I’ve spent four days in the beautiful city of Riga. I really took the time to explore the city, to feel the athmosfere and to get to know the people a bit. Since I had two great hosts, it made it all a lot easier. When I arrived on Saturday, Vitalijs (my first host) took me out on a quick but extensive tour on our bikes. In that way we could have a chat about metal en beer while he showed me the city and as befits a good tour guide he told me a thing or two about Riga. I can most definitely recommend the city and Latvia itself, go there one day if you haven’t already. With this blog entry I want to focus on something else than all the interesting buildings and history of the capitol of Latvia.
First I’ll like to mention that the road from Riga to Daugavpils (where I’m now) was just awesome. Now and than I had a nice view on the river. Mowed grassfields, grain- and rapeseedfields and then again forests and a few little villages. The road was good, just before Jaunjelgava there were some road works, therefore I had to wait now and again for a traffic light. But since I sometimes grumble under my breath about the patchwork I didn’t complain at all now, because they are improving the road, which is a very good thing to do in my opinion (my loyal readers know I’m a big fan of smooth tarmac). All in all the stretch to Daugavpils was probably one of the most beautiful of my trip, even the many kilometers of gravel road before the town of Ilukste didn’t change that.
The tourguide of the Cultural Tour said at the end of the tour in front of the Monument of Freedom with Hotel Latvija on the background, that there has to be some ugliness next to beauty in order to feel comfortable. To make mistakes and learn from them and to show that nothing can be perfect in the world. The same counts for the newly built National Library of Latvia that should be a glass mountain, after the famous play The Golden Horse by Rainis. But it doesn’t look that glassy from the outside. Vitalijs actually called it with a smile a huge sandwich-box. Nevertheless from the inside it do is very light and it has gorgeous big rooms. It was a pleasure to do a little writing there.
There are a lot of old buildings standing empty since they don’t meet the EU-standards. Not only in Riga, but I found plenty on my route east to Daugavpils.
More to laugh about than it is ugly is the fact that in the building where first was the best and most expensive restaurant in whole of Riga the most filthiest fastfood can be bought, since it now houses a McDonald’s. The irony of capitalism.
But well, Vitalijs and I came to talk about the similarities between Latvia and The Netherlands. Both are almost just as flat and in my country of origin it also rains a lot. We too have quite some forests and agriculture. Apart from the fact that our winters are not that harsh and in the eastern part when I rode to Daugavpils I found out that it is slighty hillier than The Netherlands is the fact that the history is very different (naturely, there are more differences to be found). The history that is still has its influence to this day. As you might know, Latvia has been part of the Soviet Union. On that subject I came to talk about with my second host, Aleks.
The population of Latvia is more or less 62% Latvian and 23% Russian. Aleks lives in a flat which was originally built for Russian immigrants. The recent situation of the refugees was raised and he told me that his grandmother used the word ‘immigrant’ as a synonym for ‘Russian’. So there is some tension. I heard one say at the entrance of a bar where there was no more space to sit, that “it’s full of Russians”. There is a Soviet Victory Monument in Riga and Vitalijs told me that in 1997 it was trying to be bombed by an ultra-nationalist group called Perkonkrust. That says quite enough. Although, that are some things I’ve heard and been told, I don’t know how the exact sentiment is by the majority of Latvians.
Like I wrote before the history can still colour the way how people see things nowadays. Since it’s not that long ago that Latvia became part of the European Union most people still know how it was during the Soviet days. A downside of capitalism is the need to be succesful, with that comes long working days, pressure not to fail. In the Russian days there was no stress, there was work and people had it relatively good. Some people even long back to the old times, because they think they were then better off. The fact that Latvia is the poorest country in the EU doesn’t help. Such is always felt the most in the country side, the lack of perspective is numbed with a bottle of vodka. People, especially young people, leave the rural areas and go to the cities in hope to find a better life. Because of the unemployement people are afraid of the refugees taking their jobs, although it would be the kind of work they don’t want to do. I wish I could have biten back my words when I told Aleks about my work, that I had temporary jobs because of the ‘crisis’. Justly Aleks laughed when I mentioned that, because it is so darn relative when he said that his daughter works now for half her salary…
Nevertheless I see the future brightly. When I couldn’t get my fully loaded bike up a stairway and a young well-to-do bloke and an old scrubby tramp rushed towards me to pull and push my bicycle up. If three persons can pull a bike up a stairway, the two million inhabitants of Latvia can pull up that beautiful country.