Monday, December 15, 2008

Santa Run

We did one of those Santa Runs. You know, for kids. You sign up. You pay some money. You con your co-workers into also paying some money. You get issued a Santa suit. You run around town in the Santa suit. You give your money to charity.

Except that they ran out of Santa suits. So your correspondent ran around in a Santa hat only. Well, that is, his normal running clothes, plus a Santa hat. It was less festive. But the sun was out for the first day in weeks. And the kids still got their money.

Your correspondent also ran the grueling course through Old Riga -- including quick stops to snap a few pictures of the other Santas (the staff photographer was unavailable)-- faster than the two strapping young members of the United States Marine Corps who participated. I won't mention their names because think they could get dishonorably discharged for letting a State Department bureaucrat beat them in a test of physical fitness, even if it's more about silly costumes than strength and stamina.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Italy: Fashion Capital

Your correspondents diligently stopped by all the main tourist sights, such as the Pantheon (quite cool) and the Spanish Steps (uh...) and the Trevi Fountain. It certainly is an interesting spot, monumental and ornate. But it's one of those sights that doesn't exactly continue to reveal more of itself upon extended viewing. Nonetheless, the square around the fountain was bursting with tourists, all taking pictures of each other and throwing coins in the fountain and doing your normal tourist things. The staff photographer and art director both agreed that photos of our fellow tourists taking pictures of each other would be more interesting than any picture of the fountain. The pictures were mostly not that interesting, it turns out.

That is, until this couple emerged from the crowd and took approximately five million pictures of each other, all with a pocket camera. No harm, no foul, right? But their shots grew increasingly ridiculous, as they worked their way to an uncrowded corner of the fountain, and then started posing, staring off into space, lounging on the fountain, as if they were going to submit these pictures to the next issue of Vogue. The guy took his turns and didn't lounge so much as strike manly poses in his sunglasses and leather jacket. Still, their vacation, they can take whatever pictures they want. But the utter seriousness with which they did it was kind of mind-boggling. The staff photographer took so many pictures of the whole process that it was inevitable that at one point the subject would notice, as seen above. In a remarkable demonstration of their seriousness, she flashed only the briefest glance of recognition, and carried on as if what they were doing was completely normal.

At that point, they seemed odd, but admirable for their lack of concern about what anyone else thought about how they got their kicks. Then we ran into them again, walking away from the square, apparently with two assistants carrying their shopping bags and luggage for them. The picture was growing clearer. Then we saw them again making a public scene at another fountain in another square, with one of the assistants taking pictures with the pocket camera and the woman screaming her head off as the guy picked her up - maybe threatening to throw her in the fountain?

We didn't hear them speaking much, but we have a pretty confident guess on where they were from and why they were acting like they owned the city and all the other tourists were there to see them, which it would be impolitic to print here. I'll just say we hope if we ever have the money to have an assistant carry our shopping bags around town, we'll do so somewhat more discreetly.

Friday, December 12, 2008

More from Rome

Interesting piece of non-church architecture in Rome. Or at least dramatic.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

At the very least, you need a beer

Among those who enjoy the game of counting up how many countries one has been to, some take a no-holds-barred approach. I read an article about the "Traveler's Century Club" of people who have been to at least 100 countries and want some certifying organization to vouch for how awesome they are. The article profiled some retards who were sailing by some small island country without a visa, and put out a distress call so they were "rescued" and taken to the island, whereupon they checked it off their list and then sailed away. In my mind, people who probably wasted half of some tiny nation's annual security budget in order to get more credit from the "Traveler's Century Club" should have their passports revoked, not celebrated.

Some of us, on the other hand, find country-counting amusing but not worth risking any lives for. And for me, a country as goofy as The Holy See should maybe not really count. They do have a flag and their own post office. They also have a church that is pretty impressive, but does not meet the medieval-mosaic standards discussed yesterday. They also have a ridiculously large museum. And the Sistine Chapel. I guess that counts for something. They do not, however, meet the official Frank Zappa definition of nationhood: "You can't be a Real Country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of a football team or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer." Well, he's dead, and I don't have designs on joining the Traveler's Century Club, so we'll just use our own personal judgment and count it.

