Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Birthday Thoughts From Abroad

Today I turned thirty-three. Despite sending my winter coat home to England, this is definitely the first birthday I've ever needed to wear a hat and scarf. Or buy chocolates for everyone at work.

Not everything changes: on the day I was born Newcastle lost 3-2 at home to Leeds United. Four minutes into his debut Graham Oates (described by Malcolm MacDonald as "so bad it was embarrassing") scored from twenty-five yards out. Unfortunately, he was standing in his own penalty area at the time.

Kingdom by the Sea

Somewhere along the road the rain turned to snow. In Tallinn it was turning back. The sky was as grey as the cobbles in the Old Town's empty streets. Despite the strip clubs - outnumbered only by Irish pubs and souvenir shops - it felt much more genteel than Riga. Hilly and winding, the Old Town has a dreamy, fairytale beauty - the kind of place you could imagine being transported brick-by-brick to a Japanese theme park.

But then where would the Finns go to buy cheep beer?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Road to Tallinn

The rain was beating down as the morning bus pulled out of Riga. The only spots of colour in the suburbs were shopping centre billboards, petering out to a one-lane road driven straight through the middle of an endless pine forest. Traffic was light and the scenery nondescript: mud and snow, a giant yellow chair in the middle of a field, two-carriage trains by the side of the road. I woke up at Parnu Bus Station, on the other side of the Estonian border. My neck was stiff and the road was covered with icy slush. There were still two hours to go.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sixty Years On

On March 25th 1949 more than forty-two thousand Latvians were arrested by the secret police and deported to the furthest regions of the Soviet Union. Many never returned, their crimes having been decided in a confidential order from the Council of Ministers of the USSR: kulaks and their families; illegal nationalists and their families; legalized bandits and their family members who continue to engage in anti-Soviet activities; family members of the supporters of bandits. "Sixty years ago the unexpected guests knocked at your door, changing your destiny forever. Today we still ask why," the president said in a speech from the Freedom Monument.

"Why are there Latvian flags everywhere today?" I asked one of my teenage classes. "I don't know. Something to do with communism," they shrugged in reply.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Clinging On

Will this winter ever end? I asked last week. The answer it seems is no. Opening my eyes this morning, the first thing I saw was the tree in the courtyard, its bare branches once more turned white and heavy with melting snow.

Spring is another country, a million miles away from here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Damned United

I didn't bother watching the game last night: the final score was too predictable. "We need results and we need them quickly," was Chris Hughton's incisive contribution to the post-match analysis. With eight games left and only twenty-nine points gained that qualifies as a bit of an understatement. The only winnable games we have left are Fulham, Portsmouth and Middlesbrough at home - and even nine points from those is unlikely to be enough unless we can get at least a point from Stoke.

There is a school of thought that relegation would be a good thing, enabling us to get rid of the dead wood and rebuild with a young team. But it's the likes of Bassong and Martins who'll go first, not high earning has-beens like Duff and Geremi. If we end up going down, I can see us staying there for a long time to come.

The Sea, The Sea: Ventspils

There was no snow in Ventspils, only pale blue skies, fresh paint in the Old Town and a white-sand beach strewn with shiny round pebbles and grey Baltic waves. Down by the port, we took pictures of cows and had lunch in the castle. "Well, how was that?" asked the waitress, bringing out carrot cake and a second plate of garlic bread.

We trawled around the town: a bracing stroll along the beach, a go on the swings at an open-air museum and a hop over the turnstiles at a football stadium where Newcastle didn't actually play, then stopped off in a log-cabin pub for a couple of pints of Uzavas, Ventspils's local brew. Three hours and one desperately needed toilet break later we were back in freezing Riga, hands in pockets, faces buried in our scarves.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Occupation Museum

The sun came out late today. Too late to visit the Great Kemeri Bog or Lielvarde's ancient Latvian castle. Instead I went to the Occupation Museum of Latvia, which tells the harrowing story of the country's fifty and a bit years under Soviet rule.
Last night a student (ethnic Russian, of course) told me "I wish we'd stop all this American shit and re-establish links with Russia." "Do you think most Latvians would agree?" I asked.

Twenty minutes here and he'd know the answer.

Kinnear Is Not The Answer

Writing this won't do much to change Joe Kinnear's opinion of Simon Bird, but he's right about what needs to happen at St James' Park:

Newcastle need a strong young boss, in it for the long haul, who can unite the city, and be given five years to build. Contrary to the perception, Geordies are patient. They keep going despite 40 years without a trophy, remember.

