Thursday, August 30, 2012

Weekend in Bergen

Over Bank Holiday weekend, Keenan and I jetted off to Bergen, Norway. Why? We've heard the magnificent Norwegian fjords should not be missed. We also heard that Norway is the most expensive country in Scandinavia, if not the most expensive place on earth. We've visited most Nordic capitals (Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Stockholm), and whilst these cities are expensive but more or less comparable to London. However, Norway is on another league in terms of cost. Both Keenan and I were sticker shocked, take for example beers at the supermarket. At first glance, 40 NOK (4.32 GBP/7 USD) for a four pack of beer at the local supermarket wasn't so bad, but upon closer look, it was actually 40 NOK per can! Yes for one can. A pint of microbrew at a low-key pub cost a  whooping 15 GBP. Ouch. So it is no exaggeration that Norway is extremely expensive.

Despite the high cost, Norway is by far one of the more scenic places I have visited in Europe. The stunning fjords with ribbons of narrow waterfalls, calm deep-blue waters, and steep gorges is jaw-dropping beautiful. Pristine, serene, and untouched. This is a nature lover's playground.

We started our tour of the fjords with Norway in Nutshell. It's a self-guided tour really using a multiple forms of public transportation.  The tour started with a dramatic train journey onboard the Bergen Railway which snakes along the water to a little town of Voss. From there it was a harrowing, nail-biting bus ride of twists and turns to the town of Gudvagen. The scenery was truly spectacular, and we counted no less than a dozen or so waterfalls along the way.

We then hopped on a boat and snagged seats on the upper deck to enjoy a leisurely, if only a bit chilly, for a 2.5 hour cruise through the Nærøyfjord, the narrow (500 metre) fjord of the larger Sognefjord and  a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you're an avid photographer, the Nærøyfjord will not disappoint. Honestly, pictures do not do it justice -- you'll have to see fjords at least once in your life.  Then it was back to Bergen via Mydral. A long day trip and rather expensive, but well worth it.

We spent the rest of the weekend exploring the cute town of Bergen, stopping off at the famous fish market; Bryggen, the old historic wharf of Bergen; and Bergenhus fortress. Small, compact, and lively.

We also enjoyed a morning hike up to Mt. Floyen, one of seven mountains that surrounds Bergen. It was a short but relatively steep hike through some lovely woodlands. On top, fantastic panaromic views of Bergen awaits you. If hiking is not your thing, there is a funicular that takes you up to Mt. Floyen. We got lucky with the weather -- amazing blue skies and sun!

We came back from Bergen a lot poorer, but feel incredibly blessed to visit one of the most beautiful corners of Europe.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

An Estonian Wedding

About a month and half ago, Keenan and I had the pleasure of attending a couple friend's wedding at the gorgeous Vihala Manor Country Club, approximately 90 minutes outside of Tallinn. The groom, who hails from New Jersey, met his future wife whilst on holiday cruising between Sweden and her native Estonia several years ago. They began a romantic courtship and the rest as they say is history. 

I had originally planned on touring Latvia and Lithuania with Keenan, but as I had just started a new job two weeks prior, I didn't think it was sensible to request a full week off given I was already tasked on several projects. I flew into Tallinn on Friday afternoon and met up with Keenan and our London-based friends in the Old Town for a quick flash-by tour before piling up in the rental car for the rehearsal dinner at the bride's hometown in the Estonian countryside. At the house, we met both the bride and groom's extended families and close friends, many who flew from all parts of the US to attend the wedding festivities. 

The bride's family treated us out-of-town wedding guests to an Estonian feast of freshly grilled salmon, pork skewers, fresh summer salads, and other Estonian specialities, and of course, no Estonian feast would be complete without a copious bottles of vodka. The evening ended with speeches and gifts for the wedding party, followed some delicious Kringel, an Estonian-style cinnamon cake, coffee, and dessert wine. We all turned in relatively early, excited to witness their big day. 