The picture above is the outdoor seating in front of St. Peter's, presumably for the overflow crowds celebrating mass there.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Get wise, get to church

Did we mention we went to Rome? A four-day Thanksgiving weekend may be a little quick for a visit back home for turkey and cranberries, but it was enough time for a quick hop down to Rome, where we saw nary a pilgrim and nary a mashed potato. Not to say we didn't eat well. Pizza for every lunch, pasta for every dinner, wine for every moment in between... hard to complain.

Speaking of things that are unsurprisingly nice in Rome - they have some churches there. We saw many of them, and didn't scratch the surface. They have the big Renaissance masterpieces, but this correspondent prefered the olden-days churches with vaguely naive-looking mosaics, as the one pictured above. It is named something like "Church of the Virgin of Trastevere," apparently not related to the "Church of Vinny Testaverde," which is perhaps an abandoned shrine somewhere near the Meadowlands. Vinny was not pictured in the apse mosaic, in any case.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


As perhaps predicted, we were otherwise occupied all evening and didn't even look at pictures from Rome. It's the Brits' fault, actually, for detaining the staff at a marathon five-hour game of British Embassy-sponsored pub trivia in Riga tonight. In any case, they do a fine pub trivia night, but it's not their only skill. They are also very good at snatching priceless artifacts from their ancient resting places. They do make a convincing case that if things like this crazy Assyrian relief, painstakingly crafted and then deliberately written on in crazy Assyrian writing, would probably be in a lot worse shape today if still kicking around the Middle East somewhere. Likewise, they claim, the Elgin Marbles. It's a debate we won't settle here, but we were pretty excited to see them in London, and even though we yesterday mocked the idea of taking pictures in museums, we relented in this case.

Monday, December 08, 2008


While The Lovely Katherine worked, the Staff Photographer was free to amble about London, snapping photos, surprisingly few of which amounted to anything. But we like this one. He also endeavored to stop into every museum in London to see various Elgin Marbles and Rembrandts and such, but mostly didn't take pictures of them, either because it wasn't allowed or generally taking pictures of things in museums is kind of silly when there's a postcard available in the gift shop. Anyway, tomorrow: Rome, unless we don't get it organized and resort to posting one more picture from London, perhaps taken in a museum.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Tube

The London Underground is a great system. But some parts of it are a bit creepy. Like this tunnel, with its exposed insulation and security cameras. They also do an amazing job with selling advertising space on the escalators. American subways beaten at their own capitalist game.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Well, shopping, sort of. On the advice of our friend Paul (who has his own unique travel sense, but likes England enough that he managed to acquire a dodgy black-market UK passport) your correspondent spent a fair bit of time exploring various markets in London. These are mostly outdoor markets, selling variously: snobby gourmet foods (Borough Market), hipster clothing and accessories (Spitalfields), disaffected middle-schooler clothing and accessories (Camden), and last but not least, junk -- or rather, antiques -- (Portobello). While there were interesting items and people at each, the junk market was definitely tops in our book.

The further one got from the underground stop, the cheaper and perhaps more "authentic" and "local" the merchandise. Right near the Tube were touristy stuff like made-in-China-but-vaguely-antique-looking pocketwatches, then some interesting antiques like vintage typewriters and telescopes and a couple guys selling toy soldiers or other little figurines (as pictured above) who took it as a challenge to have a toy soldier in the uniform of whatever nationality a visiting shopper might be. (USA was an easy one, of course. Latvia was a stumper.) Moving on, one could find old paperback books, and tons of complete collections of themed cigarette-pack cards, and for some reason, gauges ripped out of boat instrument panels. Then clothing. Then vegetables. Then, reminiscent of Guatemala, a few blue tarps spread on the ground with some old batteries and random bicycle parts and questionably functional clock radios and decades-old VCR tapes of movies nobody wanted to watch then, let alone now, all for sale at sure-fire bargain prices.

Good times. Thanks for the recommendation, Paul. We have purchased you a random socket wrench from one of the blue tarps, which we will send soon, as a token of our gratitude.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Did you know we went to London a couple weeks ago? And we never told you about it? Sorry, we just totally flaked. But we were there. Check out the dudes in various silly hats if you doubt it. No other country would have the ingenuity to come up with such a nice variety of silly hats, and then actually use them. And then, crowds of people stand around in front of Buckingham Palace to get a glimpse of the guys with silly fuzzy hats walking around. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, the staff photographer was alone with the guys in the fuzzy hats and the guys in the funny police hats, vigilantly keeping him from rubbing the fuzzy hats to see if they are as soft as they look.

