Thursday, February 27, 2014

Child's play in Durham, NC

Other than the tornado watch we had a great time in Chapel Hill/Durham, mostly due to the awesome museum we spent a whole day in, the Museum of Life and Science. Geared towards kids of all ages, the museum is like a zoo, science center, dinosaur park and children’s museum rolled into one 84 acre package. In Greenville (SC) we have the Children’s Museum and a little zoo, but this place took fun to a whole new level. My closest comparison is to the Greensboro Science Center which we visited last year – a zoo, museum and aquarium in one.

As it was a sunny and warm day we started our adventure in the outdoor portion. Upon entering “Loblolly Park” the boys immediately were in their element, climbing and running all over the beautiful wooden play structures and giving me a few minutes rest before jumping into the giant sandbox. Plenty of places to sit and watch the kids at play, ideal but for one thing – the percussion stations set up on the outskirts! Continuous banging and clanging provided a background din that at some point had me motioning the boys on…

We zigzagged through the farmyard en route to the “Magic Wings Butterfly House,” home to 1,000 tropical butterflies as well as all sorts of other insects. We walked into the conservatory and entered a rainforest, with butterflies floating overhead and tropical plants all around, similar to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Although the “butterfly release” was a tad overrated (a man came out and released about a dozen butterflies), both boys were remarkably calm during the visit; I think they too were in awe of the colorful display before us. Adjacent to the conservatory is the Bayer Crop Science Insectarium, home to walking sticks, spiders of unusual size, scorpions and all other sorts of creepy crawlies the boys loved but I wasn’t so excited about.

Our next stop was “Explore the Wild,” the landscaped outdoor exhibits that host rescued black bears, a couple of red wolves and lemurs, all surrounding a large wetlands area that is home to dozens of species of birds. We couldn’t get a very good glimpse of the bear(s?) but the wolves put on a show for us, patrolling the enclosure and even giving chase to some prey while we paused for a snack. The lemurs were indoors (for the season) and napping, but the walk along the boardwalks and trails was a pleasant way to spend an hour.

We emerged into “Catch the Wind,” skipping the bungee trampolines and mist exhibits (all the water play was closed for the season) and instead tried our hand at piloting radio-controlled boats in the 5,000 square foot sailboat pond. The seed tower was also a hit, enabling the boys to launch giant seed pod models and watch them fall to the ground. This demonstration of the aerodynamic properties of seeds would have been a welcome addition to my dendrology classes back in the day…

After a nice lunch at the café we hit the Dinosaur Trail, possibly the boys’ favorite. The plaques contained a ton of information more suited to older visitors, but Lauris and Mikus were content discussing the characteristics of the various prehistoric beasts and going for an archaeological “dig” in the “fossil dig site.” Filled with dirt trucked in from a mine in Eastern NC that used to be on the ocean floor, it was full of fossils 5 million to 23 million years old: shark teeth, fish, corals and shells.

As the railroad is closed during the construction of a new exhibit, we spent some more time in Loblolly Park and then headed indoors. After some running and jumping in Soundspace (the boys’ actions were translated into visual effects) we were greeted by “The Best of Springs, Sprockets & Pulleys: The Mechanical Sculptures of Steve Gerberich.” With the press of a button the sculptures came to life, setting recycled materials including old machine parts, kitchen utensils, lighting fixtures and toys into motion. Once again some of the concepts of mechanical motion may have been over the boys’ heads, but regardless, they raced from sculpture to sculpture, watching everything move.

We checked out the Weather room and then spent some time building with giant blocks in one of the temporary exhibits. This was familiar territory as our local Children’s Museum had the same activity last year. Then we ducked into “Play to Learn,” perfect for our age group; there were building blocks, climbing walls, an animal care corner and an area for sending balls racing down tracks. Smaller nooks and crannies had legos (with the bases mounted onto walls instead of tables adding a whole new dimension to play) and other skill-building activities. If it hadn’t been for closing time quickly approaching we might have stayed longer…

The aerospace section was more for older children, but we did launch a few paper airplanes and explore the interior of a command module. The displays in “Aerospace” were impressive, featuring astronaut Alan Shepard's flight chair, a prototype of the Apollo 15 Lunar Lander, a moon rock and the actual Mercury capsule which carried the first US animal into orbit.

