Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Late Edition

We're later than normal, so sorry to all of you who obsessively check the Holla every coffee break. We got in late last night and thought we would immediately come home today and get to work putting together a week of entries from our latest sojourn. It didn't happen. So here's one that didn't fit in a week of stuff about a previous sojourn. Although, since it's from a contemporary art museum, it doesn't really matter where it was taken. What is important is that the kids are never too young to start appreciating modern art -- it's much more subtle and sublime than Baby Einstein, which will surely set your infant apart when he's ready for those crucial first days of pre-school.

Monday, March 30, 2009

We're in Prague, but this picture isn't

Flying home from Prague today, so new content tomorrow. In the meantime, here is a panoramic picture of a castle outside Madona, Latvia. Who knew they had castles like this? We may just have to go back to Madona sometime and go inside.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Son of Revenge of Prague Airport

7:50 AM. Not much going on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Prague Airport continued

Photo department running the show. Not much to be said, though. We warned you. You can see it bigger by clicking on it, but blogger turns them into sad low resolution versions.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More from Ruzyne

We were there early on a foggy morning. Not much to see. Didn't stop this guy from looking.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Brief Layover

Sorry, Hollamaniacs, but we have a busy few days ahead, and then we're heading to Prague for a few days later this week. So, we don't have time to come up with many insightful observations about Latvia. Not that we've ever let that stop us before, but this time, we're waving the white flag.

In honor of our probably being in Prague by the time you see several of this week's posts, we present a series of pictures the staff photographer took a few months ago during an hours-long layover in beautiful Ruzyne airport in the Czech Republic.

Friday, March 20, 2009

After the Big Event

Being out in the country, with true country Latvians, or at least city Latvians acting like country Latvians, we had to finish the day off right. And what better way to cap off a day of standing around in snowbanks and drinking than spending the evening standing around in the snow along the side of the road, drinking, and roasting weenies on sticks over an open fire? To complete the deal, and building on his vodka-swilling experience from earlier in the week, your correspondent briefly transitioned from cheap beer to the cheapest of cheap vodka, alternating each swig with fruit juice straight from a carton. Some elements of country living are the same all over the world. In fact, we even saw one roadside good Samaritan repaid with a healthy swig of Jim Beam and a coke chaser, which I believe would be considered a fair swap in many parts of our own country.

For further research someday: The Latvians have a mind-boggling array of packaged hot-dog-quality sausages available in their grocery stores. We sampled several. They mostly tasted like hot dog, but the vodka may have had something to do with that.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Big Event

What could draw your worldly correspondents to not only the distant town of Madona, but the countryside near Madona, on a March Saturday? In short: Monster trucks.

A Latvian friend, who when he is in Riga you would perhaps not guess is a monster truck kind of guy, happens to participate in a series of off-road jeep orienteering competitions in the fields, swamps, and forests of Latvia. Due to needed repairs on the family "mud horse," he was not competing, so he took us along to go stand in the snow and watch souped-up land rovers run over saplings in a ten-hour test of whose was truly the most souped-up machine.

This involved a lot of tear-assing through fields:

But also forests. To get a closer look, we took our trusty guide's not-souped-up Land Rover onto a one-lane logging road with a foot of snow and no hope of turning around. We got stuck multiple times, and eventually just walked behind as another spectator towed the car along the road and out of the way. All so we could see the quasi-monster-ized jeeps bounce through some ditches and run over innocent saplings in their quest to reach the most checkpoints over the course of the day.

It was awesome. Someone asked if we have such events in America, and I can only guess that in the arroyos of Texas and the mountains of Wyoming and the forests of New Hampshire, there are indeed people doing jeep orienteering or whatever you might call it -- but I've never seen it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Of Kurzeme

Are foreign place names really all that funny? Well, certain members of the Embassy community here get no small amount of amusement from the city in Latvia called "Madona." I think they are a single "n" away from a true tourism bonanza. They could alter the name slightly and become the Latvian Ciccone Graceland, perhaps. As it stands, they are stuck with a few random characters such as your correspondents, who were taken to the country just outside Madona by a local guide to see an unusual spectacle which will be described in this space shortly. For now, a sign that I assure you is not a protest against the one-time Material Girl's current string of forgettable albums, but a notice to drivers that they are leaving the town limits.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Of Latgale: The Russian House

Your correspondent's trip to Daugavpils included a (thankfully) final stop of the day at the Russian House, a kind of community center for the ethnic Russians who make up the majority of the population of Daugavpils. It's a pretty diverse city, with Latvian, Latgalian, Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Lithuanian populations. (I.e. Pretty diverse in one sense, although in the grand scheme of things most of these populations have more than a little bit in common. Nobody's going to mistake it for Los Angeles.)

