24.07.2017 - 30.07.2017 28 °C
In the time it took us to get half way from the plane from Moscow to the baggage carousel in Riga Airport, Latvia, Nik had connected to the Wi-fi, and downloaded all of the email we had been unable to access for the last couple of days.
In Russia, you have to go through the Russian run server that requires you to fill out a form, have a Russian phone number and give important details like the colour of toilet paper you use before you can access Wi-fi in any public places. It had been a little frustrating over the last month…
We were back in civilisation.
“For one of the first or second times on the Big Trip”, said Nikki, “I’m in a place where I feel like I could really could live!” as we walked around Riga.
Riga Street Scene, Latvia.
But where were we?
Map of Europe showing Russia and the tiny Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (north of the red-and-orange-striped Belarus).
"Riga feels really European, even Scandinavian”, I said to the receptionist in the hotel in Riga. She positively beamed.
“I’m so pleased you think it feels European”, she said, “and not Russian. We have put a lot of effort into making it this way”.
“Why?” I asked.
“We were under Soviet rule for over 80 years and, whilst Russia is just over the border, we don’t feel that we are Russian. We feel that we are European.”
“Are you scared of Russian?”, I asked.
“We’re a country of 2 million people and although we’re a member of the European Union, have the Euro, and are a member of NATO, we’re still concerned the Russians will walk over the border. The eastern half of the population is Russian, almost 50%. That’s why every single Latvian soldier is on the border with Russia”.
And in light of Russia’s arguments in favour of the annexation of Eastern Ukraine, being the population was predominantly Russian, the fears seem well-founded. We found it amazing that this 20 something year old woman was so crystal clear in her thoughts, and so willing to share them. Her views, however, were not unique.
In light of our foodie adventures during our short stay in Latvia, we have to start with the markets. They were a close stroll to our hotel and the centre of the old town. And the produce was absolutely astounding! There were four halls the size of aircraft hangars crammed with local produce, including an amazing array of cured meats, olives, fish, cheese, bread, mushroom and berries. We arrived right in the middle of the berry season and the smell of the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries wafted through the streets as we walked past the stalls. It was mouth-watering!
The aircraft-hangar like buildings are the Riga Central Market
And I have never seen such a selection of honeys for sale. Probably 40 different varieties! (Nik says I need to just visit the Giant Bee in Queensland but I think she is pulling my leg!)
And the fruit and veg was just too good!
Riga Central Market, Latvia
And for me, the meat and seafood selection was not huge, but there was fabulous, and enormous salmon, and beautiful herring.
Look at the size of that salmon!
Riga Old Town itself is very pretty. Small. Friendly. And really artistic. The souvenirs in some of the places we have visited in Eastern Europe have looked a little like someone has let in a mad man with a fretsaw, all wooden kitsch and terrifying Christmas-eske decorations. In Riga, a lot of the art had a modern Scandinavian feel, with beautiful woods, pottery and textiles. There were collectives where you could see and buy the works of local artisans and the bars and restaurants had some amazing fits outs and art.
There was also some more traditional glass art, some of which was quite different from anything else we have seen. We saw, and bought, some of this beautiful glass made by a Latvian artist called “Elfu”. And Nikki’s mum is the lucky winner of trying to get it home in one piece, thanks Jan!
An example of the Glass Art from the Elfu Fabrika, Latvia.
Then there was the great food; modern, inventive and varied. It really was a treat after the more limited options to the East!
How about that for a soup? Beetroot soup and a Splitpea soup with goats cheese
And finally there was the bitters. Black Riga bitters are a local delicacy, a digestive liquor made from an array of herbs and berries. It is an acquired taste that is for certain, but over a plate of cheese, who could say no….
Beautiful lunch with Duck for me and Polenta with a mushroom sauce for Nikki with the rather interesting Blackcurrant Balzam….
Here are some more photos of Riga to whet your appetite….
Riga Street Scenes…
In the afternoon, Nik went to the Latvian Occupation Museum by herself as I wanted to get blogs loaded up. Out of the many memorials of the events of WWII, this is one that Nik said she found most moving, particularly as there we had little knowledge of the impact of the German and Soviet occupation of Latvia (or Estonia and Lithuania) before this trip. Latvia was occupied for over 50 years and during this time the proportion of ethnic Latvians dropped from 75% to 52% of the population. Many Latvian citizens were deported to Soviet Gulags, from where as little as 1% of some villages ever returned.
