Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Your correspondents made their triumphant return to the sliding course in Sigulda. Fun fact: It was built by the Yugoslavian team that built the track for the Sarajevo Olympics. The view from the top is impressive. This is taken from the start for real races, and you can where it finishes far below on the left after a couple big curves. More soon on our death-defying skeleton racing exploits coming soon.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Your correspondent likes this picture because, for some reason, it gives me the impression that the fence is valiantly holding back the forest, keeping the abandoned parking lot safe for another generation. Maybe you don't get that impression. Somewhat related fun facts: Over half of Latvia is covered with forest, and the number has been growing in recent years. They love trees, but for now I think the forest has just been growing faster than they can sell it.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
For a country with a relatively short history, Latvia has a lot to remember. It seems like every other day there is a flower-laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument, either in celebration or solemn remembrance. This picture shows younger Latvians forming a passage for the elders who are in a procession from the occupation museum to the Freedom Monument, flowers in hand. This took place on Thursday, which was a day of commemoration of the victims of communist terror. March 25, 1949 was one of the days of sudden mass deportation of Latvians to gulags in Siberia. (June 14, 1941 was another, so that's also a commemoration day.) There are at least twelve Remembrance Days through the year, in addition to the actual national holidays, and the "festive days," whatever those are.
Edited to remove snarky coda and add: Zigrida rightly points out below that this could seem like I'm implying that this commemoration is somehow not serious. I was just trying to give my friends back home a taste of one notable parts of living in Riga: There are a lot of memorial events, which is something you don't just run into on a regular basis in my hometown. That's something for us to be thankful about - we haven't suffered enough to need to remember so much. Apologies to any of my four other readers who felt I was being disrespectful.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
...and if you have seen me bowl, you know this must not have been a very serious crowd of bowlers. Participating in a club that organizes mixers of sorts for diplomats and businessmen, your correspondent bowled for the third time in Latvia, after having bowled perhaps once in the eight years previous. The above picture is the Moldovan Ambassador to Latvia, who improved with each game from basically zero, perhaps due to practice or perhaps because everyone bowls better after a couple beers.
In any case, he exemplified the fact that much of my competition had even more limited bowling experience than I do. Thus, I was awarded the runner-up prize: a handsome set of six small glass bowls. I was hoping for a giant trophy suitable for display in my office. The package with the glass bowls does not quite fit that function, but they are much better for serving dessert or displaying strawberries.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The staff photographer has not done a good job of getting out and about these last weekends, so this is an oldie-but-okay-ie. This is in Madona (no relation to Ms. Ciccone), a modest town in Latvia's near east. It's kind of fun that even in a town of about 10,000 souls in Latvia, they can still have public art of sorts. I mean, it's not amazing or anything, but it's something, and I don't recall seeing anything similar in Windsor, Colorado last time I was there. Well, except for the nearby Swetsville Zoo. (R.I.P. apparently. "Town officials ask fans not to blame the new Wal-Mart across the road." Screw you, Wal-Mart. (Sorry, Northern Colorado aside ends here. Back to Latvia tomorrow!))
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
This is Charleston's, one of the first restaurants I recall going to in Riga. It's pretty good, and reasonably priced. Fall of 2008, this place was packed on a weeknight. Spring 2010, 8:00 PM on a Saturday, and we were almost the only people there. Not good times in Riga.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Riga has a charming old city with narrow, winding streets, like any good old European city, conveniently delineated by a canal that marks where the "new town" starts. And for a ways, the new town is a pretty orderly grid. And then, for some reason, smack in the middle of an intersection, they put up a church.
Friday, March 19, 2010
This has always been one of your correspondent's favorite little sights in the neighborhood. The sign on the curvy corner of the building reads "restaurant" in Latvian, with the clear shadow of where it used to read "restaurant" in Russian. But then the whole building looks abandoned and there is no restorans or pectopah there at all. It's like a little cliff-notes version of recent Latvian history.
There must be some law that every city with more than 500,000 residents, anywhere on earth, is required to have an "Irish Pub." The qualifications for being an "Irish Pub" are being named with a stereotypical Irish name, and serving Guinness on tap. Everything else is negotiable. For example, Paddy Whelan's, in Riga's old town, is the place to go if you want a pint and some delicious Indian food. Nothing compliments a Guinness like a Chicken Vindaloo, just like the Gaelic forefathers intended. I'm not complaining; it really is a pretty good Vindaloo. And for St. Patrick's day they had an Irish-y band and a crew of Irish step dancing enthusiasts, and the bar was as crowded as you ever see a bar in these recession-wracked days in Latvia.
(Apologies for the tardiness of this post to anyone who cares. It should have gone up yesterday, but we had to go to an event after work, which slid right into socializing, which slid right into a hangover this morning. Oh, well.)
