Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Great Outdoors

Your correspondent had an opportunity, not too long ago, to get out of Riga and go see some of the beautiful Latvian countryside. Our section of the Embassy went on a "team-building" mission in the wild forests of Kurzeme. Of course, we were just doing this one afternoon, so a full Outward-Bound lost-in-the-wilderness experience was out of the question. And, in fact, seeing wildlife was out of the question, because we experienced the wilderness on the back of ATVs. The whole wilderness thing -- that wasn't really the point. We voted, and the ATVs came out way ahead of the ropes course and the trust falls. It was at a sporting resort of sorts, with a ski hill for the winter, and tennis courts and ATV-riding for the summer. It was, as I believe ATV-riding types say, "rad." We rode around a bunch of rutted, washed out trails, which made the "All Terrain" part of ATV pleasantly necessary. Also, I don't think the summer uses of the resort got tons of interest, as the tennis balls they had were all pretty dead, and the brakes on the ATVs only sort of worked. The guide was not exactly apologetic about the dangerously weak brakes, but he did us the courtesy of acting surprised and testing them out when we got back to the lodge and told him. (We couldn't tell him during the ride because the ATVs are loud and we were all wearing camouflage coveralls and motorcycle helmets, of which photographic evidence exists but is being held back from publication out of respect to my colleagues.)

The best part, which ensures that your correspondents will be back to this lovely resort, was the view of the ski hill, above. Yes, that's the entire hill. I am estimating about a five-minute rope-tow ride to the top and a quick five-turn, fifteen-second descent. But that is fifteen seconds more downhill than we ever had in Guatemala. Of course, this all assumes they get some snow this year. Apparently last year, despite being at (very roughly) the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, Western Latvia got almost no snow. We are hoping for some snow this year: It would be a shame to let such a fine ski hill go to waste.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Back in the days when this publication wrote more and used fewer pictures, most readers probably never saw a random photo project the photo department put together in the studio at the Holla's Guatemala City office. But now it's been turned into the cover of a book, published on actual paper, sold in actual stores, and written by some actual author of literary merit, unlike the hacks who write for this rag. If you're thinking you'd like to read it, it's a novel about ancient Roman poet Ovid's time in exile. If that's not enough to tempt you, it's in Spanish. I have a copy you can borrow if that's up your alley.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Last Song Festival Pictures

More words soon. In the meantime, check out the last few pictures of floral headwear from the Song Festival Parade over at Flickr.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Tumšais bruņinieks: Betmens pret Džokeru

Or, БЭТМЕН v. ДЖОКЕР! (For those not up on their cyrillic, that's roughly Batman v Joker. (And: No, you're not missing anything. The picture has nothing to do with the text; it's just more fun Song Festival hats. -ed.))

So your correspondent went to the movies here, and darn but they don't do it right.

First of all, huge theater, huge screen, balcony(!) all in a pretty new facility.

Second, you can get a beer at the snack bar, which now that I think of it, should have been first of all. And while it was in a paper cup, the large is still like a half gallon of beer. Good times.

Third, assigned seats, like at a concert. I recall hearing about this at a movie theater in L.A., and I'm honestly baffled as to why this hasn't swept our nation. I can only figure lots of theater owners are too cheap to attach numbers to the seats. The only other events I can think of that have tickets but are still General Admission are: rock shows where they don't even have seats and you wouldn't want to sit down anyway because you would stick to the floor; and the horseshoe freshmen- and sophomores-section bleachers at Folsom Field (Go Buffs!). Why shouldn't you be able to buy movie tickets in advance and go have dinner instead of lining up for the show to get a decent seat? Well, in Latvia, you can. End of rant.

Lastly, it is no end of fun to study your Latvian and Russian from the subtitles. This may be put to the test in any future movies with more straightforward vocabulary. But this time around, any sentence that features the Latvian phonetic approximation "Betmens" is ok by this correspondent. They don't even attempt something like the Spider-Man-in-Spanish "Hombre Araña." Of course, Batman in Latvian would be something like "Sikspārņa virietis," which would be a mouthful, and would mean "Man of Bat" or something. So, maybe they're right. But still, "Betmens."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Killing Time

With the combination of it being a gorgeous, sunny weekend, of which there is no guarantee that we'll have many more at this Northern latitude, and with the Lovely Katherine making a brief 21-hour appearance in Riga before shuttling off for further important work errands in Canterbury of all places, your correspondent spent most of his time exploring the beer gardens of Latvia and not much time composing profound thoughts about them. We promise to think of something profound to say about Latvia soon.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Song Festival

So the Song Festival is now ancient history; weeks have passed. But such is the distinctly unbloglike publishing schedule of the Holla. In any case, our correspondent managed to attend three events: A dance performance in the hockey arena, which was not unlike really professional square dancing; A concert where the greatest stars of Latvian music played updated versions of folk songs, including one set to the Marimba - the national instrument of Guatemala; and the dress rehearsal for the closing concert.

