Sunday, June 24, 2007

Can you buy yarn in Riga?

Finally someone asked me a question!

In a later posting, I’ll offer some suggestions about shopping in Riga and ideas for gifts to bring home. You will see lots and lots of hand-knit mittens and socks for sale throughout Vecriga, but I believe I’ve walked every cobblestoned street in that section of the city and can state categorically: there is not a single yarn store.

I turned up two mildly interesting stores (not far from our hotel), a tiny shop that carries a limited stock of local Latvian yarn as a sideline amid suvenīri, and I saw on the bus but not did not visit one other on the highway heading out of town. That’s it—other than a couple stalls at Central Market on Saturday mornings (too early for most of us to have arrived).

Bottom line: You will probably be disappointed if you decide to wait to buy the yarn for any of the trip projects in Riga.

Both Lia and I have hunted for yarn shops during several extended visits to the city. The following shops are the only ones the two of us found—or even heard about. We suspect a conspiracy: those knitters who turn out the mittens and socks for the souvenir vendors don’t want to share their wool!

  1. Dzija (this means “yarn” in Latvian and that is the only name I saw on the sign outside this shop). Located at 11 Merkeļa (middle of the block between Barona and Marijas across the street from the Russian circus), about 3 blocks from our hotel. The yarn shop is downstairs in the basement. Most of the yarn is Italian, but they have good prices and a large inventory. Several bins are filled with bags of 10 or more skeins at bargain prices. I also got small steel double point needles here (size 0, 00, and 000). The staff is Russian and so are all of the knitting magazines and patterns. If you have been looking for a quantity of yarn to make a sweater, bring along your pattern because this might be a good place for you.
  2. Adele. Located at 30 Gertrudes (middle of the block between Terbatas and Barona, 5 blocks from the hotel). The shop is street level and sells both yarn and yard goods. Some interesting yarns, but all of them are imported mostly from Italy. Patterns are in Russian and German. I didn’t see many bargains. It’s a smallish shop and not nearly as well stocked as what true yarn lovers consider “a find”.
  3. Dāvanu dizains (“Gift design”). Located at 1 Inženieru, a 1-block long side street between Merkeļa and Raina next to the main building of the University of Latvia. This is a teeny souvenir shop that only carries Latvian yarn as a sideline. You can see in the window from the street, but you have to go into the building to reach it. I bought some of the yarn. It comes in 100-gram (unwound) skeins, 100% Latvian wool, light sports weight, just right for mittens, bags, and socks and costs LT 1.10 (about $2) per skein. BUT there were only a few colors and a grand total of only 20 skeins in one pigeon hole. I got the card and e-mail address, and I plan to write to the manager, telling her some serious knitters will be in town on Monday, July 30, and encouraging her to stock up on that yarn from Limbaži. It was well spun.
  4. Illustives. I haven’t visited this one, only saw it from the bus window on the way out to the Ethnographic Museum (which we will be visiting Sunday morning). The address is 390 Brīvības (definitely not walking distance). If possible, I’ll try to check up on it before you all arrive and see if it’s worthy of us.

That’s it. Arnhild asked me to make a full report since she says knitters will always go looking for yarn even when you warn them there are no great yarn stores in the town. I’ll be happy to show you where these few are. They all should be open all day Monday (from 10 am until we leave for the ferry) but not Sunday.

Here are a few terms to help you read yarn labels:

dzija = yarn

adīšana= knitting

vilna = wool

kokvilna = cotton

lins = linen

zids = silk

sintētika = synthetic

adāmadatas = knitting needles

zeķu adāmadatas = double-point needles

sastāvs = yarn content

svars = weight (50 gr, 100, gr)

garums = length (in meters)

Fragments of mittens unearthed during archaeological digs prove that mittens have existed in the Latvian region since the 15th century. Knitting needles have been discovered even in the 14th century layer of excavations. The artist’s rendering shows the oldest remains of a 15th century mitten and glove found in excavations in Riga and restored by the archaeologist Anna Zariņa.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Midsummer's Eve

When Arnhild and I first sketched out plans for this trip, she e-mailed me a first draft of the itinerary. She had us arriving in Riga today, Saturday, June 23. I went ballistic, sending her a speedy response that of all days June 23 was NOT the right one for first- time visitors. How could I explain that St. John’s Eve is the biggest, most widely observed holiday in the Latvian calendar, and that every red-blooded Latvian would be off to the countryside to celebrate—probably until Tuesday (when we would already be arriving in Stockholm)?

