Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

About Latvian Dentists and Other Doctors

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Today I went in for two consultations.

The first one was a form of physical therapy cum massage, during which I basically got a massage. The woman I went to see was recommended to me by a co-worker who has known the woman for some time. Though the better part of the consultation (pretty great that the consultations are so hands-on some of the time) was mostly trying to work out the ridiculous stiffness in my right shoulder and shoulder blade, a tiny part at the beginning was spent with my head being suspended with the help of a strap, then turned this way and that. This ended up being to make sure the problem wasn’t in my spine. The best part of all of it? Massages like this are (rightly) considered a medical procedure, in my case is most likely a result of my working conditions and is covered by my insurance. Which I paid for, I know, but still.

The goal is to get me in for another 9 sessions to knock this thing out of my park, so to speak.

The second consultation was with a dentist, to determine if the apparent upward-crescent shaped wear in the bottom of my right front tooth (hah, seems as if the entire right side of my body is having troubles) was actually a wear, or a chip, and if it could be fixed. It’s pretty widely known that Latvian dentists have good reputations for being skilled, efficient, and inexpensive. Many practices advertise to tourists who are looking for “medical vacation” options. Anyway, I went to the consultation and was told by the dentist that I had a few options for fixing what he determined was a chip in the enamel of my tooth. One was to fill it in with the same stuff used for filling cavities, but which would probably fall out within a week to a month later. Another option was to get ceramic caps, I guess they would be, which would be the most drastic option. Then he remembered he could always kind of “buff down” the corner of the chipped tooth to make it look even. When he said “buff”, I heard “file”. I said it seemed to make more sense than a filling.

So I’m sitting in the patient’s chair, thinking about how I’m going to have to decide on what to do, then make another appointment, when the back of my chair is moving down and the dentist takes the buffer/filer and I have just enough time to realise what is about to happen and open my mouth. Water droplets fly everywhere to the whir of the buffer. I’m handed a mirror, and then I lose it. I laugh so hard form the bottom of my stomach up that the dentist and his assistant just look at me for a few moments before nervously laughing with and asking what is going on. But I’m laughing too hard to accurately explain that something like that would NEVER happen in America; there would be questions, new appointments made, lots of murmuring and thinking… I manage to say something about how everything looks good and it’s great, but it’s just so damn funny to come in for a consultation and next thing you know your teeth are being filed down.

The dentist stopped me there and said it wasn’t “filing”, but “buffing”. So I kept laughing, this time with him and the assistant laughing with me. Then the dentist says “Well, there’s nothing really for me to do here”, then tells me I can go see the hygienist if I want, so my trip here isn’t wasted. And I did. I waited 30 minutes, but I had thought to bring a book and wasn’t bothered. All in all… a very good day for medical visits. I have yet to be disappointed by dentists in Latvia, though I’ve only seen three specialists to date.

I also think I did well enough on the written and analogies part of the GRE to make up for how shameful the math section will turn out :D

Sock it to the Post

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Let me tell you a bit about the Latvian postal/UPS/postal customs system.

I ordered Rosetta Stone goods from the States (yes, I decided to take the Rosetta leap, if you will. Hate on me after I have my post rant) back at the end of November. Somewhere in the beginning of December I got a hurriedly mumbled phone call from someone at Customs saying I had to come pick up a package. I assumed this was the package from my mother she had told me to watch for and so started planning a transportation option to go pick up said mommy-pack.

But then I got curious as to how far the Rosetta shipment had gotten and logged into the UPS tracking website to discover that it was in fact the Rosetta Stone box that had been sitting at Customs the past several days. Joy of joys! Only problem is that the UPS/Customs office is only open until 18.00 on week days. This, coupled with the inconvenient yet cheap public transportation option that takes me 10 minutes to walk to and takes 15-20 minutes to arrive at the required stop, promised to be an interesting task to manage seeing as I work 9.00 – 17.00.

I’ll say now, the simple fact that I, too, work a 40h/week job seems to surprise most of the people I’ve had to deal with on a bureaucratic level. Ack! I’m not just some American-Latvian come to mooch your money for doing absolutely nothing all day! I actually pull my own weight (and often then some) in the local work force, just like so many other hard working townies! I know, it’s INSANE!

I digress.