Right then. So maybe this week a bit of London, next week a bit of Rome, and then maybe a bit of Latvia. All this international jet-setting is really hurting our publication schedule.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

90th, revisited

The snowstorm distracted us from posting this last photo from the 90th Anniversary celebrations. There was a spectacular fireworks extravaganza over the Daugava. It was very nice, and pretty quick, which was merciful given the temperatures at that point. For some reason there was a big open space in the crowd just behind the LNT television news crew Winnebago.

Monday, November 24, 2008


It snowed five inches or so over the last day. This amount of snow would have DC crippled for days on end. And even in Latvia, five inches gets people talking about how much snow there was. It didn't really seem like that much - but apparently it doesn't really snow that much here, it just gets cold. The weather brought out the stories from locals (or quasi-locals) of winters past, in particular one when it was -30F for weeks on end. Please no.

Anyway, the picture above is in the courtyard of our apartment building as the snow was just getting going, looking at the wall separating us from the next building's courtyard. It was shot at night (well, 6:00 PM, which is well into night these days), because the weird snowstorm light seemed cool. But then the long exposure made it seem sort of day-lighty, except for the lights in the windows. It also turned out boring, so the staff photographer had to put someone in the frame to add some contrast. There weren't a lot of volunteers out in the freezing cold.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It gets cold here.

Remember this picture? Well, that was weeks ago. Now it is seriously, miserably cold out. So-called "experts" with high-tech "thermometers" say it's right at 32F, wind chill around 15F. But the staff photographer was out there on assignment for 15 minutes taking pictures and could barely feel his hands. The tropics have apparently made us soft.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reverse Angle

This is the view from the other side of the Freedom Monument (which is actually the front) on the night of the 90th anniversary celebration, where the crowd gathered for a celebratory concert (no celebration happens here without some singing). Then the concert ended and they all raced through the old town to claims spots along the riverside for fireworks. They managed to do it with urgency but without trampling anyone that we heard about.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy 90th Birthday, Latvia!

Yesterday was the 90th Anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Latvia. Your correspondent returned home in the nick of time to see some of the light displays they had set up around town (e.g. above detail of a street lined with suspended Latvian flag red-white-red fluorescent lights leading up to the Freedom Monument) and the big fireworks show over the Daugava. It was a fun night. It was also, literally, freezing. Our founding fathers were wise in declaring independence in July, surely foreseeing the pleasures of lazing about the park, waiting for fireworks. But anyway, good job Latvia on being 90!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Another November abroad...

...another Marine Corps Ball. And as we have newly declared a tradition, another Holla picture of The Lovely Katherine and some handsome young men in dress uniform. Whether fortunate or unfortunate, this year's entry was composed after several drinks had been consumed and the strict discipline for which the Marines are famed had been dispensed with. Your correspondent was apparently so inebriated that night, he failed to follow through on his long-considered plan to strategically untie his bow-tie with an hour or so left in the festivities so as to look like James Bond or Frank Sinatra or some other cool person who actually ties his own bow-tie. Opportunities were lost.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It got a little dusty at the Residence

The Ambassador's Residence, big party from 0600 to 0900 as the polls closed in California. And when Obama spoke, it became notably dusty and maybe some eyes were watering because of the amount of dust in the air and not at all due to the emotional content of the event.

A black president! The gracious concession! The story of the 100-year-old woman! America, ever moving forward! I don't think you had to be an Obama supporter to feel a little tug at the power of progress and history and reconciliation. But it probably didn't hurt.

We had a crowd of highly mixed party loyalties, despite the commonly known fact that the State Department is an infamous den of liberal America-haters. And we did have a fine time talking with assembled Americans (D) and Americans (R) and Latvians alike. But 0700 on a work day is a little early, and nary a hug nor a high-five was witnessed among the studiously non-partisan foreign-policy professionals. I'll admit that I wished I could have been back at home for some hugs or high-fives or even terrorist fist jabs.

In that spirit, no pictures of Latvia today. Above is one you've surely seen before, taken previously by a million other New York tourists. Below is the photo department's preferred shot from our stop at Liberty and Ellis islands en route to Latvia this summer, but "seagulls standing guard" doesn't really scream "America, ever moving forward," as the day demands.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Happy Election

This is a picture from Guatemala. We were hoping to find a somehow appropriate election day picture, but the pictures we had with the outgoing President in them seemed no longer apropos. So here is your correspondent, gazing off into the Future, seeking the next guy to ride Air Force One.

