Friday, June 29, 2012

No More Bad Photos

This is day 11, the second week of solitary confinement with a toddler and an infant while my husband is abroad. Everyone is still alive.

Lauris has run over Mikus once with the scooter, once with the tricycle, and once with a chair when I had taken the first two away. He has climbed out of his bed 231 times (calculated by multiplying yesterday’s count by 11). He has spilled his juice, dropped his ice cream, and gone digging in the kittie litter box.

Mikus has started to crawl, more like inchworm his way across the floor. He has slept less than ever, waking up earlier, staying up later. This could be due to the heatwave but probably has more to do with his brother giving him a wake-up-call (a lion’s roar right in the ear) when he does fall asleep. An infant, acting alone, has produced two monster loads of laundry.

Me? I have cried out of frustration, anger, fatigue and for no reason at all. My showers consist of one minute affairs as I try to keep Lauris away from Mikus, and Mikus from screaming away those last shreds of my patience. I am on a great diet; it’s called I don’t have time or the energy to eat. And when I do get out of the house it’s a free ticket for both boys to become unmanageable, for passers-by to give me ‘that’ look (the “my children never act like that,” “how can she leave the house,” “évidemment une femme américaine” look). I would love to eat a meal uninterrupted or go shop some of the soldes; but I will settle for washing my hair.

This is me in 2003. It was my last year earning my degree in forestry at University of Illinois. I was a member of the Illini Foresters; we attended conclaves (forestry competitions) in other states, participated in log-rolling contests, built giant bonfires, camped out in the winter during our Christmas tree sale fundraiser and generally were a tough, party-hard/work hard crew just starting our lives as adults. The extremely out-of-focus picture was taken on our very last trip as a group, a ten hour road trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula (UP) - I’m chopping away at a 4x8 post in the speed-chop competition. Today I’m sharing this picture and submitting this post to the “No More Bad Photos” competition at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary.

I wish I could recapture this moment, as it is probably the last picture taken of the old me, the care-free girl with a smile on my face and the axe in my hands. I was tough! I didn’t win the speed chop that day, but I finished and set a personal best. This picture represents the girl who would become a wildland firefighter, dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail and was convinced Alaska would be the life for her. Not a trace in the picture of a stay-at-home mother living in an apartment in central France – who would have known?

These days I have a harder time finding that girl in the person I am now. Some things haven’t changed since my forestry/firefighting days (two weeks without a real shower) but mostly my life is the opposite of those days ten years ago.  I’m washing my laundry not to get the sweat and blood out, but to wash the spit-up off. I’m not buckling myself into a harness to hang out of a helicopter; I’m buckling two squirming noodles into car seats. And I’m having a hard time feeling “tough” when a mere two weeks sans husband have me wrecked.

Thankfully, this is it. This is day 11 of my husband’s trip to the US, and this is the day he comes home. It is with the relief of an ordeal survived that I’m looking at that picture and seeing that girl I used to be. I wish I had a good photo of my achievement that day in the UP, because despite the occasional longings of an expat mom I know that the things I see in that picture are what have brought me here today. Strength, determination and a healthy dose of no fear are the traits that have ensured my happiness and success, and will continue to enrich my life as a mother, a wife and a woman on a journey.

In search of a life less ordinary

* Thanks to Russell Ward at In Search of a Life Less Ordinary: Adventures in Making a Home Away from Home, for hosting the No More Bad Photos competition.

** Update 07/02/2012
This essay took first place in the In Search of a Life Less Ordinary competition! Here's the announcement, and a huge thanks to Russell and his wife for awarding me this honor (and the awesome prize of a new Sony camera)!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Montpeyroux and the farm

After a gorgeous day spent at our friends’ house barbecuing, in and out of the pool, and relaxing, we had decided to meet again the next day as the weather forecast was favorable and the company pleasant. Marine had talked some time about a farm in Montpeyroux that the children would enjoy. I’ve been to Montpeyroux once (when my mother was visiting) and enjoyed the village immensely despite the cold weather, so I was enthusiastic to return now that it was warmer.

