Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Slightly Absent

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

I haven’t written in what seems like a long, long time again. I seem to have lost my drive for writing, partially because I’ve been pushing all my energy into photography-related things. I’m learning new tricks with Photoshop and am even playing around more with colours and contrast. The results are good so far. Easter was spent with a group of friends at our friend Ilze’s house out in Jurmala. We had a feast of home-made Latvian style pancakes filled with ground beef, bananas and Nutella, and cheese. Soy cheese for me, of course. The fantastic soy cheese I picked up on that weekend trip to Brussels :) We also walked to the beach, took many photos, and then decorated eggs the good old Latvian way. Lots and lots of onion skins. The eggs also turned out lovely, and were then bashed to near smithereens during our friendly egg-wars. The weather has been better in Riga, too. The week after Brussels (which was a weekend trip of running around seeing everything we could possibly see and eating everything we could possibly eat — including escargot — which was DELICIOUS) we still had snow in Latvia, and the weather got rainy and damp and disgusting. Then it miraculously all passed and one day the snow was gone! Today was about 45ºF, which allowed me to go for my first run of the Spring season and spend most of my time outside for the rest of the afternoon. In the evening I was to meet relatives to go to a play at The Stage Theatre, but there was a huge miscommunication and two of the main actors were in some other Latvian city putting on some other play, so… everyone was apologised to and invited to come back the next weekend or to get a refund. So next weekend it is! Instead we backtracked a bit to Gallery kim? to catch the last three Baltic Student Film Festival shorts and then have a delicious dinner at Meta Cafe. The Spikeri area of Riga used to be kind of shady, but in the past year has improved by leaps and bounds and is quickly becoming a hipster/indie hot spot for galleries, concerts and good eats. Whereas before I would have told people to think twice before heading out there, I’d recommend it now. Even with all the drunks and slightly creepy people still around. But they exist in groups and generally stay to themselves.

New Year

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Happy New Year to everyone! New Year’s Eve in Riga was pretty fantastic. I was lucky enough to be able to combine friends and family; people came over to the apartment, where we visited, snacked, melted and poured lead to “predict our 2010 fortunes” and drank some pre-2010 champagne. At 23.30 we pulled on our coats and shoes and rushed to the square in front of the Freedom Monument, making it there literally 10 seconds before the New Year. 2010 arrived with fireworks, more champagne, part poppers and lots of picture-taking. Again, I felt really blessed to have been able to spend the evening with some great, close friends and family, my father included. We managed to eventually call through to the States, wish my grandparents all the best, and my mom all the best in the New Year (through my mother I got to speak to my aunt, too, since I caught my mother at church right before she was to go give the first reading). After taking pictures of people dressed as nuns, chickens and rabbits, we all headed to the Dome Square for some mulled wine and, and, AND! sledding down the small hill to the lower yard in front of the Dome Cathedral. I hadn’t been sledding in YEARS and even though I was wearing a skirt I was more than thrilled to get the chance to do so again. The sled was a kind of lacquered plywood about 7′ long. Very… minimalistic, but it got the job done. My father and I finally made it back home around 03.00, at which time we deemed it far enough into the New Year to open a sort of “New Year’s present” from one of our relatives. We knew the present was books and we’re book people, so waiting much longer to look at what they were wouldn’t have happened anyway.

One of the books is this absolutely fantastic “The Big Guide to Riga Architecture“. It describes a great deal of buildings around the city, both in the centre and out of it, showing a modern picture, a small copy of the original blueprint and a short write-up of what the building is/was meant to be. Many of these buildings are buildings I’ve passed on a daily or weekly basis and have had no idea what their deal was. It’s a bunch of mini history lessons in a very non-boring format. I plan on stocking up on copies and gifting them to people.

This week is the first full week of the New Year. It was nice having two back-to-back three-day work weeks, and I’m surprised that I don’t feel like it should be Friday today.

Last night my father and I went to see “Klusuma skanjas” (The Sounds of Silence) at the Muzeum of Art and Theatre. The funny thing about that was that we thought the play was going to be at the New Riga Theatre in the city centre, but at 10 minutes to show time figured out that the venue was NOT the New Riga Theatre and that the actual venue was across the river in some previously unknown location. But since the play is based off of movement and expression alone (that’s right, ZERO) dialogue, it is not only a brilliant play to see (and take non-Latvian speaking people to), but it is also less of a big deal if you miss the first 20 minutes of it. I’m a fan of the director, Alvis Hermanis, and have seen his original “no-dialogue” play “Gara dziive” (A Long Life). I recommend both.

