Friday, 11 December 2015

Why Latvians are coconuts

The Expats rule of thumb: One country per month while living in London. 

I realised since my Summer of Fun, I had skipped a couple of months. This was almost entirely due to my lack of funds but since receiving a rather tidy tax return and finally having a steady job, it was time to be spontaneous.

Dan and I jumped on Skyscanner and searched "By Cheapest" to destination "Flexible".

And this is how we ended up in Riga, the capital of Latvia two weeks later.

Friday 27 November
"Run!" my workmate Gavin exclaimed to me as I hurriedly gathered my belongings and raced out the door. I had both misjudged and forgotten when the train was leaving from Kings Cross St Pancras and now was convinced I would miss the train to Luton Airport. I ran from work to the tube station, sweating and puffing upon arrival. The tube became packed. So packed, that I was squished face-first into the glass panel, trickle of sweat inching down my back, unable to even get my hand in my pocket to retrieve my phone. I was on the verge of a panic attack - the running, the lateness, the proximity of people, and I watched my breath fogging up the glass as I took deep breath after deep breath.

Finally, we reached Kings Cross, and I had a little bit of time to spare. I walked quickly but not frantically, and found Dan near the ticket machines, where he gave me a big hug. We had some time to spare now, and we mosey-d our way to the train. We had reserved seats but no one could tell us which carriage was which, so we told someone to get out of our seats (which may not have been our seats!) and I collapsed, slowly becoming more human and ready for the whirlwind adventure ahead.

Our flight was a little delayed but all in all uneventful. We landed in Riga at about 1.30am local time (two hours time difference) and our transfer driver was waiting for us. He couldn't figure out how to get to our hotel - it was in the middle of the market, he said, and after giving the hotel a quick call pointed out where we should go. We thanked him, and cautiously made our way forward.

Turns out, the location was rather excellent, although at 2am in the morning it all looked really dodgy. We checked in and found our way to our already warm and cozy room. Admittedly at first I thought the hotel was shabby and unfinished, but then realised the exposed brick was by design.

Saturday 28 November
I didn't sleep very well. I peeked out the window a few times and as the morning encroached I could see people arriving at the markets beneath to set up. Soon enough it was time to get up and ready for the day ahead. I piled on my clothes, and almost passed out from heat exhaustion. When we made it outside into the chill day air, I was mildly relieved…for about a minute. Then the cold set in. We had decided to join the Riga Free Walking tour as it was the only free one in Riga and it was starting at midday. We had plenty of time, so we wandered through the outdoor market for a while, grabbed a burger to fill our bellies and meandered our way to the starting point of the tour.

A crowd was already forming around a yellow suitcase, and a young, beanie-d bearded man was speaking in English. We gathered closer.

"Please ask me any questions you like," he was saying, "I can't guarantee I'll know the answers, but I can always lie to you."

I laughed, and decided that this tour would be good. The man, Kris, explained that this would not be a tour of Old Town but a tour of the rest of Riga, and I was a bit unsure if this is what I wanted to do. Dan and I decided that if we didn't like it, we could just leave part way through. Never-the-less, the tour was entertaining thanks to Kris' dry sense of humour and incredibly educational as it turns out I knew absolutely diddely-squat about Latvia or Riga.

Our guide took us through the central market, designed out of reconstructed zeppelin hangers after the first world war. "We didn't have any money, so we had to be inventive!" Latvia experienced its first known period of freedom after the war, and this freedom lasted exactly 13 years before they were then taken over by the Soviets during WWII. The tour continued to the memorial for the Jewish people who lost their lives in Latvia (100,000 in total), before moving to the suburb with the wooden houses.

The wooden houses were designed to be able to be burnt down in an instant if the village was under attack. The last time it was under attack was apparently Napoleon's time; however it was a case of mistaken identity as Napoleon never came near Riga. Bugger. By now the people were too poor to try to build houses out of any other materials, and so a whole section of Riga is still wooden today.

The tour ended at the Freedom Monument, which was erected in 1935 entirely on donations (again, the country was too poor and had to use other imaginative means!) It distinctly states "For the Fatherland and For Freedom". Wisely, because the amount of times poor Latvia has been taken over, "For the Fatherland" is far more innocuous than "For Latvia!" and, sure enough, during the Soviet era the monument was left untouched because the fatherland could really be anywhere.

"When you type 'why are latvians…' into Google, the top three choices are:
-never smiling
-so rude
-coconuts," he began, "and they are all related. We come across as rude and unsmiling because we don't have a summer, and it's dark and cold a lot of the year. But once you get to know us, you'll realise we are just like a coconut: a hard exterior filled with a sweet, soft centre!"

And on this note, the tour ended. Our guide gave a few recommendations for places to eat and drink local Latvian beer. One received a nod of agreement from others in the group, and I wrote down "Falk" and "ala" because that was all I could remember of the name. At this point, our feet were getting sore so Dan and I wandered the streets until we found a tiny little cafe.

We ordered a couple of coffees and some cake; chocolate and cowberry. What's cowberry? (Cowberry is actually linden berry, I discovered!) It was delicious. It was now 4pm and almost pitch black.

We wandered to the castle, which was a surprising shade of yellow and not grandiose like the castles in the rest of Europe. From here we stumbled into a little Christmas market, and I was overjoyed. 

