Saturday, December 31, 2016

Christmas in Estonia

We haven't been in the US for Christmas since 2009 so another Christmas in Estonia shouldn't seem anything unusual, but this year was the first time we have ever spent Christmas just with our family, it was nice!  We had a nice blend of US and Estonian traditions.  Here is how it went down.

 First we got a full sized Christmas tree (artificial).  In years past we have had a 30 cm tree that was very dinky but since we were never home on Christmas we never bothered to get a big tree.  The kids are getting bigger too so this year we went all out.  You'll notice that the ornaments are only on the top third of the tree.  That is about the reach line of our oldest daughter.  Also notice the awesome Star Trek ornament of Spock's death scene.  A present from my brother last year.  It has a nice audio to go along with it. 
 We kept our mini star trek ornaments on the tree, they fit perfectly with the mini tree last year but blended in on the big tree this year.

Estonians celebrate Christmas on the 24th, so we had a nice Estonian dinner (pork roast, blood sausage, potatoes, hot glogg).  We also opened up all the wrapped presents that we had under the tree, mostly from my parents. 
 We started a new tradition, everybody got a box of cold cereal!  We always had a huge breakfast/brunch on Christmas morning.  I'm too lazy and not talented enough to do that but a nice cold cereal breakfast was a big hit.  I made my favorite childhood muffins- french breakfast muffins- they were OK but not as good as when my mom makes them.  I already have some ideas on how to make them better for next time.  1. follow the recipe.  2. Serve them fresh.

Thanks to Hillary, Mark, and the boys for sending this Little People nativity set.  We already had some Little People toys so it is a great hit.  Baby Jesus can be life flighted by our Little People helicopter if needed!

The girls got a lot of cool toys but their favorite present were the water bottles that grandma and grandpa gave them.  They just drank water and went to the bathroom all day long for a few days.

Santa came in the night, we left cookies and enjoyed the presents and fun Sunday morning.   We went to Church for just an hour and coming home I thought that this sabbath was truly a delight.

To all the blog followers we hope you had a merry Christmas as well!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Pre-Christmas festivities

It is customary in Estonia to have as many Christmas parties as possible. We had one at my school - it was organized by the 8th grade students for the kids of all the teachers and workers. They had games and treats and a video. So well done.

I will have a workers´ Christmas party at 28th of Dec and it sounds like it will be big.
Many teachers at my school are such fun loving and funny people. And you have to be to actually get the job done. Or you have to be super strict and never smile. Mostly it is a mix of both. Like a nice drama series.

Matthew had a work Christmas party as well. I did not hear much about it.

And if my kids would go to preschool they would have had a part too. Lots of festivities and parties every December. It is what people do here.

Today we went to Tallinn Christmas market. All the photos are phone photos.
This one is of the stage that is set up each year for all sorts of performances, music, videos.

Then there is a little Santa Claus house and people line up to get in and see him. We just peeked in through the window.

This one is for Ann - the famous sweater lane with tons of handmade sweaters, hats, socks, mittens.

The old town Christmas tree:

I am so glad it is not my job to sit on one of the boxes to sell Christmas stuff. I would not love it. But we sure love buying stuff from there, though.

As we were at the market, many Santas on motorcycles drove in and they started handing out free mandarin oranges and candy. Pretty awesome.

Another one with the city hall, tree, lights and stalls:

Of course there is a train:

Just a random street in the old town:

And finally a candy store I went to. Hand made chocolate made by a Swedish guy and his mom. My favorite was home-made Snickers bar - basically tasted like edible play-doh but with wonderful texture of rice crispy treats. Another one I loved was a big ball of chocolate and oats covered with chocolate and peanuts. Sooooo gooood. Ann and Monte- we will have some ready for you when you come to visit.

There will be a blog about Christmas festivities too. Just wait for it!

