Thursday, January 28, 2016

Find Your Park!

To celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, the National Park Service launched a new advertising and marketing campaign called "Find Your Park" last year. Although it has only been in the last several years that I have begun to fully appreciate the NPS and its diversity, I now count myself as a huge fan. Just check out this video, and tell me this isn't an impressive park system?
Over time I have been fortunate to visit quite a few parks across the country: from Alcatraz Island in California to Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, from Craters of the Moon in Idaho to Boston National Historic Park in Massachusetts. A few visits I've blogged about include: Shenandoah National Park in Virginia,Yellowstone which I visited a few years ago, Cape Hatteras National Seashore which I saw and loved in 2014, Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland on a hot summer's day, Harper's Ferry National Historical Park in nearby West Virginia, plus recalling an earlier visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Naturally, given that the National Mall & Memorial Parks in Washington is also a national park, that's another spot about which I have blogged.

A park that I visited on the same trip as Yellowstone was neighboring Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Although I was there for only part of a day, it was a beautiful and memorable visit, as the place is stunning!
Doing some hiking for the best views!
There are many more I would love to visit some day, including Acadia in Maine, Yosemite in California, Glacier in Montana, Arches in Utah, and - well, the list goes on!

However, if you asked me to name "my" park, I would quickly answer: the C&O National Historical Park. While spots like the Grand Canyon (which I've had the fortune of visiting twice!) are far more impressive, the beauty of the C&O is that it's close enough for me to visit frequently. Also, the impressive 180+ mile length, which stretches from the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington through all the way to Cumberland in western Maryland, means that there is lots to explore! I have hiked only about 25 miles of that. I have written about several (but certainly not all!) of my visits over the last several years, both in areas that are close to Washington, such as the ever-popular Great Falls overlook, and areas further away, such as the Monocacy Aqueduct and the town of Williamsport.

It's no surprise that my first outing to a national park this year was to the C&O. I took a five year old friend for a walk in the Great Falls area. The weather had been quite variable that day, and as we drove to the park, a quick downpour almost changed our plans. However, perhaps sensing our dire need to experiences the great outdoors, the rain stopped. After parking the car, we began walking, and I noticed other hikers looking above us, so we turned around to spot a lovely rainbow. I did not have a camera along; this photo was snapped with my very old cell phone. I'm hoping for many more visits to national parks this year (as well as better quality photos)!

Happy 100th birthday, National Park Service!!!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Longwood Gardens: Orchids and More

My December visit to the beautiful Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania was timed so that I could see the popular Christmas displays, but the indoor greenhouses are so impressive that they deserve a post of their own. Well, actually more than just one post, otherwise I will overwhelm you with a hundred photos! Thus, below is a small selection of orchids and other flowers. If the cold winter temperatures have you longing for warmer weather, may these colorful blossom remind you that spring and summer will eventually come!
I've no idea what this is - but I love it!
Just some of the many orchids!

More Longwood photos to follow in the future!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Snowed In

With the Washington region expecting a blizzard of historic proportions, preparations are well underway as the area and its inhabitants prepare to hunker down and then eventually dig out. By the time you read this post, I -- and the rest of the DMV -- will be snowed in. If you know me or have been reading the blog for a while, you are aware that winter is not my favorite season. I don't mind a few inches of pretty snow, but the two to possibly three feet that may fall is far more than anyone needs. Now that I've finished all of my grocery store runs (buying all of life's necessities -- fruits, vegetables, yogurt, almond milk, bread, hemp seeds, eggs, walnuts, dark chocolate, purple hyacinths, and yellow daffodils), there's plenty of time to consider what I'll do to fill the time while it is too dangerous to go outside. It may be about 2 1/2 days before it's safe to leave the house, thus loads of free time for all sorts of activities. 

