Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays

The staff party at work last night went well. We predicted our futures, or "poured our fortunes", by melting lead or tin (your choice -- as I described to some visiting staff from Estonia, one is less toxic, but the other is more traditional). This made me feel strange, as I usually am very adamant that the lead/tin pouring take place only on New Year's eve. But hey, if my luck runs south, I'll know why.

Though a day early, I'd like to wish everyone a fantastic holiday season and all the best in the New Year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sock it to the Post

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.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas, Blood and Viruses

Oooh, happy 3/4 of the holiday season! I spent Christmas eve with my cousin and her lovely family. We ate goose, listened to poems recited and songs sung to earn the joy of opening presents and watched the tree warily to make sure it didn't light on fire. Some of the ornaments did, but the tree itself stayed safe all night. Toward the end of the evening I got socked in the mouth by my god-daughter's head and got to stand in the kitchen with an ice pack to my face and spitting blood for a few minutes. I still have all my teeth, but the cuts on the bottom part of my mouth still hurt a bit. This was probably subconscious payback for that time she hit her face on my knee and got a bloody nose. So we're even, right? RIGHT?!! I am now being teased that I am incapable of walking away from a visiting session with my cousin's family without any blood having been shed. We're full of talent like that.

I got home just past midnight, I think, stayed awake for 3 more hours, then slept for an hour before waking myself up to call back to the States to wish people there a Merry Christmas. I got a little video-chat time in with the festivities going on at my mom's house, and a surround-sound speaker phone effect when calling my dad and grandparents (I called my dad via Skype, then my grandparents called me on my cell phone...and no one thought to hang up one of the two calls. I don't know what happened there...). Christmas morning -- or day, since I slept in until 13.00 -- I hauled myself out to my friend Ilze's house (while Ilze is outside the country, I'm making sure her cat survives the winter) where I kept her cat some holiday company and continued to relax.

People, I did so much sleeping in those four days it was DELICIOUS. Three day weeks should happen more often. This week is another three day week; today I drove out with a few colleagues to Malpils, where we were scheduled to go spend some time with residents at an assisted living centre. But then the girl who was supposed to sing them some songs got sick. And then when we got to Malpils (an hour's drive from Riga) we were told by the administrator that the majority of the residents and some staff were sick with this nasty flu+vomiting+diarrhea virus that's spreading around faster than H1N1 on horseback through a wildfire. It took a few moments of deliberation, but we decided it would be best to just leave the dessert pretzel, mandarins and candies at the front desk, have the administrator say "Hello" to the residents for us, and left. It was too bad we weren't able to visit, but I had a similar virus two years ago and would rather miss an opportunity to do a good deed than be stuck halfway between my bed and the toilet for a week and a half. Thanks, but no thanks.

On a slight side note, I will mention that the assisted living centre in Malpils looked really nice from the outside. The one we went to in Riga with the Martin choir wasn't that pleasant to look at and it's all I can do to hope that both places treat their residents (and as such, clients) with the respect and care they need and deserve.

Now I'm just a short while from another four day weekend. Tonight I'm going to a year-end concert with my dad (who is in Latvia now, HURRAH!) and some relatives. Last year's concert blew my mind, so I'm extremely excited for this one. After tonight, sleep, glorious sleep! Then off to the store tomorrow morning to prepare for our New Year's party tomorrow night. My first time with family PLUS friends. I have butterflies in my stomach. Will all go well? Will people enjoy themselves? Oh, the suspense!

Once more, happy new year to everyone! I'll be hitting 2010 approximately 7 - 8 hours before most of you. I'll let you know how it starts out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Choir, Indian Food, Weather

Last night I participated in my second choir-related event. We performed at the 9 Lessons church service at the Anglican Church last night, followed by a delicious Indian cuisine dinner at the British Chamber of Commerce Christmas Party. I had the chance to see and speak to people I haven't seen in some time, which was great, however short the conversations may have been. You learn the most important facts right away -- how they're doing, if they're happy and if they look as happy as they say they do.

People fascinate me.

After dinner I headed home and started some more translation related projects. I just found out that one larger work I'd like to do some work on has NOT, in fact, been entirely translated into English. In terms of this specific piece, I was quite surprised, but I suppose some things just slip under the translation radar, so to speak. I think all that's left is to figure out what I have to do to "officially start". Either way, I'm excited at the prospect and look forward to working with the piece.

