The Three Perfect Travel Films to End the Summer

It’s officially September, which means summer is nearly over. But, while the weather is still hot — take advantage of those last lazy days when you need to stay inside in order to beat the heat. Here are three summer movies to help you escape the hot weather to adventures in far off lands.

L’Auberge Espagnole

L’Auberge Espagnole or The Spanish Apartment is a film anyone who studied abroad can relate to. The film follows Xavier (Romain Duris), a French economics student who goes to study in Barcelona for a year with the hopes of impressing a financial firm he wishes to work for upon graduation. Leaving behind his quirky girlfriend (played by Audrey Tautou), Xavier finds himself living in a flat with seven other people from countries all over Europe. Despite their different languages and backgrounds, the housemates bond over their misadventures and excitement of life in Barcelona. These events include watching Xavier learn to “speak like a true Spaniard,” embark on an affair with a married woman and ultimately discover his passion for writing. The film is full of nostalgia and the impressive sights of Barcelona.  In true international fashion, L’Auberge Espagnole incorporates French, Spanish, Catalan and English throughout the dialogue of the film. This film is also currently available on Netflix so take advantage while you can!

Copenhagen

The Danish capital makes an impressive backdrop for this coming of age story and plays as major of a role in the film as any of its characters. William (Gethin Anthony), a jaded 28-year-old New Yorker is drinking and sleeping his way through Europe until he makes his way to Copenhagen. As an immature and mean-spirited man, William proves at first to be an unsympathetic character, who goes to Copenhagen to deliver a letter from his deceased father to the grandfather that abandoned the family decades before. To guide him in his search for his grandfather, William enlists the help of Effy a local who works at the hotel he is staying. As the story unravels Effy and William begin to fall for each other with Effy seeming to have a stabilizing influence on William. But, the audience soon learns that the relationship would be impossible. Copenhagen is a modern story that shows us in a new way when it is time to grow up. The film is different than anything else I have seen before and one of the best movies I have seen in a long time.

Stealing Beauty

                       Please excuse the cheesy twenty-year-old movie trailer!

When I was 19 years-old there were two movies that made me want to see Italy more than anything — Under the Tuscan Sun and Stealing Beauty. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Liv Tyler, Stealing Beauty is set in a villa in the hills of Siena.The movie follows Lucy Harmon who goes to Italy to have her portrait done by an old family friend, following the suicide of her mother.  Lucy’s arrival sparks intrigue among the villa’s ex-pat residents whom were all old friends of her mother and who live in this secluded part of the Tuscan countryside. In a case of art imitating life, Lucy also seeks to learn who her biological father is after finding a poem her mother had written about Lucy’s conception after visiting the same villa twenty years earlier.  The movies colorful character as well as the breathtaking Italian countryside create an incredible setting as Lucy seeks to discover the truth about her parentage and her own ideas of love.

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Rundāle Palace: The Versailles of Latvia

During my recent trip to the Baltics, I was lucky enough to have a few days in Latvia. While most of my time was spent in Riga, there was one other place I was glad I had the chance to visit while en route to Lithuania.

In the south of Latvia, about 20 km from the Lithuanian border is Rundāle Palace  — an enormous 18th century baroque palace. For those that that have seen BBC’s latest adaptation of War and Peace, you will know that the miniseries is set in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 1800s. What you may not realize is that the majority of the filming actually took place in Lithuania and Latvia, including at Rundāle Palace.

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Known as “the Versailles of Latvia,” The palace has 54 rooms, including a 1770s-era billiards room, ballroom and a library. The palace was originally built as a summer home for Ernst Johann von Biron, the Duke of Courland and Semigallia. Biron was a favorite courtier and likely lover of Anna Ioannovna, the regent of the Duchy of Courland (a state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and later the Empress of Russia. Biron was a powerful figure at court due to his influence over the Empress. This reached new heights when Biron convinced the Empress to name him regent of Russia when she was on her death bed.

The Throne Room
The Throne Room
The Duke's Bedchamber (featured as Pierre's room in War and Peace)
The Duke’s Bedchamber (featured as Pierre’s room in War and Peace)
Dining Room
Dining Room

It was through Biron’s position that he was able to line his pockets and build incredible homes for himself such as Rundāle Palace. Eventually Biron was usurped and exiled to Siberia. Some time later Imperial Russia absorbed Courland and Semigallia and Rundāle Palace became the property of the Russian Crown.  The estate would later be gifted by Catherine the Great to the brother of her lover. From there, it passed to a few other noble families until World War I when it was used as a hospital by the German army.

