Sunday, November 30, 2014

That Most American of Holidays: Thanksgiving

Growing up Thanksgiving was not a big deal in my family, as it was overshadowed by the importance of a gigantic Christmas when extended family from around the Midwest and East Coast came to visit and celebrate. When younger sis and I were in our later high school years and in college, Thanksgiving weekend typically meant traveling to whichever city was hosting the American Latvian Youth Association congress. I recall the very first congress I attended in Chicago -- I must have been in my third year of high school -- and there was actually discussion at the annual congress about changing the date of this event. One young man stood up to express his disdain of this suggestion by saying, "If the congress isn't held Thanksgiving weekend, what are we supposed to do then? Actually sit home and eat turkey with our parents?!"
That enormous bowl in the middle was later filled with mashed potatoes!
In the time I've lived in the DC area, I have traveled out of town at Thanksgiving only twice. Many different friends have kindly invited me to their homes over the years for delicious Thanksgiving dinners. This year I spent the evening with good friends who typically have a house full of relatives, and this holiday was no exception. Sincere laughter and fantastic food were both plentiful. One of my favorite dishes were the green beans and pearl onions with balsamic vinegar; see a similar recipe here. I will not delve into some of the stories told and heated debates exchanged, as the participants may not wish to see those spread. ;-)

The master chef's son showing off the turkey
I am always grateful for all of my wonderful friends, but particularly on Thanksgiving. If you celebrate Thanksgiving by hosting a meal in your home, I urge you to look around your circle of friends and acquaintances, and invite individuals who don't have family in the area and might have not a place to go. This heartwarming story about a homeless man who went as far as to post an online ad looking for others with whom he could celebrate the day proves that Thanksgiving is a holiday which should be observed in a group.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Glögi & Gnomes at the Finnish Christmas Bazaar

I enjoyed last year's Finnish Christmas market so much that I made a point to return this year - with my friend A (who had been sick last time, and had not been able to attend) in tow. We arrived at 11am when the doors opened, but the line to get in was so long that it was a while before we entered the building. Maybe going slightly later next year is a better idea, as that entire market was wall-to-wall humanity, and it was a bit insane. It also did not seem that too many items actually sold out that early.

 We enjoyed the traditional music...

...the many gnomes and elves (many of which are crafted in Estonia) for sale, and one of which I picked up for my collection...

...and the delicious food and drink in the cafe.

While I did not sample one of the enormous and beautifully prepared salmon sandwiches, A said the fish was fresh, the bread fantastic, and the combo perfect. We each savored a cup of glögi or mulled wine, which was being sold for an incredibly reasonable $2 a glass. We also appreciated running into an Estonian friend in the cafe, and catching up with him while he partook in his annual bazaar tradition of eating several Karelian pasties.

I will be sure to return next year for more glögi, another elf, and Finnish Christmas cheer.

And to my American readers: Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2014

What I've Been Reading: Links for You

Between being sick (seems I may have bruised a rib during a coughing fit - let's just say that a bruised rib is quite painful) and the weather turning very cold, it is entirely possible I have been spending a little too much time online. However, you may benefit from that, as below are some cool and interesting links!
I hope you are staying healthy!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Power of Song: Celebrating Latvia's Independence Day

Latvian communities in cities around the world gather in mid-November to celebrate Latvia's Independence Day. In many North American cities, the "recipe" for such an event still follows protocol established decades ago when the Baltic countries were Soviet occupied, and the events were somber occasions, calling for serious political speeches and the like. It can be difficult to deviate from established rituals and traditions, yet at the same time finding engaging speakers can be a challenge. I was excited to learn that the speaker at the DC area celebration would be Dr. Guntis Šmidchens, professor of Baltic Studies at the University of Washington. Being Latvian-American, he already spoke Latvian, yet later learned both Estonian and Lithuanian, and earned a PhD from Indiana University with a dissertation titled "A Baltic Music: The Folklore Movement in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, 1968-1991." Professor Šmidchens has done extensive research on the role of singing in the Baltic independence movements, and has studied the culture of song festivals in all three Baltic countries.

However, a speech alone does not constitute a celebration! We began the day by raising the Latvian flag and singing the Latvian national anthem. Each school child then lay flowers at the base of the flagpole.

