Latvia: my last stop in the North of Europe… and a pretty big milestone for me!

Before saying anything about Latvia, I have to mention a certain milestone, one for which I was delighted to have my girlfriend Michelle join me in Europe to celebrate.

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Latvia was the 100th country I visited. Notice my “Latvian flag shirt”!

Now, we saw a lot of fun and interesting things in Riga, but first I want to write about the “serious things”. We visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, detailing the 1939-1989 occupation of the country by Germany and then the USSR. We also visited the former KGB headquarters, opened for a temporary exhibit, which the organizers are trying to make permanent. The building itself is very nice, designed by architect Aleksandrs Vanags, who designed more than 80 major buildings in Riga. Ironically, when the Soviet Union first invaded the country in 1919, he was accused of being a “counter-revolutionary” and executed without trial by the KGB, but they still liked the building! So between the two museums, that made for a lot of 20th century horrors, and since the recent history of Latvia is very similar to that of the other Baltic countries (and to some extent Finland), I will skip 95% of it. But I will mention a few things that stood out for me.

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Movies were shown in the old KGB headquarters in which former detainees testified about their ordeal. This man spoke of a young KGB Officer who would take him from the detention cell to the interrogation room. Detainees were kept in abject conditions; packed naked by the dozens in small rooms. Along the way, he would stop in the staircase, between two floors, open the window and say: “Breathe some fresh air, you’ll feel better”. Sometimes he would share a sandwich with him and if he heard someone approaching, he would push him against the wall and scream insults at him, to make sure they didn’t get caught. I was not surprised at all that such a guard existed. No matter which institution of horror you chose, you will always find in them a handful of fundamentally decent men, who ended up there because of ignorance, despair, coercion, poverty, wanting to make their father proud, etc. What touched me is that this victim of torture, in an interview decades later, chose to take a moment to remember and honour the brave young KGB Lieutenant.

The second thing is a historical fact with major consequences for many of Latvia’s resident today. To solidify their control over the country, the Soviets deported many of the educated people to Siberia and moved 700-800 thousand Russians into the territory. I have no idea why the Soviets felt a need to do this, since in the free an fair elections of July 14th 1940, the Latvian Working People’s Block got 97.6% of the votes. But anyway, Latvia was by far the country where this was done on the largest scale. So much so, that in 1989, Latvians were almost a minority in their own country (52%). When the country regained its independence, this was perceived by politicians as an existential threat, and they passed a law denying citizenship to people who had migrated to the country after Germany’s retreat, in 1941. So today, most of Latvia’s large Russian minority are not citizens of any country! They have Latvian passports identifying them as “Non-citizen residents”. Practically, that means they do not have the right to vote or run for office, cannot own land (but buildings yes), and cannot occupy positions that would normally require citizenship in most countries, such as the police and various Government jobs. In daily life, I don’t think that affects most of them, but it is a highly unusual human rights situation in a EU member country. I certainly understand the Latvian Government’s concerns, but to limit the rights of an 18 year old boy because Soviet policies pushed his grandfather to move to Riga in 1946 certainly doesn’t seem very fair.

And the final thing I will mention has had an impact on Canada. When the German army began retreating towards the end of World War II, many Latvians – especially educated people who remembered the Red Terror of 1919-1920, retreated with them. At some point there were 200,000 Latvians in Germany (out of a population of less than 2 million). Since they no longer had a country to return to after the war, many sought refuge abroad. Between the three of them, Canada, Australia and the USA got the benefit of 52 Latvian writers, 564 physicians, 672 university professors, 766 engineers and 2,827 school teachers!

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At the Latvian War Museum, this display mentions the service in the Canadian Armed Forces and Royal Canadian Mounted Police of Latvian immigrants. A similar display illustrates the careers of Latvians in the US military, 200 where 200 of them became Senior Officers, and 2 General Officers. However, proportionally to the size of the countries, more immigrated to Canada (20,000) than to the USA (50,000). Maybe they thought they would miss the snow! Continue reading

A visit to the remote (and very wet) Estonian countryside.

I met my Estonian friend Maksim on a bus, travelling from Macedonia to Bulgaria. To be honest, he had to remind me, because I meet too many people and for some reason, I thought we met in San Marino! When I told him Michelle and I would be in Estonia, he generously offered to take us around the countryside.

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But before seeing the beautiful, we saw the ugly. In its day, this was a great complex, with a concert hall and an ice skating rink. Today it is a decrepit building on prime real estate, between the Old Town and the sea, and bulldozers are apparently in its imminent future.

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Maksim and I, at Jägala Waterfalls. While not the highest in Estonia, during the rainy season, they are the mightiest of the country. Obviously, August is not the rainy season. They also look pretty cool frozen, or half frozen. You’ll have to google this, because there is no way I am going to Estonia in January!

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It’s a popular swimming place for locals.

But this was just a short stop along the way. Estonia has a lot of bogs, and Maksim happens to be a bog enthusiast. He had already visited about twelve of them, but he planned on taking us along on a visit to a new one. The problem is that, as with any hobby, you begin with the easy stuff. So his 13th bog visit was not exactly on the beaten path. We drove for a long time on a partially paved road and saw abandoned buildings which I thought were former military installations. A little building next to the road (guardhouse), followed by rows of rectangular buildings (barracks); it just had to be. Maksim later researched it, and sure enough, the place used to be the training range of the USSR’s 172nd Motor Rifle Division.