Things I Could/Should/Might Do During the Blizzard of 2016
1. Read
2. Work on the blog
3. Organize my digital photos
4. Organize old print photos
5. Do lots of yoga
6. Bake
7. Write a letter
8. Call several friends I've not talked to in a while
9. Organize my closet
10. Clean off my desk
11. Figure out what to do with all those CDs I never listen to anymore
12. Work on Latvian school report cards
13. Prepare Latvian school lesson plans
14. Shred old unnecessary documents
15. Start writing a book

Things I Most Likely Will Do During the Blizzard of 2016
1. Binge-watch any remaining episodes of "Transparent" and "Mozart in the Jungle" I've not yet seen
2. Sleep too much
3. Eat too much
4. Drink copious amounts of hot tea (selection has been almost fully restocked -- I could not find linden flower tea, but have plenty of jasmine green, decaf green, Earl Gray, chamomile, and more)
5. Complain about having to dig out my car
6. Dig out my car
7. Complain about how difficult digging out my car was

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Grand Rapids Children's Museum

Located in downtown Grand Rapids, the Children's Museum is a perfect destination for those cold winter days. My mom and I took my niece and nephew there the morning after Christmas Day; going relatively early was a wise decision, as the museum quickly became quite crowded with many children and even more adults.

The museum has a variety of different play areas, some meant for very young children, others suitable for slightly older kids.
The yellow VW bug is popular with all ages!
The area that attracts the most children is "Little GR" -- a small city, just like Grand Rapids, with all of the requisite services one needs in town.
The post office
The library
Properly checking out library books is serious work!
The pizzeria
The chef at the pizzeria
The bank
This supermarket shopper apparently loves fish!
Small selection of supermarket items
The friendly supermarket cashier
The museum has numerous other areas, but this is where our kids wanted to spend the most time. It's also where we ran into other Latvian-Americans -- because it's a small world when you're Latvian!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Christmas in Michigan

Maybe I should write about Christmas before another big holiday is upon us! This year my trip to the Midwest was quite short - only three days. I was blessed with good flying weather (left Grand Rapids a few hours before they were hit with some sleet and ice!), and with on-time flights. Flying is a true blessing when it functions smoothly.

As opposed to last year's huge family gathering, this Christmas was smaller and quieter, but also very enjoyable. 
One of the cats keeping watch over the tree.

When my sister and I were young, our most important job to help prepare for Christmas dinner was to make name cards for all of the guests. This year my six-year old nephew, with help from Oma, continued this tradition - with a tasty twist, as each name card was in a plastic baggie with piparkukas!
In addition to celebrating Christmas, we did have time for a few outings, a couple of which I will write about separately. A couple of us even found time to see a movie; if you've not caught "Brooklyn" yet, all three of us highly recommend it! The film has been Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, as well as Best Actress -- Saoirse Ronan did an incredible job acting the part of an Irish immigrant in New York City in 1952.

We also had plenty of time for reading and for playing. My niece loved the floor puzzle I gave her as a gift, but I found it surprisingly difficult to assemble--too many pastelly colors and too many curvy lines.
Although my nephew was excited about his Kristaps Porzinigis jersey he received from Santa (judging from post-Christmas photos chatter, the Porzingis jersey and shirt were the most popular Christmas gifts among Latvian-Americans), when I asked what his favorite gift was, he answered, "The fact that you are here!"

Saturday, January 16, 2016

National Postal Museum

Washington has such an abundance of museums to visit and sights to see that in my sixteen years here I am still visiting and discovering new places. The National Postal Museum had been on my list for a while, but its location off the National Mall makes the slightly offbeat museum also more off-the-beaten track. Still, it is conveniently located next door to Union Station, and as a Smithsonian, entrance to the museum is free of charge. Even given its somewhat esoteric topic, it has plenty of very positive reviews online, and the museum is currently hosting a special exhibit in which I had particular interest.

Fittingly, the museum occupies the building which was Washington's main post office from 1914 through 1986. The building itself is quite impressive and attractive.
A step up from the modern America post office, wouldn't you agree?
This clock is in what used to be the postmaster's office.
Home to one of the world's largest collections of stamps and philatelic materials, the museum has done an excellent job of creating colorful, educational, and interactive exhibits. For example, the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery displays many stamps, including a variety of rare ones.
Washington cherry blossom stamp in top left is one of my all-time favorites!
Whoa, the stamp on left looks familiar!

This gallery also has a computer on which a visitor can create - and email to themselves - a stamp or two, including with one's own photo. These are two I created.
Mailboxes from various countries are scattered around the museum. Some looked familiar, but others were quite different than the North American or European mailboxes I have seen.