After a church service, we gathered for the main event. To begin, the school children entertained us with a folk song and two dances. While the group in the photo might look quite large, a number of students were actually missing, as the total number of Latvian school students in the kindergarten through eighth grade this year is 56 (and that does not include the litte kids' playgroup, which has an additional ten children).
Latvian school kids getting ready to delight the audience!
The short performance was followed by Dr. Šmidchens' keynote speech, titled: Three Nations, One Desire: Song Festivals in the Baltic, Summer 2013 and 2014. His talk was nicely illustrated with historic photographs, and even more so with video he recorded as a participant in the 2013 Latvian song festival, and in the 2014 Estonian and Lithuanian festivals. He spoke of the similarities among the festivals - for example, pleas from conductors for the choirs to enunciate certain song texts more forcefully and more emotionally. Highlighting a couple of songs from each festival, from Latvia's event he mentioned Lūgšana and Gaismas Pils, while one of the Estonian songs he pointed out was "Mu isamaa on minu arm," which figures heavily in the fantastic documentary "The Singing Revolution" and which had left an impression on me when I saw the movies several years ago.

Dr. Šmidchens also touched upon the formal speeches given at the song festivals' main concerts. Last summer Estonian President Toomas Ilves, well known for his solid grasp of the power of modern technology, gave a brief speech, but immediately afterward took a selfie of himself and part of the giant choir behind him. As you can see from the President's Facebook page and the photo's 37,000+ likes, it was a popular move.

With Dr. Smidchens
Last year Dr. Šmidchens published "The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution," and this year it was released in paperback. All nineteen copies available at our event were quickly snapped up - I also purchased one for myself, and began reading it that same evening. The University of Washington Press has a short interview with the author in which he speaks about the book available on YouTube.

Dr.Šmidchens ' presentation was very well-received, and certainly one of the most interesting I've heard at such an event. After the formal portion of the event, once the reception (i.e. champagne and lots of fancy hors d'oeuvres) had begun, people lined up to chat with Professor Šmidchens and to request that he sign their copies of his book. 

The Latvian community being as small as it is, my parents knew Dr. Šmidchens when he was a teenager and attended Garezers. I'd had some interesting conversations with him years ago at a Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies conference here in D.C., when he tried to convince me I should further my education with a Master's in Baltic Studies (maybe I should have done that!). 

On a separate note, this week marks my one-year anniversary of blogging. It has been interesting to get to know other bloggers, and I have enjoyed sharing some of my adventures and opinions. For the coming year I am planning what I foresee to be an engaging guest post series on a topic that is near and dear to my heart. A couple of people have already agreed to write posts -- look for those beginning in January. In the meantime, please do leave a comment, as I am intrigued to learn more about the people who read my posts!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Happy 96th, Latvia!

Latvia celebrates Independence Day on November 18 to commemorate its declaration of independence in 1918. (May 4 is celebrated as Restoration of Independence Day to commemorate Latvia proclaiming its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.) For the last several years, Latvian TV has created moving video greeting; for example, for the country's 94th birthday, the video featured 94 Latvians around the country stating their age, from one all the way to 94 (great for helping kids learn to count!). For this year's video the crew traveled around Latvia's border, and filmed individuals and small groups singing a song. Although Latvia is known as the singing nation, not every person in the country is musically gifted, and one has to express appreciation of and gratitude to the 96 people who participated in this greeting, no matter what their musical ability is!

The text of the song is a poem by Imants Ziedonis, a much loved poet and cultural figure who passed away in 2013 at the age of 79. It touches upon issues which are quite relevant to Latvia (and many countries) today: the importance of working together, respecting one another, giving freely of oneself and one's talents. The song's melody is by the popular post-folk group Iļģi, and the song was included on their album "Riti, riti." Although I own that CD, the song had not made an impression on me, and I much prefer this version.

Mīl katrs baltu maizes riku,
es mīlu lauku rudenspliku,
kad tas stāv kluss un atbrīvots,
kad beidzies apkūlību gods,
nekas nav palicis vairs topus,
viss savācies, un beidzot kopus
mēs varam, brāļi, pasēdēt
un norunāt, ka vairāk pret
viens otru sliktu nedarīsim,
jo mūži ir kā rudzi īsi
un galā viena vārpa vien;
pat, ja nav vēja, katru dien`
es otri vārpai paklanos,
es negaidu, ka man ko dos,
es stāvu stiebrā, zaļā kāta,
man tikai ziedēšana prātā,
un graudi, ko es tikko jaužu,
tie manī ir jau mūsuļaužu.

When I visited Latvia earlier this year, I also drove to Lithuania, and used the opportunity to take a photo of the border while driving from Priekule municipality toward the Lithuanian town of Skuodas. Given the European Union's open borders, there are no guards, no passport checkpoints, nothing other than a pole and sign which remind a traveler that one has crossed into a different country. 
Although Latvia is both geographically and demographically a relatively small country, its history and culture are rich, its language unique, its people hard-working and talented, and I am proud to call myself Latvian.

