When I don’t travel, life comes to me.

I’ve been home in the midwest since the middle of December and my life has become increasingly international even without me setting toe outside of my own state!

Margots and I have continued to study for the GED. It’s been really enjoyable seeing how he has grown as a person and academically through studying. He is getting ready to read his first real chapter book in English, which is a huge task, but one that he is absolutely ready for.

 

Easter is one of our favorite holidays. I like that it’s fairly low-key but the biggest celebration of all, simply because we are praising Jesus for his resurrection. It’s a holiday entirely about rejoicing over each other’s lives in Christ. This year, my mom and I did the Easter party at Arane’s school. I brought our “therapy bunny” Niffler to visit the classroom, and we did an egg hunt and craft. Niffler was a huge hit!

This year, Justin and I decided to open our home to anyone who didn’t already have Easter plans. About 25 people ended up joining us. It was so much fun! 25 people sounds like a lot, but actually it was really relaxing. Some people came who we had never met before, so we got to make some new friends.

The Friday after Easter, we hosted a biweekly international dinner that is sponsored by Wittenberg Door Campus Ministry. I made a big crockpot of pulled pork along with baked beans, tomato/cucumber salad, and potato salad. We had a great time playing a modified version of Taboo with our international friends.

I realize I’m all confused with my timeline here, but a while back, my aunt and uncle moved here from the west coast. My aunt Dawn is an esthetician and she recently opened a beautiful space in downtown Columbia. She is amazing! I took the girls to go see her new studio and she gave them little makeovers 🙂

As much as I love traveling, staying local is also great. I love putting down roots where ever I am, knowing that life is full of twists and turns even here in the midwest. There is always something to do, someone new to meet, new experiences, new friends. God doesn’t waste time. The midwest has a bad reputation as being just flyover country, but God is on the move. There is no wasted space and there are no wasted people.

Soon I will be going on another overseas adventure. I don’t want to miss out on what will happen here locally, but I also don’t want to miss out on overseas life and relationships. I’m always torn between the two things but seeking contentment right here where I am right now.

God works in the mundane. So now I’m going to clean my guest room in preparation for a house guest who arrives tomorrow! (Hey Amy!)

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Easter Fundraiser

So many of you have realized that when I travel, it’s usually for orphan care or for supporting other caregivers! I really love this part of my life – my heart has been transformed by the at-risk kids and by their caregivers. These kids are the bravest people I know.

Last year, I asked an orphanage director if I could write cards to each child for Easter. She said yes! So, I wrote each one in Latvian, and wrote a personal message in each card. I got to share the meaning of Easter – how Jesus loves them and cares for them. That chance to share the Gospel is priceless.

(Did you know that most orphaned kids don’t get mail? They are super excited to receive mail!)

So this year, we are doing it again, but bigger! This year, our goal is to write 500 cards to orphaned children, and to include an Easter-themed bracelet with each one. Cards will go to Uganda and Latvia.

Will you partner with us in making Easter special for these wonderful kids?

You can donate via PayPal to pakasjumsshop@gmail.com. Questions? Leave them in the comments! ❤

Any proceeds from this fundraiser go towards the spring Latvia trip, where we will continue the student visa process for Margots and do orphan care stuff 🙂

Texas, for the first time, amazingly.

So I realize that objectively, Texas is NBD, at least compared to Latvia. 🙂 However! I’d never been there before! I specifically went for my friend Casey’s birthday – as a surprise – her husband Peter worked it out with me and another friend, Kate. Casey figured out that Kate was coming due to her son’s inability to keep every thought from showing on his face, even though verbally he didn’t let it slip. But she had no clue I was coming. Surprise!

Casey and Peter got guardianship of a 17 year old former (yay!) foster kiddo. Kate and her husband Justin are fostering to adopt a little guy with a lot of diagnoses and challenges. We had a lot of fun together and it all felt very natural.

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My childhood best friend Hilary and her husband Steven live in Dallas, as well, so I went down a night early and got to spend time with them for the first time in three years. It was such a blessing. You know the feeling you get when you know you grew up different, and pretty much nobody fully gets it unless they also lived it? That’s Hilary. I’ve known her since she was 3 and I was 5. It’s been a wild ride.

Have you ever felt like everywhere is too fancy for you? People giggle when I say that, but it’s true. When you grew up in Huntington, the rest of America does feel like an overly fancy culture shock.

I also got to spend time with my friend Carrie, who I’d never actually met in person but knew through New Horizons (our hosting organization). She is in the process of an adoption and actually met Margots like a year ago, so I was really late to the party. Carrie is an absolutely lovely lady.

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Objectively, not the greatest picture of all time, but we love it just the same.

Here’s the thing. Every single person I’ve mentioned has done amazing things. Every one of them has looked outside themselves, seen suffering, and thought, “I can do something about that.” Every single one has also overcome some significant obstacles to get to that point.

A lot of people look at at-risk kids (foster kids, orphans, or just people with economic or social challenges) and think, there’s no way. They have so far to go. They won’t ever be able to give back to the world.

