Friday, August 31, 2007

Back in the USA

Just a quick post to say that we arrived safely at SeaTac this evening around 7:30, only 3 hours later than scheduled (some issue at Heathrow totally unrelated to safety or health or the state of repair of our plane, which was quite fine). Ian's sound asleep, and I'm almost there. Spackle remembered us, and seemed to be thrilled to again be around people who actually like his kisses. He kissed us a lot, which we both thought was very sweet. Mom and Marsh and Loper are also in good health, although less licky.

Look for more pictures and more stories for at least a little while yet!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Something That Keeps Sweden From Being Dull in Its Wholesomeness:

The Raggare (pronounced ROG-are-ay). These folks are evidently dedicated to life in the 50’s. Not the 50’s in Sweden, however; the 50’s in the good ol’ US of A. The main display of this lifestyle is a vintage 50’s American car (or, if you can't find one of those, any vintage American car). In the summer, groups of Raggare occasionally get together and cruise for several hours through a predetermined small town. We happened to be privy to one of these cruises, on our anniversary in Härnösand, when by some fortuitous trick of fate we found ourselves seated by a window in a restaurant on one of the main corners of the cruising route.

I tell you, it was surreal. Classic American car after classic American car, all apparently in mint condition and polished to the nines, full of people (some in 50’s period dress), blasting music (mostly strange Swedish music, although some people did have sock-hop tunes blaring). Some cars were driven by men who would’ve been youths in the 50’s; others by folks younger than me. Some had whole families in them, some convertibles had screeching girls sitting on the back of the back seat. The cruising went on for several hours. We discussed whether or not the prudent Swedes had replaced the engines with modern, fuel efficient models . . . but probably not.

Expensive hobby, but certainly fun to watch.

Monday, August 27, 2007

About Sweden

Sweden is very . . . wholesome. There’s nothing wrong with that; for the most part it’s really very sweet. People ride bikes everywhere. Their favorite thing to do in the late summer is pick berries or mushrooms and you see them heading off into the woods with large buckets as you drive down the road. They eat a lot of fiber for breakfast, and are evidently in bed at a reasonable hour—at least, all the restaurants, even the posh ones, close by 9:00pm*. The beds are invariably super comfortable, though, so I don’t really blame them for wanting to spend more time there. The beds are comfortable because of something they call the “bed mattress”—a sort of pillowtop that sits on top your mattress. When it stops being pillowy, you can toss it out and get a new one. Ian has some trouble with the whole bed mattress concept because the sheet is a flat sheet that’s just folded around the bed mattress rather than a fitted sheet that’s tucked in, and Ian is a bit of a squirmer in bed, so his sheet comes untucked most nights and he finds himself sleeping directly on the bed mattress, which isn’t quite as comfortable. On top are duvets, usually individual ones even if the mattress is double-wide (which it usually isn’t, but when it is and you have those two duvets? Heaven! Particularly if one of you is a covers stealer, Ian.). In the last hotel we stayed at, in Luleå, the bed mattresses were a full seven centimeters thick, and the duvets were down. Bliss.

We did a lot of driving over the last ten days, and the Swedes’ wholesomeness seems to extend to road etiquette as well. Usually, I tend to consider the speed limit a lower limit when I’m driving. I don’t drive much faster than I’m supposed to (maybe 5 or 7 mph over), but I do drive consistently faster. The Swedes, on the other hand, apparently don’t even aspire to reach the speed limit, let alone surpass it. That would be lawbreaking and therefore unwholesome. There aren’t very many people here in this huge country, so there aren’t a lot of multilane roads, so passing people who are going slower than you isn’t totally easy, although there are a couple tools in place. There are frequent second lanes along major roads like the E-4, so for a lot of your drive, if you’re stuck behind someone who’s hovering around 90 when the limit is 110, you can pass easily in a minute or two. For areas of the E-4 where there aren’t passing lanes for long stretches of road, there’s a different system. The lanes are quite wide, and the line along the shoulder is dotted. When the line in the middle is also dotted (which is most of the time), if you come up behind someone quickly, they move to the side—i.e. driving half in the lane and half on the shoulder, and you move to the middle—i.e. driving half in the lane and half in the oncoming lane—and around them. Oncoming traffic knows the drill, so it moves over to be partially on the shoulder if necessary.

In theory.

What actually happens is that people don’t pay attention to anyone behind them, so they don’t move over onto the capacious shoulder, and instead frequently hug the center line (although not with the kind of consistency that would make you feel safe passing on the right, although you do have room to do so), thus mostly obscuring your view to oncoming traffic. Eventually you have to pass anyway because you’re going crazy hovering behind this undoubtedly very sweet person who is steadfastly refusing to get within 12 kph of the limit, so you rush out onto the other side of the road and hope that oncoming traffic, if there is any, sees you barreling down and moves over to the side as expected.

In the event, we made it here to Stockholm safely, and dropped off the car at the airport with no trouble whatsoever.

We all seem to be alive and well still. Shockingly, no ill effects from the surströmming.