"2 gluhwein, please" Dan said, pointing to a jug in one of the stalls. What we actually got was mulled cider, and boy was it strong. Exactly what we needed in the freezing temperature. So warming, in fact, that I had to take off my hood that had been protecting my face, and I unzipped my jacket. Mmm. Gluhwein. I dragged Dan from stall to stall to stall, and we popped out the other side where there was a lovely wreathed entrance, a donkey and a shetland pony. We grabbed out our cameras when a baby donkey suddenly ran past, much to my delight! We continued wandering the streets and found another few little Christmas markets, each with a different themed tree. One was wooden, another with pretzels on.

Complete with our mulled cider gluhwein

All the time we kept an eye out for this "Falk" and "Ala" place. Our chances of finding it, although Riga was small, was slim to none. Outside the town hall, I randomly decided to see if there was free wifi and what were the chances? There was. As we still didn't know the name of the place, I googled "Best pubs in Riga" and low and behold, the Folkklub Ala was one of them. Not only that, it was 2 blocks away.

We approached an odd looking place, to realise the bar was actually underground and so we defended the steps into a very large and wooden open space. All the tables were either packed or reserved. We made a number of rounds around until we decided to sit at the bar. This turned out to be just fine, and gave us a great view of the pub and do a bit of people watching.

One thing we had learnt from our guide is that Latvians love mushrooms. "It's like a mental disease," he had said, "If we know there are mushrooms that can be picked, we can't sleep at night. No, really,  we have to go pick the mushrooms." This made me really want mushrooms for dinner! First off though: Latvian beer. I chose a high percentage cranberry fruit beer, and it was delicious. For dinner, I chose the stroganoff as it was ladened with mushrooms, and yet another fruit beer to go along with my meal.

We were full, warm, content and getting a bit tired. Before we left, we had to try the local liquor shot: Riga Black Balsam. It arrived in a very large shot glass with a slice of orange, and I looked at it apprehensively. I can't quite describe the taste; it wasn't altogether unpleasant but wasn't exactly like drinking a yummy lemonade. It had a bit of a jager feel to it, and once I finally got it down (in two goes), I counted back from 10….9….8….7….6….5…4…3…2…1…and I was drunk.

We stumbled the long way back to our hotel, taking a few photos along the way, and crashed after a long and exhausting day.

Sunday 29 November
I slept much better that night. We packed our things as today we were already checking out, and we jumped into the market just outside our door. I hadn't realised just how close we were staying to the main [Led] Zeppelin hanger markets - in fact, we were right in them! Looking to the sky, we realised there wasn't much to see. All of the taller buildings were lost up above the foggy haze. No finding somewhere high for a view then, apparently. We walked through the market a bit, grabbed some very cheap and delicious pastry breakfast and a coffee and generally wandered through the markets. I wanted to buy some of the Latvian sprodits (sprats) which our guide had recommended the day before. "They taste..specific", he had said. I purchased a tin and then we made our way to the train station.

If we couldn't go up high, we would go to the beach. Even if it was foggy there, it would afford some interesting photographs and Dan had spent some time that morning working out how to get us to the Baltic Sea. 

After standing in the cold (1C) for a short while, a train approached. We climbed the extremely steep ladder and was presented with an interior reminiscent of the Soviet Era; bright orange 3 seater leather seats. Vintage train was vintage. It was comfortable and very warm (I think I dozed!) and in roughly half an hour we made it to Majori, where we were going to the beach.

Along the way, the ground was noticeably white in places. There wouldn't be any snow near the beach though because of all the salt content. And it will be cold, won't it? After getting off the train we were hit with a gust of icy wind. I braced myself, as I thought the next little while would be cold and slightly unbearable.

We walked towards the water and could see the ocean over a slight rise. Wait, what's that to our left? And our right? Why is that sand white? Could it be snow? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there was snow on the beach. 

The water was deathly calm, the air temperature considerably warmer and the peaceful peace was filled with people on a gentle Sunday stroll. It was amazing. We marvelled for a long time at the snow intermingling with the sand, and walked along the frozen snow trodden path that had been formed from so many people walking the same way. It was divine. Peaceful, gentle, and exactly not what we had expected.

We spent a solid hour strolling along the beach. Back in the little town, we found a cafe for lunch (I had dumplings this time!) and we hopped back on a train - a much newer one this time - to return to Riga.

By now, it was practically dark. We thawed in the markets again, and decided to give our tinned sprodits a go. How specific were they going to taste? We opened the can, and were presented with sardines. Equal parts mildly disappointing and miraculous, we hoed into the fishy fish (glad it didn't taste "specific" - just yummy). Our hands proceeded to smell like fish for the rest of the evening.

Time to go. We wandered to the bus depot to get the bus to the airport. While we were waiting, it snowed briefly It was rather amazing to watch as it fell in wet clumps, and could be seen clearly in the bus lights and the street lamps. We were quite pleased that it was snowing now and not while we had been out and about, in the end.

And thus we said farewell to Riga. It was an interesting feeling farewelling a city that was extremely enjoyable, and knowing that the likelihood of returning was extremely slim. I will probably not see Latvia again, but I hope you all go and see it for yourselves.

Returning to London was completely uneventful. I even got through customs without the slightest bit of a drama, and now am a "registered traveller" and so shouldn't have any of my visa issues for the rest of my time in London!

Til next time,