The ballroom
The ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
The Duke's study
The Duke’s study

From there it was used as flats for military veterans and then as a grain storehouse. When the Soviet Union took over the Baltic States after WWII, Rundāle Palace was used as a school with the Dukes private quarters being transformed into a  gymnasium. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration began and it was eventually turned into a museum.

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Today,  Rundāle Palace is one of Latvia’s most visited sites. The Palace itself as well as the park around it which features a French style garden complete with fountains and amphitheater  are well worth a visit.

 

How Basketball, the Olympics and the Grateful Dead Forever Changed Lithuania

The Other Dream Team is a 2012 documentary that illustrates the importance basketball has played in Lithuania’s history and culminates in their participation in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

Last week the Lithuanian Men’s basketball team was knocked out of the group round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. They wouldn’t continue to the semi-finals and had lost out on their shot at a 2016 Olympic medal. I watched my husband come home from work looking absolutely defeated at the news. I knew most other Lithuanians, which had undoubtedly watched the match, were experiencing similar feelings. While other countries might just be disappointed in the loss, basketball is the pride and joy of Lithuania. So much so that it is called the “second religion” of the small country and there is nothing bigger than competing in the sport at the Olympics.

Basketball became popular in Lithuania during the 1930s when a Lithuanian-American named Frank Lubin was invited to coach basketball there. Lubin had just competed on the national U.S. basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where the team had won the gold. Lubin moved to Lithuania and led the country to two Eurobasket championships in 1937 and 1939. The country was officially hooked on basketball and it was a passion that would carry on for decades.

When Stalin invaded Lithuania towards the end of WWII, the country endured horrible treatment under the Soviet Union. Over 30,000 Lithuanians including women and children were sent to labor camps in Siberia where they were barely fed or given water on the long journey there. If they survived the trip, they would often spend over a decade at these camps where conditions were harsh. Most Lithuanian families, even today, can count at least one immediate family member that perished in Siberia. The citizens that were able to avoid being sent to the gulags were under constant scrutiny by the KGB who tortured and imprisoned anyone who spoke out against the Soviet Union. Lithuanians were robbed of any hope of ever being an independent nation again. All children were made to learn Russian in school and were not permitted to be educated in the Lithuanian alphabet. Even sports were dictated. Under the Soviet Union, all Lithuanian athletes were forced to play in international competitions (i.e. the Olympics)  under the banner of the USSR.

But, something started to take shape in the early 1980s. Lithuania’s basketball club in Kaunas (the second largest city in Lithuania) was called Zalgiris. The name refers to an old order of Lithuanian knights. Zalgiris would frequently compete against CSKA Moscow which was and still is the club team of the Red Army. CSKA pulled the best players from all over the Soviet Union and was often the foundation for the national team. But, whenever CSKA competed against Zalgiris — they consistently lost.  Lithuanians saw how their athletes from a small country of 3 million people were constantly beating the Red Army’s team with players pulled from a population of over 200 million. It became apparent that this wasn’t just about basketball anymore, it was political.  Arvydas Sabonis, the center for Zalgiris and NBA Hall of Famer, later recalled that beating the Red Army at basketball was Lithuania’s chance to “bite the red bear in the ass.” Zalgiris gave hope to Lithuania in these games and begun the stirrings for what would become Lithuania’s independence movement.

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Soviet Union took home the gold medal in men’s basketball. Four out of the five starting players were Lithuanian. There was a secret sort of pride for Lithuania during this occasion, as it felt more like their own victory rather than a win for the USSR. The win only stoked the country’s determination to become independent. Two years later on March 11th, 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare their independence.  Less than a year later, the Soviet Union withdrew their military from the country.

Even though Lithuania had broken away from the Soviet Union, they were struggling to regain their place in the global community and separate themselves from the image of being a Soviet state.  The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona was the first opportunity they had to compete under the Lithuanian flag. But, the chances of getting to the Olympics were not optimistic. After declaring independence, Lithuania found themselves bankrupt and attempting to rebuild after so long under Soviet control.  Šarūnas Marčiulionis, one of their legendary basketball players had emigrated to the U.S. where he was playing for the NBA. Marčiulionis, along with several other basketball players vowed to help get Lithuania to the Olympics in any way they could. Progress was slow until something entirely unexpected happened.

The Grateful Dead had read about Lithuania’s plight and offered to fund the basketball team’s journey to the Olympics.  They also sent a box of tie-dye t-shirts in Lithuanian colors to the entire team.  Newly  independent, funded by the Grateful Dead and sporting tie-dye shirts — this was how Lithuania made their long awaited return to the Olympic games.

