Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Jennie Bender reports from Madona, Latvia

By Jennie Bender

Coming to you from Madona, Latvia, where I traveled after the Tour de Twin cities, to race a few of the Scandinavian cup races. My mission is to increase my FIS sprint points, and work on qualifying for the heats. I race a 5k classic, then a skate and classic sprint on the 9th and 10th in Estonia.

We flew into Riga, Latvia’s capital, on January 29th. While driving through many towns to our destination, you can sense the essence of sadness, yet spirit of re-birth, in the buildings and elder’s faces. After all, it was only in 1991 when Latvia’s final pre-war status as a sovereign independent country was restored. Being in a prime location (everyone go look up where Latvia is), it’s been put through the ringer, passing through the hands of the Germans, Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Swedish, and Russians.  

Adjusting to change is part of life, and an important part of being successful no matter what it pertains to. Traveling to Europe throws many foreign curveballs at North Americans, and as an athlete, it’s important to compromise, find substitutes, and soak in the experience.  Although these “ski trips” to Europe sound very luxurious, they are for business. I met up with many of the post World Junior/U23 skiers and coaches, as well as a few others who came over from the Supertours. The standard schedule when traveling with a group, is to drive straight to our lodging, then usually only diverge to the grocery store, strength gym, and ski trails throughout the trip. In this scenario, we are living less than 20m from the ski trails, so travel is minimal.

My first compromise was adjusting to the eight hour time change, which definitely messes with your body more than you’d think. Despite resting plenty, I wanted to be sleeping during most morning trainings, and I would zombie drag myself to breakfast. A week later, I am finally feeling awake in the morning, but the process has been rough.

When I was in Italy for World U23s a few years ago, I took pictures of the food in town because I wanted to forever remember how fantastic it was. Here, well, it has been good, but I am getting sick of boiled potatoes, which is a staple at every meal. However, one thing Latvia does right is their gravy; it’s pretty darn good. Apparently, it seems to be their universal sauce for every dish. Some of the boys brought over Sweet Baby Rays from the USA, which was a smart choice.  Every dinner, we have had some sort of pounded meat or meatball, which although looks like mystery meat, is tasty, dipped in gravy. Breakfast is by far my favorite meal, with salted meats, cheese, and veggie open sandwiches (along side other more traditional breakfast foods), it’s easy to get in morning protein. The veggie side has been a bit lacking, but there are always shredded carrots on the table.

Where many of the surrounding countries have switched to Euro, their currency is still the Lati, which has an unfortunate exchange rate of about one to two American dollars. Apparently, they are converting sometime in the future. Our next race location, Estonia, only began using the Euro on January 1, 2011. If you ever travel to the United Kingdom, Denmark, or Sweden, be warned, I hear they don’t take euro there either.

As always, I feel like a dumb American who can only speak English and a tiny French. I feel bad trying as I use hand gestures with my English, making them communicate in my favor, since language here is one of the determining factors of national identity. The Latvian language is one of only two in the Baltic language group, the other being Lithuanian. I keep trying to remember the word for “Thank You” (“Paldies”), which is about as far as I have gotten in a week.

Other than the lack of sun, tiny coffee cups, and a large population of smokers, the venue here is quite pretty, the snow and company is great, and the multiple chocolate aisles are the best gourmet selection I have ever seen.  Wish me luck, as I hear two full buses of Norwegians are showing up tomorrow to race.

See you at the Birkie!

-       Jennie Bender

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