Then I get a phone call from a weasely sounding man at UPS, who basically informs me that the package has been at their office for some time and that they want to know if someone is ever going to come and pick it up. I then inform him that I’ve been trying to make it out to their office the past week, but I don’t usually get out of the office earlier than 17.00. Enter surprised sound from the weasely man. I continue by saying I intend to do my best to make it to their office the next day. He then tells me I’ll have to pay an additional (!!!!) percentage for customs fees. I say this is excellent. My sarcasm goes over his head as he asks me, “So, is someone going to come within the next days or not?” KICK. IN. THE. HEAD. He also adds that the hours are from 8.30-17.30, meaning that I lose a 30 minute window of arriving to get things done.

I roll into the UPS office the next day, no one looks at the passport I’ve brought with me, I get a piece of paper from a guy at the UPS desk and am told to go talk to the customs declarant. The customs declarant is an incredibly bored looking woman with ink smudges all over her manicured but calloused hands. She takes my “receipt” and tells me if my package contains an educational material, I’ll have to pay a 10% customs duty, and if it’s something else, I pay 21%. Then she looks me in the eye and asks me, “So what are we going to do about it?”

I am confused and tell her so. “Of course it’s an educational material – it’s a language acquisition programme.” She then tells me that yes, the invoice does say “Educational Material”, but this doesn’t mean that they know what is in the box. I am also told that a woman received a similar package from the same company a few weeks back, and she was brought to customs inspection. This is at least what I initially heard. At this time I’m starting to get concerned. It’s just a box of learning CDs, right?? I didn’t do anything wrong, I don’t want to be interrogated!” But then I understand that it is the contents of the box they inspect, not you. So my options are: let Customs open my shipment and poke around to make sure it is what it says it is, then pay them 10% of the total of the product, or walk away with it then, but pay 21% of the total. I say I’ll take the first option — hey, what’s another 10% and more days of waiting for an item I thought I would be receiving at my local post department branch office, right?

So I sign the invoice and the customs declarant takes my phone number and tells me that the box will be brought to inspection the following day (Wednesday), I would be contacted by Thursday, at which point they would tell me how much I would have to pay in addition, e-mail me a copy of the final invoice, and I’d be able to come pick the package up by Friday. Frustrated, I ask about the office hours and she informs me that her station is open until 18.00, but that the main UPS counters I passed when coming in (and where, presumably, I’d have to pay) are open until 20.00. Great. I part empty-handed, not very amused, but glad that things are at least moving forward.

Fast forward to Friday. I’ve heard nothing from UPS, Customs, or the weasely man. I don’t know who to call. I have no papers. I find the UPS Latvia e-mail address and write them a frustrated and slightly angry letter. Where. Is. My. Stuff.

Fast forward to Monday. I get an e-mail from UPS Latvia saying that my package has been taken to the Customs inspection department near Riga International Airport and that I need to show up in order for them to open up the box and look at it. I also need to take some document with me that proves the contents of the box. Big, ol’ WTF. So I call the number at the end of the e-mail, get a somewhat sympathetic woman on the other line, who tells me the exact same thing the e-mail told me. Which is okay.

But then I tell her I’m just really confused why I have to go all the way out to the airport, when the customs declarant at UPS told me I would be called once everything was taken care of to come pay for and pick up my package. The woman on the phone (ba-bah-daaah, bureaucracy!) told me she had nothing to do with what the customs declarant told me, but I would still have to come to them to get the package. Also, I’d have to show up by 16.00 in order to draw up the declaration papers (which, oh, I get to pay for, too) in a timely manner and get the package. I tell her about my 40h/week job and I am not surprised that she sounds surprised. I am then told that my other option is to give UPS Express the authority to fill out the sheets for me, which I’d have to pay extra for, and then they’d deliver the package to my place of work. I ask if this is something the post office would take care of. Of course, it isn’t. I didn’t ask, but I would bet money that I would have to physically go to the UPS office, fill out countless documents to give them said authorisation to go take care of my stuff for me. The woman asks me if I want her to give me the number for UPS. I think for a second, then tell her very bluntly that no, I do not want to call them. I want my package. It’s been in the country for almost a month, I’ve had all this unexpected stress and ridiculousness to deal with and I still don’t have my property. She kind of sympathises, but not too much. She then reiterates that, if I trust UPS Express to handle things, I could still try that option. I bite my tongue to keep from telling her just how much I actually DO trust UPS Express in comparison to the standard postal system.

