Friday, March 26, 2010

It's Baltic!

As the spring snow falls in Colorado and I shiver with a hot cup of tea trying to stay warm I think to myself, ‘well, at least it’s not as cold as Latvia!’ Riga, the capital city of Latvia, is officially the coldest place I have ever been.

I make the trip to the former communist republic with my good friend Jean. We are studying at the University of Edinburgh when we decide we need a girl’s weekend getaway. We look on the Ryan Air website and pick the cheapest, most desirable destination. We book our tickets to Riga for a mere £30 each (approximately $60 at the time). Neither of us know much about Latvia but are excited for our Baltic adventure.

We arrive at Prestwick Airport in Glasgow, check in and celebrate the beginning of our trip with a glass of wine at a little café near our departure gate. It is an evening departure and the velvety red wine is soothing after the day full of preparation and travel. After our cocktail we proceed toward our gate and board the Boeing 737 aircraft. As we take off, Jean begins work, studying for our courses at the University of Edinburgh, and feel like a slacker as I doze off to the roaring sound of the airplane engine.

I awake to the passengers clapping, in appreciation and admiration of the pilot, which seems customary on domestic European flights. We collect our belongings and make our way out the plane, through the airport; to an old, shabby looking taxi that takes us to city centre where we will be staying. We arrive at our hotel and check out our en-suite room. It is comfortable, a bit drab and small but perfect for us budget travellers. We leave our luggage in the room and decide to check out the city a bit before bed.

We wander despite frigid temperatures and attempt to get our bearings in this Eastern European city of two million people. Riga sits on the slow moving and wide Daugava River in the heart of the Baltics. Not only literally cold, the city feels like it is just coming from the ‘cold’ of communism. A picturesque and historic city centre mixes awkwardly with the concrete municipal buildings and soviet era transport.

The next morning, after a restful night’s sleep, we continue our survey of this fascinatingly different city. We take a bus tour and see the city from a cosy, warm double-decker bus. The bus passes the Daugava River and I see people forgoing use of the bridge over the river and simply walk across the frozen solid water.

Riga is the capital of Latvia but also of the Art Nouveau movement that was popularized from 1890 to 1905. Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its historic centre that is location to the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings and is unparalleled anywhere in the world. Over 800 buildings, many of which were built by the Latvian-Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein, showcase facades brimming with decorative detail, obelisks placed atop cornices, sculpted vases, lions, sphinxes, flowers and more. Architecture aficionados flock to Riga as if on a pilgrimage. Art Nouveau is the most Manneristic of styles in architectural history- characterized by distorted elements of scale and perspective.

Our day of sight seeing is enjoyable and interesting albeit freezing. The evening approaches and we meet up with one of Jean’s family friends. Father Kristaps is a Latvian catholic priest who spent a good deal of time in America. He speaks perfect English and is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. He is very proud of his country and gives us an in depth city tour…by car because it is way too cold to stroll around by foot. We learn interesting information about Latvia such as the country's important contribution to worldwide Christmas tradition, the Christmas tree. Also, did you know when giving flowers in Latvia (and often in Eastern Europe) one must always give an odd number of flowers unless at a funeral when giving an even number of flowers is appropriate?

After our tour he takes us to a traditional Latvian restaurant, Lido, which is a chain in Riga. Traditional food is served here cafeteria-style; you take a tray and wander around wanting to grab almost everything. The food is by no means gourmet but hearty, heavy, and relatively inexpensive. There’s a wide variety of pork, chicken, soups, vegetables in varied sauces, pancake dishes and desserts. We share in conversation over a fortifying meal and local Latvian beer.

After dinner, Father Kristaps drops Jean and me off in the city centre where we peruse the area for a happening place to have a drink. We have a drink at a few establishments in Old Town Riga before settling on Paddy Whelan’s, an Irish pub, for our final destination. Whether you’re in Dublin, Bangkok, or Riga, an Irish Pub is always the liveliest place to have a beer! We meet a crowd of drunken Englishmen who are in Riga celebrating a stag party (bachelor party for all you Americans.) They are very friendly and offer up a few laughs as well as some heated discussion on Scottish independence. One of the Englishmen says, 'Scotland isn't a country, we call it Scotlandshire (a shire is a rough equivalent to a county in America) because it's really just another division of English land.' Being fiercely proud of my Scottish heritage and thoroughly in love with Edinburgh and all things Scottish, I beg to differ. It was quite Ironic- two Americans in an Irish pub arguing Scottish independence with Englishmen. We part ways with the Brits and wander back through Old Town to our hotel as it begins to snow. We reach our hotel room and fall immediately into what seems like a beer induced comatose sleep.