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The road went from bad, to worst, to “don’t do it”. Although Maksim’s Nissan Qashqai is a compact SUV crossover (comparable to the Nissan Rogue in North America), the road eventually became the domain of tanks. And if we had tried it unsuccessfully, the help would have taken a long time to get there.

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But Maksim does not give up easily and we drove around the area to “attack” it from a different angle. And it worked. We walked in the forest for a while.

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And around beautiful lakes. Continue reading

Estonia: Tallinn’s Old Town and fantastic maritime museum.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Tallinn was to take my Estonian friend Maksim’s suggestion and climb up the bell tower of the St-Olaf’s Church, for a long time the highest structure in the city. If you ever want to partake in this activity in the summer, please accept this piece of advice: do not go between 9:00 and 16:00, wait for the cruise ships to leave. Or go, but expect a good twenty minutes of sweaty human traffic jams in a very narrow medieval circular stairway. And there is no real observation platform; you stand on the narrow ledge of a slightly inclined roof. It is fenced, so there is no danger, but if you are afraid of heights, I guarantee you won’t have a nice time.

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But the view is very nice, showing you the very small and dense old town of Tallinn. The old walls are still there, but the city grew on them, so they are hard to see.

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But right next to our hotel, there was a section we could climb on for a small fee.

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From one of the observation towers, you get a great view of what the old wall looked like. You also see why it has become somewhat invisible. When the citizens began building outside the walls (right side), they used it as the back wall of their house, to save on building materials.

Michelle and I went on a walking tour of the old town, and we got one of the funniest guides I ever got on one of these “free walking tours” (and I went on a whole lot in Europe). For one thing, she did not sound like Wikipedia and she was not afraid of national self-derision. She began by saying that people had lived in the area for 11,000 years, but until the crusaders arrived in the 13th century, they had never done anything interesting, so we didn’t have to talk about any of it.

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She then mentioned that this church was turned into a “museum of old things”. “Any old thing Estonia has that has some value is probably in this church”, she said.

We also leaned that Estonians often describe themselves as being “reserved”, but that this is really a euphemism for “we are cold and we don’t like people”! This aversion for human interaction has led the Estonians to two important modern innovations. First, they are world pioneers in online voting. In any election now, you can vote online and it takes less than a minute. This avoids human interaction completely, but sometimes this is not possible. While they dislike interaction with people, if it is through the medium of a screen, and not in person, then it is not as bad. So the Estonians also invented Skype. “And that is the only thing we have ever done” said the guide! Continue reading

I went to Russia! Episode 2: how to go without a visa and why I don’t understand Russia.

Usually, one needs a visa to go to Russia. Why would citizens of rich western countries require a visa to go anywhere as a tourist? I don’t know, but within Europe, most need one for only 2 of the dozens of European countries: Belarus and Russia. I would guess it is mostly a case of: “this is how it was done before and this is how it will remain”. Like in Transnistria, where taking a picture of the Parliament Building is forbidden, because it is a “strategic asset”. The fact that you can get ten thousand pictures by googling it is irrelevant.

So getting a Russian visa for Canadians is an absolute pain in the ass, and for some (like me), it is impossible (but that’s a long story – and no, I don’t have a criminal record). So Russia was off the travel map for me, until by chance I found a loophole. If you want to attract cruise ship tourism, you can’t be asking for visas. In the Caribbean, you can’t even make passengers go through immigration or the ships won’t come! So for St-Petersburg, Russia does have a visa exception rule. You can visit without a visa if:

1 – You arrive by ship;

2 – You depart by ship;

3 – You do not stay more than 72 hours;

4 – You do not leave the municipal limits of St-Petersburg; and

5 – You do not explore the city on your own, but visit as part of an organized tour, run by an agency approved by the Russian Government.

It makes perfect sense, because if we stayed 7 days, and spent twice as much money in hotels and restaurants, that would obviously pose a terrible threat to Russia. But anyway, we were quite happy with these restrictions, apart from number 5. This was a total deal breaker. But, where blind bureaucracy rules, common sense does not exist and loopholes appear. The ferry line, St-Peter’s, offers a 3 day tour of St-Petersburg, for 25 Euros. This is the fine print:

Included: Bus transport from the ship to downtown and return.

Excluded: Everything else.

So of course, it is not a tour by any definition, but St-Peter’s Line was approved as a “Tour Agency” by someone with a big stamp, so the border guard can look at your “Tour voucher” and put his little stamp on your passport. Done.

Despite all this nonsense, St-Petersburg is absolutely full of tourists. Why? Because it is an absolutely amazing city, and having only 3 days to visit was really disappointing.

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In case you don’t believe me; here is a sample of tour busses parked in front of St-Isaac’s Cathedral. Groups come from many different places. Of course Russia, China and France, but also from countries with more troubled economies, like Italy and Spain. Just for that one cathedral, that’s 18 tour buses in this one picture alone! I could come up with many good reasons to not go on a guided bus tour.

