Friday, July 31, 2009

Rundale Gardens

The gardens were ornate.

The "Ancient Music" concert was cool for a little while, but apparently one of the innovations that happened between Ancient Music and Modern Music was the discovery that a musician was allowed to learn more than one song. They would play some little phrase, and then repeat fifty times, and that was a song. And then the conductor or harpsichord player or whoever would wave his arms to get people pumped up, but even the most enthusiastic fans of this genre don't really get "pumped up" about ancient harpsichord music. And then the next song would have an only slightly different phrase, again repeated ad infinitum. It was like all of the boredom of the Grateful Dead, except without pot brownies for sale in the parking lot. And then they had a fireworks display set to music, sort of, except it involved standing up to get a good view and then listening to a really long song, and then the "synchronization" was that once the song ended, the fireworks went off. Sorry, Ancient Music People. It was a lovely night out in the palace gardens, but I have to call them like I see them.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rundale Interior

The new thing in all the museums here is that it costs extra if you want permission to use your camera. They ought to charge by the photo - especially with the people here who want their picture taken in front of paintings that they like or that are famous. Of course compliance rates are another question because the staff photographer didn't pay but then couldn't resist a single shot of the opulent interior of Rundale palace. We'll pay extra next time we go. The interior is pretty nutty, with different colors of lush wallpaper in each room and uncomfortable chairs in matching upholstery and boring portraits of rich people. The most striking part of the interiors were the enormous ceramic fireplace/furnace/heater things in each room, covered in white-and-blue painted tiles. You'll have to use your imagination for what they look like, since we were not willing to risk a second picture.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Panic on the Streets of Birmingham!

Gnashing of teeth! Rending of garments! Yes, due in large part to it being really nice outside this week, the Holla failed to have anything posted yesterday. So here is a retro-actively posted picture of the crazy kids dancing to the unbearable music of the Rundale Ancient Music Festival.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rundale Exterior

The Rundale Palace from the front. It's big and ornate and has lion sculptures and such. Barely visible on the front steps is a wedding party, one of several that were there that day for pictures - or maybe a reception, but it looked mostly like just a photo stop. I guess if you're wearing a tux, you might as well have your picture taken at a palace so you can tell people you own the place. Just as long as the three other guys in line behind you to have their wedding picture taken in the palace don't tell the same people the same thing.

Monday, July 27, 2009


The very same night as the Country Music Festival, a mere 15 miles away, we attended the Ancient Music Festival. Translation of the festival's Latvian title is a bit tough: It was not "ancient" like beating on logs and rocks, but it was from too long ago to just be called "old." Harpischord was involved. The site of this concert was the manicured gardens of the Rundale Palace, a sort of mini-Versailles for Russian nobility back when Latvia belonged to Russia the first time. The show didn't start until fairly late, surely in part to take advantage of the beautiful sunset in the gardens.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One More Beach Photo

No ridiculous miniskirts, but the tiny dogs are in full effect. We wish the staff photographer had the guts to brazenly photograph all the intense fashion statements one sees on the beach in Latvia; instead you're stuck with what we can do relatively on the sly or when we can pass it off as taking pictures of cute dogs.

What to Wear to the Beach

Sometimes it's hard to point out the subtle cultural differences between the U.S. and Latvia without seeming insensitive. But try we must. And in this spirit, we present this picture of what two young women chose to wear to the beach in Jurmala one day not long ago. The short green overcoat actually covers a quite small denim dress. And by the time we captured this picture of her on the beach, she had taken off the precipitously high-heeled shoes she was wearing. Beach-goers wear swimsuits of varying degrees of skimpiness in both the U.S. and Latvia. But in general, Americans go to the beach to relax. Shorts and a t-shirt would be seen as pretty typical. The residents of Latvia go to the beach to be seen, which means tiger-striped mini-dresses and towering high heels and tiny dogs in outfits designed to match their owner's outfit. I'm not going to lie and say that the ladies pictured above were not quite attractive in their own way, but the fancy clothing that people wear to beaches, which I think most Americans consider pretty filthy places, boggles the mind.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What to Wear to a Country Music Festival

