Archive for September, 2009

Czech-Polish Border

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

This past weekend I embarked on my first major work-related leisure trip. It ended up going much, much better than I had anticipated. I had a great time getting to know my colleagues better, joking around and taking pictures.

Half of the work trip weekend was spent sitting in a 20-seater mini-bus, while the other half was spent drinking, eating and enjoying the Czech-Polish borderland countryside. At least as much as was possible. We left Riga late Thursday night and got to the location Friday afternoon. I ended up being recruited to do all of the communication with the owner of the manor and property, as the man spoke Czech and German, but no other languages. I traveled to the Czech Republic with a group of Latvians, only to speak German. It was interesting being the lingual saviour until the Czech-speaking branch offices showed up.

Initially we were supposed to stay in 4-person cabins, which was a great idea, until we saw the cabins, which were damp, had little insulation and sported flimsy foam mattresses 2′ thick. Call me spoiled, but at Latvian camp our mattresses were at least exceptionally thick and tolerable, despite being 20 years old and stained. Luckily for us, I was able to figure out that the owner of the property was a very laid-back guy, just wanted everyone to have fun and, since there was a mix-up in the roomming or attendee count anyway, was find with us setting up shop in one of the first-level attic rooms. The room had 12 beds, we were 12 people, it worked out famously.

For the first night our group was on its own, so we barbecued and relaxed and just enjoyed Latvia group time. The next morning we headed into the nearest town and walked around a bit, checked out the stuff market, picked up some more groceries and headed back to the campsite. The other groups didn’t arrive until 1 p.m. and even after they did people mainly stayed in their own groups. This is something I wasn’t really expecting, considering everyone present is definitely 23 and over. 30-year olds grouping up in cliques? UNFATHOMABLE! And yet, it happened. Even the Czech coordinator who told us “Come, join the others! They don’t even know you’re here!” returned to her group and did little socialising outside of it the rest of the weekend.

I was also surprised at the complete lack of the English language. English was only spoken if you had to ask someone you didn’t know for something. I had assumed it would be an international event and that everyone would make an effort to communicate with one another. On the plus side, I freaking HATE ice breakers and “get to know each other” games, so my complaining can only go so far.

Saturday our Latvia group climbed the mini-hill behind the property, probably strayed into Poland a few times (the border was roughly 300 metres from the property), balanced on precarious rocks and took many pictures. It was an intense climb that no one was prepared for, but did anyway. At the top we realised we had to get down somehow, too – getting up to the top always seems to be the easy part. Once we got to the bottom and back to the manor there was a quick bathroom and beer break before heading out to the football (soccer) field to first watch others play then start a game of our own. Not something I think many of us were prepared to do after scaling the mini-mountain, but HEY! THIS IS VACATION(-ish)! I also jumped in on the action, kind of surprising my colleagues, I think, with my ability to TAKE PEOPLE DOWN. (On the last work trip I was openly labelled “the quiet one”.) I applied the phrase “no blood, no foul”, and I believe that they now take that seriously. I took down our IT guy and kicked my direct superior in the shin. Overall I think it was a productive game.

First to arrive, first to leave. Sunday morning after showering and eating breakfast we packed our gear up and left the cosy 12-bed attic and returned to our mini-bus. If the trip TO the Czech Republic was eventful because of a leaky tire that was fixed somewhere in the Polish suburbian boonies, the trip BACK home was eventful because the cardan joint busted. We were just outside of Warsaw, across the road from IKEA and a mall with an H&M store in it. TORTURE.

However we did make it back to Riga in time for most people to run home, take showers or sleep for an hour or so before returning to the office. Oh yes. Monday was NOT a free day.

We’re hard core.

Other than that I led an English language lesson today for 14 high schoolers from Daugavpils. The students had won a UNESCO competition and were awarded a 90-minute English language lesson by our office. As a result, I was chosen to lead the activity. I will now also be teaching conversation groups for high schoolers on Friday evenings, as well as making a public appearance at one of Riga’s many malls one weekend to… to basically “be American”. When finding out this was my assignment, I held back from telling the coordinator that I don’t know HOW to act American. Get drunk and openly grope people? While I down some hamburgers? Hopefully this question will be answered no later than one hour before the event.

Lots of rain in Riga. I’ve been essentially eating nothing but vegetables since getting back from down south. There was just too much bread (something I thought I’d NEVER say) and too much meat. No fruit. No veg. But lots and lots of Czech beer. The country has a clear set of priorities. On a related note, the Czech and Polish country sides are amazing. Very vast and very colourful. Driving through Poland was also a great experience. Well, the idea of it more than the act, since all we did was sleep most of the way. It also makes the idea of driving around Europe less daunting than I had previously decided it was. This makes me look forward to November with more gusto.

In other news, I’ve gone pro: now even more on Flickr.

