Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holiday Links for You!

If you need a break from family and holiday-created craziness, I am happy to share several links you might enjoy.

I've been loving Liene's 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas project, and have learned something from many of the guest posts. There are too many interesting and informative posts for me to name any favorites, so I urge you to read them all if you haven't already! In case you missed it, this was my guest post on Christmas greetings featured on Day 9.

Heather visited Tallin's Christmas market, and I am envious of her experience - including the possibility of purchasing adorable elves at incredible prices.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Bev ventured to Burg Hohenzollern for a magical market set in a castle!

A special fundraiser took place in Latvia right before Christmas. Radio Pieci put on a 6-day-long song request marathon. Any listener could request any song for a donation for at least five Euros, with all donations going to help needy senior citizens. Over 28,000 of Latvia's seniors have to get by on the lowest pension amount, which is only 142,29 Euros. Over 64,000 Euros were raised, and the playlist was eclectic and - honestly - quite awesome.

Hope you have had a wonderful Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Holiday Season Continues!

The last weekend before Christmas found me celebrating two seasonal holidays: Hanukkah with a good friend who is Jewish and winter solstice with a group of Latvian friends.

The Hanukkah party featured many menorahs, good food, great company, and gifts for everyone.
Lighting the menorahs
It was baby Fiona's first ever party!

Celebrating winter solstice is always a treat, particularly because I am not able to do so every year. As always, the potluck meal was amazing: from roast pork to sauerkraut, from mashed potatoes to a traditional Latvian mushroom cream sauce, from cheese grits (not a Latvian dish, but fantastic anyhow) to beets, everything was hearty and delectable. 

I loved the home's natural decorations, including this homemade wreath with a Latvian sash!
When it came time for pulling the log around the house, we were fortunate not to have particularly cold temperatures or muddy conditions to contend with. After we had chopped our troubles from 2014 into the log, the fire burned very brightly indeed, and we warmed ourselves with both good memories from the past year and thoughts of a happier and healthier 2015. Naturally, we also sang quite a few folk songs.
Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Cookies: Baking, Exchanging, Eating

My aunt used to start her Christmas baking in November because she baked so many. My mom spends oodles of time making the dough for piparkūkas, then rolling them nice and thin so they'd be very crispy when baked. Now that I avoid gluten, I have not tried making piparkūkas without it, so when I do any baking, I often stick to true-and-tried classics like gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, which people gobble up - lack of gluten not-with-standing! Another item I have gifted and brought to several events this season is a pumpkin spice bread made with Namaste spice cake mix, which is particularly great for multiple food allergies/sensitivities, yet tasty enough that those without such issues will also savor it.

A friend showed me how to make his mother's version of molasses spice cookies. I loved the flavor (and smell!), as they reminded me tremendously of piparkūkas. However, I used a new gluten-free flour and the cookies turned out too dry for my liking. Other people seemed to enjoy them, though.

Another friend held a cookie exchange party. Each guest was asked to bring two or three dozen baked goodies. All of the treats were available for tasting during the party, and upon leaving we were each given an empty box to fill.
Easily the most adorable brownies ever!
There must have been at least twenty different cookies and treats, everything from lemon to peppermint-flavored cookies, from chocolate chip to oatmeal cranberry, from brownies to peanut butter buckeyes and coconut macaroons. The hostess had also set up a sugar cookie decorating station, which all of the kids in attendance loved!
One young guest was quite patient and talented!
Freshly made spiked eggnog along with other seasonal drinks were served, and luckily a few savory snacks were also available. The house was beautifully decorated....
...and fun was had by all, including the five-month old twins!
Too young for cookies, but loving the attention!
Now I'm looking forward to seasonal festivities this coming weekend - a friend's Hanukkah party (potato latkes!), and a Latvian winter solstice (pulling and burning a log, eating pork and sauerkraut!) celebration.

Friday, December 12, 2014

European Union Film Showcase 2014

Along with Christmas, December also brings the European Union Film Showcase at AFI. For quite a few years now I've made it habit to see several movies during the showcase; the offerings represent all EU member countries, and this year numbered fifty films!
 The movies I have seen during this showcase include: "The Imitation Game" from the United Kingdom, which will be a relatively big movie given the popularity of its current star Benedict Cumberbatch; the German film"Beloved Sisters" which is about the poet, playwright and historian Friedrich Schiller and his supposed love triangle with two sisters; and the Swiss movie "Clouds of Sils Maria", which stars Juliette Binoche and American actress Kristen Stewart.
The Imitation Game's official poster
"The Imitation Game" is about to be widely released in the U.S., but several friends and I jumped on the chance to see it earlier. Playing to a sold-out crowd in the AFI's beautifully restored main theater, the movie and its subject, Alan Turing, was introduced by Britain's Defense Attache in the U.S., Major General Buster Howes. The story of Turing's life reminds us fact really is stranger than fiction. He was, among other things, a cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist who helped decode the secret codes Germany used during World War II. Turing was also gay at a time when that was a criminal offense in the U.K., and was prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952. The movie is excellent, and we all greatly enjoyed it. "The Imitation Game" has already garnered numerous awards, and is certain to win more. Just recently the Golden Globe nominations were announced, and the film has been nominated for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category, as well as for Best Screenplay, and Cumberbatch for Best Actor in a Drama.

