Fear and loathing in Latvia

Between the fistfights and the Finnish girls, it's hard to get any writing done.

By Rolf Potts

Published November 23, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I was halfway through my second beer when the trouble started. Someone at an adjacent table had apparently offended my Latvian hosts, and within a few moments, fists were flying, women were screaming and chairs were being overturned. Sitting there, beer in hand, I spent a long, anxiety-ridden moment trying to decide if two free drinks now obligated me to jump in and punch someone.

Until that moment, I had been quietly enjoying myself on the cobblestones in the heart of Riga's medieval Old Town. Plastic tables had been set up at the edges of the square near the enormous, German-styled Dome Cathedral, and scores of people had gathered to relax, drink beer and chat. A string quartet was playing on the grass in front of the cathedral; an accordionist squeezed out a tune on the opposite side of the square. Children raced across the cobblestones into narrow alleys. Young couples embraced in the shadows.

I'd met the Latvian fellows just 20 minutes earlier, when they'd hailed me from another table (where I'd been sitting alone) and gave me a glass of beer. They were all big burly guys in their early 20s, two blond and one dark-haired.

"Canadian?" the dark-haired one asked as I joined their table.

"Close," I said. "American."

The Latvians grinned and nodded and indicated that they wanted me to drink with them. The three of them wore brown leather jackets and smoked Marlboros, looking like syndicated-TV American bounty hunters. None of them spoke English, and none of them introduced themselves or showed much interest in me once I sat down. Squinting around at the other people in the square, they joked and laughed together in their own language. Every so often, they would hold their beer glasses up, and we would clink them together. When I'd drained my first beer, they bought me another. I wasn't sure why they'd invited me over, but I rather enjoyed the simple camaraderie.

Thus my moral dilemma when they all jumped up and started brawling with a foursome of well-dressed middle-aged men one table over.

Perhaps if I was Latvian, I would have known what to do in this situation. Unfortunately, I grew up in America, a country where -- because handguns are as easy to acquire as waffle irons -- good old-fashioned fist-fights are a risky and rare proposition.

Figuring it the wisest option, I stood up from the table and backed away. In front of me, the fight reached a quick crescendo, then neutralized into a stalemated shoving and shouting match. Someone bumped the table, and our beer glasses crashed down onto the cobblestones. People from other tables stood up to view the commotion. Suddenly disgusted, I turned my back on the fight and walked out of the square.

Once I'd gotten back to the Aurora Hotel, I still hadn't shaken my feeling of disgust. Taking my backpack from under the bed, I began to fill it with gear and clothing. Once I'd finished, I took out my Riga guidebook and looked for a hotel as far away from Old Town as possible.

At the time, my disgust had little to do with the spontaneous melee in Dome Square. Rather, I was disgusted because I'd come to Riga to catch up on my travel writing, and -- after three maddeningly entertaining days in the city -- I had yet to write a single word.

The most difficult aspect of being a travel writer has little to do with the threat of violence or theft or even disease. The worst part of travel writing is that you have to write.

Writing is a solitary activity that requires a controlled environment of concentration. Travel, on the other hand, is a social activity that hinges on stimulation -- new and unexpected sights and experiences. In practice, trying to synthesize these two activities can be like trying to combine a disco with a monastery. Invariably, enjoying one activity will compromise the other.

Since I had a lot of writing to do when I left Russia, I headed straight for Latvia. Not only does Latvia enjoy a reputation as the dullest of the Baltic nations (a region which itself is known more for quaint folk festivals than for the turmoil and intrigue of its other post-Soviet counterparts), it is also the least expensive. Riga, I'd hoped, would provide me with the perfect degree of comfort and anonymity for my writing tasks. When I arrived at the Riga train station, the Latvian newspaper headlines ("Neighbors react as government lifts pork tariffs"; "Insiders predict changes afoot for telecoms") seemed to underscore that I'd come to an uncommonly distraction-free place.

Unfortunately, my writer's discipline has never been that strong. Not long after checking into the dank Aurora Hotel near the train station, I was befriended by two Finnish girls who'd just arrived on a self-initiated museum-and-party tour of the Baltic capitals. Once they'd discovered I was their hotel-room neighbor, they insisted that I accompany them on a tour of the city and a night of clubbing.

"I'm sorry," I told them. "I can't come. I need to stay here and write."

The Finns glanced at each other, then looked at me in amused unbelief. After a bit of cajoling, they convinced me to postpone my duties and join them. They told me later that they thought I'd lied about my writing in a clumsy effort to impress them. Apparently, I didn't strike them as the writing type. Perhaps, in retrospect, I could have more effectively guarded my solitude by telling them something like "I need to stay here until the de-lousing shampoo kicks in," or "I have a hooker meeting me in 10 minutes."

In the company of the Finnish girls, I hit nearly every museum and cathedral in Riga, then cruised nightclubs until 4 in the morning. They'd moved on to Vilnius by the time I woke up the next day, but it wasn't long before I met a precocious Estonian teenager who'd traveled in from Tailinn to check out Riga's grind-core music scene. Unable to overcome my own curiosity, I spent my second night in Latvia hanging out with him and a gaggle of surprisingly friendly Baltic death-rockers. My ears were ringing all the next morning, so I went for a noontime walk through Old Town. There, I met the leather-jacketed Latvians who started the brawl in Dome Square.