And now for the reason this post seemed important: we had dinner at the Theatre Bar Restaurant (through the courtyard behind the actual New Riga Theatre; there’s a regular Theatre Bar across the street), which has a very unique menu and has a very kitschy yet not annoying interior. The food is also good. If you end up in the area of the New Riga Theatre (on Lacplesu Street), pop in for a quick bite or drink. The prices are decent, and their cauliflower-eggplant cream soup with pumpkin seeds is absolutely mouth-watering.

More Pumpkins and More Vets

Friday, November 27th, 2009

Please grant me Weekend NOW.

This has been week two of three rough weeks; I’m happy to say that the third week of huge projects will only last until next Tuesday. Then I should be somewhat back to normal in regard to a work load, though there is a possibility that this will not happen.

Tonight is “American Culture” event night at work. I’ll be leading an English activity and have made 16 cups-worth of cranberry sauce and baked three loaves of pumpkin bread (this was the way I spent my US Thanksgiving evening). The sad thing is that I have enough pumpkin purée left over to make pumpkin bread for another year.

That’s a rough estimate.

Saturday the cat gets another vet visit, this time to catch him up on his vaccinations. Sorry, buddy, but it has to happen. I honestly am partially expecting to have to leave the cat at the clinic overnight so they can extract all of the broken needle tips that will lodge into his skin. This cat is the King of Skitters and I don’t foresee that this visit will go smoothly. The less traumatising purpose of the trip will be to get him some more de-worming pills.

This morning I had my left hand scratched up and nearly took a paw-smack to the face FOR NOT GETTING UP THE MILLISECOND MY ALARM WENT OFF. Thanks, cat.

I am incredibly tired, incredibly drained, and want nothing more than to go to sleep relatively early tonight, go for a run tomorrow morning and take an easy weekend. I’m trying to watch my health as best as I can — two more people have died in Latvia due to H1N1+complications. I’m considering re-visiting a clinic to get a prescription for a steroid inhaler, just in case I get a head cold that develops into what I had earlier this year.

Two Weeks of Feeling Displaced

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Two weeks of pure, non-working vacation felt very strange. I’ve been away from the office for two weeks before, but never away from work. But I guess it was something I needed and in the end I was ready to get back to more constructive things. My vacation ended on a Thursday and I was back on Friday, then ready to have it all stop again by the following Tuesday. Ah, work. The thought of getting back to it is always nice, but I think that in the end it was the atmosphere and company that I missed more than the actual projects. Though I think that’s an entirely expected and healthy thing to feel. Point is, two weeks of doing nothing left me feeling slightly out of place, which is probably indicative of workaholicism. Watch out, world


Rome was a fascinating place, though rather dirty. I was surprised by the amount of trash in some areas of the city and the general filth we saw. True, the southern part of the city near the Colosseum was cleaner and seemed a bit more maintained, but this could be because of the mass amount of tourists. I can safely say Rome doesn’t make my top five list of European cities, but the architecture was definitely mind blowing. Even considering the straight up massiveness of it all and the grandeur, none of it felt overdone. St. Peter’s Basilica, for example. It is the most decked-out church I’ve ever been in, but I didn’t get the same feeling of religious overcompensation that I get from other churches in Europe. It was like the fanciness was well-deserved and that it could really be no other way. Of course there were these random buildings and churches scattered all around the city and it was exciting to turn a corner and have it be BAM! oldest church in Rome! or BAM! Bernini sculpture. A lot of the trip for me was being in a city with such historical artistic and architectural value. The Colosseum was huge and I wanted very badly to go running through the lower levels (where they used to keep the animals before setting them on the gladiators) and climb on the walls. We had a picnic lunch at the Colosseum and it felt unreal to know that we were sitting in such an old structure, enjoying a sunny day and eating sandwiches. In comparison to countries like Latvia, Italy struck me as a very hands-on type of place. If the Colosseum had been in Latvia, there would be barriers and fences all over the place restricting access to about 99% of the structure and, additionally, they’d make you wear torn up slippers to keep you from scuffing up or wearing down the floors too much.

We also took a 13-hour day tour to Pompeii and Naples. We didn’t see much of Naples; it mostly consisted of our bus driving a loop through the city centre while our tour guide Monika (who spoke four languages and none of them well) informed us when we passed the Opera house, the City Hall and some house on a hill, which she pointed out about 17 times and, of course, which we didn’t remember what it was called. At one point they had us get off the bus and spend 10 minutes taking pictures of the peninsula of Sorento and the island of Capri — both of which were so shrouded in morning sea mist that we spent the 10 minutes taking pictures of each other standing in front of what we could only assume was a peninsula or an island, but might have just been factory smoke from the port district.

