Sunday, June 30, 2013

The twelve days of Latvija: Day 2, Ungurmalas

Beautiful Ungura ezers, although not the biggest in Latvia it's certainly not the smallest, measuring about 1.5 square miles in size. The lake was about 1.5 hours from the capital city Rīga, and we were there to celebrate the Ķeņģis family – seven generations in all!


This super-sized family reunion took place at the reatreat "Ungurmalas” on the shores of the Ungura lake. The location was perfectly suited for the occasion, with a large indoor area overlooking the lake, a stage that housed the main presentation, and a lakeside venue for dinner and dancing.

"Dad, did you bring the fishing pole?"
My husband’s mother’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father was Dāvis Ķeņģis, and the family tree showed exactly how all 200 people in attendance were related to him. Putting together such a detailed genealogy that goes back that far is a wonderful achievement, and it certainly is something to celebrate!


The family tree - can you see my box, it's the one in the middle...
Dinner was a grand affair, and every traditional Latvian food I could have wished for made an appearance… the aukstais galds was unbelievable! The organizers had pulled out all the stops, booking Māris Grigalis as the MC and Lauku Muzikanti for some hopping tunes.

"I'm related to that guy, and her, and him..."

While the adults dined, the kids had fun of their own; a large majority of the children had spent the week together in a camp of sorts and they traveled in roving bands across the grounds. Throughout the evening we also learned more about the family history; in addition to a movie (and the start of a book on the subject), a new family crest was also revealed. The dreary day turned into a gorgeous midsummer twilight, and laughing and dancing brought us all together under the tent even as the night finally settled in.


Saturday, June 29, 2013

The twelve days of Latvija: Day 1, Vecrīga

The capital city of Latvia, Rīga is located near the mouth of the river Daugava on the Baltic Sea. Home to more than a third of Latvia’s population, Rīga has gained popularity with tourists in the recent decade. This is partially due to the medieval old town, surrounded by a canal and filled with squares, Gothic churches and Art Nouveau architecture, which is generally considered to be the finest collection in Europe. Old town (or Vecrīga) is on the UNESCO World Heritage list because of this Art Nouveau, and partly due to the neoclassical and Jugendstil style 19th century wood buildings. We stopped by the flower market on our way to Vecrīga to buy some flowers to take to the Freedom Monument. The tall white obelisk is topped by a statue of Mother Latvija holding three stars, which symbolize the historic regions of the country, Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale. An enscription on the front reads Tēvzemei un brīvībai (For fatherland and freedom), and the rest is ornamented with sculptures and reliefs portraying everything from historic events such as the 1905 Revolution and the freedom fighters of 1919, to cultural traditions such as the Song Festival march and Latvian mythology, such as Lāčplēsis (the Bear Slayer).



A fine way to start our day was with a wooden boat tour of the Rīga canal and Daugava. We chose our captain on the banks of the canal just next to the Freedom Monument, and then it was off! down the canal towards the National Opera (did you know this was the first building in Rīga to have electricity?). Shortly after passing the Central Market (built in 1930 and still one of the largest covered markets in Europe) we emerged from the canal to Daugava.
 
 
Daugava forms in the Valdai Hills of Russia and forms the Belarussian/Latvian international border before flowing into Latvia and eventually draining into the Gulf of Rīga. It is 624 miles long, only 202 of which are in Latvia. The view from the stretch between the canals is incredible, as you can see the entirety of the Vecrīga skyline to the east and the brand new Gaismas Pils library (“Castle of Light”) to the west.


Right before  the Vanšu bridge is the ancient Crusader Castle of the Livonian Order, Rīga Castle. This third reincarnation of a castle was built in 1491, and has been expanded over the years to now serve as the home of the President. Luckily the President is currently staying elsewhere as the castle is being renovated and a fire burned a large section of attic and roof last week. It is still not being reported how extensive the damage is, and it could be considerable; the castle is also home to the National History Museum of Latvia and the Museum of Foreign Art.
The charred remains of the roof can be seen on the left
 
