Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Elephants on first birthdays

It was something straight out of “Setting Free the Bears,” a novel by my favorite author, John Irving. A slightly muggy, cool morning, the quiet interspersed with the sounds of a city waking up. When farther down the avenue the first of the elephants appear, and the boys faces are the picture of delight; six altogether, they tightly hold the tail of the animal in front with their trunks. Their trainers and other helpers have them surrounded more to keep the public at bay than to keep them in line, and we marvel at how quickly the procession reaches the intersection we chose to await this spectacle. They lumber past, single file, and then the ponies are passing. Then, as quickly as they appeared, the animals are gone, only an elephant-smell still lingering, and the whir of the street cleaner bringing up the rear.

My youngest celebrated his very first birthday in style yesterday, starting his day with a trip downtown to watch the circus animals walk from the train station to the Bi-Lo Center, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is performing through February 3rd. We heard about the circus walk from a friend, but couldn’t really find anything concrete about the time or place until the Greenville road closure website listed the exact route. We decided not to take our chances of missing anything, and arrived close to 9am allowing ample time to find parking and stake out a spot, which proved to be unnecessary as it took a while for their train to unload and for them to make their way to downtown. Still, we were glad to have made the trip, as elephants in downtown Greenville are not something we see every day!

As for the birthday boy, what can I say? It was the third day of celebrating because of the parade of guests we’ve had, and just as with any good party there was cake, kliņģeris and presents. I’m so very proud of my one-year-old. He’s walking, chattering away, climbing, moving, shaking, eating and keeping both his father and me very much on our toes. His hair takes on an auburn hue in the sun, his hands and feet are only ¼ inch shorter than his brother’s, and his 18-24 month old clothes sometimes seem a little on the short side. He loves playing with the refrigerator’s water dispenser, the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner. And he smiles, all the time. That smile is enough, most of the time. And for those times when it isn’t enough, well, there are always the elephants.

* Looks like I'm not the only on1e seeing elephants! Check out these elephants in downtown NYC causing traffic jams at The Misfortune of Knowing!!!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ice storm Kahn

“Oh, we’re busy busy busy and we have a lot to do, and I haven’t the time to explain it all to you…” So sings Kevin Kline on our “Philadelphia Chickens” CD that no ride in the car can be without! (Written, illustrated and directed by Sandra Boynton, it is a great children’s book and CD, don’t get me wrong – I just believe there is a limit to how many times a mother can hear the “Belly Button” song!)

King for a day! Lauris had the slice with la fève

We finally managed to bake our King’s Cake, and although it didn’t turn out quite like I remember it tasting in Clermont-Ferrand, I enjoyed giving it a shot. The King’s Cake might be a tradition that stays with us from France, where the grocery stores and bakeries were filled with beautiful gâteau des Rois for the whole month of January. If you would like to read more about the history and significance behind this tradition, here’s my post.

We used a  fève that Lauris found in his King Cake last year in France 

Then today we were hit by Winter Storm Kahn, which took the form of an ice storm here in the Upstate. For those unfamiliar with what happens when frozen precipitation falls from the sky here in the South, I’ll set the scene: yesterday the local stores had a run on milk and toilet paper, this morning schools and hospitals were closed, and by early afternoon most local flights such as the connecting flight my sister was on from Charlotte, were cancelled. You see, it’s the south. Both of the state’s salt trucks were already running overtime. And the majority of vehicles remaining on the roads are people who “know” how to drive on icy roads. The boys and I stayed at home, only venturing out for a brief foray clad in snow pants, hats, gloves, coats. Meanwhile my wonderful husband spent his afternoon picking up my sister so she would not have to spend her vacation in Charlotte. A wonderful city (as we learned last weekend), but we would much rather have her here with us.