Then I figured out I could try to take care of all of this next Monday. The woman agrees this would work. I ask her if I can pay by debit card. She says no. I then ask her how much money am I supposed to know to bring with. She gives me a ballpark number. BALLPARK. Jesus Christ on crutches on ice.

During this week I also got a “Repeat Reminder!!!” notice from the regular mail saying I had a package waiting for me some time. Funny, because it was the FIRST NOTICE I HAD GOTTEN. But they delegated UPS Express to bring it to me (who signed on those papers, I wonder?), so it worked out in the end. Then yesterday I got a letter from my friend Andi and her husband Brent, something that I’m guessing is a “Thank you for being at our wedding!” (I was on Skype conference, different story) photo of the two of them. I say guess, because the envelope was put back together with sports tape due to what the stamp basically calls “being opened upon receipt”. The envelope looks like a Rotweiler slept face-down on it. The paper of the envelope is worn and liquid-stained and has completely adhered itself to the face of the photo. The front of the envelope with the addresses is mysteriously unscathed, but the back… The postal system here is kicking my butt.

So I am going to go to the building next to the airport next Monday and hope that I have enough time after filling in the declaration forms to tell them exactly how I feel about their absolute crap lack of inter-departmental and office communication. I AM FUMING. You just can’t tell because all the snowfall we’ve had lately is masking it.

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

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.

Latvija

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.

Roadtrip Saga Complete

Friday, November 6th, 2009

Still no recap on the Italy trip, but know that my vacation is officially over and that I am running on burn-out right now and won’t be able to stop and take another breath until Saturday evening.

Also know that I have finished my Latvia road trip and have come out breathing on the other side. I almost didn’t sleep last night for fear that the rental people would find something, ANYTHING wrong with the pristine car I returned to them early this morning. But everything went well.

In temporary closing, we have snow, or had snow in Latvia yesterday. From Riga all the way to Daugavpils (where I was Thursday morning).

Keeping you on the edge of your seats…

Vacation

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

I’ll get around to writing more in detail about the Italy/Rome experience, but for now know that I am back in Riga, currently implementing my mini Latvia road-trip and am doing well. What sweetens the deal is that I was finally able today to pick up the goodies I ordered from Amazon.de.

Stay tuned.

The Illness Redux

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

For the past few weeks people at work have been getting and staying sick. As of yet it’s just proved to be some kind of nasty head cold, hacking coughs and sniffles inclusive. A few people have taken to wearing those hospital masks surgeons wear — one person as a joke — but at least one seriously. I’m left wondering: how many co-workers need to wear masks before I have reason to panic?

The latest development is that we’re leaving tonight for an 18-hour bus ride to the Czech-Polish borderlands. In case you don’t understand the situation, I’ll spell it out.

EIGHTEEN HOUR TRIP SPENT IN AN ENCLOSED, POORLY-VENTILATED, BACTERIA AND VIRAL-CIRCULATING BUS RIDE to the Czech-Polish border. Other than the obvious dangers this poses, I’m pretty excited for the trip because I’ll get to use my hiking boots again on some trails the group is planning on hitting. One of the trails in the write-up of the weekend was described as “a trail for SERIOUS hikers only”. I have boots meant specifically for hiking. This makes me entirely serious.

I don’t know if I’m already sick or not. When speaking to my mother via Skype on Sunday, I promised her I wouldn’t get sick. Then Monday I “barely” (exaggeration is always due when one is ill) made it through the end of the work day as I was plagued with alternating chills and spikes in body temperature, as well as a lingering nausea. Then I went home and passed out for four hours, which seemed to do the trick, though since then I haven’t had any appetite. I’ve been eating, oh yes, at least breakfast foods out of habit, and yesterday I ate dinner. But as soon as I’ve eaten something I regret doing so because an even heavier feeling of nausea weighs on me. So instead I’ve concentrated on drinking peppermint tea to settle any stomach issues, as well as “drinking my meals”, so to speak, minus the whole alcohol bit. For example, this morning I almost had an appetite, but it was gone as soon as it came. So now I’m drinking carrot juice, which at least is puréed food and has vitamins.

Not that I’m a day-by-day blogger in the first place, but the next few days will be spent away from my computer and once more glued to my camera. News on the borderlands once we get back — which will be Monday morning, just in time to go to work.