Jean and I awaken the next morning with dry mouths, headaches and a nauseous feeling I hope never to repeat. I sit up in bed and imagine stars around my head as if knocked out in a cartoon fight. We get dressed and go out in search of a fizzy Coca Cola and a greasy diner-type brunch to aid in our cure. We end up at a popular American chain, specializing in ‘flare’ and celebration of the beginning of the weekend, which shall remain nameless due to my sheer embarrassment (I’m not really an American chain restaurant kind of girl). It is comforting, greasy, spicy and a very guilty pleasure.

Our second day in Riga is even colder than the first. We struggle being outside due to the frigid cold and humidity that intensifies the extreme wintry weather. There is a popular British expression, ‘it’s Baltic!’ which means it’s freezing and the origins of the phrase become very clear. We walk from the restaurant to a nearby coffee shop with haste. We down a warming coffee and then another. We speedily move from the coffee shop to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (from 1940-1991), trying not to be outside for too long. We ponder the haunting exhibits while wondering what the next heated, indoor space we can visit will be. We decide to visit a café and enjoy a little 'hair of the dog', some mulled wine to warm ourselves.

We make our way back to the airport and board our Ryan Air flight bound for Glasgow Prestwick, which compared to Latvia seems like a tropical vacation destination. We arrive back in Glasgow where my darling husband is waiting with a car to drive us home to Edinburgh.

To try to describe the cold of Riga in my warm house next to a hot cup of tea doesn’t quite do it justice. It was absolutely freezing! My visible breath, a frozen haze, was a permanent fixture in the air in front of my face. The cold would cause my nose to drip and eyes to tear, seeming to freeze on the spot. Parents bundle their children in down-filled pillow suits that remind me of the movie A Christmas Story when little Randy Parker in his snowsuit says, ‘I can’t put my arms down.’ People don their fur hats, coats, gloves, lined boots, scarves, mufflers, ear muffs, etc. PETA doesn’t have a chance here!

Although literally freezing, and the coldest place I have ever visited, the hospitality of the Latvian people, especially Father Kristaps, and the time shared with a good friend leave me with the warmest memories. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Riga, a Baltic winter wonderland, and think back tenderly on all those shivers.

Friday, March 19, 2010

'I Love Edinburgh in the Springtime'

Edinburgh, the most beautiful city on Earth, has affectionately been given the somewhat misleading moniker, ‘Auld Reekie’ which is Scots for ‘Old Smokey’. When tenements were heated with coal and wood fires the smoke would fill the silvery air. Nowadays the air is clean and crisp and particularly sweet-smelling in spring.

Spring is a glorious time in Edinburgh and when I miss the city the most. The days become longer than their short wintertime counterparts and drier than their summertime counterparts. Springtime afternoons are typically sunny and warm up after brisk, cool mornings. This splendid time of year is the best time to see Edinburgh and its many, many charms.

Edinburgh is a city full of Medieval and Georgian architectural treasures, cultural significance, historical importance, and is considered to be one of the most picturesque cities in all of Europe. In my opinion, this gorgeous city couldn’t be more stunning than in spring.

Mid-March is when the fields of daffodils bloom along the hillside overlooking Princes Street, Edinburgh’s famous artery that separates Old Town and New Town, and lead up to the extraordinary Edinburgh Castle. The green hillside is dotted with the most beautiful flecks of yellow and enjoyed by onlookers; some popping in and out the many shops that line the street, others enjoying the flora of Princes Street Gardens, a public park that runs south of Princes Street and sits in the shadow of the magnificent castle.

The sound of birds return to floral scented springtime air. Fresh and in-season rhubarb, leek, kale, spring lamb and wild trout grace tables around the city. Inventive preparation of seasonal ingredients contributes to the chic culinary scene that is exploding in this tasty capital. University of Edinburgh students stroll George Square with a look of hopeful excitement as the end of the school year nears. The famous rhododendrons of the Royal Botanic Garden burst into color. Woolly newborn lambs and their flocks dot the green Scottish countryside. Residents emerge from the bygone short, cold winter days. Warm weather clothing surfaces from the wardrobe in hopes of rising temperatures. Spring in Edinburgh is hopeful, beautiful, and inspiring.