I’m here to say, that is absolutely, 100000% false. You know why people don’t give back? Because nobody gave to them first! We cannot give while expecting to receive anything in return. This isn’t charity, but nor is it a business deal. We give love because it’s free. We didn’t have to give up anything to love. In fact, we have gained so much more by choosing to love.

You don’t have to do anything crazy to help someone out. I don’t have anything material to give. All I have is a listening ear and a heart to show that I hear you, I see you, you matter. So I give dignity and respect.

I was in Texas, guys. Texas. Cool place, but not somewhere you would think of as being an area with a huge need for care. But all of these friends are doing huge things there, all in their own ways, making an enormous difference in the lives of the people around them.

So do something. Where ever you are, do something with all the love in your heart.

That is all.

P.S., Texas BBQ is really really good.

Latvia Christmas 2017! Part 2

Check out Part 1 here!

Day 6 – Christmas Party

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Since I’ve spent so much time in Latvia, I’ve made friends! My first trip was in April 2017 and I definitely started to get lonely. I didn’t realize until then how much I like my friends. Does that sound strange? Well, I knew I loved them, obviously, but I didn’t realize exactly how many texts, calls, and messages I got each day…until I was 8 hours ahead of my friends. I would wake up to like a hundred messages each morning, which my friends sent before they went to bed. And then it was silent during my day, because they were asleep! I would start getting messages again around 4pm Latvia time. But the mornings were definitely lonely because Margots is a teenager and enjoys sleeping in. 🙂

Anyway. The point is, since I’ve been there 4 times now, I’ve made some friends! Because this trip was busier than most for me, I decided to throw a party on Sunday so I could see everyone. A lot of host kids, orphanage workers, and some American friends were able to come and see us. I got to meet some new people and hug some people I already knew.

No pictures of this part due to Orphan Court regulations, sorry!

We provided a baked potato bar with taco style toppings (because why not do something American?) and a lot of my friends brought food, too. I got to try Latvian grey peas and bacon, which sounds weird but is actually delicious.

A lot of American host parents had sent gifts for their children. One host boy came by with his mentor. This boy was so nervous! God love him, he forgot how to speak English because he was so nervous. He just wanted to pick up his package and leave. After I talked to him for a few minutes and tried to make him feel comfortable, he decided to stay as long as he could. He wanted to talk and started sharing personal things with me. They ended up not being able to stay for too long, but I will never forget him and pray for him often.

There were many great moments and great people there. Shalonda did an amazing job coming up with games to play, and everyone joined in and had a great time. It was so loud in our apartment! She quickly learned how to relate to even the tiny kiddos who didn’t speak any English. Physical comedy is universal, apparently.

Latvian friends, you are a blessing. Love to all!

Day 7 – Apartment Hunting

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Today I woke Margots up “early” (like 10am) and said, get dressed, we are going to a coffee shop. Bring your laptop. Everyone else has to stay here or go somewhere else. He said, okay.

Today’s job: get Margots into some type of stable living situation. We took a taxi to Miit coffee. I think it was a new experience for him, or at least not something he does commonly. We got some coffee and settled in to call various apartments to see if they were available. This was Margots’ first time apartment hunting, also, and he did a great job keeping calm on the phone and asked really great questions.

Eventually, we found a place. The landlord said we could come there at 5 and check it out. So we had a few hours! We took Margots to get a haircut (yep… every time).

Funny thing – Margots’ English is so good and his accent is minimal enough that he sounds native if you aren’t a native English speaker yourself. So we were just sitting in the barber shop waiting room, looking at some tattoo coffee table books, and everyone in the shop spoke English to him, even the lady who cut his hair. Eventually she asked him where he’s from, and he laughed and said, “I’m Latvian!” 🙂

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After the barber, we went home and got a whole bunch of packages together to mail for American host families. We said hey to our family, ate some cake, and went back out to Origo. We did a little shopping, mailed some packages, and then got on (a very full) train to Jurmala to go see the apartment. This was a first for me… Latvian train. Pretty much like an American train. 🙂

We got to Jurmala and found the apartment building. The landlord came to let us in. He heard Margots and me speaking English and said, “Oh, you speak English? Me too!” I said, “Yeah, I speak English, I’m from America.” He said, “North or South America?” Margots laughed and I said, “The America. USA.” The landlord found this very impressive, but also felt I might be easy to take advantage of. It didn’t turn out that way, unfortunately for this enterprising gentleman.

We looked around the apartment, which is basic but also pretty clean (aside from a ridiculously nasty bathroom rug) and partially furnished. So we decided to take it. We paid the landlord a little bit, and he said to bring 90 euros tomorrow to finish paying the first month’s rent. We agreed upon a time to come back and said we would bring the money then.

So, the rest of our family just hung out at our Riga apartment all day. Margots’ girlfriend Linda had stayed the night after the party, and so she was there along with Arturs, Shalonda, and Verity. Verity was evidently a little stinker but it all worked out. Linda is amazing with her!