*Note: not in Stockholm, which is a vibrant big city like other vibrant big cities.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Happy Sixth Anniversary

Ian and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on August 18th with some good friends. In honor of our six years together, I agreed, under duress, to take part in a ceremony that is not only not going to be repeated exactly as we performed it; it’s not going to be repeated even in spirit. The six of us ate, for lunch, surströmming, the Swedish traditional dish of fermented herring. This was the last time I celebrate my anniversary by eating any culture’s shock cuisine. No Thai Ten Thousand Year Old Egg, no Icelandic Hákarl, not even any durian. And definitely not fermented fish from anywhere.

Wait, you say, fermented fish?


To make surströmming, in May you take some herrings and remove their heads and their guts (although you leave the roe and the milt), then you put them in a huge vat with salt and water. You keep them at a particular temperature and you stir them a few times over the next few weeks. Then you seal them in smaller barrels for the following few weeks and shake them around periodically, then you tin them and let them sit for a few more weeks. Ten days before the third Friday in August, and not before, you give the tins to people as gifts.

Because the fish continues to “ferment” (i.e. “rot”) in the tins, the tins can develop a rounded, botulistic appearance. The contents are therefore also pressurized, and can explode upon opening, thus drenching the poor, misguided would-be eater with a sulfurous, sewage-smelling liquid that will ruin their clothing, and several layers of skin, forever.

I felt that it should’ve been a sign to us all (and not just me) that A, who is Swedish and whose mother loves surströmming, had never tasted it and had wondered, in fact, how her mother could eat it all these years. But even A thought it might be a good time to give it a try. After all, it was the season, and we were in the part of Sweden where surströmming is produced.

So here’s how you eat it:

You take a piece of large, pill-shaped soft flatbread and butter it. On it you put chopped onion, cubed cooked potato (a particular kind, but the Swedes are really into their potatoes and I have no idea what they all are, so just any old white potato will do—believe me, it’s not the potato that matters), and as much surströmming as you think you can handle (for us, it was one filet each, which turned out to be wildly optimistic). With the sandwich, you drink snaps, which is Swedish schnapps (traditionally flavored with caraway—we had a sampler of small bottles flavored with everything from caraway and dill to St John’s Wort and something translated as “bog myrtle”) and milk. Everyone agreed, kind of without me, that the idea of drinking milk and snaps sounded disgusting, so we didn’t have any milk. You don’t mix them together, though; they’re drunk in succession. I kept saying, to no avail, “but rotted fish doesn’t sound disgusting?”

The fun part of the day was that we rented kayaks and paddled around in the protected bays near Härnösand, and so we were able to create our garbage sandwiches out in the open air far from where we were sleeping. And we had brought plenty of cheese, brats, mustard, potato salad, biscuits, chocolate, and gorp, so when, as I had predicted all along, the sandwiches weren’t found to be surprisingly tasty, or even edible at all, we had plenty of other things to eat to help us forget our folly.

We did have varying degrees of success with the surströmming sandwiches themselves.

Ian ate his entire sandwich, and even took a moment to cast a barb my way, suggesting that I wouldn’t actually chew bites of this sandwich 54 times. He was right; I spit my first bite out after maybe 4 chews, recognizing that I was moments away from gut-clenching puking. Deane ate his entire sandwich, although it can’t be said that he enjoyed the experience. He was going to bring a can home for a friend (they’re flying SAS; British Airways and Air France among others, don’t allow it onboard) but he’s afraid the friend would expect him to eat some, too, and he can’t face that again. Erika spit out her first bite, then took another with a homeopathic amount of fish and managed to swallow that. A swallowed her first bite, but pulled the rest of the fish out of the sandwich to finish it (the sandwich, that is). She commented that it was a pleasure to discover that the thing she’d been avoiding for so many years actually was a good thing to avoid. G spit out his first bite, too, and marveled at the human anatomy and the gag-reflex which was so clearly designed to keep him from eating things that would poison him, but then decided that, since he knew with his brain that the fish was edible, he’d force himself to eat some anyway. I told him his gag reflex wasn’t likely to work so well for him in the future, since he’d so clearly and immediately scorned its powers.

But what did surströmming taste like? Not fish, actually. It tasted slightly sweet, and a lot like the way raw sewage smells, and even more like the smell of the absolute worst slimy, greasy stinky thing your dog has ever rolled in.

It did not taste like food.

But the kayaking was beautiful, and the company excellent, and the Italian dinner tasty (although the kitchen closed at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, which was so un-Italian as to be comical, almost, except I didn’t get dessert). And now we’re on a ferry heading across the Gulf of Bothnia to Finland.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"It’s a Very Deep Cavity"

We’re here in Härnösand (excuse the misspelling last time), which is a beautiful little seaside town. It’s a higher latitude than Anchorage, so even in mid-August it’s light until late at night. And it’s light early, of course. I’ve developed the practice, in these Northern climes, of putting my kikoy over my face after I use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Last night I did it so automatically that I was surprised to find it over my eyes this morning, and had a brief, irrational fear that someone was trying to suffocate me (that’s not actually true. I said it for comic reasons.)

Anyway, I decided a couple days ago that it was maybe not such a good idea to wait until September to get my tooth checked out, so A looked into a dentist for me here. And I went yesterday, and it’s good that I did. My back left molar had a deep cavity, which the dentist, disturbingly, showed me on the film. It went pretty close to the root. So she shot me up with Novocain, drilled a bit, and gave me a temporary filling because she didn’t want to risk the need of a root canal then and there. Supposedly the decay that she left in the tooth will stop now that it’s not being fed by tasty sausage (or something like that), and in about six months I can have my real dentist (wherever that will be), fix it for real.