There is an old song called I Love Paris in the Springtime, but as far as I’m concerned Paris doesn’t have anything on my dear Auld Reekie. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, ‘Edinburgh is what Paris ought to be.’ If you know me, you know I love Paris but Edinburgh is unquestionably more beautiful and with far fewer pretentions.

Spring has sprung and those fortunate enough to be in Edinburgh this time of year indulge in a feast for the senses.

Friday, March 12, 2010

O’Go Green!

It’s St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. I walk through the massive crowd decked out in every imaginable piece of Irish paraphernalia; green, green and more green! I enter Davy Byrne’s pub, just off Grafton Street and I wonder just how good that green beer will taste when imbibed on the Emerald Isle itself.

I approach the bar and order a lager, colored with green food coloring to produce a green foamy libation. I accidentally bump another patron; I apologize and wish him, ‘Happy St. Patrick’s Day’. I was kindly corrected, ‘we say Paddy’s Day, Happy Paddy’s Day.’ We clink glasses and he says, ‘Sláinte’ which is an approximation of cheers in Gaelic.

Ever wonder how green became the color of St. Patrick’s Day or why the shamrock symbolizes Paddy’s Day revelry worldwide? Why is it a holiday in the first place and why is March 17th recognised around the world as a day to drink beer and pinch people not wearing green? My 2007 trip to the Dublin Paddy’s Day celebration provided some interesting and valuable insights.

Paddy’s Day is about much more than Guinness and mindless alcohol-fuelled debauchery; though these days that’s a big part of it too. The holiday is celebrated on March 17th every year to commemorate the life of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who died March 17, 493 A.D. St. Patrick was credited with bringing Christianity to the pagans of Ireland. He used the shamrock, a three-leaved green plant, to relate the holy trinity. Over time, both the color green and the shamrock became world-wide symbols of the Irish and of St. Patrick’s Day.

But why do you get pinched if you forget your green on Paddy’s Day? This painful tradition was started in America by Irish immigrants in the early 1700s. It was thought that wearing green protected a person from the mischief of leprechauns. By pinching those around you not wearing green was a superstitious warning.

If you don’t like beer you may get more than pinched. Beer is another ubiquitous symbol of Paddy’s Day. Historically the Irish people celebrated the day of their patron saint by attending Holy Mass in the morning and enjoyed a feast of Irish bacon and cabbage in the afternoon. Furthermore, people celebrated by drinking ale and over the years, beer became a traditional way to celebrate the holiday. Because St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, people considered the feast day a reprieve from Lenten fast which often resulted in over-indulgence, thus creating the tradition to get ‘fluthered’ (Irish word for very drunk).

In the mid-1990’s the Irish government began a campaign to use St. Patrick’s Day to promote tourism and showcase Ireland and its culture. Since the first
St. Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin in 1996 it has become a three day event of parades, outdoor concerts, theatre performances, and fireworks. It is one of the world’s best parties and a place where hedonism meets religiosity.

The Paddy’s Day parade in Dublin is truly a sight to see. Ornate floats, flamboyant dancers, talented marching bands, 4,000 performers, and over one million spectators come together to create one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. People line both sides of the city centre streets to watch the festivities. Because it’s impossible to see the parade on the street behind hundreds, or in some cases thousands of people, inventive people employ the tops of phone booths, ladders, towering fountains and stone monuments to get a better look. Not only do they get a better look but they remain dry as many others plod through bubbly water. Pranksters fill the many city fountains with soap which creates a sudsy tribute to Paddy and the day of celebrations.

Dublin is one of the most youthful cities in Europe, 50% of the population is younger than 25. What's more, in 2007 and again in 2009, Dublin was voted the friendliest city in Europe. You can only imagine how rowdy things get on the biggest party day of the Irish social calendar. My husband and I hopped from one pub to another to another, rubbing elbows with ‘Irish’ people from all over the world. Some pubs pour their Guinness and top it off with a shamrock design in the foam, others write your name in the head. It is a celebration where every-day pretentions disappear, people proudly sport their green leprechaun hats and Irish flag feather boas and the objective of the night is to have fun, fun, fun!

