Monday, 22 February 2010

Spring lies waiting

I don't know what it is about winter but it brings out the poet in me so here is another offering

Spring lies waiting

The blanket lies white upon the ground
So deep, muffling sound
Hard to believe 
What lies beneath
Colour locked in bulbs 
So deep
Waiting in their earthly dreams
For warmth to seep from above
To awaken and stretch out
Their dresses of velvet cloth
Refreshing drab senses
Dulled by long winter months
Lethargy peels off
Hope arises
Winter will lose its grip once more

Unexpected invites

My cough rumbled on all week and I was close to having to go to the doctors if it didn't improve over the weekend, fortunately for me it is now slowly getting better. On the Friday evening it was even a bit scary as I didn't feel I could breathe properly and the thought of having to go to the doctors and oh the hassle of arranging a translation just did not thrill me one bit. I got Ian to beat me on the back from time to time and it  worked wonders and helped me to breathe - hope no one could see in and misunderstand what he was doing though, rumours do have a habit of spreading rather rapidly round here. Going to the doctors always takes on a different edge when in a foreign country, in America it wasn't too bad as my doctor was a lovely Irish lady who was once a nurse but since qualified as a doctor but in Denmark and here in Latvia the chances of miscommunication are huge. The doctor here is good and is a no nonsense type and fearsome to boot, you don't mess with her that's for sure, she will make sure that children get their medication no matter how inept or drunk their parents are but that doesn't make going to see her any easier.

Having now finished the loo our next task in the other flat is to get what is now the shower room tidied up and a bath put in. We have talked backwards and forwards about what to do and how to do it, how to hide unsightly pipes without burying them in walls - burying pipes in walls risks leaks and more expensive work and it is always a balance between getting something looking neat and yet accessible. The components here are a bit hit and miss, sometimes they are brilliant and sometimes they are less than perfect and downright rubbish, not what you want when you have just kitted out a lovely new bathroom. One thing we realised with our newly enlarged loo is that there is now room for the water boiler - a huge boiler is the only option here, no tidy little units to speak of and so room has to be found somewhere, our Swedish friend also thinks the expansion tank can go in there too, hope there is still room for the loo by the time we finish (must get some photos though before it gets too cluttered). As we were chatting about different options our friend mentioned that he had just seen a great oven/boiler - kind of like an aga type thing and he thought it would be perfect for the flat. He waxed lyrically about it so much that in the end we went to have a look at it . When we got there we stood looking at it for ages, measuring it up, talking about its suitability measuring it up blah blah blah, could we let this chance go, was it suitable and so on and on. The problem is that we know if we didn't buy it we might never see something similar again. As you can guess we bought it and with our limited Latvian we managed to get the lady to understand we needed it delivering, at first she implied she couldn't help but a few phone calls later a few hefty blokes turn up with pick up van and follow us home with said goods in back. It was a sight to behold as they lugged that 196 kg oven up the six steps to the flat - good job it wasn't the three flight of steps up to the one we live in. I gave them an extra 5 lats to compensate having to work hard for their money which seemed to do the trick.

Earlier on in the week I felt there would be some surprising invites but wasn't really sure what - then again they wouldn't have been a surprise if I knew would they! The invites all happened on the same day which got a bit frantic. In the morning we were asked by some leaders of the church we attend to lead a home group. It is something that has been talked about for a while and although it is nice to think we would make an effort to see each other to support each other and pray for each other when we get together without the formality of having a home group the reality is we don't, we need to get more intentional and so a home group seemed like a good move forward. It was a little surprising to be asked outright to set the ball rolling but we feel that our previous experiences gives us a good base from which to start and although it is pretty much an ex-pat group at the moment that is not the long-term plan but we can experiment with the format and see what works, see how little or lot of structure is required and play around with ideas. It would be nice to be completely free about meeting together without any structure but we talk too much about things which are not about where God is taking us and if we believe that God wants to have a positive effect on the area we live in then we have to do more to search for what he wants us to do instead of getting side tracked amusing though those side-tracks are. Don't worry we won't get too serious there is plenty of time to talk at other times.