I’ve also had “Tightrope” by Yeasayer on loop for most of the day. Minnesota Public Radio has a live studio performance on their YouTube channel here.

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.

Fuzzy around the Edges

Monday, September 21st, 2009

The past two weeks have been full of events and activities. I remember everything that happened, but trying to compile all of it into a pleasantly concise recap is beyond me, which is why my grandparents and some friends have gotten e-mails or letters anywhere between 3 – 5 pages long if put in a Word document.

I’ve done a good amount of family time, including a dinner “party” with extended family and attending my cousins birthday party. The dinner with extended family went well and was entertaining on many levels and semi-revealing on others. Overall I had a great evening full of local Latvian humour and conversation.

My cousin’s birthday party was also eventful — a nice afternoon out of Riga and among children and gardens. My biggest accomplishment was that I left the party without any blood on my clothing (re: my cousin’s youngest child’s first birthday party wherein I ended up with blood spatter from my god daughter’s nose on my jeans), though I had finger-paint and mushroom soup spilled on my legs before the first 10 minutes had passed. Both wash out.

My friends and I also spent many evenings watching films during the Baltic Pearl film festival. The films I saw and their respective ratings were: Palermo Shooting (“Mergh.”), Das weisse Band (“WTF”), Sabrina (“Pleasant”), Roman Holiday (“Deep”), Love in the Afternoon (“Lovely and Hilarious”) and Funny Face (“Super-cheese”). Other films I wanted to see but didn’t were Coco avant Chanel, Rage, and New York, I Love You.

We also wandered around the city on the evening/morning of the 12-13th. The city was under artistic siege with Balta nakts (White Night), which is not to be confused with Sensation White, the sketchy and strange techno event where everyone dresses in white and gyrates in a hyper–strobe-light stadium. Or so we’ve heard. Balta nakts was very interesting, even though I can’t say I was pleased with everything I saw.

This weekend I’m going on a trip with colleagues to somewhere between the Czech Republic and Poland. I plan on taking many pictures and enjoying another weekend abroad.

August Interview (Updated)

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

I was asked to be the August interviewee for the company I work for. I agreed; it was a nice chat with the woman writing up the interview and a nice 30 minutes away from the computer screen.
I’ve posted the English translation below. I’ll send a link for the Latvian version to family later.

Interview with Kaija Straumanis
In a time when a portion of the Latvian population decides to leave Latvia, there are those who, feeling an affiliation with the country, decide to work and live in it. Kaija Straumanis was born and raised in the U.S. in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a family of Latvian expats. Kaija has lived in Latvia since April of last year and is in her second year of working as a Latvian-English language translator and proofreader of English texts.
August 2009

- What was your first encounter with Latvia like?
- The first time I came to Latvia was in 1994 with my family to visit relatives. It was also the first time my grandma had been back since fleeing the country during the war. My first impression of Latvia was a positive one, which obviously had an influence in later years because I kept coming back. In America [the Midwest], we’re used to people being very polite, open and everyone smiles. And it’s completely normal to have a conversation with a total stranger while waiting in line at the bank. All of our relatives in Latvia were very accommodating and nice, but it was a different story in Riga. Back then I remembered Riga as being a somewhat dreary and dark place. Of course that’s changed now, and every time I fly back to the States I go through a bit of culture shock. I just feel more comfortable on this side of the world.
- And how did you decide to return to Latvia?
I graduated college in the States with a BA in German, literature and creative writing. Then I applied for an internship scholarship and ended up working for a few months at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and the British Chamber of Commerce in Latvia. Now I work as a Latvian-English language translator and English proofreader.
- What is it that keeps you in Latvia?
The longer I’m here the more I grow to like it. If you compare lifestyles, I think things are better in Europe – people eat healthier here and live more active lifestyles. On the other hand people in America are more open, friendlier. I also think it’s easier to pursue an education in America, as well as get scholarships. I have to overcome a lot of obstacles to live and work in Latvia – especially in terms of bureaucracy when applying for my residential permit. And yet there’s something here that’s grabbed a hold of me and won’t let go. I’ve even grown accustomed to the slightly cold attitudes of locals; one morning at a Narvessen store the cashier spoke to me in such a friendly and open manner that I was almost speechless. It may seem like you can make all of your dreams come true if you go to America, but I think that if you don’t have any family or friends there who could help you out, moving up in the world would be really difficult.
- What sort of contact did you have with Latvian culture growing up in America?
- My parents and grandparents always spoke Latvian at home – it was my first language. I only started learning English at kindergarten and by watching TV. On the weekends I went to Latvian School. It was like leading a double life – on the weekdays you went to American school, spoke English with your American friends, but on the weekends you spoke Latvian with other Latvians and went to Latvian camps in the summer.
- What other languages do you speak and which ones would you like to learn?
- I speak German and have studied Japanese. I also tried learning Italian one semester in college. I definitely want to work on my Japanese and keep learning Italian, as well as start learning French. Being able to speak French would give me better opportunities to further my education in Europe.
- What do you do in your free time?
- I write CD reviews for I really enjoy writing, photography, travelling and reading. I’d like to get into literary translation.
- What have been some of your most interesting travel destinations and where would you like to travel to?
- Egypt and Japan were two places where I was met by huge contrasts. I initially expected Japan to be one big culture shock, but it was anything but that. Everything in Egypt is based on bartering, which is something very foreign to me. Life in Japan goes by peacefully, spiritually, and its nature is extremely beautiful. Someday I’d like to make it to Australia and India. But at the same time I really want to travel back to those places I’ve already been to get to know them better. I’m not someone who gets off the plane, takes a look around and crosses that location off my list of places to visit. I like to get a feel for the country, its people and their culture.

