When I was little, back in the 60's, we would have an International Day at our school. We would each bring in something from our background - food, clothing, a knick knack - and we'd tell the class where our ancestors came from. Since I'm half Estonian and half Finnish, inevitably, the teacher would ask me where Estonia is. "It's a small country, south of Finland, which gained its independence from Russia during World War I, and lost it to the Soviet Union in World War II." I got used to explaining. Actually, I was lucky if the teacher knew where Finland was. We never went too far past that since most people have some idea about Sweden.
The other kids had easier backgrounds: Italian, German, even Swedish went over better. I've always loved stories about immigration: why people decided to come, where they went in the U.S. and why, how their families eventually blended in, etc. How did their families' stories compare to mine?
I'm not going to tell you my family's stories because they're not mine to tell, as fascinating as I've always found them. However, I'll give you an idea of the circumstances. As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet Union annexed Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939. Up to 60,000 Estonians, including most of the government and the military leadership, were deported to Siberia or Kazakhstan. You didn't have to be that high up, however. A college education could condemn you - maybe not at first, but eventually. There's far less risk of rebellion or resistance when one takes out those trained to be leaders and managers. If you lasted through the initial conquest, after a few years you got a new set of rulers as Nazi Germany headed through the Baltic countries on its way to Stalingrad. If you were still around, as Nazi Germany withdrew and the Soviet Union advanced, you knew that your days were numbered.
If you escaped, then it was on to the questions I mentioned earlier: where to go and how to become a part of your new society.
The Finnish side of my family was already in the U.S. a few decades before World War II. However, learning about the Winter War with the Soviet Union, in which Finland had to fight to keep their independence, combined with the Estonian history to give me more of a sense of the Soviet Union's grip on Eastern Europe than most kids my age had. When I was a teenager, I read more on my own, including most of Solzhenitsyn's work and, one of the most hopeless books I've ever read, Graves without Crosses. I avidly followed the news about the interactions of the Soviet Union and the West.
Then, 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. Having read so much, and felt so much, about the division of the Iron Curtain, it was amazing and exhilarating to watch. Estonia won its independence four years later. A number of Estonian-Americans, including some in their 20s and 30s who had grown up listening to the same sorts of stories, went to Estonia to help build the free country.* I had two children by then, but I could picture that I would have been tempted to do the same if I had still been single (and if I knew how to speak Estonian).
The stories about Estonia gradually changed. The small, newly independent (again) country was developing their economy and was becoming more successful. About half the time, now, people I talk to have actually heard about it (although I had to explain it again last week: "They lost their independence in WWII and regained it twenty years ago").
I've never had a chance to go to Estonia. We went to Finland when I was in junior high, but the boats to Estonia were full while we were there. My mother and sister went in the 1990's, but I didn't want to leave my young kids. It made sense at the time, but I now regret that I didn't.
* The first commander of the Estonian armed forces, Alexsandr Einseln, was a retired colonel in the U.S. army who had fled Estonia as a child in 1944.
One of the blogs I check daily is Itching for Eestimaa, the thoughts of an American of Italian background, living in Estonia with his Estonian wife and daughter. I really enjoyed today's post, eestlased, which delves into a Finnish/Estonian tradition which I've tried but never really understood, the sauna:
...And in the gym I found a third remedy for the cold: a sauna.
are magical places. They can cure any ache or pain. Broken arm? Go sit
in the sauna awhile. It'll heal more quickly. I always thought that
saunas were just for fun, a sort of outdoor pub for woodsy drunks. I've
come to learn that, during the winter at least, a long stew in the
sauna is exactly what you need to defrost those frigid digits. You can
cancel out the damage done by the northern climate in a sauna. By
exposing yourself to extreme cold outside, and extreme heat in the
sauna, you may finally arrive at a normal body temperature. Or so the
But what of summer saunas? Now that's interesting.
If winter saunas are therapeutic, then summer saunas are like
Woodstock. There's nothing but nudity, lake swimming, and cool vibes,
man. You sit there covered in sweat and silt, and feel as if you are
truly one with nature, as if you should have moss for eyebrows and
snails hanging from every appendage. In fact, after a co-ed sauna in
the summer, it's kind of hard to justify wearing clothes anymore. I
mean, if you've already seen everybody in their birthday suit, and it's
hot out, then, what exactly is the point of wearing trousers?
July day, I asked our friend Mart why people sauna in the summer. I
told him I understood the rationale behind winter saunas, but wasn't
quite sure what purpose summer saunas served. It was hot already. Why
get purposefully hotter? Could it be just for fun? No. There had to be
some really good Estonian reason like, "It helps us work harder."
