Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Beyond This Gate The Earth Groans"

Overnight we had the kind of snow that would have felled an English city for a week. In Riga the pavements had been scraped and salted by midday. The sun was melting the rest.

Things were different in Rumbula Forest, where we stumbled through the woods in ankle-deep snow searching for Salaspils concentration camp. Between October 1941 and its liberation in late-1944 the camp, set in a clearing a few hundred metres from the Riga-Salaspils railway line, was the biggest in Latvia, serving first as a transitional camp for Jews from the occupied territories and later, by order of Himmler, as the site of mass executions.

Estimates differ of how many people were murdered at Salaspils. The Soviets claimed over one hundred thousand, Latvian textbooks half that, recent studies claim a figure of under three thousand. Interrogated after the war, Freidrich Jelen, an SS commander in Riga, claimed:

Jews were brought from Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, and from other occupied countries to the Salaspils camp. To give a precise count of the Jews there would be difficult. In any case, all the Jews from this camp were exterminated.

I can give you the approximate figures. The first Jewish convoys arrived in Salaspils in November 1941. Then, in the first half of 1942, convoys arrived at regular intervals. I believe that in November 1941, no more than three convoys arrived in all, but during the next seven months, from December 1941 to June 1942, eight to twelve convoys arrived each month. Overall, in eight months, no less than fifty-five and no more than eighty-seven Jewish convoys arrived at the camp. Given that each convoy carried a thousand men, that makes a total of 55,000 to 87,000 Jews exterminated in the Salaspils camp. It should be added, however, that before my arrival in Riga, a significant number of Jews in the Ostland and in White Ruthenia were exterminated. I was informed of this fact.

Today it's a silent and harrowing place.

The Overseas Cookbook Part Two

Since getting paid my meat, chips and chocolate bar diet has been supplemented by a number of healthier ingredients: herring fillet steaks, cabbage, Smetana pancakes and closed-cup mushrooms from posh people's shop Stockmann (because no matter how much they actually earn, most TEFL teachers like to imagine they belong to the solid middle class), Maxima organic onions, solyanka soup from Super Netto, and Rimi sliced salami, frozen diced-carrots and peas, Kvass (a very mildly alcoholic cola-like drink made with black bread) eggs, kefirs, honey, rye bread and pelmeni (a kind of Russian ravioli). I even eat out occasionally - at a Korean restaurant last weekend and a pizza place on Thursday.

None of the four supermarkets I shop at are Latvian-owned. Rimi and Super Netto (a kind of down-at-heel Lidl) are based out of the same Swedish HQ, Stockmann is the Finnish Marks & Sparks, while Maxima branched out from across the Lithuanian border. Sometimes, though, I still walk along to the Central Market to point at piles of fruit and mumble my way through Man ludzu, vienu kilogramu mandarinus, paldies.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Things I Cannot Do In Latvia

Pronounce the word turps without making it sound like a Glaswegian cough remedy; buy a cucumber for less than two lats; go more than a day without a bar of chocolate or an alcoholic drink; meet an unmarried woman over the age of 22; find a way to turn the heat off in my room short of writhing the radiator off the wall; go to bed before one in the morning; be bothered to get a sim card for my mobile phone (I keep in touch the old fashioned way - by Facebook and Skype); formulate enough language to let the woman at the supermarket checkout know she hasn't given me my change; hear anyone using the phrase excuse me in Latvian (nobody ever says it, apparently - they'd go down a storm with the Japanese); remember the word for good evening: Labvakar, Labvakar, Labvakar.

It's Friday

Another one gone.
That's the thing about teaching: for all its irritations the days fly by, and almost before you know it it's the end of another week.
Well, not always.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Economic Crisis: Despatches from the Front

As the Latvian economy falters, unrest begins to grow. "Is morale high here?" I asked an adult class, concept checking a new bit of vocabulary. They looked at me and laughed. "Could Godmanis potentially be the next prime minister?" I tried with another one. "Why not?" they shrugged. "He's the same as all the rest."