I’m going to bring a stock of echinacea tablets with me.

August Gone, September Here

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Until today, summer had seemingly decided to punk out in Latvia. The temperatures had dropped just enough for it to feel significantly colder than it actually is and all I could do was hope that Indian Summer doesn’t pass without me noticing it. Again. Luckily, today is a stunning 23′C and I am happy to traipse around the city in sandals and a skirt.

The last week or two in a nutshell has been: first ever couch surfer, fall vacation planning, repatriation research/planning, a work-organised hike along the north-western coast of Latvia and hanging out with my relatives at their “summer home”.

The CouchSurfer was certainly an experience. He was our first ever CouchSurfer — a deaf, gay ecologist from Washington state, who loved to dance. Love it SO much, in fact, that while on our way to the central market with a friend of mine, he had to stop and participate for half an hour in some dance marathon going on in a fake beach set-up (sand, palm trees, beach chairs, etc.) in front of National Opera House. The things this country will come up with… Anyway, the weekend was spent fairly low-key, enjoying time outside, going to a dance club to let the CouchSurfer burn off some energy. When we were leaving the dance club/bar a local tried talking to the CouchSurfer and asked if he understood Latvian, to which a marginally intoxicated friend of ours replied loudly (in Latvian) “No, he doesn’t understand — HE’S BLIND.” So I was left to explain to the local guy (who was then waving his hand in front of the CouchSurfer’s face) that the CouchSurfer was in fact deaf, not blind. Quite possibly one of the funniest moments of the evening.

Learning some sign language was helpful. I for some reason know and remember the entire alphabet, so spelling words out was a good plan-B if the CouchSurfer didn’t understand from lip reading. The rest of us learned the signs for good, night, dance, breakdance, fall, alcohol, no, and the European sign language for “yes”. It would be interesting to learn ESL. We also learned how to sign “story of my life”, which we have, as I indicated earlier, applied extensively. The Couch Surfer could hear — or distinguish — certain sounds. I had to ask him about it finally because at the market this woman walked by in high heels and he goes “I could hear that from all the way back there!” So I asked him about sound pitch frequencies, since I figured if higher or lower sounds were easier to distinguish I could just talk to him in a scary man voice or in a high-pitched squeal. Turns out normal human voice ranges he can distinguish fairly well, but it becomes harder in larger groups of people. He can also distinguish birdsong. As for dancing, it’s all about feeling the beat instead of hearing it, but that the rest of us had figured out without having to ask him.

Another thing that was surprising was how helpful people in stores were to him once they figured out he didn’t speak Latvian and had some hearing impairment. Surprise may be an understatement, considering Latvia is known as a country in which, should you have the slightest deformation, you are usually determined as needing to be shut up and locked away in some dark corner where no one knows about you.

Taking the CouchSurfer to the market was… an entirely different ball of yarn. After the first Russian woman yelled at him for picking up and shaking a clump of spinach and I had explained to him that you just don’t touch stuff here, he apologised and explained he was used to farmers’ markets in Washington and grocery stores, where you’re allowed to inspect the produce. Alright, that’s cool. But then when buying bananas he got too impatient and started picking his own off the bunches and then I got yelled at by the Latvian woman for his behaviour. Again, not allowed to touch stuff. Luckily he refrained from doing that again during the rest of the trip there, but when he finally bought some spinach and decided after the woman had put them in the bag that it was too much, he turns to me and asks me to have her take half of it out. Me, I stood petrified but finally with much apologising and submissive head bowing was able to convince the woman to (grudgingly) remove a fraction of the spinach. This was another learning experience for me.

The entire weekend was exhausting — I’m not used to showing people around who don’t speak the language and who haven’t really studied a map of the area prior to going out into the immediate world. I’m glad the first couch surfing experience was one that ended safely and without any damage to property and that we met a truly fascinating and kind person in the process. But the end of the year is becoming a difficult time to host couch surfers, and the sudden influx of single men over the age of 35 and from eastern countries who are requesting a place to stay is kind of shady, so I think the three of us involved have decided to take the couch off the board for a while and stick to just meeting up with passers-through if they want some less-malicious locals to talk to.