Mart's eyes bulged at the question as if to say Does not compute.
In reality, he just repeated my words back to me. "Why do people sauna
in summer?" I remember the puzzled expression on his face as he said
it. He was stunned. I could have asked him why he breathes air or why
he sleeps at night. But he might have actually had reasonable
explanations for those activities. But why sauna in the summer, when
it's hot? What a silly question. Mart shot an odd look at me again,
then took another sip of his beer. He never answered...
Arts and Letters Daily has links to numerous articles on the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you look at it in mid-November, you'll be able to see them. If you're reading this later than that, they will have scrolled off.
It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell. But deep in the
forest here, a red deer called Ahornia still refuses to cross the old
Ahornia inhabits the thickly wooded mountains along what once was
the fortified border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. At the
height of the Cold War, a high electric fence, barbed wire and
machine-gun-carrying guards cut off Eastern Europe from the Western
world. The barriers severed the herds of deer on the two sides as well.
fence is long gone, and the no-man's land where it stood now is part of
Europe's biggest nature preserve. The once-deadly border area is alive
with songbirds nesting in crumbling watchtowers, foxes hiding in weedy
fortifications and animals not seen here for years, such as elk and
But one species is boycotting the reunified animal kingdom: red
deer. Herds of them roam both sides of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact border
here but mysteriously turn around when they approach it. This although
the deer alive today have no memory of the ominous fence... [Hat tip to Chris Blattman]
While taking my walk this morning, I came around the corner started down the hill toward a couple standing at the end of the driveway. The father was holding his son in his arms and saying, "Now you're a big boy in first grade!" Further down the hill, a father and daughter, waiting for the same bus, were playing a game. I went down to the bottom of the long court, and, on my way back up, I saw the bus. Sitting. And sitting. The snapshot in my head, which I can't show you, is of the father leaning towards the door as his daughter leaned over the front seat, exchanging a few more words.
The elementary school bus headed on its way, and I headed on mine. At the end of the walk, high school students, whose bus comes 45 minutes later, started to appear . One teen was dressed in the current styles, low slung jeans and a form fitting t-shirt. Her mother was holding a cup of coffee, and, as I passed, they hugged.
Not every year, but most years, we've done something special on the first day of school - gone to the science museum without crowds, picnicked at Duke Gardens, gone to the Mad Hatter Cafe for a snack. This year, it was just younger son and I. Older son left at 7:40 am for NCSU. Daughter left at the same time for work.
Since last spring, younger son has been looking forward to going to the new Lego store in Raleigh. Legos are one of his passions; he saves his allowance for months. Because of my knee, I haven't been able to drive as far as Raleigh since the beginning of last summer. This month, I finally can again, and that's where we headed this morning.
He smiled all morning and all the way there.
For older son and daughter, although their schooled friends headed off in the fall, their homeschooling friends came back from summer trips and homeschooling activities started up again. We haven't found many homeschooling activities that younger son likes yet and most of his friends are in school. The fall is not a positive thing for him.*
I'm finding that it's more difficult to get involved with homeschooling groups with younger son. The numerous sports or arts programs aren't his sort of thing.** I sign him up for whatever hands on science programs I can find.
I'm also in a different spot than many homeschooling parents of fifth graders. For many of them, their fifth grader is their oldest, and curriculum choices are very critical.
Having been involved with older son's and daughter's high school homeschooling for the last seven years, fifth grade homeschooling seems so free. Yes, we regularly work on writing and math. Beyond that, there are so many things to explore. We're not bound by the rigidity of what is necessary for the college bound high school student. We read about science and history, and we also wander around the yard with the microscope and go to historic sites such as the Revolutionary War encampment in Hillsborough last winter, pictured here (daughter and older son also went - older son took these pictures). Younger son hasn't had much interest in history until this year, but he's been gobbling it up, and I'm amazed at how much detail he remembers.
This difference, however, sometimes leads to awkward conversations with other homeschooling parents of fifth graders, though. They're very concerned to do everything right, and I feel kind of free spirited hippie-ish in comparison. I'm not, really, but, compared to high school, there seems to be so little that needs to be done at this age. It's all a matter of perspective.
Strangely, I haven't been in a blogging mood for a few days. I've gotten lots of other things done, though (grin). Here are some recent finds.
Younger son and I have been studying the Middle Ages. He's particularly interested in castles and their defenses so we spent some time today looking up information on the Krak des Chevaliers, a fortress dating from 1031 which was expanded by the Crusaders from 1150 to 1250. It's built in a concentric form, and the outer wall on the most vulnerable side is 80 feet thick. More on it from How Stuff Works and a YouTube video.
