Thursday, January 29, 2015

Long Weekend in Charleston, South Carolina

A federal holiday, and a $112 round-trip fare. A city I've never visited, and a travel buddy able to come along. These four factors combined to create a fun and necessary winter excursion to Charleston, South Carolina. It is a beautiful historic city, and fortunately also offered a brief respite from winter weather.

When I told people that I was going to Charleston due to a $112 flight, every single person's reaction was, "Round trip?!" Yes, thanks to the lull in travel in January and February, a number of airlines were having tempting sales, and this fare was found on JetBlue, one of the better (read: more comfortable and customer service oriented) airlines. Travel itself was smooth and without incident, and I wish JetBlue flew to more destinations, as their planes are quite comfortable for us tall folk.

On our first afternoon we wandered the gardens and mini zoo at Magnolia Plantation...

I can recommend all of the restaurants at which we ate, which were: Old Village Post House for Sunday brunch; Home Team and Swig & Swine (get the beans and brisket side dish!) for barbeque; Hom for burgers. Sweet treats included Jeni's Ice Cream (amazing - worth price and the wait in line!) and a pecan praline from a shop whose name escapes me.

More photos and info to follow in the next post!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Recommendation: "White Field, Black Sheep"

Being Latvian is a funny thing sometimes. Earlier this month I was reading a book titled "Bad Feminist: Essays" by Roxane Gay, who spent time on the faculty of Eastern Illinois University. In one essay she mentions her colleague and friend Daiva. Naturally, I know Daiva to be a Lithuanian name, so I immediately wonder who this person could be and search for "Daiva Eastern Illinois University" online. Quickly discovering that the woman's last name is Markelis and that she is also on faculty at the college, I also find out that she is the author of a memoir called "White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life." The title seems vaguely familiar - maybe I'd heard of it somewhere previously. Regardless, I add it to my "must read" list. While looking for books to take on a trip, I remembered this one, and bought it for my e-reader. From the moment I began reading it, the memoir resonated with me and my experiences of growing up in the Latvian-American community.

Markelis' parents fled Lithuania at the end of World War II, spent time in Displaced Persons camps in Germany, and eventually ended up in Chicago, a city with the largest number of Lithuanians outside of Lithuania. Her parents spoke only Lithuanian to Daiva and her younger sister Rita, and tried to instill in them pride in their heritage. She grew up in a Lithuanian neighborhood, was friends with many other Lithuanian-American children, attended a Lithuanian Saturday school, and so on.

This memoir of growing up in the Chicago Lithuanian community is a must-read for any Baltic American! However, the book is also a worthwhile choice for anyone who grew up in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s or in the Chicago area, or who has experienced misunderstanding their parents' actions and motivations, as well as readers interested in immigrant experiences in the U.S. 

Being the child of Latvian immigrants who also arrived after WWII, I was familiar with many of the themes the author addressed and explored including: a patriotic upbringing, pride in one's language/culture/history, the vast yet often silent disappointment and frustration of dreams and futures deferred or stolen, longing for home and familiarity, a deep love of all things cultural, the misunderstandings and confusion brought on by a new culture and country, the ubiquity of alcohol as a social lubricant and drowner of sorrows, lack of understanding about mental health, and the fear of disappointing one's family. 

The 1960s and 70s were a vibrant period in the Baltic American communities, and we can be grateful that at least one person has crafted a well-written memoir which does an excellent job of describing that period.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Trying to Settle into 2015

Winter has always been my least favorite season - the dark and the cold make it difficult to get motivated to wake up in the mornings or to do much in the evenings, plus after the excitement of the holidays, January and February can seem long and dull. We have also had lower than average temperatures in the DC area this month, and many days after work all I've wanted to do is curl up on the couch with a book. On the positive side of that coin - I have made good progress on my reading goal for this year! However, to break up the monotony of winter there are one or two little trips and projects in the works. More on that later. In the meantime - enjoy your weekend!
Waiting for spring to explore more waterfalls!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Things to Think about in 2015

The website LatviansOnline recently published an excellent article by journalist Kārlis Streips. He wrote about what Latvians can expect for this year. Much of the article focuses on geopolitical issues, but the last several paragraphs have wonderful suggestions for Latvians living outside of Latvia. These recommendations are so good that I'm taking the liberty to re-post the three paragraphs and add some of my thoughts below that.

