Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hello Sunshine

After twenty-eight days of grey the sun finally came out in Riga. Three points tomorrow and all will be right with the world.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Charlie Insomnia

Even if Kinnear's slip-of-the-tongue wasn't altogether accidental Charlie N'Zombie, a player of mild promise, big sulks and little end product, had burned his bridges at Newcastle anyway. Whatever he thinks of his own ability, he's no David Ginola or Laurent Robert - not even a Duff or Milner. Playing for Wigan in front of 16,000 people's not exactly the Champions League, is it?

As for Given, good luck to the bloke. He's going to need it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Flat Broke

First it was referees, then injuries and ex-managers, now the global financial crisis, not Joe Kinnear or his players, is the cause of Newcastle's inability to win a game of football. "Life is seriously tough," wails Kinnear, "Mike's lost two billion quid...he's just about paying the wages". That must have been a real shock for Ashley - he was only worth £1.4 billion to start with.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Learning Latviski

Even for a language with fewer than two million native speakers, I'm surprised how little there is in the way of online help for people wanting to learn Latvian. There's the BBC, which has a nice photo (I live on the left of the river, just before the bridge) but stops right before you learn how to order a beer, and the slightly better, does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin Learning Latvian Online. Mostly though, I'm having to make do and mend with a Survival Latvian phrasebook, a smattering of Russian, bits and bobs of English and Czech, and a lot of smiles.

Ins and Outs

Movement at last in the transfer market, though with our best player odds-on to be at Manchester City by the end of the week not always in the kind of direction I was hoping for. After the signing of a pacy, injury-prone forward who doesn't score half as many goals as he should (no, not Craig Bellamy - or Michael Owen), we're now reportedly after a right-back from Toulouse, the next Patrick Viera - though if he's that good why hasn't he been linked with anyone else? - and Celtic skipper Stephen McManus, on loan, for £4 million or in a swap deal for Jose Enrique depending on which paper's gossip column you read. "Please let it be so," emailed by Bhoys supporting friend from Paris, "If he wasn't captain, he wouldn't get a game."

Meantime, we're down to fifth from bottom.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday in Jelgava

Although it's less than an hour from Riga by spruced-up electric train (padded seats, flowers daubed on the windows and EU stars above the doors), there aren't many reasons to spend time in Jelgava. Smashed about in both world wars, scrapped over by Baltic Germans and bombed by the Soviets, it's now little more than a commuter town for the capital, the kind of place guidebooks dismiss in half a paragraph. The little town centre doesn't have much in the way of interest: a baroque palace used by agricultural students, a couple of rebuilt churches, an indoor mall with a whole floor of shoe shops, and a huge TV, on metal supports, stuck in a grass verge near the bus station. It took less than half an hour to walk around the sights, the pavements were covered with icy pools of water, and though the rain held off the day remained as bright as a concrete wall. I retreated to the pub, and watched from the window with a beer.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Teaching Routine

Up to now the best thing about my job is the schedule. I was lucky enough to take over from someone who'd stayed for a second year, which means I'm spared teaching on Saturdays and have just the one early morning start a week. As one plan does for two or three different lessons, I can also stroll into work around two and still have more than enough time to prepare for the following day. Lessons start at twenty to five and finish just before nine; most days I'm back home with a beer twenty minutes later.

It's not a bad job, teaching abroad. Even in this weather.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

After the Chill

Now that the snow's gone winter in Riga is depressingly reminiscent of winter in Newcastle. The same short, sunless days, damp cold, and drab, gloomy grey sky. Latvians say it's normal, that the snow, not this, is the aberration. "Twenty years ago we went cross-country skiing in every sports lesson at school. Now it only rains," one of my colleagues told me.
"When do you think the weather will improve?" I asked.
"Maybe at the end of April."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Spot the Difference

"I've inherited this. They are not my players, everybody has forgotten that. But our biggest problem is a lack of strength in depth. Why wasn't it addressed by the last manager Keegan or the manager before him Allardyce? People have said that previous managers maybe didn't get what they want. I don't believe that will happen to me. I haven't got any reason to think he won't go my way".

Joe Kinnear, January 18th.

"We've got a horrendous injury list and there are a fair amount of players we need to bring in but I want to make sure I'm in a position to do that. I've identified the players I want but whether we get them is another thing. I sit down and talk to them [Ashley and Derek Llambias, Newcastle's managing director] about my ideas. I want to bring my own players in and that's the thing I really need to sort out. If we don't get stronger it will get tight".

Same man, two days later.

Got enough reasons now, Joe? There are only three men whose opinions count at Newcastle, and the manager isn't one of them. Why else did he think he was given the job?

