Thursday, December 31, 2009

Back on Monday or so...

rather than put up more junk. Happy new year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Summer in Latvia, part two!

More nostalgia for summer fun. Another blazing hot Latvian day - from the looks of things probably around 60 degrees F. Yes, we're only setting up this posting because we're probably on an airplane over the Atlantic as the computer publishes this, and we don't have anything better ready to put up on short notice. We hope to do better soon!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Summer in Latvia!

It's cold and gray in Massachusetts, and probably the same in Latvia. Or maybe black, rather than gray. In any case, here's a blast of the good times we're missing now. Summer days on the beach, sun shining, beer flowing, old dudes playing chess in speedos... if only we could be there now!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas in Riga, Actual Christmas Edition

Priecigus Ziemassvetkus from Riga via Gloucester, Massachusetts!

Sorry Santa's looking a little lethargic; it was cold in Dome Square this weekend! Maybe he should have been operating the hand-powered carousel to the left of the tree instead of hanging out by the mulled wine stands, but we're okay with whatever Santa has to do to get in the holiday spirit.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in Riga, Christmas Eve Edition

Rigans are a fairly hearty lot. They don't hang around outside in the winter as if temperatures many degrees below zero were no big deal, but they mostly don't let it stop them from getting out and about. Your correspondents endeavored to do some Christmas shopping at the Christmas markets of Riga, including this one on the far-less-touristy left bank of the Daugava (a neighborhood cleverly known as "Pardaugava" or "Across the Daugava"). It was a nice little market, and we apologize to each and every reader that we did not buy you a little felt wine-bottle cozy shaped like Santa Claus. In any case, it was well below freezing out, and yet this troupe were out singing and even playing the accordion and violin - which I have to guess is pretty tough when you can't feel your fingers. And while we were not convinced to buy any Santa wine-cozies, we wish there had been wolf-head hats on offer, as seen on the accordionist.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Riga, Continued

Did you know that Latvia was home to the first ever Christmas tree? It's supposedly a fact!

This is a tree set up in front of the best bar in Riga, decorated with fruits and vegetables. It is cold enough that no animals have made any attempts at the surely frozen-solid treats here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas in Riga

Happy Holidays from all of us at the Holla. We did just survive the shortest day of the year, which is pretty short here. So, we're escaping the cold and dark by heading to our satellite offices in sunny, warm Massachusetts.

Anyway, regular readers have probably noticed the staff photographer's recent fondness for night photography. There's ample time for it in Riga these days. This is one of Riga's Christmas markets. They're pretty modest compared to Berlin's, but they can be charming all the same. Sadly, they don't stay open to serve karstvins (Latvian for gluhwein, which is in turn German for mulled wine) to those passing through late in the evening.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Berlin Leftovers

I don't know where the time goes, but we should have had something else ready for today but we don't. So here are a couple more pictures from Berlin. The Christmas markets there are serious - with rides and everything. Not always great rides, but at least pretty substantial Ferris wheels like these.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Of Berlin: They have good bars

Just a fact. We had a local guide, which helped us in locating some winners. But hey, it's a big city with lots of young artsy types, no surprises. We recognize this isn't a revolutionary thought. We hoped to add some thoughts about a restaurant here, too, but we didn't get it together with the pictures and the words and whatnot. Next time. Maybe.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Of Berlin: A Clock

Love this clock. It's not a very unique picture, but it's a pretty unique clock. I want one for the Holla offices. This one is not in our offices, but at Alexanderplatz in the former East Berlin, which is nowadays apparently where all the young dudes go to throw up on themselves and pee in the street (not pictured).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Berlin: Graffiti and Hooch

Two items of note here:

First, the art on the left - not amazing but much cooler than the stuff on the preserved Berlin Wall. The shabby graffiti in the foreground, sadly, much more common. Berlin has to be one of the most graffiti-covered places your correspondent has ever been, and it ranges the whole gamut from amazing and clever to crappy tags on everything that's bolted down.