Your correspondent will be attending an election event at 6:00 tomorrow. That's 0600 AM. In the morning. When polls close on the West Coast, we'll be getting up and hosting a breakfast reception for various interested Latvians. (Interested and apparently early-rising Latvians, not exactly an easy or popular option in Riga in November.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Dusk in the Park

I don't really understand the WiFi phone booth. I guess if you have a laptop and want to sit outside and check your email, you can drop some coins in the booth and surf away. I would assume it is an effort by the phone company to keep phone booths relevant in an era where everyone has mobile phones. I don't think I've ever seen anyone use the WiFi phone booths, but you can't blame the phone company for trying.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Bus to Sarkandaugava

There are a ton of buses in Riga. Maybe it's just in the center, where we are, that they all converge. Riga also has trolleys and trams (which I guess in the U.S. we would now call "light rail" or some such) and jitneys and legit trains. And there are different tickets for them and different prices depending on if you buy them at newsstands or on the trolley. It's kind of a mish-mash, and a little more than we've really been up for figuring out. I suppose we ought to, after complaining about being barred from the seriously dangerous public transit in Guatemala, but why bother when we can walk to everything?

Some other, less refined, web-log referred to the people who ride buses here as "pensioners and smelly alcoholics," which maybe proves that there is more than unites the U.S. and Latvia than there is that divides us. Except we also have dangerous-looking thugs on our buses.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Riga may have as autumn-y an autumn as anywhere we've lived in a while. San Francisco and Guatemala are mild all year. DC has a nice autumn, but somehow, it just doesn't compare. Maybe not enough trees, or we just didn't pay them any mind. Here in Riga, our walk to work takes us by several blocks of parks that are just packed with deciduous trees. The park across the street from the Embassy is seriously post-card level autumnal with streetlights glowing and orange and yellow leaves reflected in the canal's water. They have squadrons of leaf-rakers out clearing the grass, but they barely keep up.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Octopus Attack

For the 23rd consecutive time, our plans to quickly post some thoughts and pictures from a jaunt elsewhere in Europe and then get back to the Latvian content have gone awry. Ah, well. We have some more stuff from Athens, which we'll save for later. Since fall is now long gone in Riga, perhaps we'll post some pictures of autumn here within a few weeks. The above is a picture from the Archaeology Museum that proves that some 3000 years ago, the people of the Greek isles founded capitalism by mass-producing golden octopus trinkets of no apparent use, not unlike the Greek souvenir trinkets now available on the streets around the Acropolis, except, made in Greece.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Athens (con't)

The editor-in-chief is getting annoyed at some of the technical problems with our contracted web publishing service. While we get that sorted out, this is another picture of some columns, cleverly non-fluted at the bottom for easy leaning on by those crafty ancient Greek dudes.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Athens Some More

We were trying to post this last night, but Blogger was down. Now we have no time to write. Sorry, word fans.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I would like to be the ten millionth person to note that this thing that the Greek Honor Guard guys do in front of their tomb of the unknown soldier has to be the inspiration for the Monty Python skit about the Ministry of Silly Walks. It is really, truly, um, something to see. And then like the proverbial icing on the cake, they wear these pom-pom shoes. I gather that these kind of things are intended to be a demonstration of complete denial of self, the individual broken down and now part of a greater whole. And not to imply that I could properly execute the official Greek Guard Walk if I had to. But some countries (ours included, I would say) manage to do their precision guarding while looking kinda bad-ass, and some, less bad-ass. But I suppose lots of people stand real still or slowly do mini-goose-steps, but the Greeks have the big Rockette-kick-steps to themselves.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


We went to Athens. I had a conference to attend, but we went a little early to see some old stuff. This is a temple that, if I understood the little sign correctly, has actually stood like this for about 2500 years. Most of the old stuff in the Acropolis has been blown up at least once in one of Europe's periodic sprees of blowing up all of their stuff, and then restored. The Parthenon was restored, but they did it wrong, and now they've been trying to do it right for several decades, so it has permanent scaffolding around it. It was still pretty cool, and the view there of the sprawl and smog of Athens was more impressive. But the Temple of Hephaestus here did a better job of not getting in the way or being a likely hiding spot for Turks or whoever someone was trying to blow up at the time, which counts for a lot in our book.