Lessons from the Learners: Number 4

An imprecise list of ten mistakes by intermediate level (Russian-speaking) Latvians in English:

I think no.
What you will do there?
I forgot my book at home.
How do you call a road where you ride a bicycle?
He don't like football too.
It is normally for me.
I haven't sushi.
I got out from the bus.
There is a person which looks unhappy.
I felled in love when I was 13 years.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Freedom Monument

Advice to tourists posted on the British Embassy website: Do not urinate in public - always use a toilet. It is not worth going to jail or paying an expensive fine.

For Latvians, Riga's Freedom Monument is a symbol of the liberty and survival of their nation. For some British stag parties, it's a place to have a piss while your friends take pictures. "Those English pigs...they are a dirty, hoggish people," ranted Latvia's interior minister after a 34-year-old Londoner was jailed last year.

Oink Britannia, I suppose.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cold Day in Riga

And a spring of discontent just around the corner.

"An indisciplined, dismal, shameless shambles."

I thought things couldn't get any worse, but I was wrong. The least painful but most difficult response is to join Ashley and three-quarters of our team in not giving a shit. Time to go, Joe.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Overseas Cookbook

Usually when I move abroad my diet goes down the pan. Things are no different here, where I've been living on pizzas, pasta and soup, supplemented by multi-vitamins and cereal bars that I brought with me from home. I hadn't touched any greens all week before dinner yesterday, when I fried-up some pork chops and half a bag of frozen vegetables.

At least the bread's healthy.

Brassed Off

According to this 37% of Newcastle season ticket holders will be finding other things to do next season. I'm surprised the number is so low. A friend of mine has had one since the early-1990s, when Ossie Ardiles was manager and things on the pitch were even worse than they are now. Yesterday he sent me this: "I think I’ve taken out my last season ticket at SJP. It boils down to a choice between blind, stupid loyalty or financial common sense. I guess, whilst it’s not that I don’t care, I’m just becoming ambivalent."

If I was Mike Ashley, I'd be a very worried man.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Flights can be green, Trident is a viable twenty-first century defence system (or perhaps not). Next thing you know, they'll be trying to have us believe that ID cards are a really good idea.

On The Streets

One thing you notice straight away in Riga is the number of people driving around in big, shiny, brand new cars. Unlike other parts of the old Eastern Bloc, you don't see any clapped-out Skoda Favorits trundling about the streets, or knocked-up Ladas with their bonnets open on the pavement. With a bit of extra money, other nationalities might splash out on a bathroom extension or a 32-inch, HD ready monster for the living room wall; evidently, Latvians prefer to to put their wealth on more mobile display.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

People Power

In Latvia public protests appear to work. In 2007 demonstrators forced Aigars Kalvītis to resign as prime minister (though the four-party coalition stayed in government, with Ivars Godmanis returning to power for a second time). After Tuesday's 10,000-strong rally-cum-riot, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers has given parliament two months to pass a law enabling voters to demand early elections by referendum. "The government and parliament have lost their links with their electors," he said.

Sound familiar?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Forty Years

And won f**k all.
The last time I saw Newcastle win anything was at a pre-season tournament in Dublin, twelve years ago. "Let's hang around for the presentation. It might be the only trophy we ever see," my mate suggested. He wasn't joking. A week later our star player went over on his ankle and was never the same again.
You get used to these things. It's not the false hope that's the worst part of being a Newcastle fan but the depressing inevitability of each and every failure.

Room 307

I teach on the third floor, in a classroom named Los Angeles. It was sparsely decorated when I arrived: a clock, a sprig of something clipped to the board, and three pieces of lined paper with the prepositions at, in and on written in capitals, blu-tacked to the wall. There's an oval table in the centre of the room, coathooks by the door, a CD player in the corner, and a window looking out on a peeling wall. A half-full carrier bag hangs incongruously from a nail twenty metres up, just below eye level when I stand at the board.

As classrooms go, it's better than most.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Another Latvia

While I was teaching ten thousand people gathered for an anti-government protest in Old Riga. My students were more fatalistic, and chose to come to class instead. "It's for nothing. People will shout but the government won't listen. They do what they want." A short walk away in Dome Square, others were taking a different view of affairs.

Going Nowhere

Although we've somehow reached the dizzy heights of eleventh in the league, I can't remember a more depressing time to be a fan of Newcastle United. We're five points off rock bottom with no new signings to show for two weeks of the transfer window, and have Wise off scouting for more Iberian prospects (as if throwing away the best part of six million on Xisco wasn't enough for one season).

Worse still, for the forseeable future we're stuck with Mike Ashley and his sports shop business plan. Surrounded by cronies and trying to bargain down survival to the cheapest possible price, you wouldn't put it past him to slap 80% off stickers on substitutes during televised games or offer our few decent players to Man City on a two for the price of one deal, with a Lonsdale t-shirt thrown in for free.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


No doubt it's a sign of my masochistic northern temperament but I've always liked dour, end-of-the-world places. So it was fitting that my first trip out of Riga was to a city that my students optimistically described as "dirty, cold and full of pickpockets".