We had decided to meet up at “Big Lido” (the one on Krasta iela, for those of you who care) after our apartment hunting was complete. So Shalonda, being the epic lady she is, loaded up everyone into a taxi and made it there. Verity fell asleep in Linda’s arms, which was very sweet. ❤

Everyone was starving. Lido is a great restaurant serving Latvian food, buffet-style. You just take your tray around and get whatever looks good. I got Verity a big plate of fries (knowing she would eat that) and shared some chicken with her from my plate. Shalonda tried this super amazing fish with sauce and a tomato on top. We tried keifer drinks, which some of us liked and some of us didn’t.

After that, we took everyone ice skating! One of my rules is, I don’t skate. 🙂 I sat inside with all the shoes and bags and stuff. Shalonda skated for a few minutes and then joined me, leaving Verity with the three teens. Maybe that sounds crazy, but Verity has never been safer in her life than she is with those guys. She held two hands at all times. The teens took turns between helping her and skating. Linda even took a bunch of pics for me! Thanks Linda!

Leaving Lido was a little interesting. All of our phones were dying. Arturs’ phone was dead, my phone was at 5%, and Margots didn’t even have his phone with him. Linda took a bus back to her dorms, which was literally the only smooth part of this operation. There are so many of us that we have to take two cabs everywhere. I called one through Taxify, and we couldn’t find it anywhere. I mean, anywhere.

Taxify is awesome. It gives you a picture of your driver, the make and model of the car, and the license plate number. So it’s not that hard to find your taxi, usually. But this time, we couldn’t find it anywhere! Margots went up and down the row of cabs trying to find it, and eventually he did. Shew. We had Shalonda, Arturs, and Verity take that one, reason being that if anyone was going to get stuck somewhere with no phone or knowledge of how to get home, I didn’t want it to be them.

Just a little word here. Shalonda had never been out of the country before. Arturs is Latvian, but he doesn’t live in Riga and doesn’t really know how to get around (imagine if you grew up in the country, and someone dropped you in NYC – same deal). Verity is three. 🙂

So, if anyone was going to get stuck, it was going to be me and Margots. If worse came to worst, we would just walk like a million miles home. No biggie. We could do it if we had to.

Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. We had just enough battery to request another Taxify taxi and find it. Shew! We made it home! Everyone crashed immediately. Netflix. Always back to Netflix. We sure get our $10/month worth out of that service.

Day 8 – Moving Day

Today is our LAST DAY in Latvia, something Margots didn’t realize until the end of the day, somehow. 😦

In the morning, I woke everyone up at the buttcrack of dawn, as they say, to get out the door at 8:30am to catch a 9:20 train from Origo to Jurmala. Well, unsurprisingly, we missed our train. Also, I handed Margots my phone before hopping in a taxi with Arturs and Verity, and they pretended it was lost. They take every possible opportunity to tease me and I honestly can’t fault them for it.

So we got to Jurmala and the landlord tried to get extra money from me and sell us a TV. He was not happy when I stuck to our initial agreement, but so far so good, it all worked out.

We finished with the landlord and then went to a nearby store to buy some cleaning supplies, dishes, sheets, laundry detergent, toilet paper, stuff like that. Then we went back to the apartment and Shalonda did an amazing live video that just makes me so happy. You can see it here: Watch the live video here! It’s a bit of a slow start but I think it really gets everyone’s personalities.

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After getting as much as possible done in the apartment, we went back to the train station, but we are slow so we missed the train and had to wait another 30 minutes.

But guys, the boys and Shalonda went ahead of me and Verity on the walk to the train station and she said, “Oh, I need run up there, there goes my family!”

Guys. None of those people are related to her by blood. Only by love.

That is exactly why we come on these trips… for love.

When we got to Riga, we stopped for dinner in a different Lido, the one in Origo, and then got to see another friend, Mareks. We did a little shopping and then he decided he would like to come to the Christmas Market with us, which was a blast! It was so fun getting to know him better. I can tell he has a heart of gold.

We also ran into my friend Donna at the Christmas Market, thereby affirming my ability to run into people I know in multiple countries. 🙂

The Christmas Market itself was amazing! It was super cold, but really fun to look in all the booths and see the handmade items for sale – elaborate candles, carvings, ornaments, and toys, along with honey and other food items. Everyone was friendly. A nice lady at a store even heard Verity say “Mommy, I want an apple!” and just gave her one for free.

And when we got back to our Riga apartment, everyone helped pack (except Verity, lol) and an American friend came over to give the boys some groceries – they were leaving from an adoption trip in the morning. I took a nap that night but really just spent time cleaning and packing before we left for the airport at 4-something-am.

Day 9 – Departure

I’m not going to say a whole lot about this part, because it’s hard! Maybe I’ll do a post on “leaving” at a later date, but for now, suffice it to say that not everyone cried, but almost. 😦 We got to the airport on time and basically just survived the trip home.

Verity got candy almost immediately 😉 and juice. She looked so cute! But goodness was she ever in a filthy mood. Well, none of us were happy.

