Friday, January 30, 2009

Hooray for us!

This was sort of a conference center. It had a bunch of flags, which were given out as awards for the units that were the best prepared or most productive or showed the most Communist spirit. The one of these I can read has something to do with the winner of some sort of farming competition between two of the nearby towns, while others were about the school group that did the best job of preparing for the next year of classes. It's not exactly clear why they took an award for a school group down into a bomb shelter for decoration. Maybe as a depressing reminder that they once had children and farms and stuff.

Even more bizarre, now the conference room of the Ligatne bomb shelter is available for rental for your next party or meeting. Apparently, actual people have held wedding receptions in there. I'm not sure which boggles the mind more: the extreme advanced levels of irony one would need to hold a wedding reception in a bomb shelter decorated with communist propaganda, or the prospect that someone wanted to do that with no ironic intent at all. Further investigation required... but how?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cheer up, it can't be all bad!

Hello, comrade.

Welcome to the catacombs where you will be living for the next few months. We think it will be quite safe from all the radiation above. Of course, nobody's ever had a way to do a test run, so you never know. But we put a whole bunch of concrete and lead around this thing, and it just might work.

Anyway, here is your office. You will share it with some other comrades. Here you have very nice desk, and even an extra telephone.

What? Your quarters? Well, about that, this office is also where you will sleep. I'm sure you'll figure out a way to work that out between the four of you.

It is not clear exactly what your work will be in this office; perhaps make plans for our eventual world domination once it is safe to go back up above.

Well, no, there aren't really many women down here. I guess I hadn't noticed. Well, yes, now that you mention it, that may be a hitch in our long-term plan for Soviet survivors to dominate the world. I'm sure the Politburo have plenty of women with them in whatever bunker they're holed up in, so we'll figure it out eventually.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Red Phone

They actually had one in the bunker, and it's actually red. They also had these other phones that you can't dial - we gather you just pick it up and talk with whoever is on the other side. Perhaps if you're living underground because 99% of the world has been wiped out, you can't get too picky about your conversation partners.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


We were too cruel yesterday in saying that the only decorations were communist propaganda. Look at how those flowers liven up the cafeteria! Three months of living underground would just fly by in such cheery enivrons -- as long as you didn't stop to think that everyone you knew was dead.

Special apology to feed subscribers who may be seeing this for the second time because we don't know how to use a computer.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cold War Revisited

Not quite time travel, but close. Your correspondents visited a Soviet-era underground bunker where the leaders of the Latvian Communist Party and the Self-Defense Forces and the KGB were going to hang out for a few months in the case of a nuclear war. Under the terms negotiated when the Russian army left after Latvian independence, the shelter was pretty much abandoned as-is, and left empty and unused for ten years. A few years ago, it was opened to the public for tours. The decoration was limited to patriotic slogans, maps of fallout zones, and many images of Lenin.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Tank Museum

Another work trip called us to Daugavpils, Latvia's second city, far to the East. It was a fun trip, accompanying the Ambassador to the dedication of a children's welfare center that was one of many humanitarian projects in the region funded by the U.S. Military. Between the ceremony and other meetings, we got a tour of a privately owned tank museum. It was a collection of a dozen or so tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces, all crammed into one big garage. The most interesting thing is that as the collection is privately owned, and apparently the tanks still work, not all that long ago the owner would occasionally take one out for a spin in the streets. There was never a moment for your correspondent to be photographed in his business suit popping out of one of the tanks as it rolled along, Dukakis-style. Perhaps it was for the best that way.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oh, yeah, Latvia!

It was over a month ago that we last published anything about the ostensible subject of this journal, i.e. Latvia. Stuff has certainly been happening but we have been remiss, in part because of the traveling, and in part because we must be studiously in line with our day-job responsibilities in saying anything about events in Latvia that aren't focused on us going to a charming countryside retreat.

In any case, your correspondent was present at a large rally (estimated 10,000 people) in the heart of Old Riga a week ago. It was a political rally calling for the dismissal of the current parliament. (And to be clear, neither I nor any of my employers have any position about who should be in the Latvian parliament, since that is an internal Latvian matter. I attended as a interested bystander, not a supporter.) This protest, however, became notable in that after the protest ended, some of the youngsters who had gathered for a freezing-cold night of political discourse and no small amount of vodka decided that the next step would be to start breaking shop windows and trying to force their way into the Parliament building. Fortunately, your correspondent was called away to another event that evening, bidding farewell to our outgoing Ambassador, and did not get any pictures of young hooligans tussling with the police.

It really wasn't much of a riot by world standards, but according to many Latvians, it was the first ever in Riga. I'm not sure if or under what definition that's true, but if it is: what an odd bit of history to have been present for.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


In other exciting news about Norway, it's dark there these days. Latvia isn't quite as far North as Juneau, Alaska, while Lillehammer is more or less the same latitude as Anchorage. So the lifts started turning at 9:30 just as it was light enough to ski, and by 3:30, most of the terrain was too dark for comfort. Of course they try to extend the day a bit with some lighted runs, something your correspondent has always considered sort of a gimmick when it's available in America. It was much appreciated at Hafjell, because even though we were quitting at 3:30 to catch a bus back to our hotel, the last run down would have been a bit harrowing without the floodlights.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


This was the view from the top of the mountain, heading down to the only mogul run available during our time there. It was, as it looks, cold (about 10 F or -10 C) and windy and too cloudy to enjoy the reportedly spectacular views.