We keep going because no matter how bad things get there's always been the hope of better things around the corner. Not now. Another year of Calderwood, Kinnear and Hughton and that patience might finally snap.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Moving On

On Wednesday I had my end-of-year performance review, a slightly strange experience after just eleven weeks of employment. "Of course, we'd love you to stay," the Director of Studies told me. "We can put together something for next year. Would you be interested in becoming a senior teacher?"

I told him I'd think it over, but in reality my mind is made up. For me, five months is long enough.

Dienvidu Bridge

Everyone in Riga knows about the scandal of Dienvidu Bridge. "Nothing works here. Too much corruption. Look at that bridge - an engineer came from Sweden and said we could have built a tunnel for the same money," the driver told me on the way from the airport. I smiled politely, thinking he was exaggerating.

Now a government report has confirmed what Latvians already knew. An official audit published this week found that at least fifty million dollars were wasted on shoddy tendering and contracting procedures. "Before taking its decision to commence construction on the bridge, the municipality had not finalised either the project, its deadlines or its result," the audit office said. Contracts were based on convoluted currency exhange deals to hide the true amount of money being borrowed for the construction of the bridge. "Over several years double payments were being made for the same things," the audit concluded. "This could be incompetence if it was just one case, but these payments were being made every month."

Not surprisingly, construction costs ballooned from an initial estimate of 108 million lats to 570 million - more or less the same as the total amount the government now finds itself having to cut the state budget by to keep to the terms of its IMF loan. Criminal charges are being investigated. The bridge itself, in the words of the new prime minister, is "of very average quality".

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Relegation is the Issue

If points were awarded for idle talk and not for what happens on the pitch Newcastle would be twenty clear at the top by now. "It's time to take risks," says Stephen Taylor, "to stand up and be men". "We're focused on what needs to be done," thinks Michael Owen. "We have to be positive," claims Alan Smith.

But the reality is this: barring a minor miracle we'll be in the bottom three when we travel to Stoke in just over three weeks' time. Words are cheap, it's performances that matter. It's time what one newspaper called "the worst Newcastle team in a generation" started to earn their pay.

Starting with Arsenal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Latvian Legion March

Went ahead as planned yesterday, in defiance of a government ban. Three hundred people, young and old, carried flowers to the base of the Freedom Monument. On the other side of the police lines a few dozen Russian-speakers jeered and shouted "Hitler Kaput!"

The march is held every year on Latvian Legion Rememberance Day (instituted as a public holiday in 1998 but abolished two years later) to commemorate soldiers who fought in the Waffen-SS's Latvian Legion as the Nazis retreated in 1944. To many Latvians the men were conscripts who fought not for fascism but against a second Soviet occupation, their only cause the preservation of Latvia as a free and independent country. Russian-speakers counter that many of the Latvian Legion served as auxiliary police during the massacre of Riga's Jews - and that celebrating men who wore the lightning slash of the SS on their uniform is a form of Holocaust denial.

Like many other things in Riga, history has two conflicting sides.

Let It All Come Down

When I woke up this morning it was already snowing. Heavy and vertical, through the net curtain it looked exactly like rain. Grey light filtered through the window, the sky dismal and overcast. Will this winter ever end?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Going Up, Going Down

As unemployment continues to rise, prices are starting to come down in Latvia. In Rimi the cost of a litre of milk dropped five santimes last week. Deflation is forecast by the end of the year.

None of which helps teachers, who face a twenty per cent pay cut following the new government's decision to chop 66 million euros from the education budget. Seven schools will be closed and a further twenty-two "restructured" ahead of the next academic year. "I think that students will not lose from that...the network of school will become optimal enough...Both teachers and students will benefit from that," said Education Minister Tatjana Koke.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday in Cēsis

The little clock by the Victory Monument showed seven degrees. Meltwater rained from rooftops, the pavements were brown and gravelly with salt, cars splashed through beer-coloured puddles in the middle of the road. By mid-afternoon the town centre was deserted. I slipped and slid round Castle Park, tried to find the football ground, then waited for the train with pizza and a beer in the town's swankiest hotel. "Ludzu, lielu Cesu," I asked the waitress in my best Latvian accent. "That's four thirty," she replied in flawless English.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Locked In

It was three in the afternoon when I realised my key no longer worked. I turned it one way then the other, pushed, pulled and kicked at the door, put so much cooking oil in the lock I could've fried an egg in the keyhole, then gave up and called the school.

Two hours later the emergency rescue team - the cleaner, her husband and his box of tools - finally arrived. After forty-five minutes of jiggling, scraping, pushing, pulling and kicking they gave up and left for home, shrugging apologetically as they got back in their van. Inside the flat the situation had taken a desperate turn for the worse: I'd run out of milk, teabag supplies were dangerously low, and there was no-one left to talk to on Skype. The ten-metre drop to the cobbled courtyard was looking more and more appealing.

