Previous: Drink, Play, Loathe: Day 9, Riga
I woke up late, hungover, boiling hot, again. I spent a short morning scribbling on maps on my bed but didn’t hang around too long because my dorm was full of old men and the air was thick with the musk of leathery bodies slumbering and overheating and snoring and farting.
I grabbed a handful of hard boiled sweets from the counter at reception for breakfast and marched out. I wound my way to the old town and found St Peter’s Church and Riga Town Hall, adorned with its whimsical red brickwork and Eastern European minarets. Nearby was the Latvian Riflemen Monument, gifted to the country by the USSR during the Cold War period. I’ve been to a few countries with a history of Communism, and the art and architecture is always the same: powerful, imposing, hyperbolic. Fascist architecture is similar, all gigantic, bland buildings with enormous gates and, in Berlin’s case, all riddled with bullet holes.
I sauntered across town, wrapped up from the cold winds. I found the famous ‘Three Brothers’, a trio of houses that comprise the most ancient homes in Riga. The oldest was built five hundred years ago. And it’s just sitting there, chilling, making no big deal. Imagine the life those walls have witnessed over half a millennium.
Throughout all recent history, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, both World Wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the entire rise and fall of the British Empire and even the Renaissance; throughout all of that chaos, this house has just been sat there, watching us run around arguing and shagging and crowning ourselves and making gallant speeches atop white horses before blasting each other to smithereens. Viewed on a long enough time scale, when all the pomposity shrinks from view, the human race can be summed up with a single word: daft.
I wandered lonely as a cloud in a vaguely northern direction, and on my aimless ramble I happened upon a gigantic monkey in a space suit. He (I’m assuming it was a he as it was wearing a large simian codpiece) stood thirty feet tall in the middle of a wet park dotted with leaf-shorn trees. I sat on a bench a while and looked at him, while duos of old Latvian women clad in oversized brown furs hustled past with little quick steps. There was no sign anywhere to explain why there was a very big astronaut monkey in the middle of the park. It was starting to rain, so I hurried away seeking shelter.
I followed my map to where I had scrawled a wonky circle around a cluster of streets marked ‘Art Nouveau District.’ I didn’t know what art nouveau was and assumed this would be the spot to find all the cool hipster bars and maybe some friends. Alas, art nouveau is a style of both art and architecture, of which one Antonio Gaudi was the most famous practitioner. Rats. I didn’t particularly like Casa Batlló et al in Barcelona, and yet I had inadvertently been suckered into its clutches once more, down a wind-swept Latvian street.
The buildings were certainly impressive, however there were no people around, and without people, buildings soon lose their excitement. A castle is exciting to a gang of unruly schoolchildren (and their parents, although they’re far too mature to say it) not because of the crumbling towers and the drafty banquet halls, but because they can imagine all the dastardly blaggards that have been run through atop the battlements under a sky exploding with cannon fire. Like I said, we’re all prone to a smattering of daftness from time to time. I suppose it only becomes a problem if you swap the imaginary musket for a real one.
I found an art gallery, or at least I thought it was an art gallery when I entered. It was an old home that was preserved as the epitome of the art nouveau period. I paid only one euro in by flashing my long-void student card, then spent 15 minutes looking at plant pots and wardrobes and footstools and all manner of truly fascinating objects before leaving. I bumped into a fresh-faced girl about my age in the (quite magnificent) stairwell on the way out. She asked me to take a photo of her on the pretty staircase. I cocked it up twice in a row, but eventually got the shot. She asked me if the museum was any good and I said no. She went in anyway, then emerged two seconds later and acknowledged that I was correct.
I found a bookshop a few blocks away. It a little way back from the street, and I was lured in by a festoon-strung courtyard leading up to a shop front adorned with artistic caricatures of literary characters and a red neon sign that read ‘Robert’s Books’.
The shop was fairly small inside, and quiet. I found the books to be almost entirely in English, to my delight, and browsed a few tomes idly. I happened upon a postcard with a Warhol-esque rendition of several of my favourite writers, and decided it’d make a decent souvenir. I bought it for a euro, and as the friendly girl on the till handed me my change, I asked her who one of the writers was – there was only one I didn’t recognize. She didn’t recognise him either, and as the shop was sleepy, she determined to look him up.
I bought a drink and we sat together at a coffee table. I noted that the unknown writer had excellent hair (it wasn’t Oscar Wilde, although his barnet is indeed fabulous) and so the girl set about Googling ‘writers with great hair’. Surprisingly, we had no luck, although she told me that her boss, the owner of the shop and presumably the ‘Robert’ of Robert’s Books, had designed the postcard himself, and would know the answer. She text him, and we chatted while we waited for a reply.