Pompeii, on the other hand, was simply ace. I don’t know how else to describe it. Again, one thing that really got me about Italy was how you could essentially go anywhere, touch anything, and not get in trouble for it. In Pompeii, at the old city site, it was all “Welcome to the site of a city buried by volcanic ash in AD 79. This is a mural on the wall of the richest person’s house. Go ahead, touch the paint.” I mean, FOR REAL? I’m in the middle of what is essentially a living archaeological dig and I can touch everything? It blew my mind. Old Pompeii has these large stones in the middle of its streets, which were used as stepping stones for pedestrians when it rained and the streets flooded. The stones were at least 8 inches high, just huge. And a genius idea. Modern cities should have these. The number of stepping stones at the beginning of a street also indicated if it was a one- or two-way street. You could also see the grooves in the stone made by wagons from way back when. Just amazing. Egypt was old, yes, but this was just…. unbelievable. Most likely because there was proof.  We only had two hours to walk around Pompeii and had to follow our second tour guide, an interesting 83 year old man who started telling Ilze and me about the history of the occupation of Latvia. So in Pompeii we only saw the “important” things, like the home of the richest person, the red light district and brothel, the bath houses and the small amphitheatre. Ilze and I also befriended some nappy and scraggly looking dogs while Davids took every opportunity to bask in the sunlight. (The entire week was spent in 20+ºC weather.)

We also took a day trip an hour north of Rome to a city called Tivoli. The city was recommended to us by one of the attendants at the hostel as a great place to get away from Rome and see some fancy villas and nature sites. It was good to get out of Rome and see some of the Italian countryside and the hilly areas. Tivoli as a city is pretty unexciting, but the Villas were something else. The first one we went to, Villa Gregoriana, mostly functions as a nature trail/reserve area and has a lot of caves and waterfalls. We wandered around there for a few hours and then headed to Villa D’Este, which is known for having 500+ fountains, including in some of the halls inside the Villa.

Villa D’Este started out in with a “special” twist. EU passport holders could get a discount, so Ilze used her Latvian passport. The woman at the desk takes the passport, looks at it, then picks up this clipboard with a bunch of papers and starts looking through them. She does this for a few seconds, then looks up at Ilze and goes, “Mmm, no.” and shakes her head. So we go “What do you mean ‘no’?” She gestures to the list and shakes her head again and then basically proceeds to tell us that Latvia is not in the EU. Because it’s not on her list. The guy next to her couldn’t find Latvia on the list, either, and the three of us are telling them that Latvia’s been in the EU since 2005 and they should just look it up online, but they’re sticking to THEIR not-on-the-list story. Finally the other two women working at the front register ask what’s going on and, after being caught up on the situation, the younger of the two says in Italian “Umm, yeah. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia….” and the second woman nods and goes “EU, yup.” Then the first two people went kind of silent and the man pointed to a receipt-size piece of paper on the clipboard and goes “Ah, yes, Latvia.” I’m still not sure if he actually saw it written there or if he just tried to play off the fact that they made a huge mistake. Trying to tell us our country isn’t part of the EU. That was… We were pretty speechless after that. The fountains at Villa D’Este were many and varied and made us wonder what the water bill was like each month. And how much it would cost to throw a huge party there.

The rest of the trip involved gelatto, wine, seeing many of the “important” sights of Rome, lots of walking and LOTS of bread. Oh god. I hadn’t eaten that much bread or meat in months. By the end of the week I was feeling almost possessed by carbs. I was overall not impressed with the food in Rome, at least not with the taste. The best tasting food we ended up eating was at this semi-hidden restaurant by day, club by night, place that had umpteen types of pasta in a buffet set-up. For EUR 5.90 you could choose three types of pasta dishes (risotto included) and they would put a large amount of this food onto a plate, microwave the plate and bring it out to you. Sounds kind of gross, but it really was the best tasting food we had all trip. We also put our hands in the Bocca della Verita (think “Roman Holiday”) and tossed coins over our shoulders into the Trevi Fountain (well, Ilze and I did, so we’re apparently going back to Rome, but Davids isn’t). Maybe the city will be cleaner next time. We also saw the Pope on big-screen TV in St. Peter’s square the Sunday morning after we flew in, but that’s as close as we got to him.