Your correspondent, in his travels thus far, has mostly tried to limit the number of small-minded "it's better back home" observations. It would be contrary to his day job as a diplomat. However, while we had a fantastic time and found the amenities nice, the Norwegian people helpful, and the teenage snowboarders no more obnoxious than our own, there's just not much you can do as a ski area if your mountain isn't all that tall. Even the highest runs on the mountain had intersections with cross-country ski trails, although that might say more about how tough the cross-country skiers are there rather than how small the mountain was. In any case, neither the terrain or the snow were quite up to Colorado standards. The Lovely Katherine, in fact, felt at home there because the occasional long stretches of ice and gently undulating slopes reminded her of her childhood home base at Mt. Abrams, Maine. Which is great for her, but also a comparison not universally understood as a compliment. For the next ski trip, we will perhaps see how the Alps compare with the Rockies.

Monday, January 19, 2009


We are back from another quick jaunt out of town. Norway, this time, and after what it costs to spend a few days in Norway, we may not be leaving the apartment let alone the country for a little while. We stayed in Lillehammer, which was very easy to get to thanks to some previous year's experience from traveling companions and the wonder of a device they use in Europe known as a "train." We skied at Hafjell, where some of the 1994 Olympic skiing events took place. As seen above, the Lillehammer Olympic Logo Cave Art Running Man Torch Guy is still carved out of the trees on the hillside opposite.

There was a sign at the top of one of the runs that said "Women's Downhill" in English, which your correspondent took to mean that it had served as the course for the ladies' competition in the fastest and most suicidal of ski races. Apparently not; as we discovered on a plaque near the lodge on the final day, the less-suicidal slalom races were held there. Fortunately, this knowledge came only after your correspondent thoroughly enjoyed zipping down the fictitious Olympic downhill course at speeds that bordered on suicidal given his skill level as a skier.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Another Random Istanbul Picture

The staff photographer was mildly amused by the contrast of the old and very traditional mosque and the bright-pink-soap dispensers at the foot-washing stations. Your amusement may vary.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

We have discovered the Auto-Publisher

Resistance is futile. The Holla is on the march. It only took us three years of this to bother to figure out such a basic feature of Blogger. Now, we will be relentless. In fact, as this is being published, we are shushing down the slopes of Lillehammer, Norway. Never again will our travel schedule be to blame for failure to post. If only we can find the Blogger feature that can automatically work around writer's block, laziness, and general lack of insight.

Above is a picture memorializing how cold it actually was in Istanbul. More throw-away photos coming soon, since we may be posting more often.

Friday, January 16, 2009


As you may have learned from They Might Be Giants (or the oldsters may have learned from the Four Lads), Istanbul was formerly known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire. As such, they have some great old Roman stuff, and even some churches. The Chora Church, pictured above, was a highlight, with ancient frescoes and mosaics on every wall (well, surviving on many walls, surely once literally on every wall). The Hagia Sofia was once a church, and also had some amazing mosaics of saints and virgins and such, which for reasons that remain unknown were not destroyed when it was converted to a mosque. And lastly, there is a whole mosaic museum dedicated to large mosaic floors left behind by some emperor, including pictures of monkeys wearing backpacks and bothering birds with sticks. Detail below from the museum, but not the monkey-with-a-backpack-and-a-stick part.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This is the Best One of These Things We've Ever Seen

This is from the Istanbul Museum of Cool Old Ottoman Stuff. (Museum's actual name may have been somewhat more formal, but we forget what it was - ed.) It is maybe a foot across. It contains a tiny map of the Eastern Hemisphere (while your correspondent doesn't recall the date of its creation, I do recall that at that time the Eastern Hemisphere was the Whole Known World), with a small little metal thing pivoting around Mecca, and somehow pointing to some impossibly tiny Arabic script in columns below (or perhaps in Turkish script before they changed to the latin alphabet). But why? We don't know. Perhaps one of our dear Turkish friends, who are surely experts on all the items in the Museum of Cool Old Ottoman Stuff, will stop by to enlighten us.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Istanbul Silhouette

Several of the Mosques had scaffolding around their minarets. We made two attempts to see the Sulemaniye Mosque only to find it was also being restored inside and was therefore closed. It was worth it because the place across the street had the most delicious beans in the world. We almost went back to the closed Sulemaniye's neighborhood a third time to get another bowl of beans. Yes: beans. In other news, "silhouette" gives your editor fits, spelling-wise.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

