Monday, 27 December 2010


Don't these make fantastic Christmas
trees, we have nicknamed them star trees
Well while the Northern hemisphere is shivering in the winter we are roasting in Australia, about 40C today and around 37/38C over the Christmas weekend. This meant that Christmas day was spent inside, in the air-conditioning, but it was a lovely relaxing day all the same, with our daughter and her fiancé. Needless to say the roast dinner was left until well into the evening, Christmas dinner mid-afternoon didn't seem quite so appealing somehow but the salad and fruit lunch did. We closed the shutters mid-afternoon to shut out the light to watch the Muppet's Christmas Carol and remind ourselves of cold winter Christmases. Once again Christmas down under seems topsy turvey to a Northern hemisphere lass but the good news is that from tomorrow it is due to get cooler - around 33C, much more bearable.

The tree top walk, not particularly good value for money
as it is so short, and would be much better opened early in
the morning or at dusk to see the animals and birds but
fascinating anyway as you get to see the trees from a
different perspective.
Our holiday in Denmark.... remember Denmark, a small town on the south coast of Western Australia not the European Denmark, was a little wet and when it wasn't wet the flies were a nuisance but all in all it was still a great time, at least the rain was warm. We stayed in a youth hostel, The Blue Wren, which was a fascinating experience, meeting so many people on journeys. It was a microcosm of life with some who we connected with and some we didn't, some we spent hours chatting too and still don't know their names, some who just left and we never said goodbye and some we did, and it was all so transient and yet ...... very real. I think sometimes we hold onto relationships and people so tightly that we are not able to enjoy the pleasure of those just passing through, or we don't even make the time to enjoy those people that doesn't mean I don't value long term relationships that go deep, I do but not all relationships have to be long term. As a Christian from an evangelical-ish background your sometimes made to feel that unless you get the gospel through to at least a dozen people and three come to know Christ then the trip isn't worth it, fortunately I don't see it that way. I believe that God will work through us, definitely, but I do not feel the need to finish God's job for him, but to merely be a part of his plan. If something about our life, or our words, touches someone and draws them closer to a loving Father then great but we are happy to let God travel with the people and for them to meet someone else along the journey who opens their eyes a bit more to the reality of that heavenly Father who loves them intensely, we don't have to do the whole job in one night. In life some people take the plane flights along to their destinations, some take the slow train and some walk, but they are all on a journey and that is something we really took away from the week and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to travel when you feel like it. These folks we met weren't lazy, they work hard, in the fields, in the restaurants, even in the banks but they work and then travel, moving on, experiencing different cultures, letting it change them; and yet so often they are thought of as irresponsible or it is fine to do while young but at some stage they have to settle down and get a proper job. Not so sure I agree with that. It was good to read Paul Leader's article on journeying and how they echoed our thoughts about those who travel and how inspiring they are, it is not just us then who think that way. I particularly liked how Paul pointed out that the Bible is full of sojourners and not settlers, food for thought!

So cute! Alpacas
We didn't spend the whole week in the hostel though, we did get out and about and visited beaches and towns, galleries and a sandalwood factory, natural attractions and farms. The things that stood out to us was the warm welcome from Mark Hewson of Torbay Glass Studio who we spent quite a while chatting to about his work and his life as well as our life. I love talking to craftspeople who have a passion for their work but also a passion to share and the glass he makes is inspiring, I really loved the glass water lily fountain, it was so delicate looking due to its transparency and yet robust looking, unfortunately we couldn't fit it in the suitcase. I also loved the idea, that if you wanted to, you could come up with your own design and work with Mark to make the finished product - now I would love to do that. We also went to a pet farm, which seems an odd thing to do when we don't have little ones with us but we did have an ulterior motive. We visited a shop in Denmark that sells alpaca wool products and they were so soft and light and yet felt so warm that we did wonder whether it was feasible to actually have alpacas ourselves in Latvia and so a visit to the Pentland Alpaca Stud and animal farm seemed like a good idea. It was a great visit and the lady owner was very helpful and gave us lots of information, so much so that we are seriously going to look into it when we get back, especially as we know that there are spinners and knitters in the village back home in Latvia. We also got to feed the alpacas and the kangaroos too, well you have to don't you!!!! They were all very sweet and good natured and we loved the alpacas, especially when they talk to you with their humming voices. 

Our daughter driving us down the 4x4 track
We didn't quite manage the barbecue on the beach on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas for my American friends), it got too dark and the charcoal wouldn't light, added to which we only had my torch to light up the meal, so it got abandoned, but it was still lovely on the beach at night with the crashing surf and the millions of stars twinkling overhead, I even got to see a shooting star. The barbecue was meant to be the finish of a day where we went 4x4ing, I hadn't realised that there lots of tracks that 4x4s can use, but it is a regular hobby for some here in Oz, especially to get to isolated beaches. It was funny to see our future son-in-law taking on a family tradition of towing cars out of messes, this time it was a family with young children towing a large trailer which had got bogged down in soft sand on the track. I didn't get out of the car at this point, as the 40C heat meant instant burn for me and sand that was so hot that it was too hot to stand on, even with sandals on. We got close to the beach and the last section we walked but by the time I got to the sea my feet were burning, so it was straight into the water for a plodge and I spent the rest of the time either plodging in the water or sitting in the beach tent they had bought specially for me and my delicate northern skin. 

