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.
Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
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.
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.
This weekend three friends and I will be traveling through Estonia to Tallinn, then across the way to Helsinki, where we’ll spend a day filled with IKEA and H&M and Sibelius-dedicated sculptures before heading back to the Baltics. That’s one good thing about living in a small country – it’s much easier to get to the bigger ones surrounding it.
Today, through the assistance of a friend, I found this guy, who roughly translates popular English songs and performs them in Latvian. Some are pretty amusing, while others are just a bit off. The video I’ve linked, however, has over 95,000 hits on youtube.com, which is a pretty decent number. It’s amusing, to say the least.
English Conversation Group is going well – at the second meeting last week, all three students showed up again. They seem to get my jokes, which is a relief, and are responsive, which is rewarding. After the last lesson the two girls came back to the classroom after getting their coats and were like “This has been bothering us since last week, but…WHY ARE YOU HERE??” It’s mostly the mid-teenage group that doesn’t understand why someone from the States would so willingly set up life-shop in Latvia. I thought I had explained things fairly well during the first Group, but I guess I still left some things unanswered.
In other Riga news, yesterday we had a wind storm advisory. I guess that’s what you’d have to call it. The TV screen was literally scrolling a message that read something such as “Unless absolutely necessary, it is recommended for people not to leave their homes”. I didn’t think it was that bad, but it was very rainy, very windy, and rather cold. Some parts of Riga have gotten their fall colours, but the majority of it is still stuck in a stunted air of almost-there. It’s like watching a little kid trying in vain to blow up a balloon because their lungs aren’t strong enough or they’re just missing something.
I had another analogy involving a dog trying to pass excrement, but I won’t go there. But I guess I just kind of did.
To put my two weeks of time spent back in the United States in a nutshell:
The time away from Latvia/Europe seemed to be FOREVER, while the time spent in the US seemed to go too quickly.
Several times at the end of the first week I felt like kicking myself for not making the stay 3-weeks long. On the other hand, while thinking about extending my stay for seven more days of my own bedroom, dishwashers, machine-dried laundry and hugs from the parentals was tempting (like it was back in college, when many times I actually toyed with the idea of not going back, just staying in Minnesota with family) and a comforting thought, the idea of spending any more time away from life in Latvia was not comfortable. Although I still can’t say if I would be ready to sign my entire being over to living in this country, The Fatherland (capitals on nouns for you, dad), I know that Europe is where I want to be. At times it is hard, but the feeling I get when I finally touch back down on European soil is pure relief.
Minnesota was a great time, that’s that. I got to spend time with family, visited my grandparents several times (by visit I mean subject myself to some manual labour), saw some friends from high school, a few from college, saw a musical, the Harry Potter film, got my fair share of cat and kitty lovin’, threw myriad rocks into the lake up at Duluth, shopped like a maniac, etc., etc. and all while fielding projects from the office in Riga.
I also found myself being borderline sassy with people in stores. Minnesota nice brought out a little sass in me, it’s true. But even though it started out like this, toward the end of the two weeks I found myself actually entering into willing conversation with the people preparing my coffee, with random people in line at the post office and even one of my mother’s neighbours. It was frightening how quickly it all came back.
I experience a little jet-laggedness, much to my surprise, both when flying into the States and when coming back here. I have no explanation for this, except that maybe because it wasn’t a vacation trip and because I did have so much to take care of in such a short period of time that the amount of stress kept my body from listening to my brain, which has been trained to acclimate to the time changes after the first evening of arriving somewhere. Today is Monday and I’ve been at work since 8:30 and am still feeling great.
Some people at work have asked me how America is, and my response has been “It is.” Some of them still can’t believe why I’m not head over heels for the States and prefer Europe instead. Yesterday, while walking home from a farewell gathering in Old Town, my flatmate and I were passed first by a black and white SmartCar decked with a decal-tuxedo, a giant 3-D top hat and a cravat, then by a white SmartCar adorned with a white tiara, veil, and huge red lips painted on the front.
