Monday, 29 October 2012

Ooeerr! It's winter already

Here, what's all this white stuff? And who nicked all the
It is no longer squelchy under foot, in fact it is downright crunchy and am I happy about that? Well no actually. I have to admit to having been caught out by the snow and the cold this year. It is forecast to warm up soon and then we will have to get back on with our pre-winter preparations, but we feel rather unready for this rather early onset of very wintry weather. Ian continued on with his Franken creations and made a Frankenmanger (available for hire for Christmas nativity scenes, only you will have to fight the alpacas for it as it is a big hit with them). We had to up the alpacas feed a lot over the last few days and Ian was desperately trying to finish off the feeder for them as the snow was coming down, another pre-winter job that got caught out by the changing weather. Prior to that they were quite happy on the grass which is now under about 15-20cm of snow. Have you noticed though that Ian has started a trend with his Franken creations with the Americans heading for Frankenstorm? A fellow blogger also wrote to say she had reblogged our blog about Franken-items and described her own Franken-paths. I think he should have patented the idea!

You probably can't see but hidden amongst the hay is
Sofie. She jumped in when the alpacas got a bit close
and then she couldn't get out as they were eating from the
rack. It was very funny to watch the interactions
A right pain to have all this snow, but it does look pretty
Normally I welcome the onset of the snow as it covers a usually grim scene of mud, but the last week had been quite nice, but then it would be as my parents were here on holiday. My parents have rarely had any bad weather on holiday in the 49 years they have holidayed together, apart from the odd shower that is. I do seem to remember sitting in a tent with the rain dripping as a kid, but I must have remembered that because of it being so unusual for holiday weather. My parents, bless em' came prepared to help out and my dad seemed to enjoy trundling around helping us get veg beds sorted out for the winter and dahlias dug up, at least he knew what he was doing, I didn't (I hope the ones we put in the shed were alright as I wasn't expecting the intense cold and I thought I would have got them down into the cellar before the heavy frosts - for once this year the forecasts were pretty close to being reliable). My dad was also a great source of information as he has a lot of practical experience gained through being around farms from a young age, although never a farmer himself, family friends were. He even managed to help where the internet failed - so own up, who else knows how to prepare a duck for the table? What do you do with those little feathers? Apparently you use meths and set fire to it, to singe off the little feathers. It wasn't all one way though, we have gained quite a bit of information along the way too, such as cockchafer bugs make great chicken snacks, which my dad didn't know.

Cesis castle
We didn't make my parents work the whole time, nearly but not quite. They enjoyed going out to the hotel a couple of times and revelled in the fact it was nowhere near as expensive as the restaurants in the UK, we also took a trip to a castle and museum in Cesis. When we bought the tickets to get into the castle we were given lanterns to go up the tower, it was certainly steep and dark, but well worth it for the view out of the tower of the town of Cesis and surrounding areas.  We also popped along to a nearby camelid farm that had some alpacas. It was rather comical watching the staff try to move an alpaca that they wanted to trim the toenails of, because there was no way that alpaca was getting up so they could get to the toenails. It sat down very firmly on its haunches. Hope ours are a little more cooperative. They had an alpaca in from another farm for breeding and their male was at other farm, so it looks like we have scope for exchange for breeding purposes, only the alpaca brought in was so tiny compared to ours, we are not sure about breeding from that one, but they maybe interested in our alpaca male anyway. It will be good to have a little cooperation between alpaca owners in Latvia, it can only be of benefit to all of us. Mind you, I am not sure about Ian's new found love of camels, alpacas is one thing but a camel!!!! Noooooooo!
A view from the tower with Cesis in the
A park in Cesis. You can see what good
weather my parents brought with them
A view of Cesis from the new castle

The new bucket, just the right size for
making trenches
The big news from the last two weeks is that we have organised to get electricity to our land. We have paid for the cable and it is residing at the electricians house, we also organised our friend to make a bucket for the tractor and now we just need that dratted weather to warm up a bit to dig a trench so the cable can be laid. We are hoping to get the electric down to the greenhouse and then we can at least provide heat for our animals if it turns out worse than now. Our chickens are doing okay in the greenhouse and we have moved the caravan in, so that should provide a bit of extra protection as a heat source, if it absorbs any heat during the day that is. If the weather turns really bad then we will move the alpacas in there too to contribute to the overall heat of the place.