We had a long layover in France again and bought some sandwiches and fruit to get us through it. They did extra security checks and Shalonda got stopped and searched thoroughly. They finally let us on the plane, and when we landed in Cincinnati, Verity was out cold and did not appreciate being woken up. Therefore, she sobbed through customs and 2 security points. We eventually got to our next gate and Shalonda did an amazing thing and brought us all dinner. ❤ Verity had been hoping for Chick-fil-a, and she got it.

Meanwhile, I had catnapped on the plane, but really I’d been awake for upwards of 48 hours by this point. Just one more flight to go. We boarded and Verity sat next to Shalonda, with me on Verity’s other side, separated by the aisle. We did this so Shalonda could have the window seat. She got some really nasty looks from some people who didn’t realize we were together.

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Part of my unorthodox family. ❤ Love you guys!

Can I just say a brief word on racism?

Shalonda got stopped roughly 5 times by security. She got ugly looks from people when she was helping Verity with stuff. I never got that. I got special treatment because clearly I am a white mom with traveling experience and a young child. When people realized we were together, they would lay off her…but she shouldn’t need that to happen. She shouldn’t need the implicit “protection” of traveling with a white friend. She shouldn’t be viewed as a danger simply due to her appearance, which btw is completely nonthreatening. She’s one of the most cheerful, outgoing, sacrificial people I’ve ever met.

Back to the story… Justin was waiting for us when we landed in St. Louis! It was so nice to see him! He hasn’t featured much in this story, but really, if you’re looking for the ultimate supportive husband, that’s Justin. He got us from the airport, loaded us all into the van, and drove us home. ❤ Good guy. He’s a good one for sure.

And that’s a wrap for this trip!

Latvia Christmas Trip 2017, Part 1

***Reposted from my hosting/at-risk kiddo blog: Where We Begin. I took a trip with my 3 year old daughter and my dear friend just before Christmas. We visited my two Latvian boys and many other friends.

Shew, you guys – now that I’m back in America and the holidays are over, I have a tiny reprieve before normal life resumes. Haha. Whatever that means, right? But anyway, I wanted to get some stuff down before I totally forget how cool this trip was!

This year, Margots couldn’t come to America for Christmas, due to his ongoing American visa application. No biggie, I said to myself. I will just go there and bring Verity (age 3). Oh, and Shalonda, a dear friend of mine who had never been out of the country before but loves at risk kiddos.

So off we went! This trip lasted from December 12-20, and I will do my best to remember what we did each day? Good luck to me, I say to myself.

Day 1 – December 12 – The American Airports

We left from the St. Louis airport around 5:45 pm CST. This was Verity’s very first time flying, and Shalonda’s first time out of the country. Verity had an amazing time. She was so excited when the airplane took off, she put her arms in the air and screamed, “We’re flying!!!” The whole plane was laughing at her commentary during the flight. Adorable!

Verity also learned that the airplane can drive – she wasn’t previously aware of this. Also, she was very interested to learn about the wings of the airplane. We had some headphones and a tablet for her to use, but she really didn’t want to do that. She didn’t enjoy the feel of the headphones on her ears, and mostly she wanted to look out the window, anyway.

We landed in Atlanta and Verity said, “So, where’s my Margots? I thought he would be at the airport?” ❤ Little sweetie! She didn’t realize we had 2 more flights, even though I tried to explain it: “Little flight, big flight, little flight.”

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When we found our next gate, Verity settled in for a catnap on me (so sweet!) and Shalonda worked on editing photos from our photo shoot fundraiser that we had done like 2 days previously. That’s Shalonda – you will probably get a sense of her from this journaling – but let me say that she’s a hard worker and tries to juggle a ton of responsibilities simultaneously.

The next flight was our really long one – 8+ hours from takeoff to landing. But when we landed, we were in Paris!

Day 2 – December 13 – The European Airports

I gave Verity some benadryl on the long flight to help her adjust to Latvian time. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Her sleep schedule was crazy the entire time, but at least I tried, right? She slept pretty well on the plane – in her seat and on my lap – and she found it amazing that they gave her cereal to eat when she woke up!

Shalonda didn’t sleep almost at all, and I catnapped, as is normal for me on these flights. I’ve learned that as soon as I get on a plane, I’m ready to get off. I’m just miserable the entire time. I don’t get sick or anything, I just don’t find it any enjoyable experience.

We landed in Paris and raided my backpack for snacks. We found our next gate and there was literally nobody else there, so we got a whole corner just to ourselves, spread out, and spent the next 5 hours waiting. Verity played with some toys and watched My Little Pony. Shalonda was amazing about doing live videos on Facebook of our journey, and for one of these, Margots joined in. It’s always such a treat to see his face.

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The last leg of our journey was to Riga, and by that point, I always feel sick from a lack of food, sleep, and water. I never take care of myself on these trips, but slowly I’m maybe learning?! Verity and Shalonda slept on the plane, and when we got off, Shalonda got all the luggage herself because she knew I didn’t feel good. I know. She’s a rockstar.

We came out into the main room of the Riga airport and Margots found us! We got a ton of hugs! Verity is always mad at him when she first sees him (girl knows how to hold a grudge; she just doesn’t appreciate that he has to live far away sometimes) but she warmed up slowly. Margots called us a big taxi that could fit all of the luggage, and he even made sure it had a carseat for Verity, too. He did an amazing job with this.