Oh my, do we have a lot of pictures of Athens. We promise to not show very many of them here. Editing is a skill, we hear.

Friday, October 17, 2008

They say it's my birthday...

It's your birthday, too, yeah...

I'm just back from sunny Athens. Good times were had, foods involving vegetables were consumed, things 2500 years old were observed. Now I'm a year older and the sun wasn't up yet when I had to go to work. How is that for symbolism? Well, bah. It's time to go out and drink some beer and enjoy despite the cold and the gray. We're off to Kapteiņa Enriko Pulkstenis, which means "Captain Enrique's Watch," a bar named for a beloved Soviet children's film in which a friendly Cuban Navy captain visits Riga and loses his watch, but is helped by fellow communist youth to find it and sail off. Then he busts through the capitalist blockade and brings Soviet nukes to Cuba. Ok, I made up the last part, but the film did teach one Latvian colleague at the embassy his only four words of Spanish. Quoth Kapteinis Enriko: "Muchas gracias, grandes amigos!"

Back soon with pictures of Greece.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Our work - for the motherland!

There are not actually a whole lot of obviously Soviet-looking things in Riga. And for good reason, your correspondent would say. Who would want a reminder of those days? Well, in truth, there are somewhat mixed feelings in some quarters, and one of those quarters is Daugavpils.

Daugavpils is Latvia's second largest city. It's near the Russian border, and with a concentration of ethnic Russians even higher than Riga's. I don't know that that means they miss communism more, but as is the case perhaps everywhere on earth, views of history tend to vary with ethnicity. One example is this sign, on a building overlooking one of the main roads through town. As indicated in the post title, it reads "Our Work - For the Motherland!" which sounds sufficiently communist to our ears that your correspondent can't imagine it lasting this long in Riga. Then again, maybe we're just not exploring the right neighborhoods.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Picture of a Door

It's late; we don't have time to write much, or to dig around for a really interesting picture. So here's a perhaps moderately interesting picture of a door that someone decided to make out of hexagons in Old Riga. Sorry.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Hoopin it up

For the record, Latvia's national sport is ice hockey. They have a pretty good team. Or at the least, they punch above their weight for a nation of 2.5 million.

But the runner-up is basketball. ASK Riga (short for "Army Sports Club", no relation to the English word it spells) is a legendary team, having won several European titles back in the day when I can't imagine that many Europeans actually played basketball. A co-worker who is a big basketball fan offered me one of his courtside tickets for yesterday's game, when ASK triumphed in a Baltic Basketball League tilt against Lithuanian rival Žalgiris. Not that courtside seats were such a huge deal - it was far from a sellout - but as with everything, it was fun to be up close, even if the quality of basketball wasn't quite NBA-caliber.

The majority of the teams are Latvian or Lithuanian guys, but each team had a couple Americans and at least one Serb and/or Croat. Why the Balkans, I'm not exactly clear. One of the Americans, named Corey Brewer - but not the more famous basketball-playing Corey Brewer - played for the Oklahoma Sooners for a couple years in the late 90's, and has been playing in developmental or Eurpoean leagues ever since. I wonder what it's like for the few American athletes, living in a place like Riga, Latvia for the chance to keep playing professionally. It probably differs from being posted here as a diplomat in several relevant regards.

The photo above is from the ASK Riga webpage, photographer unknown.

Friday, October 03, 2008

More Jugendstil

I don't really know architecture from a hole in the ground. I can't tell a Georgian from Tudor from a Victorian. But I think mostly what they have in San Francisco is Victorians, and I think from this view, this building looks like something you might see out near the Panhandle -- a Victorian, perhaps. Except with a giant face stuck on there. The Victorian part is probably all wrong, but I'm pretty sure about the face.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

New School

We're sure to have another report from another far-flung locale soon, but for now, we're back in Riga. Our neighborhood here is amazing. We live on the edge of the Art Nouveau district (or, the Jugendstil district as it's known, since there were more Germans than French hanging around Riga in those days). When your correspondent thinks of Art Nouveau, he first thinks of perhaps the Paris Metro. Riga is considered a capital of Jugendstil, at least in terms of what's surviving today. And the style here, mostly, means screaming people. We have many buildings in the blocks around us that feature figurative details. As often as not, those figures' faces look like they're witnessing a train wreck, or passing a kidney stone, or trapped in a room with two guys talking about their Fantasy Football teams. It is not yet clear to me what it was in the zeitgeist of those days that made architects think, "when someone looks at this building, they should see the building looking back and seeing the abyss of mortality." Or something. Apparently it was "new."

