Monday, November 30, 2015

Falls Creek Falls - way more exciting than it sounds

We hit the trails last weekend: destination Falls Creek Falls. Just east of Jones Gap State Park, this portion of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area is protected by the Nature Conservancy. To reach the trailhead we headed north from SC Highway11 on the road that leads to the Jones Gap visitor center, but took a series of smaller roads leading towards Palmetto Bible Camp until we eventually crossed Falls Creek and arrived at the small parking area and kiosk. As most of the leaves have fallen there is a little teaser for the falls on Duckworth Rd. on the way in – they can just be seen across the fields opposite the camp.

We parked, registered at the kiosk and headed in, one of only two vehicles parked at the trailhead. The 1.3 mile-long trail starts off on a steep climb up an old roadbed following purple blazes, climbing 200’ in the first 0.35 miles.

The trail levels out for the middle section of the hike, leading through a beautiful hardwood forest filled with giant boulders. The peace in this draw was profound; the rocks appeared as slumbering giants in a bed of autumn leaves, with oaks and maples towering overhead to shelter their resting place. We dawdled here, and the boys scaled one of the largest boulders, the sense of accomplishment etched in their smiles.

A slight downhill dip led us to the Little Falls Creek crossing. The slippery stones were navigated without incident and we soon found ourselves climbing again, the last ½ mile a 400’ elevation gain. The boys needed some encouragement on this segment, and we frequently found ourselves holding their hands to help ascend some of the steepest sections in a series of switchbacks.

We heard the falls first, and then had a partially obstructed view through the trees. Once at the falls, a spur trail leads to a view of the top of the falls, while the main trail steeply descends to the base of the falls. From here the 5 mile Hospital Rock Trail takes you to the Jones Gap Visitor Center as well as to the connector trail that climbs up to Pretty Place, or you can retrace your steps back to the parking lot.

We first took in the 100’ waterfall from the base of the falls. Both the trail up to the top section and the one to the base are incredibly steep and difficult, but luckily short. We enjoyed the view of the waterfall and Jones Gap, and then climbed up to check out the upper section. Both spots had decent sized boulders that would make for a great picnic, but we opted to head back aways to a safer zone for our snack.

On our way down the switchbacks we saw a total of about a dozen hikers with about six dogs. While the majority were off leash and didn’t bother us, we had a nervous minute or two while three larger dogs passed while we were seated on the edge of the trail taking a break; the dog’s owners can assure me all they want that their dog would never harm anyone, but when meeting strange dogs on the trail you never know what will startle the dog, especially when there is the unpredictability of children and wilderness in the mix. My boys know better than to approach these four-legged hikers, but when a child comes nose to nose with a large dog coming around the corner I feel the need to remind the owners that the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area has leash laws for a reason. As it was, the encounters left me jumpy and I found myself missing most of the fabulous views on the way down.

Once we had hopped back across Little Falls Creek Mikus and I took a small detour up an old road bed to the waterfall visible from the trail. The road leads to a cluster of large boulders, and skirting them to the right we found an easy ascent to a great view of a 40’ slide.

Once back in the field of boulders the boys convinced their father to climb three or four more of the giants with them, leaving me with a sleeping baby in the carrier to regain the serenity to be found in the autumn forest.

The rock-climbing sapped the last bit of the boys’ energy levels and we found ourselves cajoling and coaxing them along the last bit to the car. Good thing we had the promise of ice cream on the way home in addition to pb&j sandwiches waiting in the car…

The 2.5 mile Falls Creek Falls hike took us a total of 4 hours to hike (probably closer to 3 miles with the several detours we added). Lauris and Mikus (5 and 3 years old) walked the entire way, while Vilis (1) rode in the backpack carrier. This is not a hike that would have been possible without Roberts along; I carried Vilis on the return trip which was hard enough – I can’t imagine how it was on the way up! We took frequent breaks for snacks/photos/nature journals which helped break up the steep sections (800 feet net elevation gain), and we let the boys make decisions such as choosing to climb a boulder, or lingering longer at the waterfall to maintain peace on the trail. Final verdict: thumbs up! Challenging hike, beautiful waterfall and unique boulder forest – perfect for a warm autumn day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vilis flies to Canada

As if traveling to Latvia this summer wasn’t enough international travel, I managed to sneak in not just one, but two trips to Canada a few months back. My godparents both live in Toronto, so it wasn’t the first time I crossed our northern border; when I was in elementary school I made the trip solo on more than one summer vacation. However we haven’t been recently, and when we were invited to a second cousin’s wedding I thought someone should represent… With the school year underway it turned out that only Vilis and I made the trip – his first time in Canada!