We arrived to the wedding venue in the late morning for a few hours of exploring Vihala's expansive 50 hectares property before the 3 o'clock ceremony. Set in Lahemaa National Parks, this 16th century estate boosts several elegant historical buildings, a mini-golf course, restaurants and cafe, nature trails, and 68 hotel rooms. All rooms were well-appointed with modern amenities and tastefully decorated in warm hues. I can only imagine what the estate looks like during the winter months covered with a blanket of fresh snow. Coincidentally, Vihula Manor was also hosting a Vintage and Classic Car Day in which some 20 stunning classic Rolls Royces from the 1920s were on displayed, making for a lovely backdrop for wedding photos. 

The wedding ceremony took place outside on the Island of Promises overlooking a large pond and incorporated Jewish and Estonian traditions such as breaking of the glass, sending the bride's maiden name away to symbolise her new life, the groom climbing a tree to reach a stork (yes, there was a stork!) to bless the happy couple with children, and other Estonian games which involved embarrassing the groom. 

Then it was on to the cocktail reception and passed appetizers at the Tea House, followed by dinner and dancing until 2am in the Barn House. It was an intimate wedding of no more than 60 guests and we're so happy to share with the day with the bride and groom. After the London Olympics, the happy couple jetted off to the beautiful Indian Ocean island of Mauritius for their honeymoon. We're putting money on the books that they will have a honeymoon baby...we'll see. 


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Old Squares, Crosses, and the Living Memory of Occupation: Exploring the Baltic States

Riga, Latvia
If you have read any of our blogs then you would know that I have always been fascinated with history.  As living case studies of political transition from authoritarianism to democracy, post-Communist Eastern Europe has always been a fascinating region to visit.   When the occasion came up to attend a friend’s wedding in Estonia we took the opportunity to extend the trip and visit neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, thereby hitting all three Baltic states.  At this point I would say I have done a decent amount of travel around Eastern Europe so I had a good idea of what to expect, both good and bad.  The surrounding environs leading into Riga were defined by the familiar sight of non-descript, drab Soviet- era tower blocks and roads and highways designed to maximize transportation efficiency without regard to pedestrians or the general aesthetics of the surrounding areas.  However, once you arrive in the Old Town of Riga it gets much more interesting and you are again struck by the duality that permeates most major post-Eastern Bloc cities.  These cities always seem to encompass contradictory and conflicting characteristics and Riga was no different; European, but post-Communist; democratic, but not without its dose of corruption; decadent, but cheap; Western, but uniquely Russian.   Pleasing on the eye with plenty of drinking and dining options, it revealed itself as the perfect destination for Stag parties and that becomes even more obvious as soon as the evening arrives and the music begins.    

I commenced the trip in Riga, but also used it as a base to explore the Hill of Crosses across the border in neighboring Lithuania before moving onto to Tallinn to meet up with the rest of our friends for the wedding in Estonia.  Riga itself is small, requiring no more than two days to take it all in.  Anything beyond that and I would highly recommend either a beach day in nearby Jurmala or an excursion into Lithuania to put another country on your personal travel map.    

My main impressions of Riga was that it was compact, very quaint and charming, and extremely cheap.  Although a couple or individual traveler could find plenty to do to stay entertained, it did seem that it was the perfect destination for a “lad’s trip”.  With some of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Europe and a fascinating history that would rival any other in the region, I do wonder whether its reputation as a destination for party goers is doing the city enough justice.  Although conducive to clubbing and bar hopping, it does seem that there could be a bit more that lies beneath the surface which is worth exploring and maybe worth embracing while still retaining its lively atmosphere.

