I Dreamed of the Motherland – Riga

From the moment that I became part of the Latvian Community in Kalamazoo, I wanted to experience the place that so many of them love.  My family and friends have such a deep connection to their motherland. I wanted very much to share that experience. So, when word came around that Matiss Kukainis was finally getting married AND holding the wedding in Latvia, there was nothing that would stop me from going to Latvia and taking my family along.  

One of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited is the old part of Riga, called Vecrīga.  I’m not sure why but I have a deep admiration for centuries old cities filled with character and charm. Maastricht, Sienna and Vecrīga round out the top of my list. One of the great things about Vecrīga is that very few to no cars drive through the streets of Vecrīga. It allows you to wander through a maze of cobble stone streets while gazing at amazing architecture.  The only thing you need to be wary is of  bumping into relatives coming out of a corner cafe while your gawking at St. Janis church.  

When you run into a cousin (or two) be prepared to be carried along to the next outdoor cafe residing in the shadow of St. Peter’s church, the tallest church in VecsRiga, where more friends will be gathering.  If you are visiting in July like we did, it will likely be a warm (but not hot) sunny day.  Never fear, however, if it isn’t as warm as you’d like, the cafes keep a blanket on the back of each chair for patrons to be cozy comfortable.  

This was an amazing once in a lifetime trip.  But, to make this easy on myself, because I don’t want to forget a thing from my dream vacation, I will recount everything from the beginning.  It might not be my best writing but this is mostly for me so be it.  

Four months before our arrival, I used Trip Advisor to rent a one bedroom apartment.  I spent hours pouring through pictures of apartments finally settling on good location, reasonable price and ability to sleep 4. PK and I stayed in a large bedroom while the boys slept on a couch with a rumble bed.  It was much better than renting two hotel rooms like we had to do in Munich. The agency renting the apartment to us arranged for strees free transportation from the airport. 

We left Minich that morning before lunch and arrived in Riga with grumbling tummies. Our apartment was located a block down from Vermanes Garden with  City Diner on the corner.  Being hungry and new to the city, we figured the first place we found would be just fine.  We didn’t realize our first restaurant, City Diner, would be an American themed diner! It was a little disappointing to have our first exposure to Riga be American cheeseburgers. Additionally, practicing my Latvian language skills was pointless because the waitress was Russian. 

Still, it was early, I was in Latvia and nothing, not even American food, would ruin my dream.  

The next stop was Riga Galleria.  Renting the apartment meant we had a kitchen and we wanted to fill that kitchen with breakfast and snack items to make vacation a little more convenient when hunger called.  The grocery store is located on the bottom floor of a shopping mall.  We wandered through the aisles looking for unusual candies or other interesting items. We filled our basket with salami, cheese and candy then headed to the bakery section.  By far the best part of grocery shopping was that despite it being mid-afternoon, we were still able to buy warm bread from the bakery to go with our salami and cheese. 

After depositing our grocery goods in our rental kitchen, I texted cousin-in-law and friend, Liene, for a meet up. Liene was with the two rambunctious boys and the “nearly still a baby” at the park by our apartment hanging out at the Latvian culture festival while her husband, Rob was with the groom on a bachelor boat cruise. These kinds of moments in the park make you thankful to have family (with kids) traveling to Latvia at the same time. Mik and Karlis ran off to play with the two older boys so that “nearly still a baby” could nap. PK and I walked through the booths looking over authentic Latvian goods like linens, wooden bowls, and amber jewelry promising myself that I would come back to buy every beautiful thing I saw. I regret that I never went back.  

After a little bit of free time for the boys in the park, Liene took us to see the Freedom monument.  Latvia has a long and determined history. A must see landmark is the Fredom Monument. Unveiled in 1935, it honors the soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independance (1918-1920).  Fortunately, it later survived the Soviet Occupation (1940-1996) and remained a symbol of national independence during those tough times.  The Latvians have such revenence for this monument that no one is even allowed to sit on the stairs at the base of the monument.  It is permissible to leave a bouquet of flowers at the base. 

For Fatherland and Freedom

 The next must see memorial is the surrounding park, Bastejkalns. A canal winds through beautiful gardens.  You can climb the hill to view Freedom monument through the trees.  The winding sidewalks provide ample opportunity for boys to be boys.  In addition to colorful flowers, this park has 5 memorials dedicated to the journalists, the student and the policemen that lost their lives in 1991 when Russian OMON (Special Forces) attacked the building of Interior Ministry of Latvia.  

