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Sunday, July 12, 2009, in Liepāja, Latvia

Hi all. We’re still in Latvia and having a great time. Last week, we had just arrived here.

Latvia’s history is best described as enduring foreign rule of another power. It’s been an independent country only from 1918 to 1940 and since 1991. It’s been occupied by Germany, Sweden, Russia, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Now it’s a sovereign country, a member of the European Union, and Latvia was the winner of the Eurovision Song Festival in 2002.

The Eurovision honor is no doubt a point of pride for Latvia, and for our location, Liepāja. Rock ‘n’ roll is the underlying energy of the city. There’s a multi-story rock café in the main part of town. Liepāja hosts the country’s largest rock festival. There’s the Latvian Musician��s Walk of Fame, complete with handprints. And there are music notes embedded in all of the sidewalks. Rock on!

We had sunny and cool weather on our first day in Liepāja, a Sunday. We left the boat in search of town and the tourist office, heading in the general direction of the main square. Rose Square, which once held a statue of Lenin, now was surrounded by caf��s and commerce. Even on this Sunday, the square was alive with locals enjoying the summer day. There was an impromptu stage area. Women in traditional costumes were singing in harmony. We couldn’t see them until we threaded our way through the crowd. Soon, a group of young children, in starched traditional clothes, performed a dance, and then another, and then another. Somehow they did this without the omnipresent adult instructor we normally see, standing between the kids and the crowd, enacting all of the dance steps, with about twenty percent of the performers staring out into the crowd as if in a trance. These kids knew their steps and performed them with confidence. They did several dances, then left the stage, then came back later in different costumes and did some more. One of the performing groups involved matronly ladies in white aprons and peasant garb. I must have missed them when I visited the tourism office, conveniently located next door.

I asked what the reason was for the celebration. A holiday? “No”, the tourism guy told me. “It’s July, and it’s Sunday, and the weather is nice, and we’re all happy.” That works for me.

We had lunch at the Number 1 Rock Café, a Hard-Rock sort of establishment with a huge menu and lots of memorabilia around. Outside, Latvia’s largest guitar (silver in color and about one or two stories high), was a magnet for little kids who would come by and pluck its strings. I suppose that I should also mention the promotional thong.

Yes, there’s a giant blue flip-flop standing on its heel. It’s sponsored by a local mobile phone provider who is promoting a “beach party” to take place later in the summer. It’s about the size of the giant guitar. Thus, the person who fits this thong would give Latvia’s largest guitar to his daughter for her dollhouse.

Art ordered beet soup, a local specialty. As we both grew up in ethnic Jewish households, we’re familiar with food that we always considered to be “Jewish food.” We figured that Israel would be teeming with brisket, kasha, borscht (cold beet soup) and cheese blintzes. When we got to Israel, we realized how wrong we were. Israelis eat regional food. Their home cuisine is the same as Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. But many of my childhood foods showed up in Russia, and I realized that the ancestors of many American Jews were Eastern Europeans first, and ate whatever everybody else ate in their hometowns. So here we were in Latvia, and the menus will be more familiar to us than in places like Italy (where many of the dishes Americans consider Italian have never been heard of over there.)

So Art’s beet soup was chilled, and made from scratch (housewives of my childhood wouldn’t know from raw beets; they’d buy something in a jar and then “doctor” it). This soup was neon pink, containing beets, cucumbers, dill, hard-boiled egg, chives, and something called kefir, a popular drink that’s something like sour cream or yogurt.

Some of the museums we wanted to see would be closed on Monday and Tuesday, so we spent the afternoon making sure that we got to see them. The tourist map, well-charted and with recommended walks and descriptions of the various sites we’d pass, used musical symbols and do, re, mi, fa to orient us to where we were. Our walk took us by Kuršu Square, the town marketplace until the 20th century. Inside the fence (Sunday wasn’t a market day and vendors had left out some of their wares) was the sixteenth-century St. Anna’s Church, a lovely domed structure and the oldest church in Liepāja. Our brochure didn’t hide the fact that until 1792, the area in front of this serene building is where the beheadings took place.