For family, Italy will be an ask-and-tell trip, since we saw and did so much. This also includes making a trip to the Rome IKEA and seeing a woman pee into a plastic bottle behind and trash can located on the median of a busy street.


For the second week of my vacation I rented a car and did some decent roadtripping around Latvija. Two friends (both here on the Fulbright research scholarship) tagged along a few of the days. With them I hit up Ventspils, Liepaja, Tukums, Dobele, Salaspils, Jelgava, Aizkraukle, Ogre and Daugavpils, to name a few. Driving was alright, though I’d forgotten how sore your legs can get from driving stick shift without cruise control. Two straight hours of pressing on the gas pedal? No, thank you. I also think that I was the only person in the entire country of Latvia driving the legal speed limit. Call me a grandmother, I don’t care — I’m not going to be the one to get pulled over by the cops and end up paying a 5-er or a 10-er to get out of a LVL 30 ticket. One of the days I got to spend some quality me-time, driving around Vidzeme and listening to my new German CD (Peter Fox; Stadtaffe). Cities I roamed through on my own included Sigulda, Valmiera, Smiltene and Rauna. I really liked Daugavpils and Liepaja, but Vidzeme… Vidzeme is wow. The people seem nicer and the countryside is stunning. It kind of reminded me of the Midwest. Even though there wasn’t much to see other than cows and hay-bales (which I’ve decided I like very, very much), it felt good being there. Daugavpils, on the other hand, was extremely creepy driving into at night. Even though it was only 6 p.m., we almost didn’t want to go back out until the next day. However, the next morning (it had also snowed) everything looked much better and by the time we got to the centre it was good times. I know some people who make gagging or shuddering noises when Daugavpils is mentioned, but I thought it was a nice place. Earlier in the week the Fulbrighters and I also tried to find Kandava, but it was like it had been spirited away. For real. We turned at a sign that said “Kandava 1,5 km” and after 1.5 km there was a sign pointing in the other direction that said “Kandava 1 km”. And no Kandava inbetween. Throughout the travelling it was good to have a range of cities I completely disliked, to so-so cities, and ending with cities I really liked.

Most of my reason for the Latvija road trip was to get more photographs of Latvian graffiti. So far, it’s going well as a pending serious-type project. I’d like to turn it into some kind definite project, though I’m not sure what, yet, or how. But I’m definitely having a good time seeing the different types and levels of graffiti and how it changes from region to region. Most cities had a good amount of graffiti to photograph, but Smiltene, for example, was 99.9% clean. I almost didn’t find anything there. It’s also interesting seeing someone’s tag in several cities, especially when those cities are far apart.

Post Vacation

Nyargh. Why is it that the return from vacation is always the most brutal time period? I have a big project going on right now, which will be followed by another big project for the month of December. Busy, Busy.

I also learned how to bake pumpkin pie from scratch. It’s much easier than I had thought it would be, and I’m excited to keep using pumpkins for all kinds of baking delights. In addition to the pie, I experimented with pumpkin bread, which ended up looking and baking a bit better than banana bread does. This I attribute to the fact that pumpkin is more moist than banana. Either way, I brought both the pie and the bread to guinea pig on people at work and was asked to cough up recipes for both. I also made cranberry sauce from scratch, which worked out well as expected. It’s not that different from making rhubarb compote.

The pies and the cranberry sauce are all for the “American Culture Night” event at work. Everyone seems to have faith in me and my baking/cooking, which is flattering, even though I keep reiterating the fact that back in the States, Thanksgiving comes in cans. This weekend will most likely be spent visiting with a friend flying in from Brussels, making more pumpkin goo for pie and pre-making cranberry sauce. I should also invest in a pie pan and reinvest in a rolling pin. Mine seems to have gone missing.

When there’s a Crisis…

Monday, November 16th, 2009

When there’s an economic crisis –- bake pastries! There is a relatively new bakery/café on Terbatas Street called “Kukotava” (The “Cakery”), another Martina bekereja (Martin’s Bakery) opened up in Old Town on Valnu Street a month or so ago, there’s a new Vecrigas konditoreja (Old Town Bakery) shop on Dzirnavu Street, a relatively new bakery/café around the corner from the House of Blackheads called “Opium” and, coming home tonight I walked by a “Coming Soon”! sign on Dzirnavu Street for a bakery that will be called “Smilsu kuka” (roughly “Shortbread”).

So…you can have your crisis, your depression, your losing of a job, but you can totally have your cake and eat it, too! That is, as long as you can afford it.Wednesday is Independence Day here in Latvia, so I’ll take that opportunity to sleep in, have a slow breakfast and then wander around the city and take many pictures.

