Masterclass Horsehair Braiding

I don’t think I would have the patience or the dexterity to do this type of art, but Kestrel has it in spades. She’s sent us a gorgeous example of the horsehair braiding that she does and I’m in awe. Thanks so much for sharing, Kestrel.


Years ago a lady had me braid a horsehair bracelet for her from her horse. She told me she was really having trouble with a watch that she truly loved: an Ecclissi watch that was just simply falling apart. She told me she had bought it over 30 years ago but loved to wear it. This is how it started out:

©kestrel, all rights reserved

You can see the chains were falling apart. The lady asked me if I could possibly repair it with braided horsehair. She said she would really like it if it looked like twill. I set to work counting hair and working out how to perform this repair.

©kestrel, all rights reserved

The finished watch had 4 bands of 8-strand braiding on each side of the watch. Because I used two different colors I got the twill effect.

©kestrel, all rights reserved








Behind the Iron Curtain part 19 – Pionýr

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

In my opinion, totalitarian regimes are very good at recognizing one crucial fact of life – it is important to reach children as soon as possible and indoctrinate them into your ideology, because later on it might not work. Throughout history of totalitarian regimes therefore are many examples of youth’s organizations whose main purpose was political.

The communist regime in former Soviet bloc was no different and the youth organization in our country was named “Pionýr” a derivative of the word pioneer, attempting to imply boldness and strength to freely explore hitherto unexplored. Where “freely” means “in the direction the party allows and if the conclusions confirm with party line”.

It started at an early age, about seven years, with a membership in “Jiskra” (spark), an organisation that was essentially preparing children for future membership in pionýr. After that, at the eight-nine years of age, the child could enter the Pionýr organization and become a full member.

Membership was confirmed by a public pledge first as Jiskra, then as Pionýr. I do not remember my Pionýr pledge, but I do remember some feelings about being overwhelmed by the Jiskra one, to the point that I still remember the first sentence of the pledge – but I had to look up the rest. I had my heart in my throat as I was standing in an auditorium in front of most of the town and piping up the pledge loud enough to be heard. I also remember that I actually believed and meant what I was saying.

Here are the translations (not trying to convey the cadence and rhyming of the originals):
Jiskra – “Slibuji dnes přede všemi, jako jiskra jasná, chci žít pro svou krásnou zemi, aby byla šťastná” – Like a bright spark I promise in front of all, that I want to live for my beautiful country so it can be happy.

Pionýr: “Slibuji před svými druhy, že budu pracovat, učit se a žít podle pionýrských zákonů, abych byl dobrým občanem své milované vlasti, Československé socialistické republiky, a svým jednáním chránit čest pionýrské organizace Socialistického svazu mládeže.” – I promise in front of my comrades, that I will work, learn and live by pionýr law, in order to become good citizen of my beloved country, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and with my behaviour I promise to guard the honor of the Pionýr organization of Socialist Youth Association.

Membership in Pionýr was not compulsory. But it was not compulsory in the sense “it is voluntary, but you must”. In my class, there were a few children who were not members, and our teacher – a fanatical communist to this day – did give them some grief for that. Remember what I said about education? Not being a member of Pionýr was a huge hindrance to getting meaningful highschool education, and made it nigh impossible to get into university later on. So most children entered the organization even when privately they and their parents disagreed with the regime.

I do not remember much about what we were doing in the name of the organization as such, apart from a few summer camps to which I went, and a few marches on memorable occasions (like of May). Maybe I will remember something more later.

I still have my red scarf in the cupboard, despite not agreeing with communist philosophy. I do not know why.


There are many epic stories out there – it seems people throughout the ages have been entertained by stories of improbable heroism, impossible deeds, romance, tragedy, magic, friendship, betrayal and the binary battle between good and evil. Latvians are no different, except our own epic poem, Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer) dates not from centuries or millennia ago, but from the end of the 19th century. The author, Andrejs Pumpurs, took liberties with folk stories and expanded a typical hero’s tale into a mythical legend of the pagan fight against christianization. Lāčplēsis’ origins are a matter of slight debate, as in some versions, he was born of a bear with the ears of a bear, and his ears were where his strength resided – in other versions, he was merely adopted by a bear and raised in the woods until a local king found him and took him in, or he wore a hat of bears’ ears, where he hid his strength. In any case, he meets his tragic end tumbling over a cliff into the river Daugava while fighting the crusading Black Knight, and, as always, it is said he will come again at a time of greatest need (so far, no sign – I guess that’s a good thing?).

