Date: 25 May 2015.
Location: outside Riga International Airport, soaking up pre-flight sunshine.
Home time. It still bends the mind to fly 'home' to London. And we speak of it with such ease! “Oh yes, Stansted is such a bitch to get to,” or “the Tube to Heathrow is a total ordeal”. When did we become people who live — and whinge about — in London?
This weekend's brief introduction to the Baltic States has been a whirlwind.
Chandler, himself half Latvian, had warned us about the Latvian customs officers. “No joking around,” he'd cautioned. He was right to do do. A certain level of Soviet grimness permeates here. The people are brusque, bordering on rude. I was quizzed about my intentions, my accomodation, my travel companions, my return date before being stamped and waved in in silence.
Chandler, Monica and I had landed around 11am. Groggy (and with cold beers front of mind) we took a bus downtown and met The Journalist and Monroe lazing off hangovers in the weak sun in Old Town. They had been here for a night already and their eyes were dead as they warned of the dangers of Riga Black Balzam, the local spirit.
Then the weekend begun in earnest.
Miera Iela, the 'Brunswuck St' of Rifa was hosting its annual summer festival so that was our first destination. Unfortunately, the weather was being perverse and it was grizzly and rainy, which chimed well with the soviet style architecture of the ielas outside of Riga's medieval, fantastical Old Town. We collected craft beers, listened to an oddly good woodwind band, tasted sparkling birch sap and gingerbread and moseyed through antique stalls. Once we got cold and hungry we headed back and down into one of old town's many traditional cellar taverns. It was dark, cluttered with heavy wooden furniture and absolutely packed. We ordered a jug of beer (3 litres, and it arrived in a clay urn) and a sharing platter, followed by meatballs for main course. Once our sharing platter arrived we realised that we had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Placed ceremoniously upon the table before us was a metre long wooden plank creaking under the weight of piles of cured cod and herring, sausage, blackened chicken, a forest of dark Latvian garlic bread, three types of cheese, pickled vegetables, slabs of pork. The table groaned. We marvelled.
Two hours later we were suffering from severe food sweats. Our mains went largely untouched and the platter was only half finished. We admitted defeat. By then it was well past nine and yet, when we stumbled up out into the fresh air, we were met by full daylight. Spring in Northern Europe! From there the night degenerated rapidly. The Shot Cafe was about as wholesome as it sounds and everything after the first shot of Riga Black Balzam is blurry.
Waking up on Sunday was horrendous. Five very sorry for themselves Australians emerged into the brilliant sunshine around ten and quietly made their way to the central markets (via a bakery for water, Fanta and piragi, little crescent pastries stuffed with cheese and speck). The markets are set in and around 3 old zeppelin hangers. Apparently, no zeppelins ever made it to Latvia but these giant structures loom over old town, a constant reminder of a time when Latvians, dictated to by the Germans, weren't free to choose what was erected on their soil. Across town, Stalin's 'birthday gift' to the city serves a similar purpose in respect of the Russian occupation. This tall, square School of Science is an eyesore and a silent taunt. The markets were lovely and doing a cracking trade in summer strawberries, bouquets of lilacs, smoked meats, creepy looking fish. The fish hall was almost too much for me in that state and I was in severe danger of losing what little part of dinner I'd managed to retain.
After lunch some colour returned to my cheeks and I felt actually capable of completing the walking tour of old town we had planned for the afternoon. Old town is small but it's curving ielas and oddly shaped 'squares' make it a rabbit warren for tourists — and a guide a smart idea. Our guide was a pretty, elfin Latvian girl with an abrupt but charming manner, a wicked sense of humour and, like so many people whose second language is English, a rather adorable habit of using curse words in odd ways. She referred to at least three things during the tour as total 'mindf–ks'.
I have Latvian friends at home and so much about their lives made so much more sense after two hours of walking and learning. We learned a lot.
We stood in front of the Freedom Monument and learned that Latvians are total hippies. The country had spent most of the twentieth century occupied by either Russian or Germany and, while still Soviets in 1989, the people protested for their independence — in the Singing Revolution. No shouting or bombings here. Over 2 million people held hands to join the capitals of the three Baltic States and make a statement to the west: we want to be free. Hippies. Though, like so much behind the iron curtain, they were 15 years behind the times.
In a sunny square we looked up at the statue of a cat on a roof — the symbol of Riga — and learned that Latvians are deeply vengeful. The original owner of the cat-bearing building had been a Latvian businessman who was eager to join the wealthy German guild whose headquarters were in the elegant, palatial building on the main square. He was refused, more than once, for the guild only allowed entry to German businessmen. The Latvian promptly purchased the land next door to the headquarters, built up and placed the cat statue atop his new home, with the cat's butt, bared under a lifted tail, facing directly into the main window of the guild. Soon after the guild admitted the Latvian and he graciously agreed to turn the statue around. However, it still stands — a powerful reminder not to piss off a Latvian.
In a tailor's shop we learned how fiercely Latvians guard their culture. Still, young and teenage boys and girls learn folk songs and folk dancing, tribal motifs are worn embroidered on belts and vests and houses bear the symbols of the pagan gods. This makes a great deal of sense for a country so relentlessly invaded by the European schoolyard bullies. It also accords with my experience of Latvians back home. They are without fail close-knit families whose children speak fluent Latvian. And well might they protect their heritage. During the wars refugees fled and the country now only holds 2 million people, most of whom live in dinky little Riga. The rest of the country? 'Woods,' says our guide. 'I came from the woods.'
Feeling learned, we found a spot in the strong sun and settled in for cider and snacks. When that dipped behind the dainty facade of old town, we made our way to the lauded Skyline bar on the 25th floor if the Radisson where we ordered overpriced daiquiris and ruined our appetites with free nuts. It is so liberating to be in Eastern Europe and be able to order anything you like without fear of the bill! Tipsy, we headed to Lido, which is basically Latvian Sizzler's and moved food around on our plates. Meaty flashbacks from dinner the night before came rushing back.
Finally, we indulged in one last glass of wine in one of old town's myriad squares as the sun set — around eleven. A rock 'n' roll band played across the square and couples were swing dancing to Johnny Cash. The ornate guild building was lit up. Tulips filled the centre of the square. We snuggled under blankets.
Then we slept like babies.