Some people say that there’s no point in visiting a place for just a day, especially if that’s a city, and a city with lots of culture and history – like Riga. Others do great on all these cruise ship trips where they indeed spend just a day in each port. Me? I am always in favor of the first opinion; I hate rushing around. But sometimes there are exclusions.
I like to take it slow, the new surroundings, new sights, new smells, new faces. It makes me happy to feel myself a part of a new place after a short while, when the exploring is almost done and you just start living the life of the locals. I will write separately about that.
I had a connection flight through Riga, Latvia. It was the cheapest option from Amsterdam to Moscow at the time. I had two options: waiting 6 hours for a connection or spending the night in the city and leaving the next morning. I chose the second option, found a couch – my first girl host, there aren’t too many on Couchsurfing – and was ready to go.
Leaving Amsterdam would’ve been sad if I haven’t known that feeling already – the feeling of connection with a place and of inner knowledge that I will be back, one way or another. So I woke up at six am, quietly packed my backpack and slipped out of my host’s apartment. He was still asleep, so I decided to send him a thank-you message later.
A bus, then a train. I was genuinely surprised while on the bus. It was a weekday, early as hell (well, for me, I’m such an owl), people were going to work – and yet they were smiling. To each other, to themselves, and to the world. They didn’t mind the busy day or the early morning. There was no expression of irritation, endless tiredness, anger, or apathy. Their facial expressions were all different, yet not negative, not the ones meant to push someone away. They were just sharing that morning ride all together, and the atmosphere in the bus was full of some warm and calm energy. It surprised me a lot.
I got on the speed train to the airport, told by some stranger not to purchase a ticket but still purchasing it, only failing to stamp it – I couldn’t find the validator on the platform and was too lazy to go search for it. I hopped in the wagon that stopped right in front of me, noting that most people headed to the next one. Turned out that I landed in business class – quiet and relatively empty, with comfy leather seats… But I was so used to the comfort of European trains that I didn’t even pay attention! So when the controller arrived and told the gentleman in front of me that his ticket was for economy class and started scolding him, I already knew what game to play: “the innocent tourist”, who I in fact was. I was holding the yellow ticket in my hand, making sure she won’t be able to tell if it was stamped or not, and quickly started apologizing, adding some accent to make sure. I promised I would move to economy, and as soon as she left sat right back, just like the gentleman in front of me. What’s the point of moving, we were almost at the airport.
I loved Amsterdam for one more reason: everyone, every single person I’ve met, mistook me for a local. People were constantly asking me for directions and trying to speak Dutch with me. And yet again at the airport two elderly ladies who got held up at customs started complimenting me in Dutch on my South African scarf that I used as a belt for my long warm cardigan. They weren’t difficult to understand, but I had to reply in English, as my only progress with Dutch was that I learned to pronounce “Rijksmuseum” and “Stedelijk”. The ladies were surprised a lot and told me I looked totally Dutch. I decided that from that moment on I had another country that accepted me, and it was a good thought.
The flight was short and dull. I didn’t fasten my seatbelt – again – just stretching it and throwing it across my hips. Hate it when something’s holding me somewhere. Tried to sleep and failed as always. Tried to read Kerouac’s “On the Road”, and my mind got blown again just ten or twenty minutes later. The guy’s really hard to read.
I arrived to Riga at around two, got a bus ticket just like Lera, my host, told me, and headed to the Old City. We were to meet at six. The ticket price was a pleasant surprise – just 0.60 euros. I remembered Berlin and other cities and decided that I liked Riga straight away. Imho, 2.60 is not a normal price for the bus (hello Berlin). It shouldn’t be a thing!
I was really hungry by the time I got there. Foursquare told me there a was a place called Lido nearby, where they served Latvian cuisine for reasonable prices. I headed there, feeling like the road would never end – my backpack was heavy (with cheeses and tulip bulbs, but not really that heavy at all). Lido turned out to be a self-service place where you pay per dish. We have a few concepts just like that in Moscow, and the food was no different from ours, only that they had delicious black bread. The prices were good for Europe, though maybe not perfect for Riga. I sat down by the window, happy to put my backpack down. The food was good, the kvas (a bread drink that is not yet beer) delicious, and life was getting brighter. I was almost done when an old lady sat at my table.
I blinked. The cafe was full of people, but there still were some free tables, only waiting for the waiters to get cleaned. Nevertheless, I went on with my food. The old lady had only one small crepe with cottage cheese. I looked at her again. She looked very modest and very far away from the world. I was done with my food and ready to go, but I got that feeling that there’s a story sitting next to me and I’d regret having missed it.
So I addressed the lady in Russian – most people around speak Russian – asking if she had any suggestions about where I should go for my only day in Riga. She was startled and didn’t know what to say. Then she started speaking with a huge accent, apologizing for her bad pronunciation – she forgot the language a lot. But then, as the conversation went on, her speech improved. And there was a story.
Arija, that was her name, was 87, and worked her entire life for a labor union, children’s summer camps and all. Her husband was a writer and he died 20 years ago. Both her brothers died – one in the States. She didn’t have any children. And her pension was 145 euros, she even named how many cents. I honestly was shocked. Riga’s a capital. Even in Moscow the minimal pension is around 200 euros, and we’re not in the EU!
She lived on the other side of the river and rarely went to the city center, because it cost money. That day she came because there was a concert at the Writer’s House where her husband used to work, and it cost 18 euro. And that’s almost all she had left for the month. She said she probably won’t go, but I should. I had 15 euro left from my 3-week trip, so I just smiled politely.