An emu coming for a closer look at the pet farm
I know in England there has been some disquiet at the student protests and some of the rowdier elements have been disruptive but I found the fact that students are willing to protest as encouraging. There are a few things that fill me with despair and one of them is the apathy of the younger generations, even my generation were pretty apathetic with few who have fire in their bellies. We need the youth to challenge our pre-conditioned way of thinking, we need them to not accept the status quo but to continually question, otherwise the powerful will takeover and people acquiesce to mediocre lives without even thinking about what they are doing and why. Even if at the end of the day we do not change, at least we should know why we are not changing and that is why I am encouraged by the students' protests. The youth with fire in their bellies, with questions as to why their future has been sold down the line by greed. Let's face it the generation that are making the decisions for the future are the ones that have squandered the resources of this planet, and squandered the chances they have had meaning that there is not much money now for our children's future. The generation that had free university places are no longer willing to pay for the next generation to have the same benefits. Yes the system needs looking at, why does everyone have to go to University? What kind of education is important? What do we need to take us into the next millennium? All important questions, but we should not rob this generation of their future and one young man on youtube shows what fire in the belly can look like, he doesn't have all the answers, but he's thinking, he is beginning to take an interest in the world around him and I am encouraged. Will be interesting to see where he will go, may he retain the fire in the belly for years to come.

Some more photos for you
Feeding a kangaroo
Vegetation near the beach

Sunset on the beach

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Still weird

Studying hard!!!!
Bit early this week but then again we are off to Denmark, remember Denmark, Western Australia, not Denmark, Europe! Also we happen to be 8 hours ahead of GMT.

Well it took until Saturday morning to finish my assignment and it felt like an epic to get it done. That did mean I was stuck inside most of the time, which when the sun is so fierce is perhaps not a bad idea really. I hope I have learnt something from the module and I hope I have passed, after that I am past caring, it was a slog. I knew this semester was going to be a challenge to keep on track with what I am doing when trying to fit in the weddings of two of our children but it was worth it to keep on track with getting the course completed and being an online course does mean that at least I am more flexible in where I study - always a good thing I think.

The beach near Fremantle
I haven't been inside the whole time of course and although you might think it is a boring existence to get out only to do some shopping, we did manage that. Not Christmas shopping or anything, haven't done any of that, just regular shopping. Shopping in a different country I find fascinating as it always gives you a clue about the food culture of a place, what's there and what's not. Fresh meat, fruit and veg, I am pleased to say, is abundant enough but rather eye-wateringly priced. Managed to spend on one evening for four what we would normally spend in a week in Latvia for two, but then again there are not many Kangaroo kebabs in Latvia. We even had steak this week, partly because it didn't cost much more than the pork, and we can get plenty of that in Latvia, very nice it was too on the barbie (Barbecue - just in case you are wondering, which I am sure your not) something you have to do of course whilst in Australia. Mind you I don't think that sitting outside having a barbecue is quite as popular as we imagine, sitting inside air-conditioned houses is though.

Fremantle Round House, looking very pristine for its 180 yrs
Finishing my assignment meant I was finally free to get out and about and see a bit more of Perth and so our daughter and her fiancé took us  to Fremantle or "Freo" as it is called locally. There are a lot of colonial buildings made of limestone that look incredibly new, but having checked the history I think it is just the difference between limestone bleached by the sun and not weathered by the wind and the rain like it is in the North England like we are used to. Having trundled around the town looking at hippyish market stalls and observing the architecture including Fremantle Round house we headed for a bakery for something to drink; never before has an iced chocolate drink looked quite so appealingly in December, hot chocolate maybe but never iced. The temperature a little cooler in the late afternoon and we headed to the beach for a swim, my daughter laughed at me but it took ages for me to get into the water it was so cold, I am not particularly fond of swimming in cold water, it was just a blessing that unlike England after a bathe in the early summer sea it wasn't freezing when we got out. Maybe you are wondering about Ian? Well!!!! He plodged and could not be persuaded to enter the water past his ankles but then again Ian and water that is not in the shape of a bath or a shower never mixed.

Just to prove it! Here's me swimming in the sea in December
Ian has been spending the week on a borrowed bike and walking around the area while I have been studying (no he hasn't been walking around with the bike, he would go out for an hour or two on the bike in the morning and a walk in the afternoon and is consequently getting quite brown already)  and he has been itching to get me out on a bike as he was telling me how good the cycling paths are. I don't mind cycling but I do like to use a bike as a means of transport to somewhere rather than just cycling for the sake of it, a point Ian is well aware of and so he told me there was a wonderful little café along the way. Sold!!! Sunday morning we set off and the bike trail took us besides the Swan river, a well used river for recreation by the look of it, with people picnicking, power walking, strolling, power boating, kayaking  etc. both young and old. We wended our way past conservation areas with wetlands - yes such a thing does exist in Australia and maybe a valuable means of protecting the river banks from erosion due to the use of pleasure craft on the river, past the marshmallow plants and the bullrushes, past the trees that appear to have almost naked and polished trunks, past the sign saying beware snakes on the path - doesn't specify which snakes or whether the idea is not to hit them or not to get bitten by them, and onto the little tea shop, which very conveniently for us, is situated about half way around the loop we were cycling. I don't go in for iced tea normally but being a little hot, decided on an iced peach tea, which was ..... very peachy and iced. Ian had a latte to keep him awake, think he was close to falling asleep I was going much slower than he would normally go, actually he said it was good to go slow as he hadn't really had much time to take in the scenery when he had been hurtling around the track this last week.

The little fella keeping Ian entertained while I was swimming
With plenty of good company to eat with and a lovely home to stay in, all in all its not been a bad week even if I have been stuck in a good bit of the time but I did put at the top of this post "still weird", well it is still weird. Being bitten by mossies in December, seeing star shaped pine trees and weird twisted trees, seeing Christmas decorations in a little tea room but sitting outside in the shade, hearing the wafts of Christmas music in the malls and it is not a mistake as in Latvia where they carry on playing the Christmas music into June in our local restaurant because they don't understand the lyrics, just little things that take some getting used to.

Monday, 13 December 2010

It's just not right

Beautiful but no idea what it is
Well it is weird, definitely weird. Snow scenes in the shopping malls and balmy nights with Christmas lights, eating outside and people sitting at other tables wearing Santa hats and pulling crackers. All upside down and back to front somehow. It doesn't feel like Christmas. No shopping done, and no time at the moment anyway as I am still trying to write an assignment, and having difficulty getting my head around it, although it is beginning to flow a bit now. Maybe it is jet lag but I don't feel that bad and sleeping well.

