Monday, February 27, 2012

The Liebster award

The Liebster blog award is one of the coolest blogging awards I have received, because it is a different take on the chain-blog. It recognizes blogs with fewer than 200 followers in the hopes of expanding their readership.

I do not deny that followers are important to me; every time a new follower signs up I do a little happy dance, and if one leaves I ponder what I am doing wrong. Just as blogging has become more to me than updates on our life in France, my followers have become more than just people who read my blog. They are my gateway to blog-world and to other remarkable blogs. Followers also answer questions and solve problems through their comments; and at a more basic level, followers are like friends.

And so a GIANT merci beaucoup for the award Aidan! Aidan’s blog is Conjugating Irregular Verbs: letters from my dining table in the south of France. My first thought on reading her post was that her blog would have been on the list of my five favorites, and my second was what, she doesn’t have 200 followers?

So after narrowing down my favorites (liebster in German means dearest, favorite or beloved) I’ve come up with these five blogs that I believe deserve more followers. I hope you have the time to visit them and have a look yourself.

1. Zosia at Polonica: Home Again. After 21 years of living and working in Canada, she’s back in Poland and keeping this journal of rediscovering her home country. Through her posts and her photographs I’m becoming acquainted with a Poland I would like to visit someday. I’m also impressed that she posts each and every post in Polish as well as English, it dwarfs my attempt at trans-posting (?) in Latvian!

2. Mook at Hello Latvia. After growing up in Australia, Mook has now been living in Latvia for ten years. I see the posts about her two sons as lessons on how to raise a couple of boys, but I also appreciate the insight on a country that has shaped my life despite never having lived there, from another mother that can look at it with the eyes of someone not having lived there her entire life.

3. Bridget at Tales of a Tai Tai. I read her blog for the first time because of the similarities in our blogs’ names – a tai tai is also a woman who stays at home – and then I was hooked. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband and 5 week old son, and the last month I’ve been reliving the joys of being a first-time parent through her posts as we start our life as a family of four here in Clermont. Bridget’s Hong Kong is alive and vibrant, as are her high-quality pictures.

4. B at Is There Such a thing as too much cheese. I’m sorry I discovered this blog shortly before she moved from France back to Australia, as I could have used the insights on French culture, traveling and food. However her journey is only getting more exciting as she awaits the birth of her first with her husband in Melbourne. (And the due date is soon, can’t wait to meet little B through the blog!)

5. Momma at HJ Underway. Having just moved to Paris from the East Coast (of the US) with  husband and little boy HJ, her brand new blog is a fresh look on the expatriation process with all its trials and snags. I can sense the excitement of it all and it reminds me of our arrival here in France; Momma, I hope you don’t lose that spark!

If you would like to keep the blog love going, you
- link back to the blogger who awarded you as a big thanks!
- copy and paste the blog award on your blog
- reveal your 5 blog picks
- let them know you choose them by leaving a comment on their blog

Thanks to each and every one of my followers, subscribers and readers, and I hope you enjoy my five picks!

Friday, February 24, 2012


When the days start getting longer and spring is just around the corner, Latvians celebrate Meteņi. Seven weeks before Easter, it is celebrated the day before Catholic Ash Wednesday. In other countries this day is called  Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, Pancake Day, Mardi Gras, and Fat Tuesday. The coming of spring is associated with old fertility rituals to promote and enrich the new growing season, and one of these rituals is sledding. During meteņi the higher the hill and the faster the sled, the higher and faster your crops will grow. Lauris and Mikus have already commenced with the growing, no sledding necessary; yesterday came the moment I put away a good portion of Mikus's 0-3 month clothes and sorted through Lauris's old clothes for all the 3-6 month outfits.