That white stuff his paws are in, it's snow/ice/something cold and frozen
And so the festivities leading up to the very first birthday of my youngest son begin! There is a bizet torte in the freezer (although the whipped cream is holding up a lot better than last time!), a birthday cake in the works, and as long as we don’t run out of milk or toilet paper this will be a great week!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Charlotte, NC

After a week cooped up with two sick boys, the sunshine returned for the weekend. We threw some bags in the car and were off, destination Charlotte, North Carolina. Hmmm, not exactly Lyon, one of our favorite destinations while living in Clermont-Ferrand, but the day turned out to be a welcome reprieve from the mundane tasks facing us at home.

"Grande Disco", which you might recognize from the movie "Hellraiser III" 

The largest city in North Carolina, it is less than a couple of hours drive from Greenville. A major financial center (the second largest by assets following NYC), the headquarters of  Bank of America and the East Coast operations of Wells Fargo are in Charlotte. It is also home to the NFL Carolina Panthers, the NBA Charlotte Bobcats and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Our first destination was right there in the very center of downtown, Mert’s Heart and Soul.

My husband had heard of this restaurant on one of his business trips, and when our arrival coincided with lunchtime, we knew it was the ideal time to give the place a try. The website had me drooling; “From the award-winning macaroni and cheese, to the sweet, buttery cornbread and shrimp and grits, Mert’s Heart and Soul's southern, Low Country, and Gullah-inspired dishes leave guests with an unforgettable 'home cooked' experience.” It lived up to my expectations; the barbecue was as good as I’ve ever had and the boys had to fight me over the mac and cheese. With some of the friendliest service in addition to delicious food, this is a must-visit restaurant if you’re ever in Charlotte.

Mert's Heart and Soul on Urbanspoon

Lauris demolished his vanilla-chocolate cake. I managed to steal a bite (or two), DELICIOUS!

Our stroll through downtown took us past some very lovely public spaces. With fountains and statues every which way we’ll have to come back in the spring when it is a little warmer. I believe I’ll have to find a guidebook, as I was curious as to the history behind some of the pieces.

We had two more stops scheduled for the day, one of which does in fact bring to mind our road trips to Lyon – IKEA! But the shopping was nowhere near as exciting as the big city, except for maybe my new boots… Charlotte, we’ll be back!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Pretty Little Town with International Flair

Rainy days, runny noses, fevers, coughs, long nights…. It has been one difficult week here in the foyer, and the week is not even halfway done. Both boys are struggling with colds, and therefore I am struggling with the boys. The upside of being stuck in the infirmary is a little extra time online, which I’ve utilized to find some new recipes. With a few standouts that allowed me to do most of the prep-work in bits and pieces throughout the day, we have been dining well (at least the adults have, those under the weather have not had the best appetites and have been sticking to Goldfish crackers and Sprite).

For those cold, blustery winter evenings (not that I would know what that’s like with this heat wave!) this cheesy bacon potato soup is a winner. Hearty and filling, it is an older recipe that I started making in France where bacon could be purchased already diced. Then Monday night in honor of my husband’s namesday I made this moussaka from a local couple’s blog. I was hoping he would like it as much as the dish he had hoped to have in Athens last summer; our cab driver pointed out a restaurant with "the best moussaka in town" but upon our visit we didn't even find it on the menu. I think the recipe was a success, but next time we'll invite company over to assist in the eating. And continuing with the Greek theme last night were these chicken pitas with tzatziki sauce, which I can’t wait to try again once grilling season restarts.

The squirrels with their own feast... that is, if they can get past the home defense system

So that’s what is keeping me sane, a handful of recipes and stolen minutes in the kitchen. I can’t keep up with the boys, even in their state they stay one mess ahead of me. What is it about cleaning up one mess only to find two more and the vacuum attachments all hidden away that makes me feel so hopeless? Maybe my next recipes should be more in the line of chocolate desserts…

On a different note, our little town is in the running against bigshots like Charleston and New Orleans for Southern Living’s title of “The South’s Tastiest Town.” If you are so inclined, you can take a peek here, and cast your vote for the best food destination in the South.

