Monday, August 31, 2009

F-15 Fun

For Riga's 808th birthday (sort of -- Riga has an annual city fair every year in August, which is also considered a commemoration of the founding of the city in 1201) the Embassy arranged a special guest: Two F-15 Eagle fighters did a flyover, zipping across the sky above the Daugava. Your correspondent and some associates were given the opportunity to go check out the planes up close and personal, stick our heads (but not cameras) in the cockpit, and chat with the pilots about what it's like to be the real life version of "Top Gun." (Sort of - Maverick and Goose were flying Navy F-14s, but for us non-military types, I'd say that's close enough.)

In any case, the lesson of the day was: cool planes are cool.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Of Cape Kolka, part divi

Your correspondent has never seen these giant concrete blocks on a beach in the U.S. but I guess I haven't been to all that many beaches. There was only a little stretch of them, with the rest of the beach in its natural state. There was a radio tower of some sort up the dune directly inland from this stretch, so maybe the concrete blocks were to keep the dune from washing away and taking out the radio tower? Or maybe it's something else and I'm missing the point entirely.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Of Cape Kolka

Where the Gulf of Riga meets the Baltic Sea, there is an unusually pointy bit of land called Cape Kolka. It is relatively remote, and turns out to feature a quite nice beach with smaller crowds and fewer women in high heels than the beaches closer to Riga. It does, however, feature some naked sunbathers of the variety you would maybe rather not see naked, but we're willing to recognize that as one of the little difference that makes living in Europe nice. Vive la difference and all that. The monument above commemorates the sailors and fishermen who have lost their lives to the sea here, which is apparently quite turbulent in the winter. Even in the summer, one can notice the unusually rough water where the currents from the Gulf and the Sea meet. This is all relative, since relatively rough for the Baltic would be kind of kiddie-size waves in California, but it was still enough to merit the imperfectly translated but perfectly clear warning pictured below.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

That's not a knife...

Remember the hilarious "Crocodile Dundee" movies? Among all the scenes of Paul Hogan wrestling crocs and shaking up the big city with his Outback style, you may have forgotten the part where the character is actually from Latvia! Or, so claim the good people of Dundaga, in Western Latvia. One Arvīds Blūmentāls, born in Dundaga, later made Australia home and became (relatively) well known for opal mining and reptile tormenting, apparently. It is therefore claimed that Mr. Blumentals was the "inspiration" for the Crocodile Dundee character. I have no compelling evidence to disprove this claim, which is prominently written on a tourist information sign in Dundaga. Therefore, it must be true, and therefore there is no reason to find anything odd about this monumental sculpture of a crocodile facing the highway as you enter town.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wedding Bells, Continued

There is not too much that's different in a Latvian wedding from an American wedding. One key difference is that after the church part, they go out to some place in the countryside and hang out all day and all night and play games and dance and such. It's sort of like a reception, but better - although we can't confirm this as we sadly were unable to attend that portion of the festivities. One smaller difference - everyone (except us) brought flowers to the church, and immediately after the ceremony, the bride and groom walk down the aisle and then turn around and go back to the altar and have a receiving line right there. They collect flowers from everyone in attendance, which at the modest wedding we were at was as much as two people could carry. At a large wedding, they must hire extra attendants to carry all the flowers out of the church.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wedding Bells

We were fortunate enough to be invited to a Latvian wedding. We did not get to ride in this car.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Of the Baltica Festival, American Style!

Being an International Folklore Festival, the Baltica events looked beyond the borders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Special guests included this traditional band from our homeland (well, Minnesota - close enough). While they were slated to participate in formal events later in the day, they put on a quick impromptu show -- including banjo, washboard, and clogging -- at a sidewalk cafe we were sitting at. They had the crowd of traditional-Latvian-garb-wearing locals clapping and singing along. And I guess that these vaguely old-timey looking clothes are as close as we Americans have to a "traditional costume." Well, maybe not the dreadlocks. But you should have seen the old-timey suspenders a couple of the guys were wearing. It was totally unexpected, and totally great.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of the Baltica Festival