In other news, choir has been going well. It's allowed me to meet some new people and spend time in a different environment.

The weather in Latvia has been plain stupid the past few weeks. I keep waiting for it to snow (hell, we've all been waiting and are tired of hearing about all the white goodness the States have been getting); I don't know how many more pressure headaches I can take in one week. At least it's Friday.

Tomorrow the friends and I are having an early Christmas themed dinner and gift exchange, since a good portion of the group will be gone during the actual dates. I have yet to buy a gift for my person, but I know what I'll be buying.

No real Riga-related news for now. The economy still apparently sucks, and I'm still not really seeing it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Name Days

In Latvia (and several other eastern European countries), name days are about as big of a deal as birthdays. Friends, family and co-workers generally dump mounds of flowers and/or chocolates into your lap, you get plenty of cheek-kissing action and the responsibility of bringing something tasty to work to share. If you plan really well, you will not only bring something to work, but will also have an evening planned at your place, as it is not abnormal to have guests drop by throughout the evening.

Today, two women at work are celebrating their name days. Thankfully, I did my date-checking yesterday and was prepared to leave earlier this morning and swing by the flower market on Terbatas Street. I'm surprised I wasn't hassled by more of the flower ladies. The rainy weather seems to have every other person in a funk. I was able to find some nice Gerber daisies for LVL 0.80 a piece and bought three per person. Ah yes, another thing I have learned since living here. When you buy flowers for someone, whatever the occasion may be, BUY AN ODD NUMBER OF FLOWERS. I don't know exactly why, just that this is what you should do. Even numbers are reserved for funerals or to put on graves. If I figure out the complete story behind that I'll share it. But for now, know that it's just what you do.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Helping Out

I've had a lot on my plate lately. I've also been doing a lot of reading lately. Among this reading was something of a less-positive or action-packed nature. I'm just going to go ahead and be Ms. Ad Campaign.

People around the world need the assistance and financial support of others who are living in more stable conditions. Donate a dollar, donate a lat -- it all adds up. It's kind of like voting for president -- each vote or dollar matters.

So as the holiday season draws nearer, do your part to help those less fortunate. Or do your part to help remove a cat's naughty bits. Either way, help.

Friday, November 27, 2009

More Pumpkins and More Vets

Please grant me Weekend NOW.

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

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

That's a rough estimate.

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Garlic and Vets

Saturday night some friends and I went to Kiploku krogs – The Garlic Bar – and had a very flavourful dinner. As far as I know, almost everything on the menu has some amount of garlic in it, including some of the desserts and beverages (ice cream with honey-garlic sauce, anyone? Or how about some delicious garlic mulled wine?). The joke/saying that goes with this restaurant is that if you plan to go, it is recommended to spend the rest of the evening hanging out with the same group of people who were at dinner, as you are the only ones who will be able to stand the garlicy company. I don't think any of us ate enough garlic for it to be seeping out of our pores, but I definitely still had the taste on my tongue the next morning.

But the food was delicious, the garlic mulled wine was as well (for this they don't actually crush the garlic, just drop one steamed clove into the drink, so the garlic taste is almost undetectable) and the prices were decent. Definitely a must as far as going back for more.

Now about the visit to the vet. Oh, experiences. First I called the taxi company to make sure I could transport the cat that way (by car from my apartment is the most direct, as with any other transport I would have to walk through the city for 10-15 minutes to reach the respective tram stop or the main train station with a howling, dagger-spitting cat, then sit on said mode of transportation for another 30 minutes while people eye me either warily or with annoyance as the cat makes horrific "I think I'm dying slowly and painfully so I'm going to make you experience every second of it" sounds. The cab company is run by saints who allow pets and even said "Hey, if you have a kennel for the cat - even better!" Like I was going to just carry the cat down to the car without any problems. On the way to the vet the cat literally crapped himself silly (at least we had some fecal samples for the doctor when we got there) and stunk up the cab. Not my problem.

