Monday, April 26, 2010

Dome Square (99/100)

The additional photography didn't happen, but we did get a couple pictures this weekend of the place yr humble correspondent will probably miss most about Riga: Drinking a cool beer on a sunny day in Dome Square is pretty hard to beat.

There are two bars that share the square, and they each have live music during the summer. At the (superior despite the silly name) No Problem bar, a different band plays every night, ranging from Spanish guitar to rockabilly. Next door, Mitroshkin's Master Band plays the exact same Santana and Rolling Stones covers every night from the top of the antique fire truck (below). They cleverly alternate sets, so one can sit out in the late, late Baltic sunshine on a June night, enjoying a delicious local Tervetes beer with live music basically non-stop for hours on end. Maybe I'm just nostalgic already, but I have not run into a similar combination of fantastic atmosphere and very good beer and consistently good-enough music in any other locale, and I've lived in a fair number of cities in the United States of America.

So, basically, if you, dear reader, have not had a chance to visit Latvia and for some reason are here in the Summer, the no-question recommendation is to show up at No Problem at about 4:59 PM, grab a table, and hold down the fort for as long as your liver will allow.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mini Riga (98/100)

We are in the midst of the pre-pack-out tornado. The movers show up tomorrow, and we had this grand vision that everything was going to be done Saturday and we would have Sunday to just relax and spend some last time enjoying springtime in Riga. For the one millionth consecutive time, this aggressive plan didn't work out. So the staff photographer's hopes for snapping some good photos today to finish up strong on our 100 days project were not to be. So here's a picture of a scale model of Riga that was set up in one of the shopping malls in town, for reasons that remain mysterious to your correspondent, because he didn't bother to read any of the explanatory signs.

Maybe after the movers are done tomorrow, more photography will ensue? Hope springs eternal.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

More Signs of Spring (97/100)

Our smattering of regular readers are probably about as tired now of posts about emergent spring as they were a few months ago of posts about how snowy and dark it was. It was a nice surprise though, on our day trip to Kurzeme, to spot that many of the storks had returned to their summer homes atop telephone poles along the highways of Latvia. It's not rare to see an old pole that no longer has any wires connected to it, in the middle of a field, still standing because it has a stork's nest on top.

The picture above was actually intended to be of the stork. The picture below was supposed to be of the building, but happened to catch some stork derriere as a bonus.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Barns (96/100)

Latvia has got to have the world's premiere supply of dilapidated barns. We wander around the city and take a fair number of pictures of artfully decaying apartments and office spaces and art nouveau masterpieces. But it doesn't stop at the city limits! The staff photographer has mostly limited himself to the shots he can get out of a moving car, perhaps out of deference to The Lovely Katherine, who would have gone bonkers waiting for him to tromp around the plaĊĦi lauki of the country, framing just the right angle of each of the 10,000 (approx) scenic old barns of the country. But if it weren't for the day job that is the whole reason we're in Latvia in the first place, or the perhaps too-frequent hops around Europe on the weekends, we could have spent a lot of time and taken a lot of "charmingly run-down barn" pictures. Lucky for you all, we'll stick with this one for now.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kuldiga (95/100)

In addition to stopping by Europe's Widest Waterfall, we wandered through scenic Kuldiga. Pretty town, but, uh, not a lot going on. The predominant feature of the town is gorgeous woodwork on sad, abandoned buildings. I know the Holla has put a lot of pictures of these kinds of buildings up. We find them pretty and interesting. More of that from Kuldiga wasn't really our goal, but that's most of what there is. There didn't even seem to be many people around, other than out-of-towners stopping by the waterfall.

We stopped by the one restaurant/pub that seemed to be open and they told us they were out of toast. Toast! This probably doesn't strike many Americans as being as weird as it ought to, but garlic toast is the standard bar snack here -- It's like going to a burger joint in the U.S. and being told they're out of french fries.