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Today is March 16, an big day on the Latvian calendar. Big, but hard to describe without making someone angry. Each year on March 16th, depending on who you listen to, either: Latvians mark the historic date of a battle in which Latvian troops, conscripted largely against their will by the Germans, fought bravely and took great losses fighting against the armies of Russia, which had just forcibly taken over Latvia a few years before Germany did; OR, Latvians celebrate the Latvian contributions to the SS and Nazism in general. As is often the case in such battles over history and ideology, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
That doesn't stop annual promises of protests by self-proclaimed anti-Fascist groups, in turn provoking promises to defend the honor of the Latvian Legion by self-proclaimed patriots. It has gotten a bit out of hand, and to make sure that nothing spins out of control, the riot police come out in force, making the general order around the Freedom Monument comically well-defended. In the end, there were maybe 100 people participating in the ceremony laying flowers at the Freedom Monument, fewer people than that staging a demonstration in opposition, about 200 rubber-neckers, and about 1000 cops. I'm sure a lot of those cops made overtime, so maybe we can just chalk it up to fiscal stimulus.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Today, a couple pictures from within the historic Old Town of Riga. There was a huge run-up in property values here before the financial crisis hit, and Riga's real estate bubble suffered the same fate as the one Stateside. But the odd thing is that there is a pocket of old buildings in Old Town that are still crumbling ruins. Seemingly every corner of the historic, touristy old town was filled with an upscale hotel or over-priced restaurant. And yet these buildings were apparently so expensive to tear down that nobody wanted to bother. (Or, as a friend in the real estate business theorizes, the landowners didn't see a bubble, and thought that if they waited another couple years, they could get even more money from some prospective developer.) In any case, this isn't really prime real estate, but it could be with a little work.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Riga is in love with their hockey team. While there are professional leagues in basketball (although it's falling apart due to bankruptcy) and soccer (which nobody pays too much attention to, except when one of the teams makes a run in the UEFA tournaments), the Riga Dinamo hockey club is the one that people get really fired up about. And they are particularly fired up at the moment. The Dinamo just pulled off a huge upset, winning an opening-round playoff series against SKA St. Petersburg, the regular-season conference champs. This is sort of like if the Oakland A's winning a playoff series against the Yankees. Above is some unexceptional footage from the third game in the playoff series, which your correspondent attended, and which was the only game the Dinamo lost. I hope I'm not the curse - I've never seen them win in person.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Riga is not a big city. But it's still surprising that just a few blocks from our apartment, and thus not terribly far from the center, you can find a huge tract empty except for an old abandoned building like this one. It was apparently once a long, narrow warehouse of some sort, lined with loading-docks and doors on each side. Now there isn't even a road that leads to it.
Friday, March 12, 2010
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Remember the robots from yesterday's post? Well, they were nowhere near as cool as this thing, which is at the business next door. What is it, you ask?
Why, it's a sputter magnetron, of course!
And what does one do with a sputter magnetron? Even though I heard it explained a couple times, I have no idea. This company specially designs machines and processes for unusual industrial requirements, such as spraying a micron-thick coating on a piece of film in a complete vacuum, which apparently you need a sputter magnetron to do. But what exactly is the sputter magnetron, and how does it help you spray industrial coatings in a vacuum? All I know is that we are happy to have American capital putting Latvian sputter magnetrons to good use, and that "The Sputter Magnetron" would be a great name for a rock band. And if you are an American businessman who found this via Google while looking for information about the emerging Latvian sputter magnetron cluster, please let me know.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
It's always fun when our diplomatic duties take us to the various American companies in Latvia or potential Latvian commercial contacts. Sometimes it's just a visit to an office, but often it's like an episode of Sesame Street, where we get to see how they make something that one would never have stopped to think how it was made. And often there are crazy machines involved that make the staff photographer wish he could forget the day job for a bit and spend some time making carefully composed shots of the machines and production lines and such. Instead, we're lucky to fire off a couple snapshots of the robots that move big sheets of glass onto the machine that sprays anti-reflective coating on them (above), or the weird workstation where an actual human inspects the coating for flaws.
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Your correspondents (finally) went to the opera. Many of the classical performing arts are still alive and well in Riga, with a fairly vibrant theater scene and a full slate of opera, symphony, and ballet at the National Opera theater each season. We didn't make it last year, which was kind of silly because it's pretty cheap compared to what you would pay for similar quality in the States. So thank you to the Latvian taxpayers who fund their Ministry of Culture!
We saw Carmen, which was good in that my main problem in enjoying opera is that I don't know the music and it never seems to have recognizable hooks like pop music does. The song just wanders wherever it wants and ends on a high note to convey the character is happy or a low note if the character is sad. I'm sure there is some extremely refined songwriting going on, but it isn't obvious to me. Luckily, Carmen actually has not one, not two, but three Greatest Hits that non-opera fans may already know from Bugs Bunny cartoons or the music that plays when you win at Tetris.