The museum's collection also includes numerous vehicles - from wagons to cars to airplanes - that have been used to transport and deliver mail by the U.S. Postal Service.
Old mail wagon.
Railway post office.
Interior of the railway post office.
The special exhibit which I had wanted to see is called "PostSecret: The Power of a Postcard." Begun as a one-time community art project in 2005 by Frank Warren, PostSecret has evolved into a cultural touchstone and spawned an empire which includes numerous books, exhibits and speaking engagements. The project has Washington roots, as it was initiated during a local Artomatic exhibit, and Frank himself lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

The website Frank runs is updated weekly with postcards containing secrets -- sent to him from around the country and around the world. Some of the secrets have mature themes, thus I will warn that the following link for the website itself might be NSFW - "not safe for work." Frank updates the website every Sunday morning with new postcards, and with classic (older) secrets. The PostSecret exhibit at the Postal Museum displayed a small selection of the millions of cards received over the last decade. Some are heart-warming, others are heart-breaking, while others are funny or slightly strange. The next three photos are just a small selection.

This exhibit runs through September of this year, but on its own the Postal Museum is well worth a visit if you're in the area and have an hour or two!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms

Living in Washington means sometimes being friends with movers and shakers - or people whose jobs seem immeasurably cooler than your own. It also means having unique opportunities that folks who live elsewhere don't have. 

The U.S. Department of State offers public tours of its beautiful diplomatic reception rooms, yet because the tours take place only on weekdays, then it had been an item on my Washington bucket list for a long time before I finally could make arrangements for such a tour. A friend who is in the Foreign Service and currently working in Washington before heading for her next assignment in South America was able to join me for the tour. Although she registered us for it, anyone can do so via this website

After arriving at State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom, going through visitors' security and checking in, I met my friend and we waited for the tour to begin. On the dot at 10.30am our group of twelve people was gathered and we were provided with some instructions before we were escorted through several long hallways and into a large elevator which led us to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms and the beginning of the tour. Throughout the duration of the tour we were accompanied by not just one, but two Diplomatic Security officers. 

While the State Department headquarter building is a typical office building -- and not a particularly attractive one at that --, these special rooms, opened in 1961, are anything but typical. Designed by Edward Vason Jones, and filled with art, antiques and important memoribilia from American history, these spaces are impressive. They are used for official entertaining purposes, though can also be rented for huge sums of money -- two days before I visited, the rooms had been used for the annual Kennedy Center Honors award dinner, which takes place the evening before the televised show from the Kennedy Center.

The tour guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the many artifacts in the rooms, and she told us many stories and factoids, though the 45-minute length of the tour prevented her from going into minute detail or from showing us every singe item -- and that's okay! It was a bit difficult to take good photos, as I wanted to hear what the guide was explaining, plus lighting was far from ideal. But below I share a few photos from the tour.
This portrait of Washington is used on the dollar bill - except it's flipped.
Desk on which Treaty of Paris was signed - ending the American Revolutionary War.

Desk at which Jefferson probably wrote the Declaration of Independence.
The largest room; through the door you can see the kitchen in which caterers were prepping lunch for an event.
Everything's so ornate!
Room in which lunch event was about to take place. Our tour was cut slightly shorter due to this event.
Almost a bit gaudy...
Uncanny how much Pres Jackson looks like current Sec. of State Kerry!
Once the tour had concluded, and our group had returned to our starting point, my friend and I exited through that less-than-impressive exit, scurried around the corner to the main exit where she checked me in as her visitor, and she proceeded to show me around. The main entrance is impressive, as it contains flags from all the world's countries with which the U.S. has official relations. Typically tours are also taken here, but due to the VIPs being expected for the aforementioned luncheon, we were not shown this area.
The Latvian flag - among others.
In the basement of the building she showed me the two competing privately-owned gift shops. I couldn't resist, and a pink "Future Secretary of State" t-shirt found its way into a special three-year old's Christmas stocking a few weeks later. After my little shopping excursion we moved onto lunch in the cafeteria, and that concluded my interesting State Department visit. Special thanks to my friend A for hosting me!