Arija and I kept talking. She told me about her brother who lived in Chicago and died just recently, about how almost all her pension was spent on communal services in winter because it’s more expensive than in summer, an she couldn’t always afford all the medicines she needed. And then she said that maybe she’ll go to the concert. Just because. And I thought, what the fuck for would I need these ten euros. I’m going back home the next day. I’ll be good with just five.
Later I regretted not offering all fifteen, as the euro exchange rate went down and I found a commission-free ATM.
But seeing that good old lady cry because some stranger girl offered her ten euros to go to the concert…
This shouldn’t be happening at all, anytime, anywhere. It just shouldn’t be. And I know that in many countries the situation is much worse; but I was there and then, in that cafe in Riga with that particular old woman who was so happy that she cried. She was smiling, crying and shaking her head – in disbelief that it was happening to her, that after all the hard work she lived to the day when she had to take money from some stranger to go see a concert. She took out a camera – an old film camera – and said she wanted to take a picture of me. She said it was almost impossible to find film in shops nowadays, and she was saving every shot for a special occasion.
We walked out of the cafe and into the park, her arm around mine, slowly. She showed me some monument and took a picture of me in front of it. I did the same, but with my iPhone, and showed her an instant result. She laughed and couldn’t believe it. She said she would send me the pictures as soon as the film ran out, and she had about 15 shots left. I promised to send her mine. We exchanged addresses, and she tried to return me the money, which I denied forcefully. “But I have nothing at all to give you in return”, – she kept saying, and I kept assuring her that my best reward would be her going to that concert and enjoying it. She hugged and kissed me, and we parted. Later I googled the local non-profits helping the elderly people, found one and they gave me an address. So now I’m going to print the pictures and send them together with the address. Hope it helps.
I walked on into the old city, and immediately saw the building with the statue of a black cat on the roof, the house of a merchant who decades ago had a conflict with the guild and installed the cat so that its butt faced (oh English, what are you doing to us) the guild building. Nearby there was a tiny glass booth, a little cafe. I wasn’t planning to go, but saw a woman walking in and just decided to follow. It was the coziest little place with great cheap pastries, and man, local pastries are delicious!
The woman made her order at the counter, and I heard her speaking Russian and telling that she just came back from Moscow. She was a big dark-haired woman with super low forceful voice. I decided to join in, ordered a lemon meringue pie, and we sat by the window next to each other. She was a journalist and a photographer, and called herself the best tour guide in Riga. She was very fond of the city and turned out she knew a couple of professors from my school. Such a small world! We chatted a bit about travel and the future. She was an interesting lady, with very strong opinions. We finished our pies, said goodbye to the lovely hostess, and went our separate ways. I kept walking into the old city, trying to get to Saint Peter’s cathedral but constantly getting distracted. The city had a spirit and I liked it.
I made it to the cathedral, which was closed; and was very surprised to see the statue to the Bremen musicians, a gift from a German sculpturer, as I was told later. I walked around and was stopped by the delicious smell of beeswax coming from a little shop next to the cathedral.
It was full of all things made of honey and beeswax, and the smell was yummy. The girl at the counter offered me to try their honey raspberries, and they were fantastic. I love beeswax. It’s impossible to buy real beeswax candles in Moscow for a reasonable price, so I usually buy them during travels. There in the shop they were so much cheaper. I was ready to buy some, when suddenly I saw sheets of beeswax with some thread for sale. Thanks to my favorite Fort Ross Conservancy, I knew exactly what to do with those, and they were so cheap! I paid with my card, and then realized there was no way the sheets would make it to Moscow. They won’t fit into the backpack and I had no wish to carry yet another bag around. The shop was empty, and the girl obviously bored. So I told her I would have to roll the candles on the spot, and she offered to help. And there I was, in the evening Riga, rolling candles from sheets of beeswax. We started chatting in English, but quickly figured that we both spoke Russian. She said usually no one knew what to do with the sheets, and all the tourists always bought the finished candles, which are thrice as expensive. We laughed, talked about honey and the Latvian beekeeping traditions, and actually had a great time. At last the candles were all ready – lots of them – and I had to go meet my CS host. And as soon as I headed in her direction I got a message on my cell asking where I was.
…well, turned out I forgot to adjust the time on my watch, and she’s been waiting for me for almost an hour. I rushed towards the meeting spot, apologizing as much as I could. Lera just laughed at me, and we took a bus to her place.
We were met by Cooper the sharpei, I made my apple pie – this time with almonds – and we uncorked the freshly bought bottle of white Chilean wine. It was a good, very relaxing evening, full of funny travel stories (like the one about the Scottish guy on the island who was moaning by their door naked at night, or an adventure in China where there was no toilet in the house) and great experiences. It was good to have a girl’s company after a few weeks of mostly living with men. I got a light bite from Cooper who thought I was taking away the cheese which I was actually feeding to him. I called him an asshole and ignored him for the whole evening. We chatted till long after midnight.
The next morning Cooper was all sorrow and kept apologizing, following me everywhere and putting his head on my knees, and was initially forgiven.
I bid farewell to my new friends and started off to the airport. Walking with my backpack under a cool Riga sun I replayed my adventures of the last weeks in my head, smiling to how little I could imagine when starting out for my journey. You can’t ever plan everything; you never know. And I like that you never know. It’s freedom.