What’s very interesting is that Lāčplēsis is very much a national symbol – the highest military honour one can receive is the Bearslayer medal (Lāčplēša ordenis), and he is trotted out for all kinds of events and by the most nationalistic political parties – who are, the vast majority, very right-leaning christian. How they reconcile a supremely pagan hero with their beliefs, I don’t know – especially one who lived a rather non-traditional life-style during one portion of the epic (the author borrowed ideas, and I find interesting the possible connection between bears and the etymology of Arthur). But there it is.

Anyway. The story was put into musical form (a ‘rock opera’) in the 1980s, to great acclaim. Every now and then, a new performance is prepared, and the next one is due in early November. As it happens, it will be a full choir-and-orchestra version (the best kind!) and my choir will be among those performing. It’s a melodramatic piece of music, the best kind to perform, full of deep texts about freedom and bravery and time running through fingers like sand and other major themes, and lots of opportunity to sing your heart out together with the string and brass sections (and the cymbals!). I expect it will be a wonderful experience.

Here’s a small sample, a medley of some of the main songs, from the vocal-symphonic music concert from 2013 (I hope the video starts at the 1.43:08 mark). I’m not going to translate all the words, just the four lines of the final section so you can have a small idea of the drama of the words:

It is not water that flows in the Daugava, it is time

It is not blood that flows in your veins, it is time

It is not a wave that washes over us, it is time

It is not the whirlpool that twists into rings, it is time

25. Vispārējo latviešu dziesmusvētku Vokāli simfoniskās mūzikas koncerts Rīgas arēnā

The short guy on the left has one of my favourite voices ever.

(The video contains the entire vocal-symphonic concert, which I recommend if you like classical music. If you listen to the very end, the very last song is conducted by, in my opinion, one of the most talented conductors out there. Before taking over at the National Opera, he was artistic director of my choir, and his style and interpretation have biased me against many another worthy conductor.)

Slavic Saturday

Today I wish to share traditional Czech and Slovak recipe, although I do not think it is exclusively ours or exclusively slavic. It is called “smaženice” in Czech and “praženica” in Slovak. Both of those names could be translated as a “fry up”, but in our language it is only this one meal and not a generic name. There might be some local variations to the recipe (in fact, I would be suprisede if there wer not), so this is not “the” version.

It  is a very simple meal specific for this season, because it is best made from freshly collected mushrooms. I was personally not mushroom hunting this year, because it was too dry when I had the time. But one of my mothers friends brought us this Tuesday a basket of mushrooms as a payback for tomatoes, plums and walnuts we let her take from our garden.

In my opinion best species for this are blushers (Amanita rubescens), closely followed by various boletes that are not suitable for drying – like suede boletes, larch boletes, birch boletes etc. So I collected all of such species from the basket, cleaned them and cut them into a thumbnail sized chunks and I added then bay boletes and ceps  until I had a overfilled soup-plate of such chunks. It looks like a lot, but it is only one, albeit generous, serving – the mushrooms will lose most of their water during the process. Now is also the time to add salt – sprinkle an “adequate” amount of it on the shrooms, stir and wait a while. You can also add other spices of your liking, I only add shredded cumin and black pepper.

After the chunks are cut and salted, it is time to start frying. That starts with an onion cut into cubes being fried at high temperature – the best fat for this meal is therefore lard, second best is butter, after that are the vegetarian options. I still had a chunk of lard from my dubbin-making experiment, so I have used lard. The onion is fried until it starts to look glassy, and just when some smaller chunks start to turn yellow, it is time to add the mushrooms. After stirring the mushrooms into the fried onion, put a lid on it and let it stew for at least twenty minutes, checking it and stirring every minute or so.

Both of those things are important. The time to make sure that the meal is really edible – even edible mushrooms can be slightly poisonous when raw and all are rather hard to digest when not cooked long enough. And the stirring of course to asses the situation and to mix things up. Sometimes it is necessary to add a bit of water during the process, sometimes even more than once. This time I could do without it and the mushrooms stewed very nicely. Towards the end I had to stir more often and for the last two minutes or so I took the lid off and stirred continuously so the mushrooms do not burn.