Monday, December 19, 2016

God bless you President Obama

8 years goes by fast.  With President Obama's time in office almost up, I'd just like to thank him for the service and leadership he's given his country but more importantly the inspiration and hope he has given me.  Where to start? Well first by starting with the problems.  No president has a perfect track record.  Given the importance of the office of presidency, mistakes often are measured in the number of hundred thousand dead.  Bill Clinton is largely regarded as being one of the most successful US presidents in recent memory.  The economy was humming and he played a critical role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.  It was also a relatively calm period without wars requiring large US troop numbers.  But his sanctions on Iraq amounted to genocide, over 500,000 children died.  Add in the inaction in the Rwandan genocide and the death toll adds up to over a million.  Bill Clinton is not directly or solely responsible for these deaths. Having said that, had he pursued different policies Over 1 million would have avoided a painful violent death.  I won't go into detail of other presidents who were less successful with their foreign policies.

With that in mind, we should remember that Obama has not been perfect. He made policy mistakes and he faced extreme limits on what he was able to do, in large part due to Republican obstructionism.  All in all Obama has done a remarkable job and it is a good time to reflect on his accomplishments.

First I wanted to share a video about President Obama and the mail he gets, it's a few years old but definitely worth watching.  I think it does a fine job of reflecting on the character of the person he is.  It is in sharp contrast to President Trump and his tweets.

Here are two good articles about Obama's time in the White House.  The first looks at his foreign policy.  The other looks at the personal impact he had in the White House.

There is a long list of accomplishments and many measures of progress that have been accomplished over the last 8 years.  Expanding health coverage, killing Osama Bin Laden, ending wars in the Middle East, saving the automotive industry, decrease pollution, tabling the Iran nuclear threat for another 10 years, monumental progress in LGBT equality, and of course overseeing an economy that now has unemployment under 5% and a budget deficit under 3%.  Much of this can be attributed to the Fed, and not Obama's fiscal policies but as a whole the US has done well for themselves.  The Fed was aggressive with stimulus and the US cleaned up the bad banks quickly.  People like to whine about the economy in the US, but they should come to Europe first.  Massive unemployment, very slow response stimulus and dealing with toxic assets.

It's unfortunate that many of these great accomplishments will soon be deliberately undone by President Trump and his creepy cabinet team.  Unfortunately sometimes you don't know what you have until it is gone. God bless you President Obama.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Good education in Estonia - yay!

I was glad when PISA test results were revealed. It is a comparative test that measures students´ skills in sciences, reading and math all over the world (72 countries). About every second 15 year old here took part.

Estonia was 3rd in sciences, 6th in reading and 9th in math in the world. That is better than last time. It is one of the best results in Europe.

(A bunch of countries did not fit in the picture here.)

Most of the best performers are all Asian countries with Singapore as number one. They have a great system where they attract the best of the best of the graduates to become teachers. Being a teacher there is a big thing. Also, there is a very competitive school system and amazingly high motivation that play a role.

In Estonia things could be better, as well as how to attract good teachers. They pay is only so-so. I love my job a lot, though. I am sure the pay will be nicer in the future, step by step.

What I really like is that the system here consists mostly of just plain boring public schools. There are private schools but not that many. I like the system where every student, no matter how poor they are of where they are from, is getting a good education. I like it because I come from a very poor background. Every country should aim for the best education for everyone, not just for the elite. I always feel sad when someone is promoting charter schools or saying public schools suck just take your kids to a private school. Or when people have given up on the possibility for a change. Why not put all the effort into making the system good for everyone? Why give up? It is one thing I have to teach my students every day. Just do not give up. Try.

I felt glad about the test results and just wanted to share my thoughts about it.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Snow shocker and going back to work

 Basically on the first of November a crazy snow hit us and it stayed for two weeks or so. Then two days ago it started to melt and now it is all gone. So intense. I do not like snow, ice, icy roads, more accidents and danger, cold temperatures... Kids like snow but not that much after 30 minutes. That is when they cry: "Inside! Cold" View from our window, the first days of November:

In the store parking lot. Now there is just a small puddle left.

It may not look like that much of snow on it but it sure felt like it when I was trying to get it off. The door on the driver side did not open, so I climbed in from the passenger door, then I had to drive for 20 minutes for the door to melt open, then after I got back I sprayed some silicone on the sides of the door to keep it from freezing shut. I am glad the snow is gone and I hope it will never come back... of course that is impossible but I have the right to dream.