We wish the staff photographer had brought the big camera with the telephoto lens to capture the above gentleman in all his countrified glory. There were a few Latvians dressed in a country-concert style that would have made Waylon Jennings proud. Even clicking on it to see the full version doesn't reveal the details of the belt buckle and the black hat and the beer bottle than he managed to hide somewhere before entering the concert grounds. This display of true American country style was far overwhelmed by the people who just put on a "cowboy hat" - which basically meant any full-brim hat this side of a fedora.

Of course, in keeping with local custom, the women had to dress in a more alluring form of "country" clothing. I don't think it would blend in well at a country show in the U.S.

Well, maybe a Toby Keith concert, but other than that, I doubt it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Your correspondents, with a special guest correspondent, stopped by the Bauskas Kantrimuzikas Festivals. If you're not good at recognizing cognates, that means the Bauska Country Music Festival. Bauska is a small town - population probably 15,000 or so - that for some reason hosts an annual country music concert. They have hosted some notable bands in the past - last year featured Asleep at the Wheel, who are at least popular enough that your correspondent (not exactly a devotee of contemporary country) has heard of them. We didn't actually go into the festival grounds, but hanging out by the castle ruins just above, it was possible to get a taste of country music sung in Latvian.

Perhaps it is just a sign of the bias of my particular taste that I have never considered the possibility of country music as a cultural export. We all know that the kids behind the iron curtain were longing for Western rock and roll. (Right? I actually don't know if that's true - but it's what many Scorpions videos led me to believe.) Rock/pop stars like Madonna, R.E.M., Metallica, and Snoop Dogg have played in the Baltics to large crowds in my time here. But should it be surprising that if you go to the rural parts of Latvia, the strain of our music that they're importing is the music that is popular in the rural parts of America ?

One of the main radio stations in Latvia plays a mix of traditional Latvian music; "Kantri" - which sounds like a smoothed-out version of country, as if played by one guy with an expensive keyboard locked on the "honky tonk" pre-set; and "Schlager" - a take on Teutonic drinking songs, like Kantri music set to a 3/4 beat, which we in America just might call "Oom-pah music." The urban sophisticates of Riga don't care for it, but the attendance in Bauska demonstrates that it is not without an audience.

Above, The Lovely Katherine, along with our friend Mandy, gets into the Kantri mood, as cowboy-hatted dudes file into the concert grounds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Of Estonia: Leftover

Hey, we have just been too busy enjoying the fabulous and fleeting Riga summer to spend much time editing pictures or writing or publishing. When in doubt, post a picture of a pretty sunset. This is from the top-floor bar at the Radisson Tallinn, 23:00 or so. And we haven't been anywhere since then, so I think up next will be some stuff from Latvia!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Of Estonia: Ceremonial Pot Holders

This is the best picture we managed of what can only be described as the ancient Estonian art form of pot-holder quilting. I didn't really understand this one. In any case, the parade was fun, and it seemed most of the participants were having a grand time marching out to the song festival grounds. I hope that in the unlikely event that any Estonian ever reads this blog, they do not take offense -- I'm merely pointing out that one element of the cultural richness of our world is that in Greeley, Colorado, we don't carry ceremonial pot-holders in our parades, while other parts of the world - and maybe even America - choose to do so.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Of Estonia: Some Dudes

After a couple days featuring mostly pictures of comely young women, however odd their headwear, we feel it important to note that we weren't there just to gawk at the fairer sex. There are also gentlemen in the parade, and though their hats aren't quite as striking, they would still merit a second look if you noticed someone walking down the street wearing one on the way to work. While we presume that the sharp red embroidery on the coat above is somehow traditional, it is not clear to your correspondent to what degree the blazers-and-little-sailors'-caps look was in use in Estonia in centuries past.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Estonia: Slightly Out-of-Focus Hats

The concert we saw at the Latvian Song Festival involved 12,000 singers who all clambered on a giant stage together, sang their hearts out for a couple hours, and then were joined for several more hours of singing by the assembled audience. The Estonian Song Festival featured similar numbers of singers -- at first. But after just a few songs, they started filing out and subsets of the choir sang. Maybe we were at the wrong concert (though local guidance says we were not), or maybe they really are different nations with different traditions.

