The cheapest flight you can get out of Reykjavík is to Riga, Latvia. Wizz air, the low-cost Hungarian airline that flies this route, charges passengers up to seventy-five Euros for an airport check-in. Online check-in closes three hours prior to departure, leaving last-minute travelers and computer unsavvy folk with little choice but to foot the bill. Wizz’s in-flight magazine, though, is fantastic.
I wanted to see how history continued to live and breathe within a former member of the Soviet Union. I wanted to witness a cultural and economic progression, and understand how Latvians were revitalizing their identity after a long history of cultural repression. This is why I decided to visit Latvia. It wasn’t until 2004 that Latvia joined the European Union, only a decade after the country declared independence following the collapse of the USSR. Today, still more than a quarter of the population is Russian, signage around the country is written in both Latvian and Russian, and a silent battle between the two groups wages, each side fighting to achieve greater cultural influence in Latvia. Just this past summer, for example, the Latvian government backed a ban on the Russian language as optional for school exams. This change is just one example of a larger transition from a long-established “Russification” towards an embrace of Latvian identity and cultural renewal.
A weary but calm-sounding pilot sounded over the intercom aboard our small jet on the ground in Reykjavík. “We’ll be taking you back to Riga shortly,” he said, his word choice indicating that he assumed most passengers would be returning home from their holiday in Iceland. I don’t doubt there was some truth to this. In recent years, Iceland has undergone a massive tourism boom that has fetishized its landscape, priced out locals from downtown Reykjavík, and turned popular streets such as Laugavegur into soups of Airbnbs, single roasts, and overpriced thermal wear. The Icelandic government has yet to come up with a plan that adequately accommodates this surge of visitors, and in the meantime, flights to and from the capital city continue to sell out. This explained why most (if not all) of the passengers on my flight were Latvian, and Riga seemed like a less plausible holiday destination to the pilot than a Holiday Inn outside Columbus.
I landed at sunrise. In a cab on the way to my accommodation, the driver presented me with a series of city maps that were color-coded with popular attractions and restaurant advertisements, along with his business card. Poppy techno spooled from the speakers. As we drove over a bridge linking the city center to its outskirts, he pointed out Old Town, the concert hall, and a grandiose governmental building. “That’s where the president lives,” he told me proudly, then pointed in another direction and added, “Down that way is very good Latvian university.” Though it’s difficult to get a good view of any city when you’re driving through it at forty miles per hour, I did notice a stark distinction between the cobbled streets of Riga’s Old Town out the window to my right, and the decrepit, graffitied buildings out the window to my left.
The building I was staying in was built in 1915, my host Peteris explained. I followed him up five flights of dim, sunken stairs and tried to ignore the smell of mold. Corroded wires poked out of the walls and holes into nameless dark depths appeared along the floor. “Everything is backwards here,” Peteris explained, referring to the locks on the apartment door which appeared calcified, coated in a questionable whitish substance. I was taught to twist the key counter clockwise, and to jangle it while pushing inward simultaneously while also turning the handle slightly to the right. “And don’t lock it three times if someone’s inside, otherwise they’ll be locked in. Just twice is fine.”
Peteris was a skinny man in his early thirties with white-blonde hair and a pinched face. Red Converse All-Star sneakers decorated his spindly, hairless legs. As a designer and graduate of the Art Academy of Latvia, Peteris was proud to show me his most recent work—a sculpture of a broom, white, embedded with a row of colored LED lights that shone on the wall behind it. He told me I could change the color of the light via remote control. Above the futon bed, there was a framed photograph of Peteris in New York, illuminated by a setting sun, his red Converse carefully positioned against the street.
After a few nights, I decided to look into one of Peteris’ recommendations: a nearby jazz concert. I walked through dreary concrete apartment blocks and dusty, littered sidewalks, eventually arriving to a grassy hill behind a building whose grandiose golden outline indicated a pre-soviet era construction. A large crowd of all ages was waiting beside an empty stage. As the stubbornly blue Baltic sky quieted to dusk, the musicians took to the stage. The band included three young, skinny men dressed in brightly colored hotpants and button-down, collared shirts. They introduced themselves as ‘Whiskey Time’ and began their show with a raging rendition of Beastie Boys’ “Fight for your Right”. It was far from being jazz music, but the crowd went wild. The lead singer tore off his left sleeve and poured a cup of beer over his head. “Every Wednesday night,” he shouted into the microphone, “We dance.”
Departing from the American classic, Whiskey Time continued their performance with an eclectic mix of traditional Latvian songs that sent the crowd jumping and cheering. After each number, the band members tore away another part of their shirt, slowly revealing more and more skin. Something white flew through the air and landed on the lead singer’s head. Momentarily departing from the microphone, he held the bra up to the stage light, spun it around his index finger and whipped it back into the audience.