What can you do if you live in Chicago or London or Perth or Walla Walla? If you are religious, pray for Latvia. If you have the wherewithal, you can help financially. The Vītols Foundation, for instance (, administers hundreds of scholarships to help needy students pursue a higher education. You can set up one of your own if you wish.

But above all, come visit! Not right now. It’s sloppy and messy outside with snow and especially slush. But think about it during the summer. I know that the American Latvian Association will once again be running its “Hi, Latvia” programme for American Latvian teenagers. I know this because one of my nephews will be one of those to take part. Why not come along with your kid? If you’ve never been here, I recommend it. Architecture fans will be agog at the variety of architectural styles, particularly Art Nouveau, that can be seen in Rīga. Countryside types can visit hundreds of guesthouses and inns all across the country (see for a list). It is a sad fact that during the summer, most of Latvia’s cultural institutions are shut down, but if you come in the spring or the autumn, there will be hardly an evening when you will not be able to attend a world-class theatrical or musical performance of one type or another. Come. You won’t regret it.

And keep on reading “Latvians Online.” Keep on reading Latvian news portals. Be up on what’s going on here, particularly if you are a citizen of the Republic of Latvia and plan to or have been taking part in elections. All of us have only these 64,569 square kilometres (almost precisely the same size as West Virginia in the United States) of cherished motherland. For all intents and purposes, the fact that ours is the independent Republic of Latvia is something of a miracle. It could all have gone differently both in the early 1920s and in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. We can all work to make it a better place. Of course, that is easier done if one actually lives here (in September it will be 25 years since I fetched up on these shores – where does the time go?), but, as noted, there are things that you can do, too. You can polish up your Latvian language skills, for instance. Yes, it’s not the easiest language in the world what with all of the cases and declinations and diacritical markings and what not, but knowing Latvian will allow you and your friends to talk about Americans or Canadians or Australians without them knowing what you’re saying. That’s something. And definitely make sure that your kids learn the language. Three hours on Saturday at the local Latvian school and six weeks at a summer camp won’t do the trick if you don’t lay the foundation at home. Perhaps one day your children will want to live and work in Latvia. That won’t work without the language. Don’t deny them the opportunity.

Happy New Year, everyone! It is wonderful that our country is free. (Karlis Streips, from

I completely agree with Streips on all of these points. Last year's trip to Latvia was the best way imaginable to reconnect with my Latvian roots. While many people travel to Latvia in the summer, I second Streips' recommendation to do so in the spring or fall - May and September in particular are excellent months from both cultural and weather standpoints. Just taking a look at the Latvian National Opera's website one sees that April features 22 performances, May contains twenty, while June has only thirteen.
Park in front of Latvian National Opera
He also mentions trips organized by the American Latvian Association (ALA), and I can sincerely endorse those. ALA organizes three types of trips every summer: "Sveika, Latvija!" is for Latvian-American teens who have just graduated from a Latvian weekend school in the U.S. and speak Latvian; "Heritage Latvia" is for an English-language trip for teenagers of Latvian heritage; "Hello, Latvia!" is an excellent choice for adults interested in visiting Latvia on an in-depth guided tour. Having served as a chaperone for a "Sveika, Latvija!" trip a number of years ago, I can attest to the fact that these are incredibly well-developed tours that show the participants almost all corners of Latvia, and teach the participants a great deal about the country's history and culture.
National Theater in Riga
Streips' statement "Don't deny them the opportunity" is apt, as sadly I know too many Latvian-Americans whose families did not teach them the language -- and often those individuals grow up to question their parents' choices.

Meanwhile, if you live in the New York area, do check out some of the many Latvian artists who will be performing on your city's stages this year! The Wall Street Journal had an article about the talented Latvian performers who are singing at the Metropolitan Opera.

Another person looking forward to this year is the new European Union Ambassador to the United States, David O'Sullivan. He held a Twitter chat in which many people asked politically or economically oriented questions, while I asked about cultural and informational events. The entire chat can be seen here on Storify. My question and his responses are at the very end.

