Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some final words on 2013

What a year it has been for us! Back in the US after living in France for well over a year now, our time overseas often pops up in everyday life, although less than it did at the beginning of the year. We still miss our friends from Clermont-Ferrand terribly, but have started making new friends here in Greenville. We’ve celebrated a first birthday and a third birthday, with family visiting us more frequently than in the past two years combined. We’ve found new favorite places to play, eat and explore right here in the city, and done some exploring further from home, not just in South Carolina but in the neighboring states as well.
My favorite trips this year: my visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Auldbrass Plantation in Yemassee, SC, our vacation on Sapelo Island, GA, the day-trip to Bulls Island SC while staying on the coast, two Blue Ridge Parkway experiences this fall (in NC), the weekend in New York City, the cousin’s confirmation in Toronto, the Key West experience and finally our family’s trip to Latvia to experience the National Song Festival.

Throwing rocks at Paris Mountain State Park yesterday
Unexpected surprises close to home: the Greensboro Science Center, Congaree National Park, the Carl Sandburg Home Historic Site, Columbia SC, the Georgia Aquarium and Balloons Over Anderson.
Fun blogging firsts: I hosted my first giveaway, was voted into the top 5 SouthernMom Bloggers by you guys, hit the 300 post milemarker and am nearing 10,000 pageviews a month.
We continue to honor our Latvian roots; in addition to the Song Festival in Rīga, we also attended a family reunion while in Latvia. We hosted the Upstate (and surrounding area) Latvians for Latvia’s Independence Day celebrations, continued with Latvian traditions such as dying Easter eggs with onion skins and baking piparkūkas for Christmas, represented Latvia in the International Festival in Spartanburg, and participated in the Jāņi (midsummer’s eve) celebrations here in Greenville.

Our tree is still up - and will stay up at least another week

The French sneaks in as well, with the bells on Easter, Bastille Day brunch, making gateau au yaourt with the boys, meeting our friends from Chatenet in Chicago and celebrating Kings Day.
But there is one thing this year has been all about, and that is family. After our time in France when we averaged only a couple visits with close family a year, it is as though we have been trying to make up for this deficiency the last twelve months. We rang in 2013 with my husband’s parents in Michigan and are sending it on its merry way with my parents right here in Greenville tonight. In between it’s been all of our favorite people, in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, New York and even Latvia. If only Seattle weren’t so far away…
I’ll end this retrospective with a few New Year’s resolutions. First, I resolve to spend more time with the boys (not just supervising); getting down on the floor with them to play trains, throwing the football around in the backyard and involving them in regular household activities. Second, I resolve to spend more time outdoors, walking or playing in the park, even in the backyard, but outside. Finally, I promise to worry less about the little stuff, like clean floors and put-away toys.
We wish everyone health, happiness and adventure in the coming year; the strength to fulfill all your resolutions and the resolve to know which ones are important; time with family, friends and loved ones. Happy 2014!!!


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Greenville holiday checklist

We’ve managed to squeeze in more downtown holiday stuff into the past few days than we had managed all month! With all the guests in town it meant a lot of time at home: cooking, eating and having family time. However, guests always give us an excuse to show off our small but happening downtown, and this Christmas was no exception. As we had already seen the Miniature World of Trains holiday display we headed first to the opposite end of Main Street, to the Hyatt’s Festival of Trees. If you haven’t yet had the chance to visit the dozens of trees on two levels in the hotel lobby, you have until January 1st. Decorated by local schools and organizations, the trees provided plenty of inspiration for next year’s tree, ornaments and gifts.

Dad took a few spins with the boys on Ice on Main. Last year I had done the heavy lifting, keeping Lauris upright on the ice, but this year Roberts opted in. It helped that there were these blue walkers on the ice for those not-so-steady on their feet.

We often ride the Greenville downtown trolley as we can walk to catch it from our house and therefore avoid parking problems downtown. During the holidays we make it a point to ride the trolley at least once in the evening, as the trolleys are decked out in Christmas lights and prove a warm and cozy way to see all the lights of the holidays on Main Street. If only we could figure out the schedule, we might ride more often; although the website gives an overview of supposed start and end times, more than once we’ve seen the trolley running before the supposed start time, or waited in vain for the last one… I find that with the trolley, the best is to have an alternate plan.