Every mom's dream - her kids on the moon

We ran out of time. There were a few more exhibits that we had hoped to see, but it was time to head back to the hotel and to dinner. Tired from a long day but excited about all we had seen and done, we did manage one last stop – the giant rocket out front.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Please, throw in a tornado

As the snow and earthquakes are out of the way, it seems only fair that we get a tornado in the mix…

We accompanied Roberts on his work trip up to North Carolina, and so on Friday morning found ourselves checking out of the hotel room and heading for the NC Botanical Garden to while away a few hours until it came time to pick up the husband and head for the shore. There was some rain in the forecast, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to drive out and take a quick look around. If the rain started coming down, we could just check out the Visitor Center or worst-case scenario, head back to the hotel. The Garden is a part of the University of North Carolina, and with over 2 miles of trails and a dozen different habitats and gardens is a favorite destination for locals.

In the children's wonder garden

After ducking into the education center to pick up a map, we ventured to the “children’s wonder garden” which was close to shelter in case the skies opened up. The space is currently being developed, with an excellent bird blind and system of trails already in place. A digging area was the logical first stop, and the “wooden blocks” (cross sections of different sized trees/branches) also received some attention. The favorite by a long shot was the giant white oak trunk, which was small enough for both boys to clamber onto, but big enough to provide a serious vantage point once they had reached the top.

It was at this point that a drizzle started, and so we headed to the education center to see what we could see. An environmentally friendly building, the visitor center/offices have solar photo-voltaic panels and are heated/cooled with a geothermal system. We were looking at some of the educational exhibits when the University of NC alert sirens went off…

From the safety of a windowless storage room, some eight to ten of us employees and visitors waited out the worst of the storm, checking in on the tornado watch and severe thunderstorm warnings while tracking the bright red radar across the map. Similar to the snowstorms a week ago, the storm system stretched hundreds of miles long, with severe weather all the way to DC. The Upstate fared no better, with tornado warnings (no confirmed touchdowns) and power outages resulting from the extreme winds.

Our tornado shelter...

Once the all-clear had been sounded we returned to our exploration of the exhibits before eventually venturing outside. The porches provided shelter from the rain with a beautiful view of a portion of the gardens. I wish things had cleared up in time for a longer hike out to the aquatic and carnivorous plants garden, but with no end in sight to the drizzle we finally called it a day and headed out in search for lunch.

Guglhupf Bakery

The Guglhupf Bakery in Durham is a bakery, pâtisserie and café with a German twist. Featuring plates like bratwurst with sauerkraut and a schnitzel option on their lunch menu, there is more standard fare available as well; grilled panini sandwiches, salads and a typical club. Or you can opt for a roasted beet sandwich, a frittata, or a käseplatte-cheese assortment.  I chose to try the smoked salmon, served with a  bread basket, hard-boiled egg, cornichons, capers and red onions. My mocha was delicious, the salmon was great, but the two boys who wouldn’t eat their grilled cheese sandwich and threatened to wreak havoc in the beautiful dining room changed what would have been an excellent dining experience into fast food. It’s too bad we are not in the Durham area more often, as I would like to try Guglhupf for dinner, or sample the various fresh breads, pastries, cakes and tarts that were on display.

Guglhupf Bakery on Urbanspoon

Luckily dad was finished with the business portion of his trip and was able to join us soon after to embark on the second portion of our trip. Just in time, may I add, for my tornado-watching, toddler tested, frazzled nerves.

* Thanks to the kind people at the NC Botanical Gardens who found room for us in the inner rooms during the tornado scare; it was as pleasant a 30 minutes as it could have been!

Monday, February 17, 2014

All shook up on Valentine's - earthquakes in the Upstate

Because snow and sleet just aren’t enough, let’s throw an earthquake into the mix!
I wrote last Friday about the crazy weather we’ve had in the Upstate recently. The snow from winter storm Pax mostly melted over Valentine’s Day, but the boys enjoyed a day outside in their snow boots and long sleeved shirts during the 65˚ day. As of today, the snowmen in the front yard are still standing, but resemble large mounds of snow instead of actual forms as the weekend was gorgeous with sunny, warm weather. However on Valentine’s evening we had an interesting shake-up – my first earthquake!