From the webpage

“Greenville, SC, Pretty Little Town with International Flair. Don't be fooled by the quaint, leafy town of Greenville, SC. When it comes to eating and drinking well, it means business. A concentration of international corporations (including BMW and Michelin) means surprising culinary diversity and well-traveled palettes. Stars like Vicky Moore from Mediterranean-inspired The Lazy Goat and Spencer Thomson from Deveraux's earned their chops at the best restaurants in Charleston. New restaurants like Ford's Oyster House and The Green Room have forward thinking menus rooted in Low Country goodness. Restaurants like American Grocery and Roost (in the newly renovated Hyatt) serve refined seasonal cuisine with products from local and regional farms. An alfresco fall food festival, renegade newcomers like Neue Southern Food Truck and The Owl (which serves, no kidding, molecular gastronomy), make eating here an endless revelation.”

Now taking reservations for spring break visits!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Tyger River Park

Oh, how things change! No more weekend trips to Spain, or vacations in southern France. Similar to the slow-down in traveling that occurred last year around this time before Mikus was born, we’ve been staying close to home since our holiday travels. This weekend our longest car ride was to explore a new park.

Tyger River Park is in Reidville, SC, about 30 minutes from downtown Greenville. It opened last year, and boasts 12 baseball and softball fields. We immediately headed for the very center of the nine acre park where we found several large playgrounds, each geared towards different ages. The 70 degree weather enabled some splashing in a “pond” surrounded by a giant sandbox, on our next visit we’ll have to remember our bucket and shovel!

The swings, giant spider web and slides each were explored in turn, with a majority of time spent climbing the equipment meant for children just a little older; but that’s what boys do? I read later that there are educational zones with functioning solar panels, wind turbines, wind chimes and sundial just outside the playground area, but these might be more appropriate for older children as intriguing as it all sounds to me.

In the middle is a 60 foot tall tower that is open when Spartanburg Country Parks Department personnel are supervising. As we visited on a Sunday it wasn’t open, but it’s another reason for us to return. Most interesting is that this summer there will be a “splash zone.” I’m not completely sure what that entails, but I know it will be more exciting than the last water play they had – getting into the cats’ water bowl.

Wishing everyone a pleasant and productive week!

Link to the Tyger River Park website here. You can find the schedule for baseball and softball games and tournaments, as well as information on renting a shelter.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Another birthday come and gone!

I have to admit my husband sometimes gets a raw deal with his birthday – it is so close to the holidays that I find it hard to plan anything big. This year I baked the traditional Latvian birthday bread, the kliņģeris, we cleaned up (at least the house was clean about 30 minutes before you walked in the door, honey!) and made a nice dinner to enjoy once he got home. A couple of friends stopped by for dessert, and I’m hoping he enjoyed the evening as much as I did!

Warm temperatures meant that despite somewhat overcast skies we took an impromptu detour to the zoo after our stop at the library today. I really enjoy our visits there, despite the size of Greenville and the zoo itself, they have a very nice setup with plenty to see and do. The favorite today seemed to be the ocelot, although the sleepy lions came in a close second. The baboons were howling up a storm which neither boy seemed to be too delighted about, and a baby alligator surprised Lauris by snapping almost right next to his face (separated by the walls of the aquarium, but nevertheless), but both kids were content to munch on some Cheerios and enjoy our walk. The best thing about the Greenville zoo? The two hour nap both boys took upon getting home.

Here is a snapshot of the birthday boy celebrating his first birthday. I find it appropriate as our youngest will be observing his first birthday in a few weeks. Priecīgu dzimšanas dienu!!!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Pies, mittens and snow men!

