Monday, 26 April 2010


I love the clouds in this photo
We started off this week with injections for tic-bourne encephalitis. The lovely little tics can be found whilst tramping around forests and long grass, which of course when you have land you get to do lots of. Now before I put you off ever visiting Latvia, you have to remember that tics are not just the delightful, little, blood-sucking insects that you only find in Latvia, these sorts that pass on this rather nasty illness, can be found from Alsace-Lorraine in the west to Vladivostok and north-eastern regions of China in the east, and from Scandanavia to Italy, Greece and Crimea in the south, so they are kind of extensive. At least now we can be a little more confident that we shouldn't get a nasty illness from them, well at least in a few days time we can. Apparently you have to make absolutely sure that you do not get a tic bite for the first ten days, when it would be even worse than not having the injection in the first place - something Ian remembered only after he had been making his way through the forest one day and had to strip off to make sure he hadn't got any of the wee beasties. I have also read that if you do remove them within a few hours then there is much less chance of getting an infection from them, so worth remembering even in the UK where there is the delight of Lyme's disease from tics and I don't think there is a vaccination for that yet.

Wood anemone in our forest
There has been lots of processes started off this week from getting lots of lovely manure for the garden, finally finding out how to get milk directly from the farmer, to seeing a man who wants to lay some electricity cables along the edge of our land to starting off the process of getting our barn built. The electricity cables are to connect a biogas unit that is being built to the local substation and we are on that route. It is actually  a good thing as that means we will have a new cable, carrying three phase electric along the edge of our land which should make getting a transformer easier for us when the whole thing gets connected and hopefully the electric supply should be more reliable than the electric in nearby areas. The biogas unit I have also found out will be using grass and we could at a later stage write out a contract with the company to supply them with grass, the only problem is that I am now trying to find out if this is grass that is cut at the same time as silage grass or the end of year meadow grass, if it is green grass that could mean that the local corncrake could come under more pressure in our area. I somehow don't think it will be corncrake friendly grass they will want as that probably won't provide as much biogas unless something is added to it. Swings and roundabouts with trying to think green.

Pied Wagtail with a thing for our car, which it decorates in
its own inimitable style. 
The barn process we are hoping will not become another saga like the polytunnel but we are not holding our breath. We went to see the architect - the same one who gave us permission to have the stove put in. We did wonder if she wanted to see where it was going to be built but she didn't, good job really as we knew she wouldn't be prepared for traipsing across the land by having a suitable pair of shoes or clothes (previous experience told us that). We were a little worried to see her leave the building at around the time we were due to meet her and wondered if we should stop her, problem is we know she doesn't speak English and our translator hadn't arrived, fortunately she didn't take the car so we knew she wouldn't be far away. We were assured though that we could have the technical details by May 15th - I will believe it when I see it though. And as for that polytunnel - we are still waiting. For some reason not known to us they finished off a kiddies playground which has been on the go about as long as our polytunnel and installed it at the kindergarten, at least someone has a finished project!!!! Maybe next week (I could do with an emoticon right now that issues a long sigh)

Working hard in the allotments. Reminds of us of Pat and Mat
It snowed again this week after a lovely few days too. Still it was not totally unexpected as that happened last year as well but the biggggg difference this year is we still have heat (or we did, I think the radiator is cold as I write this for the first time this winter). Last year we were sat shivering under blankets trying to keep warm with just oil-fired radiators to keep warm for much of April after they turned the communal heating off at the end of March. This year we were panicking a bit because we don't have a huge amount of wood left to heat our apartment if they did turn the heat off early so have been really relieved not to need it. Hopefully it means that our neighbours were paying their bills over winter this year, which must be easier to do since the heating bills are so much lower, despite the massive drops in salaries but I still wonder. 