"It's clear that sharp falls in living standards are inevitable this year," thinks Peteris Strautins, chief economist for Swedbank, the biggest bank in the Baltics. "I just hope that people accept it."

It's Fifteen Years Today

Since Bill Hicks died. We've rarely needed him more than we do right now. The Guardian has a fifteen-question quiz here (I only got eight, but then I didn't have the benefit of reading Wikipedia first.)

While we wait for a rumoured film of his life (starring Russell Crowe?) here's a reminder of how good he was.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This Is Not The Future

"Once an individual has been assigned a unique index number, it is possible to accurately retrieve data across numerous databases and build a picture of that individual's life that was not authorised in the original consent for data collection."

If we could genuinely rely on the "essential reasonableness of UK police, security and intelligence agency activity" then Sir David Omand would now be confined to a padded cell.

What a state it is we're in.

Who's The Next Boss?

Not Martin Jol, that's for certain. Why would he be daft enough to swap a Bundesliga title for a club with no money whose transfers are decided by someone else?

Besides, the newly loquacious Llambias has stated categorically that the Kinnear, Calderwood and Hughton dream ticket's here to stay: "I know some of the fans have questioned whether he is the right man for the job, but I hope they give him the time to convince them that he is." Most season ticket holders I know have already done just that, and decided they don't like what they see. "If Kinnear's there next year, I won't be," is a line I heard more than once over Christmas.

If we want to catch up with Arsenal or Villa we need to start like they did, by bringing in a top manager like Wenger or O'Neill. By sticking with Kinnear the best we'll ever be is the new Wigan Athletic.

And that's the optimistic view.

Riga Central Library

It took me two attempts to find the English-language novels. A slightly musty-smelling, starkly-lit room opposite the lending desk mostly full of stuff, I suppose, the British Council left behind when they pulled out of the Baltics. There are thousands of paperbacks, dog-eared and showing various signs of age, ranging from Thomas Mann to Murakami, Plato to Catherine Cookson. Add in the rest of the books at work and I'll have more than enough reading material to last me through to May.
We might not always have it so good, though. With the worsening economic crisis plans for a new National Library have had to be shelved (sorry, bad pun) and existing collections face the same funding problems as those in Britain and elsewhere. Books will deteriorate, replacements will not be found. It's a crying shame - a good library's worth a year of school, at least.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Things My Students Cannot Do

Come across a new word without immediately needing to translate it into Russian, no matter how long or counter productive the effort; pronounce the word opposite; stay on one topic for more than five minutes at a stretch; do an activity without lapsing into Russian; use articles correctly - or prepositions; find vocabulary in a text and work with a partner at the same time; remember the difference between choice and variant, economic and economical ("Buying supermarkets' own brands is economical," I explained to an adult business class. "Yes and very bad for your health," one replied.); turn their mobile phones off; hear the word test without grinding their teeth and running for the door.

UPDATE: A reply from a mate in the Czech Republic. Things his students cannot do:

1. Homework
2. Speak English.
3. Walk and chew gum at the same time.

What I'm Reading

This week I've been buried in Flight to Arras, a book so good it was banned in France and helped swing America behind an unpopular war. It's a terse read, one hundred and thirty pages with barely a wasted word, recording a futile mission over a burning town in an already defeated country.

We had reached the last days of May, 1940, a time of full retreat, of full disaster. Crew after crew was being offered up as a sacrifice. It was as if you dashed glassfuls of water into a forest fire in the hope of putting it out.

Read it here. Then buy the book anyway.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Snow covers the beach at Majori, the biggest in the string of towns that make up the capital's seashore. The Bay of Riga's iron-grey and as flat as a lake, and as I walk towards what I take to be the water's edge I find myself slipping on sheets of ice. An elderly couple sit with their backs to the sea, families pose for pictures beside a stone turtle, girls in fur hats slide across an ice track, a man drags a sledge over frozen water, and someone's written Honey I Love U in foot-high letters in the snow.

