Latvian misadventure catches up with me

I have been back in Billings for barely a day and half, and already the crime I committed in Latvia has caught up with me. The infamy took place in the Latvian National Library (see photo above), which I visited on Saturday, the day after my official duties as a representative of the U.S. State Department (details here) came to an end.

I had wanted to visit the library anyway, having seen the immense modern structure looming over the landscape on the other side of the river from the old part of Riga. My expectations were heightened when I read, on the Facebook page of the U.S. Embassy in Riga, that the library has something called the John F. Kennedy Reading Room, with a small collection of English-language books available for checkout, as well as some “titles donated by US diplomats for free.”

Upon arriving at the library, I discovered that one doesn’t just go waltzing into the JFK Reading Room of the Latvian National Library. No, I had to fill out a form with all my vital statistics, indicate how advanced (or not) my formal education was, and to state what institution I was with (I put down “Last Best News”). Filling out this form made me eligible for the next stage of the process, which was answering still more questions on a computer kiosk and having my mugshot taken. I then went back to the front desk for another short interrogation, after which I was issued an official photo ID.

I took the elevator up to the sixth floor (I think) and entered the JFK Reading Room, which I had to myself. I looked through some of the titles on the circulation shelves before finding the collection of free books … only to discover that American diplomats, like so many millions of their countrymen, are big fans of Clive Cussler. Besides the Cussler books, there was a smattering of other titles that could have made up the book section of a typical Billings garage sale.

On a table next to those books, though, was a more interesting collection of periodicals. I selected a relatively recent copy of the New York Review of Books and headed back to the elevator. But then I thought it might be interesting to go to the top floor—the library has something like 20 stories—to see whether any of the city was visible through the fog, which still hadn’t lifted. Well, there was some kind of meeting underway on the top floor, so I quietly went to the other side of the floor, ascertained that the fog was too thick for any kind of view, and hopped in another elevator. This one, however, had restricted access, and wouldn’t let me go to the ground floor, so I took it to the basement, got out and went into another elevator.

This one wouldn’t go to the ground floor either, so I took it to the next available stop, exited and found myself in a hallway, with a security guard at a desk on my right. Heading for a door, I passed through some kind security detector and set off an alarm, so I went back to the desk, where the guard asked me a few questions in broken English, made two or three phone calls and then carefully wrote down on a sheet of paper an inventory of my belongings, including the New York Review of Books. He indicated that I could now go through the security check “into the library,” which made me wonder where I had been in the meantime. Anyway, though it  seemed silly to leave already, having spent more time obtaining credentials than actually touring the library, I had things to do.

An interior view of the national library.

One of them was walking to Bolderaja, an English-language bookstore/coffee shop I’d seen on the web. It was more than an hour’s walk away, but I wasn’t getting any other kind of exercise, so off I went—only to find out when I got there that the joint opened at 5 p.m., still a couple of hours away. I should also point out that this alleged business was housed in a down-at-the-heels stucco building with four crooked windows facing the street, a nondescript wooden door and no markings of any kind, nothing to indicate that it wasn’t simply abandoned. Also, once I had apparently reached the right spot, I walked up and down the block three or four times looking for it, with the lady on Google Maps continually assuring me that “You have arrived at your destination.” I finally peeped in the window of the ramshackle building past the filthy blinds and saw that there were, indeed, shelves of books inside.

I returned later, after having marched back to my Airbnb for some rest and a quick meal. Bolderaja still looked deserted, but I opened the door to find it warm and inviting after another walk through the chilly streets of Riga. It was much smaller than I expected, with a tiny back room, a somewhat larger main room and then a kind of sitting room off to the side. There weren’t many books, maybe a few hundred at most, but I had my copy of the New York Review of Books, so I ordered a coffee and sat down to read in the sitting room.

I was next to an elderly gentleman with long, gray hair and a brown corduroy jacket, and before long, as a few more Bohemian-looking young people filtered into the room, he commenced lecturing, as far as I could tell. I would like to have understood him, but since I did not and wanted to read, I decamped to the main room, where I ordered a gin and tonic, because I was now in a civilized country where one could order alcohol in a coffee shop. There was no ice—the desire for which is felt, apparently, only by spoiled Americans—but the drink was good without it.

After another agreeable hour or so, I got up to leave, and on my way out I went over to the fellow behind the coffee/booze bar (who may have been the owner), and gave him my copy of the New York Review of Books. He seemed quite happy and said, “Thank you! I already have a London Review of Books, and now I have a New York Review of Books as well!” I was pleased with myself, having again, even on my own time, done my part to express the goodwill of the American people.

And there matters stood until this morning, when I received the following email:

Dear Mr Kemmick,

Last Saturday, November 10, You visited National Library of Latvia and borrowed a copy of The New York Review of Books. All the magazines in the John F. Kennedy Reading Room are intended for reading on the spot, but our security guard did not know it—sorry for misunderstanding.

You are welcome to return a copy of the magazine as soon as possible.

We would be grateful if you could deal with this matter at your earliest convenience.

Yours sincerely,

Kristaps Kuplais
Bibliographer of Humanities and Social Sciences Reading Room,
John F. Kennedy Reading Room

I was mortified, as you can imagine. Like the security guard, I was unaware of my theft, just as I now have no idea what will happen when I write back, as I plan to do tomorrow, to say that I am unable to return the publication in question. Does the United States have an extradition treaty with Latvia? Will this sink my chance of ever working for the State Department again? Will I inadvertently cause trouble for the guard, or the coffee shop?