Baby boot camp: Mikus doing his daily pushups

We celebrated Meteņi with the traditional foods, Latvian pancakes and Meteņa maizītes, or as called in my family, štopkūkas, and a few guests to help eat them (instead of going sledding). The ladies came over with Lauris’s best buddies, and in no time the living room was transformed into a crèche, with toys spread evenly over the floor like a carpet, the decibel reading at levels just under “earplugs needed”, and unbelievably, only one ice-pack required over the course of the afternoon.

The three amigos reunited

So back to the štopkūkas*... Our adventure with whipped cream continued as we bought several varieties of cream and did some research. A comment left on the Bizet day post mirrored what my friend Evdoxia had advised, to use a powder with the cream to help it whip better, while another friend recommended buying cream over a 30% fat content (whipping cream in the US I believe is 36%). So we searched our local stores but didn’t find the powder, and we now have at least five different types of cream in the refrigerator. Our luck turned when Evdoxia showed up Thursday with a bottle of the needed cream (crème fluide with a fat content of 30%) and a box of the Chantifix (Vahiné brand in this case), and we were able to finish the štopkūkas without using the back-up bottle of onctuesuse (Reddi-wip in the US) I had found. 

This recipe is my mother’s, and I’ve noted the minor modifications we made to utilize it here in France.

Ingredients for Latvian Meteņu maizītes:
            ¾ cups milk
            ¼ cup sugar
            1 tsp. salt
            ¼ cup butter (unsalted)
            1 tsp. lemon zest
            ¼ cup warm water
            1/3 of a 2 ounce cake of fresh yeast (we used 1 envelope of dry yeast)
            1 egg + egg for brushing the tops
            3 ½ cups sifted flour (we used only about 3 as the flour is finer)
            1-2 tbsp. chopped or sliced almonds
            1 cup whipping cream (we used 20 cl crème fluide  + 1 packet Chantifix)
            3 tbsp. powdered sugar + more for final decoration
            vanilla is optional
1. Preheat oven to 400º.
2. Heat milk to almost boiling, then add sugar, salt, butter and lemon zest. Stir until sugar has melted and then set aside to cool.
3. Proof the yeast in the warm water with a little sugar.
4. Beat the egg, and once the milk mixture has cooled add the egg and the yeast. Slowly, and mixing the entire time, add the flour until it becomes too stiff to mix, then knead with hands. Be careful not to add too much flour.
5. Once the dough is smooth, place in a greased bowl with a towel covering it and let rise in a warm spot until doubled. Lightly knead, then let rise another half an hour.
6. Divide the dough into 12-15 pieces. Stretch each piece into a square, then fold corners under to form a sort of ball before placing on a greased cookie sheet. Brush lightly with egg yolk, sprinkle with almonds and let rise another thirty minutes.
7. Cook in preheated oven 15 minutes or until lightly browned.
8. Whip cream with powdered sugar and vanilla.
9. When the little breads have cooled, cut the very top off with a sharp knife and scoop out the insides. Fill with whipped cream, place the top back on and decorate with powdered sugar.

Labu apetīti!

Un daudz laimes dzimšanas dienā manai mīļai māšelei Annai Pannai!!! Ieēdīšu štopkūku tev par godu!

* My French friend Marion informed me that there is something similar in look (but is in fact a pastry, more than a bread) to the štopkūka here in France, the choux à la crème.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


The temperatures have warmed some, but the wind still has the potential to force us indoors, as we found on our last excursion here in Clermont-Ferrand. I feel as though there is so much right here in town to show my mother, but we’ve been slow to see the sights due to the combination of cold weather and little children.

Last Friday we made it to the Jardin Lecoq. The fountain was a little frozen.

You know, it usually looks more like this...

La Pyramide Desaix wasn’t faring much better.

The “pyramid” is the name that the people of Clermont call the giant obelisk at the intersection northwest of Jardin Lecoq. It celebrates the memory of the general who died at Marengo in 1800. The urn on top of the obelisk is believed to contain Desaix’s heart, and the decoration, which was begun by the sculptor Chinard, was never finished.