The above picture is at the very top of the facade of a six-or-so-story apartment building.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Stockholm, part the last

Hey, so that's it. Sweden was swell. We made it through four days of temptation without ever relenting and actually saying aloud, "Bork Bork Bork!" I.e., the trip was a success. Next time we might actually get back to saying something about Latvia, as was kinda the point all along.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Stockholm by air and by land and by sea

If only the bright boat there were sailing rather than just sitting obscured by a streetlight. Anyway, it wasn't a particularly productive trip for the photo department, but climbing up to a hill on the island opposite the old town on a last afternoon to find a series of hot-air balloons floating (at seemingly dangerous altitudes) over the city was a definite highlight. The balloons seem so out of place that to our photo editor's eyes, in many shots they look photoshopped in, even though we know they weren't.

We failed to get a picture we planned on using to demonstrate it, but Boston:Dunkin' Donuts::Stockholm:H&M. There were literally street corners downtown where you could see three or four H&M retail locations within a block or two. One quite stylish Swedish woman your correspondent talked with said she does all her shopping in the U.S., because she was tired of all the H&M that predominates Sweden. She was too polite to say so, but it probably doesn't hurt that you can probably buy a cashmere sweater in the U.S. for the price of a cup of coffee in Stockholm.

In other world-beating Swedish retail news, the Swedes say Ikea "ee-KAY-uh," and it's theirs, so they must be right. Other Swedish sources indicate that everyone from the lowliest drone to the grandest millionaire in Sweden has some furniture from EeKAYuh. We only know this from work-related sources, because unlike the carpet-bombing approach of the H&M, even in Stockholm, Ikea only has warehouse stores in distant suburbs. In any case, if you want to start getting snobby about authentic pronunciations of your some-assembly-required bookshelves, you have the appropriate ammunition.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Water Everywhere

Stockholm is a great walking city. You have a small section of old winding streets and medieval-feeling churches and homes (although most of them are full of shops selling tourist tchotchkes - one of the best things about Riga's Old Town is that the tchotchke factor is fairly limited); you have an efficient grid-layout modern section of town with neighborhoods and street-level retail; and maybe best of all, you have water all over. Stockholm is built on a series of islands, and it makes for lots of pleasant waterfront bars and cafes and such. We spotted these people taking turns paddling against the current coming over a spillway under a bridge. They weren't hard to spot, since there were twenty or thirty people leaning over the bridge staring at them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Archipelago

We went out on a boat on three-hour tour, and did not get stranded on any islands. There were no coconuts to be seen anyway, which was the key to all of Gilligan's hijinks, anyway. The archipelago of islands great and tiny stretching out from Stockholm is pretty in a windswept and grey kind of way. It's not unlike Maine. We passed the first ever automatic lighthouse. The boat tour featured an on-board brunch (for those of means) that featured Swedish delights such as some sort of cold herring casserole.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Old Tallinn

How adorable is this? A perfect little row of olden houses with perfect little white clouds above. Not perfect: the exposure on the picture, but oh, well.

Anyway, Tallinn's Old Town oozes charm. Maybe to it's detriment. Some argue that Riga's less-charming Old Town is actually better because it doesn't have enough charm to attract quite so many cruise ships, and therefore it's still-pretty-nice buildings don't all contain tourist trinket shoppes. Being fair, Tallinn's old town is a nice mix of tourist trinket shoppes and bars catering to bargain-hunting Finnish drinkers. There were also some art galleries and some restaurants, though your correspondents had absolutely no shame in going to "Route 66 American Pizza," which The Lovely Katherine pointed out we would never do if we had come to Tallinn from America on a vacation. But being local to the region, Estonian food is not so different from Latvian food. And a man can only have so many meals of breaded meat and potatoes over two years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