Also, I am amazed to think of what a frightfully efficient bureaucracy Latvia must have in place. Just imagine the number of steps that that were taken to detect my crime and then to contact me here in America. I suspect this all has something to do with the long Soviet occupation of Latvia. Communism wasn’t very good at anything, but by God it was good at bureaucracy. Wish me luck in asserting my innocence and in explaining what happened to the magazine.


Latvian journalism, up close and personal

The photo above, taken in the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, shows copies of Rigische Novellen, the first newspaper published in Latvia. So the newspaper business has been around for a while in this country.

Nevertheless, newspapers here face problems unlike any we have to deal with in the United States, as I learned in several intense days of meetings and conversations in Riga. Thursday began with a lecture to about 35 journalism students at the University of Latvia. Once again, I found myself among bright, passionate students, and once again they reacted as well as I could have hoped to my little history lesson about Montana journalism and corporate domination of the state as a whole.

(Just dropping by for the first time and wondering what Travels with Xavi is all about? Click here to read the introduction.)

Next up, all of all things, was a lunch meeting with 10 or 12 members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia, plus two American professors from the University of Denver who happened to be working with the chamber group. Since this group had so little in common with any other audience I’d spoken to yet, I gave a greatly condensed version of my presentation (shortened on the fly),  then opened things up to a general conversation.

It helped that Shannon’s husband, Mike, who works in the political division at the U.S. Embassy, joined us for lunch. He was able to chime in on several questions I considered a little above my pay grade. I should also mention that all day Thursday and Friday, Shannon and I were accompanied by Zelma, a Latvian woman who works in Shannon’s department at the embassy. She had formerly worked at the national press agency, so she had a good grasp of journalism and a very good command of English. Thus she served as our translator whenever needed, and she always asked pertinent questions at events where for whatever reason audience participation was temporarily stalled.

I think all of us at the AmCham meeting were most impressed by a 12-year-old boy, who was there with his mother, and whose understanding of national and international affairs would have been impressive for someone two or three times his age. At one point, though I can’t remember exactly what subject was under consideration, someone said that the U.S. House of Representatives might take some specific action, when the young gent interrupted to say that, no, such an action would be prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. I felt that I might have been in the presence of a future president of Latvia.

I snapped this photo at the end of our event with people from the Stockholm School of Economics. In the center is Shannon Ritchie, and at right Zelma, both with the U.S. Embassy. At left is a woman from the Stockholm School, whose name escapes me but whose friendliness and help were most welcome.

After a short period of rest, we sped off to one more event — dinner with a group of 20 students from the Stockholm School of Economics, followed by a wide-ranging conversation with the same group of people. It might sound odd that I was speaking to such a gathering, but it will make more sense when I tell that all of them were mid-level media managers from Russia, Georgia, Moldava, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics. Most of them were already working for media outlets and some of them were journalists who had moved up from reporting to more managerial roles.

This was a fascinating group. One student was particularly relevant to the presentations I had been giving in Bulgaria and Latvia for the past week because he was part of a staff of (I think) 15 people working on a 5-year-old online newspaper in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here I had been telling everyone that digital journalism was the wave of the future and that there were all sorts of models for making such journalism work, but most everybody I’d met so far had seemed either skeptical or fearful, worrying that such a venture would be impossible in this part of the world.

But here was someone actively engaged in reinventing journalism, and he said the average age of the people working on his newspaper was 25. That answered another frequently raised question — how were up-and-coming journalists supposed to get any experience and mentoring if all the older reporters were bailing on the industry left and right? I had been tempted to say that good reporters would make their way, make their own experience, but I didn’t want to sound arrogant or condescending — and yet here was just the sort of reporter I had had in mind.

I liked him even more during our informal conversation after dinner because he behaved exactly as I would have done in similar circumstances at a similar age. By which I mean that he acted bored and a trifle put out by having to sit and listen while he could be out getting things done. He was also dressed in jeans, striped socks and beat-up tennis shoes, and he drank a good deal of the free wine, all of which further raised him in my estimation.

It was all stimulating as hell for me, but by the end of this very long day I felt as though I had never been so sick of hearing my own voice.

Friday morning, Shannon picked me up about 9:30, and after stopping to fetch Zelma we headed out for Jelgava, which happened to be Zelma’s home town, about 25 miles from Riga. It was, if anything, even foggier this morning, so that my view of the countryside was confined to maybe a quarter mile on either side of the highway.

My lunch mates in Jelgava.

Our destination in Jelgava was the newsroom of the Zemgales Zinas, on the second floor of a building that housed a bookstore on the ground floor, which was a nice touch. My schedule had been arranged so hastily and I had so much on my mind that I wasn’t sure what kind of event this was supposed to be. As it was, it was perfect — just a conversation in a small circle of small-market journalists, just like me. Several members of the host newspaper were on hand, as were three or four people who traveled from other cities just for this meeting, as well as the director of the independent newspaper association of Latvia, or something like that.

Though we all had much in common, I certainly had never dealt with the one thing they all identified as their biggest problem. Latvia is divided into 109 municipalities, they told me, and most of them published their own “newspapers” — and I put that in quotes because most of them used air-quotes every time they referred to them. Anyway, these local governments, in hopes of damaging the independent newspapers who want to report fairly on what public officials are up to, use taxpayer money to publish glossy, full-color “newspapers” that also include paid advertising.

“The biggest problem is this, I think,” one of the younger journalists on hand told me. “They steal our readers and our money.”

As another put it, referring to readers, “If they can get bread for free or if they have to pay for the bread, actually they will take it for free.”