The closing concert itself was a tough ticket to get, but from watching on TV, it wasn't too terribly different from the rehearsal. The point was the same - a choir of 12,000 participants singing traditional Latvian songs, some merely pleasant, and some downright moving. Unfortunately, the photo department's camera was deemed "professional" and therefore not allowed into the concert. There was no internet handy to show them just how unprofessional this publication actually is, so we went armed only with the camera on our snazzy new Euro mobile phone. We captured some pictures of the 12,000 person choir that we are now unable for the life of us to get off the phone and onto the internet. So, if you ever visit, we'll show you the pictures on the phone. Or, you could check out the pictures taken by the official Song Festival photographers here and here to get a view of the giant stage they've built for a choir that big.

Anyway, singing is seriously a big deal here. It's really striking how strongly the Latvians feel singing is tied to their culture; and not pop-star singing, but communal singing by the people. There were lots of young people participating in the group singing of folk songs, and from what I could gather, not under duress.

And it is a powerful tradition. The first Song Festival happened in 1873. More recently, the Baltics' independence from the Soviet Union came in what is sometimes known as "The Singing Revolution." Gathering together to sing patriotic or traditional songs was an important part of the popular protest against Soviet rule, perhaps most famously in Estonia, but also importantly in Latvia and Lithuania. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have arrived just in the nick of time to see the current manifestation of this tradition. Book your tickets now for the next one in 2013.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


...the internet hookup guy shows up. As astute readers have noticed, the photo department has to some extent been running the show lately. And once the neighbors with the good internet signal moved out, we've been unable to get pictures uploaded, which has put a damper in our publishing schedule. But as of tomorrow (knock on wood) we'll be up and running and firing on all cylinders and such.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Don't Be That Guy.

All evidence available from the people walking toward the hockey arena tonight indicates that in Latvia, there is no unwritten rule that says you don't wear a Metallica t-shirt if you are going to a Metallica concert. Any metal fans in the audience feel free to provide evidence of whether this is a Latvia thing or if Metallica fans in the U.S. would also show their Metallica pride while going to the Metallica show.

As an aside, our Ambassador was given a pair of complimentary tickets to the Metallica concert. What a moment for supporting diplomacy through international appreciation of the lively arts! Perhaps he and various Latvian dignitaries can bond through their shared love of old-school favorites like "Creeping Death" and "Seek and Destroy." Your correspondent was not offered a chance to accompany.

Editor's note: We apologize for the last couple posts being somewhat less than profound, but given intermittent internet problems, we're a bit worried about typing anything long or serious that might get lost in the cyber-void before we have a more certain connection. And we're not currently inclined to drag the laptop to a cafe with wi-fi. Sorry.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Two Lies and a Truth

When telling people we were re-locating to Latvia, the most common response was a look of surprise, followed by an attempt to put on a pleasant face while searching the mental stacks for any information about this "Latvia." The less geographically inclined, or perhaps just the more honest, would say. "Oh! ... Where is Latvia?" The more pop-culture-addled would occasionally offer one of the following:

1. "Oh! ... Isn't that where Latka on Taxi was from?" Truth: No, lovable mechanic Latka was from an unidentified, fictional island in the Caspian sea. His name was similar to Latvia, his supposed origin was not.

2. "Oh! ... That's not where Doctor Doom is from, is it?" Truth: No, thank goodness. The arch-enemy of the Fantastic Four was from the fictional principality of Latveria. Furthermore, this fictional country was fictionally located in the Carpathian mountains, near Transylvania, thereby making it extra spooky.