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Getting out of the Riga airport should be simple, but it always takes an eternity, no matter how prepared and efficient you think you are. Eventually we left. 🙂 And we made it to our apartment for the week, which belongs to New Hope Latvia.

I got to hug my friend Amanda, who lives across the courtyard and is starting transitional care services for Latvian kids who have aged out of orphanages and foster homes. She also bought us a few groceries, which was such a huge blessing, considering that St. Louis security took most of my food away and shops in Riga closed before we arrived. We all immediately took off our shoes, sighed in relief, and ate basically all the food Amanda had brought for us (which was quite a bit).

Eventually Verity got down from her chair and asked where her jammies were. This turned out to be pretty much her MO the entire trip. “Okay mommy, I’m going to bed. Where are my jammies? Come brush my teeth.”

Day 3 – December 14 – What Did We Do? Almost Die.

Today, Shalonda got to experience major jetlag for the first time. An 8 hour time difference is no joke, and I dragged myself out of bed at 10am Riga time, which was 2am as far as my body was concerned. Verity got up then, too, being undaunted in a fully 3 year old way. We woke Shalonda up around 11 and she could barely open her eyes! She forced herself out of bed. I can’t remember what Margots was doing, but honestly we probably woke him up too.

I gave Verity a bath (her request) and Shalonda and Margots ran to Rimi for me with a grocery list. This was Shalonda’s first time really going out into a foreign country, and she did awesome! She asked Margots approximately 2304982342 questions about what signage meant, what this shop is, how do you know X, etc., and he answered them all. She asked him later, “How did it feel being asked so many questions?” He said, “It’s not the first time. She did it too.” (She meaning, me! He’s right, I ask all the questions and he’s so patient in answering them.)

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We basically just hung out that day, talked a lot, watched TV, cooked some food, and generally spent a lot of time reconnecting. Someone donated a computer for Margots so that he can study more effectively, so I gave that to him and his jaw basically hit the floor, he felt so blessed by this.

Looking back, I think this must be the day we also went to Origo to do a little shopping, and ran into Margots’ stepmom! I had previously agreed to purchase a few little Christmas handicrafts she had made, and so we got that done. It was a privilege to meet her. Just wish I hadn’t been so jetlagged and Verity hadn’t been in the middle of a meltdown!

At one point, Margots and I went into the kitchen to discuss some things without Verity constantly interrupting us every six seconds. Turns out, the gas stove was pouring gas into the room the whole time, and Shalonda saved us from death. 🙂 Actually we felt totally fine, but gas is never good.

Day 4 – December 15 – Arturs Arrives

Verity slept for an eternity. To the point that I woke her up around 1pm Riga time. Meanwhile, Margots needed to go to Tukums to pick up a replacement passport, and now I’m remembering that Margots’ friend spent the night last night and went with them? Jetlag is legit, you guys. So anyway. Margots, his friend, and Shalonda went to Tukums to finish this errand. While they were there, they ran into some orphanage workers and the orphanage director too!

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This picture is from later, but evidently I didn’t take any on this day.

Upon arrival back in Riga, Margots and Shalonda went shopping for Christmas gifts and supplies and also got Arturs from the train station. He had school until this day, so couldn’t come to us earlier.

Meanwhile, I was getting more and more antsy, because I was all cooped up with Verity and jetlagged and missing all the fun and wanted to see Arturs! Eventually everyone came home, but before that, Amanda came over and brought the little guy she babysits. He’s like 10 months old and thought Verity was amazing. It improved her mood, too, getting to see another little person. 🙂 And I’m always excited to see Amanda.

Everyone came home and we again cooked a huge amount of food – very thankful for the big family sized cooking equipment in this apartment. Verity eventually asked to go to bed, and Shalonda went not long after. Tomorrow was our Christmas celebration!

Then the boys decided they wanted to go out and enjoy a little Latvian night life, which is a big thing for Eastern Europe, I’ve noticed. So they went and texted me periodically and I tried to get a little sleep.

Please note, this “I try to sleep” theme is a constant on this trip. I think I slept maybe 4 hours a night, maybe, and usually less. On the return trip, I stayed awake for 46 hours minus like 2 30 minute naps.

Day 5 – December 16 – “Christmas”

The boys came through the door at 7:40am, thereby solidifying their energetically youthful dispositions. They slept for a couple hours, then Verity woke up and insisted they get up as well. We had discussed this the night before, and the general idea is, “What sissy wants, sissy gets,” at least in the scheduling department. So up they got with seriously basically no complaining. Arturs had a hard time getting his eyes open, but eventually he did. Margots is notoriously difficult to get out of bed but when Verity said, “So can we go open presents now?” he got up. Guess he loves her or something. Meanwhile, a certain person spilled an entire mug of coffee and milk into his mattress. Thankfully, it cleaned up okay.