The guest of honor was a woman from a newspaper, Bauskas Dzive, about 40 miles from Jelgava. Her newspaper had filed suit against the local municipality, asking an administrative court to bar the it from publishing a newspaper with taxpayer money. That court ruled against the newspaper, but on appeal the Supreme Court ruled that the local publisher was at least entitled to seek a ban on advertising in the municipal paper. The local newspaper has taken its larger case, seeking a complete ban, to the European Court of Human Rights, which has scheduled a hearing.

It sounds like a hell of a fight, and I wish them all the luck in the world. They are used to fighting. One journalist, who looked to be about my age, said he and his wife were “at the barricades” in 1991 and 1992, on the way to finally winning independence from the Soviet Union. This fight with the municipal authorities is all part of the continuing “awakening process,” he said, and the fellow from the newspaper association added, “It is not so easy to build a democracy in 25 years.”

They reminded me again of my old journalism colleagues when they started arguing with each other, interrupting, gesticulating and half-shouting. Some of them knew only a little English, with the result that Zelma was sometimes trying to translate the words of one or two people simultaneously while two or three others were bellowing in the background. Zelma was adept at restoring order as needed.

It was a stimulating visit. I felt so much empathy for these journalists, so much respect. They deal with all the downsides of daily journalism, on top of which they are playing large roles in the building of a democracy. That is something that must get you out of bed in the morning.

Some of them had to leave after the discussion, but the rest of us decamped to a fine restaurant on an island beside a canal that connects two rivers that run through Jelgava. We all continued talking through an hour-long lunch, with the U.S. Embassy picking up the tab. It was money well spent, and I know that journalists like free food almost as much as they like animated conversation.

I would love to have seen more of Jelgava, but we had to race to yet another appointment — my last official visit in Latvia — at the offices of another newspaper, Diena, this one in Riga. If I understood correctly, this is the largest paper in Latvia, with a circulation of 30,000 and about 30 people working in the newsroom, which means it’s quite similar to the Billings Gazette. Here I was interviewed by a young reporter, bearded and a bit scruffy, with an impressive tattoo covering one arm, in the newspaper’s “morgue,” the term traditionally used by American journalists to denote the room where bound copies of the newspaper are stored. (The one at the Montana Standard was my favorite: it was in a concrete bunker in the bowels of the building, with nothing but a conference table and chairs surrounded by hundreds of huge bound volumes of old Butte newspapers.)

He interviewed me for maybe half an hour, occasionally digressing to tell a war story or two, as did I. It was an enjoyable if somewhat strange experience, to find myself on the wrong side of an interview again, and then we got a quick tour of the newsroom. It was nearly deserted, being late Friday on a newspaper that doesn’t publish on Saturday or Sunday, but the general atmosphere, especially the desks littered with notebooks, newspapers, computers and coffee mugs, made me feel as though I could have sat down and gone straight to work.

And as for work, or whatever it was that I had been doing on behalf of Uncle Sam, it had now come to a close. We drove back to the hotel, where I thanked and bid Shannon and Zelma goodbye, then went to my room feeling a great deal of relief. Not that anything I had been doing was terribly difficult, but I felt I had been “on,” and under scrutiny, for something like 10 days, and this after four months of retirement. I was ready to do nothing.

Nothing turned out to be a lot of fun, but I think I’d better bring this post to a close and save my post-duty ramblings for another day.

In Latvia: Beautiful, friendly … and gray

Tomorrow is supposed to be at least partly sunny. I sure hope so. Since Wednesday afternoon, when I arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia, it has been foggy, chilly and damp. Visiting an English-language bookstore yesterday, I wasn’t surprised to read in a short guide to Latvia that gray is a popular color here, as witness this bit of folk poetry mentioned in the same book:

God rode over the rye field
On a gray-colored steed;
Gray was the rye field,
Gray was God’s steed.

It’s not quite cold enough for a winter jacket, not for me anyway, but the constant, almost imperceptible mist does eventually worm its way into your bones, making a walk around Riga not quite enjoyable. As I know from experience, having walked almost 11 miles today and seven miles yesterday, partly owing to my habit of getting lost, partly because Google Maps seems confused by the streets of Riga, and partly because I failed to notice that another English-language bookstore I went to didn’t close at 5 p.m., it opened at 5 p.m. And a walk down to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia ended in front of construction fencing. The museum’s website failed to mention that it is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion.

(Just dropping by for the first time and wondering what Travels with Xavi is all about? Click here to read the introduction.)

Despite the general gloom and pointless excursions, my ramblings did result in one stroke of luck. Friday night about 11, as I was slowly making my way back to my lodgings, I noticed a small group of people sitting in what appeared to be a little art gallery, listening to a man singing and playing guitar. I stood outside trying to figure out what was going on, and whether maybe there was another entrance up or down the block, when I caught the eye of one of the listeners. I used sign language to ask if I could enter, so she walked over and opened the door.

In answer to my questions, she told me in good English that it was “kind of” a private party, but that I was welcome to join them, upon which a man holding a guitar added, “And if you know guitar, you play!”

It was, as I would learn, a weekly gathering of Russian-speaking Latvians who come to this gallery, owned by an artist friend, to listen to music, drink and eat every Friday evening. The English-speaking woman, named Maria, and the man with the guitar, a scholarly looking gent with a kind of skull cap bearing embroidered crosses, turned out to be the most talented of the bunch — so  talented that Maria says they will be performing at a Russian festival in New York next May. The man, whose name I never heard, was an accomplished guitar player, adept at blues, jazz, pop and Russian folk music. The highlight of the night was when he and Maria, she singing to his guitar, performed a traditional Russian song set to the tune of Brubeck’s “Take Five.” (I’ll put a video on Facebook soon.)