Unlike its neighbor to the north, Estonia who shares more in common with Finland ethnically and linguistically, Latvia is largely Russian and it is common to hear Russian spoken as the primary language.  Conversations with some of the locals even indicated that their first language was indeed Russian over the local Latvian.  Although the language was familiar to me because of my own travels in Russia, I did find the general disposition and friendliness of the average Latvian to be different from their Russian counterparts.  Perhaps this can be the result of being a much smaller country which has retained its own identity and history through the years, albeit influenced by, but distinct from Russia’s            
A must do and one of the main highlights in Riga would be the Museum of Occupation which traces the period of Soviet, then Nazi, and then Soviet rule again in Latvia from 1940 to 1991.  Similar to the House of Terror in Budapest and the Museum of Wartime Krakow located at Schindler’s Factory in Krakow, this is a high quality experience for anyone interested in wartime and political history.  Better yet, it’s free, but well deserving of a generous donation given its impressive displays and informative exhibitions.  Although not as large as its counterpart museums in these other cities, the building itself is an imposing and modern structure which seems to meditate on and reflect the darkness of the period through its physical design.  Depending on your pace and mood, you could spend anywhere from two to three hours exploring the museum.     
Hill of Crosses & Šiauliai, Lithuania
Although charming with plenty of great pubs in which to pass the time, it is nice to venture out of Riga for at least one day trip.  Instead of heading to the seaside retreat of Jurmala, which is also highly recommended, I decided to cross into Lithuania for a day trip to the famous Hill of Crosses near the small Lithuanian town of Šiauliai. The bus ride is approximately two and a half hours from the Riga bus station and it drops you off in the Šiauliai bus terminal, near the city center.  From here you have to take another short bus ride of approximately twenty minutes to a stop identified by a big wooden cross from which point you walk the rest of the twenty to thirty minutes to the Hill of Crosses through fairly barren countryside, but lined with extremely interesting stork nestsMy reason for making the trek out here was primarily due to my pure fascination with the place, and my efforts did not disappoint.  Initially built as the spot of Catholic pilgrimage, the site transformed over the years into a symbol of political opposition against Soviet occupation as attempts to tear it down by the Soviet army were consistently met with the defiance of the pilgrims who simply rebuilt the site again and again.  The result is an astonishing and infinite array of crucifixes of all types and sizes piled one on top of another in an almost endless and dizzying fashion which has come to symbolize the resilience and political will of the Lithuanian people in the face of unrelenting oppression.  

After spending between one and one  and a half hours strolling through the site, it is wise to make a move and head back to Šiauliai in order to catch the bus back to Riga.  Overall, the excursion is about six to seven hours roundtrip, including wait times for buses.  It is not necessarily quick, but worth the journey and at least you have the evening to spend back in Riga (it doesn’t even seem to get dark during the summer months up here). Šiauliai tself did not seem to offer much in the way of sightseeing, but if you do have some time to kill, the bus terminal is attached to a fairly large modern mall with plenty of food options for a late lunch before slugging it back to Riga.  

I do need to offer a couple of tips about the excursion to the Hill of Crosses, because it is not clearly obvious until you are well on your way.  You will need cash and there are bank branches inside the Šiauliai Mall which is attached to the bus terminal.  It is worthwhile stopping into one of these banks to exchange some currency for the bus ride and lunch in Lithuania as they will not accept Euros or Latvian currency.  Lithuania is extremely cheap, perhaps the cheapest country I have visited in Europe, so use discretion and only get enough cash that you will need for the day.  Also, once you arrive at the Šiauliai bus terminal, be sure to go inside and ask for a time table for the shuttle bus to the Hill of Crosses as they do not come regularly and you could find yourself stranded by the roadside on your attempt back to the bus terminal if you haven’t planned properly and given yourself ample time to walk back to catch the bus to town.  Finally, bring your passport just in case you need it.  Although there was no passport check from Latvia into Lithuania, I boarded a bus on my way back to Riga which had originated in Kaliningrad, Russia; therefore there was a passport check when we crossed into Latvia from Lithuania.    

Arriving back in Riga I was pretty knackered from the last couple of days so I finished off the night and my time in Riga with a light dinner as I had yet another very early bus ride to Tallinn the following morning.  Next stop on my Baltic tour, Estonia! 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Legacy of London 2012

Most of us could not have expected this.  In the months leading up to the 2012 Games there was so much skepticism and cynicism about the city’s capacity to host the event and doubts about whether it could match all of the expectations that had built up over the last seven years.  In a quintessentially British style Londoners proclaimed their intention to avoid the impending hassles and to “keep calm, and carry on”.  Although there was definitely some level of anticipation and excitement about hosting one of the biggest and most global events in the world, there were probably few of us who could have predicted the degree of enthusiasm and passion with which we would embrace London as host city to the Olympic Games once things really got started.  
After a powerful Opening Ceremony which celebrated some of the most pivotal moments in Britain’s modern history people’s minds were changed and a sudden, rare display of national pride swept over the city.  London suddenly transformed into a massive festival that would not stop for the next two and a half weeks.  Countries from all over the world invaded every corner of the city and set up hospitality houses which would serve as cultural outposts and host parties, providing an excuse to venture to a new neighborhood everyday if so desired. 