Source: here
At 10:23pm Roberts and I were finishing up evening chores, and the boys were already asleep when a 4.1 quake hit 7 miles from Edgefield, SC. About 90 miles south of us, Edgefield is close to the GA border, so unsurprisingly the earthquake was felt all the way from Georgia to North Carolina. Said to have been a rather large quake for the area, no damage has been reported other than minor cracks and a few collapsed walls. The SC Emergency Management Division said that the state receives about 15-20 registered earthquakes per year and Friday night's was the 13th in the past year. The largest since a 4.4 earthquake in Charleston in 2002, it was nowhere close to as big as the 7.3 quake that struck Charleston in 1886.
Our earthquake felt like a large truck driving by, or an extended gale of wind; the windows rattled, the walls creaked and both Roberts and I were in slight disbelief that it had been an quake until we verified it on the USGS site a few minutes later. Thankful that it was just a minor one and no injuries have been reported, it was nonetheless an exciting evening for us here in the Upstate. I can only imagine what the next week has in store for us!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Snow and Sochi in the South

Happy Valentine’s Day! Also, happy 400th post!

It’s been all snow, play and Olympics here this week as the South copes with Winter Storm Pax. Monday the stores were jammed as people stocked up on essentials. Although I wish I had taken a picture of the man with a cart full of Moon Pies, I have to admit it was sobering seeing grocery shelves so empty. Our preparations included baking rupjmaize, digging out the boys’ snowpants and locating flashlights and candles in case an ice storm takes out the electricity.

Tuesday morning we awoke to snow, big heavy flakes that just wouldn’t stick. All day it came down, and although an inch or two collected along fences, tree branches and other cooler places, the grass had hardly an inch with roads remaining mostly clear. We took long walks, marveling at how the snow had stuck to everything but the ground. Although there was some traffic, it seemed as a large portion of the Upstate had settled in for a nap; although driving was supposedly slow going there were few accidents reported.

Wednesday morning it seemed like it would be back to normal… for about an hour. The snow started coming down again, this time conditions cold enough for it to immediately start sticking. The roads were covered in about 30 minutes, and the snow was deep enough for the boys to be outside playing in it immediately after breakfast. We had our fun, and then rushed indoors and shed our wet outerwear in a hurry. Huddled around the computer for the luge mens’ doubles event, we witnessing the Šics brothers Andris and Juris win a bronze medal, the first for Latvia in these Olympics. Then it was lunch with the Latvian hockey team who had a match with the Swiss. A nailbiter until the very end, the Latvian goalie had 37 saves with only seconds left in the third period when a man down at one end of the rink had them short at the other… and the Swiss scored with a little over seven seconds left in the game. Slightly disappointing, but considering Latvia has been written off as a contender, they put up a heck of a fight.

And the snow just kept coming, until late afternoon.  Instead of attempting to drive to downtown to go sledding in Falls Park, we strolled down the block to a steeper section of the street. As next to no one was on the roads, we had the hill for our own winter Olympics luge event with about twenty other local kids. After the boys’ first solo run (in which they narrowly missed several obstacles and ended up almost underneath a parked car) we opted for team runs. Somehow they made another run by themselves, and this one didn’t end as well with a crash into a roadsign. Luckily the injury sustained wasn’t enough to preclude additional sledding, and soon the boys (including dad) were at it again, even attempting the jump older kids had built at the bottom of the hill. Then just as suddenly as the snow had begun it changed into sleet, with frozen pellets stinging our faces as we made our way home to hot chocolate.

Luckily our power stayed on (although some others further south weren’t as lucky). Thursday we thought for sure Greenville would be back to normal, but the warmer temperatures made for extremely slick road conditions, especially with close to three inches of snow still present. Whereas the snow the previous day was dry and powdery, today it was perfect for packing and so we spent the morning building snowmen before trying our hand at a few more downhill runs.