Soon we turned back into the canal, passing through Kronvalda Park and past the National Theatre, where Latvian Independence was declared in 1918. Bastejkalns and the five granite memorials to those gunned down by Soviet troops in January of 1991 marked the end of our tour. Well worth it, I would suggest taking the boat ride to see a side of Rīga you wouldn’t normally see. On foot again we ventured past the Laimas clock and into Vecrīga, the stroller clicking on the cobblestone streets. Pulvertornis (Powder Tower, dating back to the 14th century), Zviedru vārti (the “Swedish Gate” which is one of the only remaining gates to the original city walls remaining), the church spires rising on all sides… We stopped for some ķiploku grauzdiņi and a beer to people watch, the garlic toast tasting exactly as I remembered (which is like a perfect accompaniment to an Užavas beer!). Then a quick stop at Senā Klēts in my search to find pieces for my tautas tērps (traditional folk costume), followed by a stroll past the rebuilt, baroque-style Town Hall, and soon we found ourselves in Ala, Folklubs Pagrabs, eating the most delicious snitzel and soup lunch I have ever had. While inside the rain started, signaling the end of our explorations of Vecrīga, but luckily we have many more prospects for return visits…

Melngalvja nams

Friday, June 28, 2013

Once more over the Atlantic!

Stepping off the plane it was like stepping into a familiar skin: back in the Euro zone, the metric system, automatic conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit. I sunk into the Europe-ness of our surroundings, but was snapped out of it with the gaffe of attempting the French double-cheek kiss. France this is not – we are in Latvia, home but in a foreign country, back after a two year absence.

Our friend met us at the airport with two car seats, and if not for the lost baggage we wouldn’t have fit. A stop at home base, and then we were back out, Lauris establishing an immediate friendship with Karlīna as if they were simply picking up from where they left off…
It’s as if someone has hit pause in the city – Jāņi is over, and I expected the gearing up for Dziesmu Svētki to be farther along. The momentum is there, maybe I am only viewing it as if underwater through the jetlag and time difference – after all there was a media crew awaiting our flight at the airport, to greet the famous 100 year old diriģents we were lucky enough to sit next to on our flight over the Atlantic.

Diriģents Roberts Zuika and the lovely kr. Sīka

The boys bravely stayed awake long enough for a foray to Rimi, to search for the necessities for the following day. Once again I slid into the old habits of grocery shopping in Europe; bagging my own groceries seemed as natural as if we had never left France. But then I stepped out on the street to hear Latvian! spoken by those passing by, to see the satisfaction of Lauris speaking a blue streak and being understood, and it hit me – we are here, in Latvia, with our two sons to experience Dziesmu Svētki!
Dziesma, ar ko tu sācies!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A wedding in little Latvia

A quick jump from Latvia 8,000 miles west, to mazā Latvija or “little Latvia”…
 
Three Rivers is home to the Latvian Center Gaŗezers, one of the focal gathering points of Latvians in North America. In addition to various summer camp programs for children ages 3 to 15, there are also a six week summer high school program, a sports camp, endless concerts, art exhibits, theatre productions and other events. Home to an art museum, a Latvian etnographic museum and a Latvian scouting museum, Gaŗezers also has summer cabins for rent, a beach, docks with boat slips available and a few dozen summer “cottages” that bring Latvians to Long Lake all year round. My summers growing up were spent there, a few winter weekends as well, and Gaŗezers is where I met my husband for the first time and where our wedding reception was held. The pull to visit is even stronger now, as my grandmother has a summer house on the other end of the lake, and it is rare to drop in and not find a full house of siblings/cousins/aunts/grandmothers/other visitors.

 
Our trip north a few weeks ago was to attend the wedding of our good friends Iggīts and Andra, who are neighbors of sorts, as they are currently living in North Carolina (and Latvians in the Carolinas aren’t as numerous as my retelling of our Jāņi experience might make it seem!). The weekend for me brought frequent reminiscing of our wedding weekend, as there were a few parallels. Location of course, also the Carolinas/Gaŗezers experience, even details such as decorations and table setup. However, the couple had truly made the weekend their own, and we enjoyed the laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere along with the delectable food and great company. We wish our newlywed friends all the magic and happiness in their life together – we’re waiting for your visit to Greenville to continue our search for the best fishing holes!

 
The boys and I stayed on in the summer house for a few more days, as a big birthday celebration was coming up that we just couldn’t miss. The boys enjoyed time with their MI grandparents and practically lived in the lake; between fishing, swimming, playing in the sand and hunting for turtles I managed to sneak in a little light reading and a stop or two at Corey Lake Orchard, a wonderful local source of the freshest produce southwest Michigan has to offer. There is a healing property to relaxing summer days without the temptation of computers, TVs and the responsibilities of daily life. The only thing that could have made it better would have been if Roberts hadn’t had to return to Greenville to work, and instead could have taken me out in the canoe for some fishing…

 
We’ll be returning to Gaŗezers this summer to create more childhood memories for the boys, but before then we’ll hop back those 8,000 miles to Latvia, where the stage is set for the Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Festival!