We admired the giant tree near the Marriott, and asked a passerby to snap a family photo of us. Although nowhere as big as the tree in downtown Clermont-Ferrand that was trucked in by semi, the fir is magical in that way that even the sparsest tree can be when decorated with just a few twinkling lights and the joy of the season.

There were tears shed today as one set of grandparents departed for the airport, leaving the house feeling empty and bringing an abrupt end to these Christmas celebrations. However we are blessed to have the second set arriving in a day or two to celebrate a second Christmas before helping us ring in the New Year! Is it any wonder that Mikus’s newest favorite word is partija?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A plethora of family on Christmas day

My husband’s parents and siblings made the trip to celebrate Christmas with us this year. We were grateful not to have to pack Christmas into the trunk of our car as we have done so many times in the past... I loved being able to enjoy our tree on Christmas morning, the comforts of my kitchen and home in which to cook, wrap presents and enjoy the festivities.

We took a family portrait which (surprisingly) everyone mostly cooperated for. We ate meals together, as a family, squeezed in around our tiny table. We opened presents, ate copious amounts of piparkūkas, sang Christmas carols and played football in the backyard. The grandparents took long walks, enjoying Greenville and our neighborhood. The cousins took Lauris and Mikus into their fold and spent hours around the train table, playing in the boys’ room and sharing new toys. There was plenty of time sans kids to spend creating in the kitchen, and even a few minutes of rest for me. It has been a jam-packed, food-filled, loud and boisterous three days, and there is more to come…

Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Winter Solstice! (yesterday) and Christmas in the Upstate

Christmas sort of snuck up on us this year. Really, I put off all holiday related activities until after our return from Key West and then found two weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to do everything I wanted to do. Somehow we’ve decorated our tree, sent out cards, baked scores of piparkūkas and had some holiday fun in that time, and I’m once again reminded how many wonderful holiday things there are to do with kids in the Upstate.
We missed the downtown Christmas parade this year due to our trip to south Florida, but got our fix of lights at Roper Mountain Science Center’s Holiday Lights (last year's visit here). Lauris politely explained to Santa that he’s already sent his letter off, Mikus took one look and wanted nothing to do with the whole thing, and mom told the photographer “just take the picture,” resulting in a classic photo that caught the moment perfectly. The lights were beautiful and we opted to drive the loop a second time, Lauris and Mikus caught in a daydream looking out the windows.

The trolleys are decorated with Christmas lights, and are a great way to see downtown decked out for the holidays. Ice on Main, the great tree and thousands of twinkling lights strung up and down Main Street helped me shift into holiday gear.

The boys in front of our tree
A comparatively new addition to the Greenville Christmas scene is the Miniature World of Trains. $5 a person will get you in to see the 2013 Christmas Model Train Display, an amazing train setup complete with cities, mountains, lights and about 20 trains! For the older kids there’s a scavenger hunt to complete to get in the running for a prize, but our boys were content with watching the trains circle. Favorites included the Snoopy train, Thomas, and “Snoopy’s friends” (Linus and Lucy).

We’ve been trying to get out of the house even on days when there is nothing Christmas-related on the agenda, and one day we met friends at the Children’s Museum of the Upstate. We were pleasantly surprised that they too have a Christmas display, downstairs in the center room. Lauris was torn between looking at the miniature Christmas scene and watching the holiday video, but both boys tried their hand at cutting out a snowflake and took turns peeking in the giant dollhouse to see what holiday activities the inhabitants were up to.

There have been several Christmas brunches, playdates and cookie making sessions with friends, discussions on the meaning of Christmas, practice reciting our holiday poems, and finally frantic cleaning of house to prepare for the arrival of guests. We are hosting family in South Carolina this year, and yesterday the first wave arrived. Christmas dinner will be for a party of 12 tomorrow, please wish me luck! And as you all turn to the last of your Christmas preparations, start your holiday cooking and complete your traditions of the season, my family and I wish you a bright and merry Christmas and a happy New Year! Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus un laimīgu Jauno Gadu! Joyeux Noël et bonne année! Merry Christmas y’all!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Loose in Miami Beach!

With the sun low in the sky and the crowds probably gathering in Mallory Square for the daily sunset celebration, we found ourselves 170 miles northeast crossing the Julia Tuttle Causeway to Miami Beach. Since we would pass through Miami on the way back to Fort Myers, we had contacted friends who live in South Beach and arranged to spend the last night of our vacation there. Located on a series of natural and man-made barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, the city has been one of America's top beach resorts since the early 20th century and the Art Deco Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. We were hoping to get a quick feel for the area, made popular by TV show Miami Vice and featured in movies such as Scarface and The Birdcage.

