Sunday, November 30, 2008

Last Night in Zoli

I'm sitting in my soon to be ex-apartment spending what will be my last night as a resident of this apartment. Then it's off to the city centre to organise the life I've progressively trucked over there for the past month. Including the cat, who turned out to be an apartment...floozy, really. 10 minutes in the new place and he had checked out every corner, pawed both the couch and beds, and found a necklace belonging neither to me nor my new flatmate. What a treasure hunter I've landed myself!

This past month has really been mostly work and slowly moving. Yesterday, though, we went to an afternoon showing of Phantom of the Opera, which wasn't the Andrew Lloyd Weber version, but another one. One that probably should have never been made. In its defence, I guess you could say it was more of a "Phantom light", as the whole thing was rather hokey. In a nutshell, we laughed a good deal, mostly at the wrong times (if one were to look from the director's/writer's persective), and I even did so to tears.

The most exciting part of the show was before we actually got into the stadium (bad placement...), when the Belgian friend of one of our group looked at her ticket and said "I don't want to ruin the fun, but is it normal if the ticket says 6 p.m. Friday?" We were waiting to get in for the 3 p.m. show Saturday.


So we start to think - or more realistically, I started to panic. Yes, I picked the tickets up the same morning, Saturday, so why wouldn't the woman at the ticket counter been all "Umm... I'll give you your tickets, but they're worthless."? Yes, I read the sign at the counter that said "PLEASE CHECK YOUR TICKETS BEFORE YOU LEAVE THE COUNTER!!!" Did I check them? Of COURSE not! This is Riga! And why would I have bought the tickest for Friday, since I have class Fridays, and we even remembered having a discussion on which time for Saturday would be best. We decide/hope it's a print errorSo I start to scheme - we'll get to the doors and if they put up a stink I'll tell them I saw the mistake and informed the woman, but she waved her hand and said it would be alright.

But we get to the doors and all they check are purses and bags. They rip the stubs off of our tickets and we're in. We go to our row and see - yes, someone is already sitting there. So someway, somehow, yours truly supergenius managed to buy tickets for the exact day and time the entire group had decided AGAINST. Luckily a fellow North American was working the tech booth (total fluke - Julija ran into him while trying to find someone to explain which doors we were supposed to enter through) and he told us to just wait until lights down, scope out seats and, if anyone came to bother us, send them right to him. REEE-SULT!

Thus, although the show wasn't the best (we decided before we even got in that we have seen enough crap shows over the past year to prepare us for anything out there), we ended up sitting about two price sections up from where we had purchased our tickets. I guess we weren't the only ones "seat-surfing", as an older woman entered the row we had picked before us, sat down, said "Man nepatik!" ("I don't like it!") and then got up to move somewhere else.

Like I said, this is Riga.

Oh, and I have nothing for breakfast here except coffee, cheese and mustard. And the room is eerily empty. I feel like I'm right back in college circa 2005 and my first weeks in Germany. Memories.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

18 November! (Happy Birthday, Latvia!)

With the rabies scare over, I was able to fully concentrate on work, work, and more work.

As of six minutes ago, the independent state of Latvia is officially and 90 years old. For those who don't know, 18 November is Latvia's Independence Day. A huge light-show deal was going on over the past weekend, too, called "Staro Riga" (, which will certainly rack up a pretty electricity bill for the city's November account.

Independence Day in Latvia seems like a slightly bigger deal than that celebrated in the States - first of all, I can't remember a single 4th of July wherein I felt compelled to participate all day long in something. Most people seem to concentrate on the odd parade and the obligatory fireworks that happen once it gets dark. And if you have a grill and use it on this day, more points to you. Independence Day here went on all day long, mostly involving all sorts of documentary films that I didn't go see because I got to work from home today - that was my dose of fundom. I made it to the city centre in the morning to work from the new apartment in time to watch the morning's event of people laying flowers down at the foot of the Freedom Monument. We got to watch President Zatlers put down a bouquet of flowers larger than his torso, and then the whole slew of former presidents, ministers, members of Saeima, political figures, ambassadors, etc., put down their flowers. They cut the feed before the "normal citizens" got to do their stuff.

