Yesterday was a strange point in my journey. Countries are flicking past so quickly it’s disorientating. I woke up in Venice yesterday morning, I had dinner with friends in Berlin last night, and right now, the morning after, I’m above the clouds on the way to Latvia. This is my fifth flight this week.
The morning in Venice was spent eating pastries, drinking coffee and writing in a quiet town square away from the flocks of tourists where I could spend an hour or two alone. At the start of this trip I hated being so isolated. Now I kind of like it. I’ve bonded with myself. Travelling coaxes out the best of me. When I’m out in the world, I feel the truest version of myself, the closest possible reality to the ideal I aspire to. Dashing out into the world makes me feel vital. I love it.
I got lost searching for the coach station in Venice. I was utterly vexed, half at my own stupidity and half at the slack jawed cretin who drew up the map of Venice I was clutching in my sweaty palm. Rather than bothering to detail every street, the oaf had given a rough approximation of the directions in which it was possible to travel. Every street depicted on the map turned out to be three in reality, which each forked off into a further two. There were bridges were there were not supposed to be bridges too, and the effort of writing street names on the map had apparently proved too much for its creator.
I was marching, arms pumping, through the labyrinthine streets with the sun licking at my already singed brow for at least at an hour. I walked a kilometre in the wrong direction at one point, thanks to that bastard map, and only realised when I found myself in a silent dead end courtyard filled with nothing but gently flapping laundry hung across the street. Any frail old Venetian women who were at that moment gazing idly out of their shutters, thinking wistfully of their youth, would have been disturbed by the sight of a red faced young man striding to the end of their street, pressing his nose to a crumpled map, flinging it on the floor yelling ‘COCKS!’, then picking it back up and stamping off the way he came.
When I finally got to the coach station, I found I’d booked a return coach to the wrong airport, which I realised about one minute before boarding the wrong coach that would have whisked me away across Italy, to a doomed new life as an urchin on the streets of some hillside town. I had to spunk 12 euros on another ticket. Fuck OFF VENICE.
I’ll be landing soon. I’ve no idea what to expect from Riga.
Well, Riga was a world away from whatever I was expecting, which wasn’t anything. After beaches and sangria in Western Europe, Riga was still stubbornly clinging to its winter snows. The bus from the airport was packed, and the road into town left me, quite frankly, terrified. The suburbs leading into the centre of the capital city look like a post apocalyptic cowboy town, like Jesse James and Wyatt Earp and the Three Amigos all contracted typhoid from a dodgy vat of saloon-brewed grog.
Wooden houses lined the streets under a grey sky, their peeling paint in a wide spectrum of colours ranging from Sullen Orange to Skidmark Brown, with exceptionally well-to-do homes lavished in shades of Jaundice Yellow. The people in the street were wrapped up in heavy, fur lined overcoats, rough leather jackets, shapeless jeans. This place looked like no holiday destination I’d ever seen. Once again, Johnny Rotten’s sneered ad-lib at the start of ‘Holidays in the Sun’ came to mind.
A cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Christ.
We crossed a wide, icy river, and entered the apparent centre of Riga, which was more built up but still run down, and just before the last stop, an English speaking couple were hauled off the bus by undercover ticket inspectors for only having one ticket between them – despite the driver initially letting them on with one. They were fined forty euros on the spot, and hadn’t the language to argue back. Gulp.
I got off the bus and followed some vague instructions I’d noted down that led me to the hostel. I’ll admit that I felt a little uncomfortable. Whereas holidaying in Spain and France over the years has given me a general understanding of the culture in those countries, I’ve never been to Northern/Eastern Europe. The sky was drizzling, I was lost and alone and couldn’t speak a word of the language, and I crossed multiple streets past rusting shop signs as rainwater pooled in the road and rolling buses splashed past.
I’d been spoiled by the gargantuan hostels in Paris, Barcelona and Venice, and the one I arrived at in Riga was more like a converted flat; just one short corridor with a desk at the far end and a couple of cramped dorms off to the sides. Still, it was comfortable enough. I was hoping for a repeat of Paris or Venice, to meet some like minded backpackers to jaunt away with. However, my room was full of partially dressed, hairy old men strewn all over the place like wet confetti; naked arms and legs dangling from top bunks. The air was musky and warm, and the quiet was only broken with gentle snoring and the occasional fart. If anyone ever tells you travelling is glamorous, they’re bloody lying.
I didn’t hang about. I marked some choice destinations on a map the receptionist handed me, and stepped out into the peppering rain with my headphones in. Bowie was singing to me about Life on Mars, and it fit the scene well. As lyrics of lawmen beating up the wrong guys swam through my brain, I passed a whole horde of characters who were most definitely the right guys for the police to track down. First stop was an old Soviet bar, apparently one of the truest representations of what it used to be like in Latvia in the old days.