The backgarden! A little different methinks!
It doesn't feel that odd that it is so warm and yet the nights darken so early, I got used to that in my visits to Brazil and when living in Colorado. It doesn't even feel that odd seeing all the different types of trees and plants as they remind me of Cyprus. Neither does it feel that odd that we set off from snowy lands to land in a pleasantly warm one, we experienced that last year in our visit to Cyprus in March. No what does feel odd is the occasional glimpses of Christmas, the occasional house decorated with fairy lights, the wafts of Christmas songs in the shopping malls, people greeting each other with the phrase "Are you ready for Christmas yet?" It's just not right! It jolts the system and gives me a strange "not quite sure I am with it" sensation. It is also odd being bitten by mossies in December! Don't they know its nearly Christmas? I may as well have dropped down on another planet, such is the strangeness of landing in Australia near Christmas time.

What a life!
The weather has been good to us as it has been quite pleasant most of the time and only on one night did it feel stuffy and that was before we discovered how to put on the air-conditioning courtesy of our future son-in-law. Okay we know how to operate air-conditioning but we are staying in someone else's house who is not here at the moment and it is difficult to know where the air-con controls would be situated, even if they are right under your nose. We did meet the young couple whose house we are borrowing before they set off to the other side of Australia for a family wedding, in fact we even drove their car back from the airport so they didn't have to get a taxi. I find it so encouraging though to find a couple with such a gift of hospitality, a very underrated gift I might add in Western cultures. In the bible, hospitality is highly rated. Romans 12:12-14 says

12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

I think the Western church is very good at preaching about the first verse, less so about the second though and yet it is so needed. Hospitality used to be the hallmark of the Celtic monasteries where even an important fast would be broken for the sake of hospitality (The life of St.Columba), and they took their fasts seriously in those days. Sharing your home with a stranger is not easy, but if you can do it with grace and humility then that is a rare and precious gift, this couple have it in abundance. 

It has been interesting getting to know the place where our daughter now lives and spending some time with the about-to-be-married couple. We have not had much chance to get to know our future son-in-law up until now, so it is a special time indeed, just hope we don't put him off - as if we would!!! (Innocent smiley here I think!). Still he has made all the right moves by taking us out to eat, to a lovely quaint place out of the city in a place called York and our Christmas present from the both of them, was to pay for a holiday on the South Coast in Denmark next week (or was that to get rid of us for a few days? Hmmmm). York! Denmark! Not quite like the places we know that are called by the same name, we even lived in Denmark at one time but it wasn't in Australia that is for sure. 

And just to update you, back home in Latvia I am told there is 40cm of snow. Looking forward to landing in that when we eventually get back - I think!

Monday, 6 December 2010

Snow, snow and more snow

Not exactly snowy Manchester but certainly frosty and more
importantly not foggy now. Hopefully we can set off today
to sunny Oz
Well we found out why it was so cold (14C, 57F) in the apartment last week, beside being minus 17C (1.5F) outside, the heating company apparently ran out of wood over the weekend!!!!!! The wood chips they had were too wet to burn and their chipper broke down meaning they could not create any more and so they ran out of something to burn. If that is only partly true then it is gross incompetence as there are old folks and young families in the apartment buildings. They do seem to have an apparent disregard for the comfort of the folks in the buildings which is difficult to comprehend, hence their lack of planning. Good job for us we were not in that night and were out at the school in the morning, at least it wasn't until the afternoon I began to feel the cold.

This week has definitely been a very interesting week. Tuesday morning I was finishing off getting ready for our trip to England and I was reading comments on facebook by my friends in the North of England. I quickly realised that the situation was not good and the weather forecast was no better, it was looking increasingly risky to try and do an overnight stop in the Sheffield area. Fortunately I remembered that some friends of ours know some folks in Bedford, which was really handy for Luton airport, only 40 minutes away, and they gave me their number. Bless them! The young couple in Bedford opened their home to us and welcomed us in, which as it turned out was one of the best decisions we made of the week. It felt a bit weird sorting out the accommodation as we were walking to the plane to get on but it was an extraordinary situation setting off from a slightly snowy Latvia and heading for a rather snowy England, knowing full well that England does not cope well in the snow. Getting onto our flight was a bit weird too as they made us walk to the plane and then stand outside in a half-covered walkway for about 10 minutes (felt longer) in temperatures hovering around -10C (14F) and not everyone was dressed for the Latvian outdoors. We were pleased that we were still carrying our coats, hats and gloves.

We woke in Bedford to just a smattering of snow but reports of absolute chaos in Sheffield where we were supposed to have been the night before, with more snow forecast. We started to head north with some trepidation wondering what we were heading for. Occasionally we would hit a snow shower and think "well this is it, here we go", but it didn't last. Then we reached Sheffield!!!! We have lived there for 5 years and just south of there for 15 years and we have never seen scenes like it, there was so much snow, more than we had ever seen in that area and we had seen a few snowy winters. There were also lorries stacked up on the side of the motorway, obviously stranded overnight. More phone calls to our friends in Sheffield led us to abandoning any thought of going there and we just carried on very slowly along the motorway past it, grateful that we had not tried to make it there the night before. Even if we had made it to Sheffield, the chances are we wouldn't have made it out. We carried on heading up north and although it was slow going and snowy, it was not as bad as the Sheffield area. It would also appear that we flew in at the right time on the right airline, a day earlier and we would have been caught in the chaos of Sheffield, a day later and planes to Gatwick, the other airport we use regularly, was shut for two days. Phew!