Maria and her accompanist play a Russian folk song set to “Take Five.”

I should say that was the musical highlight. The wildest, strangest scene was on display when I came out of the bathroom to see Maria singing an old patriotic Russian song while the woman who owned the gallery was dancing and waving a hammer-and-sickle flag from the old days. (See photo above.) Maria assured me afterward that they weren’t celebrating Communism, as such. It was just a throwback to their youth, she said, when as children they all sang the song at school.

The protocol was for each musician to play three songs and then pass the microphone to someone else. I duly played three songs, one by Jimmie Rodgers, one by Big Bill Broonzy and then one by Memphis Minnie, after Maria asked me to play a straight blues song so her guitar-playing friend could accompany me. It was fun, but these folks were there to hear each other and to hear Russian singing, so I was only too happy to relinquish the guitar after my turn.

Another musician was a tall man named Sergei, a 69-year-old hippie with long, gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. He said in Russian, and Maria translated, that in my honor he would play an “Amerikanski blues with a Russian accent.” It was brilliant and beautiful. Another fellow was singing Russian pop songs and then played one of his own compositions, which Maria described as “a song about sex. Weird sex.” It sounded even more salacious because she pronounced the “w” in “weird” as “v.”

They plied me with shots of vodka and one shot of cognac, but I had to pass on the exotic appetizers, having had a fine meal of risotto at a hip little joint a mile or two away. I staggered home at last sometime after midnight. I couldn’t call Mrs. Kemmick at work, but I had to tell someone, so I called daughter Hayley, one of just a few people on my new WhatsApp that allows me to call overseas without breaking the bank. I filled her in as I walked along, but even as were talking I consulted Google Maps and found that I had somehow, before discovering the Russian soiree, gone quite far out of my way and was now on a nearly deserted, mostly industrial-looking street.

A typical street in the Old Town section of Riga.

I told Hayley that I had a four-kilometer walk ahead of me and that my phone was almost dead. The last thing I heard before I hung up was her laughing. Hayley has traveled with me and could easily imagine the situation I had described. But I got home just fine, though so tired that the 10 flights of stairs (two flights for each of five stories) at my Airbnb were slow going. And my phone still had about 2 percent when I plugged it in.

But I have gotten way ahead of myself. To revert to a chronological narrative, I flew into Riga about 2 Wednesday afternoon and was met there by Shannon Ritchie, a North Carolinian and press attache at the American Embassy. She first whisked me off to the embassy, where I had the strange honor of being given a half-hour briefing on the state of the Latvian nation and its media by U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Nancy Bikoff Pettit. She was kind and relaxed but clearly accustomed to getting the job done in the time allotted.

When she asked if had any questions, I told her I had only one: Was she by any chance related to Lawrence Pettit, former CEO of the Montana University System? The ambassador said she didn’t know, but she guessed that anyone bearing that French-Huguenot name in America was probably related to her husband’s family.

I had no engagements Friday night, but I did have some things that needed doing, all of which Shannon went beyond the call of duty in assisting me with — including finally doing some laundry and getting a SIM card so I could use my phone on the streets. I passed the rest of the evening, after checking into my hotel, getting used to life as a boulevardier in Riga. I mostly stayed close to the Old Town near the hotel, an area of narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, the remnants of battlements and guard towers, grand, ornate stone and brick buildings and huge churches that suddenly rise up in front of you as you round a corner, many of them with high, high steeples clad in pale-green, oxidized copper sheeting.

If only I had been able to see it all a little more clearly through the dense fog…

I had intended to write about the actual work I did on Thursday, the most crowded day of my trip, but I see this is already quite long enough, and I am tired. Goodnight.

A single regret, a visit to a monastery, then off to Latvia

After nearly a week in Bulgaria and now two days in Latvia, I have only one regret. It is that I had only a few minutes to stop at the junk shop pictured above.

I was on my way to see the Rila Monastery with Matt Hagengruber, my old Gazette colleague now working in Sofia, Bulgaria, as a U.S. Embassy cultural affairs officer. We were on our way to the American University in Bulgaria, a private university in Blagoevgrad, about an hour south of Sofia, and we had only a short time to make the detour to see the monastery.

On the narrow, winding road leading to Rila, I spotted what looked like a junk yard full of ancient, dust-covered automobiles, so I asked Matt if we could stop on the way back for a couple of photos. Well, as soon as I got out of the car and stepped under an archway into a kind of courtyard, I knew it was no mere parts junk yard. In addition to the old cars — the Soviet-era clunkers I had half expected to see still clogging the Bulgarian roads — there were old implements and tools, weapons, toys, hardware and knick-knacks beyond number.

If I had to choose between a museum, an art gallery, some natural wonder like a waterfall and a good junk shop, I’m afraid I would always choose the junk shop. If I were in America and I were to stumble upon a place like the one pictured above, and I had only a few minutes to spare, I could at least carry around with me like a gift the consolation of knowing that I would one day return.

More antique clunkers inside the barely explored junk shop.

But a place on the outskirts of Blagoevgrad in far-off Bulgaria, crammed with outlandish artifacts? What were the chances of my ever coming back to it? I do want to return, but life is short, and I may go to my grave wondering what treasures were buried under those heaps of oddments and blankets of dust. And yes, that is a bust of Stalin glowering inside that ancient vehicle. (Side recommendation: On the flight from Newark to Frankfurt, I finally got to watch “The Death of Stalin,” undoubtedly the funniest movie ever made about mass murder. As you might imagine, the humor is a bit on the dark side.)