On the right - hooches as office space! I guess it's pretty common to use a container/trailer for an office at a construction site. I don't know if I'd seen many double-deckers. I'm almost certain I've never seen a three-story container office building with floor-to-ceiling windows on one side. They should start using these for housing at our Embassy in Kabul.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Of Berlin: In which much gluhwein is consumed

Why would one go to such a Northerly city as Berlin at this time of year? Well, for one, we were going south. But not by enough, and it was still bitterly cold and dark for a fair bit of our time there. The real is that The Lovely Katherine had to go there for work anyway. But another possible reason is that Christmas Markets are a big deal in Germany. Call it a nice coincidence. You couldn't turn around without finding someone selling wooden nativities or fragrant candles or (thankfully) gluhwein. Your correspondent, to be perfectly honest, is not a big fan of mulled wine. But, in this part of Europe, it's consumed less for pleasure than out of necessity, because you're out in the freezing cold looking at the little lighted stalls full of sterling silver jewelry and you need a drink but it's too cold for beer. (Believe us, we also tried cold beer. It was good, but not ideal.)

One interesting feature you would never find in the US is the street-food dish deposit. Whether for a bowl of soup or a mug of mulled wine, food was served in actual dishes, not styrofoam. Of course, they want their dish back, so you have to pay a couple euros deposit on the dish. And yet then again, each Christmas market had its own special design of mulled wine mug. Designs ranged from colorful if somewhat over-the-top "Christmas Market 2009" souvenir mugs that one could simply keep rather than get the deposit back, to hideous eyesores that you would have to pay a sane person to keep. Sadly, the staff photographer failed to capture any photos of these hideous mugs in their natural environment.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Of Berlin

Your correspondents were dispatched to Berlin this weekend. Nice town, Berlin. Apparently it has something of a troubled history -- you may have heard about it.

There are some sections of the wall still standing, as seen above and below. One of the remaining bits is entirely covered with murals of highly variable quality. These are pieces that are apparently 20 years old but were restored (or re-done) by the original artists in 1999, and then again on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall this year. Berlin is a pretty graffiti'd town, and a fair bit of it is pretty impressive. Most of the stuff on the wall was colorful and expressive and showed less attention to craft than some of the graffiti that is apparently applied furtively in the dark of night. But it did seem to speak to the times when it was originally created, so I suppose it succeeds on that level.

The above picture is taken from the "no-man's land" side of the wall, which you're still not allowed to walk around in. Below, the painted up side, with unidentified strangers.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Full Spectrum

The real dark days are here. We're officially are in "dark when you walk to work, dark when you walk home" territory. Your correspondent even resorted to using the full-spectrum "happy lamp" for a while the other day. We have nothing on these neighbors of ours, who have been blasting blueish light in what appears to be an entire room filled only with happy lamps for weeks now. Either they're really fighting off the winter blues, or they're growing pot and don't care who knows about it. We'll keep you posted if the cops come repossess the lights any time soon.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


This is on the highway heading from Riga toward Bauska. It's sort of in the middle of nowhere. We have no idea what it used to be, but it's attractively decrepit now. Or at least it was a few months ago when there was clear sky and sunsets from time to time.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Tough Times

Your correspondent went to a hockey game tonight. It was our second of the season, and we were saddened to find that in the intervening months, the cheerleaders have been laid off. This is surely a lagging indicator -- the economy here may or may not be bottoming out depending on who you talk to, but it will take time to trickle down to hockey ticket sales and then to hockey cheerleaders. But then again, not that I've been to a lot of NHL games, but cheerleaders have never struck me as an integral part of the hockey experience. Above is a picture from the game we attended in October, where there was a young dancing lady with pom-poms positioned at each of the entryways leading from the concourse with the beer stands to the seats.

Although our sample size is low, we can further surmise that the cheerleaders had no discernible impact, as the Riga Dinamo lost each game we've attended by two goals.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Port of Riga

Also some time ago, your correspondent went on a tour of the Riga Freeport. They have a headquarters with offices and conference rooms but also a collection of olde-timey sailor stuff, like old sextants and a big framed board displaying at least a hundred different knots you may want to learn.

But the highlight of the tour was a boat trip down the Daugava to the control tower. I had not previously realized that a seaport (or at least, this port) would have a control tower like an airport does. And really, in the grand scheme of how big the port is, they couldn't really see that much of it even from the tower.

But maybe that was because it was sort of a foggy day, which decreased visibility but greatly increased the atmospheric feeling of being at a port, which just ought to be foggy. I did not personally witness any "On the Waterfront"-style strong-arming by longshoremen's unions, which might be another atmospheric thing one might see at a port. But the foggy views were enough for one day.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Reports on some of the random events in Latvia in recent months have been put off in order to report promptly on our frequent European travels. To whatever portion of our modest readership really wants to hear more about life in Latvia: sorry we've been gone so much, but they put so many holidays in November.