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But this tour bus driver is justification enough. Continue reading

I went to Russia! Episode 1: Visiting St-Petersburg… in the 19th century.

Even though I only spent 3 days in St-Petersburg, I have way too many pictures to throw all in one post. So here is part one of my short stop in Russia. I won’t say anything about the country for now, just share some pictures of two of the most impressive sights of the former Imperial capital: Peterhof Palace and the Winter Palace, the later now part of The Hermitage Museum.

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We went to the Hermitage on the first day. Michelle had wanted to go for years and it was one of the main reasons for the Russian stopover. Thousands of people were lined up in the massive inner courtyard, and the lines then spilled outside on Palace Square, as you can see on this picture! We knew the city would be busy in August, but this was completely ridiculous. As it turns out, we had come by coincidence on the one day in the month when admission is free. We left immediately.

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Much better the next day, especially since we had paid a little extra for online tickets and waited in line for zero minute to get in.

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If you wonder weather or not the Hermitage is big, read the small print. The Hermitage actually comprises many buildings, but the Winter Palace is by far the largest and best known. It is the former principal residence of Russian Tsars and, if Wikipedia is to be trusted: “The Winter Palace has been calculated to contain 1,786 doors, 1,945 windows, 1,500 rooms and 117 staircases.” I am actually skeptical of these numbers, as the window to room ratio looks very low. Most rooms have several windows.

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The grandiose rooms and hallways have been transformed into one of the most important art museum in the world. Continue reading

My last Nordic stop: Finland, a country with a very complicated recent history.

Any typical touristic visit to a big European capital is likely to involve looking at a lot of churches.

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For example, the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki. If it looks Russian, it’s because it is. Like a lot of important buildings there, it was built when Finland was an independent Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. In fact, Helsinki is what it is today because of the decisions of Tsar Alexander I. Before being given to Russia, Finland was part of Sweden for almost 600 years. The capital, Turku, was considered too close to Sweden and under too much swedish influence for the Tsar, so he established the new capital and built countless buildings in the same style as in the Russian capital at the time, St-Petersburg. In fact, during the Cold War, many movies were shot in Helsinki, passing it off as the then inaccessible Soviet Union.

I am usually not particularly interested in churches, but they are often the most spectacular and oldest buildings in many cities. But Helsinki has something I rarely see, cool new churches.

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Like the Temppeliaukio Church, otherwise known as the Church of the Rock. It was literally dug out of a rock and completed in 1969. The rough rock walls gives it great acoustics for concerts.

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The ceiling is made of some ridiculous length of copper strands.

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Or the Kamppi Chapel, completed only in 2012, also known as the Chapel of Silence. Installed on a busy square, its thick solid wood walls provide excellent sound insulation and big signs strongly discourage making noise inside. Continue reading

Ikea, meatballs and naked girls: my super stereotypical trip to Sweden.

I went to Stockholm because I had never been there, and also to visit a friend I had met diving in Indonesia.

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I told Karin this was not my first time in Sweden, as I had been to Malmö a few years ago. She said: “No, you’ve been to Denmark.” Malmö is indeed in Sweden, but just a short subway ride from Copenhagen. Apparently the residents are under strong Danish influence, and people in Stockholm poke fun at their accent.

So, I had the great benefit of a guide in Sweden, and Karin did not work that week. Would she make me do truly Swedish things that tourists never do? You bet she would!

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She made me install Ikea furniture in her apartment! Could my visit be more stereotypical? Of course it could…

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Let’s all make Swedish meatballs!

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I must say, the bad meatballs they sell at Ikea have nothing in common with the real thing. Really delicious with the slight crunch of lightly cooked onion inside and lingonberry jam on the side. The gravy made by deglazing the pan was also really nice; I’m just not sure about it coming out of the mouth of a cow.

So these stereotypes are based in reality, but others are not. Two different Swedish girls told me that whenever they are at a beach or a pool while travelling abroad and they mention their country of origin, the answer they often get is: “Swedish? Why aren’t you naked?”

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Perhaps this reputation comes from the fact that nudity was allowed in Swedish movies earlier than in other countries. Pornography might also have come earlier. Karin said that perhaps this was why foreigners though Swedish women were easy going. I corrected her otherwise excellent English. “Hum… it’s not “easy going”, it’s “easy!” In reality, Swedish women are quite prudish. We went to a popular beach and I never saw anything like the level of nudity one would see almost everywhere in Southern Europe (or even Germany or Norway). Women (and men) were also extremely careful to wrap and cover in all sorts of ways when changing, until they were fully dressed under their towel, blanket or whatever. Of course, before going to the beach, I did not know that. So we walked under a bridge and, after a turn in the path, I look up and saw a beautiful young woman, standing, looking at me. She was wearing an elastic in her hair. And absolutely nothing else. I pretended not to be surprised, thinking that, for all I knew, this was common around Stockholm. Then she struck some kind of pose, and a man I had not been paying attention to knelt in front of her with a very big camera and started snapping away. It was a photo-shoot. I got to live even the false Swedish stereotypes! Continue reading