Fortunately, Arnhild was able to redesign the schedule. But you can’t claim to know anything about Latvia unless you have a nodding acquaintance with the green market, Līgo, and Jāņi, and pundeles. We have just passed the summer solstice on Thursday (6/21) when pre-Christians of northern Europe marked the longest day and shortest night. The outdoor green market, held yesterday and today in Riga and in cities and towns throughout the country, is the place to buy your St. John supplies: homemade beer, cheese, medicinal herbs for the year, flowers plaited into wreaths for the young women, wreaths of oak leaves for the men (especially for special guys named Jānis –John, who are also celebrating their name’s day), birch besoms for the sauna, meijas (garlands of flowers, tree branches, and herbs for decorating both the inside of country houses, gates, and outbuildings), and even cows get wreaths for the occasion!

The most important Midsummer plant, however, is the mythical blooming fern. According to legend, this magic flower only opens tonight, St. John’s Eve, in the darkest part of the forest. Traditionally, searches for these ferns are conducted by pairs of young men and nubile maidens, none of whom have documented any finds--despite “looking” all night.

Līgo is the characteristic refrain for the thousands of folk songs Latvians sing on June 23 about the sun, the sky son Jānis or Yanis, the hosts of each farmstead—Midsummer’s “mother” and “father” who are greeted in song by the celebrants (“Jānis’ children”) as they go singing Līgo, Līgo from farm to farm and doing lots of eating and drinking at each stop. Here is a Līgo that’s well known (note all the ligos (your basic “tra-la-la”) between each line):

Sieru, sieru, Jāņa māte, Give us cheese, Jāņi mother,
Līgo, līgo

Tev bij govis laidarā; You have cows in your barn

Alu, alu, Jāņa Tēvis, Give us beer, Jāņi father
Līgo, līgo,

Tev bij mieži tīrumā You have barley in your fields.

As soon as the sky darkens, bonfires are built on hillsides. Macho types sometimes jump over them to ensure prosperity and fertility, although this practice is now discouraged by the Latvian Emergency Services. Sometimes pundeles (small barrels of pitch on tall wooden poles) are put up instead and much singing, dancing, and drinking go on around them.

The festivities last all night, and then in the morning before staggering off for a nap, everyone greets the morning sun. Some go skinny dipping in whatever body of water is nearby. Washing your face in the morning dew on the grass is supposed to be particularly beneficial. Then the partying starts up again on Sunday.

Oh, dear. I just checked the current weather report for Latvia. It is now 8:30 p.m. Saturday evening. The sun should set at 10:22 pm and rise at 4:30 am. Currently it is drizzling, the temperature is 59 F (but it feels like 70 F because the humidity is 93%). Those folk costumes can’t be too comfortable. A thunderstorm is expected during the night—so much for bonfires and fern-hunting. Sounds like drinking and singing will have to do this year. Actually that was the situation the two Janis I celebrated there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Arriving in Riga

I believe Arnhild has been in touch with everyone about arrival times in Riga, Latvia on Saturday, July 28 (or earlier in some cases). Our bus will be meeting and transporting most of the group.

The Riga airport (lidosta) is about 8 km southwest of the center of Riga. First you show your passport at Passport Control (if there’s a crowd, remember to get in the line for non-citizens and non-EU citizens. Next comes baggage claim (with free carts sitting around that you can use). On the off chance that your baggage doesn’t arrive, go to the Lost & Found Service located in the arrival area and file a report. They will arrange to have the luggage delivered to you at the hotel.

Then pass through customs and security control, which normally goes pretty quickly. If you are going into Riga on your own, you might want to get some local currency at this point. In the airport, some sellers may take euros, but it is not the legal tender. (See my posting “What about money?” [posted on June 5] for information about the Latvian lat.) In the arrival area there is a currency exchange booth, which is open until the last flight comes in each evening. There are also three ATMs throughout the terminal. (The Latvians call them “automats” in case you need to ask where one is located.)