In the conclusion to her book "Bird by Bird," Anne Lamott says that, as readers and writers, "we are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life." In foreign lands, however, the absurdity of life can sometimes lead to so much dancing and clapping that there's no time left over for reading or writing. This in mind, I made a desperate move. Checking out of the Aurora Hotel, I took the trolley-bus out to the Riga suburb of Marupe, where I checked into a business-college dormitory.

There, ensconced in my yellow-walled room, surrounded by quiet streets, I took out my palmtop PC, arranged a stack of notecards and set to work.

Fueled by half a century of prosperity, most Americans have come to see suburbia as the epicenter of postmodern blandness. No analysis of suburbia is complete, however, until one has experienced suburbs in a foreign land.

To be honest, the Marupe suburb of Riga bore only a passing resemblance to places like Bellevue, Wash., Silver Springs, Md., or Aurora, Colo. For starters, many Marupe residents kept cows on their property. But as part of a country that had been a Soviet Republic only 10 years before, suburban Riga was well on its way to Western assimilation. Already, Marupe's young were blasting Limp Bizkit on their car stereos, middle-aged folks were jogging or power-walking in the evenings and tethered dogs were barking idiotically from freshly mown backyards.

During my first few days in Marupe, I bought all my food and supplies at a kiosk five blocks away from the business college. Kiosks, which were designed to reduce theft during the Soviet era, keep all food items behind the counter. Thus, one must interact with the clerks to get any shopping done. After just two days of such interaction at the Marupe kiosk, all the clerks recognized me, and the old drunk who hung around out front began to showcase his English by asking for money. A woman who lived near the kiosk caught wind that I was American, and hustled me over to her house one afternoon. We spent two hours sipping tea and looking at photo albums of her Latvian-Texan cousins.

I was charmed by all this, but a bit uneasy. Suburban Riga -- while not explicitly exciting -- was proving to be just as distracting as Riga Old Town. Despite all my efforts to stand still, I felt like I was still traveling, even in Baltic suburbia. Furthermore, after five days in Latvia, I still hadn't completed a single story.

Against my better sentiments, I decided to avoid the kiosk and shop for food at the Statoil gas station. There, open aisles and a laser scanner guaranteed that my grocery runs wouldn't inadvertently lead to a parking lot beer party or an impromptu trip to see someone's salt shaker collection. At the Statoil, I picked the food I needed, paid my money, grunted my thanks and returned to my dorm room. My writing flourished.

In this way, my life in suburban Riga turned into a sad 20th century parable: I had achieved efficiency -- finally -- by eliminating all unnecessary human contact.

One week after arriving in Latvia -- just 36 hours after successfully alienating myself from a community that had so earnestly tried to include me -- I finished my first story. That morning, I took a trolley-bus into central Riga. Determined to stay in my writing groove, I kept my head down as I walked through the narrow streets of Old Town. I crossed Pilsetas Canal and found an Internet cafe in the business district. Still in efficiency-mode, I sent off my story and updated my e-mail files in under 30 minutes.

I knew something was wrong the moment I stepped back outside.

Though the sky was clear, the day had dimmed, and the air was cold. The city streets, which had been crowded and busy half an hour before, were completely empty of people. I peered around at the silent city and shivered.

In retrospect, I suppose I could say that this moment was like living in a fantastical Disney version of my own life -- a supernatural cinematic moment where I learned a moral lesson on the importance of human interaction. The thing is, I wasn't thinking about Disney or morals. For an instant, all I felt was raw, irrational fear.

The fear slowly faded, but I must have stood alone on the street for a full minute before a passing car diverted my attention to an odd sight. Two blocks away, on the corner of Merkela and Brivibas, a crowd of about 10 people stared up at the sky. Breaking into a trot, I made my way toward them, occasionally glancing up to try to figure out what could possibly be holding their attention. I was half a block away before I noticed that one of the men on the corner was wearing welding goggles.

Suddenly, everything made sense. The world was not at an end; Riga was simply experiencing a partial solar eclipse. I'd read about the coming phenomenon weeks earlier, but -- amid my efforts to eliminate distractions and write -- I'd completely forgotten about it.

I nearly laughed when I realized what had just happened: Instead of experiencing the eclipse as an informed consumer, I had experienced the eclipse in the context of superstition, of brief medieval terror. Latvia had trumped my expectations again.

Crossing to the other side of the street, I entered Esplanade Park to discover a public spectacle that looked like a cross between a block party and an alien invasion. Inside the park, hundreds of Latvians looked skyward, shielding their eyes with darkened glass and floppy disks and silvery-lensed paper glasses. When I tried to squint skyward, a smiling man came up and handed me a strip of undeveloped photographic film. Taking the film, I looked up at the muted orange glow of a thinning crescent sun. I shivered again.

"The world is wilder in all directions," wrote Annie Dillard 25 years ago, "more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain or Lazarus."

Standing there, watching the sky go out, I knew exactly what Annie Dillard meant.

I also knew, however, that even Annie Dillard had to bind whoopee from her mind and let Lazarus rot in order to write that very passage.

Once the sun began to wax and the day began to warm, I caught the trolley-bus back to the suburbs. There, in the quiet confines of my yellow-walled room, I shuffled a fresh deck of notecards.

Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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