Do I need a better reason?
I have nothing much to say about it, I guess. The clothing is relatively cheaper (most things I’ve chosen to buy have been prefaced by saying “Holy! Look at this! $7! That’s only LVL 3.50 for a shirt! Crazy cheap!”), the food is the same, I suppose, though I certainly have more new places to choose from than I would in Riga. Mostly because we’ve already eaten almost everywhere in Riga and, as a result, are always at a loss for where to go out to eat.
The weather has also been decent. Driving has been weird. Every evening at 5 p.m. I get a headache, something I believe is a subconscious cry from my body indicating that, even though I’ve only been awake 9 – 10 hours, it’s more like I’ve been awake 14 hours and really really want to sleep. I have cleverly avoided much interaction with United States money, as it is strange. I have fairly successfully had Caribou Coffee (or a rough equivalent) at least once daily. I have inhaled the equivalent of an entire cat while at my mother’s house, but don’t mind too much because the house pet coma is glorious. I have bought two new, better fitting pairs of jeans with the delicious knowledge that I’m not sure if I entirely like them, but that it is TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE if I decide to return them to the store. It gives me chills thinking about this.
I guess I have more to say than I had initially thought. I’m just trying to take it all in while I can, at the same time taking care of everything I want to take care of, see everyone I want to see, eat all I want to eat, work on what I need to for work and still have time to just kick back and relax.
Thursday, 7 May
- Anna drops her parents off at the station in Kurikoma-Kogen at the butt-crack of morning. I stay in the apartment to catch up on sleep and end up having another one of those strange dreams that results in my waking up crying. It’s been a while since this has happened, but at least this time it was crying due to frustration, not absolute sorrow.
- When Anna gets back we get ready and go to school. The school is just like I’ve read about, in layout and content. The teachers are all very nice. Some are weird, but mostly they’re nice.
- The first class we go to teach is 2nd grade. They absolutely love new faces, and after literally hovering around me at an exact distance of 2ft for the first part of the lesson (heads, shoulders, knees and toes), they latch on to me and inform me that I will be playing cops and robbers with them at recess.
- Anna lets them ask me questions in Japanese and has me give 1 – 3 word answers in English. The questions ranged from “What is your favourite colour?” to “What is your least favorite country?” to the ultimate best question on the face of the planet, “What do you like in your parfait?”
- At recess I play cops and robbers with the kids. This is hard to do since I have 2 – 3 2nd grade girls hanging off each arm, so instead of trying to save my own skin I shout “haijaku, haijaku!” (hurry hurry!) to get them to at least move in a direction. I end up failing at being a robber because a small boy in an orange sweater just so happens to move like a Whippet.
- We skip teaching first grade but make it to the 5th grade lesson, where we make name cards and play introduction games with the students. I gave a “speech” on myself, more or less also to myself. I’m not sure how much these kids understood.
- After school we have just enough time to go eat some pretty cake from this pretty little, pink cake shop in Maiya, then go take more of those insanely tasking sticky-backed pictures and then have a very, very chatty woman sell us face soap. We get to Kurikoma-Kogen and to the train platform a whole two minutes before my train to Tokyo arrives. O. M. G.
- I spend the night in Narita by myself because timing wouldn’t work the next day. I stay in the Holiday Inn not far from the airport, where the EU 85 one-person room I had ordered turned out to be a EUR 85 double-full size bed room, complete with prepackaged toothbrushes and toothpaste. I buy a Sapporo to fill my foreign-land beer responsibilities, duly jump from one bed to the other for about five minutes, drink the Sapporo to CNN evening news and get ready to go to bed.
Friday, 8 May
- I get to Narita way early. I’m all on time in regard to personal actions and check-in is a breeze once the man at the counter and I figure out that my flight is actually with Air France, not KLM. After check-in I have time for another Starbuck’s hit (this time aaall done in Japanese), as well as to tool around the airport shopping area. I find a few more things to bring back, for people.