Rome information by Wednesday the latest. If I miss that deadline, it’s because I have 250 pages of fishing brochures to proofread by Friday.

Broken Flatmates and Summer Sun

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

First off, as usual, HAPPY JULY, EVERYONE!

Today is another beautiful day in Riga, though the past few have been a bit melancholy mood wise. I’ve been having some issues with a sort of half-assed stomach virus that I finally decided to beat up with some over-the-counter medicine. I got tired of waiting for my body+all those bananas+peppermint tea to do their stuff. Also, my flatmate, Julija, tore several ligaments under and around her left kneecap, rendering her handicap-gimpy for the next month. On the plus side I’m feeling better since medicine and Julija’s knee seems to be beginning the normal healing process. As her knee is now undergoing the rainbow-effect (she is on R of the ROYG BIV spectrum).

Also sad is that our friend and temporary third flatmate, Imanta, is heading back to the States today. The apartment will be quieter and less cluttered with her gone and it will be missed. She, however, gets to go to the Latvian Song and Dance Festival in Hamilton. So the sad feeling is accompanied by a little jealousy. Also the cat will miss her.

I have also hopped on the bandwagon and can have my tweets viewed online here. I don’t know why I did this, but I’ve done it anyway.

At the end of this week I’m planning on dropping off three to four bags of clothes at either the Latvian branch of the Salvation Army or a recently opened place called Otra elpa (Second Breath or Second Wind). Otra elpa provides the advantages of being closer in distance to my apartment and being open on Saturdays, which means that I don’t have to drag bags of used clothing and shoes to work and THEN off to somewhere else.

A good motivator for cleaning out my closet was to a) get rid of clothes that are now too big for me, b) take inventory so I know what I need to buy (if anything) and what I should be kept far away from and c) if I need to buy something, to know what will be bought when I’m back in the States for two weeks at the end of July.

Oh yes, that’s right. In two weeks I’ll be back in the states, strolling through target with a Caribou Coffee to-go cup in hand, wondering why everyone around me isn’t dressed like Euro-trash.

I’ve already got a list of items I definitely want to bring back to Latvia — or ship if my suitcases will be too full — as well as a list of things I really want to do or see when I’ve got time off from work (yep, these two weeks will not be vacation weeks, which means I get to practise nutso sleeping regimes and keep tabs on the European part of my life):

-eat at China Tiger, probably the best Chinese restaurant I have ever, ever been to. If I ever go to China, I don’t know if this would change.
-eat at Chipotle. I miss “Mexican” food. The most “Mexican” we get here are the nachos at Tequila Boom.
-drink Caribou Coffee beverages+soy milk until I piss myself (pissing optional).
-eat a Wendy’s Frosty with Wendy’s french fries.
-eat a salad at any of the following: Appleby’s, Chilli’s, Olive Garden, etc. Repeat.
-two words: Outlet mall.
-maybe make it up to Duluth/Two Harbours. Sit for a few hours collecting pebbles and glass.
-go to book stores and have heated arguments with myself about why I should/shouldn’t buy 20lbs of reading material.
-eat a Texas doughnut from Cub Foods or Rainbow.
-drink a Vanilla Coke.
-drink anything Canada Dry.
-tip over racks of merchandise at Target, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy. Roll around said merchandise in rapture until I am pulled out of the store in a euphoric state of dead-weight.
-one word: Uptown.
-one word: Dinkytown.
-etc., etc., etc.

I haven’t mentioned all of the family-related things because, duh, those are at the top of my list. Even before China Tiger. I don’t care if you believe me or not. I honestly can’t WAIT to stack firewood for my grandparents. Sweet, sweet, physical labour!

I Guess It’s Finally Summer

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

The Mormon missionaries of Riga have traded their little matching backpacks for little matching man-purses, or satchels. I guess it’s really summer now.

We’ve had a nice, fairly consistent stream of gorgeous weather here in Latvia. Minus this past Saturday, the last few weeks have been great for being outside and doing anything unrelated to sitting at home on a comfy couch and surfing for the latest dumb viral video.

Last week we celebrated Jani. This means that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were free days for most people. I still came to work Monday (to trade not having to come in the following Saturday), enjoyed a calm day of finishing up some projects, and then went home to pack for the midsummer madness. Ilze, Julija and Imanta and I ended up driving (rental, nice and cheap) to Liepupe, which is east and up the coast from Riga. We celebrated with a family well known for their immersion into all things Latvian folklore and had a great time. I’m used to celebrating Jani the ethnographic way, as I usually end up in Wisconsin at the “Dievseta”, but this family in Liepupe does things according to the middle ages. This meant that the “rituals” of the evening were mostly revolving around the bonfire or fire in general, and their folk dress differed from the “modern” stuff we wear and see at folky events today.