Wanting to be within easy travel distance of South Beach but to avoid the prices of the hip hotels, we ended up at the completely unique Freehand Miami. The hostel, located in the classic 1930’s Art Deco Indian Creek Hotel, caters to individual travelers as well as groups. Offering private rooms and shared rooms, it is easy to book based on individual needs and budgets. Our “standard king” had a private bathroom, free wi-fi and breakfast, and was luxurious in every way but the price. Those traveling alone can opt for either a “shared quad” or “super 8,” and in addition “private quads” and “bungalows” are available.

The highpoint of Freehand Miami is the common area. In the lush tropical courtyard chaises and tables are tucked between palms and colorful vegetation, an outdoor pool reflecting the crystalline blue of the sky. We enjoyed drinks from the specialty mixology bar in the warm December night, the city blocked out completely in this private retreat. A historic house on the property is currently being restored, with plans to transform it into a restaurant and bar; The House, scheduled to open early 2014, will complement the hostel theme and feature a rooftop garden above the Kitchen Pavilion. There is a Freehand Chicago opening in my hometown next year too, right in the heart of downtown; I'm excited to see if they succeed in bringing the Miami Beach vibe to the 1920's Art Deco building in River North. 

After drinks our party headed to South Beach (also known as SoBe, or simply The Beach), and enjoyed a casual dinner overlooking the Bay. The boys made quick friends, and together the four kids ran around until the late hour brought us back to the hostel. We slept soundly, stomachs full and tired after a long day, awaking well-rested and ready to start the new day.

We joined dozens of other travelers downstairs in the lobby for breakfast, once again admiring the common area but this time in daylight. The boys were crushed that we were not going to be able to try out the pool until we told them we were headed for the beach.

We headed south to South Pointe Park, hoping to avoid the crowds on Lummus Park beach but enjoy the same view, sand and surf. On the way we enjoyed the Art Deco scenery, getting a quick taste of the aesthetic of Ocean Drive before winding up at the very south tip of Miami Beach. The park was a perfect choice for us: no crowds, excellent beach, restrooms and a shaded playground. We watched cruise and cargo ships passing through to the ports, jumped endless waves, people-watched and dug in the sand until it came time to leave. Though Miami Beach had given us a final chance at beach time in December, Christmas was awaiting us back in Greenville. As we crossed MacArthur Causeway and wound our way through Miami and the Everglades, the sun on my shoulders and the saltwater around my ankles quickly became more a dream than a memory.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Florida Keys for Christmas?

“How'dja like to spend Chrismas on Christmas Island?
How'dja like to spend the holiday away across the sea?
How'dja like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'dja like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?”
-Jimmy Buffet “Christmas Island”
Key West was nice, but I was ready to get back to reality: unwritten Christmas cards, piparkūku dough in the fridge waiting to be baked, lights to be hung… As antsy as I was to get off Christmas Island we were lucky we stopped at the bakery a few doors down from our rental. Somehow we had missed out on breakfast there during the days we had been on Key West, as we mostly headed the opposite way to brunch spots like Banana Cafe (good food, great service, a bit pricey) and Southernmost Beach Cafe (meh food and service, great view). But since moving back from France I have not put a more perfect croissant or pain au chocolat in my mouth as the ones from Frenchie’s Café – they were divine. No sooner had I taken my first bite did I wish I had purchased three times as much! The boys demolished their croissants dashing my hopes of eating their leftovers, and Roberts didn’t offer to share – if it weren’t for the miles of road we had to cover that morning I would have ordered the car turned around…

Although we made a few stops before reaching our first major stop (one to photograph the giant crustacean above), we had only one planned stop left in the Keys, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This first-ever undersea park in the US encompasses approximately 70 nautical square miles and offers visitors tours of coral reefs, mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks.

We explored the Visitor Center, checking out the 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium showing off fish that we would not be seeing in the wild, as we didn’t have the time to take a glass-bottom boat tour or go snorkeling. They also had a large lionfish, the venomous fish that calls the Indo-Pacific waters home but in the last twenty years has been invading Caribbean and US coastal waters.