Our first stop was the Occupation Museum, which focused on the 1939-1940 deportations of thousands of Latvians to Siberia, the genocide against the Jews of Latvia, and the 1991 fight for independence. They gave us an English “audio guide”, which was a sheaf of papers that we read aloud while we explored the many exhibits and photographs.

We then visited the decidedly more cheerful Liepāja History and Art Museum, whose best feature was the fabulous and ornate building in which it resides. The museum took us through history, beginning at the very first settlements, and ended with a display containing a small bronze bell that was cast (one of many) from the larger-than-life statue of Lenin that once hovered knowingly over Rose Square. Both of these museums had no entrance fees. In both, we were greeted by a middle-aged woman in charge, whose English was only fair but whose goal was unmistakably to make sure that we had an excellent visit.

We awoke to rain and cold. This disrupted our plan to see another museum and an outdoor attraction. It disrupted any notion we might have had to leave the boat at all. Luckily, we knew that a great restaurant was steps away in the Promenade Hotel.

The hotel really deserves some praise. It’s an attractive conversion of an old waterfront warehouse, a member of the “Small Luxury Hotels of the World” group, whatever that is. The waitress came over and took our order (which she got completely right, without the use of a pen). We each participated in the business lunch: order two courses for less than eight dollars a person and get a soft beverage (nothing as expensive as a Coke, which usually costs more than beer) for about $.80 more. My lunch began with a large bowl of chicken broth with a puff pastry dumpling alongside. The main course was a pork filet, grilled and topped with carrots, mushrooms and cheese, with my special order of grilled vegetables instead of potatoes. My beverage of choice was sparkling water. Everyone else had a similarly lovely meal. The waitress came by and replaced Art’s knife with a fish knife and then his fork with a slightly thinner fish fork. We wondered if the place had simply exceeded our own knowledge of table manners. The waitress brought a large basket of homemade breads, accompanied by two kinds of herb butter. The building had brick arches throughout the dining room, lace valences to soften the look, and a beam ceiling to cozy it up. The bill was about $33. Not per person. That was the bill for the four of us. I could live here.

The sign for a supermarket was visible nearby, so we decided to have a look, even though we didn’t need anything. The market was in a mall, and we took a swing around the shops before entering the supermarket.

This market was enormous. I’d been hungering for a superstore (they call it a hypermarket), because German markets are surprisingly unimpressive, and our recent Danish experiences have been in small, crowded towns that can’t support a large shop. There were aisles and aisles of goods. The produce section was the size of a town square weekly market. Two refrigerated sections sold yogurt. There were foreign foods, cookware, and a long deli counter with many prepared foods (and we decided right there that we’d fill up our freezer in a few days, never to cook again for the season.) I couldn’t help myself. The whole time I walked through this extravaganza of products, the same phrase kept wafting through my head.

“Take that, Lenin.”

By the time we got out, the weather was a little better. We walked to the Rose Square and picked up the tram to the bus station. We’d need tickets for our upcoming trip to Riga. I was delighted to have a ride on the tram. These slightly undersized vehicles passed by our boat across the bridge to the north of us. They were brightly painted, in pink, or bright green, and chugged along tirelessly, like a younger, spryer version of the trams you see in larger places.

We got a good look at the neighborhood houses from the tram and again on our walk back. Many of the buildings were constructed of wood. This gave the streets the odd look of a pioneer Western town. Our look at Latvian real life also led us to wonder about the other former Soviet places we’ve visited in the past few years. Tallinn (in Estonia) has the exquisite medieval old town, but during our walk in the hotel’s neighborhood, we saw tired buildings like many here in Liepāja. Our only other recent experiences were in St. Petersburg and Germany. Germany was able to use its considerable west-side wealth to invest in bringing the former East Germany up to modernity. St. Petersburg, the hometown of Vladimir Putin, probably benefited from the largesse of the central government. But Latvia is on its own. So it’s coming into a capitalist world by its own bootstraps. And it’s doing it on its own terms, finally, after all these centuries. I’d bet they wouldn’t change that for anything.