We bought tents from this great, cheapish store called Jysk for LVL 5 a-piece. You think that we would have woken up in the hayfield, blown away by light breezes, our skin ravaged by fire ants, but the truth is that the tent is basically the same thing as the tent I have at home, which I’m sure cost at least 20x what the Jysk tent cost. I’m referring to breathability. My tent at home in the States has mesh on four sides, while the LVL 5 tent has one door with a screen and a little opening in the roof. And you know what? Come high-morning around 7 a.m. when the sun was beating down through to our poor, tired heads, the LVL 5 tent was just as stifling as its expensive cousin back in the States would have been. Weird, huh?

When we arrived at the country property in Liepupe, the four of us came in singing and bearing gifts of smalkmaizites (little sandwiches typically made by Latvian church ladies), my home-made Jani cheese (which was ACE) and Ilzes brownies-from-a-box, lovingly decorated with M&Ms to spell “Ligo”, the traditional word you shout and sing for what seems like most of the duration of Jani celebrations. After we had been introduced to and met the host and hostess (their son and his wife had invited us), we finished braiding our flower wreaths and then watched the hostess make Jani cheese in a huge cauldron, something that was cool to see, yet made me feel like a total suburbanite for having made mine in two waves (the pot was too small) and on top of a four-plate oven. Then everyone who had folk dress finished getting dressed, we tailgated for a bit by our rental and then commenced the Jani process.

The next morning after breakfast we caravaned to the seaside, where we walked around for a few hours, picked up a mega-load of pebbles and smoothed-down glass shards (I am officially addicted and wanting to go back to this location ASAP to find more and expand my collection) and went to a site in the woods where we were explained how there used to be a local ship yard at the very location. The only thing left are rocks outlining the place where the former walls of the yard stood, and rocks in a shape outlining how big the hull of a ship would have been.

The rest of Wednesday we spent in Jurmala hanging out in Ilze’s yard, finishing whatever goods we hadn’t managed to eat Tuesday during the day and Wednesday morning. Then it was back to the city. Riga was a wasteland, no one in sight. It was nice to be out in the country again, get some fresh, country dirt in my teeth and some fresh air into my lungs. I even caught a toad! And by caught I mean picked up without much objection from the toad.

I’m aching to go camping out by Liepupe (LVL 2/per night for a tent-lot!) again, of course with my ulterior motive of finding more pebbles and glass. Next thing I’ll be dressing like a creepy beachcomber just to keep people from approaching me and starting conversations — and that’s just when I’m in downtown Riga!

Bullet Blog: Japan Recap Days 1, 2 & 3

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Latvia to Japan: En Route

- Riga to Amsterdam: for once I slept for almost the entire flight. It doesn’t matter that it was only a bit over two hours long; for me this is a huge accomplishment.

- Amsterdam: at least I know that I’m in the right part of the airport. All I have to do is follow the mobs of Asian travellers.

- Got a bit screwed-over for seats on the Amsterdam-Narita flight, but at least I’m not the poor sucker who has to sit by the window. At least the Japanese businessman next to me speaks English.

- The sucker next to the window gets to move up to wherever his people are sitting. Now I am the sucker in the middle seat with a LOT of leg room J

- I have never in my life seen so many dissatisfied looking Asians.

- I kind of wish I had had the time to stop and get some corporate coffee beverage while in the Schiphol airport, but due to the monstrous expanse that IS the Schiphol airport, I had barely enough time to get to my gate as it was.

- The in-flight magazine has a great article with some excellent photography of the Dutch Wadden Islands. I now want to make this my next vacation destination.

- Half of the flight attendants are Japanese. Around what I believe is 04.00, one of them walks the aisles asking if people would like ice cream or Japanese noodles. For a moment I think this is the call for breakfast. It is not.

- While waiting in line for the airplane bathroom I wonder why, if this is a non-smoking flight, is there an ashtray built into the outer surface of the bathroom door.


Friday, 1 May

- Fly in to Narita. No problems buying the train ticket to Tokyo once I found an ATM. The trip to Tokyo went without a hitch.

