This week bigger pics
Monday 29th July 2013, Estonia, week 110
Some plans are doomed from the minute you conceive them, right? Having spent a few days on a cinder football pitch in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, and then a few more on the quay side in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, we hankered for a proper camp site. Ideally on grass, purpose built and far from the madding crowd. One where we could get a little R&R and take a break from sight-seeing. After two major cities we fancied a rest from being tourists.
On-line, I found a small camp-site, in a wood, right on the edge of Baltic with a good stretch of sandy beach. It was just a few miles from the Latvian border. Sounded champion.
So we headed south on good roads and admired the scenery. No only joking. Estonia, like Sweden and Finland is covered in.....? yes you guessed it, trees. Half the country is covered in them. I feel obliged to say that having spent the last month driving through a zillion square miles of pine forests, I have to question why I've bothered to recycle paper so enthusiastically, It seems such a futile exercise now.
One of Estonias many Manor houses. Impressive.
The 120 mile drive took us right across Estonia, from north to south. Along our route there were, occasionally, signs temping us to turn off to view some unpronounceable tourist attraction, I ignored them. Did you know that Estonia has more manor houses than any other country with only three consonants in it's name. I doubt that’s actually how that fact was sold but to be honest, I'm beginning to glaze over where superlatives are concerned. The biggest this, or the oldest that. The claims seem to get even more ingenious when tempting the tourist, and his money. A classic example of this would be in Tallinn, where you can visit the: Once tallest building in the world. That is it's claim to fame. Hardly seems a claim worth making any more. It was, at some vague point in it's history, the tallest building in the world (Saint Olaf's Church. Ed.) It's now, what? the 436th tallest building in the world? Shove that factoid in a guide books and few would cross the street to see it. Not that you'd have to, what with it being the 436th tallest in the world. But you get my point.
Anyway I also didn't fancy swinging the van off the main road and disappearing down a gravel track in search of some attraction in the middle of nowhere. After all you never know what’s really down there. The sight could be a ruse, planted by the Russian Mafia, designed to lure young American college girls off the beaten track. It's not long before they, in their bright yellow VW camper-van, get completely lost. Then just as dusk falls they wander haplessly into a small farming hamlet where everyone scurries indoors and closes the curtains. A month later their body parts turn up in a hospital in Murmansk. (Think you’ve been watching one to many films luv. Ed). That’s like, so what happened once, in real life, to someone.
Any-ways we arrived, all body parts intact and made for reception.
“We'd like to stay a few days I said”.
“You can only stay one night. Camp-site must empty tomorrow for private Estonia day of celebration” said the pretty girl with all the brisk efficiency of someone not used to polite conversation.
So the upshot was we stayed one night. Which, as it turned out, was probably for the best. The camp-site had just one shower with, oddly, two shower heads. This, I presume, so you shower in half the time. I'm thinking it was fitted by the owner to help unclog the bottle neck in the mornings. Carrying on with this singular theme. There was only one toilet. Fair to say both would have benefited from having revolving doors and an appointment book, such was the human traffic in the mornings. I came here expecting a lower camping standard, and so far, I've not been disappointed. Still, it's fair to say the loo seat was always warm.
I'll continue this tomorrow................
Tuesday 30th July 2013, Latvia, week 110
The following morning we decided, since we were only a few miles from Latvia, we'd head in.
As we crossed into Latvia, the old border crossing buildings were still very much intact. But now doors swung on rusty hinges and windows gaped open. Once manned by unsympathetic Russian immigration officials they looked abandoned and eerily empty. A reminder of a divided, and perhaps more dangerous, Europe. (You sure you didn't nick that from a Tom Clancy novel. Ed) Cheek!!
Once across, and a few miles in, a handsome sigh proudly proclaimed the road we were on was made possible by EU assistance. It instantly occurred to me that a portion of my taxes had found it's way, via the EU, here, to help Latvia build this fine road. Now I'm not knocking that. -A fine demonstration of European socialistic principals some may say- In truth I was strangely comforted in the knowledge that I owned a portion of it.......... albeit it a very small one. I should point out it's a simple two lane affair. But this doesn't stop Latvian's from treating it like a German autobahn. On several occasions cars hurled toward us two abreast. You needed to keep your nerve and keep over. Truckers drove as far over as possible, but as far as I could see this only encouraged kamikaze style overtaking manoeuvres. Had I known, I would've chipped in a bit extra and got them a third lane.