Birthday flowers
It was my birthday this last week and I got flowers galore, a sweet little pink potted rose from a family and bunches from my English class with a vase and a bunch from another friend. My friend bought me a lovely sunny yellow bunch of chrysanthemums because she said the sun had disappeared and so wanted something to remind me of the sun. That made me smile a lot. I did get a DVD from one of my children, one forgot as usual and one tried valiantly to get something to me but I think was defeated by the volcano which shut down Latvian airspace too. Oh well at least I know it is on its way, err as long as it doesn't get lost on route that is. My presents from Ian are usually a long time in arriving, mainly because I decide what I like and then spend absolutely ages trying to find something that fits my criteria. It took months before I found a handbag (American = purse) that I liked. Many bags seem to have way too much bling for my liking. 

After a meal out at our restaurant I sat down to the computer to investigate toilets, composting toilets to be exact and why may you ask would I be doing such a thing, because someone thought I might know about that sort of thing. Well I have looked into it from time to time and I had even had a very interesting site bookmarked where you can learn lots of fascinating things about composting toilets, about toilets in the developing world, how to build a toilet of various sorts and what to do with all that errr compostable material :o), for instance why not dig a pit, build a loo over it and then when it is full, move the loo and plant a tree in the hole or even tomatoes. Smells? No problem, use a ventilation pipe and plenty of sawdust and it's sorted. No wonder he thought to ring me and ask me. 

Ian praying our polytunnel will be finished!
Actually it is a gadget to support the roof
whilst nailing on slips of wood to hold down
the plastic but it does look rather like a crucifix.
Despite the snow we now have returned to some lovely spring like weather. It would put me in mind for some more spring cleaning but I need to get my studying done so no chance. What I might get chance to do is some spring cleaning for the soul though. Spring cleaning for the soul is an idea from the Timber Butte site that I follow and talks about getting rid of the clutter from our souls such as unedifying or even painful thoughts. Clearing out does not mean ignoring them or pretending that they didn't happen but facing them and sorting out the ties surrounding issues, such as what needs to be forgiven? what is an unresolved issue that needs resolving? what is important? what is better to be let go? But like a spring clean it can leave you feeling clean and prepared for what lies ahead. 

A Sunday spent gathering the thatch  Ian has
harrowed up with his tractor instead of gazing at a
computer studying. A brain rest with some much needed
physical work for me.
A very interesting turn around for the IMF this week as they suggest taxing banks - does that mean theirs too? This surprising move has taken analysts by surprise too but reading between the lines it sounds like the IMF are hoping to benefit from such a move and suggesting it goes into their own coffers. Unless the IMF become much more transparent and accountable in their dealings then I think that would be a very bad move indeed. The IMF seem to have gained rather too much power in this crisis, power that only a couple of years ago seemed to be on the wane.

If anyone can identify this weird cup shaped fungi, I would
be most grateful
I mentioned last week that people were beginning to think of a world without planes and this is beginning to happen. It appears to have given fresh impetus to a high speed rail link between Helsinki and Berlin (all that needs to happen now is for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to stop quibbling over it and it could become a reality) only hope that with trains travelling at 300km/hr (186 mph) they do something about the numerous level crossings in Latvia, I somehow don't think the combination will work without a lot of heartache, hopefully they will build bridges over them. It would also be nice to think there is a realistic alternative to air travel, especially as I vowed never ever to travel with Ryanair after the head's ridiculous comments this week. He seems to think that encouraging people to travel on cheap tickets is somehow doing them a favour when the reality is that if they travel with Ryanair and get into problems then Ryanair will not care two hoots about them and believe they should be able to fend for themselves, fine if they have the money for that but the reason that people use Ryanair is because it is cheap. So it seems they are really encouraging reckless behaviour that could leave people stranded. Well not me!

Monday, 19 April 2010

What a week it's been

A Latvian tradition at weddings to place a lock on a bridge

I mentioned two weeks ago our car failed its technical inspection (MOT for the Brits), the wheel bearing was bust on our two year old vehicle. Fortunately it was fixed under guarantee with no questions asked at the garage; we did wonder if they would quibble with it. We had a sneaking suspicion the failure was due to an underlying problem exacerbated greatly by the violent shaking that the inspector put our car through to test the suspension. I guess we should be grateful to him, if that was the case, as it saved it breaking whilst we were driving into Riga a two and half hour journey away. What we didn't want, however, was another repeat of the violent shaking on the re-test so we took it to a different vehicle inspection garage and they were much more gentle with the car. I think we will be there next year as well, as the guy who did the test actually spoke pretty good English - always a bonus but I guess also continues to make us lazy with the language.