Vilnius is not quite as pretty as Riga, but certainly had its own charms. For example, look at the menu:
How could I possibly resist “Rustic beaver meat stew with Champignons and tomatoes”?
Beaver stew, Vilnius, Lithuania.
We stayed in an old monastery where Nikki was convinced there was an unhappy ghost (or ghosts of past church sins perhaps….) and she slept badly. I slept like a log.
Before Vilnius the best meal that I had had on the trip was a ceviche (raw seafood marinated in lemon juice) in Valparaiso, Chile. Yep, in month 1! However, in Stikliai restaurant in Vilnius I had some pickled Herring that was just fantastic; beautifully flavoured with salt and oil with the perfect texture. The onion, paprika and mayonnaise sauce was exquisitely prepared, and the baked potato was perfect. Wow. A new favourite!
Nikki says hers is still the Moqueces in Salvador, Brazil. A beautiful ”coconut limey heaven” is a direct Nikki quote, and will be pretty hard to beat!
Best meal of the trip for Neil so far; Herring in Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius also had an interesting artistic vibe, mainly jewellery. Nikki actually saw a piece of jewellery that she liked, which is a pretty rare occasion - so Happy Birthday Nikki!
We only had one afternoon in Vilnius and so took to the streets after lunch to look around, but the weather had other ideas and it started to bucket down, in a very, very persistent manner. So we took refuge in the closest building, and you’ll never guess, it was a gin and whisky bar… Some Italian gin and Swedish Single Malt Whisky jumped out at us to warm us up and, well, we had to buy it.
“So mate”, I said to the bloke behind the bar. “Have you seen signs of global warming?”.
“Bloody Oath, Cobber”, he (perhaps not) said. “It used to be that it would get down to minus 30 centigrade for at least 2 weeks a year, now it only drops to minus 20 C”.
“What the? I can’t image minus 30 C”, I said. Then I asked, because I am me, and this is what I do….
“What’s your view of Lithuanian independence and how do you feel about the Russians?” So not a hard-hitting or controversial question to ask an innocent bar keeper on a rainy afternoon then. Nik just rolled her eyes.
“Independence is good, as is being a member of the European Union and having the Euro as the currency. As for being a member of NATO, the Russians keep a large army in Belarus and in their Russian protectorate on the coast to our south. They regularly hold exercises close to our border and if they came over the border would NATO come to our aid? I don’t know. We hope so, but….”.
An amazing fact about the fight for independence by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that Nik and I had previously missed, was the symbolic protest, “the Baltic Way” which occurred in August 1989. Some 2 million people from these countries joined hands forming an unbroken chain from the capital of Estonia, Tallinn to Vilnius in Lithuania (approximately 600km!) to protest for their independence. It took another 6 years for Russian armed forces to leave….
Russia will shortly be carrying out the “Zapad” exercise with 100,000 troops and the “First Guards Tank Army” in Belarus (the first time the First Guards Tank Army has been used since the Second World War). Again, history for the people in these countries on Russia’s Western fringe is all too recent and their Eastern neighbour clearly weighs on the minds of the people.
Then, hoorah!!!! Our last bus ride for a long time! From Vilnius to Warsaw in Poland. It was only 12 hours but we were clearly out of practice from South America, as it was pretty tiring. Although, can I just say that it was the poshest bus we have been on for the whole trip! Seat back screens with a better selection of movies than any airline I have travelled with and really good wi-fi for the whole trip! Fabulous!
The Soviets, surprisingly, did a really good job of rebuilding Warsaw after the Second World War. With almost the entire city completely demolished, it is amazing how well the re-construction has kept it’s olde worlde charm. We had some challenges in the train station, and couldn’t for the life of us buy a Eurail ticket to get us to Germany. Fortunately, our friendly hostel staff managed to help us get a ticket to Berlin, where hopefully my German skills would facilitate a better outcome for our onward journey!
We spent a day wandering through Warsaw, visiting the former site of the Jewish ghetto (now a park with a small memorial) and the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. This was an incredibly detailed museum about Jewish history and did not just focus on the Holocaust, giving important insight to Jewish culture in Europe. However, the imagery and information regarding the Warsaw ghetto and holocaust was appropriately unforgettable. Which is the whole point.
As you know, I have always said that bars are great places to get the viewpoint of every type of person on every type of issue:
The Russian Studies Graduate from America gave his view that Russia will, in some way, annex parts of eastern and southern Ukraine but will stop there.