Open spaces and parks were turned into outdoor viewing parties, complete with food stalls and beer gardens, filled with crowds of spectators enjoying some of the greatest displays of athleticism.  Every pub in the city turned into a live sports bar with Union Jacks adorned alongside flags from all nations.  Although I was wrong about the degree of hassle the Games would inevitably cause, I was right about at least one thing; we could not escape the Olympics and they permeated every aspect of life in London, making it a truly amazing two and a half weeks.   
The Tube ran perfectly, better than usual actually.  After a summer of almost constant rain the weather turned warm and sunny, for the most part, and people everywhere were jubilant.  This was my first time living in an Olympic host city, so it was not possible to predict the outcome, but it did not disappoint.  Global and unparalleled in diversity on any normal day, London cosmopolitanism was amplified during these two and a half weeks with open shows of national pride and sportsmanlike rivalry everywhere.  Even Team Great Britain’s seemingly ambitious goal of finishing fourth in the medal count was exceeded when they finished third overall, just after the powerhouses USA and China.  The Games truly beat everyone’s expectations in almost every way possible.    

Personal highlights undoubtedly included attending the Women’s Qualifying Gymnastics, watching the USA Women’s Football team win Gold in Wembley Stadium, and watching the USA Men’s Basketball team win gold in the North Greenwich Arena.  But they also included the emotional highs of cheering for Team GB and Team USA in events that we did not attend, and cheering for more unknown athletes from countries in which we had no ties just because their personal stories of triumph in the face of adversity were so inspiring.  It is the dozens of remarkable stories that come out of the Olympics that define the spirit of the Games.  Now that they are over, it is natural that we all feel some sort of a void left by their absence.  

London 2012 was always a personal time marker for us.  Transitioning to life in the UK back in 2008, the Games still seemed like an eternity away, but now they have come and gone.  Now all of us need to look forward to another point in the future, redefining the next major stage of anticipation.  As London settles back into some semblance of normality and the focus now turns to the Paralympics and then to finally defining the “legacy” of the events of this summer, we can’t help but to reflect on what it meant for us personally and the legacy it will leave on our own lives.  London 2012 set out to “inspire a generation”.  Reflecting back, we have lived in London in what may be viewed later as one of its most historic periods in modern times.  From once in a lifetime celebrations like the Royal Wedding and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to less positive memories such as the London Riots and the Eurozone Crisis, we can perhaps say that we have lived here during a time that reflects the city’s extraordinary historic narrative.  

Since the early Roman days of Londinium, this has always been a global metropolis and a destination for the intrepid, an outpost for those seeking adventure and opportunity.  London is always celebrating, constantly growing, sometimes facing insurmountable threats and challenges, reinvigorating, and always rising again to new heights, defining the generation at that period in time.  The London 2012 Games have once again demonstrated this great city’s ability to arouse and to show the rest of the world the greatness confined within, hopefully inspiring each of us in the process.  There is no telling what the “legacy” of these Games will be, or what lasting impact on this particular generation it will produce, but for now we know that it was another exceptional moment in London’s expansive and dramatic history.  We were so fortunate to be here to experience it and for now that may be the only legacy that really matters.    - KV 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Olympic Fever!

The Olympics are in full swing in London and the host city is alive with amazing energy, buzz, and pride. Eight days into "The Greatest Show on Earth," USA and China lead in the medal count with 21 and 20  gold medals respectively,  Team GB is 4th in the medal count, and Michael Phelps won his 21st  Olympic medal, making him the most decorated Olympian in history. It has been an exciting few weeks in London, following the Olympic Torch zigzag through all 32 London boroughs, watching athletes and journalist descend upon this great capital city, and counting down the hours until the Opening Ceremony. 