With some of the energy burned off, we were ready to try our hand at eating once again. This time, we had our own personal Riga tour guide to keep us on the right edible track. Liene guided us to Lido for economical Latvian food.  At Lido, you walk through a buffet/cafeteria type kitchen selecting genuine Latvian food.  In our excitement, we certainly didn’t hold back on the kotlets (cutlets), kartupeļi (potatoes) and other dishes.  I noticed that we had about three times the  number of plates per person as any Latvian in the restaurant which was just enough for this American family!

Since we were still acclimating to the time zone change, we accompanied Liene back to their apartment to let the younger boys have some down time before bed.  We weren’t sitting there for long when Janis, PK’s uncle, leaned out the apartment window across the courtyard and silently summonded PK to join him in tasting some scotch(es).  

Before too long,  I felt that it was time for us to return to our apartment.  I received protests all around but I insisted that we depart.  The sky, still shining bright at 9:45 pm, had deceived everyone in my family except me, but, then, I had an iPhone to tell me the truth.  Riga sits at Latitude 56° 57′ 0″ N.  In translation, there is little darkness in the summer and little light in the winter.  

This is the view from our apartment window at 10:45 pm three weeks after the summer solstice.  

I allowed one stop on the way to the apartment at a convenience store (or what looked like it might be one) to buy a bag of ice.  Let’s just say that ice is a pretty rare thing in Latvia and it would become a moderate obsession of ours to procure ice over the next 10 days. 

I completed the first day of my dream vacation in the Motherland with such wonders to hold already. We collapsed in bed and fell into a fast dreamless sleep only to be woken by mid-day sunlight streaming through the windows at 5 am.  

…Which is where I will pick up the story in my next blog post… 

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My Retail Therapy

My retail therapy consists of going to the craft store and picking out fist fulls of beads.

Then spending the next half hour wandering around the store convincing myself not to buy them. 

The last step is realizing the ridiculousness of this procedure and blogging about it. 

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Munich – First and Last

I stood on the curb looking around the bustling Marienplatz and could not recall one single detail. When I got back to the hotel with free wi-fi, I texted my sister to ask her if we had gone there during our visit to see my sister’s friend, Julian, in Munich in 1996.  

Yes, we had been to Marienplatz but I didn’t remember it. I felt a little sad.  I hadn’t forgotten all of the trip but how much had I forgotten? The trip to Munich with my sister was right after I graduated from Western Michigan University.  My sister and I were full fledged adults doing things our way and traveling through Europe.  It had felt like we were sophistcated and worldly. At least, if I can’t remember all the details, I remember taking that coming of age step with my sister. 

You would think that I would have learned my lesson since it stared me in the face during another momentous trip.  Yet, here it is 6 months later, I’m just now writing down the details of our trip, and I cannot remember what Mikel ordered to drink at the beer garden on our last day in Munich. 

Despite how the picture looks, and I love how it looks, neither kid is drinking beer. Karlis has yet another glass of apple juice, the beverage we consumed the most while in Europe. All I can remember  about Mikel’s drink is that it was a mixture.  So, it could be lemonade and Coke in that mug or apple juice and Coke or some other mixture we thought would be strange but was actually quite delicious.    I am, on the other hand, drinking beer. I’m also holding the glass the way Julian taught my sister and me so that the  heavy mug could be held with just one hand. Hey! I remember something else about 1996 Munich.  

Our time in Munich, in 2015, was short and overcast with exhaustion. On the first day, we hadn’t slept more than about an hour. On the last day, we were worn down from 8 days of authentic Latvian experiences.  I refused to let our exhaustion get in my way.  Between the first day and the last day, we visited two museums, toured two platzs, ate two expensive lunches, shopped and drank at the beer garden.  While shopping is far from my first choice of activities, Birkenstocks are so much cheaper in Munich that I couldn’t resist. Whether they are fashionable or not, they are honestly the best shoes for a  variety of foot issues when you just can’t stay off your feet. (Hello! Touring Europe, folks, there will be no sitting down! Just ask my exhausted family!!) 

Getting around Munich – the train system is so stinking easy there should be no excuse for not seeing the city. 