Let me first report what the guide “Riga in your pocket” has to say about getting to town: “A queue of eager taxis will be waiting for you outside the arrivals hall. A typical ride to Vecriga (Old Town) or the city center (where our hotel is located) should cost no more than 9 Ls.” [Actually it was more like 6-8 Ls. in May.]

Then let me add my 2-santim’s worth: The best, most reliable taxi company in Riga is called “Rigas T” or “Rigas taksometris.” All of these cabs are red Renaults, and I am including a photo I took in May of the one that took us back to the airport from Vecriga. If you have a mobile phone and want to call one, there is a toll-free number: 800 13 13.

When you call one, they will take the information (in English) and your phone number. Then they will call to confirm when the taxi is on its way, and they will even give you the taxi’s car number (located in a white circle on the front doors--above it's #74).

Conveniently, Rigas T has its headquarters at our hotel, Reval Hotel Latvija. In fact, if you want to e-mail the hotel ahead of time and ask them to have a taxi waiting for you at the airport, they will provide this service and it will be a Rigas T. They bill your hotel room and you can pay them when you check out. The website for the hotel is The e-mail address is, the telephone number is +371 (country code for Latvia from the US) 777 22 22, and the fax number is +371 777 22 21.

In the unlikely chance that the cabbie doesn’t know where Hotel Latvija is, tell him (or rarely her) its 55 Elizabetes.

By bus

If you are really adventurous and you don’t mind schlepping luggage up and down the steps of a bus, Bus no. 22 (a bargain at 30 santims) goes from the far side of the airport parking lot to the train station (about 10 blocks from our hotel) every 20 minutes. Good news: the express bus no. 22A goes to the Orthodox Cathedral (less than one block from our hotel); bad news: it runs on an erratic timetable. But, if you’re really adventurous…

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Skābenes—A Summer Taste

If you belong to a CSA and receive a greens share, some times in June you may find in your box (next to the kohlrabi and Jerusalem artichokes) a bunch of sorrel. The first time I saw some, I thought it looked like turnip greens and put it in a salad (which is perfectly fine).

In various parts of Europe it is highly prized. In France it is pulverized to make an elegant cream soup. But unassuming Eastern Europe sorrel soup is a beloved (and quite tart) summer staple in Latvia. It’s filled with bits of dill, hard-cooked egg, lemon, carrot, onion, potato, sorrel, and wherever else needs using up. And it’s also memorable.

Tonight I started off with a hot version of skābenes zupa (as the Latvians call it). Afterward I put the leftover soup in the frig, and next time around (after adding more salt and pepper), it will be served cold. I think it’s even better that way—definitely refreshing on a hot evening. The season for sorrel only last a couple of months, and Latvians claim it has lots of wonderful properties—it can ward off scurvy, bring down a fever, and is rich with potassium and vitamins.

Here’s my version of the soup. But it’s one of those things that can be added to and subtracted from depending on what’s lurking in your vegetable drawer.

  1. Chop up a yellow onion, a clove of garlic, and several carrots. Melt a dab of butter with some canola oil and brown these root vegetables in a big pot.
  2. Add about 8 cups of stock—beef broth, vegetable water, whatever has some flavor. Turn it down once it boils. Cook the root vegetables until they’re nearly soft.
  3. Meanwhile, in a separate saucepan, bring some small new potatoes to a boil in water flavored with chicken bouillon. Simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes can be pierced with a knife. (This added step is a little different. Most recipes add potatoes to the stock along with the root vegetables, but I don’t like what potatoes do to soup—they turn mealy and soak up a lot of the broth. So I only add them to each bowl of finished soup and save the leftovers separately to add to the cold soup).
  4. Next add ½ lb. of chopped sorrel and spinach to the broth along with small amounts of chopped parsley, chopped dill weed, salt, and pepper. Only bring the soup back to the boiling point and then it’s done.
  5. In each bowl, before ladling in the soup and adding potatoes, place some hard cooked egg slices and a lemon slice in the bottom. On top of the bowl of broth just before serving, add a dollop of sour cream with more chopped dill weed.