Ian's Mum's backgarden
The snowy conditions meant several changes to plans as we were late arriving at Ian's mum's and when it was time to leave we chose to leave earlier in the day than originally planned so we could travel in daylight. Some roads were icy as temperatures were around -7C (20F) in the daytime which is unbelievably cold for England, even the motorways were icy in places which is a bit scary but we took it steady and arrived at my mother's in daylight. I have known temperatures that cold before in England but not that cold and snowy, it seems to be one or the other. Service stations along the way on the motorways were full of people taking breaks on long journeys and many had bonnets up and appeared to be looking at their washers, cars and screenwash are just not set up for such cold conditions. We were okay using our washers but only because we had poured neat screenwash in, which may not be good for the paintwork for the car in the long run but when it is that cold the choice is between being able to see and having your windscreen mist up from the spray off the roads. We also left my mother's a day earlier and booked into a hotel at the airport rather than risk the ice preventing us getting down from their rather isolated location or an incident on the roads in the morning from the ice or fog. We had had to leave our car at the bottom of the hill anyway and my dad came down in his 4x4 to pick us and our cases up but it was still rather slippy.

Not had much time for the internet this week but I did find out that 182,600 people in Latvia earn just the minimum wage of 180LVLs (£215, $338) per month out of a total working population of 960,400 ie 19% of those working are paid the minimum wage. Not good! Despite the crisis the Government are increasing the minimum wage to 200LVLs per month in 2011, I guess that is so they can extract more tax but I do believe it is a step in the right direction as it requires around 164 LVLs, according to Government statistics just to purchase the basics and so 180LVLs after tax of 25% is less than what is needed to live off and doesn't leave anything for electricity and heating.

Sorry not many snowy pictures either as we didn't have much time for that and too slippy to take out the camera on our walk.

Monday, 29 November 2010

.....and so it begins

We have about 3-4inches of snow but the temperatures have
plummeted from +5C last week to -17C this week. At least
my garden plants have a snow blanket
"And so it begins" is something I wrote on my blog back in May 09 when I had a sense of a change of season and I sense a change again. The last time I wasn't sure what that meant but it rolled in a very busy schedule for me, one that saw me take on two courses at once as I finished one course and started another with weddings and summer work in the fields and gardens followed by more course work, after all that I am quite looking forward to a rest. This time I am still not sure but I have a sense of how the season of winter is upon us but in someways it is a relief. The dull wet days of autumn are not particularly nice and the ground and the roads turn to quagmires but much work needs to be done in harvesting the last of the veg that you can, protecting trees from the frost, particularly the young ones, protecting trees from deer and generally just making sure that locks are oiled before they freeze up solid. Then the snow begins and the temperatures drop and there is not a lot you can do about it apart from wait it out and see what emerges. Will it be a little or a lot? Will the roads be navigable or will it require a snow plough? How cold will it get? Well we had snow, probably around 4inches (10cm) so not a lot but enough to provide a protective layer for my plants, and the temperature dropped rapidly from the 5C (41F) last week to -18C (0F) this morning, oh but the beauty of it all. There is a lot of frost on top of the snow and yesterday the snow glistened like diamonds in the sun, but not just the small diamonds but huge mega carat diamonds. So this is it! Winter is here! It's cold, it cannot be taken lightly but you know, it's not that bad really, it is so beautiful. I love winter as you can tell because most of the poems I write are about winter  I wrote one early this year and posted it and you can read it here and that talks about the fierce beauty of winter which inspires me so much.

Hopefully our vines are all snug in there
This wet autumn means trying to keep things dry but this is becoming a bit more of a challenge these days with biodegradable plastic bags. Once upon a time we could put clothes etc into the bags, and believe me we never just threw them out, but now a plastic carrier bag from the local supermarket is no good after 6 months they all start to disintegrate into lots of little pieces - biodegradable they maybe but useless for keeping things dry or dust free - now what do we use? Cotton re-usuable bags are not much use to keep things dry and I guess we need to re-invent the wax bag or whatever they used in days gone by, must do some investigation.

These were presented to us by our
English group because we make them
Been a funny old week with its contrasts of ups and downs. One of the ups was being invited by our English group to eat with them. We were treated to Latvian traditional dishes like pickled cabbage, now don't pull a face, it is actually really nice, this was served with meat pieces on bones (hard to describe and a bit fiddly but nice meat), some mince wrapped up in breadcrumbs, cheese and apricots along with some boiled potatoes with dill - there has to be dill somewhere this is Latvia. We also had a dessert of semolina (creamed wheat) whisked with cranberries and sugar and served cold with milk, very delicious. We started off with a drink of bouillon, which seems odd to me but tasty along with some little pastries filled with meat and we did finish with a nice cup of tea - trained them well!

Someone who shall remain nameless, but it wasn't me, left
the greenhouse doors open when it was -10C outside
I think it killed my experiment of how long plants would
last in the polytunnel
While we were chatting one of the ladies announced she was off to work in Guernsey that evening to join quite a few from their tiny village. In total there are 11 people working abroad, okay that doesn't sound like a lot but it is a tiny village where the main employer is probably the children's home itself and it also possibly represents 11 families who have a family member missing, often a mum or a dad will go and work abroad while the children stay at home with the other parent or even with grandparents. It is not uncommon in Latvia for both parents to go away and leave older children at home as in our apartment block, or one of the parents be away for a month near Christmas as they work during the busy period of the year while they get the chance. So when you see Latvians working nearby say "labdien" (pronounced lab-dee-en and means good day) from me and think of their families they have had to leave to come and earn some money.

It is still being worked on and should have the roof on next
week. Not much fun though in these temperatures, but
nothing new there if you look up our saga with the
The down this week was finding out that our Latvian driving licences does not entitle us to drive a tractor, unlike our old British licences. It took a lot of internet searching to try and find out what we were and were not entitled to drive, I mean when is a tractor not a tractor, when its a tractor unit of course, in other words a truck. Confused! So were we. You can see what the traffic department writes here and for a good half hour, I read and re-read the paragraphs but couldn't make sense of it, until the penny dropped. The site was written in American English, not British English as you would expect of a fellow European member site and in America a lorry can be referred to as a tractor and trailer - confused me no end while I was in America until I worked it out and confused me yet again while trying to make sense of the Latvian traffic departments website.