The two meals I’ve eaten since the fixing and the wearing off of the numbing have been a pleasure of no pain.

This was also an interesting experience because she was only the second dentist I’ve ever seen in my life. My other dentist I’ve been going to since I was 2 years old, my mom goes to him, and my grandma goes to him. He’s known us long enough for my grandma to tell him family gossip (i.e. I went in for a routine cleaning about 10 days after meeting Ian and he said “So! I hear you have a new man in your life!” Hello? I thought. You’re my dentist.), and for him to treat us with a bit of irreverence (i.e. about 3 years ago, my then 89-year-old grandmother needed some dental surgery. When trying to determine whether to recommend surgery or simply a patch, Dr. Hardy said “Be honest with me, Bea, how much longer are you planning to live?” And she said “At least ten more years!” and so he recommended the surgery).

Anyway, off we go on a two-day adventure of hiking and kayaking that G&A have kept somewhat secret from us (not that that would be hard, as we know nothing of the area).

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Soft Closing

Ian and I are due back in Seattle on August 31, about 2 ½ weeks from now. Tonight, however, is our last night of independent adventures. Tomorrow we go to Sweden where we’ll meet up with my brother and sister-in-law. We’ll spend about 2 weeks with them, and also visit a dear friend from graduate school and his wife (who’s Swedish), who have just moved to Härnosänd. With Deane and Erika we’ll go to Finland for 5 days or something, then they head back to the US and we spend 3 more nights in London with our bed bug-free friends before we go home.

So how, you might ask, have we spent our last hours alone? I’d like to say we spent them romantically, and successfully achieving lots of sightseeing and exercise and tasty meals and exciting adventures, and actually, those things are all true. However, my body seems to have decided that it would be best for me to stop traveling for awhile, so nothing we did the last couple days was entirely the way we’d pictured it.

First of all, about the time we left London last time I developed a toothache. I seem to have an infected gum somewhere up around my molars on the left side. There’s always been a big gap between these two teeth, and I floss every day, but stuff gets stuck there. I don’t know if it was popcorn or something else, but evidently something got there and went a bit off (I know, disgusting, but you only have to read about it). Anyway, I’ve found that if I floss religiously after every meal instead of merely once a day, I can keep it pretty well under control. It’s pretty amazing, actually, how much goes in there—it’s like a black hole in my mouth (actually, maybe it is). I can run the floss through 7 or 8 times and still come out with stuff. I don’t know where it’s all coming from. I expect I should make a dentist appointment for soon after the 31st.

Second, it’s been that unmentionable time, which is always fun, particularly when traveling unknown numbers of hours on public transportation.

Third, two days ago in the evening of the day we arrived in Cesis, I realized I was coming down with some sort of cold. I had a sore throat, and it boded poorly for a good night’s sleep. I was right, I didn’t sleep well. And so yesterday morning, instead of being excited and gung-ho about touring “Latvia’s most Latvian town” and maybe taking an afternoon bike ride around the surrounding countryside, it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed and into town to hobble around for 3 hours (including an hour sitting and eating lunch). One of the reasons I left the room was that my throat hurt too much to sleep, so I thought I might as well go do something.

When we got back to our room after lunch yesterday I decided I’d had enough, however, so I pulled out my handy pack of extra Tylenol with codeine from my surgery in January, took 1 ½ pills, and slept for several hours in the afternoon while Ian worked (Ian made up a story for me to distract me from my awful, awful throat while I was waiting for the drugs to kick in. That part was very romantic and sweet). After dinner last night we shuffled around our neighborhood (strange, strange Soviet ruins and crumbling “tractor parking” sheds and whatnot from the old communal agriculture practices), I took another 1 ½ pills, and slept well all night long. This morning my throat was fine.

But, fourth, I noticed my left hip bothering me a bit. It really wasn’t too bad until we’d arrived back in Riga after our one adventure. Being the practical people we are, we’d purchased train tickets for our return to Riga upon arriving at the station on Friday evening. The train had been FULL, and we didn’t want to miss our chance to get back to the big city. This morning we checked out of our hotel at 11:00 and the agent called a taxi for us; at 11:20 she called another taxi for us; at 11:35 it arrived and took us to the station. Only a few people were waiting on the platform and we had about 10 minutes until our noon train, so I went off to the WC, which was the most disgusting thing I’ve seen since being in Kenya 11 years ago. It was just holes, and they were “piled” with filth. Blech. Anyway, just before noon a train arrived with RIGA on the front and everyone got off. We got on, assuming it would reverse direction and go back to town. But then we saw two conductors through a window so Ian asked, and they motioned us frantically “get off the train!” They managed to explain that the next train to Riga was at 3:00; we showed them our tickets, and they said “Autobus!” and so we grabbed our bags willy-nilly (not in the balanced and practical way I carry them when I’m being photographed) and ran out to the parking lot. For some reason, the bus driver was still there 1 minute or so after noon (they are very punctual leavers), and waited for us to fling our back packs under the bus and pant on. The bus evidently got very full as well; I wouldn’t know, because I managed to sleep for 1 ½ hours of the 2 hour journey. When we got off the bus in Riga, my hip was suddenly killing me.

