Archive for June, 2009

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 3

Monday, June 15th, 2009

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.

VICTORY IS MINE!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Once again, Japan recaps will continue shortly.

But today I finally, finally, finally received my residential permit. It only took WAY too long and WAY too much money to take care of everything, but I get to stay. Admittedly, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had they decided not to issue me a permit. I wonder what deportation feels like.

Probably nothing like being tickled and more like having your foot fall asleep and then slowly wake back up again.

So tonight, celebrate in my name, if you so choose (it’s Kaija, by the way), because this kid is in it for another year.

Bonding with the Landlady

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

On a complete side note from Japan recaps, I have recently bonded with my landlady over the inability of the Latvian government to process documents in an orderly and timely manner. I got her life story in a nutshell on Tuesday when I ran home to find her after an unsuccessful attempt to get everything filed at the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs. There was something wrong with the document stating I have permission to live where I live and my options were limited to 1) find the landlady, who had been MIA for a week and then very not happy with me when I spoke to her Monday or 2) find another apartment to move into. The woman at the OCMA was not joking when she gave me the second option.

Turns out the landlady has spend most of her time in Latvia dealing with the OCMA and various other State institutions, so when I told her what was up she melted into a puddle of sympathy and immediately photocopied about 20 pages of all kinds of documents for me to take back to the OCMA. She said, “And here I was, thinking I was the only one who was having such troubles!!” Oh, bonding.

On the plus side, Wednesday the OCMA accepted my documents, but not before a close call because I had photo copies instead of originals. ATTENTION TO EVERYONE APPLYING FOR ANY TYPE OF RESIDENTIAL PERMIT OR OTHER STATUS IN THE REPUBLIC OF LATVIA: there is a furious love for original documents in this country. If you don’t have an original or, at worst, a notarised copy, you might as well not even show up to turn stuff in. So the woman at the OCMA Wednesday tells me, “If you brought us the original, it would all be solved!” Which I highly doubt, since then they’d be likely to ask me “do you have legal power of representation to carry and present this original document instead of your landlady???” So I became frustrated — again — and expressed to the woman my absolute joy in the prospect of signing up for another time for Thursday, thereby missing what would basically be my third consecutive day of work. Then she said the magic words “Wait here, we’ll go talk to the Director.”

The director of the division is the poor woman I wrote novel-length, emotional e-mails to last year during the first episode of Frustrating Times in the Life of a Residential Permit Applicant. After several minutes word comes back that the director said to file the papers — I’m betting she took one look at my name and said “Sweet JESUS accept the documents, do anything, just get this woman OUT of this BUILDING!!”

Never give up. I go back to the OCMA next Tuesday to find out what’ll happen to me.