The Soviet Union had been dissolved by 1990 but 12 of the 15 former Soviet states including Russia entered the Olympics under the “Unified Team.” The three countries that did not participate under this banner, aside from Lithuania, were Latvia and Estonia (the other two Baltic states) who had by this time also declared their independence.

Lithuania’s basketball team competed well during the group rounds and progressed to the semi-finals. But, they suffered a loss when they went up against Team USA who was famed that year for having the Dream Team roster with the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to name a few. This put them in their final match to take home the bronze medal. In a very epic turn of events, their last game to determine if they medaled was against the Unified Team. For Lithuania, this was a defining moment to fully break away from their past with the Soviet Union and distinguish themselves as Lithuania to the rest of the world. The game was close the entire four quarters but at the end,  Lithuania beat the Unified Team with a score of 82-78.

It was Lithuania’s first Bronze medal at the Olympics for men’s basketball. In the following years, they would earn two more bronze medals at the Olympics in addition to numerous wins in international basketball championships. Basketball has continued as a time honored tradition in Lithuania, with the country’s passion for the sport becoming internationally renowned. Today, basketball is as much a part of Lithuania as ever. For them, basketball is so much more than just a game.

Surprises in Riga

I am thrilled to report that I am posting this from the road, as I travel through the Baltics. It has been nearly two years since my first trip to Lithuania to see my in-laws and this time it was great to be able to get out and see more of this part of the world. The first stop on my journey was Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Located in the west of Latvia with access to a large port and situated on the Daugava River, it has been an important trading city over the centuries. Initially settled by the Baltic tribes (pagans), they were later forced into Christianity by German crusaders (little known fact, the Crusades extended to the Baltics) and taken over intermittently by the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, the Swedish Empire, Imperial Russia and finally the Soviet Union before gaining independence in 1991.

Like Vilnius, Riga’s Old Town is a designated UNESCO heritage site due to it’s beautifully preserved architecture. Neo-classical, baroque and gothic buildings line winding cobblestoned streets in this part of the city. Walking through this bit of Riga gives the impression of traveling back in time. But, then you turn a corner and see a T.G.I. Fridays and that illusion is quickly destroyed. Yes, there is a T.G.I. Fridays in Old Town along with a Tokyo Sushi, Charley Pizza and a Japanese owned Texas-style steak house called Steiku Haoss (you read that right). These chain restaurants are a reminder that Riga is a popular tourist destination. In spite of the modern distrction, the Old City is well worth a visit.

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Live music seems to come from every corner, something Riga is known for. You can hear everything from classical musicians performing on the streets to modern country music ballads being sung in the bars.  On a side note, Damien Rice was also in town to play a sold out show while we were there. We nearly bumped into him on the street and I regret not running after him to see if there was a chance to get extra tickets.  Sadly we missed out on seeing Damience Rice, but we did manage to pay a visit to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, one of the most accessible places in Old Town for live music and a great place to go for local Latvian beer.

The Baltics have a proud beer culture and finding the best local brew is not only an obligation for travelers, but a point of pride for many bars and restaurants. “Alus” means beer in Latvian (and Lithuanian). This term is how you can quickly identify the bars and taverns in Riga.  Sadly, we only had two days in Riga and didn’t manage to get to some of the breweries and local pubs we wanted to visit.

However, we were happy to find that Riga has a growing craft coffee scene. Rocket Bean, a local coffee roaster and cafe is one of the influential coffee companies that have opened up in Riga over the last few years. After accepting that the best we could hope for in terms of coffee was the typical Lavazza — it was a pleasant surprise to walk into Rocket Bean and get a fantastic pour over with our own choice of beans. In a country of just under 2 million, it’s easier to change how people view coffee —which is exactly what Rocket Bean is striving to do. By showcasing their quality of beans, offering everything from flat-whites to Aeropress they are already converting many locals.

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While Riga is a big city in a very small country, two days is not nearly enough time to spend there. I already have a laundry list of things I want to do the next time I go back. Until then.

2015: The Year I Finally Went to New York City

For the last ten years, one of the saddest truths about my travel escapades has been the fact that I, an American, had never been to New York. This was a source of slight embarrassment when speaking to my friends who were not American and HAD been to New York. Especially, as they had traveled from the other side of the world to visit the “Greatest City in the Universe.” I had numerous reasons for this. For one, the convenience really wasn’t there. For anyone who has never been to the U.S. before — IT’S BIG! From Seattle to New York — it’s roughly a six hour flight. Secondly, the U.S. doesn’t have as much time off from work as most other places in the world. The average is roughly 14 days of vacation for the  year — this makes the time you have to travel quite short. So once I had the time, I was always more interested in international travel than domestic.  But, then in 2015…something changed all that. I found myself living on the East Coast and New York was suddenly much more accessible — being only a few hours away by train or car. So, in October I took advantage of a three days weekend and drove to the Big Apple for what I would call “An Introduction to New York City.”