Anyway, we had a super awesome Christmas. Everyone loved their gifts. Verity, in typical Verity fashion, didn’t want to open anything except for her first one. Eventually she got them all done. 🙂

We then turned on loud music and cleaned up the kitchen, which was truly a disaster. Everyone helped! Except Verity, who went to play with her gifts and watch My Little Pony.

Then we just settled in, ate yummy food, and watched Christmas movies all day!

This is literally the only picture I got. Shalonda took a bunch more, but I don’t have those!

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Margots came down with some type of little virus with a fever and chills, so he wasn’t feeling so good after we finished opening gifts. He got a lot of rest and Verity even wanted to snuggle, aww, so cute. Arturs napped on the couch for a few hours. Shalonda and I just watched movies and hung out! It was a super relaxing Christmas.

Up next – the remainder of the trip, including a Christmas party and apartment hunting in Latvia.

Kuldiga, aka, The Town with the Venta Rapid, Wonderful Doors, and Many Cats

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Now, y’all, I did not choose a beautiful time to visit Latvia – late March to early April. Latvia is somewhat temperate, but winter is really long. On the last few days of my visit, I saw a few patches of grass turning green, some crocuses were starting to poke their heads out from the ground, and some ever-hopeful Latvians had freshly potted pansies decorating their doorsteps.

Nevertheless, most of the country was brown and damp for the entire visit. So please keep that in mind as you see these pictures, and try to imagine it in colors other than blue and brown! 🙂 Hopefully, we will go back this summer and revisit the area in warm weather.

One night, M went out to run an errand and texted me as he walked – “I thought of a place where we can go. Kuldiga. It’s really cool place. We can maybe go there now?” Since it was dark and cold at the time, I suggested we might go the next day, and he agreed that would work just fine.

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Once again, you’ll have to forgive my extremely blurry photos – be sure you click through to the various links in this post for some clearer pictures. The camera on my Latvian phone leaves so much to be desired, but at least I have something. 🙂

So the next day, we went to Kuldiga, home to Europe’s widest waterfall. Now, in typical Latvian fashion, although it is the widest, it’s almost comically short. It’s maybe a 3 or 4 foot drop from the top of the waterfall to the bottom.

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Photo by M, featuring his hand for some reason 🙂

In typical M fashion 🙂 we went off the beaten path. The thing about M is that he is an excellent tour guide, especially if you want to see the real Latvia, the place he has lived in and loved his whole life. He rides the bus and walks everywhere, just to see what he can find next. As I mentioned before, his sense of direction is ridiculously good and we didn’t get lost even one time. So when we went to Kuldiga, he just directed me down a path that I seriously didn’t even believe people could drive down (but they did – I saw more cars at the end), and parked us close to the waterfall.

This means that we didn’t ever do any of the touristy stuff. We just came, explored the waterfall, and then walked around the old part of town. There used to be a castle there, but it has long since been destroyed. Even so, parts of the castle were used to build the town, which leads me to how cool the doors are! I didn’t take any pictures of the doors, mainly because people actually live in these buildings and that’s a little creepy, don’t you think?

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Shielding his phone from that bright sunlight…

Anyway, Justin called while we were there – since Latvia is 8 hours ahead of America, it was midafternoon for us and Justin was on his way to work – a rare opportunity for us to talk. The phone connection was even pretty good that day. While we talked, M and I wandered around the town. It seemed like every house had an amazing door and a fluffy cat on the doorstep, too. 🙂 I have never seen so many cats in one town before. There are beautiful waterways with ducks, gorgeous churches, and old stone houses. I just took it all in while I talked to Justin for a while. When we finished talking, M said, “Which way do we need to go to go find car?” Of course, I had no idea, but he did. It was a test, and I failed. 🙂

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There are a few downsides to M’s method of exploring the country, too. He never reads the signs for things – he just knows what they are because people tell him. Therefore, since I knew nothing, we ended up reading any signage available (I got the English side, M got the Latvian side) and M kept saying things like, “I didn’t know that before.” On the other hand, he knows so many things that aren’t on the signs at all.

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It turns out that the waterfall itself moves slightly over time because of the type of stone it is. (Don’t ask me to remember what kind specifically!) Additionally, one of the kings (?) used slave labor to build an extra channel that was supposed to circumvent the waterfall for shipping purposes. This ended up not happening (because of a war?) and the channel was never completed, but you can still see it, and it looks very man-made.

Apparently people also like to swim in the river during the warm months. I was surprised by this – people don’t swim in rivers where I come from, as they are viewed as dirty and dangerous places. But I guess this river is calmer and shallower than what I’m used to in America.

In Summary:

Time Spent: 3 hours
Best Features: We really enjoyed the waterfall itself and looking for the castle ruins (tip – there is almost nothing left!).
Tips:

  • Try counting the number of cats, and bring some bread for the tame ducks, if you see them!
  • Be prepared to walk a lot, as always.
  • Latvia is much less into “safety” than America is, so there aren’t really guard rails or anything like that. They just expect that any reasonable person would be careful on the slippery rocks and stay dry, and if you get wet, that’s your own fault. 🙂
  • Spend a few hours just wandering around and enjoying the quiet atmosphere. This is my favorite part about Latvia: it’s peaceful!
  • There are a few shops with what M called “handcrafts,” which turned out to be baskets and knitted items (mainly socks and mittens). Very reasonably priced and beautiful work. I can’t tell you where that is because I had no idea where we were at any point in time.