Ruin at Aizkraukle
I know that learning the language is important and I am still picking up words. Just as in Denmark I often find that I know the Latvian for words that my friends do not know the English for. Nouns I am fine with, linking them together into a conversation is another matter entirely. It did strike me though that you can know a language fluently and still not be able to communicate. I feel we have been able to communicate to our neighbours our love and care for this place by gardening and making sure we take our turn on the cleaning rota (roster) and occasionally going the extra mile, like clearing ice in winter or brushing up the stairs when it is not our turn when we know it is our boots that have carried a lot of mud in. We also make sure we shop locally and these things are noticed. I am not being vain in the least, when you are a foreigner in a small place with few foreigners there is no hiding and you live life in a goldfish bowl. All these actions do communicate though, in many ways much more than words can and I think that is why we feel very accepted by our neighbours - maybe not all of them but enough to feel welcome to stay.

View of the Daugava river from Aizkraukle
On the subject of gardening, one of the decisions we made this year was to buy a rotavator. Ian has served his apprenticeship over the last two years and dug the allotment plot by hand, getting rid of many of the weeds. This year though he hasn't got the time to do that. The tractor drinks far too much diesel to warrant bringing it all the way from the land to plough the allotment and for medium sized areas a rotavator is needed really. This means we can also dig over the allotment at the other flat too, as well as small areas on our land and in the polytunnel. It does feel a bit like cheating but we do have to be practical too. We went to the diy store to have a look at them and they managed to find someone to help us in making a decision who spoke English, well kind of. He actually spoke English with a heavy Irish accent. There were times that I could hardly understand him and I had a dickens of a job trying not to laugh when he used distinctly Irish phrases. It just seemed so bizarre to be stood in Latvia, speaking to a Latvian with this pronounced Irish accent including the mannerisms of the Irish and to top it all he even seemed to have picked up the Irish blarney - the way of speaking none stop to make a sale. At least he managed to convince us that the cheaper rotavator was the way to go as it was less likely to be costly if it hit a stone. The more expensive one though would perhaps have been easier to manoeuvre, plusses on minuses on both sides. Ian couldn't wait to use the rotavator so off he went when he got home to try it out on one of our allotments, and the following morning he did the one outside the apartment where we live, the one that took two years to dig over! Now that is saving time!

Aizkraukle ruin
Well as if we haven't got enough to do we also helping some friends of ours to realise a dream and buy a farm for them. This one is 10.5 ha (26 acres) of arable and 26 ha (64 acres) of forest. The property is also right next to a lake but that means there is a drawback with the forest as it can only be selectively cut and never clear felled - which is fine by us as I don't like the idea of clear-felling anyway - it devastates eco-systems and of course doesn't look pretty for quite a while. The intention was that we were going to own half of it (well 49%) but we can't even own half of agricultural or forest land until next year when the laws, hopefully, change. It doesn't stop us building up a business with our friends though, we hope to grow vegetables and they will be raising animals and we can supply the feed for that too. Between the two forests we can also develop some commercial enterprises from them - not quite sure yet what but we have a few ideas floating around like charcoal, mushrooms and willow structures. So if you have any ideas then do let me know.

Yes, our poly tunnel actually now has plastic on it!!!
The big news this week has obviously been the ash from the Icelandic volcano. Once again the fallout from Iceland brings severe disruption to Northern Europe, only it isn't the banks this time. Interesting how such a sparsely populated out of the way place can bring about so much chaos. Riga airport has been shut too and a team from England who flew over to help out in a local camp were due to fly back today (Monday April 19th) and have now been told they can't get back before the 1st May, fortunately that is a hardship they can take. Another friend was due to fly out to Latvia from England last week and won't be making it out until the summer I guess now. How inconvenient I now have to wait for my special delivery of face flannels to arrive (I just can't get what I consider normal sized face flannels here in Latvia). I am sure I will get over it though. And just in case you don't know me that well, I am joking. For some people though they can get so wrapped up in their own little worlds that something like that can be a major annoyance but for many people this whole episode is more than inconvenience I know.The strange thing is though, that just as scientists predict that things would be hotting up and causing us all sorts of problems God seems to send us something to cool things down a little and show that there is more ways to travel than by air. It has been quite interesting how inventive people have become over their attempts to get home and some have enjoyed the challenge. It has also caused others to wonder what a world would be like without planes. These kinds of things get me excited as it means people are being forced to think outside the box, and that makes life less predictable but more exhilarating and rewarding.