So even with all of the activities and Independence Day business going on today, I stayed at home and worked, then took a nap, then walked around a bit, got stuck in major people traffic, took some pictures and eventually made it to Krastmala to see the fireworks. Which weren't all that outstanding, but at least they had a few stints of "red-white-red" to keep it patriotic. It was very windy and we got some snow with which it was painful to be hit in the face. Tra-laaah!

I know it's a bit of a bummer I didn't walk around more, but I was out of the country last year, so this is a step up, if nothing else :)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

UK Recap

I'm still sick, but have braved morning commuter traffic to come into work, tentatively until the meds wear off. I'm working off a combination of tasty cough syrup (which has most likely already worn off), Halls lozenges (not as bad as I had expected them to be), inhaler (whaddaya know, asthma is triggered by colds, too!), black balsams (a bit with my morning tea, no more, I swear) and good old-fashioned Tylenol Cold and Sinus.

All of which is mostly doing jack all. All that I really want is to go home, stuff Kleenex balls into my nostrils and sleep until I can't sleep anymore.

UK Recap
Saturday the 25th
Ilze, Davids and I arrive at London Stanstead and are greeted by a friend of Davids, who accompanied us to our hostel and then led us willy-nilly around the city. Mikelis, the friend, has been living in London for only six weeks, so this is marginally forgivable. We sit outside at a pub along the river front for a few hours then head back to the hostel, where we are the only three people in a six-bed room (for the time being).

Sunday the 26th
We wake up and realise two things: 1) there are now 3 slightly hung-over Scots in the room with us and 2) there has been a time change. The Scots confirm this. Mikelis meets up with us in the morning. We go off in search of breakfast. We find: Star. Buck's.
Oh. Yes.
One giant mug of soy caramel macchiato and one ginger muffin later, I am in corporate heaven.
After we buy train tickets to Wales, we spend the day walking around, window shopping, actually shopping (H&M and Borders were hit by us the hardest - I bought these wonderfully sarcastic and cynical children's books starring a horrid old grump by the name of Mr. Gum), and being dumbfounded by the number of people that could fit in one store. I really wanted to look at the sales at Top Shop, but the amount of people immediately killed the desire to peruse. We realize that London is a butt-load bigger than Riga.
Back at the hostel we find the three Scots have been exchanged for two beds with suitcases on them and one bed with a very drunk English girl in it. She asks us where we are from. We say North America. She asks if we saw an American guy and a French guy. We say no. She asks if we are with the guy, the one from California. We say no. She asks from where, then. Ilze tells her she's from New York. The girl giggles drunkenly and asks if J-Lo isn't from there, from the Bronx. I tell her that, according to the song, yes, she is. The girl finds this hilarious and attempts to have some kind of conversation with Davids before half-passing out and giggling continuously to herself. We are concerned - more so for us than for her. That night I have a nightmare that she attacks me.

Monday the 27th

We wake up to find drunk girl very out of sorts (Davids said she had alternated between whimpering and sobbing throughout the night), the French guy kind of off, but still coherent, and the American guy, who turned out to be completely normal and from Cleveland, Ohio. Not California.
Ilze, Davids and I get to the train station and on our train to Holyhead, Wales, with a stopover in Crewe. The Crewe train station is cold, boring, and hasn't a single waste bin in sight. I looked everywhere, too. We get to Holyhead around 7.30 p.m., call the hotel to let them know we're on our way. The man says he has to pop out for a bit to the store, but will leave the key under the plant on the front step and we can just let ourselves in. We learn everyone in Wales is incredibly helpful and friendly. A bit after 8 we are in the hotel room in a small, steep-staired bed and breakfast when our host knocks on the door. Not only does he own the B&B, but he is also a coast guard. He is the epitome of friendliness. We set our time for eating breakfast and he leaves us to explore the town a bit. We end up at one of maybe four town pubs and enjoy a quiet hour or so before the locals show up. They don't approach us until we've got our jackets on to leave. Then one man asks us from where we are, we tell him Canada, New Jersey, Midwest (respectively), and he tells us he has a friend who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I mentally crap myself. We tell him that we have all spent a good amount of time in that area of the states.