Another big things is that I went back to work in September, part time, teaching 12 lessons a week - Estonian and literature. I teach one 8th grade, one 7th-grader (individual study), and one 10th grade. In Estonia, teacher teaches different classes and I love it. Different ages, different levels (math and Estonian are in level-based groups from 7th up until 9th grade, in our school, not every school), different courses for high school. It means more work but it also means more fun, more learning for me (and I love learning) and being able to relate one  course to the other. Like I have 4 parallel courses for 10th grade, just one lesson a week per course: Language and society, Literature from ancient times until 19th century, Practical Estonian and the last course is Analysis and Interpretation of texts. I thought at first that is just too much but now it all flows nicely, all of the courses are mostly related to each other, you can draw lines between them all the time and it makes more sense for the students, kind of a broader picture. My favorite of them all is text analysis and interpretation. It is just pure fun and gold. And the kids are always amazed with where do I get weird texts like that for them to read. Anyway, I love teaching and it is just so much joy. And I feel stupid/insecure at times too but that, I just read, is just a sign of well developed emotional IQ. I decided to believe that. 

Here is my classroom. The windows are in the ceiling but that means more space to put stuff up, like a huge time-line made out of wallpaper roll. Or students works, group work posters etc. I have great tech stuff up, like a projector, smart board that I am still trying to figure out. They even gave me a brand new lap-top to use. I love the school and the students.

It is hard to schedule work with Matthew but so far we are a live and going strong.

My super awesome husband! Phd - check!

He does not know this but I am secretly doing this blog post after I found the photos off the internet.

Congratulations, Matthew, for getting your doctoral degree! You have been working so hard for this.

Here, the main man of the university is ready to give him a special doctor´s scarf:

Here is the coolest photo of him, like saying: "Hahahaa, take that, suckers. You thought I would not get here and you were sooooo wrong!"

Once again - congrats!

Friday, November 18, 2016

No, Putin is not invading

Some of you may have read a recent piece in Foreign Policy predicting a Russian hybrid warfare invasion in Latvia.  If you did see the piece and are worried about what President Trump means for our safety in the Baltic's no need to be afraid, we will be just fine.  To note, I think President Trump's reset 2.0 with Putin is a bad idea and will embolden him.  It is also troublesome to have a US president in power who doesn't care about the Baltic states or NATO at a time of such high security tensions in the region.  That said, an incompetent President Trump doesn't doesn't necessarily mean another war.  The impact of the reset will be more felt in places like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. 

Miller has most likely never been to Daugavpils and so a few shortcomings should be noted.  First, Putin is not crazy.  He has interests, goals, and is willing to take appropriate measures to accomplish those goals and defend his interests.  Consolidating gains in Ukraine is important for Putin.  Getting rid of sanctions is important to Putin.  Increasing Russian influence in the region is important.  Weakening the EU as a unitary actor is important.  Reducing US influence (unilateral influence in particular) is important.  Geographical conquest in the Baltic states is not important. 

Russia tried to gain ownership and control of key energy infrastructure in the Baltic states and was rebuffed.  Their response was to simply build their own despite the expensive costs.  The Baltic states do not represent the Russian religious nation like Miller claims. Ukraine and Crimea in particular have a much more historical and normative value for Russia than the Baltic states. The only reason for Russian hostility against the Baltic states would be to discredit NATO, but that isn't as high of a priority with future NATO expansion already off the table. 

The cost of military incursion in the Baltic states is also significantly higher than Ukraine.  Even if a president Trump decided that he would not invoke article 5 Germany and other European countries would and would send troops and arms into the Baltic states.  It would be a military incursion that would cost Russia significant amounts of blood and treasure.  It could even cost Russia in terms of non Western support like China, which is always very cautious about international intervention and the changing of borders. 

Lastly, Miller overlooks the domestic situation in the Baltic states. Russia's hybrid warfare is much more difficult to pull off because of the well functioning governance.  Russian speaking minorities are less likely to riot, protest and much less likely to support Russian intervention.  The pensions, wages, and options are all better.  The use of paid imported protesters, mercenaries, and trouble makers would not have the same impact due to the Baltic states readiness for such tactics.  Internal security is a high priority and riot reaction and other crisis reaction measures have been gamed out in detail over the past two years. 

