Letting Go 01: Latvia

Tuesday, September 5. 2006
The plane touched down after a good ten minutes of turbulence on landing. The guy across from me had actually been praying. I was just trying to get back to sleep. Sleep was already impossible in the plastic-fantastic no frill Ryanair aircraft, so I gave up and accepted that I would be buffeted and half conscious on arrival. How accurate my prediction was.

Riga International is a the smallest airport I have ever seen. Developed to house the cheap airlines that ring Europe and smooth the EU-entry conditions over, RIX is functional and friendly. I must admit that upon landing I had no idea what the time or currency was two things that were straightened out quickly. Lats are the accepted coin of the realm and one Lats is almost one Pound. Except one Pound wont buy jack shit and one Lats can get you half-drunk. It takes two for a guaranteed hangover. Life is good in Latvia for the visitor, especially in the summer.

And not just because of cheap pricing and easy access to the country. Riga might be the prettiest city I have yet seen and without a doubt the girls are the best looking of any city in the world. I make this call without hesitation. But the city itself at least, the preserved Old Town, is magnificent. The cobbled streets, the Art Nouveau architecture everywhere, the tasteful displays you see everywhere, the open courtyards. All bathed in the long summer days. Ringed on one side by the old canal and the greenest park you ever saw, the other by the mighty Dagava River and the three huge bridges that cross her. The four church spires ring out above the skyline and the streets are filled with people and lined by cafes. Everyone is happy and glowing, you feel at ease and at peace and you can walk for days.

Out of the Old Town is the capitalist spread of buildings that makes up the New Town and after that are the Soviet-era suburban building block apartments. After that? Pine forests all the way to Vilnius and Tallinn. But not to forget the silky beaches that run all along the coast of the Baltic Sea. Run, dont walk. Im keeping it all a secret Its too good to let all the fuckers who ruin the best parts of Western Europe get to it yet.

From the airport to the city was disgustingly easy. No ten-pound busses here. Twenty cents was all and there I was, a short walk from the hostel I found. The Old Town hostel is a cool place, with a bar in the bottom and simple, clean dorms. I only stated one night, but it was a fun night and got me set up with contacts in Riga. After that I called Alise, who I met in Amsterdam, and she invited me to stay with her family. This is how I stayed a week there in Riga, taking my time, seeing it all. Day trips to the beach, not missing a thing, taking it all in.

That first day, as I went to the bank to change more money, I met KB. KB was Korean and came with a ready-made screen name. He was only in Riga for the night and wanted to do what he could. We ended up, of course, getting some food and them going drinking. The local beer is cheap and good stuff and we can both attest to that. The restaurant we found serves everything with garlic. Even ice-cream. But we didnt try that. You have to save something for the return visit. So after the food and drinking, there was more drinking at the hostel bar followed by a trip to get more food, then a return to the bar where we drank some more and then went for a little more food. It was a good night. Nothing complicated, nothing difficult, just relaxing, talking shit, walking the streets, feeling dreamy, feeling like a cobblestone.

Before all that I spent some time walking around the streets, seeing the buildings and architecture, checking out the landmarks. The most notable is the Freedom Monument, which stands tall and proud right at the start of the Old Town. Miraculously it survived the Soviet days (given that it represents and celebrates Latvian independence) and remains as ever. On top of the square decorated with heroes and battles is a tall pillar topped with the statue of a lady, known by the locals as Milda. She holds three stars aloft, for the historical three parts of Latvia. She is guarded by two guards and always has a generous collection of flowers at her base. A local custom is to leave flowers near monuments on certain days or times, this happens all throughout Baltia, and Milda gets them on peoples wedding anniversaries. I suspect that a number of them also appear in the memory of the deported. During the Soviet days, laying flowers there alone could earn you a one-way ticket to Siberia. Why it was even allowed to stay is a mystery.

The canal park that borders Old Town on the Freedom Monument side is wonderful. Green and always full of people, the beautiful people of Latvia, there is happiness and life a-plenty in there and I walked end to end. Then I came around to the station and the huge clock above it and back into the cobbled streets. Glowing in the summer light, Riga was the most amazing city Id seen in a long time. It looked good and felt friendly, clean but not sterile, marble not plastic. It was a kind of love at first sight. Popular enough to be tourist friendly yet thankfully not overrun with them. Tourists dont enamour themselves to me too easily and while I hate to single out a single group, Riga has one unsavoury side that lends a light to show this one particular group but more on that later.