The beach looks like a railway station corridor, two huddled lines move in opposite directions, each keeping to the right, walking at the pace of commuters changing trains. A track as wide as a country road has been scraped out across the snow. Underfoot, the sand is as hard as tarmac.

The English Abroad

Ryanair's stag night specials haven't yet completely succeeded in destroying the reputation of the English in Riga. "People in England are very open, more open than Latvians," my students thought. "They have fast lives but they respect rules." "Yes, they're very kind to pedestrians." This positive opinion is, however, by no means universal. "You're English?" roared a drunk in the pub on Saturday night. "Are you here to drink too much beer and fuck our women?"
"Not exactly," I replied.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Political Demonstrations

Take strange and unusual forms in Latvia. In 2007 an umbrella protest brought down a prime minister. Yesterday four hundred Russian speakers gathered in the southern city of Daugavpils
to throw shoes at a poster of the parliament building.
A group calling themselves the Penguin Revolution have recently staged spontaneous strolling actions around the Old Town, while best selling t-shirts bear the slogans nasing spesal and What my answer will be, I cannot say, lampooning an interview the finance minister gave to Bloomberg TV.

Contempt for elected politicians is one of those values that binds old and new Europe together, but cynicism runs deeper in the new democracies - perhaps because they expected more.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

After the Snow

Comes the clear blue sky. Warmed by a Balsams coffee I took the bus out of town to Riga's Motor Museum. The star exhibit, along with Kruschev's Lincoln and a Packard Super Eight that belonged to the King of Romania, is a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow ploughed into a truck by none other than Leonid Brezhnev, whose waxwork dummy looks like it's receiving the kind of personal attention which would cause most of us to lose control for a moment or two.

Behind the museum is a Soviet motorcycle race track and Bikernieku Forest, where much of Riga's Jewish population was murdered in 1941. It's a sombre place, used now by cross-country skiiers, people with big dogs and young kids with sledges. We asked the way to the Holocaust memorial. "It's very far," the first two people said. "There are many memorials," added the next.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Godmanis Goes

Two weeks after squeaking through a no confidence vote, Latvia's governing coalition has collapsed from within. As the crisis gets worse - GDP shrunk by 10.5% last month compared to the same time last year - nobody here has any trust left in politicians. The likeliest outcome is that the same four parties will form the next government and follow broadly the same policies as before, with the only change being the face at the front. For Godmanis the "moment of truth" has gone. Latvia's, you feel, is still to come.

Summer Schools

For TEFL teachers in Europe the turn of the year means it's time to start thinking of summer. While schools in parts of Asia stay open year round, contracts here end in May or June, leaving a choice between a few months of baleful unemployment or English lessons, excursions and afternoon sport with teenagers at a summer school. Sometimes, believe me, the dole's a step up.

This year I've applied to Newcastle University. The money's an improvement on the run-of-the-mill residential stuff and I'd be able to commute from home - which beats kipping down the hall from a bunch of randy Spanish fifteen year olds.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Baltic Days

At this time of year, when the temperature goes up the snow invariably comes down. After things peaked at a semi-tropical high of two degrees on Tuesday, I woke up the following day to the sight of snowflakes twirling past my window. This morning the streets - and my shoes - are covered with brown salt, the back of my newly-washed trousers splattered with grey, slushy water.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Flag Day

The sixteenth of February is Lithuanian Independence Day - one of eleven times a year (including Constitution Day, Lāčplēsis Day and three separate commemorations of the victims of communist genocide) when Latvians are required by law to mount the maroon and red stripes to the front of their house or risk a fifty lat fine.
Flying the flag is a big thing in a country that has been independent for fewer than fifty of the last nine hundred years. In 2007 a group of drunk Spanish tourists were arrested for trampling on a flag in the Old Town; the foreign ministry has recently stipulated the exact shade of Latvian red that must be used by manufacturers; and on June the seventeenth, which marks the beginning of the Soviet occupation, householders can be fined for not having a black ribbon exactly one-twentieth of the width of the flag tied to the pole.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Literally Over the Daugava, the left (and cheaper) bank of the river - and the best view of Old Riga you'll get without first taking a lift twenty floors up.