The laundry that accumulated over the holidays has been washed, the suitcases packed away, the pictures downloaded, and the presents “unwrapped” a second time as I sit here to try and wrap up the blogging of our fifteen days of Christmas. I find it a little hard to concentrate though, what with the 55 degree sunny day we are having today: the Christmas feeling is all but gone. Looking back through my pictures I believe I have to wrap up this holiday blogging quickly, in order to move on to the other events taking place here shortly, such as a particular birthday that takes place tomorrow, Kings Day (or Epiphany which took place on Sunday the 6th, but we might celebrate later this week), and of course another birthday coming up later this month. 

So, without further ado, the remaining twelve days of Christmas in pictures…

We celebrated the day after Christmas at my parents’ house with my extended family. I made this pecan pie with the help of those pie-toppers my sister and her husband gifted me for my birthday.

However, the pie-toppers don’t qualify as best Christmas gift, that spot is reserved for the lion paw mittens Lauris and Mikus got from Santa. Straight out of "Where the Wild Things Are".

On our last day in Chicago all the girls met for a delicious brunch at Café Selmarie, one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago not only for food but atmosphere and memories. Sitting with my grandmother, mother, aunts, sister and cousins I recalled my last meal there - over which I invited most of those sisters and cousins to be bridesmaids and helpers at my wedding! 

My little Christmas snow angel! The festivities continued in Kalamazoo. Lauris and Mikus were reunited with their cousins, and the grandparent's house descended into a happy sort of chaos. Well, sometimes just chaos, but I lived to tell the tale. A day spent visiting those near and dear in Detroit, then Mežotne, it was one meal after another - not that I'm complaining.

The scallops and mussels at Rustica

My parents-in-law were kind enough to care for the boys while Roberts and I had an evening out. We chose a restaurant in downtown Kalamazoo, Rustica. Delicious food, great atmosphere and a decent wine selection, which takes care of the 9th day of Christmas, festive tipple.

As far as three great memories of the past year go, I like to look forward rather than back, especially as this year has been one of great transition for us. "You can look back babe, but it's best not to stare." Dwelling on all the good times in France makes moving forward into 2013 hard, so I’ll just mention the three that most stand out in my mind. 
1. The birth of Mikus 
2. Our trip to Greece 
3. This holiday journey

And then the final day of 2012... I’ll tell you what, I’m lucky to have seen the ball drop to ring in the New Year! With invitations to several parties turned down, we spent a low-key evening at the in-laws. Between the various bugs that had me coughing and sneezing most of the holidays, and the headaches from pressure and temperature changes, I think this was the best choice for us. I don’t regret the decision, I do regret not staying outside longer to help with the construction of the three snowman that came after these six. Yes, Roberts built nine snowmen.

As far as New Year’s Resolutions go, it’s the standard eat healthier, exercise more and do more with the kids. The best part about these three areas needing improvement are that they complement one another. I hope to spend more time in the kitchen with the boys; Lauris helped me with the kliņģeris today and I hope to tackle a King’s Cake later this week. Outdoor activities invariably end with exercise for me, such as our walk to the construction site to see what the excavators and builders were up to today. Once the weather warms I’ll turn my attention to the raised beds we built in the backyard, and hopefully the exercise of gardening will lead to some healthier eating.

Happy New Year, may 2013 be a memorable one!

Winding down the Twelve Days of Christmas
21st December; A Festive Song
22nd December; A Picture of Your Tree
23rd December; A Christmas Wish
24th December; A Christmas Tradition
25th December; A Christmas Day Portrait
26th December; Best Gifts
27th December; A Memory of Christmas Past
28th December; Your Christmas Angel
29th December; Festive Tipple
30th December; Three Great Memories Of The Past Year
31st December; How You Will Bring In 2013
1st January; A New Year’s Resolution (that you'll keep!)