Coming in for lunch we put on the team luge event and watched Latvia slide their way to another bronze. The team members - Elīza Tīruma, Mārtiņš Rubenis, Andris and Juris Šics – were truly an all-star team, with Rubenis having medaled at the men's singles luge at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin (the first Latvian to win a medal at the Winter Olympics) and the Šics brothers with a doubles silver from Vancouver in 2010 in addition to their two Sochi bronze medals. Tīruma placed 12th in women’s singles this Tuesday. Also, read this article for the inspirational story on how Juris Šics survived a car crash not even three years ago after which he was told he would never walk normally again – only to double medal in these Sochi Olympics.

source here

Friday at noon Sochi time (3am here), the Latvians faced off against the Czech Republic in their second round robin game in the tournament. With a final score of 2 to 4, they might have lost the game, but they played a good one, surprising the Czechs with their tenacity and aggressive game. Jānis Sprukts and Herberts Vasiljevs scored for Latvia, with the goalie Edgars Masaļskis having 35 saves. Then the Dukurs brothers Mārtiņš and Tomass had their first two runs in men’s skeleton, and now we have to wait until tomorrow to see if 2nd and 6th standing will translate to a gold medal. Saturday also brings the last round robin game of the hockey tournament against Sweden. Their seeding will be determined by this game, and then next Tuesday will be the playoff game for the four remaining quarterfinal spots (the top four teams advance directly).  Needless to say that we’ll be glued to the television for a good part of the morning – sarauj Latvija!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Whitehall - Historic North Main

Whitehall: source here

The North Main neighborhood dates back to 1813 when the historic Whitehall residence was built facing Rutherford Rd. Built by Henry Middleton on land bought from Elias Earle, the house served as a summer residence until 1820 when it was sold to George W. Earle (nephew of Elias Earle). Henry Middleton was the son of Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He served as Governor of South Carolina from 1810 to 1812.

Whitehall has been in the family ever since 1820, twenty years later becoming home to Charles Stone and his wife Eugenia Earle and then in 1880 to their son Eugene E. Stone and his wife Floride Lydia Croft. Streets including Stone and Townes were laid out, but otherwise the area saw little change until the Spanish American War, when in November of 1898 troops began arriving to Camp Wetherill. They didn’t leave until after the end of the war in March of 1899, at which point the 400 acres surrounding Whitehall were platted, divided amongst children of the Stones, and sold, marking the beginning of the development of the North Main neighborhood as we know it today.

Whitehall is one of only a handful of houses built in Greenville before 1850 that still stands today; all are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to Whitehall, there is the Fountain Fox Beattie House (1834, now the Greenville Woman’s Club), the Elias Earle Town House (1810) and the Josiah Kilgore House (1838, home to the Greenville Garden Club).

Monday, February 10, 2014

North Main, Greenville - an endangered neighborhood?

We chose to buy a house in this particular neighborhood due to several reasons. The proximity to downtown Greenville (walking distance), Stone Elementary and a stable property market were three important reasons, however my first and foremost was the green. Not dollars that is (although translated into dollars in terms of heating and cooling costs), but trees, nature. An established neighborhood dotted with parks, the streets are lined with mature trees. In backyards you’ll find kitchen gardens, chicken coops, bee hives and more trees. The residents appreciate the 50-100 year old trees for the air they filter, the shade they bring in the summer lowering the temperature by a good 10 degrees, the protection from wind and frost in the winter boosting heating efficiency, and the aesthetic value. The wildlife value in this urban forest is unarguable; whether it’s the birdsong with your morning coffee, or the hawks and snakes keeping the rodent population down, little creatures of all sorts live in this neighborhood right along with the humans.

A typical street - currently the branches are bare of leaves
One year ago a house on the next block was demolished. Over the course of the year, every single last tree on that property was razed, and ten houses (and one containment pond) were installed. My neighbors and I watched as what used to be forest was paved over with driveways, replaced with giant mansions more suited to a suburban cookie-cutter neighborhood, planted with turf and non-native ornamental trees and shrubs that will never grow over 20 feet tall (and never provide any sort of benefit in terms of cleaning air or providing shade and shelter). We silently wept while saying it was for the greater good of the neighborhood, as now more families will be able to live in this wonderful area we call home. We crossed our fingers the containment pond would work to collect all the rainwater from a large area that now had nowhere to go; in the past it would have simply soaked into the ground, but rain doesn’t soak into driveways and roofs, nor into the ground once all the topsoil has been destroyed resulting in a thick, impermeable clay with a layer of turf over it.