The visit itself went well; the vet was a younger guy who kept dropping things all over the place, including at random and uncontrollable intervals from his pockets. He also knocked a few things off the exam table and expressed his frustration that something was going strangely that morning. He couldn't find anything wrong with the cat, and I started to think it might be because of his own judgement. The man is holding my cat down while sticking a thermometer up the poor animal's butt and tells me, "Wow, your cat is really freaked out." I just looked at the vet and kind of laughed. If he can't see the reason for the cat's nerves, then he's beyond my help.

The cat got a de-worming pill, prescriptions for a kind of anti-diarrhea pill and a "natural bacteria" balancer, and I got tagged with an LVL 19 bill (NOT bad at all - this price includes the medicine) and the strong suggestion to take the cat in for more de-worming and the next round of shots once he feels better.

The cab ride back started with the cabby picking up the cage and looking at it, then up to me with eyes glowing like a small child's and asked excitedly "A kitty!?" The cat was able to control its bowl movements better during the return trip and immediately forgot his recent trauma once back at home and stretched across the top of the radiator.

At this time it seems like the cat has gotten better. It was absolute hell trying to get the medicines in him; the pills were ridiculous (my cousin, also a vet, said that he doesn't even give that specific type of pill to clients for their pets until he chops them up and puts them into gel-caps to mask the bitter taste) and if I fail miserably trying to shove those down the cat's throat, I was generally too tired to try to get the other paste (which is apparently semi-delicious and tolerable) into his mouth. But the symptoms of whatever look like they're gone and I was able to call the clinic and let them know that everything seemed to be back in order. The cat is now splayed out on my lap, but little does he know that another vet visit is just around the corner.

Tonight I also went to choir practice with the Martinu koris. It went about as well as I could have expected it to go. I haven't completely forgotten how to sing, though practising my violin more will definitely get that hearing back into shape. Tomorrow night I go to play my violin in a Latvian fiddle-type setting with some folk dances/games people. That may be a bit more nerve-racking.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Two Weeks of Feeling Displaced

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Post Vacation

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

When there's a Crisis...

When there's an economic crisis –- bake pastries! There is a relatively new bakery/café on Terbatas Street called "Kukotava" (The "Cakery"), another Martina bekereja (Martin's Bakery) opened up in Old Town on Valnu Street a month or so ago, there's a new Vecrigas konditoreja (Old Town Bakery) shop on Dzirnavu Street, a relatively new bakery/café around the corner from the House of Blackheads called "Opium" and, coming home tonight I walked by a "Coming Soon"! sign on Dzirnavu Street for a bakery that will be called "Smilsu kuka" (roughly "Shortbread"). can have your crisis, your depression, your losing of a job, but you can totally have your cake and eat it, too! That is, as long as you can afford it.Wednesday is Independence Day here in Latvia, so I'll take that opportunity to sleep in, have a slow breakfast and then wander around the city and take many pictures.

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Kaija, Kornelija

As information about Rome, my Latvia road trip and my recent visit to the vet with the cat are STILL PENDING, I've been greeted on this my Name's Day with a lazy, snowy morning. I'm still trying out pumpkin pie recipes for an event at work at the end of the month. Recipe number two seemed to be better consistency wise, but I did something wrong with the oven temperature and scorched about half of the top of the pie. I'm bringing it with to work today as my Name's Day office treat and am planning on slathering it with an artistic layer of whipped cream to cover up the damage. I made cupcakes for my birthday and though I realise that this process is more time-consuming than just buying a torte, it's also less expensive and more interesting for me.

That being said, pumpkin pie is very easy to make, completely from scratch. Like, almost dirty easy.

Pumpkin "goo" used for the pie filling can also keep in the freezer for a little over a year. This means it would be possible to steam, blend and pack pumpkin for an entire year's worth of pumpkin pies, cookies, and other assorted baked goods. I know I could go the soup route, but I'm not into that. I deal with oveny things.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Roadtrip Saga Complete

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...

Tuesday, November 3, 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

Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Leaving on a Ferrybusplane

This weekend three friends and I will be travelling through Estonia to Tallinn, then across the way to Helsinki, where we'll spend a day filled with IKEA and H&M and Sibelius-dedicated sculptures before heading back to the Baltics. That's one good thing about living in a small country – it's much easier to get to the bigger ones surrounding it.