We took our lunch out to the veranda behind concessions, which had a nice view of the ocean and a little playground for the boys. It also came complete with some unusual pests hoping for a snack! You can schedule your glass-bottom boat, scuba or snorkeling trip, rent a canoe, kayak or snorkel, or just browse the gift shop in concessions.

Another rocky beach, this one strewn with jellyfish, but the boys had their fun nonetheless. We didn’t venture far offshore and therefore didn’t experience the coral reefs the park is famous for, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Snorkeling will just have to wait until the boys are a bit older. If we had gone out we might have seen sponges, shrimp, crab, turtles, lobsters and hundreds of species of fish that call the reef their home. These coral reefs occur only in shallow oceans having warm, clear water, and due to runoff, pollution, global warming and tourist-traffic, these reefs that took over 5,000 years to form are in danger of disappearing forever.

Once back in the car we headed straight for Miami Beach, where the last adventure of this south-Floridian vacation awaited us.
“Welcome to Miami (bienvenido a Miami)” – Will Smith

The "Christ of the Deep" underwater sculpture is located within the park. Source here

Monday, December 16, 2013

December in Key West, Florida

The timing of our arrival in Key West was off. We managed to hit the Seven Mile Bridge during daylight, but our stop at No Name Pub for dinner meant the arrival at our final destination was after darkness had fallen. Construction on the main artery meant a traffic jam and slow going to get to our rental cottage, located close to the southernmost point. After getting keys, parking and unpacking sorted out, it took some effort to get back out, and we found the entire island out watching the Christmas Parade. Wouldn’t you know it we got situated just in time to catch the last two floats pass by – and then the street sweepers. This put me in a funk, as I was already sad about missing the Greenville Christmas parade that we had enjoyed so much last year. I should have taken my cue from the kids who were wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the sounds, lights and street cleaning equipment of the portion of the parade we did see. We wound up sampling some ice cream at the corner place that makes their own, and I made a classic rookie-mom mistake, ordering Lauris the flavor he wanted (in this case papaya); let me just say it wasn’t as delightful as the “Cuban coffee” or the caramel were (as we found out over the next few days). Things got better.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park beach
So, the highlights… The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. A path winds through a giant greenhouse filled with butterflies of all species, fluttering and swirling around our heads in the magic morning sun. A couple even alighted on Lauris and me, and between the butterflies, turtles, flamingos and other birds, we spent a good hour in the conservatory.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and Beach. After time in the sun on the rocky beach, we headed to check out the fort. Even knowing the Caribbean was infamous for piracy in the 1800s, we hardly expected to get caught up in a Pyrate Invasion… but this is exactly what happened. The fort was overrun with pirates; after watching a skirmish between the “Red Coats” and the invaders we strolled through tent city in the courtyard, where entire pigs were roasting on spits and merchants were hawking their wares.

From left to right: tent city within the fort, posing with "Papa Ratsey," and the battle wages on
The sunset at Mallory Square. The tourist book touted the daily celebration as something all the locals and tourists do, and this might have been partly true – there were dozens of inventive panhandlers working the crowds with everything from unicycle/fire juggling acts to comedy routines. However, the crowds don’t change the fact that the sunset was marvelous.

Dinner at D.J.’s Clam Shack. We had the lobster roll, but the kids’ fish and chips was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

The Endpoint of Route 1. Marking the spot is a magnificent Ceiba tree (also known as Kapok), which I first saw during a fire-fighting trip to Puerto Rico. With fantastic buttresses at the base these trees are something out of a fairy tale – like Jack’s beanstalk they grow up to 10 feet a year in height.

Simonton Street Beach. A mini-beach, although a sandy one. Shade for mom, sand castles for the boys.

The Southernmost Point USA. Although technically not the southernmost point of the USA (Hawaii), it is not the southernmost point in the continental US (Florida's official southernmost point is Ballast Key, a privately owned island south and west of Key West) nor is it the southernmost point of the Island. The actual southernmost point is U.S. Navy property and cannot be visited by civilians, and although the beach area of Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park is 500 feet further south than the marker, this old sewer junction is one of the most visited and photographed attractions on Key West.