A very long linkfeast for gloomy winter days (which is when I put it together, though this week is nice). I've been gathering links of varying sorts - serious, musical, filmish, snarky, bawdy... Read at your own risk.
6. What is your favorite ring tone on your phone?
The Menahmehna song(from the Muppets or Sesame Street, I can't remember
which one it's from)...my second favorite is the vibrate mode...need I
If I had answered that meme, I would just boringly answer that I don't have a cell phone. And, in The Alphabet Game, she mentions ten things she loves that begin with N (Not safe for work or around small children):
3. Nudity..DUH! Do I really
need to explain WHY I love to be naked? Or why I love for other people
to be naked? I can't speak for others but I like letting it all hang
out although sometimes it's hanging in places I'm not impressed with,
but what can you do? (Remember the depressed boobies?)
...No one knows exactly how many Soviet citizens met unnatural deaths during the
quarter-century that Stalin wielded absolute power, but adding together
those who were sentenced to death and shot, died in manmade famines, or were
worked to death in gulag camps like these, authoritative estimates put the
total at approximately 20 million. Like the other great horror show
unfolding in German-occupied Europe in the same period, the Soviet story was
one of mass deaths on an almost unimaginable scale. But, unlike the Nazis,
the Soviets, in their first two decades in power, were partly sustained by
great idealism on the part of people all over the world who were fervently
hoping for a more just society. The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis is a poignant
reminder of this. For his account of the Stalin years and their aftermath is
seen through an unusual prism: the experience of tens of thousands of
Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Many of them, like
the Russians they lived among, fell victim. Bits and pieces of this story
have been told before, mainly in survivors’ memoirs. But to my knowledge
this is the first comprehensive history, and a sad and fascinating one it
...Though it shares a name with an Elvis Presley song, the "Blue
Christmas" Mass at the St. Thomas More Newman Center in Columbus has
nothing to do with the King. It does, however, have everything to do
with welcoming and offering healing to those who feel blue during the
"It's a Christmas Eve Mass we do that is really for people who have a
hard time with the holidays," said Paulist Fr. Larry Rice, director of
the Newman Center at Ohio State University....
For the most part, "Blue Christmas" is indistinguishable from a
traditional Christmas Eve Mass, but Rice said he has made some
important adjustments to establish a different tone.
"There's a very clear and explicit welcome at the start that
acknowledges there are people who struggle with the holidays," he said.
"It's very low-key. We invite people to bring whatever they are
Rather than including hymns that are joyful and triumphant and
meant to be sung with full heart and voice, musicians select a
repertoire that's quiet, reflective and primarily instrumental.
"Creating a peaceful atmosphere for folks is really important," Rice said.
The evening's preaching takes on a different tone as well, he said.
"The homily is directed more toward the core, theological meaning of
the Incarnation, of God joining us in all of our struggles and our
The Christmas truce of 1914 really happened. It is as much a part of
the historical texture of World War I as the gas clouds of Ypres or the
Battle of the Somme or the Armistice of 1918. Yet it has often been
dismissed as though it were merely a myth. Or, assuming anything of the
kind occurred, it has been seen as a minor incident, blown up out of
all proportion, natural fodder for sentimentalists and pacifists of
But the truce did take place, and on some far
greater scale than has been generally realised. Enemy really did meet
enemy between the trenches. There was for a time, genuine peace in No
Man's Land. Though Germans and British were the main participants,
French and Belgians took part as well. Most of those involved agreed it
was a remarkable way to spend Christmas. "Just you think," wrote one
British soldier, "that while you were eating your turkey, etc, I was
out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to
kill a few hours before! It was astounding!"
"It was a day of peace in war," commented a German participant, "It is only a pity that it was not decisive peace."...
The way we respond to the commercialisation of Christmas often says
more about us than it does about the commercial culture itself.
Those who want to share their faith will use the opportunity. Those
like to pick fights will fight. Those who want to explain the true
meanings behind the symbolism will do so. Those who just want to run
and hide when reality doesn’t shape up to their ideological image of
perfection will scope out the perfect bit of sand to bury their heads
But, what if we just accept that Christmas functions on a number of
different levels? What if held back a little on the tendency to
regulate every level of Christmas, as if the etymology of the word
somehow gave us alone the privileged to use it?
I’m not saying that we dilute our own understanding of Christmas -
either it’s place in the liturgical calendar or its theological
significance. I’m just asking that we think a little more hospitably
about the place we fill in the broader culture at this time.
Imagine Christmas as being like a giant bookstore, with a range of
books; some serious, some populist, some trashy, some noble. Every book
is a “Christmas” book though, of course, not every book is equal.