Today, through the assistance of a friend, I found this guy, who roughly translates popular English songs and performs them in Latvian. Some are pretty amusing, while others are just a bit off. The video I've linked, however, has over 95,000 hits on, which is a pretty decent number. It's amusing, to say the least.

English Conversation Group is going well - at the second meeting last week, all three students showed up again. They seem to get my jokes, which is a relief, and are responsive, which is rewarding. After the last lesson the two girls came back to the classroom after getting their coats and were like "This has been bothering us since last week, but...WHY ARE YOU HERE??" It's mostly the mid-teenage group that doesn't understand why someone from the States would so willingly set up life-shop in Latvia. I thought I had explained things fairly well during the first Group, but I guess I still left some things unanswered.

In other Riga news, yesterday we had a wind storm advisory. I guess that's what you'd have to call it. The TV screen was literally scrolling a message that read something such as "Unless absolutely necessary, it is recommended for people not to leave their homes". I didn't think it was that bad, but it was very rainy, very windy, and rather cold. Some parts of Riga have gotten their fall colours, but the majority of it is still stuck in a stunted air of almost-there. It's like watching a little kid trying in vain to blow up a balloon because their lungs aren't strong enough or they're just missing something.

I had another analogy involving a dog trying to pass excrement, but I won't go there. But I guess I just kind of did.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Subject Unrelated

This is almost entirely unrelated to anything, except for the fact that I am in Latvia and that's where our dog, Kimene, was born. But for no reason that I can immediately identify, I really really miss her today. She was a one of a kind dog. Excuse me -- person. It would be offensive to refer to her as having been anything else.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Just had my second of what will end up being three trips to the clinic. Today's task was to hit up the ultrasonoscopy/ultrasound section to be, what I have now deemed it, "jelly-bellied". This physician was very grandmotherly, and after looking at the write-up of Tuesday's surgeon looked at me and very sincerely asked "Alright, but how do YOU feel?" The procedure itself was...surprisingly calming? The ultrasound "wand", I'll call it, was very warm. I could have fallen asleep and kind of wish I had done so and had started snoring, just to see the physicians face when she'd have to shake me awake.

Of all the institutional things in Latvia, I think I like the health system the most, minus the 1. Riga Hospital, which seems to be the home to rampant ignorance, with the exception of the women at Registration. I'm also VERY glad I signed up for the health policy offered through work, as the visit to the surgeon would have set me back LVL 20 (~$40) and to the ultrasonoscopy a whopping LVL 30 (~$60). I'm pretty sure that I'm closing in on the coverage limit, but since I go so rarely to the doctor for actual problems, I'm not complaining yet.

Tomorrow I go back to have my ultrasound results looked at and explained to me by the surgeon. What I can discern from the medical text (another perk of my job -- you unwillingly pick up jargon the form the ability to decipher texts you otherwise would never look into) tells me that I need to ask the surgeon to explain to me what's going on. But overall the report reads positively and doesn't scream "IMMEDIATE SURGERY!" or "THIS IS THE MOST MESSED UP CASE EVER!" or "WTF?"
So I'm not worried.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Looking the Other Way

Yesterday I had an appointment at a nearby clinic with a surgeon. During the visit I had my lower abdomen poked and prodded and was then instructed to turn my head and cough.

I was lying on the exam table and almost lost it in a fit of laughter. Turning your head and coughing is something I associate with the 1970s-1980s, males and prostate exams. I guess it works both ways. It was all I could to to turn my head quick enough and cough extra loud to mask my guffawing.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: the Latvian health care system never ceases to amaze or amuse me. I get to go back tomorrow (Thursday) and expect a whole new adventure.

Also, after several days in a row of rainy and overcast weather and general fall frigidness, it promises to be a nice 12°C today, which means I may be able to finally get a decent run in. My flatmate Julija is also back from Russia -- TDA Ligo, the dance troupe she rolls with, won the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg.

I look relatively dishevelled this morning because my cat has taken to lovingly kneading the back of my head while I sleep. The effect of his furry pads and ruthless talons digging into my scalp create a nice 80s prom look that is hard to brush out or comb down. I will have to find a way to avoid this. The easiest ways probably involve wearing a hat or reactivating my account and researching whether the sale of animals is legal.