Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One year ago...

There is a downside to having nearly all your belongings in a container awaiting delivery somewhere in France (or so I hope) for five months while we wait for our apartment here in Clermont-Ferrand. But, there are positive things as well, such as a minimalistic lifestyle and our 2010 calendar! We do have several 2011 calendars, but because the walls are so bare due to lack of art to hang on them, we have left one of last years calendars on the wall. Every Christmas my grandmother receives a calendar made for her by her twelve grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Each grandchild receives the honor to design the art for one month out of each year, and we make copies for everyone to hang at home. And so in January we relived my sister Anna’s and Andrejs’s wedding. February brought my other sister Zinta’s art for the current year as well as my brother Māris’s compilation from the last. And this month, not only are we looking at my cousin Kaiva’s collage including some very lovely large hats but also my cousin Andis’s designed maze leading to grandmother’s house.

I also glance from time to time at the daily notes I made last year, and this is how I came to be thinking about what was happening in our lives last year. A very busy period for us! We had guests almost the entire month, which was wonderful because at this point in the pregnancy I had quit work and welcomed the extra time with family. My mother kicked it off with a weeklong visit during which we had a long list of things to do to prepare the nursery: we accomplished only a few because we spent the week sightseeing up in the mountains. Then my godmother and cousin Līga spent their spring break with us, during which time we saw even more sights and I was becoming quite an adept tour guide. With only a short break my aunt and her family, with cousins Annelī, Andis and Edgars showed up for another week of good food, great trips and help with the things pregnancy was making difficult. Note: I was still able to tie my shoes at this point, although I’m sure I would have had plenty of volunteers.

At this point I flipped forward to April, it had to be done, and alongside a picture of my godson Imants upside-down but right-side-up with all of his hair standing straight up (well, down) were notes on the second batch of visitors. Roberts’s parents, sister and family and cousin Asja (whose wedding we are very much looking forward to this year!) were in town for four days which we spent enjoying the beautiful Greenville spring weather. And although the cats had grown weary of the company, I was ready for more and so the icing on the cake came with Anna and Andrejs’s visit. The men moved furniture, Anna and I sorted baby clothes, and when they left I was within 12 days of my due date.

Well Lauris didn’t receive the message that everything was ready for him and only made his debut 16 days later, but by this time he was a healthy 23.5 inches tall and 8 pounds 15 ounces, far from the predicted 11.5. Here I must mention the last of our guests during these months, Pauls, Ēriks and Miķelis, family friends who came to help Roberts the days after Lauris was born… Anniņa, who came back to help me while Roberts was traveling. And the rest is history!

I wish that the past month here in Clermont could have been as filled with wonderful visitors, but on the other hand it would have been hard hosting so many people in our tiny temporary apartment. And we will soon have our first guests, Roberts’s brother Matīss and his girlfriend Indra will spent Easter with us. We have so very much to be thankful for in the past two years, and I can only dream of the adventures that we will have in the next. Thank you to all those who contributed to the remarkable memories of spring last year, please come visit again!

Friday, March 25, 2011

The livres of others...

For the past few months I have been reading borrowed books – the books of others.  Not that this is anything new.  I was a big fan of the Greenville library, but because Greenville and Northville before it had such good collections I did not have to scavenge.  When I’m trying out new authors I always borrow the book first; but once I find favorites I start building my collections through purchases.

My favorite of the borrowed books is “The School of Essential Ingredients” by Erica Bauermeister. I recommend it for those who enjoy food-related literature. The reader meets each of chef-and-restauranteur Lillian’s students through recipes, recollections and food related stories, and the hope and inspiration of the novel come across as strongly as the aromas and tastes of the ingredients. I have not been this taken by a food book since Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.”

As I mentioned before, I recently joined the IWC book club. So far I’ve only participated in one discussion, and this book, “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World” I purchased from Amazon.fr. My Amazon e-mails now arrive in French, and my “suggested reading” reads like the book club list, for many an IWC book club member buys all the books from this source.  Although I initially didn’t like this novel by Eric Weiner due to his technique of posing rhetorical questions to progress the story, I was hooked as soon as the adventurous travel began. The author spent a year traveling the world to find the happiest places and try to discern what makes them ‘happy’. It is left to the reader to decide what conclusions to draw about happiness from his accumulated observations and research, but besides the bliss factor, I really enjoyed reading about the vast differences in culture and mentalities of the many countries he visited.