In any case, way back in late October, the U.S.S. Ramage, a missile destroyer, came for a stop in Riga. This is nice for the sailors since they get to escape the ship for a bit, and it's nice for the Embassy because we get to invite some people we like to go check out a destroyer and build goodwill. Also, while escorting our guests, we diplomats ourselves get to check out the ship.

What I can tell you after intensive investigation: First, a destroyer is a big ship -- Too big, really, to get a cool picture of while you're actually on the ship, or even nearby. Second, for the purpose of hosting snazzy diplomatic functions like the one your correspondent attended with various Lativan VIPs, the U.S.S. Ramage sails all over the world with a mold for making a big American eagle ice sculpture that can be displayed with the platter of cocktail shrimp or such. If you want lots more information about the Ramage itself, your correspondent will have to refer you to wikipedia.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Of Poland: The Cheap Thrills of Night Photography

One thing Poland and Latvia have in common? They're both dark a lot these days. Something else in common? Flowers. I'm not sure where they import cut flowers from during November/December but it's got to be a decent distance from both Latvia and Poland. And yet there was a decent-sized flower market in Krakow, as in Riga.

One difference: Although the highways in Poland are notoriously terrible, I don't think there are many six-lane highways going through Riga, as the one pictured below in Warsaw.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Of Poland: Don't forget the beer!

Also in Krakow: A lot of really good bars. An embarrassment of good bars. We couldn't visit them all. Didn't stop us from trying. I guess if you want a town with good bars, it doesn't hurt to have a lot of students and a seasonal burst of tourists to keep them rolling in cash.

In Warsaw: Not so many good bars. The above picture is from a typically Central-European bar; I.e., a dark basement with a bunch of wooden tables and a tap somewhere. Lucky for Central Europe, they have good beer. The other bar we stopped by in Warsaw did feature maybe the happiest, drunkest group of 50-year-olds I've ever seen, so at least they were putting the bar to good use.

Below: Walking proof that the people of Krakow are dedicated to the lively art of beer consumption, or at least getting money from tourists who are.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Of Poland: Le Waffle

Continuing our thoughts from yesterday about street food: Our hosts home is across the street from perhaps the nicest park in Warsaw. They report that Poles line up "for hours" during the summer at the waffle stand in the park, which is thankfully open year-round so we didn't miss out on this cultural experience. Also: peacocks! He wanted waffle, but left disappointed.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Of Poland: Cuisine

If you watch as much CNN International in various hotel rooms as our correspondents do, you have surely seen the near-infinite array of tourism and/or "someone build your factory here please" ads for random countries from Malaysia to Montenegro. Well, Poland's ads tout their wonderful cuisine, fresh produce, and innovative restaurants. It sounds like a joke - surely Polish cuisine is like all its Eastern European brethren: fry pork, boil potatoes and cabbage until soggy. Well, yes and no. We had one really nice meal in a restaurant in Krakow. (We had another really nice meal in Warsaw, but that was Thanksgiving dinner cooked by an American, so, disqualified.) Nice ingredients, well prepared, a step above what you'd expect.

Of course, our other meal in Krakow was, as pictured above, pierogis bought outside at the Christmas market on the square. And really, they were delicious. In fact, I would say that if I could choose to have in Latvia either the restaurant we ate at the night before, or the street food options we had for various snacks in Krakow, I would undoubtedly choose the latter. Latvia, I love you, but where is your street food?

Thankfully, one thing Latvia and Poland share is Christmas market mulled wine. We made many stops at the cleverly barrel-shaped wine stand below, and look forward to similar in Riga sometime soon.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Of Poland

OK, even your correspondents are beginning to get a little tired of being in Riga so little. But such are the burdens of being an international journalist and part-time diplomat. We only have so much time in Europe, and there's a lot of Europe to see.