I love this view out of the polytunnel.
Of course there has also been no end of moans about the costs to the airlines, but what about the positives? I guess those going on holiday or wanting to get somewhere aren't happy but the hotels close to airports will be as are the ferry and train operators. Are those gains taken into account? What about the gains from staycations? Or people saving money instead of spending it on holiday tack? Surely there are some winners as well as losers? Maybe some farmers who normally export will suddenly find there is an internal market after all and not need to export their goods by plane. There are those of course who chose to make a fast buck by driving people somewhere at extortionate prices which was not a very positive thing to do, or the raising of prices by hotels near airports but a lot of good will have come out of it. For some the extended holiday (vacation) means extra time spent with their children, it has meant being resourceful, it has meant that people actually begin to wonder what would happen in a world without planes.

By the way I found out this week I am not going completely mad, the captions for the photos are only available on the Blogger draft and not the regular blogger and so I wasn't able to add captions at all before anyway.

Monday, 12 April 2010

A new look

A butterfly on Ian's tractor
So what do you think of the new look blog? I tried out some of the new templates Blogger has released and I thought the background of the map was very appropriate for the title of my blog "The Journey". I also managed to alter the width of the text, which makes for a shorter column length which I think is easier to read but let me know what you think anyway. I did fancy the purple background as purple is my favourite colour but somehow it just didn't look right, oh well!

My pile of stones
The pile of hay collected by hand
We have had a long cold winter this year but the Spring has been lovely, the wind has been a bit cold at times but at least it is drying everything out and the land doesn't squelch everywhere you go. Looking around it is hard to think that less than three weeks ago everywhere was still inches deep in snow. Since this was my Easter holiday break from studying I joined Ian out on the land and pottered about rather than doing anything too strenuous to the brain. I raked the hay that had been cut last year but hadn't had the chance to rake up before the snows came (it will be composted anyway so no loss really) and I also collected stones from the fields so that they won't clip the plough when Ian re-ploughs it soon. It was good to be doing some physical work for a change and have the sun on my back.
"Remind me again why people go to work?"
As we sat down for a cup of tea to soak up some more rays I turned to Ian and joked "Remind me again why people go to work!" Okay I know not everyone can do what we are doing but the joy of getting out and about and doing some physical work in the countryside or garden in the sun is wonderful and doesn't cost the earth. So much is spent on trying to earn enough for the latest gadgets, the newest car, a big house etc that people miss out on the simple joys. Our work now will save us in food bills this year and so we won't need to earn as much money and so is worth the effort. While we were sitting eating our lunch we saw an eagle, a hare and a fox, it was just so amazing sitting there watching all this wildlife go past. It was also very funny watching Ian creeping up to the car to get the camera but worth it in the end to capture some photos of the fox, he was such a handsome beast too not the scrawny individuals we have sometimes seen, just wished Ian had kept the camera with him to take photos of the hare and the eagle too.
Ian was spotted but to be honest Mr.Fox didn't really seem to care
Mr.Fox out for a stroll on our land