Further supporting this theory: The Estonians have it all over the Latvians in the traditional hat department. The Latvians have some great traditional hats, but none are quite as outlandish as several varieties of Estonian hat, such as the giant decorated tube; the tiny sequined stewardess cap; or the red-and-gold headband, which is no more unusual than the Latvian hats, but does apparently come with a large silver funnel that you wear as a necklace. Each is pictured here with subjects and backgrounds in varying degrees of sharpness.

Just to be fair, we'll add a blurry picture of the big tube hats, too:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Of Estonia: The flower thing again

Sorry we're running behind which means more pictures than words. This seen at the parade before the song festival. It looks a lot like what they wear for song festivals in Latvia.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Of Estonia!

Your correspondents were in Tallinn for the Estonian Song Festival. Nothing against the Estonians, but I think the Latvian one was better. But maybe I'm just biased. This is the beginning of the concert, when all 15,000 or whatever singers were on the stage together. More pictures from the Estonian festivities this week.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Of St. Petersburg: White Nights

Sorry, we have nothing pithy to say about the Mikhail Barishnykov/Gregory Hines classic. Just some pictures taken at something like 12:45 at night from the top of the St. Isaac's Cathedral. They actually call the long days around the solstice "white nights" there. Who knew?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Of St. Petersburg: The Hermitage

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg is one of the world's great art museums. We bought two-day tickets to have ample time to see the collection. There are some definite masterpieces and some amazing rooms full of the crazy ornate stuff that czars (or tsars, take your pick) with too much money on their hands decided to make out of gold. There is the room above which is at least a couple hundred feet long, stacked top to bottom with portraits of guys in military uniforms. The portraits aren't amazing but the cumulative effect is. It's worth an extended visit.

But there are also a lot of rooms that demonstrate that when the czars and/or tsars were at the peak of their purchasing power, Europe was in a trough in its artistic development. Like room after room of portraits like these. Or the room full of monumental still lifes of fish and game that the official staff mother-in-law said made her "queasy." I guess there is no accounting for taste, but supposedly the Hermitage has a million pieces in their collection that are less worthy of display than these.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Of St. Petersburg: Towers

St. Petersburg is a city of lovely architecture, much of it designed when it was home to the Tsars who loved all things French and brought in Western architects and made giant Versailles-ripoff country homes and the like. Today we present no pictures of that kind of architecture.

In any case, some people complain that St. Petersburg isn't as interesting as Moscow because it just feels like another European city. There is some truth there, but there's also the fact that European cities are nice. And things designed and built in the Soviet era are, well, less nice. This is all to say that your correspondent enjoyed St. Petersburg. Nothing against Moscow, of course. They do have a lot in common - they're both ridiculously expensive, for example. And the people in both are an odd mix of friendly and cold that I can't put my finger on. I liked them both, but didn't fall in love with either.

In any case, a good time was had by all, including the Official Staff In-Laws.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Of St. Petersburg: Ballet

We totally went to a ballet, and it wasn't that bad. We were in Russia, so we figured ballet sort of comes with the territory. Your correspondent had never been to a ballet before, and to be honest, kind of feared the worst. I think we saw a production that was maybe less traditional and therefore less soporific than many. The story was kind of stupid, which I gather is standard for the genre: Some forest spirit captures a bird spirit and steals her wings; a hero saves her; they get married; the evil forest spirit captures her again; the hero and the bird spirit both risk death to be together again; they live happily ever after. Whatever. It was mostly just an excuse for the dudes to do giant spinning acrobatic leaps and for the girls to look hot in leotards. Or perhaps I missed the point.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The King of Pop

We were somewhat surprised to find that the good people of Latvia, or at least those more dedicated to the pop hits of the 1980's, had chose the U.S. Embassy here as the place to create a small shrine in memory of Michael Jackson. They left pictures and flowers and hand-written notes. The staff photographer wasn't available until some of it was already cleaned up by the Embassy's efficient grounds staff. It does make us wonder what the Latvians remember of Thriller, back in the late days of the Soviet era.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Weekend Bonus Photos By Request!