Your correspondent had always associated roasted-chestnut carts with New York. Perhaps that was where he first encountered them. But they are actually popular urban fare all over, and particularly in Turkey. An economist might note the minimal barriers to entry in a city with literally millions of unemployed or marginally employed people looking to find a way to make some money -- although they are outdone in that regard by the hundreds of guys lining the Bosphorus with fishing poles. Your correspondent mostly just wished he liked the smell of roasting chestnuts a little more.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mosques galore

One of the best moments of our time in Istanbul was, not surprisingly, in a Mosque. Since we had a whole week in Istanbul, we had tried to figure out how to do some quick trips out of town. But there was always more to do in the city, so we never bothered spending any time on a bus or train elsewhere. On our last day there, we decided to get out and go to Asia - i.e., the other side of the Bosphorus. We hopped a ferry and started hiking in the rain through the less-touristed and more "authentic" neighborhoods on the Asian side, hoping to see a couple mosques that Lonely Planet recommended (so, then, less-touristed, but certainly not un-touristed). While the guide did recommend them, it did not exactly provide a lot of details or a map on how to get there, so we took a few wrong turns and saw some side-streets on our way.

We got to one of the mosques just many locals were beginning to arrive for prayer. At the famed and highly-touristed mosques on the European side, the mosques are closed to tourists during prayer. So we were ready to be kicked out when one of the Turks told us that we (and a few other tourist who must have somehow gotten their hands on the same exclusive edition of Lonely Planet that we did) could stay and watch the prayers if we sat in an alcove by the back of the mosque. So, we did. It is an interesting and beautiful ritual to watch in person. Many of the other men who came in to pray gave us sideways glances or outright stares as they entered, so we worried that maybe the guy who had invited us had overstepped his bounds. But at the conclusion of the prayer as everyone was filtering to the door to gather their shoes, it was all smiles and happy body language, and your correspondent surely butchering "thank you" in Turkish, but seemingly getting his point accross.

We didn't get any pictures of that mosque, since they had posted signs that said "Don't Take A Picture." The above is actually the famous and intensely-touristed Blue Mosque, just as we were being kicked out for prayer time, pictured in super noisy grain-o-vision but deemed a nice picture anyway.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Of the Cistern

Both our dear Turkish friend Ay├ža and the ever-trusty Lonely Planet (which, by the way, now lets one download guidebooks by the chapter at quite reasonable rates) recommended that we visit the Basilica Cistern while in Istanbul. This was fantastic advice, because it was very interesting, and even more so because your faithful correspondent had essentially no idea what a cistern was. In general, of course, it's clearly some kind of water storage tank. But we had no idea what to expect, really. It turns out it's sort of a man-made cave, built in Roman times, roof held up by hundreds of columns, in which water collects for later use. Somehow, whether by intent or accident, it now has some really huge goldfish living in it. It was weird, it was unexpected, it was not like anything I had seen before: exactly the sort of thing that makes travel worthwhile.

The staff photographer managed to run out the batteries in both cameras in the battery-taxing low-light conditions trying to take a picture like the following, but, you know, better:

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Oh noes

We did not realize upon writing yesterday that the best pictures from the legendary Topkapi Palace would also be of lights. Skylights, but still. We suddenly feel as if we have a mission to describe our trip to Istanbul with nothing but pictures of lighting. If you want to see a non-lighting picture of one of the cabinets at Topkapi, which is, to be honest, pretty much as awesome as a cabinet has ever been, you'll have to follow a link.

Anyway, Topkapi. It's famous; it's got all sorts of insanely detailed decor; it shares its name with both an acclaimed movie and a costume jewelry store at the Greeley Mall, and perhaps outshines them both. It also has cool skylights in this honey-comb pattern, capped these days with the tops of 2-liter soda bottles, to the best of or discernment:

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Interior Design

Your faithful correspondent, while relatively well traveled, had never before set foot in a mosque. That was remedied and then some in Istanbul, where there are a few mosques of some note. The first one we visited was less renowned than some of its neighbors, but remained one of the favorites throughout the trip. And the first thing one notices upon entering? The lighting. Yes, there is the soaring domed ceiling and the amazing Arabic calligraphy, and the unbelievably detailed geometric patterns everywhere. But first and foremost are the giant concentric circles of light bulbs suspended from said soaring dome. Hopefully slightly deeper insights about Istanbul in the coming days.

A few more pictures of light bulbs over at Flickr.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Happy New Year

Lucky for you, we're back for another year of travelogues interspersed with occasional thoughts about Latvia, when we stop by there for a few days now and again.

Our most recent non-Latvia destination: Istanbul, which despite being a fair bit south of Riga and right along the famously temperate Mediterranean, was ass cold. That is: snow and rain and biting wind and lots of stops to help The Lovely (if Somewhat Circulatorily Challenged) Katherine regain feeling in her fingers cold. We didn't have any days planned for the beach, anyway.

The above picture is the scene on New Year's Day in front of a restaurant that had decorated for New Year's Eve. They cut down the string of balloons from the storefront and there was a near brawl of excited kids trying to get a few. It's as New Years-y as the photography got.