Our orchard plot at sunset
Talking of heating, our issue is still ongoing with that, but a meeting to review the situation got a surprisingly good turn out at short notice from the other apartment dwellers and a surprising amount of agreement at last. They seem to be beginning to see that the heating company is not acting fairly. In fact other apartment blocks owe more money than ours does and still got heat, but because we actually complained about the cold water they sent last winter they have decided to single us out! We did finally get our heat back on, just in time for the sharp drop in temperatures, after two council members stood up for us, but it was pretty close. Little by little we hope to sort out this situation, alongside others that is - we can't do it on our own.

Frost on the gate
Work has been better this past couple of weeks too, much quieter. Kind of boring again! Just the way I like it now. Actually it is not that boring really, it is still interesting to learn more about the students from all walks of life, something I still find fascinating after nearly 9 years of doing this job, but I will still settle for the quiet life in that department for the time being. There is one thing I am glad about in my job, is the fact that the director is great guy to work for, it made dealing with the issues the past few weeks much easier. My daughter passed on a blog regarding leadership and it is so spot on, I much prefer working for someone who recognises giftings in people and works to put a good team around himself, instead of a group of yes men. If you want a read it is by a guy called Steve McAlpine, another great guy, who obviously thinks a lot and yes I've met him a couple of times.
The chickens content in the greenhouse
along with our caravan

Thursday, 25 October 2012


I know I said I would delay the post, but I thought I may as well just blog as normal next Monday instead. Some things I was going to blog about are ongoing and can be said just as easily in my next post and to be honest apart from working my parents hard (they did volunteer), not a lot happened while they were here apart from we talked, but as my friend Mavis said here, it's good to talk. So see you Monday

Monday, 22 October 2012


Hi folks, for those who follow my blog, many apologies but I am running out of time this week. My parents are here and we are cracking the whip and keeping them busy and of course in true style, talking a lot and so no time to write a blog this week. Normal service will be resumed soon.

Monday, 15 October 2012


Frankenbarrow! Cobbled together from cladding from our
kitchen to provide a much needed extension. 
Squelch! That is the sound most heard on our land at the moment. It's wet! We did have a couple of days of dry weather and it had just, and I mean just, started to dry a little when it rained heavily again. Ian still has to go out to the land to let the animals out and so he has got on with barn jobs, tidying it up and creating Franken monsters. Franken monsters? Has he gone mad? Yep probably! I explained he felt a little like Dr. Frankenstein last week, creating his monster table named Frankentable, monster sink- Frankensink, monster shelves - Frankenshelves etc. Well this week he made his monster wheelbarrow, so meet Frankenbarrow. So why Franken...... ? Well Frankenstein was really just a recycled human, made up of bits from other people and Ian's creations are reusing material usually leftover from other projects or, to use the up-to-date phrase, "repurposed" At least the rain hasn't stifled his creative streak. It might not be in a beauty parade of garden and garage products but they are functional and are at the moment costing us nothing.
It was that wet our alpacas were looking rather grubby.
They look better than this now though

As for me it has been hard work this week and I definitely felt quite depressed at times, which is not me really. There was one day there was nothing for it but to reach back into the archives and dig out my chill out songs. Singing "break the chains on this land" (from Iona The Island) with the sun appearing for the first time in days lifted my spirits immensely. I also watched some birds circling in the air and felt "yes that's where I want to be" and I let my spirit soar with them and then watched in amazement as other birds started to come, joining them from all directions, I really felt God speak deep into my soul. At least now I have strength to carry on now! Plus the giggle from watching a coal tit that kept coming to the window and occasionally tapping on it as it tries to understand why it can't get at the squashes drying on the window.
Spiders webs in the evening sunlight draped across
the fields