In the morning, our path took us to the places we’d missed so far. We visited St. Peter’s Market, the open-air market that was silent on Sunday, and discovered a large indoor market right next door. We walked by the old wooden house that once hosted Peter the Great to the house across the street that once hosted his enemy King Charles XII of Sweden (not at the same time, though.) Inside that house is a weaver’s workshop, which the guidebook had recommended that we visit. The purpose of our visit was to see a 135-meter-long necklace made of amber pieces recently donated by the citizens of Liepāja. We stayed to see the ladies making tablecloths on the looms in the workshop.

These wooden looms were programmed (if memory serves, it was the loom that gave Charles Babbage his idea for the punched-card computer) for patterns of linen thread woven through cotton. Several wooden rods at the level of the worked thread were manipulated, singly or in multiples, by the woman running the loom. She used her foot to press on any of a dozen pedals on the floor. We stayed so long to watch the process that she invited me to sit with her. My job was to tug on a braided rope in one direction or the other. This action would move a wooden peg off of the workspace to the side, and add a new layer of linen thread to be pressed, in its program, against the fabric in progress.

Amber is ubiquitous in Latvia, as in the rest of the Baltic. From forty to sixty million years ago, amber is fossilized tree resin, and washes ashore routinely along the Baltic. Early humans burnt it for heat, and in the last millennium, it was used as currency or jewelry. Nowadays it’s in great demand as jewelry. To my surprise, a piece of amber is considered more valuable if it contains an identifiable insect or vertebrate, unlike, say, a piece of cake.

Apparently there’s a black market in amber in which unscrupulous vendors sell a fake version made of phosphorus. I’ve always been amused by tales of the Salem witch hunts in Massachusetts. Women suspected of being witches were tested by drowning them. If the woman survived, she was apparently a witch and was killed. If she drowned, she was innocent. It occurred to me that a similar test could be made on amber. Throw it into the flames and if it burns up, it’s real.

Another test, supposedly, is to lick it. Just what I’d want to do, make a lollipop of something that’s been lying in the ground for sixty million years.

Early in the morning, we all took a bus to Riga, Latvia’s capital. This was practical for all of us. Dave and Patti were on a flight to Berlin the next day from Riga. Following them to Riga gave us an opportunity to see the city without having to sail all the way there.

Riga is famous for many things, including its proprietary formula for a 90 proof drink called Riga Black Balsam. Purely because of our commitment to research, we bought a small bottle and tried it. It looks like balsamic vinegar and tastes like fire. It’s been produced since 1752 and includes ingredients such as wormwood, linden blossoms, and oak bark.

We arrived in Riga early in the day, too early to check in with our hotel. We left our luggage with the lobby and began to explore. Our first stop was the Freedom Monument, a monolithic structure erected in 1935 and funded by donations by the public. On a spot that once had a statue of Peter the Great, the Soviet occupiers declared it off-limits and tried to distract the citizens with a statue of Lenin that was nearby and faced another direction. Moments after the failed coup attempt in Moscow, when the USSR was on its last legs, Lenin’s statue was removed. There were flowers at the base, which apparently are a regular feature, a memorial to Latvians who were deported to Siberia by the Soviets. Luckily, we’d arrived minutes before the hourly changing of the guard. It’s not exactly Buckingham Palace, but there was a grandness about it that made me glad we’d gotten there at the right time.