Spring is here!

I’ve purchased a book or two at the local bookstore also, but the English language selection in the Auvergne can not be expected to be extensive and the prices are quite a bit higher. One purchase, “Chambres d'hôtes au Château” is a wonderful resource recommended by our friends in Chatenet, that lists 110 châteaus that rent rooms. The wonderful pictures give a good idea of the atmosphere of the restored castles, and we have already bookmarked several that we will try to visit in the next couple of years. From the same friends I also borrowed a couple of books, “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle and Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Big Country”, two selections that are must-reads for any expat. The former was a wonderful book that I am surprised I had not read earlier, and seems to be one of the first of many books describing the lives of Brits/Americans/etc. that have moved for the long-term to experience life in the French countryside. The latter was funny (although not one of Bryson’s best), about having returned to the US after living in England. Written in short essays, he rediscovers things that he had missed while abroad but also has quite a few ridiculous stories about ridiculous situations that can only happen in America.

At the last book club reading I brought with me a few books that I had finished, hoping to swap for a few new ones, and I did not leave empty handed.  I believe all three are former book club reads and I am disappointed I could not participate in the discussion for them… All had a common touchpoint in World War II, with the darkest being “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. Another book I had intended to read for some time, I couldn’t put it down despite the emotion and sadness on page after page. Set in 1939 in Nazi Germany, a little girl’s life is changed by a found book. Written from the viewpoint of Death, it is not the usual war-memoir. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Jonathon Safran Foer is the story of a boy coping with the loss of his father on 9/11 with a quest to find the lock that his father’s key opens. Excellently woven into the tragedy of 9/11 are strands of World War II memories and the resulting heart-rending tale brought me repeatedly to tears. The last, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows recounts the story of the occupation of the island of Guernsey by the Nazis. As in the other two books we read about goodness found in unusual places, unlikely heroes, and coping with loss.

Finally I want to mention three very good books I was gifted by my relatives back home, who always save their most out of the ordinary recommendations for me. The first, “Motorcycles and Sweetgrass” by Drew Hayden Taylor, is a blend of folklore of the indigenous peoples of Canada and contemporary issues and politics. The book jacket says it succinctly; “A story of magic, family, a mysterious stranger . . . and a band of marauding raccoons.” Extremely appropriate was “Dead in the Dregs: A Babe Stern Mystery” by Peter Lewis, due to a French tie-in, and genre. I love a good mystery, and by intertwining Napa Valley and Burgundy wine aficionados have much to think about in addition to the staple of every mystery – the murder. And is there a better way to end than with “Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel” by John Irving. From the author of classics “The World According to Garp” and “Cider House Rules” the newest novel once again  treats the subjects of life and love with expressive, well-chosen language, and makes the reading of another Irving book seem like a trip back to a recognizable, contented place.

Here is a picture of Lauris in his contented place, with his two buddies! More on these three to come!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Il marche!

Please see English below

Esmu priecīga un sajūsmināta paziņot par diviem lieliem notikumiem pēdejās nedēļās!

Pirmais, Lauris tagad ir staigātājs. Savā desmit mēnešu dzimšanas dienā tas jau bija spējīgs spert desmit soļus bez palīdzības, un līdz šodienai rekords ir 34! Esam nosūtijuši paziņojumus visām vietējām avīzēm.  Francijas Le Figaro un Le Monde bija identisks virsraksts: ,,Il Marche!” (Viņš staigā!)