We caught a taxi to our hotel where the elevator was broken (in the newest place we’ve stayed, after all our worry about the spectacularly ugly place in Lithuania), so we hauled our bags up to the 5th floor (which, I remind you, really is the 5th floor in the Baltics), washed a bit more laundry, and collapsed on our beds in the humid heat and I slept another two hours.

And tonight, our last night on the road alone, of course I’m typing away on my computer and Ian’s across the room typing away on his.

Things are good.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hill of Crosses

These pictures are the reason we went to Lithuania in the first place. Crosses were planted on this small hillock for the first time several centuries ago, probably before Christianity came to Lithuania, so some have (had?) pagan roots. During the Soviet occupation it was illegal to plant crosses (which are planted for everything from celebration of life to mourning death), but people did it anyway. The story goes that everything was bulldozed off the hillock at least 3 times, and the final time it was fenced and a moat was dug around it . . . but there were new crosses by the next morning, anyway. Now, it's estimated that there are over 400,000 crosses at the site, all sizes and materials. It was really, really neat to see.

More Baltic Pics

A street-side flower market in Riga.

A view of Old Town Riga.

We've seen tons of storks this summer--lots in the Alentejo in Portugal, and lots in the Baltics. These are in Lithuania.

Our "spectacularly ugly" hotel. Our room is in the top left corner, under "HO". I'll note here that the windows open completely up, so you could easily jump out. I'll also note here that if you close them, the barking dogs and singing drunkards are pretty much silenced. So we closed them the second night.

The mysterious "SPECTRUM" channel. This is all it ever did.

No wonder I'm tired.

Baltics Pictures

Beautiful lighthouse on Kihnu, brought from England.

Ian next to some famous accordion player in Pärnu.

Awesome, awesome upside down teeter-totters.

The crowd outside our hotel in Pärnu, At 3:30am. Grrr.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Old School Backpacking

I’m tired. My calves, after hucking around my 45 pound estimated combined total weight backpacks, are sore. There was noise from the plaza below us last night (officious small trotting dog, barking importantly and stridently for 20 or 30 minutes around 1:00am and again around 4:00am, and about 8 boys singing Beatles songs at 3:30am) which made my sleep fitful, and I kept waking up from dreams of being shot in my right calf, or stung by a scorpion, or kicked by a horse, or something else awful and inconvenient for the traveler relying on her legs as transport.

Yes, that’s right, for the first time all summer, we’ve really been leading a backpacker life. Since arriving in the Baltics we haven’t spent more than 3 nights in a single place, and that was Riga when we first arrived. A quick run-down: Riga 3, Kihnu 2, Pärnu 2, Riga 1 (more on this in a moment), Šiauliai 2, and then Cēsis 2 and Riga 1 to finish up before Sweden.

One drawback to staying such a short time in each place is that we either don’t have time to find out where to get our laundry done, or we find out but we’re leaving before they can get to it. This means that I take on the housewifely role of washing our clothes by hand while Ian works, which is fine, but doesn’t do much for my 34-year-old back that’s not used to struggles of carrying all I want to have with me, and really doesn’t recover as quickly as my 20-year-old back did. Did I ever collapse on a bed, exhausted, after hauling my bags two or three kilometers from the bus station when I was 20? I have no memory at all of such weakness.

Struggles with aging aside, we’ve enjoyed our time in the Baltics. I realize that I wasn’t quite fair to the fashionistas of these former Soviet republics—I was swayed by what I saw for sale at the giant market in Riga, which is not where the young and hip shop. The young and hip (women at least) have a tendency toward jeans and short tops (when will that trend finally make the rounds and disappear???) and micro minis whether or not they’re really fit enough to pull it off . . . so, just like home. Eastern Europeans in particular seem to have less of an obsession with keeping undergarments under, notably bras. Straps are showing all over the place (i.e. a halter top tank with a regular bra with shoulder straps under it), frequently the “invisible” ones which aren’t, but just as frequently whatever color they happen to be. Lots of tops are low-cut in the front, and the bra—which doesn’t appear to be a part of the statement—is just readily visible. It’s a little prudish of me to dislike this; after all, everyone’s wearing them. But I prefer mine to be a bit more mysterious. The other day Ian was noticing that hair color is more creative here than in Western Europe. There’s lots of blondes, of course, many of them even natural. But there are also lots of blonds with pink or blue streaks, or one I saw the other day with pink and blue and orange all together, which was pretty spectacular. I’ve seen several of the blond-on-top/black-underneath style as well.

The food in general is creamy and meaty. Lettuce isn’t that common (although cabbage is readily available). Fish is also easy to find, and often smoked. Organic yoghurt was easy to find in a supermarket in Lithuania, not so much in Latvia or Estonia.