Monday we stopped in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption and then, after passing through Place du Terrail we visited Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port. However by the time we got to Place Delille we started feeling like icicles ourselves and chose to hop on a tram back home. Not before I snapped this picture of one of the Fountaines de l’Hôtel de Ville

The twin fountains were built in 1848 to beautify the entrance to the Town Hall. And yes, that is what Hôtel de Ville means, it’s not a hotel, but I only learned this after 7 months in France.

Although the temperatures are supposed to keep climbing through the week, I'm lucky to have two personal lap-warmers to get me through this cold spell…

Photo: Leigh Jones

Monday, February 20, 2012


With a significant increase in temperatures and a rare sunny day, we would have been remiss not to get out of Clermont-Ferrand on Saturday. For our destination, we chose Montpeyroux and the Vic-le-Comte area, a mere 25 minute drive south. In the middle of Comté, the region is made up of a series of volcanoes which form the boundary between the Limagne plain and the Livradois mountains. Most of these 50 volcanoes have been eroded to the point where only the chimneys remain, and in the past and present grape vines grow on the exposed slopes. With fantastic views of the Chaîne des Puys from points of higher elevation, and quaint hillside villages dotting the region, we could have spent an additional day or two exploring the area.

Mountpeyroux as seen from bridge over Allier near Coudes

Montpeyroux is a fortified village overlooking the Allier river situated on a hilltop; you may have seen it if you have ever taken the A 75 highway south of Clermont-Ferrand: the three story 13th century keep can be seen for miles around. With its narrow, twisting streets, the colony of artists and craftsmen who have made it their home and its wine-growing past, the village definitely qualifies for les Plus Beaux Villages de France classification, the Association of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France.” To become a member of the Association a village must pass the four-stage selection process, and only about 150 villages have earned the distinction.

Not built of the lavastone as most of the nearby villages as well as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in Clermont-Ferrand, the honey hues of the village are due to the local arkose rock, a sedimentary sandstone. Many of the old houses in the village have been restored and the shutters and doors boast fresh coats of paint drawing attention to beautiful woodwork and detail.

After a stroll through the village we dined at a local restaurant before one last loop and returning to the car. Montpeyroux is a very photogenic village (between the three adults we must have taken hundreds of pictures), but the town did not seem very lively. This may be because it is off-season, and the many artisan workshops and stores were all closed and due to reopen only in April, but there was also a lack of many things that gave nearby Vic-le-Comte the opposite feeling: boulangeries, cafés, doctor and dentist’s offices. Instead all the businesses seemed primarily tourist-driven, and on a Saturday in February the streets were completely quiet with the exception of the occasional tourist or car passing by.

Our next stop was Puy St-Romain, an ancient place of worship with a striking view of the Comté Puys, the Forez mountains, the Livradois mountains, the Vic-le-Comte basin, the Allier valley, the Cantal, Dore and Dôme mountains and Clermont-Ferrand. Though I base this on the Auvergne Michelin Guide as we only saw the southern view, because after braving the snow and mud two-track that lead to the “parking” area (I’d call it a sinkhole) and encountering the locals that looked at us as if we were crazy for even coming that far, we didn’t hike very far from the car. Lauris and Roberts made it all the way to the field bordering the sinkhole, I kept within 5 feet of the car, and my mother was forced (by me) to trudge 10 meters down the road to snap some pictures of the view. I hope we have the opportunity to return during a warmer and drier month. (I would also add that although the Michelin Guide lists the hike to the summit as a 45 minute round trip, it looked to be an arduous hike.)

Photo: Inga Lucāne

Final destination, Vic-le-Comte, home of the papermill owned by the Bank of France that makes the watermarked paper used for the French EU monetary units. (By the way, these are printed only blocks from our apartment in a complex in Chamalières!) We luckily found the town center and the Sainte-Chapelle minutes before the doors were closed, and were able to see the unbelievable stained-glass windows and the stone altarpiece from 1520. In the streets surrounding the church were several half-timbered and corbelled houses with 15th and 16th century facades, as well as Porte Robin, the only remains of the fortified curtain wall. We ended our tour in Place du Vieux Marché, with its 16th century fountain that was currently turned off before returning to the car for a short, 25 minute drive home.