Otrais, esmu iegādājusies bibliotekas kartiņu. Liels paldies Robertam kuŗš atnācā šodien līdz, lai palīdzētu man pareizi izpildīt formas, iesniegt vajadzīgos dokumentus, atbildēt visus jautājumus un samaksāt 6,60 €. Starp citu, šeit librairie pārdod grāmatas, bibliothèque aizņemās grāmatas, un médiathèque aizņemās mēdiju (CDs, DVDs utt). Tomēr ir bibliothèques kur nav grāmatu, bet tikai arhīvi, un médiathèques kur ir grāmatas! Tuvākā vieta mūsu tagadējai mājai kur ir grāmatas Laurim franciski un man angliski ir viena médiathèque. Tomēr šinī bibliotekā nav daudz grāmatu angliski; varbūt tikai divi lieli plaukti. Man laimējās, ka šeit „expatriate” sabiedrība ir samērā organizēta, un vietējā IWC („International Women’s Club”) piedalos ik mēneša literārā stundā.  Vedu līdz izlasītās grāmatas un tās izmainu ar citām dāmām pret grāmatām kuŗas vēl neesmu lasijusi.

Šodien visu dienu draud attālāki lietus mākoņi, bet tie arī visu dienu ir tādi palikuši – attālāki!  Skaists laiks, un to izmantojām no rīta kājām aizejot uz tuvāko priekšpilsētu, Chamalières, kur sestdienas rītos (kā arī otrdienās un ceturtdienās) ir tirgus pilsētas centrā. Iepirkāmies sieru, augļus, ābolu sulu, salātus un protams puķes! Mājās paēdam pusdienas; baguette, sieri, desa un sinepes. Laurīts ir izgulējies, esmu nobeigusi franču valodas mājasdarbus un mēs dosimies uz tuvāko parku, Jardin Lecoq.


I am happy and excited to announce two momentous events that have occurred in the past two weeks!

First, Lauris is now officially a walker. On his ten month birthday he could already walk ten steps unassisted, but now the record is 34 (Please see video in the Latvian section above, complete with a loud parental cheering section)! We have sent announcements to all the local newspapers.  The French daily newspapers Le Figaro and Le Monde ran with identical headlines:  Il Marche!” (He walks!)

Second, I am the proud owner of a library card. A big thanks to Roberts who came with to assist today in correctly filling out the forms, providing the necessary documents, answering all questions and paying the 6,60 € fee.  A librairie sells books, a bibliothèque lends books, and a médiathèque lends CDs, DVDs etc. Although there are bibliothèques that don’t have books, only archives, and médiathèques that have books, as I found out in my quest for a library card! The closest library that has French literature for Lauris and English literature for me is a médiathèque. As could be expected, there are only a few bookcases of books in English, but luckily I have the additional option of exchanging books with the ladies from the IWC (International Women’s Club) book club here in Clermont-Ferrand.

This morning a few rain clouds stayed far off in the distance and we had some pleasant weather. After a croissant and jam/honey/coffee breakfast we walked over to the closest ville, Chamalières, where there is an open-air market on Saturday mornings (as well as Tuesdays and Thursdays). We bought some cheese, fruit, fresh apple juice, salad and flowers, and walked home to a lunch of bread, cheese and sausage. Once Laurīts has napped and I have finished my French homework, we might head over to the closest park, Jardin Lecoq for some more fresh air.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Lonely Planet: “…Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, with a lavish table of piggy-driven dishes and delicacies to savour. The city has been a commercial, industrial and banking powerhouse for the past 500 years, and is still France’s second-largest conurbation, with outstanding art museums, a dynamic nightlife, green parks and a Unesco-listed Old Town…”

It got me at gastronomic! My stomach was looking forward to a weekend of good food and sightseeing, and it wasn’t disappointed. We took an early train out and arrived in Lyon late morning. Public transportation is simple and easily navigable; we were at our hotel in Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) just in time for lunch. Picking a restaurant based on the rooster signage, we dined at the Les Ventres Jaunes (The Yellow Stomach). My salmon was delicious, Roberts had a beef stew and Lauris made a significant dent in the bread basket. Surrounded by chicken paraphernalia, the atmosphere was original and quirky, the only thing better would have been to dine outside as the restaurant was on the main stretch and people watching would have been interesting. With full stomachs we set out for Fourvière, Lyon’s “hill of prayer”, topped by a basilica and the Tour  Métallique, a giant TV transmitter.