Simplicity in cooking.

Here’s the thing…

Pinterest…

Do we really need recipes for stuff like fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, fruit salad, soups?

Fried potatoes. IT’S IN THE NAME, people.

Scrambled eggs. Same. You don’t even need to do the traditional stovetop method. The oven works too. A hot pan on a grill works.

Fruit salad. To pull a Ron Swanson…cut fruit, mix, eat. Fruit salad.

Soup – simmer or boil food in liquid. More liquid, it’s soup. Less, stew. Almost none, “braised.”

But wait, you say hypothetically. What about different flavor combinations, different spices? How will we learn?

Try every food you can get your hands on – at a friend’s, at potlucks, at restaurants, at the grocery store. Buy spices and try them just to see what they are like. Don’t like it? Then give it away.

To give Pinterest and recipes their due, I have gotten ideas for food combinations from the internet and cookbooks. I do follow some recipes and use certain techniques as needed.

When you actually know how to cook, you won’t be paralyzed when faced with just a few ingredients and a hungry family. It’s okay if you don’t have everything your recipe says that you need. You can improvise! You can even use all different ingredients but similar spices to the original dish, and you will come out the other side with something pretty cool.

What about when you are, for example, overseas with your teenager for whom home-cooked meals speak love, and you have 2 burners and a frying pan? Can you cook spaghetti? Why yes, yes you can, because you can think creatively and not be bound to a specific recipe all the time.

(Pictured – NOT a home-cooked meal in Latvia – but a stack of home made sandwiches and a banana, aka, half of breakfast for M. Meanwhile, I still don’t know what animal that meat originated from and am a little afraid to ask.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is…it’s worth learning how to cook, REALLY cook, so that cooking doesn’t stress you out! Ditch the complicated recipes and just make what tastes really good to you. Be okay with that.

Do we need fancy food? Definitely not. Do we need nourishing, comforting food that bonds us to one another, allows us to serve one another, and helps us feel safe in our communities? Absolutely.

The Baltic Sea

When I visited Latvia in March/April of this year, I got to fulfill a life-long dream. I got to visit the Baltic Sea!

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Can you tell that all of the sideways pictures were taken by M? #teenagers

One morning, M and I decided to go to Liepaja and Karosta.

This is what I originally posted on Facebook about this portion of the trip:

Latvia day 6 – Liepāja and Karosta

Today was a big day – I touched the Baltic Sea! And it wasn’t that cold 🙂 We walked quite a ways on the beach. Does anybody know what these structures in the water are? There are no shells on this beach, but many beautiful smooth rocks.

I’m left with so many questions since we didn’t visit the touristy part of the Baltic Sea 🙂

We walked about 10 miles today, including through Karosta, which is a mostly deserted military town. It was so quiet and peaceful with huge deserted buildings.

We also saw the outside of St. Nichols’s Orthodox Cathedral, but didn’t go inside this time. 🙂

Then, dinner at Cili Pica and a little shopping in a big Rimi, where I found Mom her souvenir.

Truthfully, that didn’t really remind me what actually happened that day! But looking at the pictures did jog my memory – so here is the real story.

 When we got up in the morning, M woke up on the wrong side of the bed. The thing is, even when he’s not feeling his best, he’s very sweet and can have a good time. So the weather forecast and I decided this should be beach day. Everyone loves the beach, right? Plus, after having spent a not insubstantial amount of time together, I knew he really likes exercise and thrives when he is active. After a few days of little walking, this seemed perfect.

We drove 2 hours to Karosta, which used to be Soviet barracks but is now mostly abandoned. It truly felt like a ghost town. M and I walked around 12 miles that day, most of it in Karosta. It’s an eerie place. I would stop every now and then to marvel at how quiet everything was even with these huge apartment buildings. There were a few little corner shops but basically no foot traffic and not many cars, either.

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St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral

We passed St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral twice, but didn’t go in. It was very beautiful, an enormous church. I learned later that it reopened soon after Soviet occupation was over. Surrounding the cathedral were raised gardens that were probably gorgeous in summer, but at the time were just dirt and sticks.

M has an excellent natural sense of direction and is great with maps. At one point, he looked at Google maps, decided on a beach he had never been to before, and got us there without ever looking at the map again. I ask you. How is that possible?

“I can smell the sea,” he said. Okay then.

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The Baltic Sea — a blurry picture taken with my terrible Latvian phone 🙂

I read somewhere that the Baltic Sea has about 1/5 the salinity of an ocean. And it really didn’t have that briney, fishy smell that is so characteristic of the American beaches I’ve been to.

Anyway, M got us there. Then I got stuck in a Latvian porta potty which was obviously a great experience as well.

The beach at Liepaja has a bunch of smooth sea stones and sea glaas, but I didn’t see a single shell! I brought home a pocket full of rocks, including a large white stone that M gave me on the walk back to the car.