Monday, June 24, 2013

A recipe for a memorable Jāņu night

The recipe for Jāņi  is actually deceptively simple. There are a few key ingredients, but the rest are optional – you can take them or leave them and still have a great midsummer celebration. Every Jāņi  fête I have ever attended has had its own feel, they each stand out in different ways and yet each is completely memorable – and this one was no different. So here you have this year’s recipe!

Ingredients for a memorable Jāņi
Good company


Traditional Latvian food, such as Jāņu siers (the Jāņi cheese), siļķes kažokā, šprotmaizītes, dūmdesa, pīrāgi, rupjmaize, various aukstie salāti, dzeltenmaize and kvass
Good beer (although I have had my fair share of great Jāņi with bad beer as well…)
Šašļiki, or shish kebabs, a Latvian summer staple


Vaiņagi, or crowns, made with oak leaves for the men and with flowers, grasses and leaves for the girls


One bonfire, accompanied by the following:
   Last year’s vaiņagi, symbolically burned to give strength to the fire, which is the source of light and luck through the shortest night of the year
   Jumping over the bonfire (although commonly accepted that a leap over the fire will bring luck, the tradition originated for couples – a pair that could hold hands while jumping supposedly would stay together)
   Singing, preferably a good mix of folk songs, Dziesmu Svētku classics and the necessary Līgo tunes to properly swing in the summer


Toss in some folk dancing, a little tūgadiņ, tāgadiņ, mugurdancis and apaļā polka


And to top it all off, a search for the papardes zieds (the flower of the fern), as it is a festival of fertility after all! Some say that those lucky enough to find one of the elusive flowers will become wealthy, although the wealth may be monetary or in pleasure… The search for the flower of the fern has also been a way for couples to get to know one another – did you find any papardes ziedi  on Līgo vakars?

Our Jāņi was accompanied by a “super moon,” the biggest, brightest full moon of the year. The boys ran never-ending loops in the moonlit darkness with the other kids, jumping on the trampoline, catching fireflies, eating s’mores and enjoying the freedom of no bedtime and endless snacks. We took our leaps over the fire with them, and enjoyed the warm summer night to its very fullest. A giant thank you to our hosts Sarmīte and Kevin, who open their home to southern Latvians to celebrate every year, you’ve created a winning Jāņi recipe!



Friday, June 21, 2013

Latvia - A Legacy of Singing

I often get asked what Latvia is most famous for, the implication that being a country roughly the size of West Virginia (<25,000 square miles), it can’t be well known for much. And the sad truth is that in recent years Latvia has appeared negatively in the news accompanying human trafficking stories, has been advertised as a stag party destination for “boozy British tourists”, and most recently was mentioned yesterday the world over with the burning of the Castle of Rīga, Rīgas PilsAlthough a majority of people I meet today at least know that Latvia is a country (in contrast to 15 years ago when more often than not I would be met with a blank stare, or with a “where’s that?”), I often find myself explaining the geographical location, climate, or answering the question of what the country I consider my homeland (despite being born in Chicago) is best known for.

What Latvia should be best known for is its rich cultural tradition. The Latvian folk song, or daina, is a form of oral literary art, and has long been considered a distinguishing feature of the Latvian identity. Dating back over 1,000 years, there have been more than 1.2 million different dainas identified, and something close to 30,000 melodies; no other peoples in the world can lay claim to such an extensive oral history preserved in song. In addition, these folk songs are still sung today, and you will rarely find a celebration or gathering without singing, especially at the Jāņi celebrations taking place this weekend.

Source: Diena.lv


"To the Latvian the dainas are more than a literary tradition. They are the very embodiment of his cultural heritage, left by forefathers whom history had denied other, more tangible forms of expression. These songs thus form the very core of the Latvian identity and singing becomes one of the identifying qualities of a Latvian." (Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, former President of the Republic of Latvia, Journal of Baltic Studies, 1975.)