After buying tickets for the funiculaire we found it was currently not operational. This tram is the easiest way to get up to the top, although there are several buses that make the trip. We decided to hike it, complete with Lauris, stroller, baby bag etc. The montées, or rises, consist of winding flights of stairs and steep roads that climb the hill. We ended up on Montée du Garillan which consists of (per tMg) 224 steps. After the first ten flights of stairs I was having my doubts, but we were soon rewarded with some great views of the mosaic roofs of Vieux Lyon.

Through the park with the occasional glimpse of the basilica, and suddenly we were at the very top, rewarded with a view of Lyon. The Basilique Notre-Dame is a place of pilgrimage built after the Franco-Prussian War (1870) in fulfillment of a vow taken by the Archbishop of Lyon to build a church if the enemy did not approach the city. Magnificent inside and out, with its awe-inspiring location and beautiful surrounding gardens, we could have spent the entire day exploring. The cold and windy weather cut our sightseeing a little short however, leaving the Gallo-Roman ruins for another visit.

We continued our exploration of Vieux Lyon after a quick stop at an Irish pub to catch the last 15 minutes of the Italy-France rugby game. The Primatiale St-Jean is a beautiful cathedral that dates back to the 12th century. We caught the astronomical clock chiming complete with little figures emerging and circling the top of the clock. Next to the cathedral are ruins of Gallo-Roman baths and churches dating back to the 4th century as well as a crêpe stand that allowed us to continue our gastronomic adventure with a Nutella crêpe. Our hotel was one street over, on Rue du Bœuf. We searched in vain for the statue of the bull after which the street is supposedly named, but enjoyed our hotel very much. Four restored houses have been incorporated into the hotel, leaving a beautiful courtyard with U-shaped galleries in the center. Spiral rock staircases, small hidden alcoves and beautiful art complete the look and urge visitors to explore beyond the rooms. We took a break here to let Laurīts nap, then found our next meal at Chez Louise, again with traditional Lyonnais food. The meal – delicious! I can’t even tell you exactly what Roberts or I ordered, but my meal was tender ribs with a cheese sauce and heavenly scalloped potatoes, while Roberts ended up with another beef stew because of a mix up in the order. The atmosphere was cozy and warm, and it was late when we left for another quick walk through the Old Town before turning in for the night.

Basilica Notre Dame at night
We awoke the next morning to a steady drizzle that kept on the entire day. Not to be discouraged, we stopped at a corner bakery for breakfast #1 (croissants and pain de chocolate) before heading to the Saône river, along which Sunday mornings bring the Marché de la Création and Marché de l’Artisanat. We bought a painting of the very river scene we were strolling down, as well as a stunning red pansy necklace, then decided to get out of the rain for a bit. Breakfast #2, café au lait, more croissants. People watching. It was such a wonderful little café that we didn’t stop there, and eventually had breakfast #3, coffee, hot chocolate and begnets. Finally we headed out, this time to La Presqu’îlle, Lyon’s main city center situated between the Rhône and the Saône. Starting at Place Bellecour we headed north to Place des Terreaux, stopping at Häagen Dazs to get out of the rain for a bit, as not much else was open. The architecture along the way is lovely, and we will have to hope that next time we can explore without hurry. At the north end of our walk we marveled at the 19th century fountain sculpted by Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty. This was my favorite part of the day, because after seeing the fountain we ducked into the courtyard of the Musée des Beaux-Arts where we were able to stay dry while eating a quick snack and watching the rain fall in the gardens.

Back at the hotel we relaxed for a bit, and before we knew it, it was time to take the subway to the train station. One more gastronomical stop however, For Roberts a steak and fries, for me a pizza. This time the order mix-up was mine, I ended up with an olive, sausage and egg toppings. However, still delicious, and a short time later we were on the train back to Clermont, tired, a little wet but vowing to return soon, impressed with this city that is so close to home.