This is the Orthodox Cathedral in Tallinn. It has a proper name, but your somewhat lazy correspondent doesn't have his field notes handy and isn't going to go get them just to put the correct name on this church. The inside was quite impressive, but they didn't allow pictures. Outside the Cathedral (and Riga's Orthodox Cathedral, and maybe every Orthodox Cathedral), there were several older ladies with headscarves (one might even call them "babushkas," I suppose) begging for alms. It seems that there are never men - apparently they're otherwise occupied, or begging is women's work or something. I gave them each 10 kroons, which is about a dollar, but is paper money in Estonia, where they have notes worth as little as 20 cents U.S. In Latvia, by the way, they have coins all the way up to a $4 coin, which for some reason has a picture of a cow on it. It's an easy way to lose serious cash to seat cushions at movie theaters or public buses. Or church pews, I suppose, to weakly attempt to tie this back together.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


This is a liquor store that was near the apartment we stayed in, home of a fellow Foreign Service Officer in Tallinn. It was the most no-frills, clinical, fluorescent, and large display of liquor your correspondent has seen. This is but a detail because it was impossible to catch it all. The liquor is all behind a counter, so the bottom shelf here is about waist-height, and the top was at least 12 or 13 feet up; this captures maybe a quarter of the width of the whole thing. And that's all there was to the store. No extra doo-dads for sale at the register. One long counter, one till, one wall of liquor.

They drink a fair bit in these parts. Our Latvian teacher always told us that the attitude here is that beer isn't really alcohol. There is a certain small portion of the population of Latvia that really enjoys vodka, as evidenced by the way they smell on Sundays or on trains or really, now and again, anywhere and everywhere.

Monday, September 15, 2008


So, on the way to and from Helsinki, we spent some time in Tallinn, Estonia. We quite enjoyed it. They have an Old Town that is surely the model for those little diorama houses that moms (not my mom, but some moms) set up around Christmas. This is a really old clock, from the side of a really old church.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


These are the little stickers they give you as a ticket when you enter the Kiasma, Helsinki's contemporary art museum. I kind of imagined that the art there would be amazing because weird contemporary art seems like the kind of thing Finns should be really good at. In a victory against stereotyping, it was like any contemporary museum with some really good pieces and a lot of blah ones. And then you leave, and if you're like a lot of people, you put your sticker on anything handy near the exit.

That's all from Helsinki. Moving on next time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


The staff had a good time in Finland. We rented bikes and pedaled about; we saw some art; we sipped coffee at cafes on the sidewalk like the continental sophisticates we are. It was all lovely except for trying to get dinner.

One of our day-job co-workers is, in fact, a Finn. She grew up in Helsinki and now claims that she knows nothing about it, and only goes to the country house with the sauna when she visits our homeland. Our primary source of information thus dashed, we were stuck with Lonely Planet to guide us to a restaurant we could afford and also enjoy. Feeling the casual Finnish vibe, we didn't change out of our jeans. So we picked a spot, somewhat outside the center, and enjoyed a longish but pleasant walk up there, The Lovely Katherine worrying about whether we could get in wearing jeans and your correspondent assuring her she was crazy. We arrived at our destination, and there were a couple occupied tables and about 30 unoccupied ones. And we were turned away. No reservation. We decided maybe Finns eat late, and tried another establishment nearby. Again - no reservation, no luck.

Now, these places were not exactly busy. And while I know the Europeans eat a bit later than us, it was already 8:00 or 8:30 by this point. Unless they had a ton of reservations for 9:00, we were being denied either for wearing jeans, or for not being locals.

So we walk back towards downtown, figuring we'll find something. And places are looking fancy or full, and we wind up at a tourist trap listed in the trusty Lonely Planet, and it's at earliest 9:00 and we're hungry and we've been walking all day. So we settle on the tourist trap, because they're obviously happy to serve tourists in jeans. We each have one beer, I have a reindeer filet (it was a minor goal to have eaten reindeer, I'll admit), the Lovely has stewed beets because they're out of the fish. It is eminently unsatisfying.

The tab? $100. Plus tip. I'm not kidding. Two beers, one real meal, and a pile of steamed beats - $100. Putting the "trap" in tourist trap. We consider ourselves fairly seasoned travelers, but obviously not seasoned enough.