The last flaw in Miller's argument is the idea that a military confrontation will automatically escalate to WWIII.  Russia's hybrid warfare is designed to reduce Russia's responsibility for the intervention.  If there was some type of "local" militia that would pop up NATO forces could be called in to suppress it and Russia would then be faced with the decision to confirm that it is Russian troops involved or to just let the militia lose and back down.   I wouldn't put it past President Putin from trying to test the waters a bit but he would not be willing to risk WWIII over Daugavpils. Would President Trump be willing to send in some troops to help Latvia put down a Russian backed "local militia"?  Most likely.  I doubt Trump would appreciate being stabbed in the back by Putin.  There are other arenas to wage the war of geopolitics and other interests that Russia has to worry about other than Daugavpils. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Not my relief society president

It's beyond disappointing to see Julie Beck and Robert Oaks support Trump and all the evil that he stands for.  Kate Kelly was excommunicated for trying to empower women and here the highest ranking woman in the Church (until 2012) openly comes out and endorses a serial sexual predator. No words for that people. For both Oaks and Beck, they used their status as former high ranking members of the Church in a political manor.  This is a particularly troublesome form of priestcraft.  I'm glad my little girls didn't grow up listening to her general conference talks only to later find out that she is a hypocritical fraud.  A modern day pharisee.  I was relieved to read about the exit polls that said the most active Mormons did not support Trump.  Looks like the vineyard doesn't need to be burned down just yet.

Hopefully the Church will look into it and update their guidelines for political activeness among former general authorities and general auxiliary leaders.  Hats off to Marvin Jensen who considered running for Lt. Governor as a Democrat.  That campaign would have largely been about his previous status as a general authority, I'm glad that he didn't let it come to that.

Not my president

They say that every country deserves its government.  Life is going to get ugly real fast for a lot of people.  Let's make one thing sure.  For the 61 million who voted for Trump, this one is on you. What could one president do you ask? Unfortunately quite a bit.

Foreign policy: We aren't totally sure what Trump will do on a lot of issues.  The secretary of state will give a big hint and we had better hope for Corker and not Gingrich. A good review can be read here from the Brookings institute.   Ian Bremmer wrote a great article on it before the election.  From the article: 

"America First won’t strengthen America. It will alienate friends and embolden rivals. In the process, it will badly damage U.S. commercial interests. It will undermine the institutions that the U.S. and its allies created from the ashes of World War II and which continue to extend U.S. international influence into the future. It will cast grave doubt on what America stands for."

For those wondering if Trump's election will mean an invasion of the Baltic states an interesting article is here.   I think that threat is way overblown, but I concur with a lot of what McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia said in this piece in the Financial Times

We can't leave out climate change, which will probably be the biggest negative impact from Trump's presidency. 

In short, a hope for a cosmopolitan system of global governance is dead.  The Liberal World Order is a thing of the past and confusion and conflict will pop up in the time of transition. 

Domestic policy

Domestically the lives of tens of millions will be ruined.  I expect a large increase in the number of deportations.  The people he has surrounded himself are all hard liners on immigration.  The end result will be families torn apart and a radical reduction in immigration- including highly skilled and educated workers.  

The repeal and replace plans for health care will leave tens of millions without coverage.  How many people are left without coverage is up for debate, but if Trump even tries to do what he has said he tens of millions are going to be out of luck.  

Enable messages of hate that will have drastic impacts on the lives of many minorities.  Bullying in schools for example.  Hate crimes on the rise everywhere in the US. 

I'm blessed to be in a situation where I don't have to leave the US.  Estonia was ranked 4th on the top destinations for Americans looking to flee Donald Trump's America.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

You maniacs!!!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The day America dies

Fortunately for America and the world it looks like Hillary Clinton is going to win the election. Trump is still keeping things somewhat close which to me is morbidly horrifying.  Normally it doesn't matter that much who is president, there are a number of checks and pressures that tend to keep policies moderate and US grand strategy similar.  Sometimes there are exceptions like the Iraq war under George W. Bush's presidency which probably would not have happened under Al Gore. That said, Donald Trump is the type of president who would test the limits of those checks and restraints.