Okay, so why the extra day in Riga? Well, Ian found out last weekend that he’d inadvertently failed to include one bit of documentation with his NZ application, so he had to make a statement and get it notarized, then send it off to London. The notarization he did in Estonia—it turned out to be surprisingly easy, and cost $1.04 (also cheap in Estonia—a 90-minute massage I had for $35. And internet—the Estonian government decided that free WiFi was a basic human right, so you see signs up everywhere. Parks, service stations, restaurants, ferry docks. Very handy.) It appeared that FedEx had an office near our original hotel in Riga, so we thought we’d arrive after our 3-hour bus trip from Pärnu, drop our bags in Left Luggage, nip out to the edge of town to FedEx the letter, collect our bags and train tickets to Šiauliai, and get to Lithuania all in the same day.

In the event, we couldn’t buy a train ticket to Šiauliai (we found later that buses were available); FedEx was gone (although still listed in the lobby of the building); Latvian free WiFi on a random dusty street on the industrial edge of town detailed several UPS options including hotel lobbies which we checked but none checked out; we bought a phone card and slowly ticked down $2 worth of time on hold with the UPS number before giving up; at this time, realizing we’d have to run to get a bus to a town where we didn’t have lodging worked out yet and we still needed to mail this letter and it was almost 6pm, we called a hotel close by in Old Town Riga and booked in for an unexpected nights’ stay.

It was awesome. A giant room, breakfast included, quiet, internet. With a place to shower and lay his head, Ian recovered his equilibrium and found more UPS information, so the next morning we successfully mailed the letter then caught a midday bus to Šiauliai.
We’ve read that the Lithuanians, who are more emotional and outgoing than their near neighbors, are the Italians of the Baltics, and while we haven’t spent quite enough time in either Italy or the Baltics to cast judgment on this statement, I will say that when we were seated on the bus waiting for it to leave, several middle-aged very drunk Lithuanian men boarded in a boozy cloud and a series of ins-and-outs and movement of bags clearly designed to trick the driver into thinking they had five tickets when all they had was four. This behavior seemed somewhat Neapolitan from my perspective; the fact that the driver did notice, and did make them buy a fifth ticket did not, however. I’m sure they could’ve been worse, but a couple sturdy matrons fixed them with the evil eye early on and they mostly passed out as soon as we left the station. At one point someone’s bottle of some kind of amber booze tumbled down the aisle and several people cracked up.

In Šiauliai, we walked directly to the Soviet-era Hotel Šiauliai, described in our Lonely Planet as “spectacularly ugly but with amazing views from the 14th floor”, and booked into a room on that illustrious floor. It is glorious—a huge refurbished room with separate rooms for toilet and bath, a desk, a mini-fridge, and a large TV (which shows a depressing array of Western movies and TV shows that have been dubbed Eastern Europe-style, which is one monotone male voice speaking all the words not even on a separate track, but just a little louder than the English going on under him so you can almost make out what Grace is saying to Will; and a bemusing channel called “SPECTRUM”, which simply shows a spectrograph). Our view is spectacular . . . except in the middle of the night, when the square 14 floors below is evidently very popular with all sorts of creatures trying out their voices. It seems that 14 floors of concrete do nothing to dull sound.

The elevator is the only other issue we have with our hotel. There are three, and each one is separate from the others. If you’re in the lobby, there’s a monitor that says which floor each elevator is on, so choose wisely or you could be in for a long wait. There are also at least two young women’s soccer teams staying here—evidently there’s some sort of tournament going on in the town—and so frequently there are already 8 or 10 girls waiting to get on, too. These elevators are pretty old-school. I’m not sure how an analogue elevator works, but these seem to use that technology. First, when you call the elevator you push a black bakelite button and it stays in. It pops out when the elevator arrives, but you don’t really notice the sound because of the soccer girls all around you. Inside the elevator, there are several other bakelite buttons. You push “14” and up you go, getting slower and creakier and jerkier the higher you ascend. At floor 14, the button snaps out sharply and the elevator grinds and judders to a halt, making you jump and wonder if, in fact, you’re going to make it out into your hall, or if the narrow metal box you’re currently stuck in is going to give up and plunge back to earth. So far we’ve made it out.

The other day we were descending and all of a sudden, on floor 12, the button we’d pushed, for floor 1 (an aside—they count floors like we do here—1 is ground, etc), popped out loudly and unexpectedly and the doors opened. I got out immediately because clearly the elevator didn’t want us in anymore, and Ian followed me. We punched a different button and finished our journey in a different lift. Ian suggested though, and this seems likely, that a bunch of girls on floor 12 pushed buttons for all three elevators, and since ours was going to pass 12 on its way down, its analog system was reset. Nothing sinister, but a bit unnerving at the time. We’ve decided to take separate elevators down with our bags tomorrow, because things seemed particularly difficult on the way up the first time.

And I’m going to stop here because this has gotten way too long, and because I’m done.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ugly Americans

This is something that I really didn’t think about much when we left home at the end of April. I had some concern that traveling in Europe as an American, and therefore someone who was incriminated in the continuing disaster that is our President, would cause some problems for us, but it hasn’t at all. Obviously there has been mention—in Greece, one of our hosts continually referred to him as “the bush” (it sounded like lower case, although he never wrote it out); and in Portugal several people went on and on about how he was the most hated leader in the world right now and really an awful, awful man, only to pause far into their tirades to ask if we, in fact, liked Bush. Since we patently don’t, this was always an entertaining part of the conversation for us. I’m assuming that if we’d answered in the affirmative, they would simply have given us a pitying look and gone on with their bashing.