People are browsing and choosing, talking and comparing. It’s an active
and buzzing place - most people are not sure why they are there, but
they are trying to make sense of it and trying to have a little fun. Do
we really want to be hanging out in the comics section, chugging a
slurpy and passing judgement on the people who “don’t get it?”
Yesterday, Tropical Storm Hanna was passing by when I woke up. We couldn't go for our usual early morning walk, so dear husband and I talked and watched the wind whipping the leaves around.
When the wind died down and it finally stopped raining, older son and I went for a walk at the Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough.
Here's the map. The speedway is overgrown now, although they did cut down the trees that were growing up through the bleachers.
If you want someplace peaceful and quiet to take a walk, this is the place. Even on sunny days, we've
never seen more than a handful of people there. Yesterday, we were joined only by a lady and her dog, a jogger who ran around the track the entire time, and the caretaker who was checking it out after the storm.
I love the woods after a rain; they're even more peaceful than usual. Older son took this photo of a wonderful grove of lichens.
Originally, the Occoneechee Native Americans lived here. By the late 1800's, Julian Carr owned the land and called it Occoneechee Farm. He built a 1/2 mile horse racing track on it.
When the speedway was built, by NASCAR founder, William France, in 1948, it became one of the first NASCAR tracks.
It was, originally, a "superspeedway," one of the few mile-long racing tracks, so the drivers could go much faster.
Racing-wise, it was a very popular track. Locally speaking, however, it was considered to be a bad influence (loud noise and racing on Sunday), and it was closed in 1968. Richard Petty won the last race.
It's now owned by the same trust that owns AyrMont.
Here's the straightway closest to the river. You can't usually see the river from this straightway, but the river had spread out so much that we could yesterday.
Now on to lots of pictures! (There were two of us taking them) Older son's photos are labeled OS.
Robber fly. (OS)
We usually can just barely see the edge of the river from here (OS).
Something told me we wouldn't be taking the Big Bend trail.
Ayr Mont, one of our favorite places to walk, is across the river from the Speedway, just a little upstream from here.
This is what the river looks like at Ayr Mont when it's not flooded (early spring photo).
Brackets in a tree (OS).
Picture of the speedway in its heyday... with the reflection of some random people.
The concession stand.
We came near the river again, and the water wasn't that far off the trail. I mentioned to older son that, if we'd had a few more inches of rain, we wouldn't be on this trail. A few seconds later, we came around the corner to: The spot where I was standing to take the previous, Big Bend photo was under water.
Unfortunately (for me), they've cleaned up the stands. Before, they had an overgrown, Mayan-temple-in-the-depths-of-the-jungle feel (click here to see).
A kind of Blue.
We're not as up on mushroom identification, but dear husband says these are Destroying Angels.
We were going to take the stairs to the side trail, but they'd turned into a boat dock (OS).
Yellow wildflower. We didn't get a close enough picture to be able to identify it (OS).
The unidentified wildflower was beautiful out in the meadow (OS).
Daughter has a friend over, younger son is over at a friend's, older son just woke up, and my muscles are sore from swimming yesterday. A good excuse time to catch up on bloggy things. [And that's how far I got yesterday!]
We did a day trip to Lynchburg a few weeks ago. I'd wanted to visit Poplar Forest again (last time was 11 years ago), and dear husband had recently been in downtown Lynchburg for a business meeting and wanted to take us to see it.
finished, it will be the best dwelling house in the state, except that
of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the
faculties of a private citizen." –Thomas Jefferson
Poplar Forest was Thomas Jefferson's retreat. A good host didn't tell his guests when to leave, and visitors who traveled the long distance to his main residence, Monticello, could stay for weeks. Nothing said that the host had to remain in residence, however, so Poplar Forest was designed as a place where he and a few members of his family could retreat from his social duties (leaving his daughter as hostess at Monticello, but I won't get into that)(maybe she liked it?).
I did an independent study on Thomas Jefferson in graduate school - politics, nature studies, architecture, gardening, etc. I'll try not to go on too much here!
Poplar Forest is much smaller than Monticello, and, in my opinion, much more fun to tour. Monticello tours, as informative as they are, and as beautiful as the restored Monticello is, are large and move through the house efficiently. Poplar Forest is not as well-known and is still being restored. Our tour consisted of our family and one other couple - which leaves lots of time for questions and discussion. The other couple had restored a house so they had questions about that angle, and we're very interested in history (oh, along with dear husband having grown up in a hundred year old farmhouse that always needed work). You can't take pictures of the inside so I'll just link to the website photos.