One reason for feeling depressed were work issues. I normally just plod along doing regular checks and chatting with students on the online student café I moderate, all ticking along nicely for a few years until something changes and for some reason more issues pop their head up and more active intervention is required; well this is one of those years. The kind that demands rapid responses and then thoughtful planning to address the issues in the long term. It means that work is not boring at the moment and definitely challenging and normally I would relish the challenge, but not now. I and a colleague relish boring now, we have other things to do too challenge us. Then again for the sake of our students we will address the issues wholeheartedly and try to work out some good solutions that are helpful for all concerned.
Ian giving a little perspective at the top of the hill. He is
stood where the house will be with a 3m stick in hand
to give some sense of scale

I also had an interview with a journalist for a hunting magazine about my Master's thesis on the conflict over wild boar management in the area I live in. It was a bit nerve wracking really. I had to explain what I had done and why without giving away confidential information, but I also wanted this issue of too many wild boar in our area wrecking agriculture to get out and be highlighted. Some of the things I recommended were also covered. It was quite hard to strike the right balance, but we both agreed that it was really stupid that no one apart from me was doing research in the Latvia on wild boar management, despite the widespread destruction they cause, at massive financial costs to farmers. It will be interesting to see what is actually written though.
Our house in situ.What it could possibly look like

So have I done much else this week? Not really. Trawled the internet for biodigesters and such things, but really I have been too busy to do much else. The good news is that a recent frost has signalled the final stages of our harvesting, it really is all downhill to winter from here. Our chickens were moved into the greenhouse now it is virtually empty, at least it will be less draughty and a lot less damp in there. Moving the arks was made a lot simpler by the visit of some friends to see our alpacas, it is easier with four to carry the arks over longer distances rather than just two. Frankentrolley made earlier in the year would have got bogged down in the mud anyway. We also spent a bit of time walking through the floorplan for our new house to see where things would be, see if it would work and Ian got to talk with our friend who is an electrician to see how we would get electric to the house - unfortunately we can't use the nearest electric cable it is too high powered and would need a rather large transformer for domestic use, we have to use a lower powered one further away. At least it all looks feasible, so far.
Frankenseedboxes. Made from some wood which had been
destined for firewood but decided they were too good
to burn and used for making these instead. Other
pieces ended up as backs for coat hooks.

Our heating is still an issue. I wrote to the company this week basically saying that we are still not paying until the issue of the quality of heat is addressed in accordance with consumer regulations and if it is not addressed we will see you in court. It didn't say that exactly of course, but that is the general gist of the matter. Well in response the boiler is on ....... only heating the other apartment block and the school and not our apartment block, because we want too much. Apparently we should not expect water 
hot enough to heat our rooms to the temperature stated in our contracts, that is unreasonable and until we drop those unreasonable requests we will not be getting any heat. Well I guess we are going to have to see what the court says about that. Sigh! I really wish they would see sense and just heat the water hot enough. It is stupid that they cannot even provide what the contract states and try and shift the blame onto everyone else except themselves. Don't really see why the courts should be the place to sort this out either, but if that is the system then we will use the system. Don't worry too much about us though if your thoughts conjure up two shivering folks, trying to keep warm. We have a wood stove, we have oil filled radiators, plenty of layers to keep us warm too and if the worse comes to the worse and the temperatures drop far too much then we have another apartment where we have wood fired central heating. And our neighbours? Well some have already come off the communal heating system anyway a few years ago - the rest of us are stuck on the system, one more off, then all off. Many have woodstoves themselves and electric radiators, so the chances are they will be fine for the time being. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

The sun has got his hat on - I wish!

