Friday, September 28, 2012

Chicago Children's Museum

It isn’t hard to stay busy in Chicago. In addition to the multitudes of relatives and friends that stopped by to meet Mikus for the first time and catch up with Lauris and me, we also took advantage of some of the family fun the city has to offer. Although Lauris is happy with a big cardboard box and some matchbox cars, his favorite place might have been the Children’s Museum. There are several locations in the Chicago area but as we were meeting an old friend of mine with her children, convenience dictated we meet at the Navy Pier location.

The Museum is very well-thought out, and  really has activities for every age. It is split into many rooms, each with a different theme, and most rooms have a play area within for smaller children. It was a relief to be able to put Mikus down and know he hasn’t crawled off somewhere while I’m playing with Lauris, and I even got in some chat-time with Cathy.

Our first stop was the fire truck area, complete with fire boots and coats for the kids to put on, hoses to hook up, fire poles to slide down and a command center to operate. As a former firefighter I can vouch for the authenticity of the set up: I was surprised at the detail, and how much to do was packed into very little space. We also spent some time in the building area, which had only boards, nuts, bolts and washers and depended solely on the child’s imagination. Or the parent’s patience, whichever runs out first….

The “little town” room was great, and Cathy’s oldest had just as fun a time as the two two-year olds. With a gas station, general store and post office, the kids were pushing around shopping carts, practicing paying for groceries and doing their own thing for over an hour. The dinosaur excavation was not as age appropriate. I helped Lauris “find” some bones but he wanted to pull them out and look at them, and since each bone is a part of a larger picture and therefore remains in place he quickly lost interest.  Mikus wanted to eat the sand.

I believe the greatest asset of the children’s museum is their water room. The kids don little rain jackets before entering the room filled with all sorts of water-related activities. One wall is for “water art”, another has jets squirting into the air that can be redirected, split and capped with various pipes and tubing. The centerpiece is a long river with flowing water that allows children to learn about lock mechanisms, water pressure and the power of flowing water through pulleys, gears, spinning wheels and the placement of barriers. While the older children experimented with diverting water flow and pumping stations, Lauris had just as much fun floating boats down river, carrying buckets  of water from one place to the next and getting soaked down to the diaper in no time despite the waterproof gear.

Every empty spot is filled with some sort of activity or learning station: giant dominoes, a bowling alley, catapaults… We drifted into the bug room with its shadowplay butterfly area, costumes and video-games. Then into the gravity/flight room where self-constructed flying objects can be hoisted up high into the air and then dropped to test the qualities needed for longer flight time. Somewhere in between we took the kids out for a bite to eat, with promises that we would be back inside before they know it. And they ran around, they played and they enjoyed the hands-on activities and games that guaranteed that they also learned something. I caught up with my college friend, so it really was a win-win situation. Especially that evening when they both slept like rocks!



Friday, September 14, 2012

Brookfield Zoo

Chicago is lucky to have not just one, but two world-class zoos. There’s the no-admission fee Lincoln Park, and then Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, IL. On Monday we opted for the second as I didn’t want to fight traffic or look for parking since it was just going to be me with the boys. In the morning it was smooth sailing down River Road and we were at the gate in no time.
The obvious disadvantage Brookfield has to Lincoln Park Zoo is cost. In addition to parking and entry tickets, many of the attractions have separate tickets. Parking is $10 per vehicle, entry is $15 for adults and $10.50 for children 3-11, and the Children’s Zoo, Stingray Bay, the Dolphin Shows, Motor Safari and Butterfly exhibit all are an additional $1-$5 per person. We opted to grab a bite to eat as we stayed longer than expected, and many times a stop at the gift shop is also included. In contrast, entry to Lincoln Park Zoo is free, although parking, food and gift shops will cost you extra. This said, Brookfield Zoo is an awesome place to explore with kids, and we spent almost 5 hours there without seeing all the animals on the 216 acres.
Many of the permanent exhibits are modern and spacious, with no fences separating you from the animals, only well-designed water and rock barriers. Our first stop was Habitat Africa, where the giraffes were so close to the viewing pavilion that we could see their long tongues in great detail.

The Great Bear Wilderness has a couple of giant grizzly bears, one of which had decided to nap up against one of the windows to the habitat. I have never been (and hopefully never will be) that up close and personal with a grizzly! I was sad to see the polar bears wandering around their territory because this meant they were not in the water, and one of my favorite memories of the zoo is watching them swim their graceful laps from the underwater viewing area.