3. "Oh! ... Didn't George from Seinfeld want to marry a girl from the Latvian Orthodox Church?" Truth: Yes! Apparently the only genuine reference to Latvia in all of American pop culture is "the one where George converts to Latvian Orthodoxy for a girl he's dating, while a Latvian Orthodox nun wants to abandon her vows so she can date Kramer." The ever-reliable Wikipedia claims that the writer thought he was making up a fake order, but the Latvian Orthodox church is real. So, one pop culture reference, ever, and then by accident. Oh, well: Better than having that horrible Dr. Doom hanging around Riga.

Internet problems continue, making photo-uploading difficult. But as always, we are doing our best for you, the loyal Latvia-loving public.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Please stand by...

Technical difficulties have made it hard for us to publish as frequently as we would like to. With luck, within a week we'll have internet hooked up in the sprawling new Holla office complex in the beautiful and historic Art Nouveau district of Riga. Until then, sorry.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Here they come...

Clear the way, there's a new gang in town - the singing grannies.

We've been busy mostly attending Song and Dance Festival events for the last few days, but more on the celebration is coming this week. And then, we presume, Riga will return to normal and we'll be able to report on the everyday scene. Or, maybe it's already normal right now. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

For the Boys

It's not just the women who get to wear crazy stuff on their heads. Most of the guys just wear slightly funny hats. But some of them, in the true pagan spirit (as we understand it) go all-out with wreaths of oak leaves, which are somewhat bushier than the floral wreaths. According to the tradition, the oak is a symbol of masculinity, while linden is for the ladies. No word on whether this folk tradition was the inspiration for Cabbage Head.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Be Sure to Wear a Flower in Your Hair

It's interesting to see what is considered the "traditional costume" in Latvia. In Guatemala, traditional costumes abounded in everyday use, and they were quite striking to foreign eyes. In Latvia, however, they all just dress like Europeans (i.e., they dress like Americans with everything a size smaller and pockets in unusual places). So at some point they had to pick what moment in history, pre-European-sartorial-unification, was officially their folk costume for events like the Song Festival. Maybe Latvian women have been wearing shirts and vests and skirts like these for a thousand years. But I doubt it. The men's costumes, in particular, appear to be slightly funky 19th-century suits. The women's costumes are marked by a few important factors:

Some wear an elaborate shawl or cloak, with a special shield-like pin either holding the shawl on, although it's a bit hot for that now.

Many wear special colorful patterned woven belts.

But they all, without exception, get to wear something fun on their heads.

The options include the embroidered headband-hat seen in the previous post; a more daring crown-like hat (more pictures coming soon); and, perhaps most popularly, a wreath of flowers, of which three variations are visible above. More on flowers later, too.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Dziesma ir Spēks!

Song is strength! This is the motto of the XXIV Latvian Song Festival, being celebrated this week in Riga (along with the XIV Dance Festival, which would like to note that Dance is also strength, or perhaps power, or even vitality, depending on how you translate it). The Latvian national identity is very closely tied to singing (about which more later), and once every five years the whole country - and it feels like almost literally the whole country, which is possible in a country the size of Latvia - gathers in Riga for a celebration of their folk songs. Singing groups come from every corner of the country, wearing their traditional costumes, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. On Sunday, there was a parade where all of 38,000 of them strolled down the main boulevard of the capital for hours and hours. The staff photographer was there, long enough to fill up the memory card on the camera, but not long enough to see the conclusion of the parade.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tevzeme un Briviba

This is the monument to "Fatherland and Freedom" (Tevzeme, Briviba, respectively) at the center of Freedom Boulevard in Latvia. Most people let the fatherland side of the equation slide, and just call it the "Freedom Monument." It's more or less the symbol of Latvia, the same way the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of the U.S. As such, it represents the very lowest of low-hanging fruit for photography in Latvia. We're hoping the staff photographer gets it out of his system early.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Labvakar no Latvijas!

Good evening from Latvia! We apologize for not having a clever new name for the publication (yet), but we decided not to let that delay our reports from Riga. This is one of the central squares in Riga, facing the "House of the Black-Heads" on the right, with St. Peter's Church spire to the left. (We have it on good authority that the "Black-Heads" were not so named for any particular problems with acne.) This picture was taken at about 9:30 PM. Sunset is technically 10:18, but it doesn't really get dark until after 11:00. And the sunrise is technically at 4:37 AM, but your correspondent can personally confirm that it was light enough to wake him up at no later than 4:15 on his first morning here. We promise to not report on this fairly mundane topic too frequently, but it does mess with one's head.