Poplar Forest is very geometrical. The house is an octagon, with four, elongated, octagonal rooms (one split by the foyer) surrounding a perfectly cubical (20 ft in every dimension) room (plan here).
His bedroom was on the right hand side in the "bush" picture above. It had a staircase down to an indoor privy (photo of window in staircase and beautiful blue, Virginia sky, left). His granddaughters' room was on the left side - and the slaves had to go through their room to get from the kitchens to the dining room. The dining room was in the center, with no windows, but a lovely 16 foot skylight. The last time we visited, they hadn't plastered the walls yet, and you could see marks on the wall where former owners had put in a staircase to a second floor.
My favorite room was the parlor - south facing with lots of windows!
Even the outdoor privies were octagons (left).
The overall feeling was designed to echo Palladio's Italian villas (click here for an example, and here for the theory and history). Instead of having attached wings, Jefferson had a detached wing of offices on the east side which had the kitchens and other workrooms, and trees on the left side (no longer there)(photo below). Instead of having the rooms on the end of the wings, Jefferson had earth mounds covered with trees and bushes (few of which remain). The privies were hidden behind the mounds - aesthetically pleasing, but cold in the winter!
The downstairs section has information about life at Poplar Forest and
about the restoration. There were two things I found particularly
interesting. They're doing microscopic analysis of dirt in the lawn to
see if there is pollen that can tell them what plants might have been
over there two hundred years ago! And, old, rats' nests have been
useful because the rats got bits of paper and fabric from the living
areas to line the nests so they have bits of the newspapers of the time
and the clothes.
The restoration of the office wing.
I like the sky and the angle here. It's fun to take photos here because of all the geometry. The sunlight was also beautiful that day.
View from the front porch (those are the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance). My knee problems gave me a good excuse to sit here for a while (grin).
More about the architecture here (Architecture is another favorite subject of mine, though it hasn't appeared much in my blogging).
I love the rolling countryside of Southern Virginia (this was taken through the van window).
We had our picnic lunch at Otter Lake, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just off of our route. It's called a "lake," but you can see the other end of it in the picture. It's really more of a pond. The sunlight was beautifully clear because it wasn't very humid (unlike where we live).
Sunset over the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Reconstructed cabins at Valley Forge National Historic Park. The ranger we listened to in one of the cabins told us about the role of women at Valley Forge (yes, they were there, had jobs, and some eventually got army pensions). They took care of the cooking, etc., so that the soldiers could drill. She also explained,
among many other things, the purposes of stays (right). Along with the obvious bra-ish purpose, stays, if tied tightly, provided back support for the heavy work that women had to do. Poorhouses in England, at the time, had their major funding going to food, but the second item on the budget was for stays for the women - necessary for respectability. Prostitutes were the only women who didn't wear stays - the lack of stays made them "loose" (that's where we get the term). I won't tell you all the interesting things we heard, but if you're in the Philadelphia area, I highly recommend Valley Forge!
Covered bridge at the edge of the park.
Washington's Headquarters at Valley Forge. It is next to the site where the actual forge was located. The owner of the forge, Isaac Potts, didn't want the colonial troops to store anything at his forge because he feared retribution by the British. He was told that it was too out of the way for the British to bother (this was before the famous winter encampment). He relented, and when the British did come to get the "rebel stores," they burned his forge. He later asked the U.S. Congress for reimbursement, but "there is no record that he ever received it."
The aides' room in Washington's Headquarters.
"General von Steuben drilling Washington's Army at Valley Forge" We hear so much about the misery at Valley Forge that it's easy to forget that other things, such as military training, went on there. Although the winter was difficult, of the 2,000 men that died there, 2/3 died of diseases such as typhoid and influenza - in the spring months.
General (and Baron) von Steuben trained the soldiers at Valley Forge and molded them into a more professional fighting force. Von Steuben wrote to a friend that, in Europe, "You say to your soldiers, 'Do this,' and he doeth it; but [to the Continental soldiers] I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that;' and then he does it."
I didn't realize how beautiful Valley Forge would be. Of course, at the time of the Revolution, this field was probably mostly mud from military drilling, but it's beautiful now. You drive around it the entire time you're at the park.
Another view of the field.
This walking/biking trail runs around the park next to the road, and it had been tempting me all afternoon. It wasn't far until our next stop so I decided to walk (that's our van on the road). Daughter's foot was sore so, unfortunately, she couldn't join me. Of course, I realized that, if older son had been along (he stayed home for work and "Music Man" rehearsals), he would have walked with me...
[Okay, I got teary (grin).]
The deer there could care less about people.
The artillery park was our last stop which was good since a rainstorm was moving in.