BMW museum– Since 50% of our family are gear heads, it seemed like the BMW was a must-see site. I was right since Karlis took a picture of every engine, car, boat and motorcycle in the BMW museum. The museum has a very modern style which turns visiting a museum into a whole new experience.  Us non-gear heads even enjoyed walking past shiny vehicles and unique displays of motorcycles. The amount of time it took to walk through the museum was just right for an exhausted quartet. 

Marienplatz/ Karlsplatz  – visiting the platzs had little affect on us other than it provided ridiculously expensive lunches from English language menus.  I think next time I would head directly for the beer garden for pretzels as big as your head. The beer gardens serve other foods but they no longer serve stag parties according to the signs. I’m sure Karlstor (Karls gate) in Karlsplatz is usually an architectural delight but we wouldn’t know because it was under restoration so the picture of Karlis in front of his gate was anti-climatic.  


Residenz Munchen – I read a lot of reviews complaining that this museum of the royal palace of former Munich monarchs isn’t worth your money because it is mostly replicas of what existed prior to World War II.  Yes, I suppose it would be nicer for it to be authentic but since I had just one day left to expose my boys to an example of life as a German Royal, I’m not going to complain. I have no regrets about spending my money here.  Note- it was a hot July day, so we opted for the shorter route through the non-air conditioned palace.  

En garde! 

Gaudy but extrordinary.  This fireplace could put the Rose Bowl Parade to shame.  It is made completely out of seashells. 

 I don’t remember the purpose of this hall but I got the feeling it didn’t have much real purpose other than to show off. 

Augustiner-Keller- A trip to drink at a Beer Garden in Munich is a must- do. The only question is what type of experience do you want? I once bought my husband a T-shirt that said, “Do I look like a People Person?” So clearly, Hofbräuhaus and the college beer gardens were out of the question. Not to mention, there is a Hofbräuhaus by O’Hare airport in Chicago now.  By the time we got to the beer garden, we were hot and tired. We found ourselves a nice table with four seats in a shaded location. Unfortunately, we were still stuffed from our lunch so we did not get any food.  Our entertainment included watching the ATV truck shuttle tons (metric tons) of gigantic beer mugs from kitchen to beer stand. The relaxing atmosphere was a fitting place to wind down our extrordinary trip. 

Good night, Munich. Good bye, Europe. 


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My signs

I’m Sagittarius. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what affects being born under the Sagittarius sign has on me.  

On the other hand, I can tell you what these signs mean…

Sign 1. I buy Jack’s special salsa for the fridge at work. – it’s an super easy way to put some type of vegetable in my diet regularly. 

Sign 2. I buy a pull-up bar.  – I always need a new way to motivate me to exercise

 Sign 3. I weighed myself and took measurements.  Despite the horror. 

Sign 4. I bought a new water bottle.  An easy way to stay hydrated is to have a water bottle on hand all the time. 

Sign 5. I bought trail mix for my desk at work.  I want a fulfilling snack in the office for those days when I just need a snack. 

Yes, theses are five clear signs that the Sagittarius is still full on a New Years Crackdown. It’s the small steps that are going to keep my on track for 2016. 

But, the number one sign that I started the 2016 New Years Crackdown….



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2016 Crackdown 

I’m three weeks into 2016.  Some (most?) people have already given up on their resolutions.  I’m just now thinking about writing mine.  

Truthfully, I’ve been on the resolution train since Day 1. (My ANNUAL New Years Crack Down ya’ll) Only now, I feel compelled to spell it out.  

1. N-E-W Y-E-A-R-S C-R-A-C-K D-O-W-N

All jokes aside, I am looking into improving my health once again. I certainly couldn’t claim that I was successful with last year’s resolutions but I do feel I made progress toward a certain level of mature attitude and philosophy in regards to health and well being. 

Today, I read the article How to relearn the art of eating by Bee Wilson. (Confession, I didn’t actually read it word for word because it was too long) The parts I read struck a cord in me. This is the path I want for 2016 and I want to talk about it. 

I’m tired of being a yo-yo like craving unhealthy foods while feeling guilty everytime I eat something special.  I need to relearn how to eat and have a better relationship with my food. I don’t want to give up ice cream.  But, I also don’t want to ruin my prime ice cream moments by eating junk food in excess all the other time. 
I’m not sure if the article actually tells you how to relearn the art of eating or if it just keeps explaining why we suck at eating to begin with. So, my list below may be redundant but it’s the first time I’ve read it. 

1. Eat slow, slower and even slower –  I must savor the flavor. If something doesn’t taste good when I savor, I have to give up on it. If something tastes good, I have to determine when enough is enough before it becomes way too much. 