That’ll do it; I think it’s really good. Now then, what to do with that Jerusalem artichoke and kohlrabi? Perhaps you have some suggestions. My daughter Brenda, my blogging advisor, tells me my “Comment” setting has been turned off. I’m sorry if it’s prevented anyone from having their say, and I’m remedying the situation as of this posting. So let me hear from you.

Incidentally, in case you are a fan of yoga, you might be interested in the blog of this aforementioned daughter, who is a fine yoga teacher and the writer of the blog “Grounded Thru the Sit Bones: Some yoga thoughts, some yoga practice,” which recently celebrated its first anniversary. If you click on the link, it will take you to Brenda’s latest posting, which also happens to contain this photo of my handsome grandson, Eamonn, last week.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Kur ir tualete? (Where's the restroom?)

Among my family members, I have developed a reputation as a seeker and finder of public restrooms—a sniffer-out of WCs (ugh). Actually, I developed this skill back in 1993 when we spent 6 months in Latvia, during the time when it was part of the post-Soviet “Wild, Wild East”. Finding a decent water closet wasn’t easy. Locals were reluctant to answer the question “Kur ir tualete?” when a westerner asked them. In the foreign languages department of the University of Latvia where I taught, my female colleagues at first warned me that the WC in our hallway was in poor condition because of the philosophers—all males! What they meant was that the toilet had long ago lost its seat; there was no paper, no soap, no towels, and only a trickle of cold, rusty water from the sink. Apparently members of the philosophy faculty were so lost in deep thoughts they didn’t notice the horrible stink of this hell hole.

I’m happy to report the bathroom situation in Riga has improved immensely since then. After numerous visits to the country, I can provide a list of places where WCs are available to the public and some hints about procedures to follow.

Hotels and restaurants are still the best bet for finding clean, free restrooms, although if you are not a patron, some may be reluctant to show you where to go. Our hotel, Reval Hotel Latvija, has fine facilities just around the corner from the reception desk (near the children’s play corner at the restaurant).

Next come public buildings, such as museums, the University of Latvia main building on Raiņa bulvāris, and the city hall on Rātslaukums (directly across the square from the tourist information office). The airport also has free WCs—but the Central train station doesn’t. It is like most public toilets in the city: you have to pay a small fee when you enter. Usually a woman is guarding the door. First you pay her, then she gives you a scrap of toilet paper, and you proceed. Since the pittance for this privilege varies, it’s best always to have some santims, Kleenexes, and moist towelettes in your pocket. At the train station and up on the 4th floor of the ritzy new shopping center Galerija Centrs, the price is 10 santims. In Vermanes dārzs (near the flower stalls at the Terbatas entrance) and near the Laima clock (Brīvības and Aspazijas), the price is 15 santims. And to accommodate the tourists frequenting the beer gardens in Līvu laukums (toward the corner near the Cat House) the price is 20 santims.

Signage for these facilities is not completely standardized, although many have “WC” or “tualete” and then an indication of whether they are gender specific or not. Women’s restrooms might be indicated with only an “S” for sievietes (women), “D” for dāmas (ladies), or a triangle pointing up. Men’s facilities could be designated with either a “V” for vīrieši (men), “K” for kungi (gentlemen), or a triangle pointing down. Those triangles seem to be particularly popular.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

What About Money?

Although Latvia is now a member of the European Union, it has not yet met the convergence criteria necessary to convert to euros. The national currency is the lat (LVL 1 = 100 santims). In 2005, the peg rate of lat to euro was set at 1 EUR = 0.702804 LVL (and it remains close at 0.69435 with an economy described as “overheated.”) GDP growth last year was 11.6%. Inflation this spring has been at 6%, and fear exists that the currency may have to be devalued. To check exchange rates for the lat online, go to

As of June 1, the exchange rate to our currencies is as follows: 1 LVL = $1.93851 USD; 1 LVL = $2.05354 CAD; and 1 LVL = 0.97623 GBP. So an easy way to remember (at least for me) is that the lat is worth nearly twice as much as a US or Canadian dollar and is almost the same as a pound. But for the Norwegians among us (with their powerful kroner), 1 LVL = 11.66675 NOK (1 NOK = 0.08571 LVL).