Id called Alise the day before and arranged to meet her at ten oclock. I woke up at closer to eleven. And even then I barely made it up and out. That local stuff really has a sting in it, I tell you. So it was off again to the payphone to call and apologise, then a re-adjusted meeting time. I ran into KB again and we agreed that the night before had been top quality. I cleaned my things up and went off to meet Alise.

She was there, just as I remembered and I apologised. It was all ok and we got on a bus to her house. She lived a ten-minute ride from the Old Town, I could walk it in about twenty minutes, in an apartment block. The neighbourhood was apparently an old one, from pre-war times, dating to around the first independence times. Lots of colourful old wooden house, all fading now, paint peeling away. Lots of leafy trees to filter the sunlight onto the walls. Picturesque implies that it lends itself to being painted or photographed and while it doesnt even show a true moment to capture, the atmosphere, ever intangible, is there, there all around. Alises family were lovely, although they didnt speak too much English (they can all speak Esperanto, however!) they were entirely accommodating. It was all too much really, to have a place like that to stay and go home to it felt like a home and my welcome was as long as I wanted. Alises sister and her boyfriends provided the most company to me, as they were students on holidays. This meant they had the time and will to talk and show me around some more. This was even better than I ever imagined. A few nights they took me around the town and pointed things out and they even took me to see a movie and trampolining. Yes, they were great days.

From the Sunday I arrived I stayed at the Old Town one night and at Alises until the following Sunday. I took a few day trips around Riga. The first place I went outside the city limits was to Salaspils. During WWII there had been a German concentration camp there and now there was a memorial there. It had been intended as a temporary camp, where prisoners would await transport to the bigger camps, but as the war went on it went from a place of forced labour to another killing camp. Jews from all around as well as anyone else unfortunate to earn the wrath of the Nazis ended up there. Some 30,000 people died there.

Pause here for a second. I say died, but nowhere will you find that word at Salaspils. Or any other war-related monument, museum or exhibit. Every time the word is murdered. 30,000 people were murdered there. Jews, workers, women, children. Murdered. At the time my thoughts were intense, crazy, face to face with the reality of these events for the first time. Read books, I had, seem movies Listened and learned, thought quietly about the horror without knowing it truly. I read the figures, same as you have, and reached the same conclusions, probably used the same words in your head. Monsters, killers, inhuman, unbelievable. How could it happen Then to go somewhere like this. Words failed me because there were none. In a clearing in the woods no bigger than a few soccer pitches there once stood, fifty years or so ago, a place where suffering beyond comprehension was inflicted on truly innocent souls, somehow perpetrated by other humans. There were no words to come out that day, just raging sounds and noises that crawled from my head. Hatred, fire, insanity. The insanity that infected that whole bloody mess infects everyone who faces it down. The winters in these parts hit minus thirty. Inside the huge black slab that houses the messages and pictures drawn by survivors are images of almost naked people working in water up to their waist. We all know what happened at these places. But the feeling there and the stark, simple reminders that sit there no words. Just insanity.

All you hear are the insects. No birds, no animals. Just the wind and the insects.

I took the train to Darzini station, which is just a platform in the woods. I met two Americans who were there to see it too, so we walked through the trees together. It was solemn and sombre enough. This was not the Eiffel Tower, we were preparing ourselves. We found the big black building and the clearing in the trees. A big slab on the ground holds a metronome, ticking loudly, endlessly. Marking time until the end comes and this place might know some peace. Until then, it ticks on and on. In the clearing stand six huge statues, erected by the Soviets in memory of the murdered. They are the Humiliated, the Mother, Solidarity. The style is socialist realism, all cubed jaws and angles, but the effect would be the same no matter what. Huge, intense, towering. The memory and spirit of the people is here. After that there are the foundations of the barracks, each marked with a single remaining tiny window. Silently we walked around in the heat of the day. No shade exists there. I had a bottle of water. I poured some on each window, some on each statue. The a-bomb memorials in Japan all feature water fountains to quench the eternal thirst of the victims, inspired by this thought I took the bottle of water I had bought for myself and gave it to the souls here. I walked to each and every foundation and shared a little with each one, a small moment of Zen as I poured the water.

Then I came last to the childrens barracks. This was the saddest of all. People had left flowers at all the rest but here there were toys. Toys for the children who had suffered as no grown man should. I had a Mars Bar in my bag, so I shared it with them. As I child I loved nothing more than chocolate and to share mine with these kids was really all I could do for them.

Then it was over. The haunting memorial stands strong and real, a memory that should never be allowed to die.