- Picked up green tea cookie-sticks for people, a newspaper for my dad. More practising of the Japanese when I ask the elderly man at the newspaper stand which paper was the Asahi Shinbun.
- Getting ready for the first leg of my trip home to Riga. Stopover in Paris, where I hope to get to see my friend Hanane, if even for 10 minutes, and then an overnight stay in the Schiphol airport.
- I try to call my mother from a Narita pay phone, but am unable to because her number doesn’t accept blocked calls. (MAMMA!! A KO TAD NU!!!)
- Instead call my father twice, the first time to say I didn’t oversleep coming to the airport and the second time to hear him cracking up over some www.youtube.com video. Oh, parents.
- In the Paris airport I DO get to see Hanane (a very good friend of mine from the study-abroad days) and we spend a teary-eyed 20 minutes catching up. I’m glad to see she’s doing well and looking happy. After I take my leave of her and her boyfriend, I run to my next flight, seeing many kiosks of overly fancy cookies and candies on the way. Someday, Paris, someday soon.
- I get to Schiphol, immediately send SMSs to everyone I know letting them know I’m back on European soil, and after wandering around the airport for an hour am finally able to find the Yotel Hotel, where my pod awaits me. I don’t get dinner because I was too busy being lost in the airport and all food options shut down for the night. I settle for MTV Europe and sleep.
Saturday, 9 May
- I slept in a pod. It was oddly fantastic, though slightly otherworldly and creepy. I would definitely do it again.
- After picking up Starbuck’s breakfast (okay, I think I’m set, now), I make it to my gate and await the final flight. I feel physically exhausted and know that I will pass out as soon as my seat belt clicks shut.
- We fly into Riga early and I get to spend some time with a friend who is to flying back to Canada today.
- On the way back home I talk (or rather, I listen) to the cabby about spring hitting the city. Riga looks clean, fresh, and for once kind of smells good. I get home, the cat is decidedly indifferent toward my return. Home, home, home.
Tuesday, 5 May
- We experience an earthquake around 4 a.m. I am 3/4ths asleep when it happens so it factors into my dream. I am lying face up on the futon and feel the floor shudder under my back. Around 7 I wake up more and hear Anna’s mother say the word “earthquake” and know it wasn’t just a dream. It was a small one, no damage done, but an experience nonetheless.
- We leave early for Nitta, where we catch a train to Sendai. Oh, yes, kids, it’s SHOPPING day.
- Shop, shop, shop! Mall! 3-block strip of stores! 3x3x3 blocks of stores!
- I am probably more excited to gift all the stuff I’ve bought than the respective people will be to receive the gifts. Sendai is the biggest city I’ll get to walk around and I plan on enjoying this day to the fullest.
- After the first store and many items crossed off the “to-buy-for-others” list, my wallet has been thoroughly violated. I hear it sobbing from my bag. The man at the register even raised his eyebrows in consumer appreciation when he unloaded the bag I intended to buy but had used as a basket to jam all of my purchasables in.
- Oh, right, STARBUCK’S. I ask for my caramel macchiato and lemon scone in Japanese and after saying I would take my breakfast to go am offered a paper bag in which to put my coffee and treat. Turns out it’s not really normal to walk around eating or drinking things in Japan. If you buy something to-go-ish, you take a few steps, stop, and eat or drink until you’re done. But yes, Starbuck’s. Insert infinity hearts. And then one more for good measure.
- I think I have single-handedly boosted the Japanese chopstick-manufacturing and retail sectors. Wow.
- Anna and I tool off on our own while her parents and fellow ALT go to a museum. We eat lunch at a weird diner. Tolerable, but nothing special, except that Anna’s came with an egg. That was raw. The meal includes separating the yolk and mixing it into the rest of your food. I’m content with my non-eggy choice.
- At a store where I later buy a dress, they have me put this protective bag thing over my head, which is supposed to protect the clothing from make-up. In hindsight it made sense, but when the girl at the store stood in front of me with her eyebrows raised, asking me a question and patting her cheeks, then smiling and clapping when I cautiously took the bag and mimed placing it over my head, it really didn’t make sense.