Ferme pédagogiquela Moulerette” was a fun Sunday excursion for the kids. Less than 30 minutes from Clermont-Ferrand and within walking distance from the historic Montpeyroux district, there are goats, pigs, cows, horses, geese, rabbits and chickens, as well as pony rides and cheese-making activities. Upon paying the minimal entry fee each child received a bucket full of stale bread that the animals greedily devoured, and for an additional few euros could have a pony ride. We were able to have a try at milking a goat (which Lauris wanted nothing to do with) and see some baby piglets. Lauris especially liked feeding the goats, although the play area (with little tricycles and other toys) came a close second…

Once the kids had their fill of visiting with the animals and the adults had their samples of the chevre made right there on the premises we continued on to Montpeyroux for a nice afternoon stroll around the town. The sunlight on stone was warming and picturesque, and as the evening approached we decided to stay for dinner at the La Vigne.

The atmosphere was charming, with stone walls and archways separating the two dining rooms from the entryway. In the winter I can imagine the giant fireplace probably radiates heat, and during the summer months the outdoor seating area would be full as the restaurant is in the heart of the village. The food was delicious and the service excellent! I had the lamb and was delighted with the seasoning (garlic and herb) as well as the accompanying veggies, but best of all was the fresh chèvre appetizer and the moelleux au caramel dessert with warm oozing caramel sauce and cool crème fraîche to sate my taste buds.

As we began our descent from the village to our car the sun was setting, disappearing behind the chaîne des puys. With only a short ride home the excursion amounted to a perfect day trip, combining fun for the whole family with child-friendly activities, beautiful sights and a delicious meal. Now that we’ve been in the winter and spring, maybe a summer trip is in order?

Monday, June 25, 2012


After a brief Jāņi interlude, here is one last post about our trip through Belgium and the Netherlands.
About 35 miles south of the center of Paris, and therefore on our route from Belgium
back home to Clermont-Ferrand, is Fountainbleau. Famous for the grand château de Fontainebleau, it is also known for the large and scenic National Forest. As we had seen quite a few sights that morning in Brussels, our arrival at the gîte I had found online was quite late. The host was waiting however, and soon we were settled into a very basic, but clean room. Breakfast the next morning was wonderful, coupled with fresh croissants and jams we were treated to an informative discussion with the owner. We knew we wanted to see the royal palace of the French monarchs, but we were urged to also spend some time in the Forêt de Fontainbleau, famous worldwide for the bouldering there. I recommend Le Clos du Tertre to anyone visiting the area; close to the palace, the price and accomodations were ideal. 

We were soon packed and on our way to one of the most popular of the recreation areas, Rochers de l’Eléphant, named after the large sandstone block resembling an elephant. We parked and walked a short ways on a sandy path to emerge alongside the elephant, and the sandstone rock formations behind it.

The next couple of hours were spent clambering over and between the rocks, even attempting to scale some of the smaller rocks. We saw a few more professional climbers, recognizable by the special shoes and mats they placed on the forest floor while free-climbing.

The formation of sandstone rocks of Fontainebleau started about 35 million years ago, when the region was covered by water. Large amounts of sand were brought into the sea by rivers and sandstone was formed. As the sea receded the sand flats were exposed to the elements, which formed the stone into the shapes we saw on our visit. An unique ecological area, it is home to the rare Service Tree of Fontainebleau and many different animal, plant and insect species.

Our route to the palace took us through dozens of fields planted in rapeseed. Used for animal feed, vegetable oil and as a source of biodiesel, it is easily recognized this time of year with its bright yellow flowers.

We arrived at the Palace of Fontainebleau just in time for lunch. After a delicious meal at La Bacchus we crossed the street and entered the gates of the château, which the French monarchy has used as a country retreat for hundreds of years. It was transformed from a country house by Francis I in the 16th century, and in the following three hundred years every monarch, from Francis I to Louis XV, made renovations to produce the final result thousands of tourists visit every year.