It has been some time since we attended the Baltica 2009 International Folklore Festival. Well, we sort of stopped by for some of the festival on our way elsewhere. Like many festivals celebrating folklife in the Baltic, it featured a lot of floral wreaths and colorful woven skirts and singing and dancing. But this one featured some more musical insight: One can only surmise from this scene that in the ancient pagan rituals along the banks of the Lielupe, Lettish tribesmen and women gathered in a great circle to worship the mighty oak tree with music from that most sacred and righteous of instruments - the kazoo.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Salaspils: Stuffed Animals

Like at many memorial sites in the U.S., somehow a location where innocent people die becomes a public memorial, which in turn invites flowers, and notes, and stuffed animals. The marker at Salaspils most festooned with stuffed animals was the site of the children's barracks, so one can see the connection. Contemplating the horror that happened at this and other Nazi camps is an overwhelming enough thought that you can't really fault anyone for how they decide to relate to it, but I do wonder who are all the people buying stuffed animals today to leave at the site -- perhaps those with relatives who died there as children?

Tomorrow, on to a happier locale!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Of Salaspils: Monumental Soviet Sculpture

In general, the Soviet era produced a lot of really unexceptional sculpture: When it wasn't Lenin staring into the future, it was a big, blocky, heroic workers. The sculptures at Salaspils are of the latter style. However, they work somehow. I think part of it is the subject matter - big blocks of drab concrete echo the prison site; the epic, expressive poses actually fit the subject matter of such a tragic scene; and it doesn't hurt that the space they're in is so huge that they can make sculptures many stories tall and not have them look totally out of place. I'm not saying these are great sculptures, but the style certainly works better at Salaspils than it does in the parks of Riga.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Of Salaspils

Your correspondents stopped by the "memorial complex" of Salaspils on their way back from Lithuania. Salaspils was the site of the largest concentration camp in the Baltics during the Nazi occupation. Though it was mostly a way station for those who would ultimately be sent to die elsewhere, tens of thousands died there. I haven't been to the sites in Central Europe, so can't compare, but the site at Salaspils was pretty well put together. There is a little museum space that could be used a little more effectively, but the main part of the site is a large, flat, grassy field with monumental sculptures. The best feature is an installation featuring a metronome, whose slow, ominous ticking can be heard throughout the site. It echoes either a heartbeat or a clock, but either way it somehow communicates the gravity of the site.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Of the Hill of Crosses, Dramatic Conclusion

As mentioned, the last Sunday of July (yeah, we're behind again) is the feast day of the Hill of Crosses. So there was a big crowd and church guys in purple robes and stuff. My favorite part was the grassy confession field, where they had set up crowd control barriers and a few pairs of folding chairs. Everything I know about Catholicism I learned from TV, wherein the anonymity of confession is a key plot device of many of the Father Dowling Mysteries. But I guess Tom Bosley was lying to me because these looked like totally legit confessions happening out in the middle of a grassy field. Speaking of learning from TV, hopefully nobody dispatched a lip-reader to keep tabs on the sins of the outdoor confessors.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Of the Hill of Crosses, Continued Some More

Yeah, votives would probably be a bad idea here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Of the Hill of Crosses, Still Continued

No, really. There were a lot of crosses. A lot. We never got a satisfactory explanation of how it was decided at some point to start planting crosses here, but it caught on. During Soviet times, the authorities bulldozed the crosses a couple times, but before long the crosses would start reappearing. According to the information at the visitors' center, the Soviets had hatched a plan to build a dam that would flood the site, putting an end to it permanently. We'll never know if that was a real plan or not, since the crosses are still there and the Soviets are gone.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Of the Hill of Crosses, Continued

You thought maybe it was just a few crosses? Oh, no. This is an entire hill of crosses. Given the relatively flat geography of the region, this is practically a mountain of crosses. The day we were there, it was apparently extra-crowded because we happened upon the annual Feast Day of the Hill of Crosses. I forget which Saint it was, but it brought some very sharply-dressed clerical types and hundreds, or maybe thousands, of faithful to pray and perhaps to leave their own cross on the hill. The gift shop had plenty of crosses available if you forgot to bring your own.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Of the Hill of Crosses

The Baltics are, in fact, quite different. E.g.: Latvia is mostly a non-religious country. Or maybe a Lutheran/Pagan country. With a fair bit of Russian Orthodox. But Lithuania is a Catholic country. Exhibit A: The Hill of Crosses, not too far South of the Lithuania/Latvia border.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Of the Curonian Spit: The Best Thing About the Curonian Spit

One of the primary reasons we chose our lovely hotel Juodkrante, Lithuania was not the historic weathervane museum nearby, or what Lonely Planet described as the "Super Duper Whirly Curly Water Slide," or the fact that it included a kitchenette that consisted of a mini-fridge and a bunch of mis-matched plates and glasses. It was that it was the only one that The Lovely Katherine called where they spoke English at the desk and had a room. But if it wasn't that, it would have been, without a doubt, it's close proximity to the Curonian Spit's finest mini-golf course.