From the moment you step down from the train, Daugavpils feels very much like the back end of nowhere. The last jumping-off point before the Belarusian border, the station building's stab at monumentalism is neutered by a departures board listing four trains a day, half of which were returning to the capital. It's Latvia's second city, though the lingua franca on the slush-bound streets was Russian (Latvian speakers make up just 17% of the population, only slightly ahead of Poles).

There's lots of attractive early-20th century architecture in the pedestrianized centre (like the Czechs, the Latvians had a flourishing inter-war republic) but there wasn't a great deal else to see beyond the 19th-century fortress, a grid of decaying Soviet Aviation barrack buildings inside snow-covered red-brick walls built to repel Napoleon (they worked, for a while). Our 20 santimes were taken by a man in jeans and a leather jacket with a half-smoked cigarette wedged between his teeth. Over his shoulder, a rusted playground looked as forlorn as the city centre sign saying Work in UK. Hanging above a locked-up office, it wasn't apparent whether it was an advertisement or a cry for help.

Before leaving we ate at Gubernators, a posh cellar-pub on a corner opposite the city's university (one block west of where the Rough Guide map puts it). Meat and chips cost under 3 lats; half-litres of beer were just 80 santimes.

We stayed for a while.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lessons From The Learners: Numbers 1 - 3

"Whatever you do, don't go through the Central Market at night. We call it the changing rooms because you never leave with the same things you entered."

"You should eat at Lido. It's very tasty food."
"Yes, but sometimes cold."

"Why do you think most foreigners come to Riga?"
"Beer and sex."

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Big Thaw

When I came to work the streets were melting. Gutters turned into rain clouds, slabs of ice dropped without warning from the newly bare rooftops, and puddles of icy brown water made walking on the pavement as tricky as completing an army assault course.

I remembered something from winter in Liberec. It was never the snow I hated - it was the bits in between.

Two Million for Barton

I'd have snapped their hands off. Trouble is, so would he. Literally.

The All Important Water Question

"So, erm, is it ok to drink the tap water here?"
"I reckon so but put it through the filter jug first cos they found hepatitis in it a while back."

I took that as a yes. It's cheaper than buying bottles - and a lot easier on the arm.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Life Behind The Curtain

Despite hearing a hundred different reason why I shouldn't, I find I like it a lot here. The staff are friendly, my students mostly great and I'm still at the stage where even the walk home seems wonderfully exotic. The only negative is the high cost of everyday items - and even then I was braced for the worst after a year in the Czech Republic (although at least beer will always be cheap there).

On my salary and deductions - a whopping 31% since New Year tax rises - I'm living on a budget of about 100 lats a week (£130). It leaves me comfortably above subsistence level but doesn't support many extravagances, what with a pint of beer going for anything up to three lats in the Old Town. The difference, I suppose, between my buying power here and in Japan is this: in Tokyo I would occasionally think carefully about the cost of eating in a restaurant. Here I have the same dilemma in the supermarket, looking at a tin of peas.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Football In The Credit Crunch

For now there's still an incredible amount of money sloshing around the Premier League, but you can't help feeling the general trend is towards the shit. Half the league is skint or up for sale, Everton, West Ham and Newcastle are as unwanted as Steve Gerrard's music in a Southport bar, while Manchester United and Liverpool fans will have nothing to smile about when Glazer and Hicks pass on the costs of their next set of loans. And where's the fun in being the world's richest football club when the best it gets you is Scotty Parker's centre circle pirouhettes for £12 million and a hundred grand a week?

While they're in that kind of mood, how about Xisco for six?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Latvian Language Conundrum

What language should a foreigner learn in Riga? The question isn't as straightforward as it sounds: over half of the city's population speaks Russian as their first language, and though all children take school leaving exams in Latvian not everyone remembers it a few years later. Only one person from the school's admin staff is a native Latvian speaker; seven of my eight classes are made up of people who speak Russian. "Use English," my students advised. "All young people know it."

Most Latvians, a linguistic minority in their own capital city, would react differently. Some take it to extremes. One of my workmates tells a story about a woman asking him directions to the ferry terminal. "I knew enough Latvian to understand the question but not enough to answer it so I explained very slowly in English. She stopped me halfway through, "You are in Latvia. Speak only Latvian." I gave her a crash course in bad language. In English."

I Start Teaching

My first class were all Russian speakers, seven kids between 15 and 17 years old. They reminded me of Italians: nice, intelligent but a complete pain in the arse to control. I heard more spoken Russian in the first ten minutes of the lesson than I had in my entire thirty-two-and-three-quarter years of prior existence - a time which seemed suddenly remarkably blessed, like an English village in the years before 1914.

