Two Sundays ago I made a day trip to Latvia’s capital due to my own incompetence this summer. Bold start to the story, right?See, Russia has a thing about having to register if you’re staying in a new city for more than seven days, but for the World Cup, that time period was halved. And, thanks to some new and obnoxious legislation enacted this very summer, foreigners living in Russia have to now be registered by their landlords/ladies. Long story short is that I got registered in Volgograd by my hostel and absolutely forgot to register back in Moscow; this issue manifested when my landlady was attempting to register me. In order to avoid bureaucratic fines, I thus had to leave the country to get a new migration card and have the clock reset for the time I had to do all this. Therefore, it was pertinent that I simply leave the country and return before my current visa expired that Wednesday. As I write this, it seems that everything will be okay, but man, I’ve absolutely learned my lesson here.
Riga honestly wasn’t my first choice, as Tallinn is my favorite of all the Baltic capitals. However, the cost to fly to either Tallinn or Vilnius was twice as expensive, therefore Latvia it was. I was actually pretty nervous prior to departing, as I was torn between taking a backpack versus just going as is; the latter won out, which turned out to be super helpful. Getting through the airport was a cinch, and it enabled me to relax for a few extra minutes. Anyways, Riga. I’d been there two years ago, albeit for a day, so I wasn’t feeling too pressured to try and see things. Unlike most of my trips where I’d plan a few things, last week was absolutely unplanned, literally and figuratively. After getting ripped off by a taxi driver (30 euros from the airport to the old town, which I’m told should only be about 10 euros), I walked around a bit. My first order of business was to find somewhere to eat, as I had breakfast six hours before. Old Town being what it was, a lot of places catered to tourists, i.e. being overpriced for average meals. As I didn’t want to spend all willy nilly for a single day, I took my time with making a decision. While on the outskirts of the center, I noticed a taqueria which ended up being where I camped out at for the entire duration of my afternoon.
El Santo X is a quiet place, thanks to its location away from all the tourists, but this was fine. The taco I had maybe could have been better (I was assured that the quality is normally higher) but hey, at that time I didn’t care-I just wanted food. The house beer came in a big stein, and boy did I want it! After finishing my meal, I had intended to wander around a bit and maybe go to other bars, but I started chatting with the two guys there. After a while, they invited me to sit at the bar with them and just shoot the breeze; the barman was a friend of theirs (but apparently had gotten banned from drinking hard liquor a previous time for some unmentioned transgression), so the atmosphere was congenial. They, as most young Latvians these days, spoke flawless English and in their case, they’d been to America. In Janis’ case, he went partook in a cross-America trip from Florida to Chicago, with one memorable stop in Branson, Missouri where he was denied buying beer at a WalMart. (The cashier thought both his buddies and his Latvian IDs were fake and insisted on seeing a visa. As Latvia is part of the EU and thus doesn’t need its citizens to apply for a visa, this caused further problems. Thankfully one of this friends had a visa to Iran which sufficed. But, the cashier didn’t see all of their IDs and refused to sell them beer since there was a chance they might have been underaged. Janis wasn’t happy and hates the city of Branson solely due to this incident.) During the course of our six-hour-long banter, we periodically raided the fridge for more beers. There’s two notable things here: the first was that the barman was familiar with the two guys so it was assumed we’d all pay afterwards, and the second is how we opted for Coronas over the local brews. The latter fact was lampshaded, so at least we were self-aware of what we drank. In a way there was some potential danger, since it was far too easy to imbibe, given you had to walk a few steps to find your next cold one. Moving back to the conversation after we restocked, it covered the gamut of random stuff in life with some politics interspersed. As an American, I’m used to fielding these types of questions, but what was cool was the fact that the two guys had experience traveling in America, so their questions ran a bit deeper. Not that I minded-it was a welcome change of pace from the usual ones. Unfortunately I can’t remember what else we chatted about, but in fairness, over the course of six hours with several pints downed, I wasn’t exactly trying to 100 percent chronicle the history.
By this point, I’ve got to mention the atmosphere. As was previously mentioned, the bar itself was situated on the periphery of the center, so business was slow. People did come and go, but for the most part, we were the only patrons there; however, when people came by, the amount was surprisingly large. The Latvian lads told me that the barman, who was in fact nursing a hangover, obviously was resenting the fact that he had to work that day, but that didn’t stop him from periodically joining our conversations. Every now and then he’d bring by freebies (i.e. food that wasn’t of high enough quality for customers, but adequate enough for guys drinking the afternoon away), so he did help us. Plus, he can make some mean cocktails! Despite the odd juxtaposition of a lazy Sunday and no customers, the place wasn’t too bad. The food again wasn’t anything special-it’s definitely not the number one dining establishment in the city- but the restaurant itself was fairly spacious and the decor was fairly atmospheric. The obligatory Mexican music was nice, but after six hours there, you kinda wanted something different. In hindsight, anybody could have simply changed the music, but I guess we were so engrossed in chatting and drinking that this fact simply slipped our minds. Can’t interrupt a good time for the small things, as well.
A lot of the stuff discussed was about basic comparisons, i.e. life in Russia (and why I moved there) vs. America, but every now and then the questions went deeper. One thing I learned a bit more about was the relationship between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians in the country. I’d been in Riga before and prior to that had already known about the fact that Russians comprise of about 25% of the country, which is rather significant since the entire population of Latvia is roughly two million; in the capital that percentage rises to about 37%. Compared with both Estonia (they’ve got a hold on the integration) and Lithuania (where there isn’t that many Russians to begin with), there’s some major issues about a divide. I’m being cautious here, but what it boils down to is that Latvians of Russian heritage aren’t as keen to embrace the Republic of Latvia and learn the language. However, in fairness to that chunk of the population, Latvia said that if you don’t have either one of Latvian or Russian citizenship, you’re a non-citizen. Heck, even people who’d been living in the country before it declared its independence lost a ton of rights. So it is a very contentious issue to say the least. The two guys at the bar made their disdain for the percentage of Riga/the country as a whole who only speak Russian, as they think that those people don’t make the requisite effort to learn the language of the republic. I can’t say that the pair are indicative of all Latvians, but it’s hard to deny the tensions both on the surface and lying below.
When all’s said and done, the fact that I didn’t have any plans worked out. Sure, I was a bit lucky, but at the same time, I probably would have made a pit stop at a different bar. I spent a bit more money than I had intended to, but it was all worth it in the end. Though, I kinda wish I got their contact information, because the guys and even the barman legitimately were people with whom I developed an instant rapport. Heck, they even helped with my taxi fare to the airport, so I only had to pay a mere two euros! Aside from that there’s no other regrets (okay, other than my idiocy which prompted this day trip in the first place) for that Sunday. And finally, it appears that my registration, knock on wood, has been taken care of. Paldies, for that Sunday!