Famous events include the Edict of Fontainebleau (signed by Louis XIV on October 18th, 1685, it is also known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes), the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau (a secret agreement between France and Spain concerning the Louisiana territory in North America), and preliminary negotiations ending the Seven Years' War (held before the 1763 Treaty of Paris was signed). From June 1812 until January 1814 Pope Pius VII was held a prisoner of Napoleon at Fontainbleau, and in the nineteen months he never once left his apartments. The same Napoleon was later stripped of his powers by the 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau which sent him into exile on Elba. It's no wonder the entire property is on the UNESCO World Heritage site list.

We spent our time in the enormous gardens, feeding the giant carp and the ducks with day-old bread our generous gîte owner had provided us for just that occasion. And on this royal note our vacation had come to an end, as our next and final destination would be our home in Clermont.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Fête de la Musique

Happy Jāņi! Today is the Latvian name day of Jānis and Žanis. The name day tradition is celebrated in many countries, Latvia and France among them, and consists of celebrating the day of the year associated with one's given name.

In France, today is the Fête de la Saint-Jean (feast of St. John), which is traditionally celebrated with bonfires (le feu de la Saint-Jean). It is believed that the bonfire rites go back to the pagan rituals of Midsummer’s night, although today the catholic festival is in celebration of Saint John the Baptist. One source reports that in medieval times, this festival was celebrated with cat-burning rituals. Thankfully there will be no cat-burning in Clermont-Ferrand, but sadly I don’t know of a bonfire occurring here either.

A fête which was celebrated here in Clermont was the Fête de la Musique, also known as World Music Day. The music festival took place on June 21st and has an interesting history that binds the Americans and the French in yet another way. In 1976 American musician Joel Cohen proposed an all-night music celebration in France to mark the beginning of the summer solstice. It was first realized in 1982 in Paris, and has since spread to 32 countries worldwide. 

In Clermont-Ferrand the streets were full of amateur and professional musicians. There were concerts and unorganized jams, all for free. The noise and crowds weren’t the most child-friendly and so we mostly enjoyed the festivities from our window, watching the people on their way to and from Place de Jaude and listening to strains of music floating our way now and then.

The celebrations took a different twist later on that night, as revelers returning home kept us awake with yelling and honking until well after midnight, but as it was all in the name of music (and you’re not supposed to sleep on Jāņu night anyways) I didn’t get too upset. I only wish Mikus had gotten the memo about sleeping in…

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jāņi Chatenet

Please see below for English!


Ar to, ka pēdejos gados nācies Jāņus svinēt pilsētā (vai lidmašīnā, kā pagāšgad), ļoti priecājos par iespēju svinēt Jāņus šogad laukos. Mūsu draugi Chatenet mūs ielūdza pie viņiem nogalē pirms saulgriežiem uz līgošanu, un tā iznāca jau pagāšnedēļ siet Jāņu sieru un sameklēt dziesmu grāmatas.

Karīnas ģimene dzīvo tikai divas stundas uz rietumiem, un ceļš turp vijas caur mazām pilsētiņām un laukiem pilniem ar margrietiņām un lauku puķēm. Ierodoties Chatenet, Jāņu bērniem pretīm nāca saimnieks, saimniece un Maksīts, rokās Jāņu siers un alus ar ko pacienāt ciemiņus. Ozolu vītnes apgreznoja durvis un Maksītim prievīte kaklā, visi bija gatavi līgot! Kaut mākoņi atvietoja saulīti (taču bija vajadzīgs, ka līst mūsu Jāņu svinībās!) tomēr ēdām bagātas pusdienas „Maksīša dārzā,” zāļajā blakus saimnieka sakņu dārzam. Jāņu sieram līdz arī vietējie sieri un pâté (jo šī tomēr ir Francija!), pīrāgi un pašbrūvēts plūškoka (elderberry) vīns... kaut bija arī alus ar ko slāpes remdināt.

Saimnieki Jāņu vaiņagos

Puiši spēlējās Maksīša tēša būvētā spēļbūdā līdz pienāca brīdis noraut mirklīti, un tad kaut gulēja tikai divas trešdaļas no bērniem, visiem iznāca drusku atpūsties. Tiklīdz kā visi pamodās, Jāņa bērni devās pastaigā, saplūkt Jāņu zāles un ozola zarus vaiņagiem.