Anyway, the Russian House had a variety of historical items and collections of Russian crafts. They had old orthodox icons, a room full of Russian porcelain, a variety of three-dimensional plate/sculpture things that we did not get a picture of and can't possibly describe with words, nesting dolls from all over Russia, and much, much more. They had a little bowl of petrified sap nuggets from the Holy Land, and even gave me a small nugget. I was then informed that it would protect me from harm if kept on my body at all times, as in the case of a previous visitor who had, sap in hand, missed her plane out of Latvia, which plane then (reportedly) crashed.

At the end of the tour, in a display of what I presume was traditional Russian hospitality, my hosts offered me coffee, tea, pastries, chocolates, and three various kinds of vodka, about which vodka they said it would be a horrible insult not to drink a shot of each. Or maybe my crack Russian translator just wanted to see me get trashed. At the same time, the city employee who had been showing me around the town was already on overtime, so there was no chance to linger over the vodka. Above are the special home-made, home-decorated bottles of, respectively, horseradish vodka, pepper vodka, and "siberian nut" vodka. I made the mistake of complimenting the horseradish vodka and was almost poured another glass. It was, in fact, pretty tasty, but I did have to drive a few minutes to the hotel, and diplomatic license plates or no, three vodka shots plus wine punch in 15 minutes, is a bit much for some of us weak-livered Americans to drive on. Perhaps I can thank the petrified sap nugget in my pocket for my safe arrival at the hotel.

In any case, my hosts were extraordinarily kind with both their time and their alcohol. It was one of the most memorable things I've done in Latvia, and I certainly hope they were serious in offering to make me a bottle of horseradish vodka to take home next time I'm in Daugavpils.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Of Latgale

We made two separate expeditions to the Eastern stretches of Latvia over the last week. The first was related to the day job, visiting Daugavpils (pop. ~100,000), Kraslava (pop. ~10,000), and Dagda (pop. ~2,000). I don't think Dagda gets a lot of diplomatic visitors. I talked to the students at the high school about America, they asked questions about whether we're really as violent and fat as is rumored. (Answers: "No," and "We're working on it, ok?")

Above picture taken out the only slightly dirty windshield while driving near Dagda.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Of Vilnius: Robotukas

This was without a doubt the highlight of the trip to Vilnius. While a traditional (i.e. not much to watch for terribly long) dance performance happened on stage in full traditional attire, this guy was backstage, doing his own equally basic dance. But his was far more entertaining, because for some reason, he is dressed as "Robotukas," whatever that means. Not unlike the Zappa/Soprano sculptures a few blocks away, Robotukas demonstrated an admirable sense of the absurd and the off-beat that seems to define the beating heart of Vilnius. And even if it didn't mean anything larger about Vilnius, who can resist a guy dancing in public dressed in a cardboard-box robot costume?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Of Vilnius: The Grassy Scepters

The most popular item for sale at the St. Casimir's Day fair are these unusual items. They are basically staffs made of dried grasses and flowers. The story we heard was that because there are no palms to be had in Lithuania, they started making these as a substitute in preparation for Palm Sunday, which is usually not too terribly far away when St. Casimir's comes around. Your correspondent has never really understood what one does with a palm on Palm Sunday, but apparently if you don't have a palm, you need one of these things.

This picture was taken at a sort of parade that we happened upon, wherein most of the participants (other than these women carrying not-palm things) looked like they were on their way to a Renaissance Faire, with different degrees of expense spared on the costumes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Of Vilnius: No Sculpture of Paulie Walnuts. Yet.

Vilnius somewhat famously has a public sculpture, mere steps from the U.S. Embassy, of Frank Zappa. (Well, not that famously. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of it. Famously among Lithuanians and those of us who wore out the figurative grooves on Burnt Weenie Sandwich.) It's an oddity that is definitely worth a look if you're in Vilnius, but it's really not a very interesting sculpture and doesn't work well with its surroundings as public art.

At least for now, Mr. Zappa is not the only odd bit of American-pop-culture public art on display. From what your correspondent could gather, in keeping with its role as European Capital of Culture for 2009, Vilnius initiated a project called "Art in Unusual Places." Exemplary of this project: This monumental sculpture of Tony Soprano in his bathrobe. Why? We cannot say. Frank Zappa's peculiar musical expression was supposedly an inspiration for the freedom-starved Lithuanians in the 80's. I hesitate to guess that a sculpture of Tony Soprano could be similarly inspirational for today's Lithuanian youth.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Of Vilnius: In which are discussed the Potato Bombs

This was the dinner your correspondent ate in Lithuania. They are "Zeppelins," which are meatballs wrapped in mashed potatoes and boiled, then slathered with butter sauce. It is a traditional food that people apparently eat on purpose.