What Latvia should be famous for, is the incredible wealth of customs and traditions, starting with singing and folk dancing, but including everything from the national foods such as kliņģeris, pīrāgi, Jāņu siers, skābie kāposti, šprotes, etc. to the woven goods, the woodcarvings, the amber jewelry and the literature. Starting with a beautiful language that is one of the oldest of the Indo-European languages, to the stunning physical beauty of the beaches, forests, rivers and old cities in the country itself; Latvia’s riches lie in its people, natural beauty and its culture.

Sources: here, here, here and here

Tālavas taurētājs, Rūdolfs Blaumanis
Uz Tālavas biezajiem siliem Nakts pelēkus palagus klāj; Pār klusiem koku galiem Jodi un murgi jāj.
Dus Miervaldis savā pilī, Guļ viņa ļaužu pulks, Guļ vaidelaiši un sargi, Un zīmju gudrais tulks.
Tik augstākās egles galā Taurētājs nomodā, Tas spiego pēc ienaidnieka Tuvu un tālumā.
Te it kā pa sapņiem tam liekas, Ka  slepeni soļi čab, Ka šķēpi pašķindētu, Ka zirgu pakavi klab.
Un troksnis ap egli ceļas, Un bultas augšup skrien, Un asu cirvju zobi Egles stumbrā lien.
“Šurp tauri! Kāp zemē! Ciet klusu! Tu glābsi sev dzīvību; Mēs algosim tevi ar zeltu, Ar godu, ar brīvību!”
“Mans zelts ir mana tauta, Mans gods ir viņas gods! Kas postīdams viņu šausta, Uz pekli lai rauj to jods!”
Un taurētājs pūš ar spēku, Ka koku galotnes trīc, - Un lejā atskan lāsti, Un bultas spindz un sīc.
Mirdz lāpu sarkanā uguns, Sāk cirtiens uz cirtiena līt; Dreb, šūpojas staltā egle, Un brakš, un gāžas, un krīt.
Un taurētāja krūti Šķēpi un cirvji šķeļ, Bet taures skaņas pilī No miega Miervaldi ceļ.
Un viņš un viņa pulki Uz cīņu kājas aun, Un šķēpnešiem pretī drāžas, Dzen stiegnājā tos un kaun…
Bet uzvaras gaviļu svētkos Meitenes vaiņagus pin, Un varoni sirmā māte  Sniegbaltos autos tin.
Uz sārta vietu tam taisa No ozolu pazariem Un līgava puķēm to kaisa, Un dzintara gabaliem.
Un kamēr svaidītās liesmas Pie dieviem jaunekli nes, Dzied vīri tam slavas dziesmas, Raud žēli meitenes.

Source: here
What Latvia should be making headlines with, is the XXV Vispārējie latviešu Dziesmu un XV Deju svētki (Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Festival) that will be taking place in a few weeks in Rīga (June 30 – July 7). Held every five years, the first festival was in 1873. The festival is a key component of the Latvian cultural identity, and the festivals since 1991 have seen about 30,000 members including the choirs, folk dancers, brass bands, traditional music ensembles, harpists and vocal ensembles. The folk dancing lieluzvedums is expected to showcase 15,000 dancers, and the culmination of the weeklong festival is the closing concert in open-air venue Mežaparks, featuring a combined choir of over 15,000 singers. I’ve attended smaller Latvian song and dance festivals in the US and Canada (even danced and sung in more than a few!), but I hope you’ll join me on my journey to Latvia to experience the 25th Nationwide Latvian Song and Dance Festival, my first in Rīga. For a nation with a population of 2.058 million that languished for years under Soviet occupation, the song and dance festival is a celebration of freedom, of culture, of life, and I can’t wait to join in.



Manai dzimtenei, Raimonds Pauls, Jānis Peters

Es redzu – nāk vīri pelēkos vadmalas svārkos. Ir 1873.gads. Dimd Rīga un pirmie dziedāšanas svētki ir sākušies ...

Man stāstīja Daugaviņ’, Kā liktenis vīdamās, Dziesma savus svētkus svin, Ar bāliņu celdamās.
Tā dziedāja bāleliņš, Pret likteni stāvēdams Viņa dziesmā gadu simts Kā mūžiņis krāsojās.

Vēl nāks Piektais gads, asins lietus līs, Un visaugstākās priedes nolauzīs.
Iesim strēlniekos, dziesma vētru sēs. Mūžam gaismas pils kalnā gavilēs.