Ko Lauris pa papardēm?

Veidojās vaiņagi, ugunskuru iekūra, un tūliņ jau sākās apdziedāšana un lēkšana pāri ugunskuram! Lauris un Mikus abi pirmo reizi mūžā pārlēca ugunskuram (protams ar mammas un tēša palīdzību) un mēs visi sēdējām pie ugunskura, vaiņagiem galvā līdz pat tumsai. Un tad tikai sākās mielasts! Jēra gaļa un maziņi kartupeļi izrakti tieši tanī dienā no dārza.

Mani Jāņu puiši!

Mielošanās un ciemošanās turpinājās arī nākamā dienā. No rīta puses aizbraucām uz kaimiņu miestiņu kur orķestris bija atbraucis uzspēlēt kādu dziesmiņu pirms lielā koncerta. Pusdienas atkal baudijām ārā, šoreiz saules širmis mūs sargāja no saules un puiši pluņčājās peldbaseinā. Ik pa brīdim liepas nosmaržoja un bitīte pabizoja kur tuvumā. Un pēdejā pastaigā pirms brauciena atpakaļ uz pilsētu izstaigājām visu Chatenet, apciemojot kaimiņu lauksaimniecību lai arī lopiem atvestu kādu Jāņu līgo novēlējumu...

Novēlu ikvienam jautras un līksmas Jāņu svinības, vai tās būtu Gaŗezerā vai Kursā, laukos vai pilsētā, kā Jāņu bērnu vai saimnieki!

Ar vaiņagu galvā, smaidu sejā un alu rokā - Jāņi!

Jauni puiši, jaunas meitas
Līgojati Jāņu nakti!
Jānīt’s sēja zelta naudu
Jāņu nakti tīrumā.

Kas līgoja Jāņu nakti
Līgos visu vasariņu;
Kas gulēja Jāņu nakti
Gulēs visu vasariņu.

Jāņu diena, Jāņu nakts
Nu pats Jāņu vakariņš,
Nu Jānītis danci grieza
Apakš kupla ozoliņa.


With our Jāņi celebration taking place in the city and even on a plane past years, I was especially happy to observe the holiday in the country this year. Our Chatenet friends invited us to their home the weekend before solstice, and so it happened that I was tying the Jāņu siers and searching for my song books the previous week.

Lauris trying on his crown of oak leaves

Karīna and her family live just two hours west of Clermont, and the road there was lined with meadows full of daisies and other wildflowers. Upon arrival the hosts greeted us with song, Jāņu siers and beer in hand – the traditional Latvian greeting. They had decorated their home with oak garlands and little Max was sporting his prievīte (think woven tie fastened under the collar), and the Jāņu spirit was evident and infectious. The feast started immediately, with local cheeses and pâté on the table as well – this is France after all! A few pīrāgi and homebrewed elderberry wine, we sat and caught up on recent events and enjoyed one another’s company until the time came for naps.

Our hosts readying their crowns!

Our celebration continued in the traditional vein with the gathering of flowers and oak branches followed by the making of the crowns. The bonfire was lit, and jumping commenced, all three boys taking the first leap of their lives with the help of their parents. We were enjoying the evening to the extent that before we knew it, it was dark. This just meant that then the next feast began, and truly not much sleep was had that night, as per tradition.

The next day we visited a neighboring village to hear a local orchestra play a few tunes. Chatenet is in la Creuse region in Limousin, and groups from the area had gathered for a soirée that evening in Bussière Dunoise (also nearby) but were warming up by performing in dozens of small villages in the region.

Very impressive orchestra!

A lovely afternoon spent in the sun, splashing in the pool, eating a picnic lunch and visiting the nearby farm to look at the tractors! I can not picture a more perfect Jāņi than this one, spent with friends eating good food and relaxing in the country.

How many Jāņā bērni to steer a tractor?

Whether you are celebrating Jāņi, summer solstice, St. John’s day, midsummer’s night or the arrival of summer, I wish you a fantastic fête and a beautiful summer!