I said Friday was frantic, well that afternoon Ian got a call from his friend in Cyprus, she had retired finally, but as was expected it did leave a big hole in the area she worked in, no one had been trained up sufficiently to do the work despite repeated warnings. Ian's services together with his friend's were required to help get a lab on its feet, could he fly out?  Well with the snow still on the ground and no sign of it disappearing for a while, even if it was to suddenly warm up, then Ian is flexible to go, so with details sorted this morning (Monday) he booked his flights to go to Cyprus this Sunday. I have enough airmiles to go too and incredibly there were bookable seats on the plane for me to join him - he ho! Sunshine here we come! We shall leave our place and car in our Swedish friend's capable hands, the car needs a wash anyway and it always comes back cleaner if we loan it to him. At the beginning of our third year here in Latvia I do wonder where this will lead.

Ian finally got his back hoe (excavator, digger whatever you want to call it) onto the tractor and working this week, only 5 months after purchasing it. The final cost of getting the back hoe to fit the tractor was 100 Lats (about £123, US$ 190) which was an awful lot cheaper than buying the attachments as it was going to cost about £1200 to have them shipped out. Ian was having so much fun playing around with it (that is Ian concentrating not frowning really) that I did briefly wonder whether we should open a digger centre so all grown up boys can get to play with diggers, I am sure it would be a huge hit. We were laughing about how it will be surprising how many ditches, drains, ponds will suddenly become an absolute must on our piece of land. Don't worry I shall be keeping an eye on him and making sure we have ponds where we need them, hehe.

In Britain if you spend more than 10% of your disposable income on fuel then you are considered fuel poor and there are schemes to help those who have this problem. Here in Latvia 10% would be a blessing. Last year I said our fuel bills were so high that a pensioner barely had 30LVLS (£37, US$57) left after paying the heating, fortunately this year the bills are much lower due to the new re-circulation pump we had fitted to our apartment building, despite the incredible cold spell. The bills though are still high compared to incomes and are still just under half of a pension, or quarter of a teacher's wage, in Britain that wouldn't make them fuel poor but poverty stricken. One good thing to come out of this crisis though is the drop in food prices, food costs had escalated before the crisis particularly in the basics and now people cannot afford the inflated prices they are starting to slide downwards. The other thing that is starting to slide is company profits, but surprise surprise the interest rates remain high. Maybe the banks believe they are taking the pain of their stupid lending practices due to the high level of defaults but the high interest rates paid here in Latvia are not sustainable with the reduced profits causing companies to fold even if they are still able to get work. I can never understand why banks maintain high interest rates and accepting the huge number of defaults meaning people losing homes and businesses folding in such times. Why can't they drop their interest rates and help people to stay in their homes and businesses to stay afloat? Are defaults cheaper? I guess so as even if the home or business is repossessed the money is still owed. Is this system right? At the flip of a coin it is heads the bank wins, tails the bank win! Maybe someone out there can tell me it isn't so and how it really works? I would love to know and I am sure I am not the only one.

Photo 1 A lonely chair and fire
Photo 2 & 3 A before and after picture out the back of our apartment. The first picture was in October last year and the second this week. Play spot the bin (trash can)! That will give you an indication of how much snow we have.
Photo 4 Last year the snow froze and we walked on the snow, this year it has resolutely remained powder even making walking in snow shoes difficult.
Photo 5 Ian clearing the roadway on our land yet again, or is he just playing with the tractor?
Photo 6 Ian on the back hoe practising digging.
Photo 7 Our Father Christmas car.