A Polish woman gave her view that, whilst life was better since the departure of the soviets, there were still not enough good jobs.
And a Belgian bloke living in America gave his view that Europe is being overrun by Muslims who do not have the same values as Europeans.
As Nikki has said on a few occasions, one tends to mix with people who have the same views. Those people become friends, and it is easy to only mix with and hear from people that have the same or similar point of view as oneself.
Coming back the Voltairean quote of the 1700’s, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, I vociferously, but respectfully, put an alternative viewpoint to the Belgian gentleman, including telling the story about the goat. For those of you that have heard it, I apologise. For others, let me go off on a tangent……
The Australian Goat Story:
I was developing a wind farm in the Australian outback. Desert country. Bloody tough (but stunningly beautiful) country. 270mm of rain per year. On average. Regular droughts. You measure the livestock capability of land using a term called “carrying capacity”. Good land in Victoria in Australia, or the UK, or say Washington State in the US, could carry say 2 sheep per acre of land. This country in the outback has a carrying capacity of 0.08 sheep per acre, or 12 acres per sheep. So you need big farms. Say 100,000 acres. Then you can run 7,000 or so sheep and with the value from the lambs and wool, you can make a living.
I was talking with one of the farmers about goats. He said that 25 years ago, they had no value. They ate everything and bred like, well, goats. The best thing to do was shoot them. And the sheep fences didn’t keep them out, they just wondered onto the land. In Australia, they are called feral goats.
Now let me go off on a(nother) tangent…..
About 30 years ago 2 Lebanese brothers immigrated to Melbourne. After a couple of years someone said to them “Hey mate, you got any goats?”. (Goats, by the way, are the most widely eaten meat in the world. The Hindu’s don’t eat beef (if any meat at all). Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork).
So the Lebanese bloke said “Dunno. Let me have a look”.
Sure enough, he found that feral goats were available for very low cost so he opened up an abattoir to kill, skin, and butcher the goats. Most of the goat meat went for export. Much of it to the USA.
About 4 years ago, the value of a goat to the Outback farmer was about $35 dollars a goat. To collect and transport the goats to the abattoir cost about $5 per goat. Not much money unless you’re collecting several thousand goats per year! Which they were….
So, immigrants helped create a multi-million dollar industry from an Australian pest! The Lebanese-Australian brothers’ abattoir is now processing 10,000 goats a week and employing about 500 people! And significantly increased the income for outback farmers! Happy days! (Well, unless you’re a goat….).
Oh, and about 2 years ago Australia signed Free Trade Agreements with China and South Korea, and expanded the Free Trade Agreement with Japan. Since then the price the Outback farmer is getting for a goat has gone from $35/goat to $70/goat. By the way, in the same period, the price per kilo of cattle has gone from about $2.50/kilo to about $5.50/kilogram.
Long story short, I have seen the amazing contribution that refugees and migrants have bought to our (and other) countries and there are plenty more stories out there to show it. Although, only the best stories have goats.
This was the first time for Nikki and I in Germany.
“What?!”, I hear you cry. “But you worked in Germany!”.
No, I didn’t. I worked in a country called West Germany. Yes. When I worked in Frankfurt, there was still a Wall in Berlin. Then again, it was a third of a century ago.
Neither Nikki or I had been to Berlin and German efficacy was shown during the purchase of our Eurail passes. We were loaded up with tickets and passes before we knew it! It is a certainly a country where you can “feel the efficiency”, everything was just easier.
In Berlin we went to the standard tourist sites of the Reichstag:
Neil (the one wearing the fabulous hat) and Nikki mucking up another selfie in front of the Reichstag.
By the way, I saw this fascinating plaque in front of the Brandenburg gate:
From a speech given by US President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12th 1987
The site of Hitler’s Bunker:
Yep. That’s it. The carpark to the left of where I was standing. That’s where Hitler’s bunker was before they filled with concrete and parked cars on it. Highly appropriate outcome.
The Soviet memorial:
Soviet memorial in Berlin
Very striking was the memorial to the Berlin Wall, including an original section of the wall, left intact.
Looking out onto the Berlin Wall overlooking a model of the city and where the wall ran (in the foreground)
This section, located at Bernauer Strasse, has been left as a memorial. There are photos of what the area looked like when the wall was in place and a memorial to those that died trying to cross the wall. I loved this graffiti on the wall:
‘We’ve never had to build a wall to keep our people in”…..
It is a stark reminder of the Iron Curtain (Churchill’s phrase that he first used in 1945) that fell across Europe after the second World War.