The Living Coast had penguins among other animals, and I was impressed with the beautiful yet functional building that housed the exhibit. Close by is the Tropic World building and the Swamp building, both of which were equally impressive. I only wondered at the stroller parking areas outside, surely they can’t expect everybody to leave the strollers outside? I understand wanting to lessen congestion indoors, but a family-oriented place like the zoo can’t exclude adults with more than one small child from visiting certain exhibits. I’ll be completely honest; I ignored all the stroller signs except in Stingray Bay, because between my purse, a sleeping Mikus and an excited Lauris we wouldn’t have managed otherwise.

Stingray Bay was an additional $4 entry for me (the boys are both under 3 and therefore free), but worth it. Be forewarned – there is very strict protocol concerning strollers, hand-washing, no sitting on the edge of the pool etc. but mostly for the safety of the animals. Once you’ve washed your hands you are allowed into the tent where you find a spot to lie down on your stomach and stick your hands into the pool… which is filled with smooth-sailing stingrays, gliding around the pool. They’ve had their barbs trimmed/filed, and so you don’t have to worry about getting stung, only about the sponge-like slimy feeling of the rays. I’ve heard this attraction can be overcrowded, so save your visit for a day the line is short and you’ll have an easier time of playing with the stingrays.

There are more underwater viewing areas in the dolphin and sea lion habitats. We lucked out in both and had animals swim right past us. Mikus loved watching the dolphins; the sparkling blue water provided a light show in addition to the animals themselves.

Our last stop was the home of the big cats. The snow leopards were hiding indoors and the lions were elsewhere while their habitat was being updated, but the tiger was snoozing away in a shady spot and the sloth bears, well they were doing whatever it is sloth bears do.

Our visit was well worth the fees, although I spent significantly less than a family of four with children over three years old would have.  I suggest bringing snacks, a lunch and plenty to drink to avoid the high prices at the concessions stands, and also to avoid all eleven gift shops. But you will not regret a day spent at Brookfield because your children will not just sleep well that night but will talk about the giraffes, buffaloes and monkeys for days to come!


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

My kind of town

I’ve been away from Chicago for too long. Not that I haven’t been back since I moved away to go to the university more than twelve years ago, but I had forgotten how much there is to do and to see in this “Windy City,” and the pull my original home town has on me… The feeling I get coming around that corner on 90/94 when the familiar skyline comes into view… There definitely has been a shift in my interests and priorities; I’m no longer as interested in the diner where $1.50 would get me lunch and endless coffee or the bowling alley that has the cheapest cosmic bowling. But while I’m here with the boys I’m determined to do some catching up, not just with family, but with Chicago!
We had a lot of catching up to do in terms of family. Mikus met his Chicago grandfather for the first time, as well as my sister Z and brother, grandmother, and extended family. The out-of-town family he’ll meet in a couple of weeks at his christening, but we’ve been relishing all the attention these past weeks, something that was sorely missing during our time in France.

Loving the attention!
It’s also nice to be back in a Latvian center (of sorts). My parents speak Latvian at home (as do my husband’s parents, which is a large part of the reason we speak Latvian to one another and the boys), so Lauris has really doubled (or even tripled) his vocabulary during the time we have been here. The rest of the relatives also speak Latvian at home and I believe it is important for the boys to hear others speaking the language, so that they realize it isn’t just spoken at home and has other uses as well. I was very happy to hear that the Latvian School of Chicago was starting its school year while we are here; although I cannot enroll Lauris in the preschool as we’ll only be here for three of the Saturdays it is in session, we have been invited to visit while we are here. We accepted the invitation this past weekend and joined in the bērnu svētki festival, an annual tradition on the first day of school. There were games, face-painting, bubbles, obstacle courses and most importantly, tons of kids speaking Latvian.

Watching his brother blowing bubbles
Sunday my parents joined us to go to the Renegade Craft Fair, another very cool thing about Chicago. It started in Chicago in 2003, and since then has spread to several other large cities including London. They bill themselves as a large scale marketplace event, showcasing the work of contemporary indie-craft artists.” Think of it as a real-live etsy store, with handmade crafts and art from all over the US and Canada. Greenville has a smaller version, the Indie Craft Parade, which takes place on the same weekend. I really enjoyed the fair Sunday, it had a large variety of crafts including ceramics, paper goods, housewares, jewelry and clothing. It’s also interesting to see what the current trends are. Two years ago in Greenville there were a lot of screen printing goods and ceramics, this year wood seemed to be the medium of choice. I was fascinated with all the beautiful things made from reclaimed wood; I’ve long dreamed of finding giant beams from an old farmhouse and having them made into a dining room table, and it seems that I’m not the only one! A few of the booths had free DIY projects and so I helped Lauris decorate a couple of tiles that will go in the boys room eventually and also made him a button with a big ship. Most of our purchases were consumed immediately – ice cream, a smoothie, a Chicago-style hot dog, but the most valuable thing we took home with us may have been inspiration. My mother is very crafty and  incredibly gifted artistically, and I hope she’ll start a business someday. Seeing all these artists doing what they love and earning money doing it might just be the thing to give her a nudge?