Our next stop was St. Peter’s Church, with its spire of nearly 125 meters (about 400 feet). This spire was once the highest in Europe. It collapsed in 1666 and was rebuilt immediately. To test the lifetime of the tower, the locals used the incredibly scientific method of dropping a glass from the top. The more pieces of glass resulting from the drop, the longer the tower would last. Because there’s always a way to pretend that any theory is science, as it turned out, the glass fell onto some straw and didn’t shatter. Then one year later, the tower burnt down. It was rebuilt (no word about a subsequent glass test) and lasted until artillery fire in 1941. According to my guidebook, the cause of the fire was the attacking Germans, or maybe it was the retreating Red Army, depending on whom you ask. In any case, the spire was again rebuilt, and this time it aced the smashing glass test.

We finally made our way to the Tourist Center on the Town Hall square, and armed ourselves with more maps and a proper brochure, with a pair of recommended walks. The first item on the walk was on the same square, an ornate building called the House of Blackheads. Not a dermatologist’s office, this building was an 800th birthday present of Riga to itself. The original building was constructed in 1344 (when it was known as the “new building”). The name comes from the German guild of unmarried men that had been headquartered there, and named for the black-headed Roman commander St. Mauritius, who died a martyr. The building façade is colorful, festooned with carvings and artwork, and it’s now the cheerful face of Riga.

Our walk continued to the Dome Cathedral, with what was once the largest organ in the world, and is still the fourth-largest, with 6768 pipes and more than 100 stops. The organ is probably constantly in the process of restoration, and on our visit, many of the pipes were stowed alongside the nave, and wooden scaffolding surrounded the rest of it.

Our tour took us by the Cat House, with its two black cat statuettes perched on the ends of the roof. These cats were bad luck for its sculptor, who fell off the roof and died while he was installing them. And there's a story about them. The cats are in that familiar feline aggressiveness position, backs curled, tails up. The local man who’d originally built the house was a wealthy trader, and the Big Guild Hall was directly across the street from his home. This man wasnt admitted to the guild across the street because he wasn’t German. In retaliation, atop this large home, he’d commissioned the statues and perched the cats on the roof – facing away from the Guild. So uncouth was the nonverbal cat gesture that there was a lengthy court case. In the end (so to speak), the cats were turned to face the street, and the man was admitted to the guild.

We’d been in Latvia for nearly a week, and we were getting into the rhythm of restaurants. There are some Latvian peculiarities that we hadn’t noticed in any other place. First, our waitress at the marina hotel wasn’t unusual in the way she treated us. We hadn’t yet seen a single waitress with a pad to write the order. And, with nearly no exceptions, and no matter how complicated our meal, they never got it wrong. Another way she wasn’t unusual was in setting our places. Latvian tables aren’t pre-set with utensils. This is apparently because they don’t know what utensils you’ll need until after you’ve ordered. They need to know how many (whether you’ve asked for an appetizer or dessert) and which ones (forks and knives are different for meats and fish, for example.)

Latvian culture apparently has an overdeveloped sense of course symmetry. For example, there are some special menus that include two courses, such as your choice of a starter and a main course, or a main course and a dessert. Let’s say that three of us order the starter, and the fourth gets the dessert. The way it’s served is whatever means that everyone is eating at the same time. So three of us are having a starter while the fourth is having the main course. And the person with the dessert is eating that while the rest of us are eating the main course. It takes a bit of getting used to.

Last, I suppose restaurants don’t always last long in any country. But our experience defied the law of averages. In Liepāja, we had wanted to go to a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. “Hands down,” they said, “the best meal we had in Latvia.” We checked out the location of the building during the day. It was closed, but we were planning to go there for dinner anyway. But it was also closed when we arrived for dinner. We followed some ambiguous instructions that were taped to the restaurant’s entrance and found ourselves at a different restaurant, the hostess of which informed us that the best meal in Latvia was no longer in town. The next day, we followed directions to another recommended location, only to find a convenience store in its place. And in Riga, we spent the better part of an hour finding the best choice for our one night in town. The restaurant was dark at dinnertime. And all of the plants inside were brown and dry. Of course, when the world financial markets melted down in 2008, Latvia’s GDP dropped by 18%. It’s not often that Latvia makes the international headlines. This is one of the least appealing ways to do it.

