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.