In the few minutes I had to take photos, a man driving a small tractor with cart attached to the back came rumbling out from the rear of the place, waved at me and pulled over. I asked him if he spoke English and his wagged his finger to indicate “No,” then walked into a shed and emerged with a small sign explaining, in three languages including English, that this was indeed a junk shop, with some information about when it was open at different times of the year. “I’ll be back!” I said to him, knowing he couldn’t understand but hoping by saying it aloud I was making some kind of compact with the cosmos, or myself.

And so on to the monastery, where we had about an hour to poke around and soak up its medieval splendors. Like all the Orthodox churches in these parts, photographs inside the church are prohibited, as are scanty or otherwise disrespectful clothing and behavior. I hope this photo from the outside of the church will give you some idea of what was inside:

Living quarters for monks are visible beneath the arches of the church inside the Rila Monastery.

Really, though, you can hardly imagine the inside unless you’ve been in an Orthodox church yourself. Every single inch of the walls and ceiling are covered in gorgeous murals and icons, depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints, and no end of depictions of the horrors of eternal punishment in that world below. The icons, or portraits of saints and other holy figures, are festooned with detailed ornamentation of carved wood and worked silver and gold. Then there are elaborate candelabra and chandeliers just as richly and expensively ornamented.

The last measure of magnificence, though, is always saved for the iconostasis, the wall bearing icons that separates the congregation from the mysteries of the mass. In Catholic churches when I was a boy, the priests prepared the materials of the sacrament of communion with their backs to the congregation, but in Orthodox churches, a goodly portion of the long service is given up to such preparations, all done in privacy behind the iconostasis. Church-goers pass the time listening to the intricate intonations of the choir, or feasting their eyes on a form of art that existed for the sole purpose of inducing exaltation.

At the monastery, a glimpse of the torments of the damned.

All of which makes it even more difficult to admit that had I known what lay down below, I might have spent an hour in the junk yard and dashed into the monastery for a few photos afterward.

At the American University in Bulgaria, Matt and I first had dinner in the cafeteria of what I suppose was the student union building, or its near equivalent. It was a beautiful, modern building, constructed with American funds, public and private. There are those who begrudge every dime spent overseas, just as there are those who begrudge every dime spent on “nonessential services” at home, but I felt stirrings of pride at seeing some of our money going to help a country that has been subject to invasion and occupation almost since the dawn of civilization. When I was much younger, during the Cold War, Bulgaria to me was a sort of Monty Python-like backwater of low intrigue, secret police and cars that would eventually kill you with pollution if they didn’t fall apart and kill you on the highway first.

Now its ancient ruins sit alongside gleaming glass mega-malls and its highways are crowded with Mercedes, Hondas and Subarus, and its comical but deadly cars are found only in roadside junk shops.

In the cafeteria, we were joined by two young women who were studying journalism at AUBG and would also be attending the presentation, but wanted to talk more in depth beforehand. They were, like so many of the people I’ve met here, a real tonic. They were bright and articulate, hopeful and yet skeptical in a healthy, youngish way, and their English was impressive, as they had both been to the United States on work visas. One of them knew the language well enough to have a kind of American edge to her humor, a quickness on her feet that is only available to the fluent.

I then made my presentation to an audience of 20 or 30 students and faculty, including an English teacher from Maine who was full of good stories. Once again, I dare say the most effective part of the talk was the portion devoted to a sketch of Montana history. I show them a couple of slides of Glacier and Yellowstone, all the touristy beauty that most Americans associated with the Big Sky State, then jolt them with a black-and-white photo of the Butte Hill at the height of its wretched glory, followed by a history of Anaconda domination of the press, society and politics. Some of what I have to say is a bit generic and could perhaps be delivered by any visiting journalist, but the Montana stuff is a revelation to them, and I have not yet got tired of watching eyes grow wide with wonder.

And of course I love talking about Last Best News. I may have pandered somewhat by going into some detail about one of the last big stories I worked on, the one involving the cops busted for having on-the-job sex. Even the few students who were nodding off by then suddenly sat up straight, all ears. And it really was a good story to talk about in a place where bad news about any branch of government is avoided by a majority of news outlets.

That was my last full day in Bulgaria. Matt dropped me off at the hotel, we said our goodbyes, I thanked him for being the catalyst of this mind-boggling adventure and I left the next morning on an early flight to Latvia. That was yesterday. I arrived here about 2 in the afternoon and it is now 10:30 the next night. But so much has happened that I don’t dare begin to describe any of it, since I have one more day of activities tomorrow, after which, two days entirely on my own in the capital city of Riga, then home on Monday. I will pick up the thread of my travel narrative  tomorrow or on Saturday. Here’s one more look at the monastery:

And here’s a quick update: because I had already posted on Facebook a link to a radio interview I did, I completely forget to mention that before Matt and I went to AUBG, we stopped in at the studios of Bulgarian National Radio Blagoevgrad, where I met broadcast journalist Eleonora Tahova. You might get tired of my saying this, but here was yet another bright, young, curious Bulgarian, whose questions on and off the air were articulate and to the point and whose English, despite her protestations, was excellent. I hope I sounded half as good as she did. Thanks!