- I see my first real “dolls”. Soon after, I am surrounded by what seems to be a gang of them in an accessories store. I am the only one not dressed as a cupcake and can’t help but feel like odd-man out.
- Other happiness points include the UNO-QLO store (the “if you need a red t-shirt, you can buy a red t-shirt store) and, hallelujah, PEACH BUNS.
- By the end of the day my feet are totally wasted. Blisters, cramps, holy hell.
- This is the first day we didn’t get any “presents”.
- I start to seriously consider buying a Nintendo DS. For educational purposes, obviously.
- At the end of the day we go to Marusen, this huge bookstore with a giant selection of English books. I finally find postcards sold individually as opposed to in packs of 50. Then we go to UNI-QLO and finish the day off with more Starbuck’s. I plan on drooling in my sleep.
Wednesday, 6 May
- Breakfast is a feast of the peach buns bought the night before in Sendai, plus instant coffee (forgive me), plus brownies received as gifts from Cafe Minnesota two days prior. I am floating on sugar high.
- Anna takes out her shamisen and plays a bit for us. It’s a calming instrument and the effect is really nice, taking an easy morning, listening to the shamisen mixed with the sounds of early morning Tome.
- Since Anna’s parents have had to switch their flight times to leave Japan earlier, we spend the day around Maiya and Tome instead of taking any far-out excursions. At the mall, Anna and I go to the arcade to take crazy sticky-backed photos. These photos are more labour-intensive than I could have ever imagined. There are umpteen options to choose from before you even start taking the pictures, and after you have a chance to decorate them with all kinds of crazy whatnots. However, I suppose this is really getting your money’s worth.
- Anna, her father and I drive out to a park near Maiya and take pictures. Anna gets some practical instruction from her father on how to run her brand-new Nikon D60, purchased in Sendai the day before. The three of us walk around the park, cameras vised to our heads, and have an enjoyable time.
- We also drive out a bit to the highway that has the Golden Week wind-sock decorations. An entire loooong line of koi fish wind-socks. I climb up the embankment and hang onto the highway guardrail to get a few perspective shots. I do my best to fight the urge to hide behind the rail and then pop up and wave my arms around just as a car drives by.
- Later we go back to the Mall and I take my time walking up and down the grocery store aisles, mostly in a gleeful haze. Oh feast, oh joy. I buy miso, several kinds of noodles and enough wasabi to cover an ant village in green, spicy paste.
- I find myself talking to myself again. I’m not too worried, mostly because I’m enjoying the riveting conversation.
- I treat everyone to the tastiest soba soup lunch ever.
- For dinner, Anna and her father make some kind of cream-of-something soup. With stuff in it. I can’t even remember what was in it, possibly carrots, but it was damn delicious, whatever it was. And no, it did not come from a can.
Sunday, 3 May
- We take a late morning then drive back to last night’s restaurant to retrieve Anna’s lost earring. Shame, for we felt obliged to order more cappuccino. This time took my banana-caramel divinity hot, so I could get a drawing in the foam. Enter Bunny Face. It is almost too cute to drink. I do it anyway. I also cave and order a cup of the tapioca, which ends up being more coconut milk than tapioca. The tapioca are less… funny than what Jell-O brand makes, and the sweet red bean paste at the bottom of the cup is a bonus.
- Later we drive to Kurigoma-Kogen to try and get tickets for T–. Doesn’t work out, since the return tickets are all bought out.
- We go to Ishinogawa to the San Juan Bautista boat museum. The ship itself was somewhat interesting – too bad it wasn’t older looking. The moving mannequins in the exhibit area were @!*&%^+ CREEPY.
- Fried octopus snacks for “lunch”. Mustered up some courage to use my Japanese, asked the man selling the snacks “Oishii desu ka?” (Do they taste good?), to which he replied “Oishii desu!” (They’re tasty!), but it came out sounding more like “Ummm, DUH. Damn Yank.”