Happy birthday, Latvia!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chilly Weekend in Michigan

When my only goal in going to Michigan is to spend time with family, then typically the visit is a low-key affair. This was the case on a recent November weekend, although I did get to try out three new restaurants! The weather was generally cold and gray, with some precipitation (not snow, though!) thrown in for good measure - the type of weather in which only indoor activities are truly feasible.

On Friday when I arrived, mom, sis and I had lunch at Sundance Grill. It was decent enough - bonus points for availability of breakfast items at lunch. After fetching the kids, we hung around out at home - reading, playing, and, after a great taco salad dinner, we watched "Frozen" in Latvian. Mom had recently traveled to Latvia, and trekked all over Riga to hunt down this popular movie - apparently the DVD was sold out in many stores. Even the songs in the movie are translated - the big hit "Let It Go!" is called "Lai nu snieg!" Some translated and dubbed movies can be difficult to understand, but that was not the case with "Ledus sirds."

One of my favorite places in Grand Rapids is Nordstrom Rack, so on Saturday a short visit there was necessary - and some good deals were scored. Whenever I am in this part of Michigan, I am always amazed by the number of tall people here. While this may sound silly, as a tall woman who tends to stick out in the DC area, I love seeing fellow tall women, as well as men who are taller than me. Seemingly mostly due to the fact that a good number of individuals living in southwestern Michigan are of Dutch heritage, I never cease to be pleased to walk around the Rack or any other establishment in the area, and spot numerous females who are 5'10 and taller, and quite a few men who break the six foot mark.

My nephew was excited on Saturday because the Michigan State University football team was playing that evening, and also because his grandpa (the family's orginal MSU fan) was taking him out to lunch. So, nephew and niece got dressed in their green MSU sweatshirts, and sis and I attempted to take some photos. My attempts were not particularly successful as you can see below! (But, hey, the kids are adorably anyway!)
Not sure about smiling...
Action shot!
Mom and I also stopped at Meijer Gardens, as they were advertising a holiday gift market. I was a bit disappointed, because I was expecting more artisans and less commercial items. However, it did give us a reason to swing by the nearby Clique Coffee Bar, which makes excellent cappuccinos!

Saturday evening we left the kiddos to their own devices (kidding!), and dined at Terra. Deliciousness! Sis and I shared the kale caesar salad and the beet goat cheese salad, along with a goat cheese/ham/apple pizza. For dessert we enjoyed a chocolate peanut butter turtle pie. The restaurant's selection is perfect for vegetarians, vegans, or anyone avoiding gluten or dairy, as menu items are clearly marked and there are numerous options for almost every diner. Every dish on the menu sounded worth trying! Service was friendly, helpful, and attentive - we never had to worry about our water glasses being empty. Terra is a restaurant worth seeking out if you are ever in the area. 

After dinner mom and sis headed home, while I ventured further into the city. A DC friend of mine  happened to be visiting friends in GR for the weekend, so we arranged a meet-up in Reserve, a restaurant and wine bar downtown. The three of them ordered dinner, and although I was quite full, I could not pass up the pork fat fries, which were amazing. One of the friends is of Dutch heritage and happens to be as tall as I am - we bonded quickly by discussing the challenge of finding shoes in our size. Based on the excellent service, our super comfortable booth, the ladies' raves about their meals, and my incredible fries, Reserve is another spot in GR I recommend.

One problem with these simple visits is that I take few if any photographs, so I have no other snapshots to share. Of course, the important thing is spending time with family, especially my niece and nephew. Hearing my two year old niece say "Daina" in her adorable way and getting three hugs from my nephew before I'm allowed to depart for the airport is far more valuable.

I was also still battling a nasty cold, which had left me feeling less than optimal in the time leading up to my visit and the trip itself. However, Christmas and my next sojourn to Michigan is a mere six weeks away!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Weekend on OBX, Part II

The next morning began with a simple yet beautiful sunrise on the Atlantic.
Many Midwesterners are familiar with the sand dunes found on Michigan beaches, but Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks features the East Coast's highest sand dunes. I was thrilled to find out they are not as tall and intimidating as many of the dunes I've seen in Michigan, plus the weather was far more forgiving than on hot humid summer's day. I enjoyed climbing the dunes, spotting the ocean on one side and the sound on the other, watching kids roll down, and observing people taking hang gliding lessons.