Anyway, above is a cool old car on the streets of Helsinki. Since we have more Helsinki pictures than Helsinki stories, we'll add: here's a picture of a guy selling potatoes from a boat. Neither has anything to do with the story.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

More Churches in Helsinki

It's another church! In Helsinki! And crazy clouds! Something different next time.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Rock Church

Picture before last (not the one with the furs and the knives) was taken on top of this, the Temppeliaukio Kirkko or "Rock Church." Helsinki is built on a rocky coastal area. Sometime in the 60's or so they got bored with building their churches on top of the rocks, and decided to drill this one out of a rock outcropping, making a sort of artificial cave-church. Hey, why not? It's actually quite pretty inside. If I knew more about the Bible I would guess there's some clever joke I could make about Peter being the rock that the church was built upon and this being like going to church inside Peter's stomach. If you can actually turn that into something clever or funny, feel free to post it in the comments. Comments about the house band at the "Rock Church" will also be considered.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Consumer Opportunity

I am sorry to report that we did not spend any money at this stall at the Helsinki market. Very tempting of course, and surely a spot frequented by locals whenever they need furs. And also knives. A lot of stores would probably do more business if they added "Also Knives" to the end of their name. Would you rather shop at Toys 'R' Us, or Toys 'R' Us, Also Knives?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Of Helsinki

Traveling here in Europe is a bit different from traveling in Guatemala. There, we would wander off on some weekend trip and find some modest-sized town with some colorful local flavor and surely something odd to spice things up. In Europe, on the other hand, we travel for a few hours, and we're in a relatively important world capital that has its own local charm to be sure, but is also in some respects a lot like developed cities all over. That's only sort of a complaint.

We had a fabulous time in Helsinki. It felt almost like America, which can surely only be true in comparison to Latvia, and is mostly meant as a compliment, however the Finns might take it. Of course it was very Nordic, with bike lanes everywhere and cool inventive architecture and blondes in every direction. But there was also, on the surface, more racial diversity than Latvia, and better stores and bars and coffee shops. They may be a bunch of socialists, but they were never communist subjects, so they just seem to get the kind of capitalism that makes us feel at home. Or maybe, it's just that when some minor consumer inconvenience arises in Latvia, we instantly think "these poor people, recovering from Soviet oppression. They just don't know how things should work," when the same problem could easily happen in the U.S. and would have us asking to see the manager. (Well, maybe some of us. I don't think I've ever asked to see a manager in my life. I don't want to meet the manager; I only talk with the waiter because sometimes I'm too lazy to cook. Maybe that's what set my course for foreign living.)

Anyway, the picture above is taken from the top of a church in Helsinki. No, really. More next time.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Farther North

Yes, they have stuff farther north than Riga. Whole nations even. We were surprised, too, but you can look it up on a map. Your faithful correspondents took advantage of Labor Day (American) weekend, when many Americans are enjoying a last bit of the summer heat, to go north to Tallinn and Helsinki, where it is practically winter already. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, is pictured above from the apartment window of a colleague posted there. More soon on Tallinn and on Helsinki, where your correspondent wore a sweater and a jacket all weekend and The Lovely Katherine even had to buy gloves to bear the chill of August in Finland.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lights on for Latvia

This year marks the 90th anniversary of Latvian independence. Of course, there were about 50 of those years when they were occupied by the Soviet Union. But it is a critical point of policy for them that they have been sovereign, if sometimes unjustly occupied, for 90 years - as opposed to being two separate iterations of independence. So, the 90th birthday it is this year. Friday marked 90 days before the 90th birthday, which is kind of an odd day to celebrate, but who are we to quibble? August 22 is also the first day that anyone recognized Latvia's independence after the Soviet era - on August 22, 1991, Iceland renewed diplomatic ties with Latvia. (On August 22, 2008, Icelandic band Sigur Ros played a concert at the hockey arena in Riga. We wanted to dispatch a correspondent but tickets were LVL40, or about $80. Ouch. We realize now it probably would have been worth it.) Of course, the U.S. never officially recognized the legitimacy of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in the first place, but Iceland still gets credit for being "first." It's all ever so complicated.

Anyway, the celebration was nothing formal; by common acclamation, it was decided that on this day, everyone should go out just after dark, with a candle, to a bridge - any bridge. That's all. The Akmens Bridge across the Daugava is a pretty big span, and there were a ton of candles out. There was also some sort of brief light-and-smoke show on the river (seen above in super-grainy nightvision). To be honest, we didn't really understand what that had to do with anything. Then again, the whole candle-on-a-bridge thing seemed a little random in the first place. But the President was there watching it (Latvia's President, that is, not W). The staff photographer almost bumped into him while strolling along staring at his camera. It's a bit easier for the President to get out among the people here than it is in the U.S.