I passed the bar without noticing it at first; it was adorned with no sign. I went back and quickly peered in through the door, then began to back away as my internal holy-fuck-o-meter slowly ticked higher, but the devil on my shoulder elbow dropped the weeping angel into submission, and I pushed inside.
Barren is a word not usually applied to merry-making establishments, but here we find ourselves. The bar looked less like a place to make merry and more like a joint in which to pour over bank vault blueprints and swap tips on which acid dissolves a 200 pound body the quickest. No chairs, just a handful of high circular tables, like if King Arthur’s knights held their weekly meetings in a Wetherspoons. No carpet, just pale linoleum. Walls washed white and pasty blue. A lone tannoy, not a speaker, was the source of the music, giving Frank Sinatra’s voice a ghostly, haunting quality as he offered to Fly Me To The Moon. I may as well have already been there.
The walls were adorned unevenly with several black and white images of serious looking men standing next to machinery. Che Guevara smiled out from his frame with a large cigar. The strangest was an A1-sized rendition of a frowning Bruce Willis. I didn’t know old Bruce was a hero of the revolution. The patrons were all male, and all dressed exactly the same: black leather jacket, large blue jeans. I ignored the stares and went to get a drink.
The lone lady behind the bar was reassuringly housed behind a large metal cage, with only a small slot to pass drinks through. Between us, and with the help of a black leather jacket clad local, we managed to order me a pint of ale, which cost around 60 cents. I stood and drank it alone at one of the high tables, scribbling wild notes in my pad. The pint was reddish in colour and completely delicious, despite my having no idea what the hell I’d ordered.
On the way out, I tried to find the toilets and accidentally stumbled into a backroom poker game. Four or five burly men in black leather jackets sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke slowly turned towards me as one, their chairs creaking audibly in the aggressive silence. I hastily apologised and minced away to the little boys’ room.
Feeling drunk already, I floated happily away to find the next spot on my map. It was the 17th of March, St Patrick’s Day, one of my favourite days of the year due to my adoration for The Pogues and The Dubliners and Guinness and general debauchery. It’s the only time of the year I ever get to play some of my favourite music at a party without everyone flinging shot glasses at me and telling me to get the fuck away from their DJ decks. I was missing my friends back home, who I knew would be piling into the packed Guinness tent in Sheffield city centre, as is tradition, and so I decided that I would find my own bar and make some friends.
The rain was coming down so I diverted first to a cosy café in the middle of a park with an upstairs seating area offering 360 views through giant windows. The whole area was cushioned, so I bought a coffee, took my shoes off and snuggling up watching the rain and reading Kafka until I fell asleep. I woke up drooling all over myself half an hour later and beat a hasty exit.
I found an Australian backpackers bar a few streets away, and decided that, complete lack of Latvian culture be damned, this was the one. Backpacker bars are the best place to make friends if you get lonely, and plus – they were playing Irish music! Sally MacLennane came on at one point and I almost squealed with delight. I wanted to whoop and holler and double high five someone and jig around like a tit, but that required friends first.
I bought a pint and sat upstairs enjoying the music and pretended to be examining my map while I strained my ears for any sign of English. I went to the toilet and asked two girls to watch my stuff, hoping it’d initiate some chat, but they were po-faced so I left them to it. A while later, I heard a group of young people speaking English a couple of tables away. I plucked up the courage and asked to join them. They greeted me warmly and I sat among them, and was hit by a wall of stink.
Fuck. I hadn’t examined them closely enough. They smelled very strongly of manure. Why. Why me? Why manure? Too late now, I’d taken my shot. I was in this for the night. They were a gang of goat farmers from various countries doing some year abroad work in rural Latvia, and were in Riga for a night on the tiles.
I stopped noticing the smell after an hour, when I was drunk. They were actually brilliant people. One of them was a true kindred spirit, with the same degree and interest in films as me, and when we got into a political chat, it turned out we were both big lefty liberal crybaby scumbag socialist types, as well. He recommended Owen Jones’s book ‘The Establishment’, and I grinned at him as I pulled it out of my rucksack.
They all got battered drunk and we left around midnight to go our separate ways, the goat farmers staggering way down the street singing, arm in arm. I got a kebab and stumbled away to my hostel. Entering my dorm, I found that some git had taken my stuff off my bunk and claimed it for himself, the utter, utter bastard. My head was spinning, but I decided that this grievous insult to my honour would not go unpunished. I drunkenly grabbed one of his socks from his clothing pile and flung it far under the bed, where he would never find it. Happy odd-socks, you massive wanker. I went to bed satisfied I’d exacted vengeance.
Next morning he checked out early and I spent 20 minutes frantically searching for my missing sock. Found it under his bed. I am a moron.