Half-timbered house in Vic-le-Comte

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A bizet day

The past week has really flown by. As we adjust to life as a family of four, I’m thankful every day that my mother is here to help. Not only is she the extra pair of hands to hold Mikus while he gets his bath, or to wrangle Lauris into his snow pants and coat, but she is also the suggestion on what to make for dinner, the discussion on a novel we have both read, the photographer with prudence to have camera on hand for all those perfect moments, the adult conversation between readings of Babar, the patience I seem to be short on these days, the one to spoil Lauris rotten and most recently, culinary sidekick. (Of course she has done so much more these past weeks, but the sentence had run on long enough!)

Obligatory photograph of  Mikus
Photo: Inga Lucans

About three or four years ago I asked my aunt Zinta for her baiser torte recipe (we call it a bizet torte), but having gotten it I never did attempt it. Zinta’s tortes are perfect, the family recipe and many years of practice evident in every bite. We were lucky enough to have a couple of her bizets at our wedding, and when discussing this with my mother we agreed that there is never any left when one goes back for seconds! I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making one, but have never overcome the fear of meringue and torte construction, much less dared to hope that any of my attempts would come close to the ideal of how they should taste. Yet with my mother here I decided now would be an ideal time to try, so Sunday we gave it a shot.

The funniest thing is, my mother (although an experienced cook with a specialty in Latvian foods) had never made a meringue either! She assured me that would be the hardest part, neither of us had imagined the torte construction would take the entire day. So we beat the egg whites, added the powdered sugar, spread the mixture out in layers and put these in the oven to dry, and it turns out this was the easiest half of the project.

Note the miscellaneous stuff on my counter - Tabasco, espresso maker, pacifiers...

Differences in French ingredients strike again! The whipping cream would not whip. And I mean, every time it looked like it was developing peaks, it would immediately return to its original state. After more than an hour with the hand mixer we gave up and built the torte in a pie dish to catch the liquid “layers”. Freezing helped, this way it retained some of its cake form while allowing us to cut slices the following day when my friends came to visit.

Looks ok, if you ignore the pie dish full of cream...

However, the taste was right; each guest took a slice at first to be polite, then asked for seconds (and maybe even thirds) having had a bite. This is the first time in my life I have had unlimited access to a bizet torte, and I’m thinking the quantity I’ve consumed in the past three days can not be healthy! Once I find the secret to whipping cream I will be giving it another shot, I think this recipe competes with desserts from Clermont’s finest patisserie!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine’s Day!

My very first Valentine’s day with three men in my life!

Last week four of my friends from the IWC photography club stopped by to meet Mikus. Not only did they brave the cold to have a cup of coffee and give my mother and me a change of pace, but they brought a delicious dinner that had me asking for recipes. I believe I’m most grateful for the photo shoot they did with Mikus (although Lauris made it into some of the pictures as he’s not one to let little brother have all the attention), and I can’t wait to see all the photographs they took! Thank you to Leigh for this beautiful preview of my little Bigfoot! 

Photo: Leigh Jones

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Movin' on... down

The past two weeks have been colder than usual here in France. Lows in the negative teens (about 0 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit) in Clermont-Ferrand are warm compared to those of Eastern Europe, but when local averages for this time of year are on average above freezing, the results are frozen pipes, problems with snow removal and for the especially unlucky, heating problems. I am extremely grateful we got all of our hot water and heating issues out of the way in October  and that we are all snug and cozy in our apartment.