The Victory Memorial is Pārdaugava's Soviet-built response to the Old Town's Freedom Monument. Seventy-nine metres high, with statues of Mother Russia and machine gun wielding Red Army soldiers, it's hardly the most subtle reminder of Latvia's status post-1945. Two locals even attempted to blow it up in the late 1990s, though the only things they succeeded in exploding were themselves.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Way Down in the Hole

Feeling a bit under the weather (no mean feat with a windchill like the one in Riga) I've been spending more time indoors this week, overdosing on series four of The Wire, the greatest TV show ever made.

That's right, even better than The Bill, Reg Hollis and all. Shee-it, they ain't even real poh-lice...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Forward Planning

Only Newcastle United could end up needing a stand-in for a stand-in with just thirteen games of the season to go. With Kinnear recovering from a triple heart bypass (and who could've forseen that from a man with a history of heart problems in a high pressure job?), our survival in the big league is now in the hands of Chris "played four, lost four" Hughton and Colin Calderwood, whose main qualifications for the job seem, like Kinnear, to be a few hundred games for Tottenham Hotspur followed by the sack at Nottingham Forest (cynics would add agreeing to kowtow to Dennis Wise over transfer policy). Be grateful for small mercies - at least that rules out Harry Bassett, David Platt, Gary Megson and Terry Venables. Especially Terry Venables.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pay Day

On Tuesday I got paid. After tax I made four hundred and ninety-three lats (roughly six hundred and thirty euro, or the wrong side of six hundred quid). It wasn't a surprise. The cost of living was the first thing I asked about in the interview. "That's what everyone asks," the Director of Studies laughed. "Let's just say no-one gets rich teaching in Latvia."

Or anywhere else, he might have added.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Too Little Too Late

Two days into the Chronicle's long awaited (and much dragged-out) interview with casino king Derek Llambias. The story so far:

We're a buying club that doesn't buy, but when we do buy we won't be buying on credit, because that's like having a bucket with lots of holes in it. Our five-year aim is to be the new Aston Villa, although they do buy on credit because they still owe us £4 million for Milner, which we'll be spending on the players we couldn't sign in January - unless they're too expensive or their clubs won't sell them because they're buying clubs too. We still like Shay Given, stick with us, don't mention the K word, Dennis Wise is "out there", Bassong is a star, Joe Kinnear is "what we're looking for", we're back on track, we have a plan, we're not going to be relegated.

Personally, I liked him better when he kept his mouth shut.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chelsea in Crisis

Fourth in the table, seven points off top, and in the last-16 of the Champions League. That's some crisis at Chelsea.
Nonetheless, the warning signs were there long before Scolari. In 2003 Bobby Robson's team came third, making the Champions League for the second season running. With two or three good signings we might have challenged for the title the following year. Instead we got Lee Bowyer - and finished fifth. The team passed its prime, egos got bigger as results got worse, and spineless players blamed the manager instead of themselves. For Bowyer, read Deco. Bellamy, Drogba. Shearer, Lampard. Dyer, Malouda. Mourinho was showered with cash, saw the change coming and complained until he lost his job. Grant never had a chance.

As Robson could have told them, when it goes, it goes fast.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Now that Dubya's retired to his ranch, is Silvio Berlusconi the most dangerous idiot left in international politics? Ignore the warped, Vatican-friendly justification, this is, as James Walston suggests, just another crude attempt at consolidating his own power.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Except for the colour of her hair, there was nothing remotely sunny about the woman selling tickets at Tukums station. I gave her a smile, said good afternoon, and asked for two single tickets in slightly halting Latvian. She didn't make eye contact until I'd finished. "Three lats fifty," she barked, tutting as I fumbled in my pocket to give her the right change.

I went outside, and stood in a puddle.

Stuff I Learned This Week

That there might after all be three worse teams in this league than Newcastle - but unfortunately the Mackems aren't one of them.