- Bought a thing of maki rolls and a bottle of iced tea for under ¥600. I am excited – so excited, in fact, that I completely forget about the maki until the next morning. Train ride from Tokyo to Sendai was also fine. No luck up to now with using the phones to try and get a hold of Anna or her parents, but at least I keep getting all of my change back.

- Man next to me on the train from Tokyo to Sendai eventually moves to a different row. Is the smell of rancid airplane really THAT bad?!?

- Anna’s mom finds me in the Sendai station right after I learn from the Information Centre how to correctly dial a phone number in-country.

- The train ride to Ishinomaki (?) is spent catching up a bit with Anna’s parents. Anna meets us at the train station to pick us up and drive back to Maiya.

- Driving takes place on the funny side of the road. Anna is very adept at not killing us.

- Once at Anna’s flat in Maiya, I finally get to shower. This is the highlight of my day.

- We eat dinner at Marumatsu with some of Anna’s fellow ALT people. This turns into one of what will probably be many sushi-comas to come.


Saturday, 2 May

- We have a late morning and I remember about my maki rolls. Repeat coma. The rolls are stuffed with egg, crab, cucumber, eel, tuna and some kind of mystery fish. I barely make it through three of the 6 rolls before feeling like this is much too much food. Note: the rolls are a little smaller in diameter than my palm.

- Later we drive up the coast to see rock formations in R–, K– and Oya K–.

- We walk and walk and walk and walk. I am thoroughly enjoying myself! Anna and I stand around a bit in the Pacific Ocean, do a bit of catching up. While driving we see a large Hello Kitty statue. Anna says we’ll stop by it on the drive back down – I’m happy we don’t.

- We eat dinner at a café-restaurant called Aiyama, which is slightly hidden-away, but very popular with locals. The restaurant has a western feel to it interior wise and the food is inspired by Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. Everything is really good. Dessert for me consists of two banana-caramel cappuccinos. I’m told the tapioca is delicious, but because it’s tapioca, I hold off. Purchased a CD from a local artist playing music that is supposedly typical of the area.

- Before heading back to Anna’s flat we stop at Loc City, which is a mall and has a huge Wal-Mart or Target-like store. I am giddy at the prospect of walking up and down aisles of… of anything, really. I stock up on a few necessities, including Japanese chocolate, which I feel obliged to test out before I commit to bringing some back for people.

- The drive back to Anna’s is spent talking, listening to a mix of The Current Song of the Day selections and singing along to them, all with the Touchberry family.

April Showers… Or Not.

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

I realised this morning that, despite the drawn-out communication with our landlady for last month’s rent invoice, it completely skipped my mind to give her the water meter readings for March. Maybe this is why she gave me a half-disinterested look a few days ago when I said “good morning” to her. And we had been doing so well.

Spring seems to finally be here in Riga. I have to point and laugh in the general direction of Minnesota, as I heard they got a bit of snow Sunday. Streaming radio over the Internet lets me do that. Laugh at the uncontrollable weather misfortunes of others, that is. Sunday in Latvia it was around 60°F, brilliant, blinding sun and fresh air. A group of us decided to start our spring – summer treks to Majori a bit early. We took the train to Bulduri, picked up Ilze, then walked along the beach to Majori and to Sue’s Asia, which, in my opinion, has the hands-down BEST pan-Asian cuisine. The owner is from the UK (as far as I know) and of Indian decent, and serves mouth watering Indian, Thai and Chinese dishes. Unfortunately, the prices have gone up dramatically, between LVL 2 – 3. The new, high prices almost killed the joy of eating Sue’s Asia food again, but we grit our teeth and went with it. In truth, it’s mostly the Chinese cuisine that has become pricier. The Indian cuisine is still priced the same, I believe, and worst case scenario, at least the Basmati rice and naan bread are still under LVL 2 a serving.

The good part about going to gorge on this food is that you can walk back to Bulduri, save some chump change for the two extra train stops and work off whatever “bad” stuff you may have eaten. This is what makes Majori a good thing in the summer. Laze around the beach by Bulduri, and then walk to Majori for lunch or iced coffee. The exercise alone justifies anything you may find along Jomas iela, the main “strip” or “board walk” of the Majori/Dzintari area.

Of course, by the time we had all gotten back home, feet were achy and a bit blistered. Then we looked up our route on, only to discover that, HOLY CRAP, we had walked almost seven miles. SEVEN MILES. I told my grandmother this later that evening, adding that we had entirely “accidentally,” “Well that wasn’t very smart,” was her reply. This distance would also explain why my father was surprised when I relayed how Ilze and I had walked form Bulduri to Dzintari (where there is this amazing gated wooded area with the coolest playground ever) and then to Majori, which is somewhere around 3.5 miles. Putting that number to the walk makes it seem more daunting. More serious. But it’s not something you really think about. And yes, my hips did feel half broken the next day. That time we tried to go running along the beach resulted in a feeling of completely broken hips. Not recommended.