Lai balstiņis vīdamās Pār novadu aizvijās. Dziesma savus svētkus svin, Ar bāliņu celdamās.
Tā dziedāja bāleliņš,Ar Daugavu nemirstīgs Viņa dziesmā gadu simts Kā mūžiņis krāsojās.
Cauri sirdīm mums lauztās priedes augs Jaunā gaitā mūs jauni rīti sauks.
Tālāk mūžībā, dziedot iesim mēs. Mūžam gaismas pils kalnā gavilēs.



Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Preparing for Jāņi!

Are you ready for Jāņi? You know, the most important of the Latvian holidays, that celebrates the summer solstice and the longest day & shortest night of the year?



Here are the posts I’ve written on the topic if you need a quick recap – 

Jāņi – the folklore
Jāņi Chatenet – A glance at last year’s celebration
It's tradition to build a bonfire as well as to take a jump over it - check out the oak crown

I’ve already spent the obligatory 2 hours driving to Inman and back, to shop at the two Russian-import stores there that carry Laimas chocolates and Rīgas šprotes, or smoked sprats in oil, a Baltic Sea delicacy. I also picked up some kvass from Ukraine, a fermented beverage made from rye bread. Popular not just in Latvija and the Baltics, but also Russia and most of Eastern Europe, it isn’t exactly my cup of tea. However, I’m glad to share this novelty with my fellow revelers this weekend at the two (not just one, but two!) Jāņi celebrations we will be attending. Want to celebrate Jāņi in your corner of the US? Just visit this map to find the līgotāji closest to you, and then check out Jāņi Amerikā to see pictures of previous years and to get the full scoop on this year’s festivities.

 
I also have all the ingredients on hand to tie the traditional cheese, sans dry curd cottage cheese. I will once more be substituting farmer’s cheese, and using my great grandmother’s recipe that has withstood the test of time. Remember, the cheese needs to be refrigerated for at least 24 hours before serving, so find that cheesecloth and get tying!


In blatant disregard of child labor laws protecting them from hours of stirring the Jāņu siers

As we’ve been traveling again, I’ve run short on time to make pīrāgi, another Jāņi  favorite, but luckily I have some dzeltenmaize on hand to make up for it. Round foods are preferred on Jāņi, because of the sun symbolism inherent in this holiday. Therefore, for the Jāņu siers I will be using a round mold and the traditional Latvian celebration bread dzeltenmaize will be circular, instead of the usual kliņģeris pretzel shape often made on birthdays.


Taking a break from all the preparations to watch the rain - ice cream cone essential

It wouldn’t be Jāņi without vaiņagi, the wreaths made from flowers (for women) and oak leaves (for the men) worn on the heads throughout the day. Historically only men named Jānis wore the crown of oak leaves, but since my husband’s middle name is Jānis (and if dad has one the boys each need one), I will be making three on Saturday morning. Any of my Greenville friends have a meadow with daisies blooming, or a wooded lot with some white oaks they would be willing to let me snip a few branches from?



And so you have it, my to-do list for the preparations this weekend:
X  Pick up Laimas šokolādes, Rīgas šprotes, kvass and beer
    Tie the cheese!
X  Bake the dzeltenmaize
    Make wreaths on Saturday morning
    Find our songbooks, Līgo music and book of Jāņi customs
X  Find last year’s wreaths to symbolically burn in the Jāņi bonfire this year (yes, I actually packed them and they have traveled all the way from France only to land in a bonfire!)

I wish everyone  a wonderful Jāņi, and may you find that elusive flower of the fern!


Imports from Europe on the left, Euro Market middle and right

* For those interested in the two specialty stores in Inman that carry Eastern European foodstuffs:
Imports From Europe, 9430 Asheville Hwy (Open Monday – Saturday from 10am to 7pm, although call to verify before driving 2 hours! (864) 599-0996)
Euro Market, 6400-C Hwy 9, Inman SC 29349 (Open all week, call for hours. (864) 814-2605)
There are a few more in the area that I have not had the chance to visit -
Moskov European Food Store, 11064 Asheville Hwy, (864) 472-9183
Nadias International Food Store, 68 S. Main St. (864) 472-9183
My friend Sarmīte reports that she's heard estimates upward of 10,000 Russian and Ukranians living in the Inman area, hence the cluster of shops. I wonder why this area in particular is so popular?

**Update 3/16/2014
There is a new grocery in Spartanburg that carries much of the same foods as the Inman stores, and more: European Market, 8149 Warren H. Abernathy Hwy. (864) 595-5033

Monday, June 17, 2013

Līgas iesvētības à Toronto

For English please see below!