So, we went to Poland. Good friends there, and good pierogis, and old castles. Find here pictures with serious technical problems that we like a lot anyway, from Warsaw (top), Krakow (bottom), and somewhere in between (in between).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Of Copenhagen: Special Saturday Edition on The Famous Tivoli Gardens

If you buy a guidebook to Copenhagen, the number-one sight typically listed is the Tivoli Gardens, a park with rides and shops and shows and such. They're closed in November. But here are a couple pictures of what you can see from the outside.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Of Christiania (Copenhagen)

This is outside the show from yesterday's post. (It's the front door that I didn't find, because it faces on a dirt road rather than the proper street.) Having come in via the wrong way, I didn't see the big signs indicating that they would prefer visitors didn't snap any tourist photos in Christiania. Being a self-proclaimed independent "free town," there is some fairly lax enforcement of drug laws. And maybe other laws. Luckily, nobody beat me up or smashed my camera or anything. Of course, I was giving the hash dealers a pretty wide berth. On the more typically licit side of things, they had a pretty good post-show kebab stand.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Of Copenhagen: Yo La Tengo

This is a post about the rock band Yo La Tengo. They are very popular in a certain scene. But some of this publications older readers probably haven't heard of them. In any case, I want to start by thanking a band called the Handsome Furs, who are, to my knowledge, the only indie-rock band to come through Riga in my 18 months here. We've had a couple of the really big R.E.M.- or Metallica-size tours, but not many club shows. I guess Riga is just too small and too far away from other big cities to making touring here economical for the little guys.

But somehow, Copenhagen is firmly on the European tour itinerary for the indie rock bands of America. I was combing the listings before my trip there, and the number of great bands coming through was really amazing. But there was nothing advertised for the time I was there. Then, wonder of wonders, in a free "what's-on" paper I found on the train in from the airport, a listing for indie-rock institution Yo La Tengo - 8:00 Saturday night!

The show was in Christiania, a squatter's community on a former military installation. The listing said 8:00, and not knowing how prompt showtimes are in Denmark or if it was sold out already, I endeavored to get there right at 8:00. Using a free handout map, I found the venue, but there was nobody standing around out front. So, I opened the door and wandered in... and found myself backstage. But there was nobody wandering around back there. So I wandered my way out to the appropriate audience area, and was faced with a dilemma. Yo La Tengo is (really) fairly popular and certainly capable of selling out a modest venue. I had accidentally snuck in to the show. I really didn't mean to. But now I was afraid that if I went out and came back in, they wouldn't sell me a ticket. So I stayed. I didn't feel bad for the venue, embracing the whole squatter ethos of Christiana, I didn't feel like I owed them anything. I did buy a couple beers from them.

I felt sort of bad for whatever ticket money I was stealing from the band. So I bought a concert t-shirt for the first time in probably ten years. My understanding of music-world economics is that the band makes a better margin on t-shirts than tickets anyway. Looking around once the show started, I don't think it was sold out in the end. Sorry, Yo La Tengo.

Anyway, thanks to arriving early and being alone, I managed to get a spot in the very front, and took my first stab at concert photography. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Of Copenhagen: Julebryg

There were several serendipitous surprises in Copenhagen. Long-time readers, real-life friends, and those who listen to gossip know that your correspondent is a fan of beer. Not that this puts me in very exclusive company, but I'm not drinking the beer to assert my individuality - I'm doing it to get wasted. Oh, I mean I like the taste.

Anyway, mid-November brings the annual rollout of Danish Christmas beers, apparently a quasi-holiday in its own right. One expat I was talking to there claims that they used to always introduce Tuborg Julebryg (that's Danish for Christmas Beer, if you're not good at picking up clues from context) on a November Wednesday, with marked increase in workplace absenteeism the Thursday after. The story then claims that the school system complained to Tuborg because so many teachers were showing up hungover/drunk/not at all/etc on that day, and being good corporate citizens, Tuborg moved Christmas Beer Day to Friday.

So anyway, they like the special Christmas beers, and your correspondent happened upon a small festival with a jazz band and a bunch of tents with samples of various micro- and not-so-micro-breweries' Yuletide offerings. There were definitely some younger folks there, but I would say the majority of the crowd were of more advanced years, as pictured above. We heartily endorse any culture whose older people come out for beer tasting fairs on chilly November days. I hope I'm doing likewise if I ever get old.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Of Copenhagen: Might as well

Our exclusive Copenhagen coverage keeps getting interrupted by other more timely matters in Riga. Then again, we have a bunch of pictures of Latvia from months ago that we have yet to do anything with. As for this picture, we don't think it says anything special about Copenhagen but we like it and don't have time to write much else. Everything seems to be working out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Marine Ball 2009