On the topic of running and hurting the next day, I’ve been working on getting back into running mode. A recent “addition” to our network of friends is one Rose Moon (RoseMoon! to us, just one word, exclamation mark included and mandatory), a Fulbrighter from Kansas who is teaching English at one of the high schools in Riga. The reason I introduce RoseMoon! is because we are running buddies and this fact is relevant to what I’ve been up to the past week. Which includes a lot of walking and/or running around in the fresh, almost-spring air. RoseMoon! just got back this past week from a vacation/visit in the states, where she and her fiancé tooled around Washington D.C. for around two weeks. The Friday of the week RoseMoon! had gotten back to Latvia we went running to and around Kipsala, which is the islandy bit of land between the city centre and Pardaugava – the “other” side – which I think ends up being a 4 – 5 mile round trip. We hadn’t been running in around 3 weeks, but we ran hard this time and I hurt less the next morning. We stick to the “interval principle”, which is supposedly better for you anyway. Plus we’re both out of running form. There’s a 5 k coming up some time in May and a few of us are entertaining the thought of signing up for that. I almost wish this post was 8 days ago so I could call an April Fools, just in case.

Nothing else has really changed around here, other than the fact I think it’s time to pack away the winter coats. My Japan trip comes in about three weeks, and I’ve done nothing to brush up on my year and a half of Japanese lessons. Anna, the friend I’m going to visit, said I could do so on the plane ride there. I loathe that she brought that up, but it’s true, I have 14 hours of transit and could probably relearn the language in lieu of going crazy for sitting so long. Maybe I’ll follow around the flight attendants and ask them question upon question. Mostly the phrasing “What do you call that in Japanese?” I’m sure they’ll love me. Yatta!

Doh yeah, and there hasn’t been any rain here this April. Yet.

Happy February

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Greetings in February 2009!

I understand that life is cold and wintery for most of you, but we’ve finally been getting some sun here in Latvia! I went running in Mezaparks this past Sunday with a friend — in 20ºF conditions, no less. It was great, though, to be outside and finally moving. And surprisingly, running on ice is not as deadly as I had imagined it to be. True, my mostly up-and-down running style instead of forward-ho probably looked ridiculous, but my lack of broken bones or shattered elbows indicate it was the smart choice.

I’ve also discovered that (for now), flavour syrup is a complementary goodie when you buy low quality coffee from Narvesen newspaper and convenience store kiosks.

In comparison to the first half of the month, the rest of January was pretty mellow. Nothing else interesting happened in terms of life, I should say, except that the cold I had when my dad left Riga was over by the end of the weekend. RESULT! I found mould growing on the walls by the back window, washed it off, etc.

One thing I did miss out on toward the end of the month was the Burns Night celebration. I’ve been looking forward to being around Latvia for Burns Night since my internship stint at BCCL. I wrote an e-mail expressing my excitement for the event to the Director, but then never followed through on reserving a ticket.

What was my reason for passing up this evening of whiskey, bagpipes, haggis and plaid? Egypt. Yes, Egypt. A couple of friends and I have booked a week on a resort in Egypt at the end of February. Every santim is being counted, folks, and not just because of the economic crisis. The Egypt thing still hasn’t set in and I’m quite certain that it won’t until I get back to Riga and look through my camera and see a picture of myself riding a camel.

Before I forget, I’m kind of hoping one will bite me so I can add to my list.

Another interesting thing, just to point out where our priorities as Latvians lie. Considering all of the taxes that are now being imposed on such items as cigarettes and beer, people are most upset about the coffee tax. Women at the grocery store yesterday were having a heated discussion about it, saying how the government had wanted to put a tax on tea, as well, but they weren’t able to do it. I suppose the beer tax is so small that no one is too worried about it, but on our COFFEE? Oh HELL no, you DIDN’T!

I sort of wonder if there will be a “Riga coffee party”, where angered citizens will attack a shipment of coffee and dump it into the Daugava River. Which would be funny, because the coffee would probably be the instant kind, and a river of instant coffee just strikes me as funny. But at least the river would smell good – or neutral – for a day.

My flatmate also finally returned from her winter vacationing in Canada. The cat was thrilled to have new suitcases to walk through.