Friday, January 4, 2013

On the fifth day of Christmas, a family portrait

Not only did Santa find us this year, we must have been very good! One of the best parts of celebrating Christmas with our extended family is we get to partake in all the various family traditions; we stayed with my aunt and her family, but celebrated the rest of Christmas day with my parents, so the day was a mix of three different families. Santa visited the three kids in our hosts’ home, but had left a note that we were to look for presents at “our next destination”. But the elves had it figured out, they had left a little present for us in our čības; the family tradition there being to leave your slippers out in lieu of stockings. After a delicious breakfast we left for my parents’ home, where Santa had left presents for the boys as promised. But the elves must have decided to hedge their bets, because they had left full stockings for the boys there as well – the tradition at my parents’ house.

I’m not sure where the day went, but we ate, we talked, we laughed. We opened presents and played with our new toys. We admired Ūlafs brand new cat bow-tie. We ate endless crepes made by my mother and cooked by my brother-in-law. We reenacted a photograph from around 2000 (which didn’t quite work, partly because my younger brother and sister are now taller than my sister and me, partly because the scenery was different). We dined on a cheese course in honor of our time in France. We relaxed and watched Lauris and Mikus play with all their new toys. And it was only after yet another meal and after the boys had their bath and put on their pajamas, that we said goodnight.

This one is for you little bro! (Photo credit: Gunars Lucans)

Continuing with the Twelve Days of Christmas (although a little delayed!)
21st December; A Festive Song
22nd December; A Picture of Your Tree
23rd December; A Christmas Wish
24th December; A Christmas Tradition
25th December; A Christmas Day Portrait
26th December; Best (and Worst) Gifts
27th December; A Memory of Christmas Past
28th December; Your Christmas Angel
29th December; Festive Tipple
30th December; Three Great Memories Of The Past Year
31st December; How You Will Bring In 2013
1st January; A New Years Resolution (that you'll keep!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On the fourth day, a Christmas tradition

Our extended family tradition regarding Christmas is that every other year is an “on-year” at my grandmother’s house, which means her children and grandchildren (and now great-grandchildren!) gather on Christmas Eve day. We had a delicious lunch, after which we went to the early service and then returned for more food and fun. Christmas songs were sung, presents were opened and both boys were asleep before we left. This routine is something I sorely missed in France last year, even though it was technically not an “on-year.” Our celebration in Clermont-Ferrand was unique, blessed with a visit from family, but the church service was not in Latvian, the exchanges with family occurred over skype instead of the dinner table, and although Lauris relished the extra attention, it is totally different for the two boys to have a gang of kids to run around with.

My contribution to the holiday feast was a cake. My grandmother did a seafood medley which was served over rice with a fantastic salad accompaniment, and after church we had the traditional bullion and pīrāgi, so I didn’t see much room for anything except dessert. I had seen an interesting idea on pinterest, of making chocolate trees to create a forest which seemed especially appropriate for the holidays. Following a chocolate cake recipe with layers of raspberry filling and dark chocolate ganache, finishing up with vanilla buttercream frosting, I managed this for our holiday dessert:

Photo credit: Juris B

It was a perfect evening, and the time came much too soon to head out. It was so good to see everyone again, from the cousins who we haven’t had a chance to see since leaving for France, to the grandparents and great-grandmother whose faces reflect the love that has gathered for the holidays. Washing dishes becomes a pleasure, and one can always find room for one more cookie. This is what Christmas is all about, and looking at the faces of Lauris and Mikus bouncing from one lap to the next, I think it wouldn’t be so bad for the holidays to come more than once a year…

Continuing with the Twelve Days of Christmas (although a little delayed!)
   21st December; A Festive Song
   22nd December; A Picture of Your Tree
   23rd December; A Christmas Wish
   24th December; A Christmas Tradition
   25th December; A Christmas Day Portrait
   26th December; Best (and Worst) Gifts
   27th December; A Memory of Christmas Past
   28th December; Your Christmas Angel
   29th December; Festive Tipple
   30th December; Three Great Memories Of The Past Year
   31st December; How You Will Bring In 2013
   1st January; A New Years Resolution (that you'll keep!
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