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Pirms pāris nedēļām laimējās būt klāt māsīcas Līgas iesvētības, Sv. Andreja ev. lut. draudzes baznīcā Toronto. Pieci jaunieši tika iesvētīti, un draudzes mācītāja, prāv. Ilze Kuplēna-Ewart kalpoja ar ērģelnieka Dāvida Šmita pavadijumu. Bija skaists dievkalpojums (kaut drusku uz garo pusi) un man bija žēl nokavēt otro pusi kad Mikus sāka protestēt un bija jāiet lejā draudžu telpās.
 
Kamēr ērģeļu mūzika un draudzes balsis skanēja baznīcā, es ar Miku izstaigājām pārejo ēku. Būvēta 1876. gadā, baznīcā oriģināli lūdza presbetieriešu draudze un tikai 1951. gadā to pārdeva. Šodien divas draudzes to izmanto dievkalpojumiem, Sv. Andreja ev. lut. latviešu draudze, un Sv. Andreja ev. lut. Igauņu draudze.

Photo credit: Zintis P.
 
Īsu brīdi vēlāk piebiedrojamies iesvētītiem turpat ārā, Allan Gardens. Apsveicām jaunos pilntiesīgos baznīcas locekļus ar ziediem un priecājamies par skaisto dienu ko Dievs mums bija devis. Kaut bija drusku vēss, saulītē varēja ātri sasilt, un tā ģimene un draugi arī tūļājās, kaut daudzi bija lūgti uz viesībām Latviešu Centrā.

Photo credit: Zintis P.
 
Diena ātri paskrēja reiz ieradamies Centrā; pēc garšīga mielasta un mīļi piedomātām runām bija iespēja arī izvingrināt dejas mākas. Es priecājos izciemoties ar ilgi neredzētiem (un arī dažiem nupat redzētiem) radiņiem, ieskaitot abas manas māsas un brāļus, un sešas māsīcas un brālēnus. Apbrīnojām un bieži atgriezāmies pie bagāti klātā saldā galda, kur Toronto slavenās bizet tortes pazuda kā nu tikai. Vērojām kā puiši piebiedrojās bērnu pulkam kas skrēja ārā par zāļaino pakalniņu, un svinējām šo jauniešu panākumu varbūt atceroties arī mūsu iesvētes dienas…

Photo credit: Gunārs Lucāns
 
Mūsu laiks Toronto tomēr bija padaudz īss. Kaut iznāca drusku izklaide par High Park iepriekšējā dienā, pēc īsas ciemošanās pirmdienas rītā bijām jau ceļā uz lidlauku lai mērotu jūdzes (nu, pirmais gabaliņš laikam bija kilometros!) mājup. Paldies Līgai, manai krustmātei un B ģimenei par ielūgumu ar jums kopīgi atzīmēt šo svarīgo dienu, un apsveicam Līgu ar kļūšanu par pilntiesīgu baznīcas locekli!
 

Photo credit: Gunārs Lucāns
 
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We were delighted to fly to Toronto a few weeks ago to witness my cousin Līga’s confirmation service. It took place in the St. Andrew's Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Toronto, which is currently home to two congregations: the St. Andrew's Evangelical Lutheran Estonian and the St. Andrew's Evangelical Lutheran Latvian.

Photo source here
 
Built in 1876 and renovated by Henry Langley, the gothic church was the new home to the St. Andrew's Presbyterian congregation which formed in 1830 when Toronto was still known as the Town of York. It was sold by the Presbyterians to the Lutherans in 1951.
 
After a pause in the Allan Gardens just next door to congratulate the girls and heap flowers on them, we headed to the Latvian Canadian Cultural Center. With conference and banquet facilities, a store that sells handmade goods and other products from Latvia, Umurkumurs pub, a library and the offices of several organizations, together with the church the Center is the very heart of the Latvian society in Toronto. Depending on the day of the week you might find a folk dancing rehearsal taking place, or the monthly brunch and barbecue.

Photo credit: Gunārs Lucāns
 
It was late when the festivities ended, and having eaten our share of bizet torte and pīrāgi we headed back to my godfather’s house. I was amazed at how quickly our trip was over; luckily we had the chance to do some sightseeing in High Park the previous day, because after a short brunch with family on Monday it was already time to head to the airport for our flight back to the US.