A few months ago a house across the street from the new development was demolished. We first shook our heads, wondering what is becoming of this little neighborhood, but then we rose into action when another property (a right of way that would have placed 5 houses and a road down the middle of a block) was threatened with development. That disaster has been put on hiatus; the previous one continues. Five houses rose up on the hill, again having nothing architecturally in common with any other house in the area. We sighed with relief when the trees were left standing, assuming the new owners saw the value in them same as we did. But last week, they too were razed, the clay hillside left completely bare and unprotected while another containment pond and driveway are installed. A giant magnolia that was probably one of the first residents of the modern North Main neighborhood, mature fig trees that dripped with fruit every fall, beautiful shade-providing water oaks that would have stood another 150 years – the entire block has been denuded, stripped, razed of its green. We will see what the summer brings in terms of mosquitos and disease, results of the acres of muddy containment ponds that more closely resemble cow wallows than any pond I know.

On the plus side, one tree has been planted
I’m utterly bewildered as to what the new owners want with our neighborhood. Obviously it isn’t the tree-lined streets that they value, nor the unique architectural facets of the single-family homes that dominate the area. If the boxlike uniformity of new houses with tiny green patches of lawn is what they seek, why destroy our neighborhood in their quest? We will all suffer the consequences of this loss of mature trees; financially and aesthetically, animals have lost their homes and my soul pains every time I drive down the street that was once a tunnel below a roof of green leaves and now is simply just another street in any subdivision in the US.

The city of Greenville is at fault, for not having zoning ordinances in place to protect a unique, historic area of what is a booming town in the Upstate. The North Main area is historically significant, as it is the first residential area of the city, boasting one of the oldest homes in Greenville which dates to 1813. The residents are just as guilty, of not taking notice of these drastic changes to our area until it is the property across the street being subdivided and paved over. I am responsible, for not speaking up earlier for fear of offending some of my new neighbors. But something has to be done; we are losing the very essence of our neighborhood, those things which make it unique and appealing. What can we do?

1. Join the North Main Community Association and learn of new developments being considered in your backyard.
2. Contact your District 1 Representative, Amy Ryberg Doyle.
PO Box 2207, Greenville, SC 29602
(864) 232-7179, @AmyRybergDoyle
Also, the North Main Community Association has a list of contact information for various city officials, the city of Greenville lists these city service request links.
3. When replacing diseased or downed trees, take into consideration: the species, is it native, will it provide shade, does it provide wildlife benefits.
4. Participate in local community meetings, be aware of what is taking place in your neighborhood, and understand that while today it might be “that street a few blocks down”, tomorrow it might be you.

We all have a responsibility for our community, not only to make newcomers feel welcome, but to ensure that the qualities which pulled us to this neighborhood are sustained, and continue to be the driving factors in attracting new residents to the area. The trees that have been cut cannot be propped back up, and although we will feel the effects for dozens of years, new trees can be planted and the forest restored. It’s up to you – plant that seed, root that tree, grow our community.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Let the Games begin!

Today the XXII Olympic Games start in Sochi, Russia, with a few preliminary events occurring before the opening ceremonies on Friday. There is plenty of controversy surrounding these Olympics, the first winter Olympics to take place in Russia. In addition to the reported environmental impact, political and ethical questions combined with corruption scandals have marred the Games before they’ve even begun. We can only hope the Games will pass without incident, and therefore we’ll be concentrating on cheering on our favorites and teaching the boys about the winter Olympic sports.