Although I hesitate to cross Key West off of my travel list since I wasn’t able to visit Dry Tortugas National Park, Roberts and I both agree that if we return, we’ll do it differently. I think the Keys are best seen by water, and would look into renting a boat to visit the various islands and towns at will. Roberts suggested staying on one of the Middle Keys, and only venturing into Key West for a day. In any case it was a unique experience, and 90˚ temperatures in December possibly make up for being late with our Christmas cards this year…

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ft. Myers to Key West

Hoping to warm up those buried under the white stuff after a series of winter storms here in the US, we are sending thoughts of palm trees and white sand from southern Florida, where we have tagged along on dad's work trip. My first comment is that I packed hoodies and pants, not believing that the temperatures would really be this hot. My second is that if it is this scorching in December, how does anyone survive the summer here?

Flying into Ft. Myers was strategic to be close to where Roberts would have to report for work the following week, but it also gave us the opportunity to sample a larger portion of this southern state that we might not otherwise see. There are two routes from coast to coast; Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley, and we chose the first, the more slow and scenic of the two. This let us drive through Big Cypress National Preserve and the northernmost part of the Everglades, enabling a stop at the smallest Post Office in the United States... and the excitement had just begun! (The post office was in fact an irrigational pipe shed until commandeered after a fire burned Ochopee’s General Store/Post in 1953.)

A late arrival in the greater Miami area necessitated an overnight stop and I had scouted out the Floridian. I thought we might be in for a surprise after spotting these guys (see picture below) next to the door, but we had a satisfactory stay: clean, competitive price, free Wi-Fi and breakfast bar, and pool. As it was an outdoor swim no one stayed in the water very long, but the boys were satisfied and come morning we were ready to start the next leg of our journey. (And I have to mention the Cuban restaurant nearby, Mario's Family Restaurant: family atmosphere, large portions, great Cuban fare!)

After marveling at the Coral Castle in Homestead, we continued south to Florida City and the Everglades National Park Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Our goal was to learn a little about the Glades ecosystem, identify a few of the hundred bird species we had already seen, stamp our National Park passports and possibly catch glimpse of an alligator. Since we had several hundred more miles to cover during daylight, a longer hike wouldn't be possible on this visit. Several stamps and one alligator later we were on the road again, crossing the Sound over to the Florida Keys.

Just north of the beginning of Overseas Highway is Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and we stopped in to stretch our legs in the butterfly garden, the only area of the Refuge open to the public. Established in 1980 to protect critical breeding and nesting habitat for the endangered American crocodile and five other federally-listed species, it covers 6,700 acres including tropical hardwood hammock, mangrove forest, salt marsh and open water. You will find crocodiles only in southern Florida and the Keys in the US.

We took advantage of Mikus napping to eat up the miles west, traversing key after key with crystalline blue water often surrounding us. I had never realized how long the Keys are; the 126-mile Overseas Highway crosses 42 bridges, linking more than 40 inhabited islands that split the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic. Just after crossing the Seven Mile Bridge connecting Vaca Key to Bahia Honda Key Mikus awoke, which meant we were glad to pull off into the Bahia Honda State Park. The 524 acre park boast the longest naturally sandy beach in the Keys, but after taking a look at the waves crashing in at high tide we decided to limit our swimming to the beach on the Gulf side of the island, where the currents weren’t as dangerous.

All that surf and sun and we had worked up an appetite, and so we crossed over onto Big Pine Key and into Key Deer habitat. Home to National Key Deer Refuge, about 800 of these tiny deer and sprawling development, this island has very strict speed limits, attempting to prevent over 100 of these endangered species being struck by vehicles a year. We spotted two on the side of the road during our detour to No Name Pub, and considering people feed the deer from their cars in order to get photo ops, I was surprised not to see more (the death toll this year was already over 120). An uneventful 20 minutes later we passed right by the No Name Pub, named after neighboring No Name Key and rightly advertised as “a nice place if you can find it.” Driving back slowly looking at address numbers we found it, and enjoyed one of their famous pizzas while checking out the quirky atmosphere. Now more a tourist spot than a local secret, the pub still has something that brings people back for more. We sated our appetites and hit the road (at a sedate 25-35 miles per hour on the lookout for deer), not stopping again until we had run out of road in Key West.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Castle of Coral

Latvieši ir visur; the title of a novel by Otto Ozols (most certainly a pseudonym, the English equivalent would be John Smith) but also a truth for Latvians living abroad – Latvians are everywhere. It seems that lately our little country is in the news more than usual, with tragedies such as the supermarket’s roof collapse in Rīga this past November that killed 54 and the Rīga Castle fire this summer, but there have also been some pretty positive mentions. There was USA Today’s Top 10 Prettiest European Cities (of which Rīga came in first), National Geographic’s Best Trips 2014, and the Pļaviņš and Šmēdiņš victory in the London Olympics has not yet been forgotten, however our latest run-in with a famous Latvian is of a more historic sort.