Monday, 15 February 2010

All in a spin

Well no moose were spotted on the way to the airport this time but our son and his fiancée were deposited safely at the airport even though it is 2 1/2 hours away on mainly ice roads to get there. Unfortunately our return journey was not without drama. We were one bend away from our home village and I had nodded off (no I wasn't driving) but woke to see us gently sliding towards the bank at the side of the road, next thing we know we had spun round and rather unceremoniously slid backwards down into a ditch, finding out along the way that the substantial looking snow banks were no more than powder and not very effective at stopping a sliding car. Ian tried to drive out but we were well and truly stuck. A car slid to a stop next to us and nearly ended up in the ditch too but not quite and only required a bit of a push to get out. It was with relief that we recognised the young man who got out, a friend of ours who blessedly speaks English. Ian and some other of our friend's fellow travellers started digging out around the car but discovered the reason we hadn't slid further down the bank was because of a huge concrete block that was wedged under our kickboard. Ironically the driver of the car, containing our friend, that had stopped was someone Ian had towed only earlier on in the week and it was she who decided to go organise a tractor to come and drag our car out, well one good turn deserves another I guess. It was a bit tricky getting the car out, it wouldn't go forwards and in fact looked in danger of rolling so was pulled out backwards, ploughing through quite a bit of snow to do so. Still we were safe and all that was dented was the kickboard, the rest of the car was fine. 

There wasn't much chance of drama after that as I got a cough and I have been rather poorly with it, I even had to cancel English lessons yet again. So frustrating as I am so rarely ill even more frustrating by the weekend as it was Latvian Schools Winter Olympiad which is held annually in our village and all I could do was watch from a distance out of the window as cars and buses parked up and people milled around, so much happening and I was stuck inside. I did see the fireworks for presumably the opening ceremony as they were at the nearby school and clearly visible from our living room window but that was about it. They have all sorts of events from cross country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey tournaments on an iced over playground, and cross country skiing with shooting, so there would have been plenty to see. Still some presumably local youths decided to snowboard and ski down the hill near to us so I could watch them.

I was also back to studying this week and managed to get some of it done before my head hurt too much, one of the exercises was to list about 25-30 employment sectors in a given area. I of course started to list the different sectors in this village and despite a lot of jobs being based in the fact we have a large technical school here where students can board during the week there is still a multiplicity of jobs and I am sure this is not an exhaustive list.

Primary Sector -production
Dairy Farming
Sheep Farming
Strawberry Farm
Vegetable growing
Secondary Sector - manufacturing
Joinery Company
Hydro-electric generation
Road Construction company
Machinist shop
Wood mills
Tertiary Sector - services
Local Government
Technical School and boarding 
Builder’s merchants
Old people’s home
Auto repairs
Tyre repairs
Clothes shops
Tractor services (Cutting and baling etc)
Sheep shearing
Second-hand furniture shop
Post office
Quaternary Sector - supposedly higher services 
Insurance Agent

It was quite surprising to list all these jobs for such a small place. In England it was rare to have quite so many actually doing such a diverse range of jobs within the village itself. Most villages may have a range of employment of villagers but that would be because they commuted to nearby large towns. Our small village in Derbyshire lost services like doctors post office and shops either during the fifteen years we were there or shortly after - a killer for small communities. 

A diverse range of employment ordinarily is quite healthy for a community but not much help with the local economy here. A think tank in England, NEF, suggested that people should work 21 hours a week for a better work, home balance which would be kinder to the environment and that is pretty much what some folks around here are working, unfortunately that is not so good here as it means they cannot make an adequate wage to live. 21 hours a week is all very well if you are paid enough and I am not talking about funding the type of wasteful lifestyle many in the West take for granted, I am talking about having the basics to pay for housing, heating and food. Many articles recently have stated that the Baltic people are being very stoic under the circumstances, just getting on quietly with the business of trying to find work, trying to feed themselves or leaving the country. Either that or they are drinking to escape the misery of this very cold winter. We have enjoyed the winter as it is brighter than a wet winter but we have enough money for food and heating, it is no fun when you don't have a car, and your house is cold and there is not enough money to eat properly. The average Latvian needs more than 21 hours a week that is for sure.