A full day, a humbling experience

It used to be when I traveled that I always brought a Moleskine journal with me, and I would usually end the day, or sometimes begin it, by writing down everything that had happened since the last entry. This trip has been such a whirlwind that I barely have time to write a blog post, and I’m much faster on a keyboard than I am with a pen or a pencil.

So bear with me. I’ll try to provide more updates from Bulgaria and from Latvia, where I go tomorrow, and then will probably continue for a while once I get back home, until I’ve sufficiently unburdened myself of descriptions, recollections and reflections.

Yesterday was a very busy day, though I passed through it in a slight fog, thanks to having gotten only five hours of sleep the night before. I’d gotten more than 11 hours of sleep the previous night, still a long way from catching up with my jet-lag sleep deficit, but I thought that having slept for 11 hours straight I had finally adjusted my internal clock to Bulgaria. Until I tried to sleep Sunday night and lay there, wide-eyed, for three hours before finally falling asleep.

So, yesterday I spoke to a large class of journalism students at Sofia University, met with the editor and political writer at a daily newspaper (after which I was interviewed by the reporter), then ended the day by giving a talk, my first with a translator, at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. It was exhausting but exhilarating, and it was also humbling. Everywhere I’ve been the people I’ve spoken to are so receptive and respectful, so serious and full of questions.

At the Red House, where I more or less apologized for being yet another American traveling abroad to offer people advice — all the more daunting after having visited Plovdiv, with its 8,000 years of history — a man came up and told me, in quite good English and at considerable length, that it really didn’t matter that America was so new. The fact was that America has been a capitalist, democratic society for more than 250 years, he said, and people living in post-Communist Bulgaria have a great hunger for information that will help them rebuild a society founded on the rule of law.

This was my audience at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. This was during the Q&A afterward, when six or seven people had already left.

I heard similar things while visiting the offices of the daily newspaper, rendered as Sega, or Now, in English. The editor-in-chief, Teodora Peeva, explained that 90 percent of the media in Bulgaria is controlled by one man. She also said, and I hope I’m getting this right, that this man’s family was not particularly rich, but that the government funneled billions of dollars to his mother in secret banking transactions, which allowed this man to establish himself as the press lord of Bulgaria.

Sega itself, meanwhile, is entirely funded by its owner, an independent businessman. Yesterday’s edition of Sega, 24 tabloid pages, contained exactly one advertisement. Teodora said the paper loses great gobs of money and has had its staff seriously reduced in recent years, like papers everywhere, but it continues to publish and though relatively small is the most respected newspaper in Bulgaria because it is the only paper that publishes the truth and criticizes the government, which has tried in vain to shut it down and to ruin its owner’s businesses. One has to deal with the situation one finds oneself in, but everything I heard made my complaints about Lee Enterprises and American media generally seem like small potatoes. We are, I hardly need to tell you, so privileged to live where we do.

In the Sega offices, I felt more than a little foolish taking up the time of people involved in such important, perilous work, but once again I encountered that hunger for information, for recognition, for hope in the future of Bulgaria. After the political reporter, Svetoslav Terziev, interviewed me, I said to him, “If there’s not enough there for a story, don’t worry about it. I’ve been there.”

“On, no,” he answered. “Full page.” I will be on a plane for Latvia when the next edition of Sega comes out, but Matt Hagengruber, my host and cicerone, promised to send me a copy of the paper. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything that will cause an international incident, but I guess we’ll see.

At the newspaper we also met the resident cartoonist, Christo Komarnitski. We were told that he is one of the most famous people in Bulgaria, hated by the powers that be for his brutally funny depictions of them, and loved by the common people for the same reason. He had his own office, stuffed with art supplies, books and back issues of the newspaper. That’s him above, handing me and Matt copies of a satirical journal that just came out, with his cartoon on the cover. He looked a bit like and reminded me of the late Roger Clawson, who wrote a column for the Billings Gazette and later the Billings Outpost, and who was similarly worshipped by discerning readers for his brilliant writing and his lampooning of bigwigs and blowhards. We weren’t long in the presence of Komarnitski, but I went away with the distinct feeling that we had met a world-class character.

This sign, encountered in a restaurant’s toilet, evidently was emphatically instructing me not to do something or other. I hope I didn’t.

At Sofia University, where our day began, I was powerfully impressed by the young students, from all over Bulgaria. Two students introduced themselves to me as natives of the town of Montana, Bulgaria, and one of them told me she even had a Montana Grizzly sweatshirt, which I thought was pretty cool. I was told by the professor, Maria Popova, that her students knew English well enough for me to lecture in English. A few of them seemed a bit lost, but the rest, numbering about 30, seemed to be listening carefully and had the appropriate reactions at the appropriate times. And when I asked for questions afterward, everyone who spoke sound quite fluent.

Their professor thanked for me emphasizing that now more than ever, newspapers should be in the business of finding and reporting facts and straightforward information, and doing less and less opinionating, since in the era of social media if there is one thing the world does not lack it is opinions. When she asked her students at the beginning of the year why they were interested in journalism, Popova told me, almost every one of them had the same answer: “I want to be able to give the world my opinions!”

In the classroom and in the lecture hall in the evening, I gathered that people were genuinely fascinated by what I told them of Montana history, about Anaconda Company control of the state and nearly all of its daily newspapers. I had decided to include that historical sketch only after arriving here, as I explained in the same post I linked to above, and it has proved to be really effective.

People are fascinated by this notion that a corporation could effectively impose censorship on an entire American state, in an era not all that long ago. At the Red House, three or four people kept pressing me for more details on how the Anaconda Company was induced to finally sell off its newspapers to Lee Enterprises. They wanted to know if there was political pressure involved, or whether the pressure was exerted by common people, etc. In short, they wanted to know how they could begin to move their country, with its unique challenges, in the same direction.