 

Friday, June 14, 2013

300th frog

This happens to be my 300th blog post, but I don’t have anything poignant or momentous to report. Instead, I have a frog.

 
We’ve had a tremendous couple of weeks; a business trip survived, a wedding, a 70th birthday party, plenty of family to spoil the boys and even some time in the sun and sand. The boys have been troopers throughout, and hopefully they’ll keep up the good work on the plane trip home today. Thanks to all those who have chauffeured us, fed us, housed and babysat us these past weeks, we’ll see y’all again soon!


 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Velo Fellow and Cedar Falls Park

It’s always fun to visit new places, and between the hiking with kids playgroup we’ve started attending and the Annual Park Hop Scavenger Hunt (more information below) we are visiting new parks at the rate of at least one a week. I’ve found motivation to drag a reluctant crew out to try a few new restaurants as well.

 
Last week was no different with our trip to Cedar Falls Park, followed by dinner later in that evening at the Velo Fellow, located downstairs from Mellow Mushroom (the pizza place). Modeled on the British publick house tradition, the pub serves appetizers and fish-and-chips type dishes to complement a selection of craft beers. We liked the vibe immediately upon walking in, the reclaimed wood tables and booths looking just as inviting as the leather couches and chairs or a spot at the bar (with a barman who looked the part of a publick house barman with his beard and hat…).

 
The food was a hit, although my husband later remarked that he hasn’t eaten that much fried food in one sitting in quite some time. We started with fried green tomatoes with garlic pimento cheese. The tomatoes were done well, crisp not slimy, and the cheese was flavorsome and not overwhelming. Before we had finished the appetizer our meals were already coming out, and if I have one complaint about the experience it would be that I felt slightly hurried with all the food arriving almost simultaneously. I should have stuck with my gut and ordered the fish & chips, as my husband’s cod was light and moist with a complimenting flavor I attribute to the beer batter. The chips were not fries, instead they were thin slices that had been fried and somehow managed to walk the line between greasy and delicious. My pecan crusted trout was served with salad and a side; the filet was from NC and tasted fresh, the crust was well done and the sides were better than average pub sides. I enjoyed the recommended beer, and the atmosphere was kid-friendly even without a kid’s menu and crayons. With the friendly service, this pub gets two thumbs up from me and I’m certain we’ll be returning as it provides a slight deviation from the standard Greenville fare.

The Velo Fellow on Urbanspoon
 
Rewinding to earlier in the day and our visit to the Cedar Falls Park! Historically a hunting site of the Cherokee and Catawba Tribes, the park offers a number of walking and nature trails that lead to a dam and the falls on the Reedy River. The park has several distinct sections with two main parking areas splitting access to the north and south parts. This turned out to be a long drive even without traffic (30-35 minutes) as it is a ways off the beaten path. We parked in the north section next to the children’s playground, enjoying some time on the swings and slide before heading south into the woods with the group.

This map of the falls area shows the location of the various dams and past structures

 
There are several trails in the park. The main trail is paved and leads through an upland forest, another unmarked trail takes hikers along Reedy River upstream of the falls. The southern portion of the park is the falls area, and several informative placards explain the history and significance of the region. Farthest upstream is the 1910 dam, followed by the 1800s dam and a natural waterfall. The water flows through a series of shoals over 50 feet wide, dropping about 12 feet total. This area has an industrial history much like other sites along Reedy River, as the shoals were used as early as the 1820s to power mills. In the early 1920s an electrical power plant was built on the site, and various foundations remain from the plant and the general store that was located between the dam and Cedar Falls Road.

The boys next to what used to be the generator

 
Nowhere near as well known as the other falls on the Reedy River, the site was only developed a couple years ago. Seeing the beauty of the waterfall I can understand why it is one of the 17 Greenville area parks chosen for the first-ever Park Hop Scavenger Hunt. LiveWell Greenville is sponsoring this adventure designed to help Greenville County residents discover parks in their community. Using a “park passport” participants find answers in each of the parks, and at the end of the summer the passports can be traded in for chances to win prizes.  To sign up and download a copy of the passport click here.

Lauris and the river below the falls

 
After exploring the falls and finding the scavenger hunt clue we headed back to the northern portion of the park, enjoying snacks at the picnic shelter before giving the playground another go. Although we probably will not be visiting this park again in the near future due to the distance from our home, I am glad we had the opportunity to see the falls. If you decide to visit yourself, I hope you enjoy your visit!