Now this is where my plan, from yesterday, started to unravel. I'm also about to demonstrate my ignorance, once again. (You're making a habit of this. Ed) I know. I found a camp-site on the edge of a town. The town, turned out to be Riga, which, as I'm sure you know is......? yep Latvia’s capital city. Bugger!.
“Thought we'd had enough of cities?” Hazel asked as we approached the throbbing metropolis. I quickly back peddled. “Yeah....., true..........., but come-on, we'd be mad not to see Riga, right?” She muttered some threat under her breath.
At this point the sat-nav took it upon itself to slip into 'Latvian taxi driver mode' and plunge us into the heart of the city. It took us down a warren of back streets, each one narrower than the last before quitting on us. Whether it was the combination of tall buildings and narrow streets I don't know but she started talking gobbledygook. Instructing me to turn right, but showing a left on the display. For twenty minutes we drove around looking for an exit. It's only at times like this do I question the sanity of this trip.
In a later on-line search I discovered Riga is something of a Mecca for British lads when it comes to stag parties. On one travel site I found some very unfavourable comments left by them. Here’s a small selection: It's a dump. The girls all dress like whores. Riga sucks!. I was ripped off. Worst s--t-hole in the world. I think their feelings are summed by this young chaps critique of Riga: I brought a Latvian girl drinks all night and at the end of evening she buggered off out the back, adding, they're only out for what they can get. I'll stop here but clearly a theme was developing. Now I don’t doubt the lads who come here to get pissed and laid will feel somewhat aggrieved when they fly home broke and still horny, but lads, that’s life. It ain’t the fault of Riga that some of you are twats.
In the interests of fair reporting I should also point out they are not universally welcomed here. Two years ago an incident occurred which has soured Anglo - Latvian relations. A group of British lads having left a nightclub, decided, as young men are apt to do when drunk, to urinate in the street. Well that’s bad enough but they went one better. They urinated over a monument. Unfortunately this was not just any old monument. Oh no! This was Latvia’s holy of holies. A monument erected in the memory of Latvian's, some of whom were children, who died while being frogged matched into Russia.
This incident received national coverage. The TV and radio reports added that Russians made no attempt to stop the: Drunken, ill mannered and disrespectful British .
Sometimes I want to disown my fellow countrymen.
Wednesday 31st July 2013, Latvia, week 110
Smile for Gods sake!
We've had 12 hours of non stop thunder storms. So since I'm holed up I want to tackle a question that’s perplexed me for some time now, you might even be able to help. There is little doubt that eastern European girls are an attractive bunch. It's not just an observation on my part either, they do have something of a universal reputation. A reputation which, if you ask me, some of the older ones abuse. Once you're over the hill, no depth of make up, or shortage of hem length can slow your inevitable decent. Growing old gracefully is an art. But that’s not my issue. My issue is: why don’t they smile?. Occasionally would do. I'm not asking them to walk about laughing like jackals. And I'm not suggesting they never do, that would be silly. What I am asking is why their default face is set in a permanent scowl and it is.
At the local supermarket I pointedly tried to elicit a smile from the three women who had checked out our groceries. What a complete waste of time, only recycling paper is more fruitless. No matter how winsomely I smiled, and I do a rather good one, they wouldn't even make eye contact let alone smile. One got really snippy when her credit card machine fell off it's stand, true I was fiddling with it but that’s not the point. “It's OK” I said putting it back together. “Not OK!” she barked out and then grabbed it from me still not making eye contact. I wanted to ask: Did you drop out of charm school or were you pushed luv? and take a punt as to whether she could understand me. But she had just blanked the old guy before us so I wasn't about to take her rudeness personally. (I did. I said something about rude cows and not under my breath either! Cheek, being rude to my old man!Ed.).Ear! less of the old.
I first noticed this in my old home town of Peterborough. They walk around, I kid you not, with faces like smacked arses. I'm not alone in this observation, if I was I'd keep my mouth shut. No, others agree. I want to stop one and say: You're very pretty but you know what?....... if you smiled you'd be a damn sight prettier. At which point I would be jumped on by her six foot bare chested Latvian boyfriend and that’s another thing that confuses me.......