Inflation has had an effect on tour prices...

Edvards Liedskalniņš was born in Latvia in 1887, but left his legacy in the town of Homestead, FL, which is better known as the gateway to the Everglades National Park. He left Latvia because his sweetheart loved someone else (or so the story goes), and wandered the US, working in a wide range of fields including lumber camps and cattle drives until finally settling in Florida City. Although he started work on his coral castle there, at some point suburban encroachment (and his desire for privacy) necessitated a move 10 miles north to its present location. Transferring the carved coral pieces by tractor must have been a challenge, but the complexity adds to the mystique surrounding the Coral Castle; although there were plenty of witnesses to the convoy carrying these heavy pieces, not one person saw Edward load or unload the trailer. The same for the castle walls; there were no witnesses to how he managed to hoist each piece into place. (Coral weighs approximately 125 pounds per cubic foot, and each section of the wall weighs approximately 13,000 pounds.) Using only rudimentary, home-made hand tools, Liedskalniņš (or Leedskalnin, as he has been renamed here in the US) forged this monument, cutting and moving huge coral blocks into remarkable figures. Maybe not quite the Stonehenge or Great Pyramids, but an engineering marvel nonetheless; that one person (a 5ft, 100 pound person at that) could singlehandedly construct an entire castle is unbelievable!

We entered through the “three-ton gate”, balanced on a Model T axle and a marvel of engineering much like the rest of his designs; Lauris was able to move the gate with little assistance from his dad. Most of Ed’s tools and things were junkyard finds, repurposed to serve his needs, and we were able to take a look at quite a few of them in the “workroom,” the lower floor of the tower. Upstairs in his bedroom, more ingenuity was evident in his furniture, including the bed on a pulley that could be raised out of the way during the day.  

Mikus opens the 3 ton gate

Back outside we found evidence of Ed’s interest in astronomy. Along with the celestial carvings of the moon and several plants, there is also a giant sun dial and Polaris Telescope, which was fixed on the North Star and charted the seasons. The boys’ favorite spot was the moon fountain, largely due to the opportunity to splash around a bit.

There was plenty to see and do in the castle, including trying out various chairs, thrones and other “furniture” carved from coral. We sat at the Florida table, a replica of the state including Lake Okeechobee, then admired his “feast of love” table in the shape of a heart (which weighs 5,000 pounds). Our guide informed us that weddings, engagements and vow renewals often take place at the table, which has even been featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

Three chairs, one for morning, afternoon and evening...

The sad ending to this story is that Edward died in December of 1951 from stomach cancer at the age of 64. During the two years the castle stood vacant while under the ownership of a cousin in Michigan many of the contents including tools, wood and other components that could be moved disappeared. The castle was finally sold to a family from Chicago and eventually came to be opened to the public as a tourist attraction, and in 1984 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We enjoyed our visit, even more so as Liedskalniņš was Latvian and had left evidence of this in several places in the form of engraved auseklīši and other symbols. However, I recommend this quirky destination which just happens to be on the beaten path (to Everglades National Park) to everyone, as the aesthetic, engineering and celestial marvels contained within the walls of the castle are truly a lesson in imagination and resourcefulness.

The moon fountain

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Christkindlmarket, Cloudgate and Chicago Cultural Center

When you’ve only one week in Chicago and the majority of that is spent with family, there isn’t a lot of time left for sightseeing. I grew up in Chicago and so only a few of the typical touristy things hold any draw for me, but seeing as the holidays are just around the corner and we had one day to ourselves – off we went! We hopped on the brown line in Lincoln Square, giving the boys their first ride aboard the el train, and soon were downtown with the rest of the holiday crowds.