Generation Kill is good, but not as good as The Wire.

Teaching English to teenagers can be a total pain in the arse. Technically speaking, I knew this already.

Shameless just ain't what it used to be.

Latvian beer comes in alky-friendly two litre bottles. Drinking said alcohol can cause dehydration.

England's cricketers are an absolute shambles.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Beating the Baggies

We won three-nil the last time we played West Brom. Owen scored two, Shearer one, and I watched the game from the edge of a beach in Goa. Today I'd settle for a late Ameobi toe-poke and text updates on the BBC - and be lucky to get even that.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Books at Bedtime

I've been here five weeks, long enough to have worked my way through the best of the left-behind bookshelf. I started with Everything is Illuminated, which was funny when it tried to be funny and sad when it wanted to be sad - an easy enough trick you would've thought, unless you've read White Teeth. Next came Margarete Buber-Neumann's Milena, which promised to evoke the inter-war Prague of Kafka and Karel Čapek, but was dry, clunkily phrased (or translated?) and as reverential as a funeral eulogy. The English Patient, on the other hand, wasn't exactly what I expected - a good thing - not really a love story at all, with haunting prose like Kazuo Ishiguro on one of his good days, and only slightly spoilt by the crappy, predictable ending.

Next up is Rebus. Or maybe, if I'm in the mood, Doris Lessing.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The New Argentina?

This time twelve months ago Latvia was Europe's fastest growing economy. Now, signs of the growing recession (or creesis as my students insist on calling it) can be seen everywhere. On the high street there are sale notices stuck to every other window, and empty shops are as easy to spot as missing teeth in a boxer's mouth. Most mornings I leave my building to find a well-dressed man rooting through the bin. People tell me that traffic is lighter and public transport more crowded. At school class sizes are shrinking. Yesterday, a protest by farmers forced a minister to resign.

There have been three bail-outs already, seven and a half billion euros from the IMF, another three from the European Union, and a currency-exchange deal with the national banks of Sweden and Denmark. Last December ten thousand Latvians signed a petition calling for Sweden to occupy the country. That same week Paul Krugman called Latvia the new Argentina.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Why Darwin Was Right

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - dinosaur fossils, radiometric dating, Bruce Forsyth's jokes and the length of time since Newcastle won a trophy - one in four Brits still believes that all life was created between six and ten thousand years ago by a bearded man who lives on a cloud.

As Bill Hicks once put it:

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Day the Earth Stood Still

While volcanic ash blew across Honshu and Britain was paralysed by a few inches of snow (a quantity which over here would be scraped up in five minutes flat by an old crone in carpet slippers), Riga basked in blue skies for the third day in a row. Sunshine gives the place a whole new complexion - a week or so of this and I'll be wiping those chalk marks off my bedroom wall.

Is This It?

Given and N'Zogbia out, Taylor, Lovenkrands and Nolan in. If the reported transfer fees are accurate, we've made a profit of around £8 million, strenthened the squad in numbers only, and decided the best way to avoid the financial catastrophe of relegation is to cross our fingers, close our eyes and hope really, really hard for the best.

Either the other six signings got held up in the snow or our chances of survival are about the same as those of a steak pie in Kevin Nolan's fridge.

UPDATE: That's it, then. We've ended up signing the only two players we haven't been linked to this month. As for Wise, the sum total of his transfer activity since the season kicked off is a couple of kids, a permanently injured midfielder and a £7 million striker who can't get into the team ahead of a half-fit Ameobi. Thanks, Dennis. Thanks a bunch.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

High Stakes

I can't remember feeling less confident before a derby than I do right now. In a way I'd be happy with a draw, but if we can't beat the likes of Sunderland at home then I can't see where else the twenty points we need to stay up are coming from.
Win today and we're up to thirteenth. Lose and we're in the bottom three.

UPDATE: One-all, disaster averted (or delayed until May). A soft penalty but we've been on the wrong end of so many decisions this season I'll take any bit of luck going.