Another November, another Marine Ball. Just like the last two years abroad, November brings the "Prom for Adults" black-tie event of the Embassy year. And for the third year running (minus Latvian training in DC), The Lovely Katherine insisted on having her photo taken with our men in uniform. Can't deny that they're a photogenic lot, with their medals and all. Sorry that Sgt. Shay was left out of the picture on this one - it is certainly not because his service isn't appreciated, more that the photographer didn't really manage to get all of him in the original frame, what with the wine flowing as it does at such events.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Of Copenhagen: Oh yeah, Copenhagen

We were so wrapped up in the Proclamation Day festivities, we forgot we were telling you all about Copenhagen. The official young women's uniform of Copenhagen is tights and a fairly short skirt. All other details left to the wearer. But the tights and the skirt are required. Not that your correspondent was sad about this situation, but it was kind of striking how universal it was.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Staro Riga

A relatively new annual event in the days leading up to Latvian Proclamation Day is the Staro Riga (Shine, Riga!) light festival. For a few days, art installations are placed all around the city center, all of them using light in some way and intended to be seen at night. Some of them are random and interesting and border on something you could see in an art museum. I think the shirts above were in the former category.

These lamps were also neat, although not really site-specific in any apparent way, other than being big enough they needed to be outside. There were some other good ones that were a little tough to photograph.

Several pieces involved projections on the sides of buildings, some interesting and some a little cheesy like this one projecting eyes on the side of the powder tower. But through the barren tree branches, I guess they do look a little sinister. I hate to say that a lot of the art got worse from there, so I'll just stop.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Happy 91st Birthday, Latvia - updated!

Fresh off the presses, a more recent photo of the Freedom Monument - during tonight's celebration. Apparently there was some sort of "torchlight march" sponsored by one of the political parties. They came for the tiki torches, but stayed for - what else - a choral concert. There is no event that Latvians don't mark with choral singing. Your correspondent wasn't there for long, in part because shortly after he arrived, they sang "Saule, Perkons, Daugava" (Sun, Thunder, Daugava), which is very dramatic - some might (wrongly) say too much so - and is the clear highlight of every Latvian choir performance.

If you have a few minutes to kill, check out "Saule, Perkons, Daugava" from last summer's Song Festival. It doesn't start until a minute into the video, so they can be sure to feature the other staple of Latvian culture, the giving of flowers.

Happy 91st Birthday, Latvia!

November 18th is the 91st anniversary of the proclamation of the independent Republic of Latvia. As a bonus, it was actually sunny for a little while today. Of course, this picture was taken a while ago -- those autumn leaves are long gone. I have to say July is a pretty good time for an independence day, since it's usually nice out then. But you can't choose your history, so: A happy (and slightly less chilly than usual) birthday to Latvia!

I almost forgot to note for those who haven't seen previous pictures of it in this publication or elsewhere, those are the hands of the Freedom Monument, holding aloft three stars representing the three historic regions of the country, and essentially the symbol of Latvia.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Of Copenhagen: Neon

If you, like me, used to watch the Simpsons back the olden days, when the shows had plots and such some 15 years ago, you may remember an occasional gag where many of the obscure shops in Springfield had neon signs that blinked on and off in a way that made the neon a sort of animation. Well, to your correspondent's surprise and delight, Copenhagen has a couple of these. There are actually a lot of neat neon signs there - I think more than your average city, but maybe they're just better, so they stand out more. Above was as sign that looks like it's for spark plugs but was actually for a diner or something.

This one is an ad for Ga-Jol pills, whatever those are. Ga-Jol also apparently comes in alcohol form, and was spotted behind the bar next to the aquavit in at least one Danish pub. Anyway, this sign gave the impression that pills were flying out of the giant box of Ga-Jols and into the mouth of the wigged-out dude with the umbrella. I guess he was supposed to be sick or something, but the whole trippy motif made it look more like he was getting high and dangerously close to OD'ing on Ga-Jols.

Last, and almost certainly the champion was this sign for Antonius, whatever that is. In the little cartoon created by the neon, a pig is standing there, an angel flies down and lands before him. The pig runs over to the angel, who feeds him what look like they are maybe radishes. Then the billboard says "ANTONIUS." Repeat, infinitely. So the question to any visitor unfamiliar with the brand is obviously - what in the sam hill is Antonius selling? Radishes? A kennel for pigs? Google is not helpful. Maybe it's just a big piece of installation art.