At least we have seen plenty of rainbows.
I love rainbows
Well it's wet! The wetter than normal summer has morphed into an even wetter autumn. It is still incredibly mild for this time of the year and so things are still growing, that is if they don't succumb to rot or split like the cabbages due to too much moisture. My Borlotti beans blew down in the wind too, but fortunately there was a good crop of beans about ready for harvesting anyway and so it just meant having to pick them there and then rather than waiting a few days, also found a few more of Thelma squash growing amongst the beans. There have been a few crops that we are really pleased we tried this year, Thelma squash being one of them, they taste a bit like sweet potato with a similar texture and have produced enough small sized squashes that are about the right size for the two of us. We will still grow the bigger squash next year but mainly so that we can feed the animals with them. Another good cropper is Sangria chillis, there is no heat in them whatsoever, but in a year when the normal peppers have struggled to produce any peppers, these little conical shaped chillis have been producing their little heart out. In fact the plant that I took home and removed all the peppers from so I could grow a pepper for seed isolated from the rest of the plants is once again covered in flowers. It is advisable to do this so you don't get a hot pepper crossing with a mild one and vice versa. These little chillis also add interest to salads and stews with the mix of purple and red peppers (I will have to try and remember to get a photograph next week). The other success has been Amaranth and I produced a rather nice tasty bread today using 2 cups of white flour, 1 cup of ground Amaranth seeds and 1 cup of ground split yellow peas, some sesame seeds and home-grown poppy seeds. With a long proving time it also rose well.

Still pretty stormy looking
One of the comments on the blog last week was from my good friend Mavis, who came to visit us last year. She commented that she knows I enjoy the special moments when God speaks to me through the ordinary day-to-day things and she is so right. I love it! I know some folks have discovered gold and diamonds in special meetings, but I see diamonds glittering all winter, from the ice crystals that fall in the morning winter sunshine to the diamond encrusted fields of snow and I feel so incredibly rich. If you have eyes to see, then the world is filled with awe and wonder. Her comment also reminded me of our trip back from the bakery when we caught in a shower of rain; the sun was shining too and I knew there had to be a rainbow somewhere and sure enough it was high up in front of us and the bow seemed to finish over the local council offices. There needs to be a transformation of that place, a place where people have become hardened to the poverty outside, where little kingdoms of power are maintained and old ways perpertrated. Nothing very, very bad that I know of, but could be so much better, kinder and more considerate, more forward thinking, instead of resigned to "that's the way it is here in Latvia." The rainbow, spoke to me of the possibility of change coming to that place, something I have been praying for for months now. Now that excites me!

Ian has been feeling like Dr.Frankenstein
creating monsters, Here is his monster table.
I think it might be robust enough for him

Following on from the comment I made about thinking deeply last week there was an article by Anna Coote, who is head of Social Policy at the New Economics Forum which suggested that people should "slow down and think carefully about what really matters in our lives - and change our daily habits accordingly. Sound advice I think. If we don't give ourselves time to think, how can we ensure that what we do is inline with what we really care about? Or think is important? If we don't give ourselves time then we blindly stumble along from one thing to another not really checking to see which direction we are heading in. I'm looking forward to the winter, as I've said before it is thinking time. All gardening jobs are at an end and there is time to breathe. 

His monster sink in the barn. Never throw
anything away in our household. This sink
came out of the caravan. and the wood is all
wood leftover from other projects. Waste not
want not!
I managed to replace my hand blender, it is not as powerful as the last one but better than a bust one, it was also fairly easily obtained. I wanted one that had a detachable handle, I also wanted one with a pot that you could whizz up small items like herbs or breadcrumbs. Now that was two additional requirement and that is what I found. Success!  Now that might not seem like a big deal to you if you live in a city, or live in a different country to Latvia, but here it is. Finding something that fits the requirements can sometimes be a frustrating job, where compromise is the order of the day. You can get most things in Riga these days if you know where to look, but out in the smaller towns it is a bit hit and miss, it might be there and then again it might not be. We learnt in Denmark that if we saw something we thought we might need, we bought it, because when you did need it it wouldn't be in the shops. It is just because Denmark and Latvia both have small numbers of people : about 5.5m in Denmark and around 2m in Latvia. This does not represent a huge market and Latvians have less buying power than the Danish, so you can imagine the effects on the product availability. Thank goodness for the internet for some things.