Tuesday the 28th

We wake up, have our Welsh breakfast (which doesn't differ too much from English breakfast, save that the beans taste a bit better and there aren't as many of them) and walk a bit around the town and see it in its rainy, windy daytime mode. We attempt to walk along the coast but quickly give up. We learn that the early morning ferry was canceled with good reason -- we can see huge waves crashing over the breakers off the coast. We hit up an off license store, buy a few puzzle books and head out to the ferry. The ferry does rock considerably, but none of us gets sick. We get to Dublin later that afternoon. We learn/realise that Ireland is on the euro. We are lucky that I had euro in my passport purse stored up from previous trips. We are able to pay for bus tickets to the city. We drop out stuff off at our hotel and stroll through the centre to a bar on one of the main streets. The bar has an absolutely gorgeous mahogany wood interior. We all decide we would not mind hijacking the building and living there. I am astonished to learn that, in Ireland of all places, a pint of Guinness costs me €4.50. For that amount of money one can get at least two large glasses of beer in Latvia. I get over it quickly and am simply excited to be drinking a Guinness in its homeland. Davids and Ilze are less enthused about the "dirt beer". We get back to the hotel and are asleep probably by 10.30 p.m., 11 the latest. We have become wimps.

Wednesday the 29th

Our first full day in Dublin. First things first, we take the Guinness storehouse tour. It is not as completely exciting as we had hoped it would be (it was a museum and we expected a tour of the actual facility). Nonetheless, we get a free sample of fresh from the kegs Guinness and later can comp our tickets for a free drink at the dead freezing "cafe" at the top of the storehouse. Beverage options are: Guinness or soda. Although it is 10.30 a.m., I recall how much yesterday's Guinness cost and opt for a pint o' black. Davids follows suit and is relieved to find that the first half of the pint does not taste as bad as yesterdays. Not so much for the second half. Ilze sticks to a sprite. Other tour-takers have been smart and have taken crisps or other salty along with them. The rest of the day is spent ambling around Dublin city centre. We don't do anything else exciting except for go in and out of random shops and walk up and down more or less every major and non-major street. At the end of the day we are tired, tired, tired. We drag ourselves to another yet expensive pub in the bar district and have a feast of fish and chips. Inside jokes are born. After dinner we drag back to the hotel and sleep.

Thursday the 30th

I forgot to mention Irish breaky. Irish breaky, though extremely similar to English and Welsh breakfasts, is somehow even more fantastic than anything out there. Irish breaky has the same fried mushrooms, broiled tomato, breakfast sausages, egg and toast as the other breakfasts, but the beans have been replaced with a wonder called "black pudding". Black pudding is a food that tastes like meatloaf, but has more grains in it, and is probably better left unexplained until several hours after you've eaten. It struck me as one of those foods that shepherds would have eaten: mash everything you need for the day, meat, grains, etc., into a patty, fry it and you're good to go. They won't crumble in your bag and could probably double as small, projectile weapons if left to harden.

Thursday we dragged ourselves around the city once more, went to the city gallery (not exciting) and the writers' museum (we only went to the gift shop to laugh at witty Irish writer quotes -- the museum itself we found was too expensive). Since our back-ferry had been an up-in-the-air as far as being canceled or not, we had switched our reservations to the evening trip, which left Ireland at 8:50 p.m. and arrived in Wales just past midnight. True, we were forced to squeeze every ounce of will out of our bodies to find something to pass the time, but after seeing what our original ferry looked like (take the Titanic, then put a rowboat next to it. the Swift ferry is the rowboat) we were more than fine with the change. We were to stay at the same hotel in Holyhead and they were to use the same "key under plant" system. We got back and promptly fell asleep.