2. Nothing is off limits but there is a limit – ultimately, I want to lose weight and fit into those ski bunny pants. I will recognize my goal and put healthier choices as my priority. The limit is defined as special treats need to be considered on timing, frequency, and quantity. 

Those two things may not see like much but I’m making a lifestyle change here. With the New Years Crackdown, I am already experiencing positive changes. 2016 is going to be a good year.    

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4 days in Limbo, IL

I want to start my story at the point when when we landed in Munich, but it really started before that with another lesson learned.  Monday is not the day you start a vacation. 

Oh, don’t worry,there is nothing ominous about my statement. It’s just a fact. 

(1) The Friday before we left for Europe I tried to work. It was like pulling teeth.  It was a full blown case of high school senioritious. I totally wasted a beautiful summer day filling a seat in the office. (But, don’t tell my boss that, I’m sure I did something constructive that day) 

(2) The Saturday before was almost worse than the Friday before. If it weren’t for those blasted Guinea Pigs requiring daily care that wasn’t scheduled to start yet, I would have blown that pop stand. Being stuck at home for the first “vacation” day seemed rather pointless. This type of attitude explains why I suddenly decided we would eat out at every meal from then on.  (English menus, yo!) 

(3)Sunday! Finally, Sunday! Months previously, when the hubs found out that our first flight left at 7 am, he said, “I am NOT getting up at 3 am to drive to the airport.” That kind of an attitude booked us a hotel room near O’Hare airport for the night before our 7 am flight. At least, then the vacation could officially start and the lifetime experiences could begin! However, I have to admit that it felt more like driving into a traffic jam 10 minutes from your house.  We had so far to go and already at a stand still. Fortunately, we have friends that live near the hotel so we were able to join up for dinner and a swim in the pool together to get us through the night. 

(4) Monday!! Remeber how we said we weren’t going to get up at the crack of dawn? Standing in a hotel lobby at 5:45 am waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the airport still felt unreasonably early. 

Funny thing about airports, once inside it’s like you’ve entered into another dimension and you are completely closed off to what’s going on outside. For example, you might even miss an approaching massive 40,000 feet high thunderstorm that is going to encircle the airport.  We caught a brief glimpse of the storm as we made our way to our gate for boarding. If I had not known it was July, I would have thought it was a winter storm because of how strong the winds were, the heaviness of the raindrops and the darkness of the clouds.  A 40,000 feet tall thundercloud does not let much light in.  After it quit raining and we had been on the Tarmac for some time, I checked the radar on my phone.  It looked like Chicago was the eye of the storm and the clouds stretched across Michigan, down through Indianapolis and back up to Wisconsin.  Basically, unless you were flying to the Yukon, you weren’t getting out of Chicago or in, for that matter.  In all we waited on the tarmack in Chicago for four hours.  

Our luck wasn’t bad just disappointing.  Our flight plans had given us a significant layover in Phildelphia. The delay cut it in half making it impossible to get any Philly sight-seeing in but, at least, we weren’t going to miss our flight to Munich. Instead, we sat in limbo for another four hours.  

Four days in limbo made me realize I don’t want to wait until Monday to start a vacation. 

Lego Liberty Bell – not the Liberty Bell we wanted to see but worthy of a picture. 

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Latvian Lessons

I love to travel.  I especially love to travel to Europe.  I have not had the opportunity to travel extensively but I have been lucky enough to go to Germany, France, Scotland, Italy, England, Belgium, The Netherlands, and, finally, after 17 years of marriage into a Latvian family, Latvia.  I really thought it was never going to happen.  We turned down many other wedding invitations, but, when this wedding invitation arrived, setting my own personal desires aside (yeah, right), I said, it’s time to take the kids to the motherland.  

Since I love to travel, I travel pretty well and I have learned many things like pack light, don’t be afraid of public transportation, and expect to walk a lot. Like, really, a lot. 

Since this was the first time I traveled across the ocean with my family, I taught a few lessons and I learned a few lessons.  Here’s my helpful guide, with the backstory, to traveling overseas with a family. 

The Trip: Chicago to Philly to Munich to Riga to Wedding to small town Latvia to Riga to Munich to Philly to Chicago 

I’m going too, aren’t I?