Also in this series -

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jāņi - the folklore

Around this time last year I was preparing for a trip to the US to visit family, and so a major Latvian holiday, Jāņi, passed pretty much unnoticed. Jāņi is the celebration of the summer solstice, the day when the axial tilt of a planet's semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun resulting in the longest day of the year. The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), and in many cultures is a celebration of fertility and fire. This year it falls on June 20th, and so last weekend we headed to the country to celebrate with our Chatenet friends.

Oaks symbolize virility and strength

The ancient Roman representation of the summer solstice celebration was Janus, the Greeks had Appolo, the Germans Ianus and the Latvians… Jānis. Although the day of Jānis and Žanis is celebrated on the 24th (and the summer solstice is on a different date from year to year so the exact date Jāņi are observed varies from year to year), many of the old pagean traditions still have a place in the modern day fête.

One of my favorite parts of Jāņi is the gathering of the flowers for the crowns

Singing plays a very important part of the celebration, and many of the traditional songs are interspersed with the word līgo, directly translated as “sway” but meaning to partake in the St. John’s festivities. The songs mark the beginning of the holiday, as they are sung during the preparations: cleaning, decorating and cooking.  Jāņu daudzināšana, as this warming up is called, helps to finish the work on hand; once Jānis arrives with the Jāņu bērni (children of Jānis, or guests), everything must be in order otherwise the guests will poke fun at the host’s laziness/messiness through song.

Although daisies are the most typical flower used in the crowns, any flower can be utilized

The traditional foods are prepared in anticipation of the guests’ arrival, most importantly Jāņu siers (the cheese of Jānis which I give the recipe for in my previous post) is made and beer is brewed. During Zāļu diena (the day of the grasses) the home is decorated with wildflowers and grasses, the girls weave their daisy crowns, the men make crowns of oak leaves, and oak branches are used to further adorn the house and yard. The symbolism behind this ornamentation is to protect the household against evil (those witches and wizards that especially on the shortest night of the year carry out their nefarious deeds). The greenery also has a specific meaning, it brings blessings and fertility, and the term zāles encompasses all the grasses, flowers etc. collected for this purpose.

Oak leaves adorning the front door of our Chatenet hosts home

Once the preparations are finished, the Jāņu svinības commence: the feast, more singing, the arrival of the mythological Jānis, aplīgošana, and the lighting of the Jāņu uguns, the fire.

A very French Jāņi - pīrāgi, Jāņu siers and a baguette!

The Jāņu bērni (guests) first honor the hosts, who in return offer cheese and beer before everyone sits down for the feast. As the meal continues, so does the singing, and after an extensive meal thanks is given to God and to the hosts. This also signals the beginning of the aplīgošana; with grasses, flowers and wreaths the guests visit every corner of the property, singing songs to bless the crops, the animals, the house and the inhabitants. Many times this carries on to the neighboring homes, and so on Jāņi every house must be prepared to welcome the Jāņu bērni with open arms! This would also be the point where an unadorned house or unfinished household chores would be noticed and teased through song.

Did you remember to bless your cows today?

Entire communities would come together to light the Jāņu uguns, usually on a hilltop or even on top of a specially constructed pole. The singing continues, as does the teasing, and the fire continues to burn until sunrise the following morning. One ritual still observed today is jumping over the bonfire, which brings luck and fertility. And speaking of fertility, Jāņi is traditionally a time to search for love. Which brings me to another custom, searching for the mysterious papardes zieds (flower of the fern), which would bring luck and happiness to the couple who finds it. However, such flowers supposedly exist only on Jāņu night, and the couple must search all night to find it…

The first jump over a bonfire for Lauris, ever!

Along with dawn goodbyes are said and the time comes to head home. I wish everyone a beautiful Jāņi and good luck in finding that papardes zieds!

Pār pļaviņu pāriedama,
Pļavas dziesmu nodziedāju,
Man piebira pilnas kurpes,
Zilu ziedu, zelta rasas.
            While crossing the pasture,
            I sang the song of the meadow,
            My shoes filling with
            Blue flowers, gold dew.