There would be no trains for a while, so the three of us walked to the town of Salaspils. It was maybe twenty minutes through the woods and we found the bus back to Riga. It was food for thought, manure for the soul, a harsh pile of shit that hopefully helps something positive to grow. That we never forget, that we never repeat.

Back in Riga we went to St. Peters church and went up to the top of the tower. The view was awesome. You can see the whole city from up there. After that it was time to go our own ways and we did. I went home to write, they went to their hotel.

It had been a heavy day. Such a beautiful place and people, such horrors. I slept well enough.

The next day was another day trip. Again to the train station. Riga station is a little weird. Finding the ticket office was a trial and the platforms even more elusive. Apparently the station had a facelift a while back and now its a Frankenstein-like mixture of shops and trains. It really was a small struggle to find the right place to go but both times I made it without just missing any trains. This time I was going a lot further. Salaspils was only twenty minutes but Sigulda was closer to two hours away. A long way but the ticket was cheap and it was still a good day trip. Sigulda is as close to having mountains as you get in Baltia, there is even a cable car, ski run and bobsled track out there. Otherwise it is the start of the biggest national park in Latvia, a pine forest covered set of hills that leads out into the wilderness. There are several castles and churches around and season depending, you can go for a run down the bobsled track (that would be in the winter) or bungee jump from the cable car. I was hoping to do the jump, but only after getting there did I realise Id messed up. Had I read the PL properly I would have noted that it said what the ticket office told me. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I was there on a Thursday. Lucky me.

So I took the car across and looked at the spectacular view. Theres a cool looking castle that you can see from there, so I decided to go off and find it. It looked big and not too far away so it shouldnt be hard. Getting off the cable car, there were no clear signs or paths. I looked around and eventually decided on a direction. I ended up wandering through the seemingly seldom visited pathways, going over bridges and walkways that were wooden and broken. Other people were there too, so it wasnt like I was lost, but they were rare enough to make me think that maybe I was going to be soon. It was a bit of fun.

Eventually I found the way down. I hadnt expected to have to go down anywhere but thats ok, there didnt seem to be any other paths. There I found the famed sandstone caves. You can tell they are near because of all the signs pleading you not to graffiti there. Wet sandstone is very easily carved with any kind of pointy object and mere signs hadnt stopped anyone from making their mark. Its fucking disgusting. All that time they stood there and nothing happened and suddenly a bunch of drunk Russians decide they need to put their names all over it. Great.

I never found the castle, either. I must have walked for hours but no castle. I took the cable car back, looked around some more and after wandering down to the bobsled track (still looking hair-raising without ice on it) grabbed a train home. It was full of drunken Russians.

Maybe this is a good point to talk briefly about the drunken Russian issue. Im not calling all Russians drunk, but I will say it cannot be a coincidence that almost every male of Russian appearance was either drinking something or about to. Either they are very concerned about keeping hydrated or absolutely dedicated to their pickling. Of the three states in Baltia, Latvia ended up with the highest percentage of Russians. Perhaps Estonia was too rural in their minds, maybe Lithuania had earned a bad reputation, but I think the attractiveness of life in Riga (which seems to have always enjoyed a better reputation and style of life than most of the former USSR) and the high possibility of moving there is the reason. Today almost 50% of Latvia is ethnically Russian with that balance being played out in Riga. They have a corresponding influence on the overall picture of the country, compared to the 30% or so in Estonia and Lithuania. But why do they always seem loud, obnoxious and intoxicated? You cant go anywhere in Riga without hearing Russian I am told that Russian families dont even bother with the formality of learning Latvian and while I am no expert on the language, I can tell when someone has the drunk dialect going on. And it usually coincides with them either smelling like vodka, trying to fight me or just stumbling over something. Call me crazy, but I know what I saw.

Drunken Russians. I wonder if I should even think of them as Latvian? I wonder if they do? Not enough time has passed since all this was, essentially, Russian property. With the fifty-fifty balance going on in Latvia, with the right numbers in the right places, that almost equals a political majority for the foreign residents. A scary thought, given the history of the place. Apparently the local votes are spread enough to make it a real possibility at the next elections. There are even enough pro-USSR holdovers to hold a decent rally every year at the World War II memorial, which just happens to be in between the Old Town and Alises house. It is a strange monument, since it memorialises the years 41-45, which were not good years for the Latvians. It isnt about the soldiers who died in the war, since effectively Latvia did not win anything, it is about the Soviets taking back their land from the Germans. Both, of course, are invaders and occupiers in the eyes of the locals. So why is it still there, this reminder of both the German occupation and the second Soviet occupation? Why wasnt it taken away with the statues of Lenin? Because the Russians, pro-USSR or not, still take pride in what happened. And there are enough of them that there is enough cause to keep it. There is considerable, but not enough, pressure to remove it (one nationalistic young man tried to blow it up one year) and so it stays.