I understand that Canada are having their own Olympics too, such copy cats. One Latvian, Haralds Silovs, has been making records by becoming the first Olympian to compete in long- and short-track speedskating events - and doing it on the same day. Silovs finished 20th in the 5,000 meters on the big oval around midday, then finished fifth in the B finals of the 1,500 around the short track at night. 

I was rather surprised this week to find out that Jonathan Edwards who was always held up as a hero for his openess about his faith - has lost his faith. What exactly did he lose? Religiosity? Rules? Or faith? I don't know, I am not him and I have no idea why he has gone down the path that he has taken or what triggered it. I think many of those with faith do suddenly find that God is not where they think he is, but often go on to find that he is bigger than they thought he was. Mystics often talk of the "dark night of the soul" where God seems to be hiding, but in essence he is encouraging us to go deeper and search for him, those who have gone through it often talk of the way that their faith is stretched and deepened in those times. I remember a time when the thought rushed into my head and exploded there, "What if God was not real?", "What if it is all a sham?" I felt I was looking into a hole and I didn't like what I saw, it was a whole load of deep, dark nothingness (not sure that makes sense but I can't really find the words to describe it). I shrank back from that hole and in my mind decided there was no way I would ever go there and the relief was enormous. Even when God seems far away I know he is there, he never leaves me, even if his presence is not felt and that is what I hold onto.

Photos: firstly apologies for the quality of the photos, they were taken inside on a snowy day with a telephoto lens - that was the nearest I was going to get to any action.
Photo 1 Coaches outside the school
Photo 2 The newly created carpark specially for the occasion on a frozen grass bank
Photo 3, 4, 5 & 6 Our local Olympians doing their own version of the Mogul event

Monday, 8 February 2010


Had a lovely week with our son and future daughter-in-law, would have done more if I hadn't had a cold and then passed it onto Mark our son and Ian, very generous of me don't you think? It didn't stop us sitting around the table talking for hours though, a habit our family developed over the years. I am so pleased that as a young family Ian and I agreed to eat together with the kids at the table and didn't sit around watching the tv as was the habit of both of our families except for special occasions. Most of my childhood memories stem from those special occasions of eating around the table and I hope that by sitting around with our family the stories of the past which got recycled at the time helped to give a sense of history and fun that make our family what it is. Hopefully those family times lasts longer than the disappointment of not being able to go to dancing/swimming/horse riding/ etc etc etc that all the other kids got to go to because their families could afford it. The problem with that kind of lifestyle is that usually it means not everyone is in the house at the same time to eat together. It wasn't always easy, there were times the mood around the table was frosty to say the least but there were plenty of good times too.

Had one of those bonding moment with my future daughter-in-law as I screeched for Kerry, "Can you help me please? Quickly!" It was  panic stations as the u-bend on the sink came apart for some reason and my beautiful hand built cupboards were swimming in a layer of water, fortunately Kerry was in the house and so I was able to pass things out to her and bale out the cupboard quickly and between the two of us we worked out how to get the kick boards off under the cupboards to allow everything to dry off. Did have a good time in the bakery to make up for it though.

We know all the best places to go and so took a visit to a DIY store - isn't that what everyone does on their holidays? It is there that Kerry found out her future husband's interest in tools and gadgets as Ian and Mark waxed lyrical about mallets and bought one just because Ian hasn't got one (I did think it might come in handy for hammering in fence posts and so allowed it). It is funny to see how children grow and take on some of the interests, mannerisms or outlooks of the parents and now as young adults we can see flashes of ourselves in them and also marvel at how different they are at other times. I love listening to our kids talking of hopes and dreams as they embark on their new lives and I pray that their journeys will be full of excitement and a sense of fulfillment. I know their journeys will not be without hiccups and ups and downs as no life journey is ever smooth. Taking time to enjoy the journey and appreciate all that they have and the experiences they can learn from makes for a much better journey than to be always wondering when you will get to a destination, after all we are still enjoying our journey which we are on.