Roberts relaxing in front of St-Jean with a bit of parcour

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Week in Motion

The last week has been busy, busy, busy! Meeting new people, traveling and enrolling Lauris in daycare has kept us on the go, and it is a good thing. Last week I was able to meet a friend out on the town for dinner and a few hours peace which was a much needed rejuvenator from 24-7 time with an energetic 9 month old. We had a wonderful time at another friend’s house on Wednesday complete with dozens (maybe six, but it seemed like 24 or 36) of kids running/crawling around. Lauris has two friends that have birthdays around the same time, and it has been a pleasure watching these three interact and develop their rugby skills. Friday I met a few more mothers whose kids are a little older, but still a wonderful group of ladies. And Friday evening we had dinner with possibly the only other Latvian speaker in town. I find it incredible that our friend, having made the decision to learn Latvian, accomplished this goal by writing letters with the help of a dictionary and visiting Latvia a few times. Despite not speaking Latvian for a few years she spoke well enough to hold her own in conversation the entire night. Wonderful! Quite an inspiration to work more diligently on my French!

We accepted an offer from a friend to accompany him to the Millau bridge on Saturday. Only two hours south of Clermont-Ferrand is the town of Millau. It hosts the world’s tallest bridge, the Millau viaduct, whose highest pylon stands 343 m (1,125 feet) tall. Built to relieve traffic traveling south to the coast through the Tarn valley, it is 2,460 m (1.53 miles) long, and has itself become a tourist destination. With incredible views of the bridge as well as the river valley and Millau, I advise anyone traveling through to stop at the visitor center on the north end of the bridge and take a coffee, and a short walk up to the viewpoint.

Sunday was spent relaxing at home, but we did manage to take a quick trip out to Riom, the largest city directly north of Clermont. We visited a very beautiful church, the Basilique St-Amable (of which the nave and part of the transept date to the 12th century).  The church’s doors were open and welcoming, though our visit was somewhat marred by the amusement park ride set up right outside its doors and blasting carnival music. The fountains were not running, and being a Sunday, the city was noticeably empty. So we headed home, stopping for dinner on the way.

The last week has also seen our first visits to the halte garderie or crèche, the French daycare. I have French language lessons two days a week, and during this time we have struggled to find care for Lauris. After one unsuccessful visit (my French was not up to par for the task) we received some much needed and appreciated help in navigating the necessary paperwork and ensuring its correct completion. This week Lauris has started his adaptation, the process of introducing him and letting him get used to being away from me and in a different atmosphere. The process involves visits of increasing length, and once he feels comfortable I will be able to drop him off on my way to class. I believe that these six hours a week will provide a needed break in schedules to us both.  It will also be beneficial to both of our French studies – his with other children, and mine in the professional courses. This will be regular exposure to the French language which will hopefully provide a solid base for learning French once he starts school in a couple of years.

To top off this positive breakthrough spring is finally making an appearance. Although we still might have some cold weather, signs of what is to come are everywhere; in the park the crocus are emerging and the pansies in bloom, everywhere trees are budding, birds are chirping and winter coats are being discarded in favor of lighter jackets and sweaters. With the sunny days and warmer weather I feel my spirits rising and my wanderlust increasing… maybe a trip to the countryside in the next couple of weeks?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Le petit

For the last few weeks I have seen Lauris take a few steps to get from the coffee table to the sofa, or a chair to the table, but I never quite catch the whole “play”; does he let go before the two steps, or is he letting go only after moving? Do two steps count? Does it count if he wipes out after the two?

Then Sunday evening Roberts thought he caught him in the act, so we set everything up for an instant replay. The chairs were positioned, socks were removed for increased grip, and the video camera was prepared.

First try, imcomplete. Second try, down at the line of scrimmage. On the third try we had success – several identifiable steps, in sequence and without a fall. But wait, there is a challenge, Roberts looks up unsure if the steps occurred after letting go of the chair. The play is reviewed and the ruling on the field stands, two steps!

Our players once again get in position. On the first try, Minka is flagged for interference and sent off to the other room. Who let a cat onto the field of play anyway? On the succeeding try, four steps! The crowd goes wild, but once again there is a review of the play. It seems our star player went down after the four steps. A wipe out en route… is the attempt a success?

We will continue to practice in this household, with and without socks. Once the judges have ruled he's walking, we'll alert the media. And we are the judges.
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