Another new update is that I got my fall vacation request approved, so will be able to join Ilze and Davids on a week-long stay in Rome (the theme for this trip is “Pizza, Pope, Paparazzi!” and our buttons sport a sketch of the Popemobile. With the Pope inside.). Technically, this will be two countries in one trip, provided we get to Vatican City.

My second week off I haven’t figured out yet what I’d do. I’m still kind of coming to terms with the idea of not working for two straight weeks, which may be a sign of premature work-aholicness. However, I’ve got several ideas, two of which involve locking myself into a quiet space and hashing out my issues regarding graduate school or regarding putting some time into some freelance literary translation to see how I like it. The third and most appealing idea involves going around Latvia with my camera latched to my face to check out interesting graffiti in some other major “graffiti cities” besides Riga. I’ve already started researching this possibility and am starting to think that renting a car, though slightly more expensive than taking public transportation, would allow me to maximise my time and stop in more cities around the country.

I’ve also pre-started the process of repatriation. I have some documents, my mother is collecting some more, the department here has told me to c’mon down and take care of it. While my mother and her side of the family and my dad have been surprisingly supportive of this, I have a really strong sense that my dad’s parents — especially my grandfather — think this is more of a ridiculous desire to do something different. It’s as if I would have told him I wanted a giraffe for Christmas or something. And judging by the reactions I got when I told them I was thinking about repatriation, a giraffe would be a much more likely result than any kind of document I might need. My friends keep telling me to just call the respective registry offices to get the documents I’d need from my father’s side of the family, but I’m the type of person who wants her grandparent’s permission to go get the documents. It’s too bad if they don’t support this, but I’m not going to completely go against what they want.

Two Saturdays ago I participated in a work “outing” in which we drove to Kolkasrags and walked the 23km to some camp-site named Plaucaki. We hung out at Kolkasrags for a bit, took some group pictures and then headed out. On our way to the wood trail we passed another group and, since I was at the back of our group, the first person in the other line pointed to the beach and asked me (in Latvian) “Is Kolkasrags over there?” and I went “No, it just washed away.” because I thought he was joking. His blank stare told me he probably wasn’t so I said that it was that way, yes.

After the first 4km it was kind of impossible to keep shoes on without getting them wet and after that, what’s the point of putting them back on? Dumb. But I wasn’t the only person limping by the time we got to the camp-site. It was a really great walk, got a lot of picture taking done, talked to some co-workers I hadn’t really talked to before, but mostly enjoyed some semi-solitary mind clearing. There were lots of random things along the beach, like shampoo bottles, rubber gloves, a full ketchup bottle, and bones. Everyone else was laughing and saying things like “Hahaha it’s like a dinosaur graveyard!” but I was more concerned and thinking “that looks like a human vertebrae and THAT looks like a human tibia…”

Instead of staying at the camp-site for the night with some of the others I was instead dropped at my relatives’ place by a group heading back to Riga. I was really limping and my relative was immediately concerned, even though I told her it was fine. These relatives are really into Reiki and they’re very into testing it out on people. And by people I mean me.

I’m generally the type of person to ride out physical pain in slow-moving agony because the last thing I logically figure people want is someone manhandling their injuries saying things like “Does it hurt when I do this? How about this?” However, because my relatives are into this Reiki thing and are quite adamant about doing what they want at times, I was forcefully explained that I would be administered a foot massage with some kind of magical cream they picked up on a recent trip to the Himalayas. Best thing EVER. Of course the next morning after breakfast with the relatives I was all LET’S GO WALK BY THE SEA!, ending in more foot-death, at which time I expressed to my relative my apparent inability to learn from my actions, to which she agreed, saying she hadn’t planned on a beach walk, but I had been so gung-ho about it, to which I said if I’m about to do something stupid STOP ME. This didn’t stop as I once more wanted to go walk around at night and then again the next morning.

As such, Tuesday morning was the first time I was really excited that I have a mainly stationary job. The less I moved the better I felt.

Today is… the Wednesday of the week after it all, and I have recovered completely and am always counting the hours until I can go home and keep reading the last Harry Potter book. I’ve been re-bitten by the book bug and am anxious to read everything I’ve accumulated in the last 6 months. Which is a frightening amount of books. But I’m making excellent progress!

Also, happy September!

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 www.youtube.com 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 4: Japan

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

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.

Bullet Blog : Japan Recap 2

Friday, May 29th, 2009

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.