Friday the 31st

We get to breaky and find we are less amused with our host when he is in casual clothes than when he's in coast guard wear. After breaky we slowly make our way to the train station, but not before stopping at the grocery store for provisions. We are now very aware that any UK breakfast can keep you going for hours and hours - you eat at 8.30 and aren't hungry again until 3 p.m. While last time I guarded the bags and was asked by a woman working at the store if I was leaving home, this time Ilze guarded and was asked if she was going on a trip. Apparently we either look like locals or like people from neighbouring towns (I assume Holyhead is one of the biggest towns in the area with the biggest or only train station in the direct area/island). The train ride back to London is boring, but we do get to see the Welsh country side a bit. In London we drop our bags off at the Daugavas Vanagu house and do some last minute shopping before meeting once more with Mikelis for dinner. Dinner is real Chinese food from real Chinese. In London's China town. Excellence. Since it is Halloween we avoid any confrontation or decorations and find a "chain pub" to sit in and chat. We are there for a few hours and meet one guy who has a self-diagnosed "obsession" with the 2008 US elections.

Saturday the 1st

After a slightly "blah" breakfast at the DV house (no juice... I'm still trying to get over that one), we meet with Mikelis at the closest Starbuck's for one last "good coffee" hurrah. As we are finishing up Davids says he has a great idea for our last hour in London. Ilze and I are immediately skeptical. Davids announces that we must go to Hyde Park and feed the squirrels. The rest of us immediately concur. We go to a convenience store, buy nuts and head to the park. Things are great until I am bitten by a squirrel, at which point things just become hilarious. I wash up, we head back to the DV house, we get our bags and go to the train station. We realise that we have been on vacation just long enough to want to be back home. The flight back is a little harrying - I almost experience my second-ever panic attack as we hit some turbulence and the flight (RyanAir) starts to play some very odd techno-ish and very epileptic music. It was some promotional song whose lyrics went something like "Gotta gotta RyanAir ooh yeah RyanAir" (repeat). The combination of the music, the lack of knowing or understanding why the @(*#@& they were even playing it (I have never heard music on any other RyanAir flight) and the turbulence and I almost snapped. It was soon over and we finally got back in Riga. My taxi driver got me back to the apartment in what was, in all seriousness, probably under five minutes. I gave him a generous tip.

Monday, November 3, 2008

"I Went to the UK and all I Got was this Lousy Squirrel Bite."

But no, really.

Before I enter my recap of the week in the UK, let me add a little enlightenment to the last bit of the vacation.

Leave it to me to create a bit of entertainment our last hour in london. After breakfast and coffee we decided it was absolutely necessary for four adults to buy peanuts and go spend 30 minutes feeding the squirrels in hyde park, just like the signs tell you not to do.

It was your run of the mill chaos with pigeons flying every which way and certain members of the group not understanding that throwing peanuts AT someone equals being mauled by stupid smelly birds and the occasional cute squirrel. The squirrels in Hyde Park are nice and take peanuts from your hand as if they were gentle hamsters. No tugging, no biting - they know exactly what's going on.

And yet... It was all good fun until I stopped doling out cashews to adjust the camera lens. My decision to stop led to a squirrel shimmying up my leg to my shoulder to my arm, at which point a tug-of-war for the small bag ensued. The squirrel scrabbled, I shook my arm and said "Nonononono" and then a pigeon joined the squirrel. Things went quickly from good fun to being hilarious. I'm trying to work the camera, the squirrel is trying to work the bag of nuts and the pigeon is seemingly just hanging along for the ride. The squirrel ended up accidentally biting me before I flung it off and tossed the bag of snacks to someone else, after which I tried to stop somewhat heavy bleeding from the thumb and simultaneously search for a tissue and half-punch any pigeon that tried to land on me.

There were blood spatters all around the bench by which we had been standing. It looked like a tiny war-zone. Miraculously, no one was crapped on.

I'm not extremely worried about the bite, but just in case I'll be paying a visit to some doctor or other by monday to get a tetanus shot. But I more or less held a squirrel today. One of my dreams has come true.