That grey pipe in the picture is part of Ian's
drain repair to fix the broken pipe at the base
of one of the barn foundations. He had to dig
down a long way to sort that out and has been
an ongoing project all year.
Another challenge we face is not knowing the language yet (I know, I know, it is about time we did). This means tagging along with folks if they are going somewhere that we need to go. This week one of our friends was going with her daughter to the eye hospital for a regular check up and so we got her to book us in too, as it is a long time since we have been to have our eyes checked. It was good news all round, our friend's daughter no longer needs glasses to correct her vision, our friend doesn't need glasses either and Ian and I don't need to change ours. Sorted - till the next time! One funny incident happened in the café where we went for a cup of tea, while some drops were taking effect on Ian's eyes. There was a lady at the counter who had previously tried to talk to Ian outside the eye clinic while I and the translator were inside, she leaned across the counter and loudly whispered in a conspiratorial tone that we spoke English, just so the lady at the counter would know!!! Or words to that effect anyway. Ian seems to think she might work at the hospital since a few folks stopped and chatted with her, but it was funny that she thought she felt the need to warn the lady behind the counter, after all, we might not know much Latvian but we can order a cup of tea and decline any sugar without too much difficulty.

Man does not live by bread alone, but
a good cup of tea to hand is also very
Ian is in his element with his new cycle computer. He loves to make charts and along our last 30 years that we have known each other - yes we passed that milestone this week along with our 28th Wedding Anniversary- he has made charts of things like our daily electric usage, and his daily blood pressure. Well the cycle computer takes this to a new level, there are even more parameters he can keep track of, the temperature when cycling, his geographical position (a bit of a joke when he is not able to get out and must use his stationary trainer bike, although one day the computer must have been having difficulty locating the satellite as it recorded him going up the road to the technical school and then straight back down through the allotments and that was really without leaving the comfort of his training room) oh and oh so many oodles of other little tidbits of information. So happy!
Master bedroom

I have spent a lot of the weekend on Skype talking to our son about design ideas for our new house - well maybe! Our son is studying automotive design and so loves to play around with new concepts in design and has the right kind of computer programmes that can put flesh on ideas. I have an idea of what kinds of things are needed in our new house - my dream list if you like; we have an outside measurement - much greater and we run into problems with steep slopes and disturbing the land too much, we also know what we will use the house for and so fitting it into the area in an aesthetically pleasing way has been a lot of fun. Still not sure how it will work out in practice but we have enjoyed the process, altering things according to my knowledge of the lie of the land and some practical considerations and his ability to fit things into a space and think of some novel ideas. 
A little dark, but I hope you get the idea. A utility room
under the stairwell. This would be situated next to the
outside door, essential when there are animal bowls etc, to
clean and vegetables to wash.

We went to an agricultural fair this last week and we see we have started a trend. There were two stalls who had started importing small balers this year. Now why couldn't they have done that last year when we had to import ours from England? We have cards from both of them so we can check for spare parts, which is useful after a slight altercation with a tree stump during the baling season this year. It is about time too as the smaller bales are much more sensible for people for many people to use than the big bales. We saw the difficulty our neighbour had trying to collect the big bales off her steep slope. She thought our bales were small because our baler was broken, bet she's wishing that the baler they used on her slopes was broken too.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Now what did we do exactly?

The view from our new house perhaps? The sun glinting
through the autumnal looking aspen trees.
Ian and I were reflecting over the week on Sunday and we were having trouble remembering what we had done, apart from the highlight of the week a belated Jubilee party, there was little else of note really, just more general tasks and more harvesting; oh yes! and the addition of another piece of equipment to our repertoire. Could be a short post then, unless I get into the flow of something.

Our Jubilee package
Some of you maybe wondering why we had a belated Jubilee party! It wasn't going to be, it was just going to be a meal round at friends. I had organised to cook, but take it round to their house as it was easier for their two children to keep to their normal routine and yet still fit in around our routine of putting the animals away. Life can be complicated sometimes over the simplest of things. Anyway that morning a parcel arrived from our son with Ian's belated birthday present from him and one from me, plus a few extras such as union jack paper plates, union jack flags, union jack cups and some masks of the Queen and Prince Phillip. As one of our friends is British too, we thought it was the ideal opportunity to have a British meal, cottage pie followed by apple crumble and custard with some British tableware. It added a bit of fun to the proceedings.

