The Aussie in me has been craving snow and ice for months now, but has never been truly satisfied. Sure, I stomped around a bit in the snow at an Austrian bus stop, walked under a little drizzle of sleet in Mannheim and watched from afar, over cyberspace, as friends encountered winter wonderlands of their own, but all through this six month exchange I had never experienced the sort of harsh beauty that European winter was meant to offer… Until I visited Latvia
There’s some odd cosmic connection (and some obvious historical/political ones) between Adelaide and Latvia. For some reason I’ve always ended up running into expats and travelers from the humble little Baltic country and they’ve always been lovely. Visiting some of these returned Latvians was the main reason for my recent trip, but another one was seeing snow before I left the great northern continent. I’m happy to say, the mission was pretty much a success.
I say “pretty much” because, while I did manage to spend some quality time with atleast one of my long-lost friends and see the world covered in white for a day, the rest of the time spent in Riga was a bit… Soviet. Not to say that’s not interesting to experience, but brutal cold and melancholy faces don’t make for a very celebratory get-away.
Seeing such a wintery world for the first time, and arriving to the coldest temperature I’ve ever experienced (-16 Celsius!), really made me giddy. I felt like a stereotypical American kid running outside on their first snow day. The snow was bright and fluffy, delightfully crunchy underfoot, and like a soft blanket layed over bushes and fences. Buildings were trimmed with deadly looking icycles, the length of swords and gutters were frozen in time, unable to flow but becoming beautiful sculptures. Canals and rivers were frozen over, now white streets and fields instead of flowing water.
In short, I love winter, at least the image of it. Even with skin-burning wind and toe-freezing temperatures even during the day, I was ecstatic. It does get old after a while though. Your legs get tired of slipping and sliding on the pavement and your mind gets a bit sick after days of grey. When the mercury began to rise on our second day and the beauty began to melt and the roads began to build up with brown slush, the bewitchery of winter wore off. But, my god, I was happy to finally feel the bite of true cold and make some mental paintings of the landscape that I can remember when things get a bit warm in Aus.
Apart from the makeshift theme park of wintery city streets there really isn’t too much to occupy the young mind in Riga. Unlike most other cities I’ve visited, I didn’t check out any art galleries, which may have been a mistake. You get a great idea of a cities culture from it’s art. I did, however, get a rather depressing idea of the country by visiting the infamous KGB “Corner House”. Here we learned about the horrifying years of Soviet Occupation in Riga, decades of torture and surveillance that turned the city into something straight out of 1984. You can still see and feel the scars of this wound in the Latvian community in Riga, making it a very real and honest place to visit. Never before have I felt such melancholy pervading a city, but it’s easy to see why it’s there. Everywhere I go I try to act as much like a local as I can… In Riga that almost means not smiling. It’s a sad opinion to express, but one I feel is pretty accurate. But hey, maybe it was just the slush and ice getting everyone down.
Despite the gloom on the street, Riga is beautiful behind doors. In pubs, clubs and tea-houses we spent the majority of our time just relaxing with great food and grog. One of my favourite places, a cave-pub run by another Adelaidian Latvian (they’re bloody everywhere, ain’t they?), provided some traditional Latvian folk atmosphere and legit some of the best beers I’ve tasted. Hell yeah, Latvia. You’ve got your yeasts and brews down-pat. You know how to live while it’s cold outside.
The three day stay in the snowiest stop-over of my exchange was overshadowed (or maybe just stalked) by the knowledge that it would be the last major one before the long-haul flight back to Adelaide. Riga was amazing in a number of ways, a truly alien, enlightening and even challenging experience, but it definitely could have been a more cheerful one.
But for now, we’ve got other things to focus on. The time for sadness definitely isn’t now cause I’ve still got a few days to really embrace Europe. It’s given me so much already, and I’m sure there is still more to find before I step back over the seas.
So, thank goodness I finally managed to visit Riga, apparently the alternate version of Adelaide on the other side of the cosmic mirror. It couldn’t have been a more interesting finale for the 2015/2016 adventure.
The next big step comes real soon…