About Things Private

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

This past Sunday I went with my friend Ilze to the National Art Museum’s “Arsenals” gallery. This gallery is known for putting on more “modern” exhibits. The last one I went to featured a strange artist who tacked the Russian “-naya” onto the end of almost every word. The same artist had two “sculptures” that consisted of sprats in oil, meticulously layered and sealed in fibreglass boxes. Two other pieces in the last exhibit were a wall-sized print-out of what I was convinced were all of Shakespeare’s plays printed line for line in a font smaller than size 2 (the friend I went with didn’t think all of the plays were there, but since there was no write-up about the piece, we each kept to our own opinions on the matter) and a “Shakespeare Phone Directory”, which was a brilliant compilation of every existing Shakespeare character (major, minor and one-line characters alike) in alphabetical order, accompanied by a standard seven-digit telephone number. If that piece could be bought, I tell you…

But I digress. The exhibit I went to on Sunday with Ilze was called “Privats” and had to do with many different aspects of the concept of privacy. Some artists displayed private photos of family gatherings, trips with friends, stuff like that. Another artist had taken night-photos of private real properties around Latvia. A third artist, and probably the most interesting to me, was a man who had taken a series of 100 (not all were displayed) photos of rooms and the people in them. These ranged from clearly posed photos where the owner of the room could not be identified, to photos of a group of friends gathering at one house for drinks and a light meal, people reading, people with their pets, etc. It was interesting to try to find similarities between the rooms (there were several) that somehow tied them together. And, of course, it was also interesting being able to creep on people’s houses without being a real life creeper. How many times have you driven around your neighbourhood and wondered what happens behind a closed curtain? Or why the family that never draws their curtains is so pathetic as to watch TV shows like “Judge Judy”?

In the small, upstairs room of the museum, we saw a few pieces from an artist who actually uses crow excrements to paint. Or make art. Whatever it is he does. It was special.

If you happen to be in Riga between now and 18 October, I highly suggest you go check it out. Museum tickets cost LVL 2,50. More information on the exhibit can be found here. Unfortunately the information is not in English, but you get to see at least one example of the exhibit. Another option is to do a Google image search on “arsenals privats”, which gives you a few more pieces to look at. Note: I am not responsible for the content of whatever Google spits back at you.

On an equally exciting note, I am THRILLED to write that Latvijas balzams now sells Riga Black Balsam with black currant syrup PRE-MIXED in!!! The goodness comes in a black, ceramic bottle. I saw it on the shelf at the store last night as I was buying chocolates to bring to a family dinner, and since I couldn’t decide whether I should buy it, enthusiastically reveal it to the family and crack it open to drink there, or buy it, take it home and enthusiastically reveal it to the flatmate and crack it open to drink there, I settled for writing my dad an all-caps SMS regarding my discovery. So in addition to being able to check out a new and interesting art exhibit in Riga if you’re here, you now also have another souvenir option! I’ll post any news if I pick up a bottle of the new Balzams. At which point I would not be responsible for any grammatical or spelling errors. Consider that my pre-disclaimer.


Monday, September 7th, 2009

Wow! I tried to change one “little” thing about my blog settings and almost lost it all! Well, I bet my cousin would have been able to fix everything, but regardless. I basically did a very dumb thing while trying to be a bit righteous.

At least I was smart enough to try and find a way to login to the blog without actually going through the blog site itself. Now everything should be fixed for your reading pleasure and my writing euphoria.

I’ve been listening to a lot of The Bird and the Bee (Inara George on vocals) lately. As well as to Gossip. Both very interesting.

On a side note, I was devastated today to learn that one of my all-time favourite bands (who disbanded and then regrouped just recently), Eve 6, will be playing 30 October of this year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. AT MY COLLEGE. Unfair x infinity. Super incredibly unfair. But I do want to shake the hand of the person who managed to land them as the College’s one big band performance for the year. Nice move, kid.

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!