Keenan and I hosted a small viewing party at our flat to kick-off the Olympic festivities. On the menu were Olympic-inspired food and drink events such as "cocktail-sipping," a battle between caipirnha and Pimms; "eating-marathon," featuring Team Mexico vs. Team Italy; "wine-tasting," a battle between reds and wines; "beer-lifting" between the American Budweiser and the Beligian Stella Artois; and "shot-putting"  of vodka and more vodka.

It was lovely evening, especially delighted that my San Francisco-based friend was able to make the trip to London as part of her work trip to Dublin, and our couple friend finally moved back to London after a year-long secondment with Google Sao Paolo. I hope you would all agree that Danny Boyle did a fantastic job directing the Opening Ceremony -- highlights were definitely Queenie jumping off the helicopter with no other than James Bond, Mr. Bean's 'solo' piano debut, and the dazzling firework show. To get the "competition" going, we had an Olympic Quiz during the Country Parade, which was fund, followed by a parade of desserts -- chocolate brownies and a marvellous chocolate cake from Del'Aziz courtesy of my friend from San Francisco who is a fantastic baker herself. Incredible Opening Ceremony! Incredible evening with incredible people. Definitely my favorite Olympics yet!

As my friend is quite the foodie, we took her to Borough Market for lunch and then walked along the Southbank where we were greeted by numerous "themed" Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville. Since I now work over my Tower Hill, I see the Olympic rings hang elegantly off the iconic Tower Bridge daily on my to work, but I had yet to see the rings from the Southbank. 

We made our way across Tower Bridge to St. Katherine's Dock where we stumbled upon the Denmark's Olympic House outside of Dickens Inn where crowds gathered to watch Men's Cycling. We then made our way to Central London, strolling through Regent's Street whilst admiring the wave of international flags hung so proudly around Piccaddily Circus. Later in the evening, we met up with my friend's friends who also knows Keenan's cousins and childhood friend -- such a small world! These guys were so lucky to snag tickets to the Opening Ceremony and to the Men's Gymnastics Qualifications and proudly showed us some amazing video clips on their Iphones.

My friend and I were also lucky enough to get last minute tickets to see Women's Gymnastic Qualifications at the O2 last Sunday. At the time of booking the tickets, I had no idea who we would see in Sessions 3 & 4, but luck was on our side and we saw Teams GB, USA, China, Russia, Germany, Canada, and France compete for a spot in the Team Final Event and in the Individual All-Around.

My friend and I got amazing seats, just about 9 rows back from the floor in front of the vault and floor exercise mat. We were cheering proudly and waving our red, white, and blue flag for Team USA who were stellar on every apparatus. We even managed to get on the BBC  after Jordyn Wieber's stunning vault routine. Our 3 seconds of fame! It was a great event, and especially proud of Team USA for winning GOLD for the Team Event and Gabby Douglas for winning the grand prize of gymnastics, Olympic Gold in the Individual All-Around.


Eight days into the Olympics, public transport seems to be under control. The city does not seem any more or less crowded than any ordinary day. Keenan and I went to work every day this week and our commute was surprisingly a lot easier than expected with elbow room to read on our Ipad. No major hiccups yet, just a few minor delays on the Central Line, but so far so good... for now, that is. We'll see how the city copes now that Athletics is in full swing and some 60,000 spectators are expected at the Olympic Stadium from here on out until the closing ceremony.

On the second week of the Olympics, we look forward to Women's Football (Americans, that would be soccer) Semi-Final at Wembley Stadium on Monday. We'll be watching Japan against France (un)fortunately as Team USA will be playing Canada in the second semi up in Old Trafford in Manchester, but we will indeed be cheering for our beloved Japan, a country that holds a special place in our hearts and in memory of Keenan's Japanese host father. But should we have a redux of last year's Women's World Cup, a match up between Japan and USA in the final, we're on the American side all the way. We'll have to wait and see...

Also, looking forward to Men's Final Basketball next Sunday! Thanks to to another friend, he kindly offered to sell us his tickets only because he managed to get better tickets -- courtside tickets -- for the big game in which USA's "Dream Team" is expected to win. It's been a great week of Olympic excitement so far. Hope everyone back at home is enjoying Olympic Fever as much as we are.

Cheerios from London!