Current specific reasons to loathe Americans aside, there is the enduring impression of Americans as ugly, boorish, fat, loud, styleless, cultureless, and clueless. They trample over cobbled streets and millennia-old cultures in their khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and photographer’s vests, dripping ice cream on antiquities and speaking too loudly in museums. They complain about foods, and lines, and heat, and traffic, and noise, and assume that everyone in the world should speak English to them.

This, at least, is what “conscientious travelers,” such as ourselves, believe the world thinks about Americans. And it may . . . but to be honest, I have no first-hand experience with this belief. Admittedly, in part this is because I haven’t traveled to “beaten path” destinations in years. I have noticed Brits in Greece being by far the loudest people in the restaurant (talking about how uncouth Americans were no less, and complaining about Greek food, while Ian and I sat and quietly enjoyed our delicious meal); Australians using any excuse to get falling-down drunk in public; large groups of young German men, shouting drunk, staggering down streets in the evening, urinating against buildings in not-so-deserted alleyways. When we took a day trip to Bodrum, Turkey, several years ago, it was not overweight middle-aged Americans wandering around the bazaar in this Muslim country in t-shirts over swim suit bottoms, nor was it a chubby American 12-year-old wearing too-tight sweats with “tasty” across the ass; nor was it a tall, slender, blonde American eating lunch in local restaurant in a pair of turquoise lycra boy shorts and matching string bikini top. In other words, lots of people are ugly on vacation.

I tend to avoid the serious ugliness. For one, I rarely go to museums so I’m not likely to drip my ice cream on something priceless. I don’t get publicly falling-down drunk with big bands of boys (when I did get drunk once long ago with Australians, it was in the privacy of our guest house). You will not catch me dead anywhere in a photographer’s vest, and Hawaiian shirts definitely have their place and it’s Hawaii or a bowling alley. I like heat, traffic irritates me but, except in Seattle, I don’t take it personally, and I don’t really like noise so I typically travel in more rural areas.

I try to learn at least some basics in the language of the country I’m in, and I fancy myself fairly good with pronunciation. I certainly don’t assume people will understand me better if I talk more loudly.

None of this really affected us in a serious way for the first three months of our trip, though. We started in Greece, and not only can we order food using Greek words, we can even read them in Greek script, so we’re way ahead of most tourists plying the Cyclades as we did. Not only that; the Greeks, along with most other Europeans, study English in school and happily speak it both with native English speakers and with all the rest of the Europeans who’ve learned English in school. Then we were in Scotland, and while we couldn’t necessarily always understand what people said to us, they were theoretically speaking the same language and we usually figured out the meanings pretty quickly. Then we were in Portugal, and I actually have a good working grasp of Portuguese, so our 5 ½ weeks there were a pleasure of integrating into a culture not our own.

And then we came to Latvia, and I knew nothing. I had read enough of the Lonely Planet to know that Latvian and Lithuanian are the two remaining surviving languages of their particular branch of the Indo-European family, and that Estonian and Finnish and Hungarian are related to each other and not closely related at all to any other language on earth, and that Russian is spoken pretty readily in the Baltics as well because of the 30 years of Soviet rule (and I actually heard two little girls speaking it—one said “nyet” on the phone and the other called “babushka!” in the crowded market, thereby exhausting my complete repertoire of Russian words aside from glasnost and perestroika and whatnot from the 80s) . . . and I laboriously taught myself paldies, which is not like “thank you” in any other language I’ve ever heard (it’s Latvian). Even arrigato in Japanese is from the Portuguese obrigado.

I found myself shrinking on the streets of Riga, trying to take up less space than usual, observing the people around me but trying to stay out of their way. When I interacted with any locals, I felt, and looked I’m sure, apologetic and contrite and insecure, because all I could do was point at what I wanted. I was trying so hard to avoid assuming people should speak to me in my language simply because I didn’t understand theirs, that I basically stopped interacting with people at all. I felt guilty about being an American. I felt guilty about being me.

After one long day of this, I got mad. After all, I’m me, and there’s nothing I can—or want to—do about it. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my strengths, I accept and work on my weaknesses, and I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my life. One of those opportunities has been the freedom to travel, and with that freedom, the chance to learn about the world in a way uncommon to most of the other 7 billion inhabitants of this planet. And so, cast away guilt! If a Swede considers me to be uncouth and boorish because I’ve studied French and Swahili and Portuguese but not Swedish, that’s not my problem. If a Latvian is frustrated that I don’t speak Latvian or Russian and therefore can’t make my needs speedily known, well, I’ve tried my best.

I have a Master’s degree in linguistics, and perhaps this is part of my problem. I know how important language is (even just accent) for the coherence of a society. I can mourn the fact that languages, like plants and animals and customs, are dying out all the time. I can recognize similarities between languages—this skill helps me fake my way through Spain and Italy, and helps me chronicle the European history of things like the tomato, which is, interestingly, tomato in all the countries I’ve been in so far. I’m well-grounded in how language works and I’m keenly observant of paralinguistic cues, so I have pretty good situational comprehension. And so I keep thinking that some part of my subconscious mind will take over, and the languages will just seep in.