Photo: Inga Lucāne

We have ventured out during this cold snap; Lauris in his snow pants and winter boots with face hardly visible behind the shawl wrapping him like a mummy, and Mikus either in the carrier or BabyBjörn, under down comforter. However the trips have been short, a couple of times to the store, once to the Marché Saint-Pierre and last weekend to the marché aux puces (although Mikus and I stayed home for that one). I miss our almost-daily visits to the park and strolls through the city, although I’m not sure how much this break in routine is due to the weather and how much to my lack of energy.

Things haven’t slowed down much in spite of the weather, excluding the couple of snow days people stayed home because of bad roads it is business as usual here in Clermont. From our perch in the living room window we watch everyone hurrying to their destinations, bundled up and faces turned down to avoid the wind. (Whereas normally they are turned down to avoid the dog poop; this might be the best part of the cold weather, all the poop is frozen!) Then Thursday morning we woke to a commotion outside, and I entered the dining room to see quite a sight right outside our window.

The family on the 3rd etage (fourth floor in the United States) was moving out, and instead of transporting everything down stairs or trying to fit it into the cupboard-sized elevator, a vertical conveyor had been set up. This is normal for the city, with extremely narrow stairwells yet large balcony windows it is quite common to see people’s belongings traveling up and down on moving platforms. Lauris and I settled down to breakfast watching tables, chairs, boxes and other unidentifiable packages traveling past our windows. Entertainment for Lauris, amusing for me… until the moment one of the movers appeared, riding down and then back up with a particularly unstable load… with me, still in robe with bedhead, sitting only about 10 feet away.

I survived the embarrassment, Lauris spent another hour with his grandmother watching the men at work, and we thought warm thoughts for the men riding up and down on that platform in this chilly, chilly weather.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana

On the first of February (the eve of Independence Day), the Republic of Estonia honored 99 people with the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana (Maarjamaa Risti teenetemärk in Estonian and Māras zemes krusta ordenis in Latvian). This decoration was instituted in 1995 to honor the independence of the Estonian state, and the highest class (of six), the Collar of the Order, is bestowed upon the President of the Republic. The five classes of the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana are given as a decoration of the highest class on non-Estonian citizens who have rendered special services to the Republic of Estonia.

Collar of the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana
Source: Wikipedia

I am extremely proud to announce that my uncle, Guntis Šmidchens, was one of the recipients of this award. The President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, signed a resolution to give the state decorations; “As the Head of State, I consider the decorations of the Republic of Estonia to be the highest gratitude and acknowledgement of the Republic of Estonia to people from Estonia and other countries, whose work and activities have contributed to a better, safer and richer Estonia and, in a number of cases, the nominees of the decorations have expressed special personal courage. They have done more that their work would have assumed them to do.”

Guntis is a professor at the University of Washington and one of the founders of the Baltic study program there. He joins the ranks of distinguished persons such as former Latvian presidents Valdis Zatlers, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga and Guntis Ulmanis, as well as former US president George W. Bush as recipients of this decoration.

The announcement comes on the heels of another major accomplishment, receiving tenure at the University. Apsveicu Gunti! We are so very proud of your accomplishments and wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

Link to offical press release here.
Link to official declaration by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, in Estonian here.
Link to list of former recipients here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What a week!

HUGE weekend. In no particular order.

First, the Superbowl. Friends in Indiana have been reporting on the mass craziness in Indianapolis the last week. Although not really a fan of the New York Giants or the New England Patriots (I would root for da Bears being a Chicago girl, as well as the Lions because I have never met a bigger Lions fan than Roberts), I love Superbowl Sunday; the team loyalties, friendly rivalries, awesome snacks, entertaining commercials and all the hype surrounding the halftime show (Bruce and the E Street Band in ’09 was THE best halftime show ever, won't try to compare Madonna). Last year we watched a recording the following day at a friend’s house, and it was not as exciting as watching real time.