 The Lessons:

1. Men are just as (more) high maintenance as women.  When my husband says he needs some item whether it’s extra socks, a certain style of shorts, or a favorite hole filled t-shirt, I should never, ever try to talk  him out of it or less of it or a different it, because, when I’m ready to explore exery tower and examine every decayed brick at an ancient castle in the middle of the Latvian countryside, I will be unreasonably intolerant of every suggestion to head back to the car.  He told me before we left that he needed (NEEDED) x, y, and z to be comfortable. Let me tell you, when you aren’t comfortable, you don’t want to hike out to look over the Gauja River. If I had listened to him, it wouldn’t have been a struggle to get to do what I wanted to do. 
Wait? Did I say what I wanted to do? I meant what the boys wanted to do, naturally. 

2. When 2 out of 4 in your group are sleepers, plan accordingly. I think I may have mentioned that sleeping is my super power. Any where. Any time. Any place. When we took our seats on the plane going to Germany, we sat according to how we always sit when we go out to eat.  The hubs was with the younger kid. I sat with the older kid.  The older kid inherited my sleeping super power. Couple my years of experience of sleeping while traveling in planes, trains and automobiles with my natural engineering skills (pillow stacking), the older kid and I slept for hours. Things on the other side of the aisle didn’t go so well. I wasted my pillow skills on the kid that would have slept leaning against the airplane engine. As a result, the younger kid didn’t concede to exhaustion until we were on the train to Munich. By the time we got off the train, he was so far into a deep sleep that I had to hold his hand to keep him from walking in the opposite direction from us.  Next time, when getting sleep is important (getting it at the right time), I need to save my skills for those that need it the most. 

3. When it comes to food, go with your gut.  While in Riga, we rented an apartment with a kitchen.  It was my intention to buy food from the store for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast worked out beautifully.  All that were hungry ate while I took my sweet time getting beautified for a day of pictures we’ll never delete.  I highly recommend getting provisions for breakfast. Plus, think of the experience of shopping in a foreign grocery store! Lunch would have gone smoothly too, if only…  The hubs is the one who always cooks the meals at home. So, when we go on vacation, he wants no part of food preparation. Who can blame him?  I relented and it was agreed that we would eat our lunches out at the restaurants. I should have stayed my ground on that one.    Even when someone can read the menu, it doesn’t translate easily, or it’s in a pricy part of town (tourist traps), or it just isn’t the same as back home (carbonated apple juice?!?), or there isn’t enough options on the menu for two adults and two teenagers, or the one restaurant you know is good is a long walk away.  Eating out twice a day was actually pretty stressful. I still think that a loaf of rye bread (maize) with salami and swiss cheese (siers) would have been a much wiser decision and, possibly, it would have been nicer to just sit in the park  looking at the Freedom Monument.

4. While I may have been wrong in what I let the hubs pack, I was correct in saying, “no, we do not want that gigantic suitcase”.  The hubs argued it would be no problem since we would check at the airport. In the end, we had to take the big suitcase for all fancy clothes we needed for the wedding and his cousin’s lawn mower blades. Yup, we packed lawn mower blades. Even better that two were the wrong blades so we had to take them back home with us!  So, unless you need to take lawnmower blades, pack backpacks because the last thing you want to do is lug a big suitcase around the train station and drag it to the hotel on a 10 minute walk after being up all night on a trans-Atlantic flight, or try to stuff it into a tiny car trunk in Italy.  It’s not even that fun to carry a big suitcase up multiple flights of stairs in a latvian apartment building after a good night’s sleep.  We were so relieved to get rid of the lawnmower blades, for one day.

5. Rent an apartment or stay with family. Hotels in Europe aren’t designed for large American families. The rooms are small and barely fit two twin beds. I was not surprised by this. So, we rented an apartment in Riga. It was the best and much cheaper than two hotel rooms. I could have gotten a very nice apartment for the cost of  2 hotel rooms.  But, I wanted to save money for all that eating out so I went more economical.  Still, the apartment was way beyond its value. We even did laundry (allowing us to pack less) once we figured out the Polish instructions on the washer. I wouldn’t hesitate to rent an apartment again.  

To recap: He gets his way on what to pack. I get my way on eating. Get as much sleep as possible for the group as a whole on the plane.  Pack in easy to carry small luggage. Apartments rule. 

While I’m sure we learned more travel lessons than what I have listed, I’m ready to try to relay my Latvian high lights.  I should have written it months ago when it was fresh. I only hope I can recall it all. 

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