Sīkas puķes, lielas puķes
Ziede visu vasariņu;
Papardīte, gudriniece,
Tā ziedēja Jāņu nakti.
            Tiny flowers, large flowers
            Bloom all summer long;
            The clever fern,
            It blooms on St. John’s night.

Kas redzēja Jāņu nakti
Papardīti uzziedami,
Tas līgoja visu gadu,
Kā Jāņīša vakarāi.
            The one who saw on St. John’s night
            The little fern bloom,
            He/she will līgo all year,
            As he/she did on St. John’s night.

Also in this series -

Monday, June 18, 2012

Jāņu siers - how to tie the cheese!

In preparation for our weekend visit to Chatenet I spent a day “tying the cheese.” I’ll tell you more about the symbolism of Jāņu siers (summer solstice cheese) in a later post, but for now I’ll leave it at this; previous to this year I tried, unsuccessfully, to make this cheese at least four times. My frequent phone calls to the professionals in my family the previous years prompted my grandmother and aunt to spend a day with me showing me the process last summer, and so it was with renewed confidence that I started the task this year.

I believe that one of the main reasons I was unsuccessful up until this year was due to the ingredients. The family recipe I use calls for dry curd cottage cheese, and I have spent countless hours calling stores in South Carolina and Georgia searching for this product. Supposedly farmer’s cheese works the same, and even regular cottage cheese can be used, but the dry curd is the most favorable to work with. However, one of the foods on my list of “things not sold in France” is cottage cheese, so I headed to the Geant Casino Greek section for 3 pounds of ricotta cheese. Oops, I mean 1.36 kg.

Another needed item I’ve had problems finding in the USA is cheesecloth; I guess many people don’t make their own cheese anymore. The cheesecloth is also where “tying the cheese” (siet Jāņu sieru) comes in, the last step is to wrap the cheese in cheesecloth and refrigerate it. Luckily I have a roll of cheesecloth from a previous attempt.

The process can be messy and can require a significant amount of time - it was on a year of a failed attempt that I spent four hours stirring my curds.

However the end result is rewarding; even my failed attempts tasted right, it was just that the consistency was more like a spread than cheese. It must have been the cheese tying lessons from last year; this year, for the first time the result of my attempt was a sucess!

So for those brave souls out there looking to tie the cheese, this is what you’ll need (as per my great grandmother's recipe)
2 lb dry curd cottage cheese (or farmer’s cheese, regular cottage cheese, ricotta cheese…)
½ gallon milk
2-4 cups of water
3-4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk (which also isn’t available here, I used a fermented milk sold in the Halal section)
¼ cup butter
1 tablespoon caraway seed
salt to taste
Cheese cloth

1. Heat the milk and water to almost boiling. I’ve decided this is a crucial step, just keep it from boiling over but heat until starting to bubble.

2. Separate the eggs and mix egg whites with cottage cheese. (Keep the yolks, you'll need them in a few steps.) Add to the almost-boiling milk, mix well.

3. Add the buttermilk and mix.

4. Here comes the tricky part… Lower the heat, and continue stirring until the mixture separates into curds and whey. I found that allowing the mixture to return to almost boiling after adding the buttermilk, and afterwards keeping the heat just low enough to prevent it from burning, but higher than “low” were instrumental in a successful separation. Note: keep stirring!!! My grandmother says this usually takes between 20 minutes to an hour, but my godmother’s separates in about 5 minutes, and I’ve kept at it for four hours without results. This year it took 36.5 minutes. How can you tell the mixture has separated? It looks different, thicker, less melted more gummy bits… Sorry, that’s all I’ve got! Bon courage!

5. Cut the cheesecloth to fit in a colander and strain the mixture. I use clothespins to clip the sides and put the whole thing in the sink, so that when you pour the hot mixture in, the cheesecloth stays in place and there is less of a mess.

6. In a clean pot melt the butter, and then add the caraway, the curds from the cheesecloth, the egg yolks and salt to taste.

7. Over a low heat knead the mixture with a wooden spoon until it “goes together.” I’ve been told the longer you knead it the better. What does “go together” look like? It all sticks together in a big ball.