Second, the 34th International Short Film Festival, here in Clermont-Ferrand. This year the festival started on January 27th and the final day was February the 4th, Saturday. The event, which originated in 1979, has become the world's first cinema event dedicated to short films. It is the second largest film festival in France after Cannes in terms of audience and professional attendance, but first in terms of number of spectators, as the Cannes festival only allows professionals in theatres. In 2009, the Festival attracted 137,196 visitors from all over the world to Clermont-Ferrand (according to the official website). Last year we missed out on attending by not knowing it was a short film festival, and thinking that Lauris would not be able to handle full-length films. Side note, there were six films representing Latvija in the international competition: Korida (Jānis Cimermanis), Opera Heartbeats (Inese Stāde), Parādi man skaņu (Agnese Laizane), Soup (Maira Dobele), Tārpiņš (Nīls Skarpāns) and Ursus (Reinis Pētersons).

Note the Latvian flag on the left

Third, the kickoff to the Fête des vins de France at the Vinidôme, at the Grand Halle d’Auvergne, here in Clermont-Ferrand. It’s all the expatriates have been talking about these past weeks, with over 450 exhibitors from 350 wineries. According to their website, this is one of the five biggest exhibitions of French wines and last year attracted nearly 53,000 visitors. Last year we missed out for two reasons, the first being that we didn’t have a car (and public transportation would have been do-able but complicated) and the second that I was breastfeeding Lauris, and would have only been able to watch Roberts “tasting.”

So, a very active weekend for us… except we didn’t attend any of these events. With the Superbowl broadcast in the early morning hours we had reserved for attempted sleep, the short film festival in its final day and the fête des vins still… well, containing alcohol, we skipped out on all of the above in order to concentrate solely on the biggest event of the weekend – Mikus’s one week birthday.

Photo: Inga Lucāne

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Il est arrivé!

Mikus Jumis (for English please see below)
Svētdien, pulksten 1345, vienlaikus Francijā ieradās Mikus Jumis ar savu vecmammu. Mazais, Clinique de Chataigneraie slimnīcā ar ārstes Anton-Bousquet un sage femme palīdzību, svēra 10 mārciņas, 6 unces un 21.25 collas gaŗš. Vecmamma, Clermont-Ferrand lidostā, kur to sagaidija manas grieķu draudzenes vīrs ar šofera-tipa zīmīti. Todien arī Clermontā uzsniga pirmais līpošais sniegs, kas ieradās kopīgi ar lielu aukstumu visā Eiropā. Gribu pieminēt, ka ledusskapis (par kuŗu gāja runa pagāš nedēļ) pasteidzās gan Jumim, gan sniegam pa priekšu, ierodoties ceturtdien līdz ar diviem ļoti pieklajīgiem bet galīgi angliski nerunājošiem darbniekiem.

Šodien ar Miku pārnācu mājās, un kaut ārā turpina snigt, iekšā silts un omulīgs. Svinējām Francijas crêpe dienu (par kuŗu stāstiju pirms gada) kā arī mājās pārnākšanu ar lielām plāno pankūku vakariņām un turpinam baudīt jaunāko ģimenes locekļa klātbūtni.
At the exact moment his grandmother landed in Clermont-Ferrand, Mikus Jumis made his appearance in the world. Weighing 4,7 kilograms and 54 cm tall (10lb 6oz and 21.25”), he was delivered by doctor and sage femme at the Clinique de Chataigneraie in Beaumont. My mother’s flight landed five minutes early at CFE, where she was greeted by a friend bearing a sign with her name. Sunday also marked the arrival of the first sticking snow here in Clermont-Ferrand, along with the deep freeze that is enveloping Europe. At this point I will add that the refrigerator (that I mentioned last week) beat everyone, arriving last Thursday.

Today Mikus and I came home, and although it continues to snow outside it is warm and cozy inside. We celebrated jour des crêpe (Candlemas day here in France, I wrote about it here) as well as homecoming with a big dinner of crêpes, Mikus watching us wide-eyed the entire time without making a peep. And so starts life as a family of four: I just have to remember I’m now outnumbered, 3 to 1.
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