Yes, if you have ever wished to try hang gliding, Kitty Hawk Kites offers three-hour long lessons for $110. On the day I watched, it seemed that the kids (aged approximately 10 - 12 years) were more successful than the adult students in getting off the ground for slightly longer periods of time. 

Another area worth exploring is Roanoke Island. A visit to Fort Raleigh National Historic Park means being left to wonder, "What really did happen to the Lost Colony?" In case you are not up on your early American history, the Lost Colony of Roanoke is one of this nation's oldest unsolved mysteries. In 1587, a group of slightly over 100 English colonists settle on Roanoke Island. Later in that same year, John White, the governor of this new colony, returned to England for more supplies. However, he was unable to sail back to Roanoke quickly due to a naval war that broke out between England and Spain for which Queen Elizabeth needed all available ships. When White finally did cross the ocean three full years later, in 1590, he found no one on the island. The only clues left behind were the word "Croatoan" carved into a log, and the bones of one individual. To this day there are numerous theories regarding what happened, but nothing is known for certain.

Located in the park area are the Elizabethan Gardens, which are a tribute to the first English Colonists in the New World. Admission to the Gardens costs $9 per person, and they were quite lovely in October, although are likely even more beautiful in the spring and summer.

Again querying a local for a restaurant recommendation resulted in a nice dinner. Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant is located right on the water on the north side of the island and features a variety seafood dishes. Be forewarned, however, that some of the dishes might not be prepared in the most healthy manner - I had not expected my "Captain's Trio" of scallops, crabmeat and shrimp to be swimming in butter. I did greatly appreciate the fact that the vegetable of the day was a step up from what many such restaurants offer, as the offering of squash was sauteed with red peppers, onions, and white wine.

A gorgeous sunset afterglow combined with a rising crescent moon finished off the day.

Before heading back to DC, an excursion to the northern parts of the Outer Banks was warranted. A stop at Currituck Lighthouse and strolls along two nature trails proved that the Corolla area of the OBX is also worth visit.

The weekend was well spent, and I am glad that I chose the Outer Banks as the place to see on my inaugural visit to North Carolina.

Only fifteen states left!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

October Weekend on the Outer Banks, North Carolina

Although it was late October, I stretched summer into fall by spending a couple of days on North Carolina beaches. My first trip to that state was marked with gorgeous sunny weather, authentic barbeque and local seafood, beautiful scenery, and interactions with friendly locals. 
Can you tell it's election season?
The Outer Banks, or OBX for short, are North Carolina coastal barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean, and a popular summer vacation destination, particularly among families or groups who typically rent large homes for a week or two in July or August. Even in the autumn it is a much-visited area, as evidenced by license plates from at least two dozen states and two Canadian provinces spotted there over just a couple of days.

Parts of the Outer Banks have thousands of rentals homes, along with restaurants, shops, and hotels, while other areas are quite wild. The best known park is Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which spans a great distance, and includes Bodie Island in the middle of OBX, Hatteras Island further south, and Ocracoke Island even further. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a separate entity, is located on the north end of Hatteras Island.

For an important bit of American and travel history, the Wright Brothers National Memorial in the town of Kitty Hawk should be visited by anyone who appreciates individuals with crazy dreams or just the convenience of modern air travel. Orville and Wilbur Wright lived in Dayton, Ohio, but found the dunes and winds of the Outer Banks to be suited for their attempts at flight.

Toward the northern tip of the banks, the Currituck Banks Reserve offers a boardwalk and a maritime forest hiking trail, while on the nearby beach wild horses can sometimes be spotted.

Instead of more verbiage, I'll get right to the photographs so you can see why this area is so beloved by beach goers and nature enthusiasts alike.

Replica of airplane garage & camp house the brothers set up in Kitty Hawk
Winds at Wright Memorial are also perfect for kite flying!
Bodie Island Lighthouse was recently beautifully restored.
Sign I'd rather not see, but thanks for the warning and walkway!
Boardwalk to viewing platform behind Bodie Island Lighthouse.
A short drive from the lighthouse is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center. Stop at the center to find out what wildlife you might spot in the refuge, ask the friendly fellow behind the counter if you can borrow binoculars and a field guide, then head out to the trail, stopping at the overlooks for sweeping views of marshes that attract many varieties of birds and other wildlife.
This bird just didn't wish to show its face!
This butterfly posed rather nicely.

Craving barbeque for dinner, the Outer Banks' best BBQ joint was found in Kitty Hawk. High Cotton served up tender meats and delicious sides. If you are ever in the area, it is highly recommended! 

More about the trip and the lovely scenery in my next post!