8. Wrap the finished product in cheesecloth and place in refrigerator. I use a strainer lined with cheesecloth, placed over a bowl to catch the last juice, with a plate on top for some weight. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours.

There are many variations on the recipe out there, and our Chatenet host said she's read that adding a drop of lemon juice can help the separation. However, this recipe tastes like Jāņi with my grandparents on their Wisconsin farm, so I think I'll stick with it. I have a whole year to find a source for dry curd cottage cheese! I wish everyone luck in their preparations for Jāņi!

Labvakari Jāņu māte,
Vai gaidīji Jāņu bērnus?
Vai sasēji lielu sieru?
Vai ir silta istabiņa?

Nākat šurpu, Jāņa bērni,
Nākat lieli, nākat mazi,
Lieliem došu saldu alu,
Maziem siera gabaliņu.

Also in this series -

Friday, June 15, 2012


We arrived in Bruxelles, Belgium in the late evening after a day spent in the Delta region in the Netherlands and in Brugge. The Basilique nationale du Sacré-Cœur greeted us, the waning light reflected in the stained-glass windows. Oskars, friend and host awaited our arrival and we excitedly discussed what we would see the following day over a beer. Then the two older boys headed out to go meet some of the local Latvians, leaving the two younger ones with me to catch up on some sleep in preparation for a long day of seeing the sights.

Originally Flemish, the city today speaks mostly French although English is commonly spoken as well. The name comes from the original 10th century settlement in the area, Bruocsella, a Frankish word meaning “the village in the marshes.” No marshes in evidence for us! The city has a long and fascinating history which I will not retell, but will suggest you have a read.

The Maison de Brasseurs on the Grand Place

Our official tour guide brought us right to the very center of town via subway, and we emerged to see that Brussels had its very own fête taking place that day, the Red Bull Zeepkistenrace – similar to a pine-car derby that almost rivals Queen’s Day in Amsterdam… almost. Or not at all.

But as the cars weren’t rolling yet, we headed straight for Grand-Place, the humongous square that was built after the French destroyed the town in 1695. The guildhalls were restored in the 19th century; this is when they received the ornamentation and gilded motifs. All the merchants had their hall: the haberdashers, the tallow merchants, the archers guild, the bakers, the butchers and the cabinet-makers. With gorgeous Baroque facades in the three architectural orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian), there are legends and stories galore to match each and every building that faces the Grand Place. The most intriguing is associated with the Hôtel de Ville and its construction which took place over several centuries. Looking closely one sees that the front entrance doesn’t line up, and it was this flaw among several others that supposedly drove an architect to commit suicide from the beautiful tower that is topped by a copper statue of St Michael.

What would be a trip to Brussels without a look at Manneken Pis? The fountain, which was sculpted by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder in 1619 provided the district’s water supply. The current copy (as the original is under safeguard after being stolen several times) was wearing a costume, but I can not tell you which one. One day when I have some free time I want to explore his online “closet” which has pictures of the 800 outfits that have been presented to him over the years.

We returned to watch a portion of the derby, and Lauris even got a backstage tour. The carts were hilarious and the hilarity contagious.

* Note - I did not accompany the boys behind the scenes... *

As by this time we were thirsty and two members of our party were asleep, we headed for Délirium Café, famous for the thousands of varieties of beer available there. And what would be a visit to Brussels without a meal of moules and fries, so we crossed that off the list too.

That evening we were lucky enough to be invited to a folk dancing exhibition in the Latvian EU building, but soon we were on our way back to the center of town for dinner at the Fin De Siècle. Our host described the restaurant as having big portions of local fare, and as one of the top spots of the year. With no sign outside, the menu printed in a careful hand on a blackboard, and an owner that bounces around the table talking to everyone, we found the place to be our top restaurant experience on the entire trip. Four local dishes were suggested by the owner: rabbit, sausage, beef stew and a giant serving of ham. Along with a glass of Belgian beer the dining experience was not only worth the wait (spent sitting outside at a table with a couple of local beers until the owner came to bring us to a table) but I wanted to run after the people who were turning away seeing the line out the door to tell them it is worth every minute! If you’re in town, go to Fin De Siècle, Rue des Chartreux 9, in Brussels, Belgium.