This thing is huge. There are five stars on pillars, reaching to the sky, almost as high as Milda. There are three heroic Red Army soldiers, brandishing weapons. There is a maiden, waiting their coming so that she may be free once more. It occupies a space bigger than the Salaspils memorial and has its own fair share of flowers. Remembering the war is the right thing to do, yes, but what parts and for what reason? The whole thing brings up some different angles and asked me, at least, to do some strange thinking. Points of view change, angles show new things. If I had said to a local that Latvia was simply East Russia (as John put it before I left) I might have been kicked in the head, but the evidence is there to suggest that it is in many ways still that way. Drunken Russians not withstanding.

The whole week was laid back, I could take my time and not feel pressured by paying for a hostel, so my sightseeing was less of the power variety and more of the take your time variety. This meant hours walking the cobbled streets, time at home typing and generally not getting too worked up about anything.

It was after a day of doing simply nothing that I went down the coast a little for my first experience in the Baltic Sea. Jurmala is a part of the country I quickly found most Latvians to be very proud of. Indeed it is considered the finest resort on the coast and has been for a long while. The proximity of the Crimea to Moscow possibly saved it from becoming the beach resort, but the fourteen kilometres of clean white sandy beach attracted more than enough attention over the years and the pulling power can partly explain the large numbers of retirees and ex-soldiers choosing to move to Riga during various occupations. I took the train down there and despite it not being very far it took a good 40 minutes. Theres a reason people take the bus most of the time in these parts. I jumped off at Majora and followed the crowd to the water. In between was everything I have come to despise about anywhere labelled resort or tourist anything because it was just full of overpriced cafs and restaurants, all the annoyances of the weekend getaway spot and most of all, all the tourists come to spoil my view.

I might have been in Brighton, or possibly Shonan, but it wasnt up to the level of garbage of Surfers Paradise or Huntington. Plus it was warmer and cleaner. The Baltic is almost completely flat and the water is around 18 degrees during the summer. The Bay of Riga is a little on the polluted side, more than the rest of the Baltic Sea, but nothing to make you sick or itchy. The amber that washes up on a lot of the coast doesnt make an appearance here except at the souvenir sellers. Development has been kept to a respectable distance from the water so the dunes and beach are still in good shape. It is great for swimming because the salinity is low and the crowd surprisingly thin. Maybe they all came for the cafs.

I had my ear pierced the day before so I wasnt there to throw myself into the water, but I took my shoes and socks off and went in as far as my knees. The still waves mean that you can wade out a long way and walk parallel to the sand as far as you want, something you can do all along the coast as far as I saw. Baltia is unlikely to produce any world beating surfers any time soon.

So I walked along the beach for a while and wished I could swim properly. There were a lot of families and old people and little kids. Not nearly enough of the talent I see on the streets turned up, but you cant have it all. I went up the beach and took a seat and got my book out. I was rudely interrupted by the other phenomenon of the Baltics Drunken Finns. One of the economic miracles of the EU is that the high cost of living but equally high wages makes Finnish Euros worth a decent amount more. Combine this with easy access and already-cheap beer and youve got a Finns wet dream. Mind you, I find as a race that the Finns are up there with the best and with the exception of the girl who used to beat me up when I was at uni with her (a big shout out to Heini, wherever you may be) they are all awesome. More about that to come.

These two were a few sheets to the wind and looking for someone who could speak English. I could but I was no help, since they were looking for something that I didnt know about. No mind, I had a good chat to them and got the low-down on Baltias popularity with their people. The bit I just told you about. Yeah. They were cool enough and after a hollow promise to go and visit their country, they left to find more alcohol (presumably).

Having no way to swim, I took my leave and went back to Riga. I contemplated going out but decided to watch a movie and get some sleep.

Sunday I spent organising myself and talking with the family. I had decided to go up to Estonia, rather than go straight on to Lithuania, and so I would leave my big pack there and be back in a week or so. I dropped by the Old Town and had them call through to a hostel to get me a booking, bought a bus ticket and took what I thought would be my last walk around the streets. Boy, was I wrong about that.

Missing Pages

Tuesday, September 5. 2006
In the words of the J, Fuck France before France Fucks You.

After Belgium, I went to France and the UK. I can't be stuffed writing all that out yet, because I had too much fun to compensate for the weather after I got the hell out of there.

So this is like a filler bit. There's fun ahead!