We walked along the beach, very slowly, climbed a few sand dunes, touched the water, collected stones and feathers. As we crested a sand dune, we saw big, dilapidated concrete structures in the water and right on the shoreline.

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Photo taken by M. Yep, there’s an airport nearby too.

The section of beach M had chosen had zero signage, something also characteristic of Latvia. In this case, neither of us knew what these concrete buildings were. It turns out they are the Liepaja Northern Forts. Some had stairs, hallways, and multiple rooms, but they were also more or less uniform, except where the sea had worn them away. Some were literally falling into the sea.

Naturally, M viewed these enormous, slippery, crumbling pieces of architecture as a challenge, so he climbed them. He got some pretty great pictures, many of which are featured in this post. 🙂 Meanwhile, I realized that I had no idea how to call an ambulance in Latvia should the situation arise.

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After a while, we took a different path back to Karosta, cutting through some woods in Liepaja (there was a dirt road) and saw some of the most beautifully rustic houses and yards. Wooden houses, wooden fences, beautiful gardens, cats. Absolutely lovely.

We also passed some huge, blank foundations; some trees had grown in the cracks and were pretty big, so who knows how long that property had been abandoned. That’s another thing about Latvia – a lot of things “pardod,” for sale. Or just left to rot.

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When we finally made it back to our car, all the way back in front of Karosta prison (where I’d love to go next time!), M finally said it felt good to sit down. 🙂 And we were hungry. So we found a Cili Pica, which is a chain that sells pizza and wraps. We ordered 2 medium pizzas and M inhaled basically 75% of everything – he is, after all, a teen boy.

The Cili Pica was in a huge Rimi (kind of like Latvian Wal-Mart, except I called this one huge and it was smaller than your average Wal-Mart that doesn’t even sell groceries). It was a lot of fun to look around at what was available and to try to guess what was in various packages. Actually, the grocery store was a highlight of each day for me because I had such a great time looking at the different foods.

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After dinner, we drove 2 hours back to Saldus and got there around 9pm, right when the “good films” come on TV. Remember how I said M woke up on the wrong side of the bed a little? Well, I asked him at one point if he had a good say, if he enjoyed the beach, and he lit up and said YES! This is something I still sometimes have to adjust to – he can be having a really great time and I’d never be able to tell by his expressions. 🙂

Next time – Kuldiga and Europe’s Widest Waterfall!

When 4 Feels Wrong

This morning, I packed our towels and swim suits in a bag to take to the lake.

Justin’s stuff

My stuff

Arane’s stuff

Verity’s stuff

…and then I counted twice, because I could have sworn I was forgetting someone?

Then it hit me. The last time we went to the lake, there were 5 of us. M was here. It was early August of last year. The lake is one of his favorite places in America (second to, perhaps, his bed…).

But today there are 4 of us, not 5. Hopefully, M will be here in a little more than a month. One of his first requests is some lake time.

Please join us in praying for M – for his life, his future, his security and stability.  Pray that his student visa is approved so that he is allowed to come back to America!

Coffee and Latvia

So, before I went to Latvia, someone sent me to a blog that I no longer remember the name of. In this blog, the writer described the gross coffee they were offered in Latvia – black, grainy, barely drinkable.

Fair enough, I said to myself. I will buy good quality instant latte coffee mix (aka, sugary caffeine powder) and therefore have a backup plan. You never know.

My awesome, sweet, kind, long suffering friend Lori came to help me pack right before I left. She, also a mom of young children, applauded my paranoid foresight. Because, priorities!

I brought 110 pounds of gifts for orphaned kids and donations for an orphanage. I brought 3 outfits and 1 pair of shoes…and my backup coffee. Again, priorities.

By way of background, you should know that although I am a 6 cup a day coffee drinker, I am by no means a coffee snob. I’m happy with good ol’ Great Value medium roast in my slow drip coffee pot. Or gas station coffee. Or, honestly, fancy coffee, but only for free, because goooood night.

I seriously cannot function without my caffeine. Hence, necessary back up plan!

So it turns out that the coffee in Latvia is fancy and amazing. I found your basic black American coffee at Lido (a chain of “traditional Latvian food,” more on that later) and added milk and it tasted just like home.

But otherwise, it was fancy and yummy. M always ordered everything for me, because like I said, he took amazing care of all the details. I guess a lot of it was espresso because I had a bunch of energy on this trip, although that might have been due to sleeping in every day for the first time in 5 years.

Nevertheless, I ended up doing the instant a lot because teenagers, no matter how mature and amazing, do not typically enjoy getting out of bed on a mom’s schedule. I used up all my American deliciousness (seriously, it wasn’t half bad) and then went to Rimi, which is kind of like Latvian Wal-Mart but small. Rimi had a big selection of instant coffee with dried milk and sugar in each packet and it was not good, but we drank it every morning anyway, which says a lot about us, honestly.

I can honestly recommend planning a coffee and pastry stop into every single day during a trip to Latvia. You won’t be disappointed!