From March 17th to March 21st I went on a trip to Riga, Latvia. More precisely, I went on an educational leave. This meant that our group – a group of Referendare (little lawyers doing their legal clerkship) – had to plan two activities for each day of the trip, one of “cultural” nature, the other one “legal.” The setting might sound sort of constricted – no drifting – but we were eager to extend the cultural activities at our own discretion, and it turned out to be a great trip.
We arrived at the Riga International Airport in the late afternoon and took the bus downtown. After an approx. 45 minute bus ride, we arrived at the central station. From there it was only a three minute walk to the Seagulls Garrett Hostel. The hostel really was a lucky strike. The rooms were very simple, but clean, and what was there was in good shape. On the first floor there was a spacious common area, a little kitchen, and the friendly staff provided us with breakfast every morning – no matter how little sleep they had caught the previous night.
On day 1, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and a visit of the German Embassy was on our agenda. The Museum spans a period of about 50 years during which the country has been occupied. First by Russians, then Germans, and Russians again. However, the focus lays on the WWII years, when Latvia had been suffering und Russian and German respective hegemony. After a coffee break at the nearby Bastion Hill Park, we went over to the German Embassy, where one of the Diplomats introduced the Embassy’s activities to us.
It was still somewhat early in the afternoon, and so a few of us took a little walk through the central district to get an impression of the city. To me, it looked pretty European. But despite the general feeling that you are still in Europe, it is also obvious that you are closer to Russia than when you walk around any German city. On some houses, you can read German inscriptions (e.g. “Arbeit Ist Des Bürgers Zierde” – “Work Is The Citizen’s Ornament”); but then you walk by a hotel, and a couple exits a fancy German car, probably Mercedes, and in no time you can tell they are Russian-speaking. You don’t even have to hear them speak; just take a look at the woman’s shoes, her make-up, the guys belt-buckle, his jeans and his hair-cut. If you’re not too familiar with those stereotypes, think of high heels, too much thick make-up that makes your face look like plastic, and imagine a dude with a sorta mop-top and red skinny jeans. Sounds like a cartoon character? Just do a little 21st century modernization to Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, cut the stubble of off his chin, and you’re there.
They say not to judge a book by the cover, but some of those hints do help. Flat shoe girls speak Latvian, high-heels Russian. Maybe somewhere in this city of some 600,000 people there’s an exception, but the rule’s good enough to stick with. The observations of a city that is split into two main cultures continued that night. First, we went to a traditional Latvian restaurant, that served what I’d call brewery style. The Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs is located in the historic downtown of Riga near the river Daugava. The prices are below moderate, and quality is above average, which makes it a must go to when you’re in town. I had the soup of the day, which was some sort of bacon-butter-cream-soup that had probably about 25,000 calories. As an entree I ordered the traditional Latvian meatballs. They reminded me of both Ikea’s Köttbulla and a classic German Frikadelle. Delicious. The meatballs came with a side of Sauerkraut and potatoes. For drinks we ordered 3L jugs of beer for less than 12 € each, and as digestive some of us tried the so-called Latvian Balsam. If you’re into that sort of rustic food, the Ala Pagrabs is a gourmet El Dorado.
After we had eaten, around 9 PM, a duo started playing traditional Latvian folk music on accordion and fiddle, and shortly the dance floor in front of the stage was filled with couples of all ages doing folk dances. As you can already tell, the atmosphere in the Ala Pagrabs represented the culture of the Latvian speaking population of Riga. After three or so folk songs I went to another bar to watch soccer with some of the guys, but only to meet the rest again at a club called Rock Café, which was, if my memory doesn’t trick me, somewhat accidental. I’m not gonna say that the club was dominated by people who I would categorize as Russian-speaking-looking, because the location spreads over at least three floors, but compared to the Ala Pagrabs, the atmosphere struck me personally as mostly Russian. Lots of high heels, lots of make-up, faces looking tighter than what I think is an expression of Latvian laidbackness that I had seen earlier at the restaurant. Also, the drinks were so overprized that I couldn’t help but think there must be a lot of wealthy young tourists from the big country in the east. Of course, this is mere speculation, and on top of that my memories are a little blurred. Come to think of it, the fact that the club’s website is Latvian only, and that the Latvian-speaking hostel staff had recommended the club to us argues against my theory.