And yet, I'm glad we went. It was not somewhere I'll be relocating any time soon, but it was a pleasant day out of the Metropolis of Riga.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Dolls of Sabile (94/100)

To the best of our knowledge, this is a folk-art display, of sorts. It is clear that someone has invested a lot of time making these mannequins/dolls/figures, dressing them in thrift-store clothing, and standing them up in this yard in Sabile, Latvia. They all have the same face, they all stand perfectly upright and perfectly still. Many were positioned around other thrift-store items, say, using an old lawnmower or riding an old bicycle. Standing bolt upright in an empty yard, the grass still brown from the winter, with the neighbors watching visitors and occasionally pulling some water up from their front-yard well (!), the effect was actually a little creepy. I presume that the gentleman on the left in the picture below (the real person in the background, not the life-size doll in the green coat) was the creator of this installation project. But the whole thing was a little creepy and your correspondents never really summoned the nerve to go ask about it. Rather, we dropped a few coins in the box labeled "Donations for Doll Clothes" and made a hasty retreat.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Widest Waterfall in Europe! (93/100)

It's true! Latvia is the home of the widest waterfall in all of Europe! This is also the home of the annual Flying Fish Festival, celebrating the tradition of catching fish in baskets as they jump up the waterfall on their way upstream to spawn. OK, so it's only about three feet high... but you can't win them all.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Do You Like American Culture (Part 2)? (92/100)

These are details from an installation piece in the Kas Ir Makslas? Gallery ("What Is Art?"). This is a piece by Paul DeMarinis, an American with a long career of electronic and computer-based art. This piece was three different mechanisms that spelled out DeMarinis's e-mail one letter at a time. This one was all the letters of the alphabet cut out of metal and kept in pickling jars full of some sort of chemical. As electric current was applied to each letter, it would fizz. The other two were cool but slightly less photogenic. It was fun to watch, and your correspondent was very happy to see actual contemporary art, a field in which has more or less been centered in New York since 1945 or so, getting some State Department love as "American Culture."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Do You Like American Culture? (91/100)

This picture is the Staff Photographer pushing his bargain-basement Nokia cell phone camera to the limits of its low-light performance at a concert in Riga last week. As part of American Culture Month, the Embassy Public Affairs section brought the Pine Leaf Boys, a Cajun band of no small renown, to play a few shows in Latvia. The audience definitely enjoyed the show, but there was some culture clash involved. The Pine Leaf Boys probably play smoky clubs more often than concert halls with gilt details and a trompe l'oeil painting on the ceiling of Romanesque arches stretching toward the skies. In addition, they begged and pleaded for the audience to dance, but other than a few brave embassy employees, the typically reserved Latvian crowd stayed in their seats.

Of course those kind of differences are part of the reason Embassies do cultural exchanges in the first place. The band was great, and I think all the Latvians in the audience enjoyed the music in their slightly less-rambunctious-than-Lafayette style.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Self-Declared National Holiday (90/100)

One of the places in Latvia that your correspondent will remember particularly fondly is the big summer beer garden in Dome Square. I personally think that the first day the Dome Square beer gardens are open should be declared a holiday so we can all spend the relatively warm middle of the day there. When I found out on April 15 that they would be opening for the year that day, I went immediately after work - and found that they were still busy making final preparations for a presumed opening later that night. I managed to rally some troops for a visit on Friday, the first weekend night of the season. Unfortunately, it was chilly and eventually rainy, so we huddled under the tent next to heat lamps and enjoyed our beers only slightly less for it. It turns out maybe it's a little early to start spending all day in the beer garden, which is probably the only reason it's not a real national holiday yet.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Kids by the River (89/100)

There are probably kids all over the Northern hemisphere coming out of their hibernation to go sit on concrete walls and smoke, but these kids are in Riga.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Week of American Food (88/100)

We're celebrating a "Month of American Culture" in April, as the Embassy has put on an all-out blitz of cultural events, from Cajun music concerts to dance performances to art exhibits and everything in between. One chain of cafeterias is this week celebrating a concurrent "Week of American Food." It's a cool idea, so your correspondent stopped by for lunch to support it.