Frozen waterfalls from the top pond to
the middle pond
This morning we were in school, no not to learn Latvian again unfortunately, but Ian was talking about his past career in the hospital labs and a little of his hospital work now. Not sure how much they really understood as it was all done in English and there was just one question - "what are you doing in Latvia?". How do you explain that one easily? It such a long story with many twists and turns but we say two things in essence, we have been coming here for a long time and we love it here in Latvia. The director came to sit in at one point and she then invited us for a chat in her office. She explained that once the school had 500 children but now there are 270, the village is dying as the youngsters slip away and don't return. She is passionate about keeping the village alive and knows how important the school is for that and we saw a common purpose in her aims and the things I am studying and what we would like to see happen here. We agreed that students do need to get out of the village at some time in order to enrich their experiences but the village also needs to be able to attract them back or attract others in to keep some vitality and life in the village, a problem they share with the Scottish Highlands and Islands and one of the reasons for studying with a Scottish Institute, even if it is online. I think there maybe more to come with that connection when we get back from our trip.

Ice-skating anyone. Not much point in ice fishing on this
pond but we did spot the first ice-fisherman after only 5
days of freezing temperatures.
This devastating article on the future of Latvia made me want to cry and echoes the pain the director feels as she sees the slow death of a place she loves. One thing that infuriates me more than anything else is that the churches are not helping, they funnel the brightest and best into mission work, leaving the economy floundering, when it needs fresh creative thinking to re-order the work places. I think the thinking is that Jesus is coming back soon so why bother and the market place is for the devil anyway, well I am sorry I don't agree. The Earth is the Lord's and everything in it, including the market place and if the devil has the upper hand in that, it is because Christians have let him and it is about time we started putting our faith into action and creating initiatives that correct some of the in balances of this dangerous pursuit of happiness to the detriment of the planet that the Lord has made. There that's better! Got that off my chest!

A snowy scene but not as bad as last year yet.
Talking of the economy though and creating alternatives to the dreadful system of pursuit of profit above all else, regardless of the planet we are trashing and the people who suffer under the system, it was interesting to hear that there are people out there who believe that we do not have to do business this way, there are alternatives and Peter Day on World Business took a look at what people had to say. I nearly dropped off my chair at this podcast, to hear that those with alternative views are actually being taken seriously. Changes do need to be made and we may as well get on and get used to it, rather than trying to cling to a way of life that does not satisfy anyway. One that slowly kills the joy and buries it in the oblivion of drink or drugs or retail therapy. We have never had it so good with our wonderful houses, with central heating (even if ours for some reason seems to be running so cold - must find out why), the double glazing that keeps out the rather cool temperatures we are having and the machines to do our work and yet we have never been so miserable either. It costs the planet in resources and brings us comforts in return but not happiness, there has to be another way.

Frosty is so pretty with its delicate patterns don't you think?
Trust as I have mentioned before is a major issue here in Latvia and to overcome this transparency is needed but for goodness sake, how can Latvia be expected to improve their transparency when bankers are getting away with not disclosing how much they are paid? Or we have to rely on the likes of Wikileaks to get to know what is going on in Governments. Interestingly enough though the releasing information is not necessarily the answer, as Mark Easton points out on his blog the recent release of information from the UK Government doesn't necessarily help accountability, it is transparent as it means the information is there but you have to look hard to see the wood for the trees so to speak. Too much information presented in an unhelpful format means someone has to sit for hours and trawl through the figures in order to even begin to make sense of it. In fact as one of my course books points out, the best way to discourage reading of a report done for the sole purpose of it having to be done and no one really wants it released is to set it in an unfriendly format, use lots of jargon and bury the key points (Research Skills Policy for Policy and Development edited by Alan Thomas and Giles Mohan), not that they advocate that but it was an example of what can be done to a report. So what we need is clear, easily obtained information and something I hope to do with my visits to the forestry department, to be able to produce a leaflet that shows who does what, and where to go for what information. It's a start anyway.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Happy Birthday Latvia

Kuldiga bridge in the West of Latvia, recently restored 
This week was Latvia's Independence day to celebrate the first time they achieved independence on November 18th 1918. It was a short lived independence and was lost to the Soviet steam roller in 1940 before being re-established again in 1991. This is why November 18th is celebrated as the birthday of Latvia and not August 21st when the second period of independence of Latvia was declared. Would have loved to have gone to the celebrations in the local culture house on the eve of the birthday but I was just heading into the village when everyone was starting to gather, and I was on my way back from Kuldiga, a four and half hour drive away so I just wanted to get home and have a nice cup of tea. One of these days we must get to the celebrations and imbibe a bit of Latvian culture. As the holiday fell on a Thursday people took the Friday off too but only after working the Saturday beforehand. Seemed strange last Saturday to go around our village and see children at school and office workers in their offices. 

A log fire in the house of a guy who was a
playwright and author and sent to
Siberia but did return and when he returned
he built a rock garden
As I mentioned I have been on my own to Kuldiga, a really pretty old town in the West of Latvia, it was for work towards my course honest! The fact I got to stay in a really quaint place with a log fire for heating, called Sauleskalns or Sunny hill and taken on a tour of Kuldiga by someone who lives there was just a bonus. I was there to have a meeting with a forest consultant and the head of forestry for a large region around the Kuldiga area and beyond, mainly because they were willing to have me there and spoke good English and I am trying to find out what a new forest owner needs to know. They sure made my task easy and by late afternoon I had enough information to head back home. I found out about all sorts of things like pre-commercial thinning, commercial thinning, when clear felling is allowed and the requirements for regeneration following felling or a storm. There are lots of regulations which were probably necessary originally as there was little knowledge of forestry except amongst the older generation at the time of independence. These rules though are beginning to be relaxed but as is usual there is also a danger in relaxation of rules of abuse and not taking care of a forest. I also saw a newly planted pine forest about 3 years old all topped with some blue paste (wish I had thought to take a photo when I was there), turns out it is to stop the deer from eating the tops of the trees in the spring, something that happened to the owner when replanting another part of the forest and not something he wanted to repeat. I also spent time in school as the forest consultant showed a video and talked about the job she did to 18 year olds, watched a short consultation in progress and still found time to have a whistle stop tour of Kuldiga (it is small) and eat. I have to mention that the forest consultant was very gracious as I made a complete hash of trying to reverse 400m back down a single track after taking a look at the blue topped trees and she ended up guiding my steering wheel, but she did it with such sweetness, still felt like a fool though. In my defence it is hard to reverse just on mirrors in our truck as the visibility is not good. 