It wasn’t all as easy as I had imagined. We flew the first leg with not a problem, only to wait in a customer service line 30 minutes to be told that Vilis needs his own ticket despite flying in my lap. We had paid the taxes on his flight in Greenville, so when it was explained that a paper ticket is usually mailed to the billing address, I grew impatient with the situation, as the connecting flight was due to leave in 30 minutes. After 20 more minutes the attendant finally “found” where the ticket was, and left to go get it. Another 20 minutes, and she arrived to hand me the ticket, at which point I ran through the concourse only to find that all flights were grounded due to lightning – quite fortunate for me, as otherwise I would have missed the connection! Arriving in Toronto 2 hours late we ran into our second hiccup; border patrol asked me if I was married, and when I replied in the affirmative I was asked if I had a signed letter stating the other parent is aware I am crossing international borders with our son. I explained that Roberts was home with the other two boys, and that I was headed to a wedding, and when asked if I had any proof I provided the invitation. At that point it was smoother sailing, as the officer smiled at the invite saying “this is the most beautiful wedding invitation!” and waved us through. (Thanks M&M, for the awesome invite!) 

One of a few churches that had been renovated into loft apartments

In addition to some sightseeing in the Junction area of Toronto, we got to spend time with my cousins, godparents and Toronto Juris – a treat when we’ve seen so little of them in the past years. Coincidentally, my godfather was just in Greenville for a visit, however twice in two months is a rarity – I’m lucky to see them all twice in two years, especially the cousins who are traveling the world, doing their thing.

Saturday we headed to Sidrabene for the wedding, a Latvian property north of Toronto. The camp is owned and operated by St. Andrew's Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto, and although originally intended only as a summer camp and a meeting place for Latvians displaced by WWII, in the last sixty years it has taken on many other roles. Within the property lines there are 60 cabins, a main event hall, a café and a swimming area with salt water pool and splash pad. The outdoor chapel hosts weddings, christenings and confirmations in addition to twice weekly worship services during the summer. Just as Roberts and I have Gaŗezers, many of our Canadian friends grew up in Sidrabene, spending their summers and weekends surrounded by nature and Latvian culture. Many a Latvian couple has met at one of the Latvian camps scattered across the US and Canada; fate would have it that Māris and Meghan found one another in Sidrabene.

Despite the slightly uncooperative weather, the day was amazing. If anything, the drizzle kept everyone from spreading out over the vast acreage, fostering a feeling of togetherness in the cozy hall. The couple had put so much thought into making each and every guest feel welcome and comfortable, and the decorations! Starting with the birch branches used as indoor accents, to the slate coasters the couple had customized for each guest to take home with them; the natural theme they had chosen was elegant in its simplicity and really showed off their creativity and dedication. It was such an honor to be invited to share in this special day with Māris, Meghan and Ādams – you have a beautiful family and it was a beautiful day!

Vilis and I had a great time with family and friends, if only for the weekend and despite the difficulties in flying solo with a baby. I was relieved when he slept a majority of the way home, even more relieved when the mechanical problems on our second flight were resolved and we were allowed to take off for Greenville! And so it came about that not even a month later I was on my way to Canada once more, although this time sans husband and children – for the first time in over five years. (to be continued...)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Lunch in Paris - a feast

We traveled to Paris last week: with our hearts, thoughts and prayers.

It was something of a coincidence that a few days later we journeyed to the City of Light once more, this time with our stomachs. The “Lunch in Paris” had been in the works for about a month, the book selected for our fledgling cookbook club because of my ties to France and with no inkling of events to come… Although work in the kitchen commenced with a heavy heart, thoughts of the terrors spanning the globe on the forefront of everyone’s mind, we still gathered for our feast; it seemed that an evening to honor the culinary flair of the beautiful country of France would be a fine way to celebrate the resilient spirit of the French. And if we were doing it, we might as well do it right – with the full seven courses!

Photo credit: Heidi Johnson

Elizabeth Bard’s love story “Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes” was published in 2010, nearly coinciding with our move to France and resonating with me in the many aspects of learning the way of life – culinary and otherwise – in a foreign country. While I appreciated the many anecdotes of American life in Paris, the recipes went untested; I was too busy learning how to ask for le fromage at the market to navigate the seemingly complex recipes at the time. Although I’ve added to my culinary repertoire over the last five years, I still had not found the courage to try any of the recipes, hence the motivation for choosing this book in particular. A few days before our dinner all the members had finally made their recipe choices, and when I realized we had enough for a full seven-course meal I took the liberty of planning a few aspects of our meal outside the confines of the novel.