First, we have to put things into perspective.  There is not a mechanism that resolves the gridlock between the legislative and executive branches.  This is a flaw in the US system and we are fortunate to not have ended up like Latin American democracies.  Trump's style and ideology would take the gridlock to a new level and set an even higher precedent on an imperial presidency.

This is a good Vox explanational video on Trump's nationalist ideology:

In addition, the area a president can act with the fewest restraints in dealing with foreign policy.  Currently the liberal world order is under a tremendous amount of strain by the rise of China and the rise of the rest.  The best strategy for the United States to guide this transition phase would be a relentless focus on norms, rules, and enforcing those rules.  Instead, the US has acted in its own interest, undermining its own authority.  Trump's foreign policy strategy at a time of uncertainty would have devastating consequences.

Stay tuned on Tuesday for the final outcome and let's hope that America will live to see another day.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Happy Halloween!

 We hope everyone had a happy Halloween.  It is not always easy to celebrate US holidays abroad, but we had a Halloween party on Friday.  The kids were supposed to go to one at Church but I didn't get back home with the car in time so we just did one at home.  We had big candy days on Friday and Monday.

Our youngest was Spider-man and our oldest was a pink fairy.  I was working Monday night but was super super happy to know that we had trick or treaters! The upstair neighbors saw our pumpkin in the hallway and came by for candy. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

New hymn book!

About a month ago or so we got the new hymnbook in Estonian!  It has been over 5 years in the making.  Maris was on the committee that sang and reviewed the songs. The old hymnbook had 68 pages this one has 200.  I think it is the ideal size, the English hymnbook is too long and filled with too many songs that no one likes or sings anymore.  Interesting fun facts, the Estonian hymnbook has "Faith in Every Footstep" and "Come Thy fount of Every Blessing" I'm not sure why they are not in the English hymnbook but grateful that they are now in the Estonian one.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Recent landscape photos

Here are some of my favorites from recent photo shoots. I love foggy falls:

One of my super favorites is here:

My sister´s visit

A few weeks ago my sweet sister came to visit for a week. The kids loved her a lot and pressured her into playing with them often. We also visited our family members with her and road tripped a little. Here are some photos I took that week.

We went to check out Paldiski and the cliff there:

We took some photos there at the quarry:

Kadi, my sister, with the kids:

At Padise monastery. It took a lot of throwing dust in the air to get shots like this. We were very dusty when we finished. We rented a white wedding dress for this from a local second hand clothing store.

My favorite spot in Tutermaa, a place near-by with rows of birch trees. As the grass was super long this time then when the sun was setting it looked extra pretty.

My sister and I we have a history of awesome photos shoots. We had once, when Twilight came out, a Twilight themed photo shoot (with a tiny little point and shoot camera):

Here is a photo in a forest next to the house where we grew up (Southern Estonia, Valgamaa):

 One more cute photo of Kadi and my little girl:

And the last one I will share of her is here:

Thank you, aitäh, Kadi, for coming! 
Me armastame sind nii väga!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A vote for Clinton...

I got my absentee ballot already!  I pledged my vote to the winner of my US foreign policy course vote.  Hillary Clinton won in a landslide.  Bernie Sanders got more votes (3) as a write in candidate than Trump (2).  Had I not pledged my vote, I would be voting for Clinton anyway. Competent, hard working lady who receives positive reviews from those who have worked with her in the past.  She isn't a perfect candidate but considering the circumstances the country finds itself in, America could do worse than voting for a competent candidate.  Clinton's time as secretary of state was a bit ho hum, but she did some very good things too.  For example her focus on women's rights is commendable, even if she could have been more consistent.  The funny thing about Clinton is that she gets beat up quite a bit.  She's a bad candidate, she's not trustworthy, she's corrupt, she has a cough.  She's this or she's that.  That might be all true but the person she is running against is Donald Trump! Now I don't want to be overly dramatic, Trump still grades out well when compared to the leaders of some countries (though not in every category).  But I've got two little girls and I'd like to leave behind a normal planet for them.  To sum up, I hope the world never has to find out the full consequences of a Trump presidency.  Good luck Hillary.