- I feed yet another beverage machine my small change to get an aluminium bottle of Coca-cola. Let me repeat that, aluminium bottle.
- After the boat museum we drive around somewhat aimlessly for a while. We wind up at a “mall”, where I buy a 4 GB photo card. About time.
- We hit up a more “everything” type of store, where Anna’s parents hook her up with some pans and I drop around $40 on chopsticks and all things related thereto. I am euphoric. I buy some collapsible, reusable chopsticks in a carrying case. I will eat my sushi and save a tree. The chopsticks are incredibly girly. Japan does something funny to my brain.
- We eat dinner at an Italian restaurant at the mall. My spaghetti has jalapeno peppers in it. I take note of this and will apply it later in life.
- I’m barely able to sit through dinner because I can’t stop thinking about this white dress with flowers on it that I saw in a shop window. Heck YEAH I bought it! Repeat, this country does something funny to my brain. I also find something adorable for my goddaughter.
- Our last (thank God) stop is an accessories store, where Anna consults with a random Japanese high school boy about sunglasses styles and I buy several pairs of strange tights/nylons and footie nylons for ballet flats.
Monday, 4 May
- We have a delicious omelette breakfast without most of the ingredients that had been planned to be included.
- After breakfast we drive up to Hiraizumi. We do not see any hiragana burning in the hillsides, but do see lovely ponds, shrines and temples.
- Later we have an ice cream break. I buy ice cream that is grey. I am told it is made from black sesame seeds. It looks like ash but tastes like wonder. Before we’re able to finish our ice cream we are recruited to stand as four white people among a group of 20 or more Japanese men holding up a travelling shrine. We become the coolest thing the entire immediate area has ever seen; Japanese people run to take pictures of us with their cameras, phones, whatever. There will probably be a youtube.com video of us later. While at Hiraizumi we walk over 5 km.
- We drive to Genbikei Gorge, which is very pretty. We also stand in line for 1.5 hours for “flying dango”. Flying dango are rice balls covered in sweet sauce and shuttled down a rope and pulley system in a basket from a restaurant across the gorge. We once again become the main attraction as our basket comes back to us with a Japanese and American flag stuck in the weave. We get a complementary box of dango with a note attached: “Welcome! This present for you! Enjoy!”
- We eat the dango, drink our tea, then go visit the chef across the gorge. He invites us up to his “base”, where he treats us to instant coffee and Japanese chocolates. We take pictures of ourselves shuttling the basket back and forth, pictures with the chef, pictures with each other. It’s all very random, but not something everyone will do on a trip to Japan.
- After the dango we hit up a glass park and I see many pretty things I don’t trust myself to purchase and transport back to Latvia. Or the States. Or to Anna’s car.
- We meet up with Anna’s friends for dinner at the “most expensive sushi restaurant” in Maiya. Most expensive means eating 10 plates of amazing sushi (large pieces), all-you-can-drink tea, and not even hitting the $15/person mark. Anna and I challenge her father to a duel and lose by a plate each. Losing has never tasted so good, though we are close to bursting.
- After dinner we go to the arcade and watch others play games. I basically don’t trust myself to move.
- Because duty calls, we drive over to the Minnesota Café, a coffee shop started by a couple from Minnesota and later bought by a local Japanese man. The espresso is decent and I enjoy my photo op. by the Minnesota sign. Turns out all I have to do to go home is fly to Asia.
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.
Today marks my first morning in Japan! Anna and I spent some time talking last night before we fell asleep, most of it revolving around freaking out about how cool and weird it was to be in the same place again, talking about random things, instead of trying to catch each other on Skype. Yesterday was mostly transportation and involuntary naps on trains, with the night ending with a sushi and udon noodle coma and Baskin Robbins ice cream. Today we’re probably going to drive to the eastern coast, maybe do some sight seeing. Don’t hold your breath for updates every day, but I’ll keep a bullet-point list of stuff that happens and post when I can, or when I get back!
Happy May, everyone!