three-hour-long dance.

Just as it does in a university setting, all of this togetherness fosters many friendships. It's not unusual to see girls crying at the end of the summer as they bid farewell to friends, each returning to their homes in Minneapolis, Boston, Toronto, etc., and counting down the days until the next summer, or  the American Latvian Youth Association congress over Thanksgiving Day weekend, or a confirmation in the spring when they might see one another again.

This year GVV celebrated its 50th academic summer with a weekend full of events and festivities. I am a graduate of GVV (as are my younger sis, eldest niece and eldest nephew, and I fully expect my youngest nephew and niece to attend and graduate!), my parents taught at the school for many years, and I have also worked there as a teacher and counselor. The place holds a very special place in my heart and life. Therefore I knew I couldn't miss the celebration, but that is an entirely separate post! Stay tuned...

(Also, this post was supposed to have a couple of photos, but my iPad and/or Blogger were just not cooperating!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Weekend Fun: Glenstone Art Museum, C&O Canal, Cabin John Park

After having heard about it for a number of years, I finally visited Glenstone. It might sound like a pretentious private club (in that case - what in the world would I be doing there?), but in reality it is a private art museum in Potomac, Maryland. Owned by billionaire businessman Mitch Rales and his art historian wife Emily, the intimate museum can only be visited with a reservation. A visit lasts between 60 and 90 minutes, and groups are kept small - only about a dozen people. Several docents accompany the group, but they do not present a lecture-based tour - they only tell you a bit about the artists and the work, then let you enjoy. The docents were friendly and personable, and always happy to answer questions.  Photography is not allowed in the museum, but I greatly enjoyed my visit, as did my friend who came along. The grounds and the space are stunning, and the current Fischli & Weiss exhibit, which runs through December 2014, is in turn amusing, thought-provoking, whimsical, and beautiful. A new larger building is currently under construction, and I look forward to visiting again in the future.

I also took advantage of the good weather this weekend for a 4.6 mile walk along the C&O Canal and Potomac River, exploring a portion I had not yet seen. I walked from Great Falls to the next canal lock, Swain's Lock. This area is less popular than the part on which I usually walk, and while there were other walkers, bikers and runners out, I often had the trail to myself, with only birds, frogs and dragonflies keeping me company.
Quiet Sunday morning on the Potomac River
Dragonfly enjoying the sunshine
Swain's Lock on C&O Canal
Additionally, I took a young friend for an outing to Cabin John Regional Park, easily one of the coolest Montgomery County parks. We I took a ride on the mini-train (only $1.75 each), then spent a good while making use of the fantastic playground.

Work and life have been busy, which is nice, but it also means that I've started writing a number of posts, yet have not managed to finish them.

Hope you are having a good week!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Finally Friday: A Few Links & a Couple of Photos for You!

It's been a trying week, and I didn't accomplish many of the things I had hoped to - including a post for the blog.

As always, there are exciting things going in Washington, D.C. Recently a toddler managed to squeeze through the fence in front of the White House. As the Washington Post writes, "The brief kerfuffle as agents scrambled to intercept the pint-sized intruder confirms what most people know: toddlers are sneaky, and fast. This one was promptly returned to his parents." Furthermore, the child was unavailable for questioning to find out what his motives were! (Scandalous!!!) The article explains:
 "The little guy didn't get in any trouble -- at least, not with the feds. And he was unavailable for comment -- to anyone -- for at least a few more months."We were going to wait until he learned to talk to question him," Secret Service Agent Edwin Donovan said in a statement, "but in lieu of that he got a timeout and was sent on way with parents."

In lieu of any of my own recent photographs or wise words, I leave you with links to blogs whose owners have posted some lovely pictures or interesting thoughts.
Finally, harking back to last summer, when I visited the amazing Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania, I leave you with a couple of refreshing waterfall photos.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Take Ten Trips Update & Funny Search Terms

Back at the beginning of April, I pledged to take at least ten trips this year, with the definition of a trip being rather vague, i.e. including day trips. This is what I have accomplished thus far.

Accomplished trips
April - day trips in the DMV
May - Latvia and Lithuania
June - Michigan
July - Michigan, plus day trips (Monocacy Aqueduct on the C&O Canal; Harper's Ferry, WV)

Note: I can tell you that the Garezers weekend (aka July Michigan trip) was absolutely fantastic; I'll definitely write about it, but it will take some time. I might actually write one post in Latvian, as some of these things are challenging to talk about in English!

Upcoming planned trip
August - Cape Cod

Need to plan something
September - much overdue visit to the Library of Congress in DC
October - possibly Pennsylvania to visit a friend
November - ?
December - ? (although I suspect I'll travel Michigan for Christmas)

Search Terms
On an entirely different note, the following are search terms that have led individuals to my blog recently:
  • "american most building" (uh, what?)
  • "letins singing in football" (hmm, interesting...)
  • "grobina castle knights" (I've briefly mentioned visiting the castle ruins in Grobina, but sadly know nothing of knights associated with that castle)
  • "latvian references in american television" (definitely an interesting topic, but not one I've not written about; anyone remember the show in which a couple of characters actually broke out speaking in Latvian briefly - thanks to Latvian-American Arturs Rusis being a producer on that show?)

    Hope you are enjoying your weekends!