Bon appetit, y'all

The guests arrived to L’Apéritif of champagne and tentative conversation in the kitchen while we waited on the last few stragglers to arrive. When we sat down to the table it was to the entrée of Velouté de Carottes, creamy carrot soup. Such a delicious, yet simple soup to warm our taste buds to the adventure still to come!

One of the members had risen to the challenge and prepared poached cod with wilted leeks and homemade mayonnaise (homemade mayonnaise!), and so we continued our feast with the fish course. Accompanying the cod were potato and celery root mash, Purée de Céleri - basically mashed potatoes but with the undertones of celery root. We compared notes on the details of these recipes, becoming more and more giddy in the luxury of uninterrupted conversation with other adults!

Fennel salad with lemon, olive oil and pomegranate seeds

My contribution to the meal was served next, during what is the main course in a French dinner, le plat principal. The Aubergines Farcies au Quinoa (eggplant stuffed with quinoa) was a personal test; I had never cooked quinoa before (much less knew how to pronounce it!), nor had I attempted to stuff an eggplant. The recipe was challenging, as dealing with the eggplant wasn’t as easy as I had imagined (or described)– “carefully scoop out most of the flesh without piercing the skin” and “chop the eggplant into small chunks” – was nearly impossible, but the end result was a hearty vegetarian main course that was complimented by the delicious sides accompanying it: Mamy Simone’s Tabouleh, Lentilles au Vin Blanc and fennel salad with lemon, olive oil and pomegranate seeds. By this time we were getting quite full, and respite came in terms of a cheese course.

Eggplant stuffed with quinoa

Not quite a baguette, the Swamp Rabbit Café & Grocery stecca was the bread I chose to accompany our meal. Going against French custom, I had sliced the loaf (the French tear their baguette at the table) and we dug in now while sampling the cheese. A mountain cheddar from Ashe County Cheese, a Normandy brie, and camembert to round out the selection. Then, it was time for dessert!

Yogurt cake

The last dish prepared from “Lunch in Paris” was the Gâteau au Yaourt, yogurt cake. We relished our slice(s!), knowing that the evening was coming to a close. A cup of coffee and quite a bit of conversation later the time came to say goodbye, and with full stomachs and recharged batteries everyone headed home to rejoin the chaos. In my case the chaos came home to me, the boys bubbling over with all they had seen and done on their ‘boys’ day’ – the adventure of traveling to France and back in one meal providing warmth and light in the darkness of the weeks following the Paris massacre. 


From Lunch in Paris (by Elizabeth Bard) and the chapter entitled “Dinner Among Friends,”
(Aubergines Farcies au Quinoa) serves 4

4 medium eggplants, 10oz each*
1 tablespoon plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
5 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
½ teaspoon sugar
1/3 cup white wine
1 1/3 cups chicken broth
1 cup quinoa
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of cinnamon
A small handful of cilantro, coarsely chopped, plus more for garnish
8 ounces soft goat cheese, sliced into 8 rounds

Choose eggplants that are firm, shiny, and without blemishes – the smaller and heavier, the better.
          Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
          Rinse the eggplants and pat them dry. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Prick five or six holes in each eggplant with a fork to allow steam to escape. Rub the surface of the eggplants with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bake for 1 hour, until the flesh is tender.

          Meanwhile, in a medium frying pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and sugar, and cook for 10 minutes. Add the white wine, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook for a further 10 minutes. Remove ¾ cup tomato sauce from the pan and set aside.

          In a small saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Add he quinoa and bring back to a boil. Cover tightly, lower the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes, until the broth is absorbed. The quinoa should have the consistency of couscous. Fluff with a fork and leave to cool.

          When the eggplants are done, drain any liquid from the baking sheet and let the eggplants cool slightly. Make a 4-inch cut in the top of each eggplant and carefully scoop out most of the flesh without piercing the skin.** Put the eggplant shells in a shallow casserole dish (you will stuff them later). Put the flesh in a colander, pressing firmly with the back of a fork (or your hand) to drain any excess liquid. Season the flesh with salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
          Chop the seasoned eggplant flesh into small chunks*** and add to the tomato sauce in the frying pan, along with a small handful of cilantro. Heat through. Add the quinoa, stir to combine.