Maybe the view from the rear of our house?
Others maybe wondering what more equipment could we possibly need? I wonder the same thing at times, but as we work on the land, we find there are different needs. One of our problems is cutting down grass in areas where it has been neglected, as it often means we have a lot of grass that just sits in clumps and doesn't rot down very well, either that or we have to spend time collecting it. We want to improve these areas so that they are producing good quality hay again, but that means either ploughing and reseeding, where we would lose the special qualities of the local mix of grasses and could end up with a problem of soil erosion or we keep cutting the grass back and clearing it. Well now we have another alternative of a mulching mower, only this isn't your normal lawnmower or even a sit on and ride model - neither of which would be suitable because of the size and topography of the land, this is one that fits onto our two wheel tractor and weighs in at 94kg. The first runs with this colossal machine had Ian exhausted, but he realised eventually that the quick release mechanism which acts as an extension was altering the angle of the machine and making it more difficult. Raising the wheels a bit also made for a much faster and easier run. Ian is now happier that the machine will do what he needs to keep the ground elder down and encourage more grass growth, as well as tackling places where it is not feasible to use the tractor.

Meet the Blade Runner!

After! Might not look much, but that
is long tough grass and not the sort of job
to tackle with a normal lawnmower

Serious lawnmowing. You can see where he has been by
the stripes. 
This week someone made the comment that Ian and I are deep thinkers, this isn't the first time someone has said that, but it always comes with a bit of a jolt to me. I thought that thinking through ideas and projects was what you are supposed to do, especially in our walk with God. I realise that many people get busy and don't have much time, but the bible encourages us to think and meditate on God's word, that doesn't just mean the bible, but his words to us during our lifetime. When I look back we have accomplished a lot, we have made quite a few significant life-changing decisions and yet we don't pack into a week what some folks do. It is amazing that it is possible that you can be so busy doing things that you don't actually do anything significant. Living in rural Latvia means we can live life at a slower pace, we don't have a whole list of activities that we join in, but we interact with people, we watch so that we can learn from the cultural clues and we get on and do what we need to do on the land and in the garden. Nothing too demanding, but it does give us time to think. We have busy times of course, that comes with the rhythm of what we do, our work is governed by the seasons, our busy times governed by the weather. If it isn't raining then there are always jobs that need doing outside and if it rains, well then it is a quiet day or an opportunity to work in the greenhouse, the barn or on our home. Winter is a true time for relaxing, when jobs on the land are few and far between, unless it snows a lot of course. Winter is also a time to reassess, to think through the year that's been and reflect on what we could have done differently and to plan for the year ahead. Well that's the theory anyway and on the whole, that has been the pattern of our life for the past four years, weddings notwithstanding.

I was messing around with a picture of me
when I was a baby for the student café that
I monitor. They probably already think I'm
ancient and so I gave it a sepia tint - have to
confess, it would have been black and white
otherwise. Not that young then!
On the more mundane side of things in our life this week, the carrots have now all been harvested, we have three crates of carrots, so that should see us through the winter. It is very different to last year when the carrots were okay but we had an abundance of pumpkins, this year I have a reasonable amount of broccoli harvested and it is still coming, enough beans and plenty of carrots and onions, but few pumpkins. Ian will be disappointed that I won't have enough pumpkins to do spiced pumpkin for his breakfast in the late winter this year. I also had a bit of a disaster today, my blender broke. Big deal? Yes it is! I use it such a lot and so it means we are going to have to go out and buy another one, otherwise I will have to work out another way of blending the tomatoes to a pulp and that will involve more washing up and since my dishwasher (Ian) hasn't been so efficient until yesterday when I commented I might have to trade it in for a newer model, that is not a good idea. The dishwasher, aka Ian is currently trying to fix the broken shower that has flooded the shower room floor - not a happy lad is he! It was working fine before when I used it last, late this afternoon, but I must have done something to start it leaking. Oh joy of joys! I need a shower soon, hope it gets fixed. There does seem to be much muttering and the words "why can't they make things properly these days?" was uttered more than once. (Update: It's fixed but he has resorted to drink, and he is sat with a bottle of beer - don't worry it is not every day he does this!)