It has been rather wet, this was supposed
to be a walk way by the side of the river
One thing that does keep coming up in my meetings is the issue of trust. Latvians do not trust each other, they tend to trust us, although why on earth the English should be trusted any more than a Latvian is beyond me, we are not really a trustworthy nation - trying leaving something outside a shop and it is not likely to be there when you get back in England, let's be honest! The English do not always have scruples about taking something home from the office for use at home either, so no we are not a trustworthy nation on the whole but we still exhibit more trust of our nationals than the Latvians do. It is such a shame and restricts the way that Latvians help each other out or don't as the case maybe. A discussion on trust though did help the forest consultant to see how much progress she has made as people do trust her and want to join an organisation she has set up to purchase trees. This is something I would love to see more of as small holders of forests or land can do so much more when they work together and pool resources but it does require trust.

The famous falls of Kuldiga, normally a fall of 2-3m. A
channel was built alongside to get around these falls by
 tsarist Russia but failed due to economic reasons. Some
things don't change
Talking of land we have been continuing to get ready for winter before we go away. Our orchard now looks to be full of ghostly apparitions as the trees are all covered in bubble wrap. I wanted to find something a bit more environmentally friendly but we just haven't had the time to look and it has been so wet that anything like hessian or jute would just get saturated and freeze anyway and we weren't paying a fortune on some of the coir products they produce for covering trees. We have also finished covering what we can with fir branches to protect from the snow and cold that we are expecting on Wednesday, as the temperatures start to slip from the current 5C during the day to possibly around -10C daytime by Sunday. The wet weather is also set to continue, but turning of course to the white fluffy stuff. It has been so wet here that everything is completely and utterly saturated with puddles everywhere that seeing the white stuff will be a relief of sorts - I say of sorts as we are due to leave soon and we are hoping the white stuff does not throw our plans into complete disarray.

Our ghostly apparitions in our orchard
We are still harvesting from our polytunnel and we picked the last chillies from the plants, trouble is that somewhere in the meantime they turned from very mild green chillies to rather hot green chillies. I thought the last lot of green chillies were very mild and we even had three in a meal without really noticing but a green chilli and tomato soup with two and half chillies from the recently picked chillies was too hot for us to eat. I should have taken more notice as I tasted one of the seeds  just to test how hot they were and it was hot, but I thought it would be fine in the cooking as the last lot were - big mistake! In the end I bought a kilogramme of minced pork (ground pork) and added that with a load of grated carrot to the green chilli and tomato soup and we ended up with enough meals for five days out of it and we could still taste the heat. Still it was a good excuse to have some of Ian's Bill Gate's ice-cream, so named because it wasn't just rich as in the recipe it was super rich with lots of added chocolate, in fact he had upped the name to World Bank ice-cream today. We bought the ice-cream maker back with us from England as a certain someone was getting through so much ice-cream I thought it would be better to make our own and there were moans emanating about the lack of chocolate ice-cream from time to time, at least this way we should always be able to make it.

Progress! We now have a roof structure on and I will not
tell you how they put those structures up apart from
to say that it involved a tractor.
Well where have my trundles taken me this week on the internet? One was to an Irish paper talking about the recent capitulation to the axis of bankers as they put it. Suppressed anger emanates from the article and yet a resignation to the inevitable. It is interesting to see how the journalist highlights the bankers stealth in the take over, knowing they had won and yet willing to wait rather than force the hand of the Irish so that it appears like an agreement. It is also interesting using the word axis as it means enemy and taken from the second world war where you had the axis of Germany, Japan etc and the allies. Bankers have a hard PR job to do if they are ever to convince people they are respectable organisations and not vultures. 

As you can see it is wet here too. The tractor didn't help, the
channel got blocked but we cleared it. Oh we love digging
in the mud
Another was to Steve Lowton's musings on silence and waiting and the difficulties he has with it. I in turn began to muse on why I don't find waiting so hard and silence is okay. I did spend around 5 years when my children were at school in a wonderful routine of housework, followed by reading my bible, then a walk and in the afternoon doing something creative, most of the time anyway. It was a time of getting to know God deeply and walking out of many things which held me back and a development in being able to listen to God and hearing his voice. That in someways still doesn't explain why I was able to drop into silence and waiting  where my thoughts would wander, but in a good way not just aimlessly, and I could switch off from the world around. I remembered after a while that I had learnt the art at my Grandfather's knee, Ian likewise learnt it in the presence of his Dad. My Grandad and I could watch a fire for ages and not talk as could Ian and his Dad, with no need to talk, we were just enjoying the company of our Grandfather/Father. Little did we realise what a valuable lesson that would be in a busy world full of distractions that we have today. I remember as well the open fire in our family home was a draw on a winter's evening when  all five of us would be sat around reading or doing something quietly, enjoying the warmth and no telly on in the corner blaring away. Wonder if my kids have learnt the art of waiting and silence? 

As you can see it is not so pretty as earlier on in the year.
Rather dark and muddy, nothing a good bit of snow can't
sort out!!!
My last trundle was an article on the BBC about the deserving and the undeserving poor. One aspect covered how people could lose their benefits for up to three years for refusing training or job opportunities. Now I know some folks are lazy and take the easy way out and would rather sit on the dole (for my American friends this is a phrase we use for claiming unemployment benefit) than work, but I am not sure how significant a number that really is but it makes for a good scapegoat when things are bad; what I want to know though is it a real job if the wage on offer is not sufficient to live off? Why should the tax payer subsidise employers who refuse to pay a living wage through the benefits system because its not economical in their eyes of the employers to do so? No one seems to be looking at that aspect of it. There is probably more money spent on benefits for those in work being offered pitiful wages than there are those sponging off the state on the dole, so who are the bigger spongers? Those who are lazy or those who exploit the welfare system to not pay their employees properly? The tax payer ends up paying in both cases anyway.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Cry freedom!