"you have to bite the medal to make sure it is real"
As US citizens we are proud supporters of Team USA, but after our time in France we also have a soft spot for some of the French athletes. However, it is the Latvian team that will have us on our feet cheering. This will be the third winter Games in a row that Latvia will send exactly 58 athletes who will be competing in nine events – a relatively high number when compared with the 230 athletes representing the US – but Latvia has only won three medals in the winter Olympics. Mārtiņš Rubenis won a bronze in Turin’s luge men's singles in 2006 (this will be his 5th Olympics), Andris Šics & Juris Šics placed second in luge doubles in Vancouver 2010, and Mārtiņš Dukurs earned a silver in those same Olympics in men’s skeleton.

our train "ski jump"
All four will be competing in Sochi next week, along with some other familiar faces; you NHL fans might recognize the names of Kaspars Daugaviņš, Zemgus Girgensons, and Sandis Ozoliņš, who will carry the flag in the opening ceremony. Ozoliņš (or Ozolinsh as it has been spelled) was a seven-time NHL All-Star, Stanley Cup champion and Norris Trophy finalist during his career in North America. He played for the San Jose Sharks, the Colorado Avalanche, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the New York Rangers, and currently is on the Dinamo Riga team of the Kontinental Hockey League. Kaspars Daugaviņš was drafted in 2006 by the Ottawa Senators, and later played for the Boston Bruins. He’s currently with the Genève-Servette HC of the National League A. Zemgus Girgensons, the highest drafted Latvian in NHL history has played with the Buffalo Sabres since 2012. Other former NHL players include Oskars Bartulis and Mārtiņš Karsums. The Latvian hockey team has been placed in bracket C, along with the Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland. Their first game is on Wednesday with the Swiss, and on Friday they play the Czech Republic before facing off against Sweden on Saturday.

Source: here
We wish all the athletes who have qualified to participate in these Games a safe Olympic experience. You can bet the TV will be on a lot more than usual in this house (hopefully they won’t cut to commercial when Latvia walks in during the opening ceremonies) as we share in the stories, the hope and the triumph of the athletes that have traveled all the way to Sochi to compete with the best in the world. And of course - Sarauj Latvija!!!

Team Latvia (skeleton) source here
The Latvian Olympic team's official page can be found here.
For a detailed roster, you can find an article on the Latvian participants on in the article here (in Latvian).
The Sochi website also has the roster, although it appears not to be complete (but is available in English).
I'm not the biggest fan of Wikipedia, but the "Latvia at Sochi" entry has a ton of info condensed and well-organized (in English).
This google document has a breakdown of days and times the Latvian athletes will be competing (in Latvian, according to their time zone).
A quick recap of Latvia's medals in the London summer Olympics here.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kicking off the month with cake and football

Along with the beginning of February came a slew of holidays and other occasions, ruining the image of control I had at the end of January, seeming to sneak up on me as it does every year. Luckily I didn’t have to worry about the big events which caught me off guard in Clermont-Ferrand; the short film festival and wine weekend at the Vinidome (which we usually missed anyway during our years in France) or the big rugby game in which France emerged victorious against England in the RBS 6 nations. But I also missed jour des crêpes, the French tradition of a day of crêpes that we had managed to keep since moving back from France. The good news is that there were a dozen other things to observe and celebrate!

With the passing of the Chinese New Year we have entered into the year of the horse, and who cares that Punxsutawney Phil has predicted six more weeks of winter (a few days ago on Groundhog Day), we have been immersed in a birthday celebration! Our youngest marked his second birthday on January 29th, and Sunday we had a few friends over to celebrate. The bar had been set high as on Lauris’s second birthday dessert consisted of the train cake, but we managed a completely relaxed weekend while still marking this milestone in proper jubilārs vēlās fashion. While discussing possible cakes with Mikus I received a few pointers: mašīna, policija and pikaps (car, police and pickup truck). The result was this cake, for which I used Martha’s one bowl chocolate cake recipe and a vanilla buttercream icing, mixed with some food coloring for the accents.

The weather has warmed considerably since the giant snow storm, and we spent the warmest hours of the day outside. Our guests brought a science experiment, and luckily no one got too sticky during the Mentos-Coke explosion. We soaked up the mid-60˚ temps before heading inside for a chili dinner and the Super Bowl, complete with a bacon-cheese dip and plenty of chips and guacamole, as required by this American holiday centered around food, friends and football.

Of course now we can turn our attention to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. We’ll definitely tune in to watch the opening ceremonies Friday, and despite all the controversy on Russia’s preparation for these games, we are excited to support the Latvian men’s hockey team. They will be taking the ice next Wednesday, so now it is just a matter of rounding up the local Latvians and figuring out how to watch the game….
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