The neighborhood block party gave us the chance to check out this engine
This week we have big plans for zoos, museums, old friends and more family – September is a big month for birthdays. We’ll definitely be busy, busy, but that’s ok. I figure keeping busy might just distract the boys from how much we all miss dad.


Friday, September 7, 2012

Welcome to Greenville, SC!

Welcome to Greenville, our new home!

Located in the northwest corner of South Carolina known as “The Upstate,” Greenville is the sixth largest city in the state. Located approximately halfway between Atlanta GA and Charlotte NC, it is in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains and only 3.5 hours from Charleston and the Atlantic Ocean.

Source: City of Greenville website
Ranked as the 5th most “Fun, Affordable City” in the US by, the newly revitalized downtown area boasts almost 100 restaurants and pubs, hosts free special events and concerts all year round, and is a cultural center with museums, galleries, theatre venues and library.

Filled with fun things to do for the entire family in every price range, our experience in Greenville will be completely different this time around. Lauris was not yet six months old when we moved away, so being here with a 7 month old and a 2.5 year old makes a big difference in the way we see the city.

The irony in this post is that I’m writing it from Chicago where we are visiting family, so there might be a few Chi-town related posts mixed in. However it will be back to Greenville soon enough, where we will continue our mission to explore the region.

The website for the City of Greenville can be found here and the Wikipedia entry is here. What would you like to see while you're visiting me here?


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Puy Mary

The last week in France was filled with goodbyes. Although the Provence lavender was not crossed off the list, we managed to catch the Tour de France in Brive-le-Gaillard and catch a glimpse of the famous Rocamadour. As that was planned to be our very last full day in France, the Air France strike gave us a wonderful going-away present – time. Although the circumstances weren’t ideal (the postponement of our flight was mostly day to day and so we couldn’t plan a two-day trip to Provence), there was one last day-trip that served as a fitting final memory of our time in France.

Traditional shale roofs (or slate?) of the region

The previous year Roberts had taken a couple of visitors to Puy Mary in the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne. As the volcano is a good two hours away and almost 6,000 feet high, the timing had not been right for the rest of us to get to see the large volcano. As the hike to the top is quite steep, my recent pregnancy had made an ascent seem unfeasible (despite my success on Puy des Goules), and more recently rain (which could have translated to snow in the higher elevations) and time constraints had thwarted our attempts. However these final days in France turned out to be ideal, with warm, sunny weather and time to kill (and although we had two enfants to carry up, backpack carriers made the task seem easier than while 8 months pregnant).

A midday view from Puy Mary
Pyramidal Puy Mary is an emblematic peak in the Monts du Cantal. It dominates the other peaks, domes and rocky outcrops that make up the largest volcano in Europe. The name Puy Mary comes from Marius, Saint Austremoine’s disciple and Cantal’s first evangelist. To access the pedestrian stairs that climb to the top you must drive up to the Col du Pas de Peyrol, the highest mountain pass in the Massif Central range. Parking may be an issue on warm, sunny days, but we eventually found a spot and hiked up along the side of the road to the visitor center and café, situated at the intersection of D17 and D680.

The climb was arduous, made harder by the cold wind that relentlessly pushed at us, and by the reluctant petites, who predictably requested to be carried up the steep steps. We pushed on, and after frequent stops to catch our breath in the thin mountain air we finally reached the top. In the bid to receive Grand Site status (in France, a Grand Site  is an exceptional natural site, renowned on a national level and benefiting from protective measures) improvements to the fragile peak are occurring, involving the construction of a wider viewing platform. And so it was that our short time at the top of Puy Mary was accompanied by the incessant pounding of a jackhammer – completely incongruent with the idyllic view of the radiating valleys.

The boys poring over the menu in the Col du Pas de Peyrol restaurant 
The descent was more difficult, especially for Roberts who had in our haste to depart from Clermont-Ferrand that morning forgotten his hiking shoes. Relieved to have reached the bottom we settled in at the restaurant, anticipating prices to match the outrageous view. However, the total bill was reasonable, our hunger sated, and the final memories of our time in France now included green-ridged volcanos, deep valleys and a sunny view over what seemed like all of France.

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