I guess our cuisine is sort of hard to define. The most admirable elements of our collective cuisine, I would say, might not translate well to a cafeteria setting. But there are options. Burgers are a pretty safe bet. The sandwich I chose was a "Chicken burger in corn sauce." It was pretty good. A little more Mayo in the "corn sauce" than I might have gone for, but that's Latvia sometimes. I will leave it for readers Stateside to nominate their favorite local joint to pick up a chicken sandwich with mayo-corn-sauce.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Dancing Lady (87/100)

It must be Spring, because the Dancing Lady is back! Hurrah! This lady of some years can be spotted at this exact location just about any day when the weather is nice. She plays some music on a boombox, throws a hat on the ground, and dances. It's the exact same dance, any time you go by -- she puts her hands in a position as if ballroom dancing with an imaginary partner, and sort of does a swirly back-and-forth jig. She supposedly isn't in it for the money people toss in the hat (although she does keep a close eye on it), but rather just dances to make people happy. It definitely makes your humble correspondent happy to have her back out on Livu Square dancing up a storm.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Skeleton Vids (86/100)

My skeleton companions continue to be delinquent in providing any evidence of my turns on the track. So we're putting up videos of them instead. Winter is ending, it's time to put skeleton and curling behind us. The publication schedule waits for no man! Above, Jerry at the start, below Matiss at the finish, flashing gang signs.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Curling (85/100)

No, we're not posted to Canada. Or a consulate in Scotland. But we're far enough north that there are at least a few people here who curl. Your intrepid correspondents went out to give it a try this weekend. The verdict? That may actually be a real sport.

First of all, one has to wear one super-slippery shoe. The ice isn't that slick, but it's easy to do take a step with your non-slippery shoe and forget that the other one is super-slippery, with predictable results. So definitely some balance there.

Second, the bowling-on-ice comparison is rather apt, but it's much harder as an absolute beginner to start scoring any points at all in curling. Way easier to shoot it way over the target or leave it short by trying to finesse it. So in terms of coordination, I would rank curling higher than bowling on the "is it a sport?" scale.

Third, the sweeping is really hard work. If you're sweeping your floor at home, you use long, leisurely strokes. When you're sweeping for curling, you have to press down hard, sweep really fast, and sort of jog while you do it. I'm no super-athlete, but I'm in reasonable shape, and I came back from my inaugural practice sweep winded.

Most importantly, it was actually pretty fun. Which shouldn't be a surprise, because bar shuffleboard is fun, and this is like bigger heavier shuffleboard, so how can you go wrong?

And now for your viewing pleasure, my inaugural throw:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Do You Want to Work in England? (84/100)

Parked (apparently for too long) in front of the Holla offices.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Flavor of Latvia (83/100)

American expats are fond of poking gentle fun at the predominance of dill in Latvian cuisine. It really is everywhere, even as the only seasoning in some dishes, such as Latvian classic "boiled potatoes with dill." But this may be the crowning achievement in dill deployment: Pre-made sushi for sale at the supermarket in little shrink-wrapped trays, featuring maki rolls coated with dill. I'm sure the Japanese are kicking themselves for not thinking of this first.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Privatipasums (82/100)

As promised yesterday, more decay. This is right on the beach in Jurmala, up a grand staircase on top of the dunes. The thing that baffles me is that during the summer, Jurmala is a pretty hopping place - tons of visitors to the beach and the town. And yet there aren't a whole ton of options right on the beach for eating/drinking/sleeping. So how can the huge, mostly developed property like this, of which there are many, remain abandoned? It is nearly impossible for anyone except the extraordinarily well-connected to get permission to do any construction in the protected "dune area" lining Latvia's seashores. But surely this property's environmental value at this point is already zero (or worse), and there is clearly a more productive use for this land.