While I have much to think about over the coming months (as I do every year!), I have not made any specific resolutions, knowing that those are too easy to break. I have, however, set a goal of reading 21 books; at the end of 2014 Goodreads notified me that I had read (or more correctly: reviewed on their site) nineteen books, and that number seemed too low to me. Just an explanation as to how big a bookworm I've been known to be: when I was in upper elementary school, it was not unusual for me to hide a novel in my lap while sitting at my desk in school! Thus far I'm on book three, although in all fairness books one and two I'd begun in the previous year!
Roberts' Books in Riga
By the way, if you are ever in Riga and find yourself in need on an English language book, Robert's Books is the place to find. It is clearly the place where many bibliophiles shop, as a bulletin board in the shop displayed postcards loyal customers had sent from far-flung vacation locales, as well as a note penned on a napkin that a disappointed shopper had left on the door: "It's mean to be closed when people want books. You know what? I'll...I'll come again next week. That'll show you!"

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Chocolate Shop Find and Quick Christmas Re-Cap

Being a chocoholic and confessed chocolate snob, I am always on the lookout for new chocolate experiences. Recently I met a friend for dinner at True Food Kitchen in the Mosaic District in Fairfax (Virginia), and in that area I discovered Artisan Confections. The shop itself was sophisticated yet welcoming, and we could sample a dark chocolate cinnamon truffle, plus ooh-and-aah over the attractive colorful truffles, gourmet candy bars, and chocolate barks. I picked up a crispy peanut butter bar as a gift, and treated myself to a box of four truffles. The confections I enjoyed most were the salted butter caramel bonbon, which was just sinful, and the raspberry and chai tea truffles.

(Source: Artisan Confections)
Probably best to look back at the big family Christmas 2014 through pictures. We'll see if there is any fallout regarding the posting of these photos...!

Christmas Eve dinner featured, among other things, mom's homemade Latvian bread and her famous marinated mushroom salad, as well as some very Latvian cucumbers with sour cream and dill, and a great beet dish.
Getting ready for dinner!
Wow, this crowd is excited to eat!
New spin on traditional poem - song with movements!
Loving their gifts.
The big kid is happy about fun clock from gift exchange.
Later: vodka and caviar.
And the next morning.
Christmas has come and gone, but it will live on in our memories of the first annual meringue cookie bake-off, the Christmas Eve food and drink extravaganza, fantastic gifts such as matching hats, a much desired monkey alarm clock and beloved bike with much history, the Christmas Day poker and Scrabble tournaments,  and some great photos. Thanks, by the way, to all the family photographers who unknowingly participated. If you have copyright issues, please contact my lawyer!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Looking Back at 2014, Ringing in 2015

My apologies for the longer silence! The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of busy. Without further ado, I present a quick review of 2014.

Best Family Event
  • Christmas in Michgan: A total of 17 people, two cats and one dog at its busiest, this extended family Christmas celebration was a wonderful opportunity to get together. A big thanks goes to my sister and brother-in-law for hosting this large and sometimes rowdy gang!
Almost everyone!
Best Non-Family Event
  • Garezers Summer High School 50th anniversary celebration in July was So. Much. Fun.
Best Trips
  • The two weeks I spent in Latvia and Lithuania in May were just fantastic: seeing lovely nature, visiting new and already beloved places, meeting family and friends, experiencing culture, and commemorating history. I was particularly happy to visit Riga while it was European Capital of Culture. The time was so full of wonderful experiences that it took me weeks and many posts to write about it.
  • A long weekend on the Outer Banks, North Carolina in October was a welcome respite from daily life, and an excellent opportunity to finally visit that state, my 35th.
Biggest Purchase
  • In the closing days of 2014, after much researching, hunting, and test driving, I finally bought a new set of wheels! Now I have plenty of room to ferry tall (or short) family and friends, plus I'm ready to start planning some road trips in the new year. Any suggestions?
Best Book Read

The Power of Song: Nonviolent National Culture in the Baltic Singing Revolution
Best Restaurant Meals Enjoyed
Best Wine Enjoyed 
While 2014 had many ups, it certainly had its share of downs. I'm looking forward to 2015 and what it brings, hoping it will be a more peaceful and happy year for our world. May your new year be filled with health, happiness, and fun adventures!