In those moments, I found Riga to be a vibrant, unusual, hopeful, and youthful city. As the blue and red lights danced over the heads of the pulsing crowd, I came to notice a humble, unassuming energy about the place—it was an energy that somehow transcended Riga, that almost transcended place entirely. This rawness is something that I have had a difficult time finding in European capitals such as Budapest and Amsterdam, where the unspoken goal to help a city live up to its name courses through the bloodstream of the night like an aphrodisiac. I could sense none of this in Riga, where people appeared to be earnest in their partying, having little to show off and nothing to prove.
Inside the building—functioning as a bar, a performance space, a library, and a community space, I met Edgars, a Riga local of Latvian descent. Perhaps in his early forties, he wore a gray fanny pack and Crocks, and he held a cup of beer that leaked over the edges throughout our conversation. I told him that I was visiting from Iceland, and when he asked me why with an air of confusion, I told him the truth—that it had been the cheapest airfare I could find.
“You have Harpa in Iceland!” he interjected passionately. “The great Icelandic concert hall.” Edgars was an orchestra conductor who was frustrated by Riga’s lack of performance spaces. “You know Latvian orchestra? Some of the best musicians in the world here. World renowned. If we want to bring New York Philharmonic to Riga, where are we going to put them? We can’t put them anywhere. It is embarrassing. We have nothing in Riga. This is big problem.” I then complimented his city’s newfound cultural initiatives, motioning towards the now (very) sweaty Whiskey Time on stage.
“That is not art, that is sex,” Edgars explained, draining the last of his beer.
Our conversation took a strange turn when Edgars began to explain his living situation. He lived across the street from this building, in a one-bedroom flat with his mother. I peeked over my shoulder and out the window at the gloomy apartment complex across the way. I could not see any lights on through the windows. Though he’d lived there for over twenty years, only recently had his frustration peaked. “The noise of this place is disturbing,” he told me. “They respect nothing. It is no problem to have new things to do, this is good for Riga, but to go on with the music very late, this is no good.” I was able to sympathize with him, having had my fair share of noisy neighbors, although I suspected that his frustration was less about noise and more about the politics behind who gets to get what and when.
At another bar beside the stage, I met Juris the bartender. He was glued to the screen of his phone, leaning against the countertop. I told him how great I thought the performance was, and how exciting it must be to have new events like this in Riga. “It is not that good,” Juris replied solemnly. “You are seeing Riga on the best day of the year. It is very depressing otherwise.”
Rebecca Solnit meditates in A Book of Migrations:
“Every place exists in two versions, as an exotic and a local. The exotic is a casual acquaintance who must win hearts through charm and beauty and sites of historical interest, but the local is made up of the accretion of individual memory and sustenance, the maternal landscape of uneventful routine."
Could it be possible that my night with Whiskey Time was no less than a glimpse into Riga’s exoticism? Had all that cheap beer gotten in the way of my seeing the city in its true light?
Having enjoyed my time in Riga so far and not wanting to interpret Edgar or Juris’ negativity as an indication of a truer and sadder Latvia, I took a day and traveled to the nearby beach town of Jurmala. In the train station before boarding, I sat inside a canteen over a bowl of pink borscht. Mangroves and small canoes were painted onto the canteen’s walls, Whisky Time-esque music played over the radio, but this did little to lift the depressive ambiance of the place; leaky-faced, pale men and women sat eating around me, most of them also alone. Where was the hope that I had sensed just the previous night? Where had Riga’s spunk gone?
Traveling is such a delicate thing sometimes. Without having a deep understanding of a place, a single event or strange conversation can so easily derail your perception of it. This begs the question of how much we can actually rely on our own experience to reveal a level of truth to a place we’re merely passing through. We must travel knowing that despite our best attempts, we may never really know a place.
A few nights later, I ventured into Old Town around eleven on a Saturday evening. I followed the thumping of music towards an empty club, where a DJ was spinning to an audience of none. An iPhone had been set up behind her to live stream the performance. The club’s name, Cuba, served as a gentle reminder that I wasn’t there, but here, in a desolate Riga on a Saturday night. At the bar, a young man stood above a tray of six Jägermeister shots with an open wallet, searching for another card to use after his first was declined twice.
Throughout my seven days in Riga, I continued to witness various indications that Latvians were enjoying themselves during a period of change and novel prosperity. I saw more pregnant women and luxury cars than I had ever seen before, for example. I saw slick black Bentleys and Mercedes Coupes parked against solemn, dilapidated housing blocks, and protruding bellies just about everywhere I looked. I saw porcelain-faced women and men with combed hair decorate crumbling sidewalks in ironed, colorful garb. I felt my apartment shake while leaning against the wall as I sat in bed—it was a deep sort of structural shaking—like a muted reminder that history can’t stand forever.