As an aside, it was ridiculously entertaining to hear people asking questions through my translator, Bistra. All I would hear was a burst of Bulgarian (to me) gibberish, interspersed with the word “Anaconda.” Bistra, I have to add, was amazingly good at her work. Sometimes I would be so lost in admiration of her translating prowess that I would almost forget to go on speaking when she finished translating what I had just said. It was a strange experience, a first for me, of speaking through a translator. I had to cut my presentation in half, on the fly, for one thing, and I had to remember to keep my remarks segmented into bite-sized bits, so as not to lose my audience or my translator.

And here I don’t even have time to talk about my first real excursion on foot into the heart of the city center. That will have to wait for a future post.


An ancient city, Montana history and some fine music

“Old! Very old! Very old!”

So our guide told us over and over, and so we could see with our own eyes everywhere we looked. Matt Hagengruber and I were in Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria, about an hour and a half east of Sofia. As we had learned by watching a short video inside a visitor center built over the remains of a fifth-century basilica, when Plovidv was called Philippopolis, the city is as old as Jericho, permanently inhabited for something like 8,000 years.

During that time, it has been conquered by virtually every empire worthy of the name. That would explain why, as a woman named Illyana told me the night before, that Bulgarians never expect current conditions to linger long. They have learned that any system, any culture, any civilization, is apt to become something else in due time.

The ancient Roman theater, Plovdiv.

And I should mention that our guide, so-called, attached himself to us by jumping up off the back stairs to another ancient church and offering directions to a high point from which we would have a “fantastic panorama” of the city (see photo above). Before we knew what was happening, he was leading the way, chattering nonstop, ordering us to take pictures of this or that house — “Old! Very old!” — and continually assuring us that the street paved with heavy stones was “original, not renovated, no Bulgaria, no Turkey, Rome!”, and letting us know, in case we had forgotten, that “I love United States!”

We knew that he was eventually going to ask for money, or perhaps even lead us into some kind of ambush, but he maintained such a steady pace of both walking and talking that we never quite found the opportunity to disentangle ourselves from his presence. As it was, he did take us to the fantastic view of the city, and through some of the most picturesque sections of the Old Town, and in the end he accepted my offer of 10 leva, or about $6, with only a small amount of grumbling.

We saw just enough of the city to make me want to go back some day and spend at least three days exploring the place. It has, as we also saw in the video, temples, mosques and Catholic and Orthodox churches rich in ornamentation, of which we poked our heads into only the Orthodox church. I had already felt a little embarrassment at the idea of coming halfway around the world to give Bulgarians advice about journalism, thinking that sometimes the United States ought to take some advice from cultures that might possibly have learned something in the course of seven or eight millennia. I felt it even more acutely in Plovdiv.

Stag mosaic, ancient basilica, Plovdiv.

The trip to Plovdiv took place on Sunday, my one full free day here. In 45 minutes it will be Monday in Sofia, and tomorrow I have my busiest day yet — a talk in the journalism department at Sofia University, a visit to the newsroom of the Sega Daily and then a lecture at the Red House Centre for Culture and Debate. On Saturday, I gave two presentations to Americans working as Fulbright English teaching assistants in countries all over southeastern Europe.

I had kept my presentation only loosely formed until I got here, thinking it would be foolish to come up with something formal until I had had a better chance to learn a few things on the ground. I’m glad I waited. After listening to a leading Bulgarian journalist’s lecture on the state of press freedoms regionally, I decided to start my own presentation with an introduction to Montana history.

Yes, strange as it may sound, I thought it might be useful for those young Americans, and even more useful for Bulgarian journalists, to learn that Montana wasn’t just a pretty place of mountains, wildlife and winding rivers. So I told them about Butte, about the conflicts between the miners and The Company, about the Sedition Act and the occupation of Butte by the National Guard. I told them about the Copper Kings and the newspapers they bought or founded to fight their personal battles, followed by decades in which The Company owned most of the newspapers in the state and tamped down dissent and tumult by reporting almost nothing of importance about state and local affairs. I told them of the “great gray blanket” that covered Montana in those bad years.

I acknowledged that Lee Enterprises did a great thing by purchasing the company-owned newspapers in Montana, by allowing the publication of meaningful reporting that help usher in much-needed changes, including a new constitution. But I also had to tell them how Lee Enterprises, under pressure from market forces and its own bad decisions, gradually erased most of that goodwill, prompting, among many other things, my departure from print journalism into the world of online news.

Basically, I just want to let people know, as Illyana already knows, that everything is subject to change, sometimes from bad to better, sometimes from bad to worse, and that in this era at least, newspapers are vitally needed as a check on the power of governments, corporations, powerful private interests and, in some parts of the world, oligarchic strongmen. I’m still struggling with what I will say when asked, as I’m sure I will be, how anyone in a place like Bulgaria could possibly start an online newspaper when reporting on official corruption might lead to prison, or worse.

But before I turn this post into a lecture, let me just mention a few more of the diversions we had over the past two days. On Saturday, Matt and his wife went to the Marine Ball, while I accompanied the 80 or so American ETAs to a dinner at the Vodenitzata restaurant in the hills above Sofia. I learned on the way out of the restaurant that it is a fairly famous place, judging from a series of photos showing former patrons enjoying themselves there — including Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ben Kingsley, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

A stuffed fox, posed as a maitre’d, greets diners at the Vodenitzata restaurant.