With the snow gone we expected to find our wheelbarrow that we had left on the land over winter. We couldn't remember if we had left it in the woods or if it had got buried under the 10ft high (3m) mounds from clearing the snow. Bit by bit the snow disappeared and we traipsed all over the place looking for it, but to no avail, it seems it has either melted away with the snow or it has gone walkabouts (euphemism for stolen). It is a little worrying really as we have other stuff out there undercover and also a little puzzling that it could disappear while there was 3ft (1m) of snow about which we had difficulty walking through in our snow shoes and also we didn't see any tracks. Anyway out of sheer necessity we have now bought another one and as promised on the Cottage Smallholder's blog here is a picture of ours . It is a little different to most English ones as it has two wheels but that does make it much more stable for pulling about and the single pram style handle means you can drag it behind you with one hand leaving you free to carry something else with the other. I do like Veronica's comment on the blog though that to discourage theft paint a wheelbarrow pink, probably wouldn't work if everyone did it but maybe I could paint mine with some fancy design. Hmmm! Now there's a creative project for the summer.

Coltsfoot - Spring is here!
On April 24th Latvia will hold a clean up Latvia day. Latvia is quite a tidy place to live really and not usually that much rubbish (trash) lying about but the winter weather seems to have changed that and bottles must have accumulated in the snow and now being revealed. Having said that it is not as bad as England or Cyprus, maybe they could take a lead from Latvia and hold a national clean up day? Our house manager has got some plans to tidy up the area around us, especially the places where old folk have their allotments as according to her they are beginning to look untidy. Gulp! We had better keep on top of our allotment and make sure everything is ship-shape. Our allotment has suffered a lot over the winter and things I thought would survive well don't appear to have done, I think the cold got to them before they got covered in enough snow to blanket them. I think my sage and some of the thyme are just about hanging on in there but I think the lavender has gone. There are no traces of things like kale and cabbages and they either rotted in the snow or been eaten by the deer, and since there are so many deer droppings around the place the suspicion falls on them.

Progress of sorts on the polytunnel, it now has ends
The death of Polish President troubled me some what as the consequences of the Polish President dying on Russian soil whilst heading for a memorial of the Katyn massacre, which commemorated the murder of many Polish elite by the Soviet secret police, could have had repercussions here in Latvia. Fear of the Russians and their motives still lingers here and in many Eastern European countries and the wrong move by the Russians could have exacerbated tense relationships, it could also stoke tensions between the Latvian majority and the disenfranchised Russian minority. I was relieved to read on Martin Scott's blog "I saw Europe – stretching into Russia, covering also the southern states down to the Black Sea, and from the north to the south –  under a blanket of ice. To state the obvious, frozen in time, little movement. However this was beginning to melt. I am full of hope for these lands." and I believe that maybe, just maybe this crash could have the opposite effect to the one I feared and so far the Russians have been exemplary in their handling of this crisis, not something they are usually noted for. I pray it continues and bring much new growth in these areas as they are freed from their frozen state. The Latvians have been expressing their condolences in their usual way, Latvian flags were flying at half-mast on most buildings or flown with black ribbons in sympathy for the Polish people.

A newly dug pond, extended from our small well of last year
A long time ago on this blog I prayed that the Latvian banks would apologise for their part in the mess that Latvia is in, not that I expected them to listen to me but if enough people speak out on such topics then maybe they will get the message that their actions have been both reckless and stupid, causing much unnecessary suffering. I guess this is as near as we get to an apology, the CEO of Swedbank, Latvia believes the Latvian banks are to blame for the problems between banks and borrowers, he admits the Latvian banks have made mistakes (you bet they have!) and they need to educate borrowers about the risks - maybe they could start by advertising the interest rates they charge and how much extra that means to borrowers over the sum they borrowed, something I mentioned not so long ago. Well at least it is a start and I suppose in the field of high finance a big start, it is a shame it has taken so long to get there as Latvia has now been in crisis for well over a year.