Finally, a trip up to the top floor of a parking garage to take in the city at night. It pays to have a local tour guide, as the 360° view was free and included not only the center of town but we could see as far as Atomium, the relic from the1958 World Fair.

The following day we hopped on the subway to a brocante, but on our way passed the massive Palais du Justice. From all the amazing architecture we saw on our trip, this immense structure (in the style of Assyro-Babylonian) was the most impressive in my point of view. Belgium’s supreme court of law is situated high on a hill, giving it a great panoramic view of the city below, and measuring 20,000 square meters, the building is about 3 times the size of the Royal Palace. Commissioned by Leopold II, one of the first Kings of Belgium, it took 20 years to complete and cost about $300 million in today’s terms. The architect was Joseph Poelaert, who died 4 years before the building’s completion in 1883. Between the 3,000 homes that were demolished to provide the land, and the source of the funds (Leopold II was famous for acquiring the Congo for his personal possession and over 20 years looting it for rubber, ivory and other commodities, killing millions in the process) the building has caused quite a bit of controversy, and is still in the limelight. Currently on the UNESCO World Heritage "maybe" list, the building is badly deteriorated. "Under renovation" since 2003, "actual renovation" must soon be started or the building may become too decrepit to restore.

Then a quick meal, a stop at Leonidas, the chocolatier, and before long we were off to our final destination on this trip, Fountainbleau. A huge thank you to Oskars for playing host and tour guide, it wouldn’t have been the same without you!

And this is how we roll...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Our most recent guest

The Kalamazoo grandmother’s visit was over in the blink of an eye. She arrived not long after we returned from our Amsterdam trip, but unfortunately missed Lauris’s second birthday and the parties involved. As had happened last year, we celebrated a few times; once on the exact day, just the four of us, then at the IWC mom and baby group May birthday party extravaganza. Finally we had the train party that I went overboard with. To top it all off, Lauris’s friend Beatrice had a party to celebrate her third birthday, so by the time the boys’ grandmother arrived we were all partied out!


On the other hand, she arrived just in time to help celebrate our third wedding anniversary and to enjoy a wonderful weekend with our friends. A day spent by the pool and barbecuing was followed by a visit to Montpeyroux. (Do I spot a trend? Chicago grandmother also got to visit this Plus Beaux Village, although we didn’t hit the petting zoo that time.) She got to know Mikus, as this was her first time meeting her fourth grandson, and was reacquainted with Lauris

The Montpeyroux farm

A little over a week after her arrival we were off to meet grandpa in Germany with a slight detour past Mount Blanc and through Switzerland. Once back home the last week passed unnoticed, and I couldn’t believe when it came time to drive her to the airport! I had all these grand plans of things we would do and projects I wanted to finish, but instead we spent the days enjoying the roses in the park, taking long walks around town and enjoying the things that grandmothers do best (reading books, building towers… that sort of thing!).

Place de la Victoire in Clermont-Ferrand

I was spoiled with opportunities to go to the grocery store… alone. I was also able to spend more time in the kitchen experimenting with some new recipes, and Roberts and I got not one but TWO nights out sans enfants! However the best part was seeing Lauris wake in the mornings to go running off to grandmother’s room to say good morning.

Staubbach Falls in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

We had to drive Roberts to the airport for a week of business on the other side of the world and one day later we found ourselves saying goodbye again, this time to the grandmother. One of those really hard weeks followed, just me with the kids who both caught colds and couldn’t sleep because of the congestion. Finally dad has returned home and the runny noses have slowed if not abated. The trips to the grocery store with my entourage have resumed; Monday I was complimented on having “two-stories” of children (at least that’s what I understood with my limited French, I can imagine she was commenting on Mikus in the baby carrier while Lauris was in the stroller). And you know what? Those unfinished projects will just have to wait (until Mikus starts college?), because we have to go to the park to check on the progress of installing the new playground equipment. It’s just a shame grandmother couldn’t stay long enough to see the work completed.
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