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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Of Jurmala

This is the beach at Jurmala, the most fabulous resort of the former Soviet Union. For much of the Soviet era, Jurmala was the vacation hot-spot where all the big cheeses at the politburo went for their summer beach time. As we understand it, even today, people from Armenia to Kazakhstan think of Jurmala sort of like Americans might think of Miami Beach. Except at a latitude more like Alaska than Florida. The beach is nice enough. As you may note in the photo, it is like most of Latvia - quite flat. While we didn't attempt to swim, it looks like you would have to walk about a quarter mile out into the water to reach swimming depth. And while there aren't miles of high-rise hotels like Miami Beach, there are several nice hotels and restaurants, so we'll surely be back for more investigation. We are working to acquire the rights to the surely thrilling video of seagulls obtained by this unknown cameraman.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Direct Approach

Doesn't the label on a pack of cigarettes in the U.S. say something like "The Surgeon General thinks that maybe there's a possibility that someone who smokes like all the time while pregnant may have somewhat increased risk of birth defects" or some such? No such hedging in Latvia. This reads, simply, "Smokers die young." The other side has an equally large sticker that reads, even more simply, "Smoking kills." I'm guessing there was no representative from North Carolina on the committee that drafted that one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beating the Retreat

This is where we did the Embassy retreat. It was decidedly less rustic than the previous weekend's retreat. Not that it wasn't nice, but it was a little weird to find such a massive mowed-grass expanse out in the middle of the Latvian forest. While odd, it was also perfect for playing frisbee and such, since it's forbidden to walk on the grass in Riga's urban parks, which, to my thinking, kind of defeats the purpose of a park. A nice green space is better than none, but where do the kids play frisbee here?

In common with last weekend was the combination of sauna and swimming hole, which is apparently pretty central to a place being worth driving outside the city for. Not in common with last weekend were three giant trampolines, which were great for keeping the teeming hordes of Embassy children amused. In common with last weekend was a dinner of grilled shashlik (aka shish-kebabs), which is ubiquitous here. Not in common with last weekend was the price, where last weekend we grilled them ourselves and this weekend we paid for lodge-provided food as if they were some Michelin Three-Star restaurant serving world-class boiled potatoes and shish-kebabs.

The photo was taken from the top of the observation tower casting the shadow. While it's no Guatemala, Latvia still doesn't have the safety- or liability-consciousness of the US, and the tower was pretty wobbly and didn't have much in the way of guardrails. We risked all, and lived to bring you the evidence.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Another Lakeside Retreat

Another summer weekend, another trip to a cabin in the countryside. One of the highlights was a lunar eclipse visible in the dark country sky. Not that this photo taken with the staff photographer's not-quite-set-for-astrophotography kit does it justice. It was especially cool because I don't think anyone had any idea it was going to happen until it was happening. Maybe more thoughts soon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lakeside Retreat

A friend at the Embassy invited your correspondents along for a trip out to the countryside with a bunch of his Latvian friends this past weekend. The Latvian countryside is very pretty. It is not particularly varied, but what can you do with such a small bit of land? You get gently rolling meadows, or gently rolling woodland, and sometimes, lakes. But it's all pretty in the long evenings and one can see why it has long been a Latvian tradition to have a country cabin for summer enjoyment. (We hear, in unproven speculation, that the Soviets were also big fans of having a dacha outside the city because it kept people from just hanging around together in Riga and talking about how crappy communism is during lazy summer evenings. Authoritative research surely forthcoming.)

Anyway, we were whisked off to a lakeside cabin in far eastern Latvia, where the primary activities were waterskiing, dashing from the sauna to swim in the lake and then back again, drinking vodka, and driving whatever you call the paddle-boat-with-a-slide-on-back thing that the Lovely Katherine is captaining in the photo above. While not every country house has a paddle-boat-with-a-slide thing, apparently it is obligatory to have a sauna, which your correspondent has never been a fan of, but could get used to if there were always a picturesque swimming hole adjacent for post-sauna swimming.

Monday, August 11, 2008


A protest march went by the Embassy today, marching from the Freedom Monument to the Russian Embassy (quite near the Holla offices), where the protesters chanted and hollered for a bit, then backtracked to the Georgian Embassy for more positive chanting and singing. They carried roses and Georgian flags and home-made placards in Latvian and broken English. The guy in this picture gathered roses from a lot of the protesters, and while I didn't see where they went, I assume he laid them in front of the Georgian Embassy. Passions are definitely running high in Latvia, as the Latvians side with Georgia but the significant ethnic-Russian population disagrees.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Black cat, black cat! And, groceries.

So this is the famous (for Latvia) Black Cat building. There's a kind of funny story that goes with it. But not actually that funny. Maybe in terms of blog publication, it's approximately it's-winter-and- we're-trapped-inside-and- haven't-done-much- for-weeks funny.

But we did just buy food from NetGrocer. We refrained from having fish shipped to our door, but really, that is an option. Anyway, it's a bit odd how the shopping options here shake out versus Guatemala. Only now do we realize just how Americanized Guatemalan shopping was. Ok, we realized it then, but maybe after a couple years we took it for granted. They don't have black beans here. That is a staple food for right-thinking people everywhere. How do you make a good burrito without black beans? (They don't have pinto beans either, if that's what you were going to say. (And also, no tortillas, so we ordered those, too. (Oh, and salsa.))) Also, they sell Honey Nut Cheerios, but not normal, yellow-box Cheerios. There actually are a lot of ways that the Guatemalan mindset was more like the American than the Latvian is. We hope that through further experiences with Latvian gorcery shopping, we will be able to put our finger on them.

It's pretty crazy to think that a mere ten years ago, our valiant predecessors in the Foreign Service in Latvia had to live with post-Soviet grocery stores and no Internet Cheerios at all. Thank goodness we don't have to suffer through that horror.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Last of the speaking stones

A last couple pictures from the Speaking Stones exhibition. Tomorrow: Something else.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Runājošie akmeņi, continued

So if any of our faithful (and bored) readers checked, they would have found that "Runājošie akmeņi" means "Speaking Stones." This was a public art piece set up in one of the downtown squares, with about eight different video projections of faces on various boulders, each a different character talking about Latvia or telling a story. Some of them were a little hard to hear, but when concentrating, your correspondent could get the gist of what they were talking about. One example: "Why do we sing? Latvians know to sing, like salmon know to swim up a stream." And, in fact, each of the stones told its story on a loop, but then somehow every once in a while they would all sync up and sing one of the most well-known Latvian folk songs in unison, which got many of the viewers singing along as well. While the video projection trick is done more famously by Tony Oursler, the public nature of this piece was a nice touch. Also, the use of stones seemed to speak to the Latvian love of nature. It might have been better were it "Talking Trees" rather than "Speaking Stones," but then they might have had to chop down trees to bring into the city square, which would not have gone over well.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Runājošie akmeņi

These pictures were from an event concurrent with the Song Festival. Astute readers may be able to figure out what they are. Cheaters will just copy the title of the post and Google it. Everyone else will have to tune in tomorrow.