Much of Riga has problems with large buildings that were essentially divvied up as condos when everything was re-privatized after independence. So it takes just one hold-out to prevent redevelopment of a huge, and potentially extremely valuable, property. This could be the same case along the beach in Jurmala - but I don't think these buildings were apartments in the first place.

Sadly, we're nearing departure, and some mysteries of Latvia will surely remain unanswered.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Nice Jurmala House (81/100)

The Staff Photographer takes a lot of pictures of broken-down buildings and various forms of urban decay. They're just more interesting than shiny buildings and busy storefronts - although Riga has plenty of those, too. For contrast from yesterday's dilapidated shell, here is a picture of one of the many traditional wooden houses of Jurmala that has been more carefully maintained over the years. Coming next: Back to urban decay, probably!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Wooden Castle (80/100)

Someone obviously put a lot of care into designing this house with its intricate details and crenelated parapets. And then someone abandoned it and now it's held up with scaffolding. In a fantastic neighborhood, one-minute walk to the beach. Buyers' market -- maybe it could be yours for a song and a couple buckets of elbow grease!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Spring? (79/100)

Your correspondents spent an evening in seaside Jurmala for a conference. The beach is looking significantly different from the last time we were there. Not different enough to be totally ice free, but we're taking every bit of progress we can get.

We did, by the way, get to stay in a fabulous spa hotel (view from our balcony above), which featured a swimming pool where they blasted new age music to help you relax (which we tried), and an offer to do a real Northeast-Europe sauna experience where you enter a super-hot room, put on a wool hat, and allow an attendant to beat you with birch branches (which we didn't fit into our busy schedule, although our local friends swear it's wonderful).

Monday, April 05, 2010

Placeholder (78/100)

We were away for Easter weekend. Sorry. This picture from a lovely grocery store parking lot near our home will have to do until tomorrow.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Vangazi (77/100)

Behold more terrible old architecture! From the highway, the town of Vangazi appears to be nothing but a cluster of old five-story apartment buildings. This type of building is all over Latvia, with minor changes in design. Your correspondent admits he didn't make it far enough into Vangazi to see the historic heart of the town, so it is possible that there is a lot more there than apartment blocks.

And yes, the pictures have been a bit drab lately. Blame it on the rain. Hopefully we get some sunshine again soon and we'll show some more lively shots. For now, gray will continue to predominate.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Rusty Beams (76/100)

I can't recall for sure if this structure has been here for the whole time your correspondent has been, or if it was started relatively recently and then abandoned. It has certainly been since at least last summer that this skeleton of a potential warehouse has been sitting out there, unfinished, turning red with rust.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Senite (75/100)

Behold the architectural marvels of Soviet restaurant design!

This is the Senite restaurant, once reportedly a real hotspot. This is an odd bit of architecture, but even odder in that it is along the highway, next to absolutely nothing else, about a half hour outside of Riga. It supposedly marked the furthest that Soviet-era visitors were allowed to stray outside of Riga without special permission, lest they happen upon a top-secret radar installation or underground lair.

It has been abandoned since we've been in Latvia, and from the looks of things, long before that. There is a sign on the front, lost in a sea of plywood, that claims the location is closed for "reconstruction." I don't think anyone is holding their breath for the new, improved Senite to open its doors.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Bobsled Take 2 (74/100)

After our skeleton racing (still waiting to get pictures from other attendees of your faithful correspondent on the sled - since there could be no photography while on the sled, as one is obliged to hang on for dear life instead), we were invited to take the super-tourist bobsled down the course. For a price, one can ride an actual (retired) competition bobsled, which your correspondents did a month ago. For a significantly lower price, one can ride this device, a padded box that uses pvc pipes for runners rather than metal blades. It's still quick, but a lot slower than the real bob. The advantage is, due to significantly lower g's fighting against you, it's easy to hold a camera up for the whole duration of the trip. Results above. Shouts and screams courtesy of Latvia's greatest rapper "T.I. Double."