The Baltic cuisine news did not improve over the weekend. The next morning we stopped at a blintz stand we had spotted the day before. The Lovely Katherine, paying no mind to the time of day (actually, many honest people were eating lunch by then), had a chocolate and banana blintz (or blynai in Lithuanian, I know but can't tell that it's different from a crêpe). I asked about the savory options and decided for the "spicy pork" filled option. Which looked delicious as the piled a little mountain of ground pork and beans on the pancake. Then they added an equal part of ketchup. Then they added an equal part of mayonnaise.

As if this wasn't bad enough, on our way out of town, we spotted a restaurant promising doner kebab and burritos. We decided we had to roll the dice and try Lithuanian burritos. It wasn't all bad, other than that it was drenched in thousand island dressing and cooked in a panini grill thing. The rule, as always in the Baltics, is to imagine the food you want and then to imagine it with a pound of sour cream or mayo on top of it and decide if you still want it. This counts for salad.

There are a lot of very cool things about the Baltics, but when bidding on our next tour, your correspondents have pledged to take cuisine into account more seriously. How do you say "Zeppelin" in Thai?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Of Vilnius

We have been happy to provide several weeks in a row of wholly Latvia-centric content, in keeping with our primary mission. But it couldn't last. Your intrepid correspondents spent the weekend in the capital of our neighbor to the south, Lithuania. This weekend, Vilnius celebrated St. Casimir's Day with a street fair. Your correspondent witnessed folk dancing (not unlike its Latvian counterpart); drank hot beer (beer being essential for any street fair, but when it's freezing out, you need a hot beverage); and got shoved around by the insane crowds that were pushing past thousands of booths, each booth selling various traditional Lithuanian wares such as wooden spoons (again not unlike Latvia), special dried-flower arrangements, and bagels. They sell the bagels on a string, which many people wore around their necks, as above. I guess that could be why the bagels have a hole in the first place. Unfortunately, cream cheese is apparently not a traditional Lithuanian accompaniment.

Friday, March 06, 2009


This curious character, apparently some sort of circus version of the Tasmanian Devil, looks like he might be used to advertise sugar cereal. But no, he is featured here in Latvia on the label for a loaf of Latvia's famous black bread. It does say "with HONEY" real big. Perhaps the reality is that Latvia's famous black bread is actually a children's food. I can't imagine being big on rye bread at the age where a psychotic little clown-monster was a convincing marketing pitch, but I guess these are the little cultural differences that make life abroad so rich.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Not Just in Panama Anymore

Some time ago, your correspondents published a dispatch lamenting that we had fallen behind lowly Panama in providing consumers convenient pre-mixed alcoholic beverages. Well, the news only gets worse here. Not only does tiny Latvia also have a similar lead in pre-mixed beverage technology, they are doing so with our bourbon. This cannot stand.

In fact, your correspondent should concede that it has been years since we spent much time perusing a liquor store in the United States other than those way over-priced ones on Connecticut Avenue in DC, which probably don't carry Beam-and-Cola-in-a-can and if they did it is probably $5 a can. Perhaps the more down-to-earth liquor stores of our great nation are working this fertile terrain.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Snow Islands

Not long ago, we boldly proclaimed that it does not actually snow much in Riga. There has not (yet) been a blizzard of ironic comeuppance.

In fact, it snows often, but rarely more than a half inch. When it does, the property managers of Latvia are out early, shoveling or sweeping the snow into little mounds. Often it doesn't get much above freezing for days or weeks on end, so the piles from each tiny snowfall just keep building, and you wind up with all the sidewalks lined with these islands of snow. Except, of course, for sidewalks along city parks, where nobody can be held accountable for failure to clear the sidewalk. There, the occasional half inch of snow gets tramped down each day to create the most slippery hundred-yard stretches of ice imaginable, unlikely to disappear for another month at least.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


This is the tram barreling down on whoever dares ignore the sign from yesterday's post. This is neither a great photograph nor illustrative of anything interesting. Actually, don't expect much this week. We're just trying to keep our heads above water on this every-weekday posting schedule right now. But we have big plans. It will get better soon. Or we'll quit posting so often. One or the other.

Monday, March 02, 2009


This is an apparently ancient sign warning people that they are about to cross not train tracks, but tram tracks. Tied around the bottom was a length of red-and-white-striped tape like you might string from one pylon to the next marking a road closed or an area off limits for parking. In this case, it was perhaps warning people that there was a warning sign that they shouldn't run over, which looks to have happened before, perhaps pre-tape.