A common sight here, a stork in flight
Something else I mentioned in the same blog as the interest rates were some of the dubious practices of large seed companies, they seem to rule the world and sell it lies. A 20 page report just out basically states that the increased yields expected from hybrid seeds is not from evidence in many fields and where there is an increase in yield it is offset by the increased costs required from the mechanisation and the fertilisers required. The seed companies often promote themselves as aiming to feed the world but this is utter nonsense, their only aim is to feed their profits. Also they are not breeding the rice for its eating qualities but for their ability to grow something that means that the farmers have to come back each year to buy seed or requires added inputs that their companies produces like specific herbicides. One way to feed the world is actually to develop seed that farmers can collect and grow themselves the next year, a little like the Real Seed Catalogue company but on a grander scale. These seeds are grown for the benefits of the grower, for taste and for ease of growing, not for ease of the seed company. We will find out if they live up to their claims as I have just planted up quite a few of their seeds and already the calabrese and melons are coming through.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Good news, bad news week

It has been an interesting week this week in both good and bad ways. Early on in the week we found out that a friend of a friend was interested in coming to visit our place to see what we are doing and so at the last minute we ended up with an unexpected guest over the Easter holidays. We have had many chats with our new friend over the time he has been spending with us and one chat lasted for around 7 hours around the kitchen table. We did wonder how many folks these days even eat around a table, never mind sit for hours just chatting but it was good fun anyway.

We have finally been having some lovely spring days, plenty of sunshine and a warm wind which has been great for spring cleaning and getting the washing done as well as drying the ground out and melting the remaining snow. The rivers were running very high as the ice melted and snow ran off the fields but it would seem that the culvert that the local council put in last year on the road next to our land has meant that the snow run-off from our fields have not flooded the road this year, which is a relief (you can see the pictures from last year here). We still might try and dig out a pond a bit further back and see if we can make use of all that water for fish but I guess that may be a project for another year. Talking of ponds Ian has been using his digger attachment to dig out a pond near the poly tunnel - or rather where the poly tunnel frame is, so that when it is eventually finished then we have a source of water. There is some progress on that front for anyone following that particular 6 month saga, as the workers have been back and finishing off the frame but they are up to their ankles in mud - not good news from their point of view I guess.

Thursday this week was a rather difficult good news bad news day:-
Firstly I got to the hairdressers okay in the nearest large town - which is good news as the roads are diabolical at the moment and therefore this can be considered an achievement, the potholes are quite alarming in places
While I was in the hairdressers Ian went to get the technical inspection done on the car which cost less than we thought it was going to - so more good news!
The car, however, failed the technical inspection- bad news, the front suspension was wobbly for some reason.
We do have 30 days to sort it though- good news
We fitted in a trip to the accountants and found we might not have to pay tax on a house sale - very good news (I will qualify this and say our accountant is still discussing this with the tax service and so is not a done deal yet)
We went to the supermarket and found some beef which is a very a rare find where we are - good news for an Easter weekend treat
Got home and found a certificate from OU in the post for a module I passed in October so my merit for that is now official - good news
Ian decided to change the tyres on the car to even up the wear and found that the wobble on the wheel was worse than he thought - bad news
Went to see our Swedish friend for a second opinion and he suggested going to the local garage to have a look and everyone agreed the car is not safe to drive because for some reason the wheel bearing on our two year old truck has gone- very bad news - we then had just an hour before we were due to set off to pick up our guest for the weekend at the airport.
Our American friend and neighbour then offered to drive us to the airport to pick up our guest- good news
He then offered us a spare car for the weekend- very good news

After all that it was a good job that the holiday weekend has been one of relaxation and lots of talking. Unfortunately we had more good news/bad news trying to arrange transport for the truck to Riga. With some help from our neighbour Ian thought he had managed to arrange for the truck to be transported into Riga on Tuesday but due to a little miscommunication it turned out it was arranged for Monday and we only found out after the arranged appointment - bad news. With a bit of to-ing and fro-ing our neighbour eventually managed to sort everything out - good news but it does mean Ian has to set off tomorrow at 5am - bad news (well it is for Ian, I am going into Riga later with our neighbour - good news). All bit of a palaver really.

Photo 1: Some last remaining snow in a barren landscape
Photo 2: White water rafting on Bank Holiday Monday down the local river
Photo 3: One of the numerous potholes that have sprung up after the ravages of winter
Photo 4: On the left hand side of this building is the local police station and on the right hand side the water and heating supply company (thought you might like to see some local landmarks).
Photo 5 & 6 : The weir where it has burst its banks
Photo 7: Some of the washed up wood on the side of the weir.