Though the Paddy’s Day festivities in Dublin are phenomenal, I can’t say the celebration is out of the ordinary as far as St. Patrick’s Day celebrations go. It seems whether you live in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or anywhere else where there are a significant number of Irish descendants- the party on March 17th is always hopping. While the tradition to celebrate St. Patrick was brought abroad by Irish immigrants, the customs have been widely welcomed by people of all ethnicities. The Irish know tradition, they know fun, they know camaraderie, they know their drink, and that is why on March 17th everyone wants to go green and feel Irish.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Day in Buenos Aires- Que Rico!

Slow step, slow step, quick, quick, slow… as I dance the basic tango steps with a handsome Argentine I note the novelty of the moment. On the small Bar Sur dance floor we dance the sultry tango to ‘Por Una Cabeza’ played by the band. Three days into my trip to Buenos Aires I make a strong connection to the city through the dance that it’s so famous for. Buenos Aires is like the Tango, it is sophisticated, romantic, slightly melancholy and undoubtedly seductive.

Part of the seduction is the glamour that the Buenos Aires possesses. This eccentric city is a glamour capitol of the world. You’d be hard pressed to find more glamorous people anywhere. The wide-ranging music, the eclectic architecture, the worldly cuisine, the paramount fashion scene, the provocative art, and the diverse people are sophisticated. Buenos Aires is a city of contrast with a variety of heritages that create a unique and urbane style. Ninety percent of the current population is of European descent. Like the Tango, the glamour and elegance of this cosmopolitan city’s European roots are interwoven with its undeniable Latin American essence.

Buenos Aires, European yet Latin, is a land of contradictions. Although one of the world's most glamorous cities there is a substantial amount of grit. Augustín, my dance guru, teaches me that like the melancholic origins of the Tango, a dance that expresses the grief, pride, and struggle of immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Argentina has experienced its share of gloom. Argentina was one of the world’s wealthiest countries 100 years ago, but suffered during most of the 20th century from recurring economic crises, which culminated in 2001 in the most serious economic, social, and political crisis in the country's turbulent history. The economy bottomed out in 2002 and left sixty percent of Argentineans under the poverty line. Government measures have since been instituted to correct the failing economy but many are still severely struggling as thirty-five percent of Argentines are still under the poverty line.1 Though Argentines have a zest for life, as I pass one of many men rummaging through garbage, I feel the deep melancholy that surrounds the past decade’s financial woes.

Since we arrived we’ve been seeing and doing, trying to absorb everything that Buenos Aires has to offer. Like a series of spins, in which one partner rotates the other, the city seems to be whirling around us. The chaos is everywhere… cars zooming by, hoards of people walking every which way, tango music on side streets blaring out of boom boxes, street vendors selling everything you could ever want or need. After two days of twirling all over the great metropolis, we opt for a slower dance and visit the Jardin Japonés, located in Buenos Aires’ largest barrio (neighbourhood) of Palermo.

We are ready for a bit of tranquilo after the hustle bustle and Jardin Japonés (Japanese Garden) is a great place to find our Zen. The image of koi ponds and red bridges, bonsai trees, festive shrines, and pagodas is the perfect stop for a little relaxation. In addition to the breathtaking gardens, my husband and I enjoy an ice cream while canoodling on one of the many benches that over look the koi ponds.

It’s dusk on a hot summer night and we’ve just left our hotel after resting up a bit. We take a very cheap taxi to the historic barrio of San Telmo, one of the cultural strongholds of the city. My husband and I approach the Bar Sur, a local nightlife temple that for 43 years has served as a place for residents to officiate their dearest rituals, the ones that identify themselves as Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires). Alluring music radiates from the locked doors of a small, unassuming building. We gently knock wondering if it’s a member’s only club and strategize on how to become members. A man in a tuxedo answers our knock and warmly welcomes us to the intimate bar and live show. He shows us to a small, white linen table cloth covered cabaret table and takes our drink order. We order a bottle of champagne as the occasion feels truly special. I hear the accordion, bass, and piano harmoniously combine to create such charming music, I can’t wait to get up and try to dance.

