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The city is watching. Photo: Anna Maria Strauß

The theatre of real life. A Letter from Riga 0

Anna Maria Strauß

Photos: Anna Maria Strauß

It was in the tropical overcrowdedness of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital and home to a mere 15 million people, no – 20 million, or was it 30 million... in any case, a lot of people – when I first found out I would be moving to Riga. Riga, I thought, jolly good. Let me quickly recollect. What do I know about Riga? A Swedish crime-fiction author wrote about it once; what was it called again – “The Dogs of Riga”?... by Henning Mankell, yes, I remember. In that book, Riga was full of dodgy, middle-aged men walking through dark and lonely alleys, if I remember correctly. (I do admit I don’t remember too well. Sorry, Mr. Mankell!) The post-soviet state of Latvia, I thought to myself – jolly jolly good! You must know, I have a thing for soviet architecture – some of which I collect on my blog Džakarta, baby! – and I am widely interested, though not very knowledgeable, in the discourse of post-sovietism. I do realise that this is, most probably, not quite a word, but I guess you might know what I mean*. 

Anna Maria Strauß

Anything post-soviet, really

Lucky me, the Goethe-Institut – my employer and my big love of my young working life – (or rather, the human resources department of the Institut) was all ears when I muttered something like “Oh, you’re asking me, where I would like to be sent? Central Asia would be nice… or Eastern Europe, anything post-soviet, really”. I didn’t actually think I had a say in where my next posting would be, and found myself rather surprised when it turned out that some magical power had actually chosen Latvia as the place where I was going to spend the next three years of my life. Inner jubilation! And above all, the job I’m doing now is also closely connected to Estonia and Lithuania, which means – three countries, triple the fun, and triple the amount of things to discover! Working in the field of intercultural exchange, as fostered by the Goethe-Institut – Germany’s main player in the field of foreign cultural and educational policy – implies, of course, that one must get to know one's new surroundings as thoroughly as possible: the discourses, the relevant places, the people – this is key. Now what do I actually do? We used to joke about how my job position hardly fits onto a business card, and how I had come to even further digitalize the so-called Baltics (I quickly learned about, one could say, the Germano-centric quality of this word, and how it won’t open any doors, let alone hearts), but nowadays, I like to sum it up differently when people ask me. I simply say “I take care of the digital stuff”. English offers such a lovely word for everything that is indescribable: “stuff”. I mean, imagine, I started a photo blog. For work! But I’m losing track here.

Now, back to Riga, back to myself, sitting and pondering about my soon-to-be home. The Baltic Sea!, I thought. I immediately saw myself taking long after-work-walks on the beach, with the harsh wind twirling my hair and clearing my brain from any unnecessary thoughts – back to basics, I thought to myself; time to concentrate on the essential. The Baltic Sea seemed like the ideal spot for just such a thing. A rough coast would suit me so much better, I figured, than those Raffaello-esque, picturesque beaches of Indonesia that I had been mostly avoiding during my year there. I remembered my visit to Tallinn, Riga’s picturesque neighbour, back during my school days, and I googled and read a whole lot of random bits and pieces that the internet had come up with, and then I began to finally grasp the idea of where I was headed.    

Urban geometry

Woods all around

Not much of a person keen on building up great expectations, I still allowed my mind to wander. Busy packing things up at home, most of the time I felt as though I didn’t have many expectations of the Latvian times ahead, if at all. Looking back, I did, of course, but they’re easy to sum up: beautiful nature, a European atmosphere, rough beaches, a small town. What did I find? Beautiful nature, a European atmosphere, not-so-rough beaches, a small town, and a really small town. I mean, while descending towards Riga, all I saw was woods; driving to my apartment in Agenskalns, almost all I saw was woods. The first few weeks after I had arrived, I would tell people: “It’s like a miniature world. It’s awfully pretty, really. More than picturesque. But it’s a miniature world.” I had lived in Munich for a relevant amount of time – you know, the Munich that the rest of Germany calls too rich, too pretty, too clean, too many rules – and found myself looking at Riga thinking: it is so clean, everything is so orderly. It certainly isn’t too rich, no, but look: It is SO tidy, not a cigarette butt on the street! How can this place be even more picture-perfect than the Bavarian city that likes to call itself “The Capital of Hearts”? I was utterly baffled. 

This is not a costume party

Lazy sunsets, hidden screens.

Ever since, Riga has been growing in front of my eyes: in size, in volume, in depth. I’ve been here for almost six months, and the city is constantly expanding. We had the loveliest weather from May to October; life was happening outside, and Riga started to unfold its character – one that I now consider somewhat typical for this city that I’m still only just getting to know. It charmed me with the delicious buffet to be had at Innocent Café, the coolness of the well-dressed (yet not trying too hard) crowd at the concerts in Kalnciema kvartals (free concerts, yay!), the busy atmosphere and hidden cinema screens of Kanepes Kultura Centrs, the trendy cyclists holding minidrome races behind the nightclub Piens, the local brews of Valmiermuiža and Cranberry Beer, the hard-to-find gem of Totaldobze’s rooftop terrace, (all of those rooftops around town, really!), the late and lazy sunsets best viewed from the old harbour, the always amazing aplomb of women casually taking a walk on cobblestone streets while wearing 12 centimetre heels, the untouched and fragrant scenery while cycling down to the beach, the… I guess I could go on like this for at least another two pages**.


The uprising cultural sector

You see, all of these things make me now say, when somebody asks my opinion about the city: “Oh, Riga is lovely. It’s rather small, but you can quite feel the capital vibe. It’s busy, things are happening”, or something along those lines. I soon also learned that people have been leaving, and still are. “There’s nothing to do here,” people tell me, “just wait until winter”. Winter is coming, we all feel it already, but it has not yet gained enough strength to scare me. Latvian people seem to be proud of the harsh winters they face; I look forward to what almost feels like a rite of passage.

And while I do so, I try to stay focused and keep an open mind for the subtle stories the city tells me. It seems to smirk at me a lot; it winks and never fails to point out the theatre of real life. I feel this is a blessing that comes from having to move a lot. It's a mindset of being constantly alert; you notice things. Things that probably wouldn’t catch your eye when staying for only a couple of days; things that, most likely, slip from your attention once you have really become a part of the town, when you know it all too well to be surprised anymore. Riga and I have a special relationship. It feels so much like home – it felt like that right away – yet it also constantly reminds me  that it is not. And it broadens my view in terms of the other places that I’ve been to, have lived in, will return to, or will be heading to sometime in the future. That’s just how it works, I guess: the new teaches you about the familiar. Lets see what we come up with, Riga and I. The world is moving, and the city keeps watching.

City scenes

* while understanding that I am by no means trying to simplify the complex discussions and feelings this carries for people from the heart of Europe to almost the Far East

** a must add: The epic laid-backness of the Latvian people – the other day in a café a little boy tipped over his full big glass of hot chocolate that spilled across the table, on himself and left a big brown puddle on the tiles of the café floor. His mother got up, no hurry, took a tissue and started wiping him clean, no hard word, no exclamation of shock and how could you, just a friendly pat on the shoulder: What is there to yell about, the hot chocolate is gone, time to clean up. Needless to say, the little guy just smiled and helped.