Unfortunately not taken this year, this was November 16th
last year at sunset. I haven't had the chance to take many
photos this week. Sorry!
Sometimes I forget things I should mention and last week was one of those weeks. I forgot to mention how God had been really reassuring to me even though I didn't think I specifically needed the reassurance. I think he knows me better than I do myself and so I guess I was more worried than I thought I was. Three times in one week I heard or read the verses from Matthew 6:25-34 in different places with no connection. 

    25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
   28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Memories of sunnier times but also an expression of
the freedom from worry of what to wear, what to eat,
the freedom to soar high above the cares of this world.
What was concerning me was providing for our future, what steps should we take. What should we set aside and what should we use now? I felt that whatever seems sensible now will not provide for our future and that God would work things out and I should leave it in his hands, but was I being naive? Was I just being silly? In the world's eyes - definitely! I felt reasonably peaceful about it but my thoughts would keep returning to the issue and so I think at the back of my mind I was worried and God's reassurance the other week was comforting for sure and something to hold onto in the years ahead.

No this wasn't the car when I got it back to Ian, it is our
Lada, our workhorse on the land. No frills this car. Looks
fantastic in black and white.
Now back to more recent events. Last week I borrowed the car and went to a meeting at one of the regional Rural consultancy offices, here in Latvia. It is a big event when I use the car as Ian and I have completely different set ups for the seat and he always moans it takes about a week to get comfy again but he graciously let me go on my own, he had things to get on with anyway (this is where sniggering emoticons would come in really handy). It is funny organising my own field trips to do with my course and all feels a bit surreal, on the one hand I am just a student doing a bit of research, on the other hand I am learning to do a professional job and this is my research  for professional development purposes, learning to ask the right questions in the right places. My trip last week was to start to make contacts with professionals in the forestry field, trying to find out how the system works here in Latvia. It was very informative and I got pages of notes and also a glimpse into some of the challenges of working in the forestry field. Forestry is a big issue in Latvia and so it should be with over 50% of the country covered in forest of which roughly 50% is owned by the state and 50% by private forest owners and that is a lot of land, Latvia isn't small, the numbers of Latvians maybe small ie 2.3m but they occupy an area which is only slightly smaller than the Netherlands and Belgium put together ie Latvia 64,589 km2 Belgium 30,528 km2 and the Netherlands 41,848 km2. Latvian private forest owners are fragmented though and not many are motivated to actively manage their forests for a complex number of reasons but fascinating nonetheless. Latvians do not cooperate well on projects it would appear but often that is due to mistrust - trust issues raising its head yet again. It is so sad that the recent and not so recent past holds this nation back and stops it being more progressive. 

Memories of last year too, no less wet and our polytunnel
not finished. This time it is our barn that is not finished.
It is progressing but they are now working in mud too.
It has been rather wet here which means it's towing season once again, it was rather a regular feature of our year last year. This season started with an early morning call from our neighbours to our land - their car was stuck and the guy with a tractor was unreachable, could Ian help? No problem, Ian went to tow the car out of a rather deep hole created by a ditch dug earlier in the year to lay new pipes which hadn't packed down well enough yet and performed a rather good attempt at trying to swallow a car. For his trouble he got a bag of apples but even better was when the neighbour who speaks very very little English shouted across and said "Good friends!" - a precious comment indeed. 

Our certificate

Later on that evening our English class came to our house to eat an English meal, pie, leeks with white sauce, mashed carrots and swede and mashed potatoes followed by apple sponge and custard. They brought the typical gifts that Latvians do when they come to a house for the first time of flowers, honey, a whole rather large box of chocolate marshmallows and also another precious gift of a certificate of appreciation for our English lessons (see picture). So sweet and so thoughtful. I would just like to underline the headline at the top though that we are their first English teachers and they are just on the simpler stuff at the moment and I shall not be sending the certificate back with red lines through it, well not yet anyway (laughing emoticon here!). I do really love the fact that they have gone to a lot of effort to make the certificate and try to write some thoughtful lines in English, it makes us feel thoroughly appreciated, well that and the invitation to a reciprocal meal in about a fortnight. 

An arty photo from earlier this year. I
was reminded of this on a blog
where an artist loves to post pictures
of rusty objects because they are so
interesting. Check out the site here.
This is a photo of a hoe after dredging
out pond weed.
I said it has been wet this last week and our allotment at our other apartment is under water in places and so when someone posted a link facebook on how to build an ark I couldn't resist posting it myself and having a good laugh with another friend planning on how to build an ark - thought we might wait until it stops raining first though before commencing the building project. Just in case you need some directions here's the link to the plans for building your own ark. Our other allotment does look in a sorry state with so much water and we half wondered whether to just leave the plants that are left to rot away as many of the plants were put in a little too late to be ready for picking and we had too many cabbages all ready at once, at least by leaving them it would return the nutrients back to the soil. We changed our mind though after Ian had been working up at the other apartment and looking out over the allotments of ours and our neighbours made him think it actually reflects rather badly on us, planting things that we don't harvest even if the cabbages do look past their best. The Latvians plant their gardens to feed them over the winter and even if I have a freezer full of veg, loads of chutneys, and lots of dried food, it does not look good to let food go to waste - our neighbours probably have enough for themselves and probably would not appreciate soggy cabbages but it still looks wasteful. We decided to go and collect the remaining cabbages and was surprised that once we removed the outer sogginess they actually weren't too bad at all. Now we have the challenge of trying to process them somehow, so some are drying and some will freeze now I have made a bit of space by making some cucumber, apple and orange marmalade (it's not as bad as it sounds, honest! In fact it is quite tasty). Any other suggestions on what to do with a bag full of actually reasonable cabbages gratefully received.