I grew up loving Tango, practicing with my sister and performing for family. We learned by watching the dance scenes in the movie True Lies over and over, trying to emulate the dance preformed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. I giggle to myself thinking after all that practice I could give Ms. Curtis a run for her money.

After one of the performances one of the dancers approaches our table. The man is tall, dark and handsome and asks me to dance. I say, ‘I’d love to but I have no idea what I’m doing.’ Agustín replied, ‘a tango virgin, my pleasure.’ He graciously teaches me the basic steps of the steamy dance as I realize what I already knew; you can’t really learn a dance from watching a movie! I had a great time at the Bar Sur and only wish my sister could have seen me in all of my tango glory.

I work up quite an appetite with my tango debut and am ready for dinner. We head from the San Telmo neighbourhood to the Palermo Viejo neighbourhood, where we are staying. Palermo Viejo, as the name implies is the oldest part of Palermo, which has exploded with life in the last decades. Houses once used as mechanic’s workshops have become chic boutique hotels, old meat shacks have become cutting edge shops, and cobbled Plaza Palermo Viejo has become a place to see and be seen at the many stylish watering holes.

We had our concierge make us reservations at La Cabrera, reputedly the hands-down best parilla (restaurant specializing in grilled meats) in the city. It’s 11:30pm and because Porteños don’t eat dinner until 10pm at the earliest, we’re just in time for the dinner rush. Upon arrival we are served champagne as we wait for our table outside in the make-shift lobby on the sidewalk outside the front door. The sidewalk outside the restaurant is packed full of beautiful people with champagne, also waiting for their tables. All of the sudden the hostess parts her way through the crowd of people with a big plate of house-made sausage, cut into small bits and served with tooth picks. It seems as if we are no longer at this stylish Buenos Aires restaurant but on the African Savannah and this chic watering hole has turned primal. People begin elbowing their way to the plate of sausage as if hungry, wild animals. I begin to make my way to the mouth-watering sausage but as I am ferociously pushed aside by a very skinny Porteña, I decide she needs the morsel more than I do.

The interior of La Cabrera is cozy, non pretentious, and casual. The place is packed full of people- the sounds of laughter, chatter, and clinking silverware fill the convivial space. We order a bottle of Malbec, Argentina’s celebrated wine. This particular varietal is from Mendoza a very important wine region to the North. With every sip I can taste the intense fruity flavor and velvety texture. The meal feels decadent and I haven’t even eaten anything yet. Although I know my eyes are bigger than my stomach- I order too much anyway. We share fried olives and marinara sauce, a seemingly bizarre concoction. However, the crispy batter, the briny olive, and the spicy marinara are the perfect combination. For our main course, we share grilled duck confit and grilled lomo (filet) with an assortment of side dishes and sauces that completely fill the tiny table for two. The chef, Gaston Rivera’s, secret is the quality of cut, the pine wood he uses to add flavor, and of course, the timing. This was definitely the best meal we had on the trip the best meal I’ve had in a long time. It was simple, delicious and unforgettable.

After dinner we saunter down the street back to our hotel laughing about how surprising it is that we were able to leave La Cabrera standing. After that much food they must have to wheel people out of there! The warm summer air breezes past my bare shoulders and for a moment I feel bad for my friends and family back home in the snow. The warmth of this metropolis goes far beyond the weather- though sophisticated and glamorous; the people are so incredibly friendly. The Porteños will go out of their way to make you feel at home in their port city. Moreover, the steamy tango heats up the already sweltering summer nights and leaves even the most indifferent onlooker blushing.

Though the average Porteño may be financially disadvantaged, Buenos Aires is a city rich with culture, history, cuisine, and absolutely oozes style. Beyond the sensuous tango and world-renowned beef, the dynamism of Buenos Aires makes it the continent’s must-see city. Que Rico!

We arrive at the Costa Petit, where we are staying. Formerly a mechanic’s shop, Costa Petit is now an ultra smart boutique hotel.

The tool shed is now a luxury super suite and the garage pit is now the swimming pool. The boutique hotel’s 4 rooms sit amidst a quiet haven secluded from the many noises of Buenos Aires’ most happening area. We go up to our room and lay down to sleep in our turned down bed. My head hits the faraway pillow as I fall asleep to the counts of slow step, slow step, quick, quick, slow.

1 CIA World Factbook