Maybe you can see now that the mushrooms have lost more than a half of their volume and they all turned into the same yellowish color. The color depends on used species – the yellowish was brought in by the yellow boletes (similar to larch boletes, but these were different species). Had I used dottet stem bolette, the mass would all be dark grey or even black like a boot polish. Had I used only blushers, it would be whiteish-pink-grey.

The final ingredients are eggs, two in this case, and a generous glass of non-alcoholic beverage of your preference. Why the beverage, you ask? To drink before the meal, during cooking. Do not underestimate this – this meal can lie rather heavy in the stomach and drinking after it a lot is not recommended, because it impedes its digestion. So it is recommended to drink generously before eating it, otherwise bad dreams might ensue. The eggs are simply stirred into the mass and fried until done. The meal is traditionally served with bread, but I had two whole-grain buns so I went with those this time – more photogenic. I enjoyed the meal and slept well afterwards.



Friendship is a strange sort of alchemy of character.

In other words, two distinct people can randomly come together and discover an incredible compatibility. Alternatively, they can be as compatible as oil and water.

This short story is about the first situation, about someone I met at the beginning of summer through work. See, in the interests of improving Europe in general and participating globally, we have developed a partnership with Macedonia. The Macedonian team was visiting beginning of June, and I was invited to come along to a few social events due to my superior English (someone’s afraid to practice). Anyway, I met a new friend, quite unexpectedly. Me, the self-proclaimed pinnacle of anti-sociability. She was the interpreter, I was the language specialist, and we found strange but welcome common ground. During conversation, she discovered my art hobby, mostly through the series of small cat pictures I did for the lab going on two years ago (they hang on the walls in the new lab, I’m quite proud!) and was the first person to actually offer money for my art, specifically – for a reproduction of one of the pieces. She said the cat looked like an alchemist, and I like that naming. I had to overcome a few hang-ups about people paying for my art, as I’m used to creating randomly, as gifts, but she has insisted, and in this case I have come to the conclusion that it would be impolite to refuse, plus I’m very flattered. And from the alchemy theme, I altered the background and overall theme of the piece. Anyway, this is finished piece, slightly larger than the original (the wonders of technology!), and in a different colour scheme:

Alchemist cat!

I have titled it “The Alchemist”, and it is still small, about 15cm x 20cm. I rather like it. Next week I travel to Macedonia for the week and will have the opportunity to hand it over in person.

Anyway, as social as I can be (and it turns out I like putting on The Face and shmoozing at conferences, because there’s a lot of interesting people out there – minus a few creeps, but the biological sphere seems pretty balanced where I’ve hung out, so they are rather few), I am prone to bouts of something resembling depression and, as mentioned, being very anti-social. I like my alone time, a lot. I like dark music, I like melodrama, I like unhappy endings, never mind that I’ve managed rather well with my own life and situation. I’m always afraid that, once people discover what I’m really like, they won’t like me. So as contrast, here is Coheed and Cambria’s (we’ll be seeing more of this group) Dark Side of Me, a song that speaks to me on the unrevealed side of me. Oddly enough, it’s music like this that makes me feel better and can get me out of a funk.

(And check out dude’s hair, I went to their concert way back when and one of the distinctive things I remember is that mass of hair emerging out of the fog during the opening song.)

Jack’s Walk

Autumn mums, ©voyager, all rights reserved

I love the autumn, especially the colour show of the trees and bushes, but so far our trees are still green. There’s the odd red or yellow leaf, but this year the trees are making me wait. It isn’t all drab, though. Autumn is also the season that big pots of colourful mums start to appear around the neighbourhood. Mums are hearty at this latitude and can even withstand a bit of freezing and they come in so many rich shades of reds, oranges and yellows, even delicate whites. I love them all and I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last photo of mums that I’ll post this fall.

Spider Silk

Due to drought, there probably will not be any meaningful aftermath this year. The meadows are green, but the grass is not even knee-height. But everything is covered with spider silk this fall, something that I did not notice other years. I tried to take a few shots.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Jack’s Walk

Jack at Southside Park, ©voyager, all rights reserved

What you can’t see in this peaceful photograph are the dozens of geese that were honking and charging us from behind. Jack’s never gone up against a goose so he’s fearless around them, but I’ve been bitten by geese and it hurts. They’re also fairly strong, so they make me a bit nervous. I’ve never had trouble with them at this park, though, especially in the fall when they’re not protecting nests or babies. Whatever the cause I decided not to linger and we skedaddled over to the concrete skate park.