Another memory of summer but also another symbol of
freedom. I like this one as it is in such an incongruous
place, makes for a nice contrast of natural amongst the
industrial rather like the beauty of freedom in the midst of
It has been an exciting week this week with the twin announcements of the release of captives, the British couple released by Somali pirates and Suu Kyi in Burma released from house arrest. It really feels like a cry freedom week, a cry coming up that cannot be contained. Even though the situation seemed hopeless there was something that could not resist the cry of freedom. May that cry of freedom echo throughout the world into the very recesses of power, bringing release from bondage of many, whether that bondage be to banks charging excessive interest rates to claw back their profits, or release of slaves sold into prostitution or the burdened people under corrupt regimes. More Lord is what I want to pray! Let the cry of freedom rise! 

Monday, 8 November 2010

Whirlwinds and silence

Frost or snow? Nor sure really but they look like
icing covered oak leaves
Tuesday evening last week was an amazing evening as we met two women from the Latvian State Forest Service in the car park of the local government office and within half an hour they had organised for me to travel with them to a meeting to sort out a placement for my course and booked us an appointment with a forest guy to look at our forest plan - not only that but organised a translator too. What a whirlwind of characters those two appear to be. Then we had a chance meeting with some friends who are busy organising a national launch of a programme to help people with addictions (quite important when alcoholism is so prevalent) and so we weren't going to be able to see them for a fortnight (two weeks for my American friends) and we just happened to be eating out at the same hotel on the same night so that worked out well. Next we caught up with our other friends out on their farm. Not bad for one evening - that doesn't happen very often here in Latvia things usually move at a much slower pace thank goodness. Mind you in the end it was decided that I didn't really need to go with the two ladies to the meeting as they would be talking shop most of the day and so would be a long way to go for little benefit. What a shame I was really looking forward to being up at 6am to be ready in time to go (just in case you miss it I am being a tad sarcastic, I was looking forward to the meeting but not the early rise and being in shape for a long car drive with two human dynamos). All is not lost though as I am now in email contact with two people who can help me out with placements and so far that is looking promising, some sort of progress anyway.

Fruit bushes all wrapped up in their winter fir coats
We did get to meet up with the forest guy though and he was a little bemused as to why we wanted to see him but we did manage to establish that Ian can cut down as many trees as he needed to, that are 12 cm or less but we did need extra papers to allow him to cut down anything bigger so that gives us a little breathing space while we work out exactly how much needs to be cut by cutting out the smaller trees first and then seeing what else needs to go. The forest is looking quite open now, even with just the small trees cut out and so should give much more light and space for some of the slower growing trees like the maples and oaks. We should have quite a diverse forest by the time we finish. Well that's the plan anyway. Also found out this week that every forest in Latvia needs an inventory of the trees in it, but not a management plan as I thought, unless you want to do anything in it like cut down bigger trees, so it is an inventory that needs to be carried out every ten years. Next I need to find out who does that. Confused! No different to many folks here! So much has changed in the last twenty years with the collapse of the Soviet system followed by the introduction of European rules that not many people really know exactly what is required for many aspects of life here and so the endless chasing around is not unusual. A drop of transparency with some clear, readily available guidelines of who to see when wouldn't go amiss.

Smelt like Christmas whilst wrapping
up the bushes and look like lots of
mini Christmas trees dotted about. Just
hope it works to keep them protected
against snow, ice and nibbling deer
The news about the A380s came as a bit of a shock this week as we are booked on one for our trip to Australia in December and I wondered if all A380s would be grounded, but it turns out the one we are booked onto has a different engine, so that's okay ..... isn't it? Mind you our daughter who returned to Oz pointed out that it was entirely possible that she had flown on that very plane only 5 days earlier - could all be a bit scary really if you chose to dwell on those kinds of things. What ifs are far too time consuming and soul destroying to linger long on that kind of thing.

With the major work completed on our other apartment, our barn progressing nicely, and some progress on getting a placement for my course things seem to be chugging along now, albeit slowly at times, but at least it is in the right direction. It does make me wonder though what lessons are being learnt in the process of waiting, after all we waited 7 months for the polytunnel to get built and so far the barn has taken 5 months with some fairly incomprehensible reasons like no wood in a country covered by over 50% forest, and I think I got part of the answer this week by reading a blog by Steve Lowton. He is going through his own waiting time and he doesn't do waiting very well but is beginning to see the point of slowing things down and discovering some of the ancient pathways of silence and stillness where you have to wrestle with your own personal demons. Standing in our forest yesterday having just dragged out some of the felled trees we just stood and listened, the silence was deafening and a welcome drink to the soul. Having to wait though is not all about drinking in the silence as it can also bring with it a certain amount of powerlessness and the impotence to do anything which frustrates planning. Learning to live with that is hard but if it is something your used to like the poor and dispossessed of this world then can be life-sapping, as decisions are taken that outside of their control. Planning is meaningless for them as the powers that be chop and change their minds and still the poor wait for justice. Often our waiting is only a matter of time and we are not short of choices but for the poor they have no choices and that is the most disabling of all. So next time you are stuck in waiting for the powers to be to turn up, or waiting for a plane that is late, think of those who for whom waiting in a powerless state is a way of life and not a momentary inconvenience.

Frosted blackcurrant leaves
Well on this snowy night (isn't it a good job I am not setting off to a meeting tomorrow) and the thought of valued silence in the forest it reminded me of a poem I wrote last year, so here it is.

More frosted blackcurrant leaves

A quiet place!
The snow lay thick on the ground
and a grey blanket spread out
covering the sky
"Shuuush!" He said
"Why?" asked the little one
"But I can't hear anything."
"I know!....
It's beautiful!"
he said in awed tones,
and the silence hung in the air
like the ice from the trees
easily shattered.