We did do some touristy things though, honest! We made use of the cross country ski run at the top of the road and wouldn't you know it, with an audience and trying to show Kerry how to classic ski (well okay what works for me to get moving), I managed to fall over four times. Hmmph! Only fallen over once before and I wasn't even showing off. We also decided to investigate the downhill skiing at Lidokalns  as well, it's a man made ski run built by the same guy who built all the Lido restaurants in Riga (nearly everyone we know who has gone to Riga will have been to the original Lido restaurant at some stage); this is situated near to the highest point in Latvia (now at this point all my Colorado friends need to make sure they are sat down somewhere safe when they fall about laughing) Gaizinkalns is a whole 312m (1032 ft) a bit lower than where we used to live in Fort Collins at 1524m (5003ft) and we weren't even in the foothills. Skiing was a little cheaper at Lidokalns, 3LVLs (£3.70, $5.80) for ski rental and 3LVLs for ski lifts compared to $34 ski rental alone at Winter Park, Colorado where we went two years ago. Okay so the ski run was not exactly the longest run in the world and couple of minutes and we were at the bottom but since it was Kerry's first time skiing then the nursery slopes were excellent for her and Mark and I could then do a couple of runs on the main run without everyone freezing too badly at the bottom or my legs seizing up too badly. Ian didn't join us skiing but I nearly fell over in shock when he said we might go back again because everything was so close, instead of requiring buses to get from the car to the slopes meaning he didn't freeze in the transfer process.

And now for something completely different as they say, a post on Forum of the future begged the question "If climate change didn't exist would we have to invent it?" Martin Prices asks what if climate change didn't exist and turned out to be a myth, then are we mad to be spending time on research on renewable energy and energy efficiency when oil is not an infinite source of energy? Forest conservation would not be essential or would it? After all it is not just about reducing the CO2 in the atmosphere but also about preventing soil erosion, and flooding. Basically all the steps we take to reduce the CO2 we emit would improve the environment we live in so why aren't we taking the steps anyway? Love it! Just my kind of thinking. Let's stop arguing over whether climate change is happening or not and start looking after this good ol' planet that God made and stop trashing it.

Photo 1 - Me powering down the straight (if you believe that you will believe anything) at our local cross country track
Photo 2 - Yes I fell over and Ian had the camera to prove it
Photo 3 - Me passing on my not so vast experience of downhill skiing to Kerry
Photo 4 - Mark looking uber cool
Photo 5 - Kerry doing ever so well at her first attempt at skiing (at least she stayed upright) which is a good start.
Photo 6 - Mark tackling the very technical slalom course

Monday, 1 February 2010


Hopefully this blog makes sense but if it doesn't then please excuse me, as I have a cold. This is not something I have very often and so the fuzzy head is a bit of a strange phenomenon to me, in fact I think the last cold I had was in 2006 when I first went to America and the one before that that lasted anything longer than a day was errrrr maybe when my youngest was born in 1989. I might get sore throats or even lose my voice, last year I had trouble shaking off a cold sores, and in the past I  have had gall stones, ovarian cysts and a hernia but colds I don't normally get. Anyway this one got me and so with a fuzzy head I shall plough on.

For those of you who have known us for a long time you may remember that Ian used to work on flow cytometers in leukaemia diagnosis and that sort of thing in a hospital before moving onto research and development on flow cytometers themselves. Ian has been looking for an opportunity to find out what the field is like here in Latvia but until now nothing opened up. Before Christmas I spotted an item on one of my newsfeeds about an EU initiative to improve leukaemia diagnosis and Ian followed it up and found out that a Latvian professor was involved and sent an email to her. She was rather dubious of a "cold call" from a strange guy she had never heard of but eventually Ian was able to convince her he was kosher and not after anything in particular except to see where things are at in the field and offer his experience if it was helpful.  Finally emails were passed on to the relevant people and we both went into Riga this week (well someone has to navigate)  to see the haematology unit of a hospital. It was interesting for Ian to see where they are at with leukaemia diagnosis and what they are doing. We had a lovely time with the doctor in charge and it was fantastic to see a person committed to the patients and making them well again and not about her status as a doctor. We shall see what comes out of it and let things develop as we normally do but there certainly looks like there is scope to help out more.