          Stuff the eggplant shells with the quinoa mixture; they should be heaping. Top each eggplant with a spoonful or two of your reserved tomato sauce. (You can refrigerate the eggplants at this point. Reheat at 350˚F, tightly covered with foil, for 30 minutes. Proceed as below.)
          Set the oven to broil.
          Top each eggplant with 2 slices of goat cheese. Cook on the middle rack of the over for 3 to 4 minutes, until the cheese is softened and beginning to color.
          Sprinkle with fresh cilantro. Serve with a large green salad.

* The eggplants I purchased were slightly larger & the cooking time longer as a result.
** This was difficult! I pierced the outer skin in all four eggplants while attempting to empty them, but feel that the result was just as delicious
*** Since I wasn't able to neatly scoop the flesh out as suggested by the recipe, it wasn’t cut into recognizable chunks… more like spooned straight into the bowl!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Reidsville and the Celtic Fringe

“Life is a journey, not a destination” doesn’t appeal to road trips with three kids in the car. The older two are getting better with keeping themselves occupied on our trips, but Vilis is of that age when he just doesn’t want to sit still, much less strapped in looking at the rear seat of a car. I remember taking road trips with Roberts back in the day, when we would take exits on a whim based on the name of a town, or take the ‘scenic route’ adding hours to the trip; these days we take the shortest route, and forge on until a diaper change, restroom break or meltdown forces us to stop. Of course this isn’t the most effective way of finding cool places to stop, so it was the luck of the draw that we found Reidsville, North Carolina.

This wasn’t a pull-off-the-highway kind of stop, instead we drove four or five minutes after getting off the expressway to reach downtown, where we easily found our lunch stop, The Celtic Fringe. Billed as an “eclectic Irish bistro,” we were pleasantly surprised to find such a diverse menu and professional service in a small town – this place would fit right in in downtown Greenville. Definitely not expected among the chains and fast food joints found at most of the I-29 exits!

I ordered the fish and chips, Roberts had the special and the boys had bangers and mash – clean plates all around. Everything about this place was top notch, and the husband has declared he wants to go back on his birthday…

After the meal we weren’t quite ready to dive into the remaining 3.5 hours of our trip home so we stopped at Lake Reidsville Rec Park. Enjoying the sunshine next to the lake was the perfect thing while our stomachs were busy digesting, the boys exploring the various docks and then settling in under a giant white oak to collect acorns. With 750 acres of camping, fishing, boating and hiking, the park is a popular destination for everyone from picnickers to anglers and fishing tournaments. During our visits the picnic shelters were full of families celebrating birthdays, and numerous fisherman were taking advantage of the nice weather to get out on the water.

A great meal, full stomachs and a beautiful fall day on a lake – it doesn’t get much better than that. Except maybe if you don’t have another 3 or 4 hour drive with three kids ahead of you…

Celtic Fringe

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On this day in 1918...

On this day in the year 1918 Latvia declared its independence.

This press statement was released by John Kerry (Secretary of State) and can be seen on

On the Occasion of Latvia's National Day

On behalf of President Obama and the citizens of the United States, I congratulate the people of Latvia on the 97th anniversary of your independence on November 18.

Latvia is a strong partner in Europe and on the global stage, and living proof of the enduring power of democracy. Seventy five years ago, following the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles declared that the United States would not recognize their incorporation into the Soviet Union. The United States stood by Latvia then, just as we do so now. We are partners on the world stage and NATO Allies committed to mutual defense.

I am confident that the friendship between the Latvian and American peoples will continue to deepen and flourish. The American people wish you the best as you celebrate this special day.

As is our tradition these past three years in Greenville, we hosted the area’s Latvians to celebrate this 97th birthday. It was a happy evening, in the company of friends who share our language, our history and our love of pīrāgi! Not one, not two, but three different recipes were represented on our holiday table; to be added to the guest list, please leave me a comment! <wink, wink>

I would like to share this video of krusttēvs Māris on RīgaTV 24's broadcast of Pilsētas Pulss (the pulse of the city). Proud of you brālīt

Sveiks svētkos!

(Indriķa Alunāna izdevniecībā iespiests plakāts ar Jura Alunāna dzejoli "Nevis slinkojot un pūstot" (mākslinieks H. Šics, 1873.) source here)

Monday, November 16, 2015

The fishing village of Ragaciems

You might have noticed that over the last months my blog posts have been jumping here, there, everywhere. Our trip to Latvia this summer yielded so many topics that I wanted to write about, that a rather long line of posts lined up concerning the end of summer/fall back here in the US, of which a few managed to interrupt the queue before present day posts cut in line and mixed up everything. The reality is that I’ve left the story of our adventures in Latvia unfinished (at least in my eyes), and with December and the beginning of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas rapidly approaching the nonsensical order is guaranteed to continue at least until the end of the month.