At breakfast the next morning, we said our goodbyes with Patti and Dave and we went our separate ways. They took a flight to Berlin and their connection to the US, and we wandered around the town, doubling back on our walk of the previous day, ducking raindrops, and finally taking a bus back to Liepāja. The bus driver’s radio played country and bluegrass music with Latvian lyrics, and we drove past small farms and lots of arable land that didn’t seem to be farmed at all. Occasionally we’d pass a stork grazing in a field, and rarely a nest, a meter wide atop a pole at a farm. Our bus driver had to honk at one to get him out of the road. I didn’t hear it honk back. About 10,000 pairs of storks nest in Latvia. They’re considered to bring good luck, and of course, babies. Some people try to entice the nesting stork by mounting a tire as a foundation for a nest. Once Art even caught sight of a stork feeding little heads inside the nest.

I’ve learned that the shorter the summer is, the more the locals revere it. And in northern Europe, towns pay homage to warm weather with festivals. And Latvia has a really short summer and a lot of festivals. This meant, at least for the weekend that we were in town, that there were three major festivals going on all weekend: a theater festival, a sea festival, and an art festival. We’d seen artists camped out by the canal all week, as if participating in a marathon of some sort. By the weekend, the fruits of all this frenzied painting were on display on the field next to the marina. Apparently unrelated to these other festivals was an exotic dance festival to take place right on the Promenade where we were docked.

In the evening, we went to Rose Square to watch the launch of the theater festival. The weather was ideal, with clear skies, just the right temperature and not a hint of humidity. One act involved life-sized puppets with huge heads and a script that we didn’t begin to understand. This act was from Lithuania, the next-door neighbor with a completely different language. There’s actually a chance that nobody in the audience understood a word of what was going on.

A Dutch acrobatic team came out and wandered through the crowd, she walking around on a one-story-tall red ball, and he manipulating a puppet twice his own size, with enormous hands and a cartoon head. It looked like a love story between the ballet dancer in a jewelry box and, well, Grover from Sesame Street. I’m tempted to mention the only dirty joke that my parents ever told me, involving a guy who was really tall and his tiny love interest, but I won’t. This tiny dancer did have extraordinary control over the speed and direction of the ball, or at least I hope she did. She’d appear to lose control of it and start barreling towards the crowd and nearly run over the little kids who kept following her around. Thus, even when she disappeared into the throng, we’d always know where she was and what she was doing, based on the direction and level of shrieking we heard in the distance.

A German juggler came out and did the parts of his act that didn’t involve fire, which would come after dark. He didn’t try to speak Latvian; he did his act in English. I’m not sure how many in the crowd understood him either, especially based on the tepid response to his repartee. I half-expected him to say “Bomb-o!”

The last act we watched (though there was much to see afterwards) was billed as a mime, though I’d describe him more as a performance artist. He arrived in front of us clad in an animal skin, with a metal sword tied around his ankle, and carrying a stick that might be a bow or a weapon. He took off the skin and did the rest of the show in a loincloth. His skin was covered in dust. Some of the dance used the primitive props. He burned some paper and threw it about. He lit a joint (yes, a real one) and smoked it with no apparent requirement for it in the plot development of his dance. Maybe the story of what he was doing was the evolution of humankind. Maybe he’s just a big old stoner.

The festival continued on the next day, with two stages on the promenade near our boat, with the new addition of an exotic dance festival. This made it very convenient for us to visit for a while, then do an errand or go back to the boat, and then visit again. Belly dancers and Indian artists performed on one of the stages, one group after another, for a total of eight hours of ten-minute performances. Nearly all the routines were from Asia; we saw only a handful of interludes of Spanish and Latin dance. Later, music wafted through the air across the promenade to our boat, and we slept to the strains of Latvian traditions.

We’ll be here another day or two before we move on. The weather’s been alternating between gorgeous and chilly and a little rainy, but it’s never interfered with our ability to get around. Hope you’re having good weather where you are.

Love, Karen (and Art)