BTW, although Sweden has joined the EU, it was not converted to euros. Therefore in Stockholm, we’ll have to convert to kronas (currently 1 USD = 6.91200 SEK.

Back to Latvian currency: with 100 santims to 1 lat, the coins are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 santims, and 1 and 2 lats. Bank notes come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500 lats.

To convert currency, look for booths marked “Valūtas maiņa,” but always check the posted buying and selling rates before exchanging. I noticed one booth is at the airport between the arrival gate and customs. Our hotel, most restaurants, and shops generally accept Visa and MasterCards. There are many ATM machines (called “Automats” by the Latvians) throughout the city including 4 at the airport and 1 in the lobby of our hotel (across from the reception desk, below the circular staircase to the Conference Center). As Arnhild mentioned, ATMs are the most convenient way to change money and give the best rates. Traveler’s checks can be cashed at many banks.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Time Heralds Riga

To learn a little about the current economic situation of Riga, take a look at this week's Time Magazine feature about the Baltic states. According to my husband (who scrutinizes developments in his native land carefully), Purvis' account is generally accurate. It neglects mentioning, however, the great disparity between the economic success in Riga and the poverty of rural parts of the country. Also between younger and older people.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Name Days (Vardadienas)

If you know anyone with the first name of Dailis, Inta, Intra, Jūnijs or Sintra, be sure to phone them today (June 3) and wish them a happy name’s day. Latvia is one of many countries that enthusiastically observe this practice.

The associations between the days and the names have arisen for many reasons, but primarily because the Roman Catholic Church held a festival for a saint of that name on that day. For instance, the church feast of Saint Michael is on September 29, and as a result that is also the name day for Mikeļis or Mikus (Latvian versions of Michael). In some countries, one's name day is more important than one's birthday, and sometimes gifts are given. In Latvia, frequently the celebrant will bring refreshments to the office on his name day. One of the most popular treats is a pretzel-shaped sweet bread called kliņģeris, also used as the Latvian birthday cake (the link will take you to an online recipe). In the foreign languages department at the University of Latvija where I taught as a Fulbrighter, on someone’s name day my colleagues sat down between classes to eat kliņģeris and chocolates filled with liqueur—washed down with coffee and a shot of brandy or Rigas Melnais Balzams. (I found it a little hard to teach a 90-minutes class afterwards. I'm not going to devote a posting to balzams, but it's something you need to know about to fully appreciate Latvia--another link)

On someone’s names day, colleagues arrive with flowers, sweets, and small presents. Celebrating name days at home is not as popular as celebrating a birthday, although it may vary depending on the period of time between one's birthday and name day.

Each year the Latvian calendar is printed with name days marked. Just for fun I looked to see how many of the members of our traveling group might have names days. Here is what I found chronologically:

January 6 Arnita (is that close enough to “Arnhild”?)
January 16 Lija (Lia)
March 19 Jāzepina (Joey)
April 18 Laura
April 30 Linda
May 28 Vilhelms (Bill)
May 30 Jean
June 24 Jānis (John/Jack)
July 3 Bonita (Bonnie)
July 25 Jēkabs (Jimmie)
July 26 Anna, Annija (Anne)
July 27 Marta (Martha)
Sept. 20 Lisa
Sept. 21 Debra
Oct. 17 Karīna (Karen)
Oct. 17 Karola (Carolyn)
Nov. 19 Elizabete (Elizabeth)
Nov. 25 Katrīna (Cathy, Kathleen)
Dec. 3 Barbara
Dec. 15 Jānet
Dec. 30 Davids, Davis (David)

Those without a name day have several options for celebrating. The Latvian name-day calendar is updated at one or two-year intervals; anyone can suggest a name for the calendar, usually by sending an application to the State Language Center. The Center tries to spread new names out so that not more than 3 or 4 are celebrated on any particular day. Meanwhile, any name can be celebrated on May 25 or February 29. (So those are your options Cheri, Marcia, Mardelle, Øyvor, Sharon, Shelby, and Shirley!)