When I last left off in Latvia we had just emerged from a hike in the bogs of Ķemeri National Park, an amazing ecosystem of incredible biodiversity and beauty. From there we headed north through the park past Lake Kaņieris, to the coast of the Baltic Sea. The coastal sand dunes stretch along most of the shore, continuously changing due to the effects of the wind and waves. To reach the sea we parked on Highway P128, and after a short walk through the inland dunes (which are more stable and covered by pine forests) we emerged to blinding blue skies. Despite the warm temperatures and sunshine the seashore was almost empty – the majority of beachgoers having stopped short at the Jūrmala strand.

Our destination was actually not the sea, but Ragaciems, and so we continued east towards Jūrmala. Primarily a fishing village, it is also known for being the birthplace of poet Imants Ziedonis. Separated from neighboring Lapmežciems by Starpiņupīte, the canal built in 1667 to connect Lake Kaņieris to the sea, the village is named for the ‘horn’ (rags), or the isthmus of land that extends into the Gulf of Rīga.

Legend has it that centuries ago locals would burn fires on the large dune nearby called Kuģu kalns, or Ship mountain, in imitation of the lights of a port. Local ships would be lured toward land, and once they had grounded the thieves would board, stealing their cargo.

Nowadays, the fishing village caters mostly to tourists and travelers, the fish market well known for fresh seafood and smoked fish. We were soon on the road back to Jūrmala, freshly picked berries, smoked fish and local beer in hand.

After a feast of epic proportions we walked out to the beach one last time. As the sun set over the Baltic Sea the kids chased one another on the shallow sandbars and played in the sand, the water near shore warmed from the summer sun. We said goodbye twice that evening: once to the friends who had so graciously hosted us on a memorable summer's day, and once to the soft sands of the Baltic Sea coast – it might be some time before we see either again.

Friday, November 13, 2015

M. Judson Books; the next chapter for downtown Greenville

I had long lamented the dearth of a bookstore on Main Street in downtown Greenville, but then last year finally saw the used bookstore open across from Falls Park in the West End. However there was still something missing... Then along with summer came the great news – the grand opening of M. Judson Books in the historic Greenville County Courthouse in the very heart of the city!

The neoclassical Beaux Arts building was built in 1918, serving as county courthouse until 1950 when it was exchanged for family court. It served this role until 1991, and not long after was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1994). The courthouse was the site of the 1947 Willie Earle trial; while awaiting trial for killing a white taxi driver, Earle was kidnapped and murdered by 31 white men. The entire lynch mob was arrested and tried for murder & conspiracy, but eventually acquitted.

The modern history of the building is comparatively benign, as in more recent years it has been home to the River Falls Spa and two companies that had a hand in its 2003 renovation, Hughes Development Corporation and Design Strategies Architecture. What makes the opening of M. Judson’s in this space such a positive development is as far as downtown goes, Main Street has been without a new-book vendor for decades as the Greenville landmark Open Book moved out to Pleasantburg in 1993. Other than the recently-opened Joe's Place, the last bookstore was the used-book dealer Bentley’s, which closed in 2006. 

M. Judson booksellers & storytellers quietly opened this summer after two years of work, slowly gaining momentum and attention for their carefully curated selection. While they do offer bestsellers, the store’s focus is on Southern lit, regional authors, culinary literature and books for children and young adults. In other words, it’s a veritable pinterest board of inspiration and eye candy!

When entering from Main Street visitors pass through the foyer with its sweeping double staircase before entering the bookstore between long counters adorned with books. To the right is the café, which offers small plate-style offerings, coffee and a selection of beer and wine. On sunny days the outdoors tables are usually occupied: individuals engrossed in a book, friends conversing over a coffee, families pausing during their walk.

Saturdays at 10:30 is the weekly children’s event Story Time on the Steps, and the bookstore’s calendar is otherwise full of author readings, a pop-up supper series and book signings. Also available are various book club packages that include books, drinks and other perks – see website for details.

M. Judson is frequently a stop when showing our visitors around downtown - for some chess pie, coffee and a souvenir. It is also a go-to for original, unique presents, for children and adults alike – especially important with the holiday season around the corner. While I’m happy to see a non-chain business move into this key downtown location, it’s even better to see such an innovative, inspirational and cleverly curated bookstore become a member of the Greenville community. Let's support our small, locally-owned businesses this holiday season - why not, when they're as fantastic as M. Judson?

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