Progress has been good on my course and I got back my final result for the other unit I completed just before Christmas in Policy Framework Analysis and thankfully got 75% for that one, so overall did well. I am really relieved as well as pleased to have got off to a good start as I do hope to use this knowledge to help in rural Latvia and I do hope the good marks means I have a good grasp of the problems and solutions and not I am just good at answering questions - always a danger in academic work. My new units starts February 1st so I was having a look through some of the work and realised that I have a steep learning curve with regards to some of the terms in Biodiversity which was a bit of a shock, I maybe a scientist by training but botany and zoology were not on the agenda for me and so I am not familiar with many of the terms used, oo errr! Hopefully all will become clearer as I progress through the unit.

The start of the week was still very cold and made quite miserable with the wind; cold temperatures are one thing but wind chill is bitter. It did warm up though as it snowed which means the snow is actually beginning to get quite deep in places, with no sign of melting and possibly more snow on the way. Still not as much as last year yet. As you can see though that despite the double glazing there is still an ice build up on the inside of the window, and I can now see why in Scandinavian countries triple glazing is standard.

Christmas gets earlier and earlier, or is it later and later? Well that is what it seemed like as Mark our son and his fiancée Kerry have come to visit and they brought their Christmas presents for us with them. Would you believe it I got some more pampering products - now either my kids don't think I wash enough or could it be that my son read a previous blog about how thoughtful I thought my daughters gift of pampering stuff was and thought it was a good idea? Hmmm! Maybe just maybe. I did appreciate it, really! along with the gift of a mug with "Make Tea Not War!" on it, definitely my philosophy in life.  Ian got some socks, maybe not a big deal for most, I mean it is the typical "I don't know what else to get you type present" but actually these particular socks are very dry and very warm which is very helpful in cold weather whilst wearing wellies (rubber boots). If there is one thing Ian hates it is cold feet and the SealSkinz pair he got for his birthday have been worn rather a lot, I think they could walk themselves to the washing machine sometimes but he had dry warm feet so didn't care.  It hasn't been all just opening present we also took Mark and Kerry out to see what we had been doing on the land and Mark had a great time clearing snow with the tractor, a budding farmer perhaps? Doubt it actually, more like a chance to play with a tractor, now did he come out to see us or to see the tractor? Love him really! For Kerry it was a chance to see some real snow, having lived on the South Coast of England she has rarely seen more than a few centimetres of snow.

A big step forward happened today in our settling in in Latvia as our friends who own the piece of land we are working on gave us power of attorney for the land. Okay we are working back to front as usual but heh life would be far too boring if everything went the way it should and in the correct order all the time. It does mean that now we can take over the signing of any permissions for building structures and infrastructure and we don't have to worry if they are away at all.

Came across a new search engine this week which looks interesting called Ecosia. They claim that by using their search engine the money doesn't go into the pockets of the company or shareholders their profits go to the WWF to fund projects to save the Amazon rainforests. Having done the courses I have done I am well aware that there is a danger in outside organisations coming in and telling the locals how to manage their own resources, in essence being no better sometimes than the colonial powers of previous centuries taking away land from local people and robbing them of the power to make their own decisions, so that is a worry but managed well projects can be a positive influence. One aspect I do like is that they use renewable energy to power their computers in order to do the searches. We tend to think of searches as saving paper and therefore is good for the environment but searches still consume power, not just our own electric but also the power used at the organisations own facilities. Now I have some questions as regards the way they search as they still use Yahoo and Bing so which computers are being powered by renewable energy but at the end of the day it is a start in the right direction and it means that people can make a choice. Well you can see what you think and make your own decisions and if you think it is a good idea, pass it on.

Photos 1 & 2 More gorgeous sunsets
Photo 3 & 5 Ice on the inside of the window
Photo 4 Mark in the tractor