Most of it was spent walking around, seeing the sights and meeting up with some friends who lived there. And after all the years I have heard about how amazing New York is — I have to say it lived up to the hype.

One of the biggest highlights for me was seeing Washington Square Park — particularly the chess players. Director, Stanley Kubrick used to be a chess hustler in Washing Square Park and was so good at beating his opponents that supposedly he was able to fund much of his third film, Fear and Desire, from his chess winnings. It was also incredible to see the Chelsea Hotel (buried under scaffolding) where Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Janice Joplin and countless other artists stayed and lived. Then of course there was the pizza…

Time in New York was sadly short but that just leaves more things to see when I’m there next time.

Long Lunches at the Italian Embassy

One of the biggest perks about working on Embassy Row in Washington D.C. was going to lunch at the Italian Embassy. Some of the embassies have unique features that usually represent something in their culture. For instance the Japanese Embassy supposedly has a traditional tea house inside of its compound while the Finnish Embassy is known to have a sauna. In the case of the Italian Embassy  — it’s an authentic Italian cafe.

The eatery is casual yet polished with red walls and large black and white photographs of Italian celebrities drinking espresso, hanging on the walls. In the warmer seasons, an  outdoor patio is set up with umbrellas and tables for people to eat outside. Italians hang out at the bar to get a macchiato before heading back to work upstairs. Then of course there is the food. The pizza and the pasta is just as good as any I’ve ever had in Italy. All the ingredients are fresh and everything is baked fresh that day. Needless to say — it’s no surprise that the Italian Embassy cafe attracts the staff of other embassy workers come lunch time.

Splashing around at the V&A Gardens

There is nothing like going to the gardens at the  Victoria & Albert Museum in the South Kensington area of London. You can have a cup of tea in a beautifully printed cup and cool your feet in the fountain on a warm day. The John Madejski Garden at the V&A is one of my favorite meeting spots in London. When the weather is warm, it’s an idyllic place to spend a few hours in the afternoon. After the many grey months you get in London, it’s probably one of the cheeriest places in the city you can be and one of the rarer instances you can splash around in a fountain! The best part is that the gardens and the museum are open to the public and have free admittance!

A guide to self defense for travelers

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Traveling is a thrilling experience. It takes you to new places, allows you to meet new people and in some instances gives you a sense of adventure. But, sadly when traveling tourists can be easy targets for small crimes such as pick-pocketing/muggings and sometimes crimes even more grisly. That is why everyone (especially travelers) should know how to defend themselves. Self-defense skills are not limited to physical contact. In fact, much of self-defense is how to AVOID getting into a situation where there is physical confrontation and how to deter would-be predators. Below, are a few lessons that have served me well in my own travels.

Walk with purpose

Have you ever been walking along and someone comes up to you asking for money? Perhaps canvassers trying to get you to sign a petition? Or in some cases maybe you got the impression someone wanted to lift your pocket? Either way — all of these people were trying to engage you in some way or another to achieve their ends. However, when you walk with purpose and at a faster pace (as if you are determined not to be late somewhere) — it becomes much more difficult for you to be approached by someone on the street. People with more nefarious intentions are going to be on the look out for someone who seems a little lost, distracted or not getting anywhere fast. Walking with purpose will make you appear focused and act as a deterrent to anyone wishing to approach you.

Look alert

When you’re by yourself and it’s after dark, constantly be scanning the area. This should entail doing a 180 degree scan of the area in front of you so that you’re swiveling your head slowly from right to left. Keep looking ahead and at your peripherals as you walk somewhere.  Obviously, you are trying to be alert and keep away from anyone or any place that might look suspicious. But, the fact that you appear alert is going to make you immediately less attractive to someone hoping take advantage. Do NOT be listening to music, trying to read a map or talking on your phone. People often think there is security when speaking to someone on the phone, but it actually serves as a distraction and might not deter a would-be attacker.

Don’t be afraid to be rude

Someone comes up and asks you for directions on the street, you perhaps provide them with instructions on how to reach their destination or explain that you’re not from around there and sadly can’t help them. Then, they start asking you other questions like where you’re from, who are you with and where you’re headed. Suddenly, you start to feel a little uncomfortable but you keep finding yourself answering these questions because you feel trapped by being polite.