It was half past six by the time the locksmith managed to get me out. He stood in the doorway, writing out the bill, shaking his head in bemusement. "You can use two locks or four, but your door was on three. It should not have closed." Other people blamed it on shoddy workmanship: "They all have Made in Italy written on but really they come from Russia. It happened to a bloke from Ipswich five years ago. He had to stand on the balcony waving his arms around until his neighbours came out." "It's like that in Poland. It's the same all over eastern Europe." "You can't get worse than Czech for dodgy keys."

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Spring comes late to the Baltics. What's left of Monday's snow lies in blackened piles on the pavement or in deep, slushy puddles by the sides of the road. At home, the radiators (controlled by a district heating network and charged per each square metre of house space) are stuck on full blast. And while the clouds and the ice sheets on the Daugava are breaking up there are no flowers or buds anywhere to be seen. Last week's rumour was of fifteen degrees by the end of March. Yesterday it was down to ten - and icy cold again in April.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

June Might Be A Good Time To Leave

If Prime Minister-designate Valdis Dombrovskis is right that's when Latvia will go bust unless he can re-negotiate the terms of the bailout package his predecessor agreed with the IMF. The problems wouldn't end there. "In the Baltic region there is a fear of a domino effect. If one country would go, then probably the whole region will go," he continued, making the kind of error with conditionals that would make my teenage students blush. At 37 Dombrovskis, an ex-MEP and chief economist at the Bank of Latvia, is the youngest leader in Europe. "He has a baby face," one of my classes told me. "Yes, and a baby's brain too."

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Wire

A while ago, I reviewed The Wire on my low budget, miserabilist BBC4 show Screen Wipe, calling it "the best TV show of the past decade" in the process. I was wrong. I hadn't seen the fourth season then, which subsequently convinced me it's the best TV show since the invention of radio - Charlie Brooker.

It was Barack Obama who got me into The Wire. "In a recent story in The Nation," wrote Brian Cook of In These Times, "Chris Hayes used 2,200-plus words to argue why progressives should back Sen. Barack Obama. I’ll use only seven: Obama’s favorite TV show is The Wire."

If you've never heard of it you're not alone (its viewing figues in Britain were under forty thousand). But if Charles Dickens had written for TV, he would have written something like The Wire. Bleak and multi-layered, each of the five series looks at a different but interlocking facet of Baltimore life: the War on Drugs, the decline of heavy industry, politics, public schools and the media.

Put simply, it's the best TV show ever made.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Vecāķi Beach

The sun is out at Vecāķi Beach, and the temperature's up to five above zero. We walk along the flat, horse-shit splattered sand to the mouth of the River Daugava, which spills gently out into the Gulf of Riga six hundred and thirty four miles after rising from the Valdai Hills in the far north-west of Russia. Snow melts on the concrete pier. The remains of a ship rust slowly in the water.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


So all forests aren't like this,
I stand and shriek in Rumbula -
A green crater in a midst of grainfields.

Ojars Vacietis

On two days of November and December 1941 27,800 Jews from the ghetto in Riga were brought to Rumbula Forest and shot. Only three people survived.

In the mid-1960s local activists erected the first monument on the site. It was the only memorial to Jewish victims of the Nazis anywhere in the USSR.

Why We Teach

We were at the end of a lesson on the order of adjectives. The students shouted out some nouns, randomly: microphone, tie, scooter, banana. I threw a dice in the air. It landed on a six. Suddenly everyone was speaking English, their voices raised in excitement whenever they came up with a new word: a stunning, huge, affordable, checked, Chinese, iron microphone.

Next lesson I got them to describe an object in the classroom. Tall, active, middle-aged, white-skinned, wrote one pair. "What's that?" I asked.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Financial Crisis?

Blame the Swedes is the latest theory.

A few years ago, the Swedish bank Nordea set up a wind machine near the centre of Riga, within sight of the Freedom Monument, and created a small whirlwind of Latvian board game banknotes.

The 'cash' swirled around in a funnel several meters high in front of stunned and fascinated pedestrians. The message was not to miss out on the whirlwind of cash Nordea was offering the Latvian public.

They got the message. They just couldn't pay it back.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dolphin Hotel

Now with added tweets. I signed-up for Twitter yonks ago but only started to get the point of it over the last couple of weeks. "Pointless email on steroids," according to some, I prefer to think of it as a kind of blogging for people who can't be arsed to actually blog.

Or something.