The shoals at Cedar Falls
 
Note: Please be aware that the poison ivy is everywhere, even in mowed areas and especially surrounding the falls. Poison ivy can be a problem in parks in our area, but in the park it was everywhere, posing a real problem for parents with children who like to explore. Luckily we escaped unscathed...

The dam at Cedar Falls

Monday, June 10, 2013

High Park in Toronto

Two weeks ago Friday we found ourselves on a plane headed for Toronto, Canada. My cousin Līga’s confirmation was that Sunday, and we were joining most of my side of the family for a couple days. For the boys it was their first time in Canada, and although we didn’t have time for sights like the CN Tower we did manage to see a few places and sights that Roberts and I hadn’t yet seen.

 
A nice surprise was the Cheese Boutique, a gourmet grocery; “At Cheese Boutique prosciutto hangs from the ceiling, truffles are flown in every Wednesday, foie gras sits under lock and key, beef is dry aged 60 days, there are olive oils from 80 different terroirs and jams made from green walnuts, the best artisanal breads of the city, not to mention the chocolate boutique, pastry temptations and daily handpicked produce - but it is for the cheese that one must really come here.” (From the website) Note to self - next time you visit Toronto, drive. That way you can fill the trunk with French cheese.

Make sure you get a peek (and whiff!) of the cheese vault (middle)
 
Our relatives live in the vicinity of High Park, and that is how it came to be that Saturday we spent the majority of the day strolling through this 400 acre park. Originally purchased by John Howard as a sheep farm, the property was donated to the City of Toronto on three conditions; first, for Mr. Howard and his wife to continue to live in their house, the Colborn Lodge, second for no alcohol to ever be served in the park, and third that the park be named High Park and be free for people to enjoy. Opened in 1876, a large part is natural forest, with the oak savannah maintained by prescribed burns. With gardens, sports fields, picnicking areas, a beautiful children’s playground and a free zoo, there is more to do than can be seen in a day.

 
We followed small trails through the woods along the west ravine, which leads past Wendigo Creek and Wendigo Pond. Named after the wendigo, mythical cannibalistic creatures of Algonquian mythology, we did not linger long….It was discovered in 2003 that the eastern ravine lies over an ancient river; when capping two artisan wells a plume of water, sand and gravel shot fifty feet into the air. Research shows this pre-glacial Laurentian River System 160 feet below the surface had been undisturbed for thousands of years.
 
On the western edge of the park is Grenadier Pond, covering 35 acres and named after the local Town of York garrison of the 1800s who used the pond to fish. It is believed that British Grenadiers fell through the ice when crossing to defend the city in the War of 1812, and another urban legend claims the pond is bottomless and that the bottom has never been touched due to layers and layers of mud. On our visit the shore was dotted with fisherman fishing for bass, crappie, perch, pumpkinseed, bluegill, bullhead and carp.

 
We stopped in the zoo, the home to American bison, emu, llamas, peacocks, fallow deer, capybara, Highland cattle, yaks, Barbary sheep, and Mouflon sheep. Our favorite was the little wallaby that was returning to its enclosure from an outing. Although Lauris wasn’t keen on petting the joey, my cousins Annelī and Andis were! In 2012, the Toronto City Council discontinued funding to the High Park Zoo. Luckily the Honey Family Foundation stepped up to sponsor the zoo for three years, hopefully allowing the Friends of the High Park Zoo time to find a permanent source of funding.

 
Our next stop was the children's playgrounds, built in 1999 and named the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground after the volunteer who initiated the construction. A little over a year ago a portion was destroyed by arson, but the local community banded together to build a grand castle as a replacement , and the combined playground is fun for kids of all ages. The wooden walkways, towers and bridges brought back childhood memories of Indian Boundary Park in Chicago, the fieldhouse of which was also destroyed by arson in 2012.

 
We did not have a chance to visit the Grenadier Café, nor the produce market, Nature Center, pool or the Colborn Lodge Museum. We saw the little trackless train drive by (also free) but going for a spin will have to wait for a future visit, as will attending on of the Shakespeare in the park plays. The cherries had already bloomed (the first of which was planted in 1959 by the citizens of Tokyo), but to me all this just means we’ll have to return again soon. Nevertheless, the boys were growing tired and there was a long evening of preparations ahead for the next day’s confirmation, and so we headed back to krusttēvs Māris’s house for the evening, leave High Park to the wallabies for the night.

 
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