Thursday, September 23, 2010

Autumn ASAP

I guess this is what Indian Summer feels like? A stretch of two weeks in the 17º-19ºC range and suddenly we're back up to 26ºC?

I was ready for autumn last week. One of the things I'll miss the most this year is the turning of the leaves in Sigulda, Latvia. The city is hugely known for being a great autumn destination solely for the stunning view over the Gauja River Valley and the crazy spectrum of fall colours.

Even the beginnings of fall in Latvia are full of promise:

In New York I have a bit less to work with as far as fall colours go...:

Ah well. It's still kind of nice, though.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Shipping Methods

Turns out getting things set up to ship from Latvia to the States was easier than I had imagined. The trick was getting things taken care of once my shipment got to this side of the big pond.

First my shipment was shipped from Riga to New Jersey. That was the easy part - the people at LASL (Latvian American Shipping Lines) are professional, efficient and helpful -- that goes for both the Riga and US offices taken from New Jersey to Pennsylvania for a random customs check. Then it was held for a week or so there before being shipped to Rochester, at which point the shipment just stayed there. Because the customs officials there "didn't have my phone number". Sorry, the two valid phone numbers LASL gave them for me must have been too much too handle. If you can't handle making choices, just ignore them, right?

Eventually I was given the go-ahead to pick up my shipment, which luckily coincided with the same weekend I had rented a car (which is incidentally WAY easier/less stressful than renting a car in Riga, but only because the States seem to expect less of you). I also thankfully didn't have to pay the $20 storage fee I'd been told I would have to pay. Anyway, I got my shipment in the following condition:

Needless to say, but US Customs seems to exhibit a certain sense of efficiency. Right? Kudos for creativity and complimentary colour use of the red sign next to the green tape. Also, thanks for not stealing any of my stuff. Though to be honest, there were so many books in there I probably wouldn't notice if one was missing.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Transportation or the Lack Thereof

Public transportation in the city where I now live is anything but convenient. If I want to get to the grocery store by bus, I get to take a 45 minute trip to go 4 miles, but only after walking a dandy 1.5 walk to get to the bus stop itself. The only convenient thing about any kind of mass-transit is the university shuttle, which gets me to, well, the university. Put a Target or regular-sized grocery store on campus and I'll stop complaining.

To put it most simply, I miss Riga. I miss Latvia. I miss a public transportation so convenient and consistent that I know it like the back of my hand. I miss living in a city where it takes me only 15 minutes to get from point A to point B, pretty much no matter where you are in downtown. I miss bus tickets that cost LVL 0.70 (~USD 1.40). I miss a round-trip train ticket from Riga to Sigulda that costs me LVL 2.10 (~USD 4.20).

I miss not having my hands tied. If I at least had my bike here or, hell, even a skateboard or Razor Scooter, I'd feel less boxed in than I feel now.

If you're in Riga or planning on going, definitely take advantage of the mass-transit system, if only because the prices are cheap (in comparison to countries like Germany or Italy).

Riga also now offers several rentable bike systems, everything from a bike shop on the eastern side of Vermanes Park (Elizabetes Street), to BalticBike (by airBaltic). BalticBike I know costs LVL 1 per hour; register for it online here and enjoy a decently convenient ride with bike stands located throughout Riga and Jurmala (Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija in Riga, across from the McDonald's in Old Town, near the beach in the Bulduri neighbourhood of Jurmala, and several locations in the Majori neighbourhood).

The train station is much less shady than it was back in 1994, and much more convenient. The EC Fund has even helped out in sprucing up train car interiors. The passenger train network itself is fairly well-developed, but does not - I repeat - DOES NOT travel internationally, with the exception of a once-daily train to St. Petersburg (and which DOES NOT excuse you from needing a valid visa to travel into Russia). It's always cheaper (though by only a few santims) to buy a round-trip ticket instead of two one-way tickets. Tickets are bought for specific destinations and have no time stamp; they can be used at any time of the day on the date the ticket was bought. A round-trip ticket is valid for a trip to the destination on the date the ticket was bought and a return trip from the same destination either on the day the ticket was bought or on the following calendar day.

The Riga Public Transport system, I love. Sadly. Tickets are best bought in the new "e-Talons" card format, which are most easily purchased at Narvesen convenience stores. Yellow e-Talons tickets are essentially single-use tickets good for 5-20 rides. Single-use as in once the rides are used up, you toss the card. For once, buying an e-Talons is cheaper than buying a ticket from the driver (which you have to do if you don't have an e-Talons or if yours winds up being out of trips), which now costs LVL 0.70 per person, per ride.

The easiest way to get around and even out of Latvia in a bit more style and comfort (which honestly depends on the destination...I've ended up on a scary 30-person minivan for a 2.5 hour trip to Saldus mid-winter) is to travel by coach. Tickets are reasonably priced and best bought a few days in advance, especially if traveling to larger cities on the weekend. Tickets can be bought online at, but it really is easiest to just go to the Coach Station and buy them from a service counter. On that note, Vilnius and Tallinn are both a mere 4 hours from Riga!

I have none of these options here - or at least none of these options in a convenient way. I think I've made my point for now.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Missing Riga

Some shots from the Riga Canal boat tour. I highly recommend taking this tour - if you want you can even disembark at one of many stops along the way. If you go on a Monday, the price is LVL 3 instead of LVL 5. Best of all, no annoying tour information. You just sit back and relax and enjoy the sounds of the city and river.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A New State

Of being, of mind, of residence. However you slice it, this, my friends, is new.

The State of New York is proving to be an interesting place. The fact that the city I live in now is so close to the Canadian border takes the edge off of what I would refer to as "stereotypical New York angst", making people nicer, happier, helpful, more polite...

Basically, it makes them Minnesotan.

I'm hoping that once we get over the initial few days of receiving our syllabi and calendars for courses things will pick up in the world of academia. For now I wake up at 7 AM, an hour before my alarm goes off, and wonder what the hell I'm going to do with the 5-6 hours until it's time to catch a bus to campus. At some point I'm going to have to figure out how to get to a grocery store via the school's bus lines. And by "some point" I mean "preferably before I run out of food and starve to death". There are options for eats on campus, but I really don't think it's my style to pay $3.50 for a granola bar.

The graduate housing area I live in is nice enough. It's mostly foreign graduate students and graduate students with families and kids. And sometimes grandpas. I've seen at least one. So there are plenty of kids' toys and jungle-gyms and hey! a sandbox in the surrounding area. I will not get bored here.

I haven't met anyone living in my building, but have seen them many times and can say that I am most likely the only non-Asian person in it. In truth, most of the park seems to be inhabited by the Asian graduate student community. Which is fine, and sometimes hard to deal with, as around dinner time it's easy to catch tantalizing whiffs of noodles or pot dishes cooking in their apartments. I want to meet people and make friends, I suppose, but showing up at someone's door with a bowl and my own pair of chopsticks hardly seems the way to go about it.

Also, the eggs here are pure, snow white. And stick to the cartons and subsequently crack when you try to pry them off. Raw egg, it turns out, is rather hard to control and clean up.