Talking and language are very important to me; they always have been. My mother reminds me of a trip to Brazil when I was about 10, to visit friends she’d made in the Peace Corps. Even though, for several months before we left, everything in the house had been labeled in Portuguese and she had insisted our dinner conversation be conducted entirely in Portuguese, I couldn’t speak much of it at all by the time we arrived, and I found this difficult to deal with. I was a talker, and there wasn’t anyone to talk to. My brother hated having to talk to people, so he was in his element.

I realized something the other day, though. Yes, language ability is important, and it is one indicator of multicultural sensitivity or ugly boorishness. But it’s not the only thing. Observation, attire, awareness, openness—all are valuable as well. And so I’ll continue to do my best, as I always do, in all these categories as well as in language. And I will focus my grateful energy on appreciating the places I’m visiting to the fullness of my ability.

And I will no longer feel guilt for who I am.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

You Can’t Have It Both Ways

About an hour ago an email arrived from my brother, who was due to leave the house for Sweden in an hour, detailing a bill I’d just received there for mowing on Orcas Island. Ian and I had discussed mowing with our southern neighbor before we left town in April, and asked that, when she had her piece mowed, she get in touch with us because maybe we’d have the guy mow ours as well. I’m not sure if we detailed with her exactly which part of our land we wanted to have mowed; it probably didn’t occur to us to worry about it, because all evidence pointed only to the southern parts having been mowed for, oh, at least 10 years.

Unfortunately, we should’ve been more detailed. The bill includes not only mowing the southern part, but also north pasture, which we’d decided to leave fallow for the next few years, and chipping all the young Douglas firs and alders in the middle of it. This is what makes me sad. I had been planning on cutting our first Christmas tree from that herd of firs, and I was also rejoicing that, in 20 or 30 years, we’d actually have some trees in addition to 30 acres of grassland. Not only that; mowing all that rough pasture and chipping all those trees was expensive, to the tune of a shocking number of nights on the road, even in Sweden.

No one’s to blame, of course. Our neighbor to the south honestly thought she knew what we wanted, and the man who did the mowing did the best he could. I suppose our laissez-faire attitude about land being able to take care of itself was to blame as much as anything, so we’ll pay the bill, meet the mower, and make sure we speak to him directly in the future.

Besides, trees grow back, and some number of years from now when we do have a house there and need a Christmas tree, it may not be the soaring 8 feet I was hoping for, but we’ll probably be able to find something to put on a tabletop.

But there you have it—a nomadic life may seem like a life of freedom, but there are costs to being an adult and owning things. Not only financial costs, but many, many niggling little details of bills and issues and whatnot, the large majority of which my brother has dealt with directly in order to make our lives easier.

Thank you, Deane, so much.

Friday, August 03, 2007

When It All Comes Together

note: since writing this, we've moved to the library next door, where the wireless is free. Very posh.

We’re in Pärnu, Estonia right now, sitting in a Tex-Mex Restaurant and killing time before our ferry out to the little island of Kihnu. We came up on a bus from Riga this morning, which left at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am (what will we do when we’re back in the real world of schedules and early morning work times? Well, at least what will Ian do?). We were the last people to arrive at the bus, around 8 minutes before it left. We found two seats together, though, and since the final destination was Tallinn, it’s probably good that our bags were the last ones thrown into the hold. It was a double-decker bus, and I have to say, I slept through most of the 3 ½ hour trip. I’m sure this was self-defense, because I didn’t actually get sick. One great joy was that we actually stopped at the border, and they actually took our passports and stamped them! I don’t think this happens much in the EU anymore; between Portugal and Spain, for example, there’s only a derelict checkpoint building that clearly hasn’t been manned in years. Even though both Latvia and Estonia are members of the EU, since they border Russia and Belarus, it seems they may have border crossings between them for many more years. Portugal, of course, only borders Spain, and much as they complain about each other, they trust each other to come and go benignly.

When we arrived here at noon, we didn’t have tickets on the ferry which leaves at 6:15pm and arrives on the island at 9:00pm; we didn’t have a place to stay on the island and we were hoping to stay 3 nights on a busy weekend in August; we didn’t have any Estonian cash; our backpacks were very big and heavy; and we didn’t have tickets back to Riga on Tuesday. And we don’t speak a word of Estonian.

But now we’re all set—got some cash; bags are in Left Luggage until 5:15; we’ll buy tickets on the ferry; helpful tourist offices here and on Kihnu hooked us up with a room and a ride from the boat (our cell isn’t working well again, and charged us £2 for the dropped call to Kihnu’s tourist office and the only pay phones in Pärnu are at the post office and only take cards which you buy there so we still have 450 Estonian Kr. with which to make more calls . . . from the post office . . . ); we’ve bought tickets back to Riga on the much more civilized 12:05pm return bus; thank you in Estonian is tänan. Anyway, it’s all very exciting to be in a completely new place. And, while Tex-Mex theoretically isn’t Estonian food, I can say with assurance that it’s also not Tex-Mex.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Riga Photos

Rowing on the canal through Old Town Riga

Rowing is serious business.

Borat was here.

Tomorrow--on to Kihnu, Estonia!