And then the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,711 Stelae (concrete slabs) varying from 0.3 metres high to 4.7 metres high.
A lot more graphically detailed than the other memorials we had seen so far, the one in Berlin, while striking, felt distant. It almost felt like the content was so difficult, that the concept was to just objectively put it all out there and let people make their own of it. Perhaps that is the best way, I am unsure. However, these places are very personal and neither of us would have wanted the job of representing this event in a single memorial.
The powerhouse that is Germany
Firstly, Germans are bloody nice people and we’ve been lucky to meet quite a few of them during our trip.
In a previous blog I wrote about the economic behemoth that is California, the world’s 7th largest economy. Germany is the world’s 4th largest economy. Yes, it has twice the number of people as California but still, a US$3.5 trillion economy is nothing to sneeze at.
America has a few skeletons in its closet, but one of its greatest actual and moral achievements of which it should be most proud is the Marshall Plan. This plan, developed by George Marshall in 1947/48 was to invest US$130 billion (in 2016 figures) into devastated Europe. Marshall stated to the graduating class of Harvard in 1947 that “its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”.
It was, quite simply, a superb plan. Mix the plan with the German work ethic, their desire to do things not just right but superbly, the fabulous approach to workplace relations (where union leaders are on the boards of companies), and the Mittelstand (the thousands of small (less than 1,000 employees) companies, often based in small towns in Germany, that produce a wide range of products that are the best in the world; from pencils to shoes to beer packaging equipment to equipment to shot/ sand blast metals prior to painting/ galvanising), and you have a world leading formula.
Plus, this leader.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, 2005 – present
Chancellor Merkel is arguably the most powerful, influential leader in the world today. The Chancellor leads the world in many areas including Free Trade, Climate Change, Industrial Might, Leadership of the European Union, and, very importantly, Humanitarian efforts.
It was in the middle of what was called the European refugee crisis in 2015 that Germany opened its doors to a million refugees from, primarily, Syria. My views are that there is obviously the Humanitarian side of this. There is also, the economically smart side of it too.
It’s well known that, on average, as education for women increases, the birth rate per woman decreases. So therefore, if a country wants to maintain its growth rate when the birth rate per woman is decreasing, immigration is the answer.
Percent of Western German mothers having 1, 2 and 3 or more children by educational attainment
number of children
one child 22(Compulsorty Education) 30 (Intermediary Ed) 31 (Highest Ed)
two children 39 (Compulsory Education) 48 (Intermediary Ed) 48 (Highest Ed)
three or more children 39 (Compulsory Education) 22 (Intermediary Ed) 21 (Highest Ed)
Expected population numbers in Germany with differing immigration scenarios.
In addition, a country needs workers to support the increasing numbers of old people.
My name might not be Einstein but Chancellor Merkel looks to be pretty smart to me whereas Japan looks to be on the edge of a demographic cliff…….
Also, as shown with the Goat Story, immigration leads to increased economic opportunities.
The Holocaust, Nazis and Soviet Occupation
In Chapter 5 of this blog, having visited the superb Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos (the Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago, Chile, I wrote:
“How a country deals with its past atrocities is a measure of its level of civilisation”.
The systematic, planned murder of 6 million Jews during the Second World War was, is, shocking, abhorrent, unbelievable.
Auschwitz Liberation Day – 27th January 1945
The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the Occupation Museum in Riga, and many, many others, all work towards the recognition of the past atrocities and educating todays population that we must never, never, forget.
We must, as people of the world, be constantly aware that genocide is a heartbeat away. One would have thought after the Holocaust that humankind would have learnt and there would have been no more genocide. Tragically, this is not true. Systematic murder has been a regular occurrence in the 72 years since the end of the Second World War. It’s estimated that between 1956 and 2016 there have been 43 genocides resulting in the murder of around 50 million people including:
- Cambodia – Khymer Rouge – 1.5 to 3 million people – 1975 to 1979
- Rwanda – 1 million people – 1994
- Russia (30 million people murdered in the Gulags),
- China (Unknown millions murdered in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution)
We must, as citizens of the world, be aware of the Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html), and work constantly to ensure that our own countries abide by the Declaration and pressure other countries to abide by it too.
This trip has educated us more than we could have possibly imagined about events that we were, in the main, only vaguely aware of or were already a part of ‘history’. But this history continues to play out around us in global politics and conflicts today. I think we are both thinking about the ways in which can play our own small part in improving this….