Why is it? How is it? you see these demure petit and attractive girls with Neanderthals. Ugly, overweight, bald headed thugs covered in tattoos. This is also something I've noticed back home. Pretty girls on the arms of guys with faces only a mother could love. Why is that? What’s the attraction? I can't believe girls date them for their ready wit or dazzling charm, it's a stretch believing they have any.
I won't repeat the explanation that Hazel gave, and her a nurse and all.... Tut tut.
Now before I knock off today I want to share with you three Latvian jokes: Believe me when I say I've not made these up. I've sourced them from a Latvian web site. I should warn you they are in poor taste. I post them only as way of a possible explanation for their moodiness..
Q: Why did chicken cross road?
A: I have not seen chicken since I was very young, on my parents' farm. This is before the Cossacks slaughtered them. I can still hear screams of sister as soldiers rape her. But back to question, where did you see chicken? I am very very hungry.
Man's car break down near house of farmer. Take shelter in barn. Find farmers daughter in barn. She hot stuff! But TOO LATE! Is already rape by soldiers.
Latvian walk into bar with mule. Bartender say, “Why so long face?” Latvian say, “I was thinking of my daughter. She has been sleep with soldier for potato to feed baby.
Right, well, even allowing for translation issues I perhaps now see why they don't smile.....
Thursday 1st August 2013, Latvia, week 110
The call of the West.
If I had been asked what I imagined the Latvian capital was like before I saw it, I'd have struggled. Umm.... bit of a backwater maybe?. Depressed. Lacklustre. Full of sour faced girls and old ladies wearing cardigans and paisley headscarf’s? A capital with more potatoes museums than art galleries?. Still more East than West. Fair to say, judging from those comments, I'm not really the one to ask.
Turns out, I was way off. (Get-a-way! Ed). It turned out to be much like any other major European city. Architecturally very attractive. Way more interesting than anything we've seen in Scandinavia. Modern and reasonably prosperous looking, the last time I saw this many BMW's was in Germany. There’s no shortage of well heeled hotels and classy restaurants. There are nightclubs and plenty of cultural entertainment for those more cerebral types, including an elegant opera house. So after an afternoon of sight-seeing I'm left with something of a problematic question. Why have so many Latvian's left, and why do more want to follow? On the surface it really doesn’t look that bad.
The infamous Corner house in Riga. Details below (sorry for quality)
In looking for answers I feel that having lived under the yoke of communism oppression for so long, most Latvians' have a bad taste in their mouths. Much like you might should your in-laws come to blows at your wedding. It's the kind of event that will sour your memory of the day forever. I also suspect it's a hugely unfair country. The gap between being rich and the poor always seems insurmountable when you're broke.
I do think they unrealistically believe the west is better. To know whether it is, you’d first have to define the word better. Just as we may have a misguided view of their country, they too, have one of ours. Their view perpetuated, in no small measure, by propaganda spread in the cold war era of the 60's. And before you say: Whoa, Phil, that’s a long time ago, I'll remind you that the Russians only pulled out completely around the same time as Lady Dianas' untimely death. During that cold war period we sold the Eastern bloc countries an enviable image of western political democracy. Where the individual mattered. Where free speech was respected. A welcoming west that, at least on paper, championed personal freedoms and liberalism.
So perhaps for the young Latvian their country is still backward, still struggling and, I fancy, will always be for this generation. The country may be in transition but they don’t want to wait around till it improves, youth, by definition, is impatient. The lure of the West via face book, pop music, tourism Utube and a myriad of other influences on them are all too much to ignore.
Since most speak English then England is the obvious choice. There you may get a good job with a fair boss and maybe even a house, council or otherwise. Here, I can tell you, there are few houses. The two conquering powers of Latvia, Germany and Russia, built apartments blocks in there thousands, not houses. For everyday working class people becoming a home owner is almost an impossibility. In England we practically expect it and see home ownership as a human right.