I showed her my scribbled on, tattered map, and she giddily set about marking her favourite places on it, including an art gallery (an actual one) nearby that came with her glowing recommendations. She also circled her favourite bars, and recommended me one in particular; she told me she’d be heading there that evening. She finished her additions to my map by signing her name at the bottom. She was called Laima.
She then asked me if I’d mind watching the shop a minute, as she needed to nip across the road for cigarettes. I was happy to, and felt very excited to briefly run my own Latvian bookstore, but unfortunately an inconsiderate customer entered the shop at that moment and Laima changed her mind.
After half an hour or so I said goodbye, and we agreed that maybe we’d see each other at the bar later on. Oh, and the writer with the immaculate quiff turned out to be Samuel Beckett.
The Riga National Museum of Art was brilliant, and I was so high from having made a friend that I bounced through its wings with a Tigger-like gait. I tried to pay a reduced entry again with my long-dead student card, however this time the ticket woman spotted the faded dates and scolded me for my attempted deception. It was only 6 euros full price, anyway.
The grand, white building houses everything from abstract modern feminist exhibitions to realist Communist-era propaganda pieces that span entire walls. It was all very beautiful.
Later that night, I headed back to my dorm for a quick nap, and around 9pm I pulled a Vanessa Carlton and made my way downtown. I decided to walk it, as I had done the entire trip, in order to see more of the city. Unfortunately the bar turned out to be a good hour away down strangely quiet streets, save for the occasional third floor flat the boomed music and spewed disco lights into the street. Wandering the streets of Riga at night, with all its fading wooden buildings and tough looking old men, soon became more of a panicked scuttle than a leisurely jaunt.
I found the wrong bar at first, and was forced to drink a swift and awkward pint when I ordered before checking I was in the right place. The bar Laima recommended was a trendy real ale brewery just around the corner, run by bearded hipsters. When I entered, I asked the moustachioed barman if he spoke English, and apologised for my utterly absent knowledge of his native language. However, in a completely unexpected cultural runaround, rather than warmly accept my apology, he told me not to be such a pussy and to stop apologising. He said that, as I’d only been in the country a day, how the hell would I be able to speak the language. He told me it was my silly English way of being too keen to please everyone, and that I shouldn’t care so much.
I took my pint from him and sat, bewildered. I stared out of the window as I sipped my drink, and mulled his words over for a long time.
Laima text me around 10.30 saying she wasn’t going to be making an appearance at the brewery as her friends decided on a different bar in the south of the city, and invited me along. I finished my beer and pootled away.
However, it seems that the wise-yet-angry barman was right about me, because due to my near constant over-analysing, I began to reread Laima’s text and consider the fact that perhaps she didn’t want to hang out with me, but was merely being polite, and that if I turned up I would look like a total needy cockhead weirdo in front of all her friends. I realise now that this may seem stupid, but: no, yeah I am fucking stupid.
Thus, I replied to her message in the vaguest of terms, and told her that I’d hopefully see her if I was in the area, while in reality I was very actively and deliberately seeking another bar. Yes, yes, I know.
I had a lonesome pint in a cosy little joint called Chomsky’s, that had pictures and quotes from the dude Noam on the walls. I later on located a dive bar Laima had marked on my map and crept inside. It was entirely wooden, somewhere between a tool shed and a saloon, and every eye turned to me as I entered, having found the entrance hidden away at the far end of a gloomy car park.
I bought a drink and sat alone, writing notes from the day, and when I went to use the toilets I asked two Latvian girls of a similar age to watch my bag. When I returned they leaned over to speak to me, and I joined them for a little while and we swapped stories. It was all going quite splendidly, and I felt comfortable and thrilled to have found some more friends, when it all went tits up because I mentioned I quite fancied a kebab and the younger of the two girls called me a faggot.
Wh- what? Fucking WHAT? I choked on my beer and my eyes bulged. I detest that word. Oh for goodness sake, can’t I ever meet a normal human being?
Her normal, sane friend hastily interjected with the two incredibly valid points that A.) eating kebabs doesn’t make you a faggot, and B.) you shouldn’t bloody use that awful word. However, this caused the now quite obviously insane girl to turn on her friend, and to dub her a faggot as well. I asked the maniac to shed a little light on why eating a kebab makes somebody worthy of abuse, however she was vague. For her, it was simply the case that burgers were proper food, and kebabs were for faggots. Right-o.
At this point, my blood was boiling and my beer was low, and strangely enough the atmosphere at the table had soured, and so I stood up, finished my drink, announced very clearly that I was going to purchase and devour a fucking massive, delicious kebab, and left without saying goodbye.
There are some truly odd people in the world. I seem to attract every bloody one of them.