Race for the Drop

Stoke win, Blackburn draw, we lose. Again.
Assuming West Brom are gonners, as I think we safely can, that leaves any two from Fulham down to join them. There are ten games to play and we're still a long way off the forty-point benchmark: if Blackburn pick up anything from their game in hand, only goal difference will separate us and the bottom three come kick-off against Hull.

Will Allardyce fail to live up to his own astonishingly high opinion of himself? Will Middlesbrough play every game like they did last night? Will Portsmouth plummet or Stoke implode?

Let's hope so.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Staring into the Abyss

I've been thinking this week of how I could have ended up in Pakistan. Last summer one of my students offered me a teaching job at a school he was setting up in Lahore. I would've been the only foreigner there.

Am I glad I said no.

TV for Grown-ups

David Mitchell, JK Rowling, David Peace, Wilfred Owen, Nick Hornby and James Joyce: just some of the writers who started out teaching English. Clearly, it's always been a profession that attracts the more cerebreally minded.

Peace is one man you'll hear a lot about this month. Not only does The Damned Utd finally get a cinema release (the trailer might not look too promising but the book, a re-imagining of Brian Clough's ill-starred 44 days in charge of Leeds, is absolutely brilliant), tomorrow also sees the start of Channel 4's Red Riding, a three part adaption of his West Yorkshire quartet starring Sean Bean, David Morrissey and the always great Paddy Considine.

Knowing Peace, it'll be darker than Myra Hindley trying out for Britain's Got Talent in the middle of a power cut.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Final Stretch

Derek Llambias's bullish patter about relegation - "It's totally inconceivable. You just couldn't go there" - notwithstanding, the fact remains that Sunday's defeat has left us in deep, deep shit. With eleven matches remaining, we're two points clear of the bottom three with the hardest run-in of all the teams around us, including games against all of the current top five. First up, tomorrow night, is our annual hiding from Manchester United. Three-nil, my brother thinks. Ever the optimist, I reckon we might get one back.

It's all a far cry from the first day of the season.

Monday, March 02, 2009

What I Write About When I Write About Drinking

The price of a pint is not as cheap as it used to be in this part of the world. The draughty cafe across the road from work, where beer comes out of the tap like frozen milkshake from a half-crushed straw, has recently upped its prices to a lat, around half of what you'd pay in the Old Town. The Hotel Latvija's Sky Bar now charges two eighty (but does throw in a view of the city for free), while the posers' cafe bar of choice Cuba tops the lot at three.

On Saturday I started off in Gauja, a cramped sixties-retro place on Terbates iela that attracts a crowd (if a bar that seats fifteen people at a push can realistically be said to hold such a thing) of Latvian-speaking teenagers with expensive digital cameras. Aside from the vodka shelf, the decor could have been lifted wholesale from a granny's sitting room: cheap coffee tables and stretched sofas, a coatrack by the door, framed Latvian farmyard scenes and a garish print of a Soviet teen idol. The single unisex toilet is small, cold and windowless; the bulb had blown, leaving me to piss by the light of a mobile phone.

It's a bit out of the way and closes up at eleven, but the barmaid manages the occasional smile (quite a treat in the Latvian service industry) and the Brenguļu beer's only one lat twenty a half-litre - a rare bargain in a city where costs go up as fast as the economy goes down.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bus Ride on Brivibas

You can still see the marks the boom years left on Riga. It's a city built of wood, then concrete, then glass: Scandinavian banks, Japanese car showrooms, interior design stores, edge-of-town retail parks, flash cars, supermarkets, a mobile phone company office showing a temperature of minus four, five-storey blocks with graffitied exteriors, tram tracks, factory chimneys, a man dressed in fur letting his dog piss on a wall, smokers on the pavement outside a sports hall, old women shuffling into a bakery, their feet barely clearing the ground.

It's a completely different story at the Latvian Ethnographic Museum, where over a hundred wooden buildings from all over the country have been reassembled in a pine forest on the banks of Lake Jugla. There's a 16th century church with someone's initials half-heartedly etched on the door, three huge windmills, and a fortress-like German warehouse moved piece by piece from Liepaja port. I crunched around in the snow for two-and-a-half hours, mostly on my own, with only my camera, icicle fingers and a woodpecker or two to keep me company.

In The Crunch

It's not only my current home that's suffering from the global economic crisis. Things are looking increasingly grim in Japan too: exports down 46%, the trade deficit up to almost £7 billion, a premier who, by comparison, makes Gordon Brown seem popular and charismatic, and a finance minister forced to resign after turning up drunk to a G7 news conference.

"I suppose his archole depending custom comes from his own tragedy," wrote a Japanese friend from Kyoto. "We Japanese know well that his great father killed oneself 20 years ago".