We never let our readers down. And given the recent stampede - nay, avalanche! - of demand for more ceremonial headdress modeling, we are obliged to comply.

Alas, no more photos of The Lovely Katherine in headdress, but here is a picture of her getting ready.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


So the key element to Jani is to stay up to see the sunrise. We were not too far from the coast of the Baltic on the way from Riga up toward Estonia. At some point, as we were running out of firewood and had been drinking for hours, it was agreed we should go see sunrise on the beach. We walked through the forest for a while in the mostly dark of night. It started getting darkish around 11:30 I think, though you could always see sunlight along the Western horizon, or the Eastern Horizon, or sometimes both. We set out at (I think) about 2:00 for the beach. We mostly went the right way, despite having to dodge some fences and some barking dogs and some giant road-construction trenches dug in the trails and some attempts by the more inebriated among us to abandon the beach plan and divert course to some big party in the woods somewhere that we could hear blasting out "Macarena" at 1000 dB.

We got there at about 3:00 (about when the picture above was taken) and it was getting light, and though we could still see a few bonfires up and down the beach, we all were a little tired from the walk (and the beer) and mostly just sat around staring at the sea. By 4:00 it had been broad daylight for some time and we started the walk back to base camp. We got back to our camp -- basically the backyard of the country house of a friend's grandfather -- at 5:00 and crashed out. Your correspondents had to head back to Riga later that morning, but I suspect that our hosts got up later than us and went straight back into grilling meat and drinking beer.

We hereby recommend that America adopt this holiday in full.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


For a reason that is not entirely clear to me, the Latvians celebrate midsummer on the night of the 23rd, rather than the 21st, which is actually the longest day/shortest night of the year.

Name days are a big deal here. That is, each traditional Latvian first name is assigned to one day of the year, and one celebrates his or her name day in a manner not unlike a birthday. The 23rd is the name day for "Liga," one of the most popular female names. The 24th is the name day for "Janis" (Latvian for "John"), by far the most popular male name. So the midsummer celebration is generally called "Jani" in connection to the associated name days. And "ligot" is a verb meaning roughly "to celebrate midsummer."

How does one "ligot"?

* Go to the countryside. A real Latvian is a little reluctant to spend and weekend in the city. To spend Jani in the city would be a sign of insanity.

* Drink beer and eat cheese. The traditional Jani foods are a special cheese made with caraway seeds and beer that is not special in any way other than that beer is always special.

* Barbecue shashlik. Shashlik basically means what we might call "shish kebabs" and does not date back to ancient pagan rituals like most Jani traditions do. But it is tasty.

* Build a bonfire. Then jump over it for good luck. We did.

* Sing. A lot. There are approximately one million songs that one sings around a bonfire on Jani, and radio stations play them back to back to back for 24 hours -- sort of like Christmas carols. Have we mentioned that the Latvians love to sing? They sang a bunch. Many of the songs have a chorus that goes something like "Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo Ligo," but many have a bit more to them. Then they asked us few Americans to sing for them a traditional American song that we all knew the words to - and we couldn't come up with one. We could maybe do some Beatles songs, or the Star Spangled Banner, but those weren't quite right. We just flat-out don't sing like the Latvians do. It's part of who they are, and it isn't part of who we are.

* Stay up all night. It's not that hard since it gets light so early. Except don't forget the cases of beer you've been working on for about 12 hours by now. So, there's a degree of difficulty, which some truly traditional die-hards enhance by getting falling-down drunk for Jani. We didn't feel the need to go that far, since we were beginners, but we did try just about everything else.