Your correspondent and his out-of-town guest played two grueling rounds and a couple tie-breaker holes of putt-putt on the slickest painted concrete this side of Minsk. Except in places where the concrete was missing, and had been replaced by chunks of plywood. Or, as in the case of one hole, not replaced, and left for links-style mini-golf through the natural seaside sand. The ladies played briefly but could not handle the challenge, and spent most of their time lazing around on the manicured lawns near the course, a decision they would probably admit they regret now.

We were there for a couple days, and apparently Painted Concrete Mini Golf is only open in the evenings, where you pay a flat hourly fee for one ball and one putter. Additional balls or putters not/not available upon request. But it was all worth it because some of the holes featured devilish designs that took something approximating skill to complete. And others, as seen in the video below, did not.

Your correspondent, in all fairness, should admit that he lost to his visitor on a tie-breaker hole despite clearly playing the better shot. Such are the breaks involved. Nonetheless, Painted Concrete Mini Golf is in close competition with Robotukas as our favorite thing in Lithuania.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Of the Curonian Spit: Typical Curonia

The towns of the Spit are famous for (well, sort of. Maybe "are quite proud of") their weathervanes. They are quite detailed and I'm sure take some effort to design and build, featuring little country towns or or castles or men on horseback riding past picket fences and such. I can't say I was amazed by them, but it is nice that there are still little cultural touches that distinguish one place from another in Europe, especially when, despite their best efforts, they haven't apparently been reduced to pure tourist bait yet.

Your correspondent thinks that perhaps the Spit could more appropriately be famous for their extremely precise wood-stacking. Perfect circles!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Of the Curonian Spit: Countryside

The highlight (or at least the major activity, according to some voters) of our time on the Spit was a bike ride from Juodkrante to Nida. It was a nice ride along the seaside and up and over some tall, forested sand dunes. The most striking element was a long portion that rode parallel to the beach on the sea-side of the spit. (Pictured above is the inland or "lagoon" side.) For miles, the beach was a "strict nature preserve," as in, no people can go there at all.

I suppose that in the U.S. we have some portions of National Parks that are off limits for restoration purposes, and since none of our traveling party spoke Lithuanian, it was my impression that the "strict nature preserve" was off-limits to people, all year, every year. I further suppose this is great for conservation and there is some species of bird that is totally psyched to just lay its eggs in peace for once, and I'm pretty much in support of that. But it also seems a bit odd to me, that this is one of the prettiest parts of Lithuania and yet we're not allowed to even go look at it? Maybe our solution would be to build a tightly controlled walkway with a fence and a full-time ranger to make sure nobody ventured off said boardwalk, which might be out of Lithuania's budget. But even so, it seems like the Lithuanian system might not last long against the forces of voting outdoor recreation enthusiasts.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Of the Curonian Spit: Wildlife Viewing

Sorry we're still behind on the writing. This is a picture of one of the lampposts at our hotel parking lot on the Curonian Spit. More soon.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Of the Curonian Spit

We really have been spending a bunch of time in Latvia lately, and promised to post more about it, but now: a bit of a detour to Lithuania, which is close enough. Which is not to say that the Baltic States are all the same - they're definitely not. But it's hard to feel like you're going on a huge international journey when you go a few hours away and they don't even check your passport unless they pull you over for speeding. (About which, I don't know if it was the diplomatic ID that got me off without a ticket, but if it was, it - the US government doesn't really stand behind diplomatic immunity for those of us speeding to try to catch a ferry for a weekend off the mainland.)

Anyway, with some out-of-town guests, we went to the Curonian Spit for a weekend, which is a sort of long, forested sandbar jutting out into the Baltic Sea. Bonus points to readers who can name any other geographic formation that is actually in its place-name called a "spit."