We went through the usual getting to know you activities (teenagers are always interested in a new teacher, just not in anything you want to tell them). They recoiled when they heard where I lived ("People drink beer outside, on the stairs.") and burst out laughing when they discovered I'd been in Japan. "Why did you leave Tokyo to come here? I think you must be crazy. In Latvia the economics are..." she could find no adequate word for what she wanted to say, so settled for throwing her hands in the air. "It does not matter. You will not stay here more than a month." "Why not?" I asked. "Nobody could," she replied, with a further fling of the hands.

My adults were more optimistic. "Go to Sigulda," said one, "it's very nice in autumn."

Christmas in Old Riga

The restored House of the Blackheads and St Peter's Church, Ratslaukums (Town Hall Square).

Monday, January 05, 2009

At Work

It was just getting light at half past eight. On the street outside a line of traffic waited impatiently to cross the tram tracks. With the wind chill, the temperature had fallen to minus twenty-four.

The short walk to work took me past the Stalinist Empire State Building, straight through the central railway station (blasts of heat, straggly queues in front of the ticket windows and a yellow shop sign with ‘Food Supplements, The Special goods, Functional Food’ written in three languages, including badly punctuated English), across the square in front of Rimi Supermarket, and to the edge of the misleadingly named Centrs, not quite, in fact, the centre of town but Riga’s most important shopping district, where small groups in uniform were scraping snow off the pavements with flat spades like pizza shovels.

I sat on my own for an hour filling out an Application for Requiring a Residence Permit, which asked in Russian, Latvian and English for the names, addresses and birthdays of my parents, siblings and ex-wife, my proficiency level in Latvian and other foreign languages, places of employment in the past five years, and whether I had "ever been inflicted a penalty on committing an offence" (No, I think).

And yet the application itself was surprisingly simple. The usual delay on a stiff-backed chair, two or three questions in English (and a brief telling off for "not understanding the form"), and a fortnight's wait until I go back to pick up my permit. In the Czech Republic the same process took six months; finally I gave up and worked as the Czechs do - in the black.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Shopping in Riga

The sun had come out but the shoppers were all indoors at Riga's Central Market. All around the converted German zeppelin hangers that form the main part of the market there were stall holders with fur hats and bodies the size of beer kegs, selling oranges and grapes from slatted benches covered with snow, and wooden kiosks with Zippo lighters, leather caps, pirated CDs and cheap, unbranded shoes.

Things were livelier inside, though the choices were more or less the same. There was a queue of old people in a four aisle supermarket, slabs of meat and pale yellow cheese laid out in open-topped fridges, pile after pile of dull-coloured winter vegetables, fish tanks full of carp, and a shop selling pasta and tea bags at prices that made Tokyo seem cheap.

I walked outside, back into the cold, and continued on to the station. Skaters circled a Christmas tree, two men in coloured capes were dancing to the panpipes.

Welcome to Latvia

The airport car park was covered in slush, brown and dirty grey, with piles of icy snow where the grass had been. My driver smiled ironically, "Welcome to Riga, cleanest city of the world."

Laughing, he kept up his despairing monologue all the way through the boxy, concrete suburbs. "Here everything is expensive. You go to the supermarket and think I don't need this bread today, the milk can wait. Everywhere is corruption. In Estonia and Lithuania they have better ideas, younger people. Here only corruption - soon we will be more expensive than Moscow."

We drove past a TV tower, over a bridge. There were heaps of snow on the pavement; I caught a glimpse of church spires and red roofs in the distance. "Crime is high here too. You don't have a car? Be careful on the streets after dark."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Where I Live

I live on the second landing of a five-storey tenement in a part of the city my guidebook describes as "quiet, run-down...seemingly untouched by post-Soviet economic changes". The snow-piled banks of the Daugava are fifty metres away, there's a chemist's on the corner opposite and a shop selling fireworks directly behind. I can walk to the centre in ten minutes, past an outdoor market, a bus station advertising one-way tickets to Prague for thirty-two lats, a glass-fronted multiplex and the city's first ever skyscraper, a reinforced concrete, Gothic space rocket gifted by Stalin to his new subject people.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Upping Sticks

You can't blame Shay Given for being disillusioned at life in the coconut shy that is a Newcastle United goalmouth. As good as he is, with Harper and Krul in reserve he's also the one saleable asset who can be replaced from within the existing squad. But his reasons for wanting to leave tell you everything you need to know about the state of the club under Ashley and Wise.

Gone are the dreams of cup runs and the Champions League. Unlike Shay, the best we can hope for now is that things don't get any worse.