This happens more often than you think. People who are looking to take advantage of you might start with a seemingly innocent question about how to get some place and then start to ask a lot of other unnecessary questions or seem intent to keep you talking. My rule of thumb is that I’ll answer the first question and then if things seem a bit odd, promptly excuse myself. If they keep talking, just walk away from them fast. Obviously, there are times when people are trying to be friendly but that’s a judgement call you have to make in that instance. At the end of the day, if things feel out of sorts it’s better to be rude and safe.

Shout “fire!” instead of “help!”

Believe it or not, shouting “help” will not necessarily get people running to your aid. My taekwondo instructor explained this in a self-defense seminar. It’s been shown that if bystanders hear someone shouting help, they might hesitate to get involved for their own safety. But, if you shout “fire!” people will tend to come running because as far as they know it’s their house on fire. Bottom line, if you’re trying to get people out onto the street where you and a would be attacker are alone —learn how to say fire in the local language and shout it at the top of your lungs.

Follow your instincts

I can’t stress this enough. If something doesn’t feel right then don’t ignore it — act on it and get to a place you feel safe.

If you are forced to physically engage with someone as a matter of self defense, I recommend to always keep your keys in your hand — they can be used as a weapon especially in terms of gauging at someone’s eyes. Additionally, the throat, solar plexus and groin (both men and women) are always targets you should aim for as they can be debilitating. However, I highly recommend you go to a self-defense seminar or practical martial arts class where you can learn how to defend yourself correctly. If you have been to a seminar once, then go again. The more you practice these skills, the more likely you will be able to use them should you ever be in need. As always, safe travels!

A Bespoke Event: Savile Row in D.C.

Earlier this week, an exclusive exhibition — Savile Row and America: a Sartorial Special Relationship — took place at the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington D.C. The event paid homage to the craftsmanship and history of the tailors on Savile Row in London. The exhibits included everything from Buffalo Bill’s overcoat to Michael Jackson’s jackets. There were also special installations dedicated to Gregory Peck and Winston Churchill. Due to my current job, I was lucky enough to be  be one of the many people to help put this exhibition together.

This is just a snapshot of my favorite parts of the show.

Hanging patterns

Just outside the ballroom of the Residence, cardboard patterns were hung around the chandelier. Patterns are cardboard cut outs of client measurements. Once a person’s measurement have been taken, a tailor saves the pattern so they can create garments for the client in the future without having to re-take their measurements. Some of the hanging patterns included those from Samuel L. Jackson, Hugh Laurie and Katharine Hepburn.

Continuing to the end of the corridor was the Winston Churchill exhibit…

Lent to the exhibition by Churchill’s family and private collectors —  the display features Churchill’s military uniform from his time as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars (a calvary regimen), a pinstripe suit and overcoat.

Several heirlooms were also among the items. An engraved pillbox given by Churchill to his wife in 1908 is seen above as is an intricate cigarette box given to Churchill by his wife and later passed down to Churchill’s son, Randolph. These two keepsakes are particularly special as this is the first time they have been put on display.

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The dining room of the Residence was focused on formal wear. Some of my favorite pieces in this room included a blazer lent by David Oyelwo, who is famed for playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. The blazer was worn at the Critics Choice Awards where Oyelwo was nominated for Best Actor. In the spirit of King, the lining of the blazer includes the lyrics to one of King’s favorite gospel songs. Another stand out piece is an Alexander Mcqueen jacket, which features a line of cigar smoke trailing across it. To add to the effect, a cigar was placed on the table next to the jacket to have the illusion of being lit.

The ballroom was a collection of suits and garments that had links to Hollywood and celebrities in one sense or another.

Mark Ronson’s cream wedding suit stood out at the center of the ballroom. Next to it was the blue and black dinner jacket Eddie Redmayne wore when he accepted his Oscar for “The Theory of Everything.” Not far from the original Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen, stood two of Michael Jackson’s iconic military style jackets from his world tour.

Last but not least, a special tribute was paid to Gregory Peck and his valued relationship with Savile Row tailors, Huntsman. Gregory Peck loved his bespoke tweeds and wool suits from the tailoring house and according to his son, Anthony, often reserved the highest compliments for the Huntsman tailors/cutters for their craftsmanship and detail. Gregory Peck’s  Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” was also on display. A film in which he wears a Huntsman blazer.

The Savile Row and America exhibit was only on display for two days at the Residence. But, the event left an impression. Savile Row tailors have been creating garments and suits for well over a hundred years. The saying goes “There is nothing like a well- cut suit.” Suits made 40-years-ago can still be worn today. There is an iconic timelessness to a good suit, especially when it’s one cut and made specifically for you. Here’s to another hundred years for Savile Row.