This particular production put a twist on the classic Spanish bullfighter story, re-setting the story in Cuba, with the Toreador as a boxer (fighting an opponent nicknamed "The Bull"). It was fun, and the sets and costumes were mostly great -- which is key for opera since the music is usually boring so you need something crazy to look at. The only problem, however, was that in a move presumably -- and questionably -- intended to increase the realism of the scenes, they attempted to make the mostly-Latvian cast "look Cuban" or something. For most of the adults, this involved colorful costumes and silly wigs, which I think is standard for the genre. For the chorus of schoolchildren, however, they decided that additional makeup was necessary. As a result, at a couple times in the production a troupe of Cuban communist youths would arrive with crazy mullets, beaming blue eyes, and pasty depths-of-winter skin turned bright orange with spray-on tan. The extent to which this helped the audience immerse themselves in the lives and loves of the Cuban working class was perhaps questionable.
In any case, no photography was allowed during the show, so see above photo pointing back up at the balconies behind us.
Monday, March 08, 2010
Hey, women! Happy International Women's Day! I guess it's widely celebrated, but in Latvia, it's sort of the more traditional version of Valentine's Day - men buy the women in their lives flowers and chocolates and such. This was an odd display near the Laima Clock, a well-known landmark advertising Laima chocolates. They had a giant chocolate heart frozen in ice, and as I was passing by, they were chipping bits of it off with an hammer and chisel to then hand out to passers-by. As it probably would be anywhere, free chocolate was a big hit.
Sunday, March 07, 2010
The end of winter is approaching... but it's not here yet. But in other news, even the buildings that aren't the most famous Art Nouveau masterpieces here feature fun decorative details like the three faces above the entrance to the courtyard on this building not far from the Holla offices.
Saturday, March 06, 2010
Friday, March 05, 2010
These pictures are really old, but they're some of our favorites from our whole time here. I don't exactly recall why we've never published them before.
They are from the hopeful future site of a Mark Rothko museum in Daugavpils, Latvia. Rothko was born there when it was part of Russia, before there was a Latvia. There is broad agreement that there ought to be some sort of museum in his honor there. But the Rothko paintings of the world are mostly owned by people who are not interested in giving them to a inchoate museum in a town they haven't heard of. Nonetheless, with support from Rothko's family, planning is proceeding and there may one day be Rothkos hanging in Daugavpils.
The site is a Napoleonic-war era fortress, with a bunch of cool old buildings along the outer fortifications, and a bunch of less-cool Soviet-era buildings inside the fortifications. This is the space that may one day be the museum, but the staff photographer thought it looked pretty cool as it stands now, used apparently as an art space, but with some pretty odd artifacts left behind, including, for some reason, the canopy of a fighter plane. A few more pictures here.
Thursday, March 04, 2010
A series of pictures from a fun bar that is reportedly decorated in the nostalgic style of a Soviet apartment. Easy to believe for this correspondent. The highlight was obviously the above-pictured giant floor-standing cabinet radio, with bands listing the names of cities across the former communist world, such as "Рига" (Riga).
The Lovely Katherine lounges in front of the baby-blue-and-silver wallpaper and fine Soviet art.
The shelves are stacked with relics of the old days, such as these 45's pressed on flimsy plastic, apparently bought in a booklet where one could tear out each page and play it on a turntable.
Check out the lapels. A million American hipsters would kill to have that coat today.
Soviet news magazine from 1990, featuring Bush 1 and Gorby in Helsinki. I wish I actually spoke enough Russian to do more than decipher the word "Helsinki" to see what kind of spin they put on it.
And of course, showing off that hipsters are the same all over the world, the bathroom featured this "For a Free Tibet" sticker on the door.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
This key-cutting stand is in a little shack that I gather was once a guard hut or ticket-checking station or something like that. I'm sure it looked very modern or maybe even futuristic when it was built. I'll admit it, if I ever need a key made in Latvia, this is the place I'm going to go.
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
We did some strolling around this weekend, and it's disgusting.
All the snow was one thing, unpleasant in one way, but also pretty and bright and winter-wonderland-y. Now it's melting, and the city is one giant murky gray slush puddle. This picture is from the Central Market, where vendors were putting down wooden pallets so shoppers could get to their wares without wading into several inches of chilly standing water.
Monday, March 01, 2010
Among the home-canned treats on sale at this stand at the Riga Central Market: "raspberry jam", "sorrels", "tomatoes in gelatin", and "squash in marinade," and some items that your correspondent can't figure out even with a dictionary.