An unconventional (and unconfirmed by historians) relationship between Schiller and sisters Charlotte and Caroline Von Lengefeld is the topic for the almost three-hour long period piece "Beloved Sisters." If you are a fan of typical romantic comedies, then this is not the movie for you! I rather enjoyed it, though, as it was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of mostly privileged and educated Germans in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The Swiss movie was a disappointment - although it was somewhat interesting to see the "behind the scenes" life of a famous actress (played by Binoche), it was pretentious and generally rather boring, and was saved only by some of the gorgeous Swiss scenery.

Two screenings planned for the coming week are "The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared" (Sweden) and "Uncle Tony, Three Fools and the Secret Service" (Bulgaria). I just couldn't pass up these movies for their great titles alone!

Naturally, the showcase features movies from the three Baltic countries, as well, although I will not be able to see any of them. The movie from Latvia was a strange choice: "People Out There" is in Russian, and previously I'd not heard anything about it. This year two films from Estonia were shown: "Tangerines" and "Free Range/Ballad on Approving of the World." Interestingly, "Tangerines" just received an under-the-radar Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film! Lithuania's film "The Gambler" is the country's Oscar selection for this year, and features Lithuanian-American actress Oona Mekas.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

DC's Latvian Christmas Bazaar

One of the biggest annual events at the Washington, D.C. Latvian Lutheran Church is the Christmas bazaar (or as we call it in Latvian: "tirdziņš" aka little market), which typically takes place the first weekend of December. The market was so well attended that the ladies serving lunch ran out of the main entree, hearty sausages, before everyone who wanted to eat had a chance to do so. The available Latvian tortes in the cafe also quickly disappeared - but not as quickly as the piparkūkas at the hugely popular baked goods stand.

Vendors included my good friend Andris Rūtiņš of BalticSmith with his handmade jewelry....
and BalticShop with a plethora of books, CDs, T-shirts, DVDs, greeting cards, edible gifts, calendars, etc...
and even a table of donated Latvian pottery and jewelry organized by the church ladies. It was at this stand that I purchased something for myself - my very own "zaļā krūze" or green mug (well, actually it's more a small pitcher). For a mere $3 donation, it was clearly calling my name.
While on the topic of the upcoming holiday, please do check out my friend Liene's "24 Days of a Baltic Christmas" project on her blog, Femme au Foyer. It features guest posts from different bloggers and writers on topics ranging from "Latvian Santa" to crafts and baking to music. Liene asked me to write a guest post, and that should be posted today!
In my next post I'll fill you in on the European movies - great and terrible alike - that I have watched during European Union Film Showcase at AFI.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Giving Tuesday (after Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday)

Thanksgiving is followed by Black Friday, a crazy shopping day in which I rarely partake because in my current job I have always worked on that day. The recently created Small Business Saturday encourages Americans to shop at local stores instead of big chain behemoths. Some shops offer patrons discounts or extras, such as cider and cookies while browsing, or free gift wrapping once done shopping. One of the DC area's best bookstores, Politics and Prose, was particularly clever, and invited local authors to spend time in the store to chat with shoppers, recommend favorite books, and also sign their own books. Bestselling author David Baldacci participated, and happened to be in the store at the same time as our country's most powerful shopper - President Obama. The President has now made it a tradition to do some holiday shopping, often accompanied by his daughters Malia and Sasha, at independent local bookstores. Last year he also shopped at P&P, while in 2012 he visited One More Page Books in Arlington, VA.

The more recently named Cyber Monday takes place when office employees return to work after their Thanksgiving weekend and presumably spend part of the day doing some online shopping at their desks. The distinction between Black Friday and Cyber Monday have blurred in the past couple of years as more online retailers offer deals over a range of days.

In an effort to remind Americans of the need to help others, non-profit organizations have banded together to create and spread the word about Giving Tuesday. This year on Giving Tuesday I will support two of my favorite local charities, A Wider Circle and Doorways for Women and Families. I will also donate to my favorite Latvian-American organization, Garezers. As you write your gift lists and do your holiday shopping this year, I suggest finding the resources and taking the time to also make a donation to some of your favorite charities. Every contribution helps, and science even says that giving is good!