Shut up shop in 91
The West offers, maybe not jobs, but hope. Hope you will be treated fairer in a society that appears, on the surface at least, to be just.
owever the truth is Britain is now full. Over the last twelve years the influx of migrant workers, political refugees and immigrants to British shores has been wholly mismanaged. I don’t damn the immigrants, they are NOT to blame, they only want a better life. The demonising of immigrants by some fringe political parties is simply wrong. It's those misfits in power. Those charged with running, managing and governing our country. The blame needs to be laid squarely at the feet of those that are guilty of utter mismanagement. We need to be a damn sight tougher on our politicians. Hold them accountable.... but will that happen?
Not a cats in hells chance.......
Friday 2nd August 2013, Latvia. Week 110
We left Riga yesterday to fulfil our original plan to find a nice camp-site for some R&R from sight-seeing and being a tourist.
Liepaja, on the Baltic coast, was a 150 mile drive west on roads that were designed to test ones suspension and ones fillings. Clearly I hadn't contributed to any of these roads. In fact, for long stretches, I don’t think anyone else had either. I saw little of the countryside as I spent my time avoiding potholes, cracks, ruts and indistinguishable road kill.
Liepaja. Half expect to see hitching post.
We did see, in what was clearly farm land, isolated block of flats, maybe six or eight stories high set back from the road. Hardly a common sight in the countryside. They looked grim and hugely dispiriting. I hoped they were empty, they weren’t.
We arrived at the camp-site just as the first of several thunderstorms hit. At one point during a brief lull Hazel went outside and stood, ankle deep, in rain water. We battened down the hatches. put a curry on the stove, opened a bottle of wine, shoved a film in and weathered the storm.
This morning a glorious day was forecast, so we cycled the seven miles into town.
Top notch transportation
Liepaja once fell, briefly, into British hands, when in 1854 a landing party of one hundred men from HMS Conflict and HMS Amphion accidentally captured it. Much later it was erased from maps by the Russians who closed the town, garrisoned 25 thousand troops and a number of nuclear submarines here. In 1949, for the second time, Russia shipped the entire population off to Siberia, little wonder Latvia is a country divided with 40% of them being Russian.
Today Liepaja is a work in progress, the whole town is being spruced up or so it would seem. They are a number of large building projects under way. We saw a number of signs highlighting were EU money is being spent.
That's enough sensible stuff for one day....
Walking around I was once again struck by the number of top BMW's and Merc's I saw. Curiously not driven, as you might expect, by mature business men who have climbed the corporate ladder and are now reaping the rewards - but by much younger men. Most of whom wore baseball caps, and this gave me a clue. Now before I go on, let me ask this: why do most guys seem incapable of putting their baseball caps on the right way around?. There is, after all. a front and a rear to them.
Just for the record: The American baseball cap is a simple piece of head gear worn by baseball players and designed to keep the sun from their eyes. The wearing of them backwards was started by guys shooting hoops in Harlem. They turned the cap backwards so they could see the hoop, makes sense, right?.
But now it's a look!. The cap has moved into urban fashion legend. If you're a 'gangsta rapper' - one drops the 'r' from gangster apparently- I'm pretty sure it's compulsory to wear one, and at the right angle. If you want to look hip, happening and wicked you wear it back to front, but not tilted down. If you want to really make a statement you wear it forward, tipped at a rakish angle, like Ice T -That's a chappies name apparently - or even sideways on, a style much favoured by younger rappers and kids from housing estates all over the Uk. Some dudes get it completely arse-about-face and wear them at a jaunty angle, a huge faux pas...... they mostly get shot.
In my book anyone who wears their baseball cap back to front for any other reason than shooting hoops I tend to dismiss as a buffoon. I'm good with some youth fashions but draw the line here. Mainly because they mistakenly believe wearing a cap the wrong way gives them instant street cred. Well I'm here to tell you it doesn’t. It just makes you look a knob. Interestingly the Finns, who love the baseball cap, wear it correctly. Well done to them. Not for them daft affectations.
Right what was I going on about? Ah yes cars! The reason there are so many top end luxury and prestigious cars here is not because young Latvians are loaded but Latvia is fast becoming the stolen car capital of Europe. Gangs across Europe steal them and ship them back. It's a huge business. Consequently there are a totally disproportionate number here all driven by buffoons.