The food was superb, but the real attraction was the display of Bulgarian folk-dancing and singing, followed by a display of fire walking, a custom that apparently dates back to pre-Christian pagan rituals. I loved the music, especially that produced by the gadulka, an outlandish looking thing with four or five main strings stretching over half a dozen or so resonating strings. The top strings are bowed and the strings themselves given their tone not by pressing them into the neck, but by bringing them into contact with the fingernails, or so I was given to understand. It has a frenetic, otherworldy sound, as did the voice of the female singer who accompanied the band on several numbers.

The fire dancers did their thing by tending a wood fire on a stone patio behind the restaurant while we ate, then raking the coals into the shape of a cross, allowing them to burn down still more before scattering them around a broad circle. The man and woman, dressed in traditional customs, then cavorted through the coals barefoot, more or less sweeping the embers aside as they dashed around in circles, occasionally picking up sticks with glowing ends and waving them around, as we Americans do with sparklers on the 4th of July. I wish I could give you a better description of the proceedings, but the only light was that of the embers, and there were so many people watching that I was standing a good distance away, too far to see much in detail. Still, it was exciting and enchantingly heathenish.

In Plovdiv we also heard some fine Bulgarian folk songs, played by two elderly gents with Spanish guitars. As I told Matt, it was good and would have been excellent had they taken the trouble to tune their guitars. But even musicians get old, and their hearing sometimes weakens. I can just hear some of you saying that the problem may have lain with the impaired hearing of the aging musician writing this post, but no. The guitars were out of tune.

Inside the restaurant, our regiment of young Americans took up two large rooms, and the din created by 80 exuberant voices drove me out of doors two or three times, just for some quiet. At the embassy the other night, I was talking with some Bulgarians and with some older Americans, and all agreed that young Americans are the loudest people in the world. Matt told me that Bulgarians, when they are in a large group, actually lower their voices to avoid creating a din, the better for all to hear one another. What a concept! Didn’t I say that we Americans could learn from other cultures, if only we would listen?

In Sofia, envoy for a day

I did finally make it to Bulgaria, despite the delays I mentioned in my last post. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to make it to Sofia in time for my first scheduled event, which was a reception at the residence of Eric Rubin, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria, but my plane touched down Wednesday a little after 1 p.m., with five hours to spare before the event.

The reception was held in conjunction with the opening of an ETA Seminar on Media Literacy, which was offered to 80-some young Americans working as Fulbright English teaching assistants in high schools and universities across southeastern Europe. I am scheduled to give two presentations to the young ETAs tomorrow, before beginning a round of talks to journalism students and working journalists in Bulgaria and Latvia.

The photo above was taken by my old friend and former Billings Gazette colleague Matt Hagengruber, the cultural affairs officer for the embassy in Sofia, who arranged this whole unexpected trip. The photo, as you may have guessed, shows me (on the right) shaking hands with the ambassador. We had already had a chance to speak to the ambassador for a while, long enough for me to be able to assure American taxpayers that we seem to have a highly competent and engaging envoy in Bulgaria.


This parlor in the ambassador’s residence in Sophia was the only place I could hear anyone above the din of dozens of loudly chattering young Americans. If somebody really wanted to talk, I asked them to step in here.

This was my first encounter with an American ambassador, I’m pretty sure. Indeed, the last time I was photographed shaking hands overseas with a dignitary of any kind was in 2008, when I had the honor of meeting the mayor of Leonidio, Greece, during an outdoor festival. In that case, I was not there as an official representative for anyone. But when I was told that the gentleman in question, the only person in a large crowd wearing a tie, was the mayor, I took the liberty of introducing myself as the City Hall reporter for a newspaper in Montana, and offered to shake his hand. I recall showing the photo to then-Mayor Ron Tussing when I got back home. I don’t recall whether he was impressed.

Wednesday’s reception was also the first time in six or seven years that I wore a tie, for which I must give thanks to Montana Vintage Clothing on North 29th Street. They helped me look semi-respectable, on the cheap.

In just a couple of hours at the reception, I met all sorts of interesting people, including Ana Todorcheva. Besides being Matt’s assistant, she told me she was the daughter of a man who used to be the most prominent Bulgarian journalist working in the United States. For years, she said, this reporter and radio correspondent was the window through which most Bulgarians formed their impressions of the United States. She said he was the first European journalist to report the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and he also covered the funeral of Martin Luther King.

I also met Ivan Georgiev, a reporter for Bulgarian television network bTV, who spoke to the American ETAs this morning (it’s eight hours later in Sofia) about the state of the media and press freedom in the Balkans. He also showed an excerpt from a powerful documentary he helped make, about the alarming degradation of press freedoms in Turkey. We think, and we are not wrong to think, that these are strange and troubling times in the United States, but most of us can hardly imagine how much worse things are in so many other countries.

Others I met included Nancy Schiller, president and CEO of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, and Boryana Dzhambazova, a freelance journalist who is based in Bulgaria and writes for the Economist and the New York Times, among other publications. None of them, as far as I could determine, had heard of Last Best News. Go figure.

The most interesting person I met, though, was a young journalist whose name was Geargona, or Girgana (Update: it’s Guergana), based on my barbaric interpretation of what I heard. She reports on economics for Capital, the largest newspaper in Bulgaria. She is whip-smart and passionate about her work, and in short order asked so many penetrating questions about everything I had to say about the state of journalism that I realized I had better get to work on refining my proposed talk to regional journalists.

I would like to say more, but I would also like to take another whack at catching up with jet lag. Good night.