Our destination was the 18th annual Christkindlmarket. I first attended this German American holiday market while studying German in high school, and that very first one (1996) was held in Pioneer Court. The very next year it moved to Daley Plaza and has been there ever since, attracting an estimated 1 million visitors every year. With a large Christmas tree, choirs, dance groups and Santa, it is a great place to get into the holiday spirit… if you can stand the crowds. Best get there early if you would like to sample the kilometerwurst or glühwein, especially if you would like your mulled wine in one of the souvenir mugs. There’s an aftermarket on ebay, I tell you. In previous years I have enjoyed looking around to see what the various vendors are selling (one year I even worked there), picking up toys and ornaments for Christmas presents. This year, with four impatient boys (my brother Māris met up with us for the morning) we headed east.

The former Marshall Field & Co. building now houses Macy’s, and although the window displays aren’t as grand of a story as my nostalgia permits me to believe, the boys enjoyed the hoopla. With large crowds, moving parts and shiny objects in the windows, street musicians banging away and giant trumpets overhead, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the big city-ness of it all. We made our way inside, braving the Black Friday crowds in hopes of buying a single box of Frango Mints. After taking one look at the line for the elevator I turned on my heels and we got out of there, as quick as those chocolates would have disappeared.

Māris knew the perfect place to stop in for a breather, the Chicago Cultural Center. The largest undertaking of the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in history is located in this very building that thousands of tourists pass by every year on their way to Millenium Park. The glass dome consists of 2,848 faceted glass jewels cut in a fish-scale pattern, and even on a cloudy day the room was bright as day. The rest of the hall is immaculately decorated as well, featuring Tiffany’s patented favrile technique mosaics.

We stopped at the Bean (Cloud Gate) because how could we not as no visit to Chicago is complete without a stop there (source: Noras tētis), watched the ice skating for a bit, then headed even further east into Lurie Gardens. Soon our fingers were feeling the cold and our boys were feeling the lack of nap, and so we reluctantly marched back to the closest el stop. Although it was nice playing tourist for a day, I was glad to get back to Lincoln Square and warm up with a cup of coffee at my grandmother’s house….

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanksgiving up north

Thanksgiving in Chicago was a family affair. We managed to visit with all of our family during our weeklong stay, and even fit in a few excursions: the Latvian school, the Museum of Science and Industry, an exploration of Lincoln Square and a trip to downtown. However, the highlight of the trip wasn’t the Disney exhibit at the museum or the Christkindlmarket, but all of those moments with family – the ones that make me feel that we might as well still be living in France for all those miles between Greenville and Chicago.

There was art at grandmother’s house. I’m a little abashed to admit that half of our Christmas cards were the result of a two-hour session with the artist-in-residence. Lauris shocked me with drawings of stick animals; as far as I know he had only ever drawn squiggles up until now. Mikus got into the block painting, and I got inspiration for a few projects to do at home.

We saw our first snow (possibly our last of the season, as Greenville doesn’t see the stuff too often). The boys ran around trying to catch the flakes on their tongues and mittens, watching from the warmth of the house as it accumulated ¼ inch before fading away overnight.

We watched our first Thanksgiving Day parade. Although it was from the safety of grandmother’s house and not State Street, the level of excitement was elevated; characters such as Madeline, Potato Head, Arthur and Curious George are often mentioned these days.

Roberts arrived just in time for Thanksgiving dinner, a lavish affair complete with grilled turkey, (Southern) sweet potato casserole, focaccia, green beans, cranberry-walnut stuffing, and three different pies to name a few dishes. Very American!

There was more than one night that the boys had to be carried in from the car, as the festivities went so late (or were so exhausting!) that their eyes would close as soon as the streetlights began their light show on the way home. I quickly learned to bring pajamas with, have them “bed-ready” before clicking them in.

Despite the long days, the week passed by entirely too quickly for our liking. We’ve already started our to-do list for the next visit: skolasbērni and Playmobil with tante Z, bathtime with kr. Māris, trains with Andis & Edgars, maybe some baking with Annelī, art time with vecmamma Inga, and storytime with vectētiņš and vecvecmamma! Paldies vecvecmammai par mīļo uzņemšanu, ZIGM par visām skaisti pavadītām stundām rietumpusē un DAE par visu fun!!! Būsim drīz atpakaļ, bet gaidam jūs visus te Greenville ciemos!

* And the icing on the cake was our stop in Ohio in the way home; Lauris and Mikus had plenty of time to catch up with their little cousin A! Thanks Asja & Brandon for your hospitality, we hope to see you in Greenville soon!
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