Throwback: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

An old dear friend from my study-abroad days stayed here in Berlin with me last week. Over the course of the weekend, we traded turns teasing each other over our naive, first-time-in-Europe stories. Speaking of, did I ever tell you about the time I meant to fly to Rome and wound up in Riga? No? Seems a good time for a Throwback Thursday blog post.

February 23, 2009 – Riga, Latvia

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum… Somehow either the airline company or I mistook Rome for Riga. Riga, which is not in Italy, but in fact in the Eastern Bloc country known as Latvia.

Maybe the first clue should have been all of the people speaking Baltic languages as I stepped off the plane. I know I thought, That’s curious. I’d say the snow on the ground should have been another tip-off, but it was early, and Rome had predicted light snowfall for that morning anyway. I looked outside and thought- Wow, bet the Coliseum will look cool with snow on it. But the biggest clue should definitely have been the announcement that blared over the loudspeakers: “The flight from Rome to Riga has been delayed.” Myself: What the hell? I’m in Rome!

An embarrassing encounter with the information desk later, I realized that no, I was not in Rome. How did that encounter go? Myself: Hi, can I get wifi here anywhere? Information desk lady: Sure. You have to pay for it though. Me: I can use Euros? Lady: No, you have to use Lats. Me: Lats? Lady: Local currency.  Me: [beat. Start to speak. Cannot. Longer beat] Where, exactly, is local?

Oh, Riga.

It was iced over, but the ice just added charm to the flourishing ornament-work that gilded the surface of every building. I left expecting ancient. I got instead, medieval. And without the strange sense of vertigo that Amsterdam provided. Here the buildings took up space. They sprawled down the block, swooping into towers of architectural fancy, sometimes with stained glass windows, or carved gargoyles, or recessed niches that turned every building into some sort of pastry-like delicacy.


Riga by day was overwhelming. Half-built from the imagination of the Grimm brothers, the city is a maze of narrow streets, uneven pavers, modern architecture mingling with the cracked facades of Guild houses that have stood for centuries. The fog hangs low over this city, hiding the spires of countless churches, masking the faces of the statues standing tall over the squares. Fur-hooded children frolick with ducks in the Bastejkalns—a wide strip of frost-laden grass that runs parallel to the Pilsetas Kanals.


But Riga by night. Riga by night is something completely different. Yes, the fog still crowds in close, draped over the shoulders of the hulking structures like a shawl. Yes, the same snow heaps on the same narrow sidewalks. But the effect is more magical. Strategically placed lights highlight architectural features of the old buildings—the House of Blackheads, for example, has a white-bulbed stagelight focused on each buttress, each curved angle, each window ledge. It’s as if the entire Old City is transformed into a massive art gallery and the streetside buildings as priceless a piece as any Monet or Van Gogh.


What interested me most were the people—ten o’clock at night, and I felt as safe as if I was in my own living room. For several streets I tried to figure out why this was the case—it wasn’t that people were friendly, or even that they looked my way, but I felt a total security as I walked around. Finally, I realized what it was. There were children out. Small children in furs and round caps pulled low over their ears, preteens in huddled groups standing under eaves, mothers, and fathers coaxing toddlers to follow in their wakes. It was impossible not to feel safe with the number of young people out.


In a side alley, I found a curious array of medieval flags, hanging still in the night air. The light was all orange—the color of the beer, rich and heavy. Beneath the array of flags was a gypsy wagon. Barrels clustered together sat in the corner, resting unevenly on the thick cobbles of the street. A movement from behind the wagon startled me, and a woman in a long dress and cloak staggered out from the shadows. She looked at me for a second, then pulled open a thick door in one of the alley buildings and disappeared. In that second, somewhere far off, a recorder began to play.

It raised the hair on the back of my neck. I peered through the thickness of the light, searching for more people. No one moved. I snapped a picture and moved on, trying to find the source of the music.

The narrow street opened into a larger one, and I took a right. Stray cats hunched along the silent street, their eyes catching the light and glowing. The recorder was playing “Amazing Grace,” or maybe just a song that sounded like it. It was getting louder.


This larger street opened into a square, so suddenly I stopped in my tracks. Snow covered the bricks beneath my feet. To my left, the street sloped away into an embankment, a strange sort of waterless moat for the massive Church that had sprung out of the darkness. Down in the gulley, an old man called to his Jack Russell, who was much more intent on scrabbling up the incline towards me. Above me, gulls launched themselves from the roofs of buildings, their bellies flashing dove-white against the dark cornflower blue of the sky. And through it all wove the reedy, sad song.

It was a strange weekend. It was Valentine’s Day weekend. On each corner were young teenagers, holding heart-shaped balloon bouquets, hawking the helium hearts to anyone who passed by. How weird to be there alone, unexpectedly. And at the same time, how nice. To go wherever I wanted. Linger in whatever alleyway. Be responsible just for myself. I spent the weekend in a sort of hysterical daze, often laughing to myself as I floated through the city.

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I’m still laughing about it now, typing this out two weeks later. I mean, what’s funnier than trying to get to the Roman forum and ending up in Latvia?

 

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