Two Current Favorite Songs

Stop This Train, by John Mayer (Continuum)
Us, by Regina Spektor (Soviet Kitsch)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Backpack’s Back

When we came in this afternoon from our meanderings around the giant (5 WWII blimp hangars-worth!) market, Ian’s bag was sitting inside the door against the textured orange and gold wall of our room. We didn’t notice it at first, since it’s become so much a part of our environment. That didn’t take away from our excitement, though, when we did notice it. We had replaced only a couple essentials—some conditioner for me, and a UK to EU plug adaptor for us both (I walked unerringly to both an electronics store and the Body Shop in two different malls, neither of which I’d been to before. Shopping has become second nature, I tell you).

I have to say, though, if my bag had been lost, and not ever returned, I would not have been able to bring myself to replace my clothing here. Latvia has been free from the Soviet Union since 1992, I believe, and 15 years have brought big changes. But it seems that freedom has not brought taste, at least not yet. Traditional dress is long gone, and Soviet scarcity is over, and now it’s as if the joy of consumption has taken over completely and the Latvians just don’t have any filters. If something exists, it's for sale. I’m sure this will all even out too soon (I know, I know, I can't have it both ways), now that they’ve joined the EU and are working toward adopting the Euro as their currency. In the next ten years, they’ll probably be wearing generic clothes from H&M and Zara like everyone else in Europe. And that will be sad, in a way, but much better too, in a way. At the moment, pretty much anything goes, and anything is usually disturbingly shiny.

We’re Not in Southern Europe Anymore

It was abundantly clear this morning at breakfast that we were not in Portugal where all one has is a slice of white toast and a milky coffee, nor in Greece with the yoghurt and fruits. Our offerings were closer to what we got in Scotland, and even more like what I remember from Poland ten years ago. In other words, breakfast included quite a bit of fish. Not just the lox we’re used to having for brunch back in the US, but pickled herring and pickled salmon, and maybe even more fish. I’d only been awake 20 minutes, so I tried not to look too closely. Also available was cheese, ham, mustard, sliced tomato and cucumber, and a shredded onion and cucumber salad in a light oil and vinegar dressing (which is what I had). If you wanted to be boring and not so savory you could have pourable yoghurt, milk and cereal, or teeny croissants and jam. Ian had pickled herring.

Dining while on the road for so long has its drawbacks. For one thing, Americans seem to be the only people who regularly take partially eaten dinners away from restaurants (to molder in their fridges, mostly, instead of moldering in the dumpster behind the restaurant). In Portugal, for instance, if you rashly order an entire plate of Migas do Alentejo and your husband orders an entire other meal, and you can only eat 1/3 of it even though it was really, really tasty, and you ask if there’s a box so you can take leftovers home, they look sorrowfully at you (are they sorry you couldn’t eat the terra cotta roofing tile full of 3 kilos of cornmeal and pork fried together, or sorry to disappoint you in your strange request?) and tell you no. For the most part, we got around this by either eating too much (hence the current size of my thighs), only ordering one main dish between the two of us, or frequently some combination of the two.

There are also other dangers of dining out in foreign countries, including ordering something that ends up being tripe or octopus stew because you forgot the words or, even, the words weren’t included in the description of the meal. And there’s the endless issue of how and when to pay your bill. Obviously, you learn very early not to sit and wait for anyone to bring it. They don’t. They’ll hold onto it for hours, long after they’ve determined that you don’t want coffee or dessert or anything else. If you’re us, you learn, eventually, after 3 months and about 200 meals out, to ask for the bill when you tell them you don’t want dessert. Once you have the bill though, then what? They’re not all that quick to come back and see if you need change or the credit card machine (an exception is London, where they check back, and bring a wireless credit card machine to the table, which is impressively handy).

An added insecurity for me is that it takes us so little time to complete a meal. Ian, for one, is an Indy 500 eater. I eat much more slowly (we counted the average number of chews we each perform per bite and I was 54 and he was 7), but much of the speed or slowness of a meal depends on conversation, and since we have spent almost literally the past 2,208 hours together, we don’t have that much more to say to each other over lunch. Besides that, when you’re not traveling, restaurant meals tend to have a bit of ceremony about them, but since we are traveling, and for so long, they’ve become pretty mundane (aside from all the neuroses I’ve detailed here). So each time we go to ask for a bill I wonder if the server is looking at us askance for our uncouth speed. I admit, I have comforted myself more than once with the thought that we’ll never be back in that restaurant again, so our embarrassment ends when we walk out the door.

I realize that this is irrational behavior. Nevertheless, tonight’s dining experience was a relief and joy.

We ate at a Latvian buffet, which is probably related in origin to the Swedish smorgasbord. It was in a kitschy wooden “traditional” house with multiple rooms, artisan decorations, and lots of good foods. The offerings included a cold soup and a hot soup, several prepared salads drowned in sour cream (I had tomato and cucumber and avoided the pink beets), a salad bar, prepared dishes of deep fried garlic bread (a personal favorite), several hot dishes including fish and sausages (many also drowned in sour cream), a huge vat of fries, steamed vegetables, a juice bar, a dessert bar, bottled beer or beer on tap, teas, coffees, water, etc. We could meander around bumping gently into each other with our trays, choosing exactly what we liked the looks of, in exactly what quantities we wanted, and then we paid before sitting down. And then, joy of joys, when we were done we could simply get up and leave.