Remembrances of Latvia – September 1, 1995
Riga is getting ready to celebrate its 800th birthday in 2001. There is scaffolding around the President’s Palace and work seems to be in progress everywhere. I was grumbling about a large crane that was messing up my panoramic photos of Old Riga. Let’s face it, a big crane looks out of place with church spires dating back to the 1200s!
When you stand in the middle of the Dome Square, you can see three golden roosters on the spires of St. Peter’s, St. Jacob’s, and the famous Dome Cathedral. The legend tells us that the rooster used to warn the townspeople of approaching enemies. At St. Peter’s church, you must climb to the third floor, and then an elevator takes you to the tip-top viewing platform some 250 feet up. The views are breathtaking. No cars are allowed in Vecriga (Old Riga), so it is a marvelous place to stroll and sit in sidewalk cafés, which nestle up to ancient brick walls and towers.
The residents hate the big blue rectangle that is Hotel Latvija. It messes up the skyline of Old Riga and is a leftover from the old Soviet days, when it was an Intourist hotel. These structures were built for utility, not beauty. This same utilitarian approach is seen in apartment buildings all over the city – ugly rectangular bee hives.
If a building is over five stories high, they built an elevator. In a five-story building, you get to lug everything up and down yourself.
Riga is about 53% Latvian. You hear a lot of Russian in the streets. Other cities, like Jelgava, only have about 36% Latvians. Lots of Russians who have lived in Latvia a long time have never bothered to learn Latvian. But then, they were the rulers until 1991. Why should they bother?
My cousin's husband was on vacation and took me on extensive city walks. There is a park alongside the city canal that borders Old Riga. There are large granite stones marking the spot where victims of the 1991 freedom fight fell. This was when Boris Pugo’s black berets drove tanks down the city streets and fired on unarmed civilians. This was too much for me. I dissolved into tears. I told him of my involvement with the Baltic American Freedom League, the letters and faxes, and why I take Latvian independence so personally. Also, I told him why I am so dismayed to see that they have adopted the bad as well as the good from the West.
Other quirky things that caught my eye include an Elvis bar in Old Riga that plays the King’s music all day and all night long. Also, changing the spelling of English words into Latvian on store names, such as DZENTLEMEN for a men’s clothing store, was interesting. I was intrigued by the way retail business is conducted in a shop called Sakta. You pick out what you want behind the counter. The clerk hands you a slip, which you take to the cashier. She takes your money, hands you a paid receipt, and you go back to collect your goods. Also found in the shops were Barbie Dolls, Sheba cat food, Pedigree dog food, and Tide. Barbie was fetching 14 lats ($28.).
Riga has sister cities that have given her gifts. One is Kobe, Japan, which gave a large clock built into a pedestal. It seems a bit modern for its location. The other is Bremen, Germany, which gave a black wrought-iron sculpture of the Bremen town musicians stacked on each other’s backs, just like the children’s story. It sits by St. Peter’s church in old Riga.
The Freedom Monument has two honor guards posted. They stand at attention and are not allowed to speak. People bring flowers and lay them at the base of the monument. Flowers are a big deal in Latvia. It is customary to bring flowers for any and all occasions, but it must always be an odd number. Even numbers are only used in mourning.
The Riga Market is a mind-boggling experience. Our health department would close it down in 10 minutes! We walked through the fish building – no refrigeration, no ice, no glass cases – where there were flies everywhere. Most of the fish was dried, but they also had fresh salmon filets laid out in the open.
The meat department was worse, where there was meat hanging on hooks or just laid out on tables. People can walk by and just touch everything. I think that I would become a vegetarian very quickly in Riga.
The dairy building was the same – huge slabs of cheese and butter, sour cream, milk – all sitting out without refrigeration. People can walk by and cough or sneeze on this stuff.
I saw a big pot of black grainy stuff, Kanepu Sviests, which is butter mixed with crushed hemp seeds. No, you don’t get high from eating the seeds, which are loaded with protein and vitamins. I tasted a tiny smidge. It’s rather good, a texture similar to poppy seeds. The old people used to eat this stuff on bread.
The vegetable and fruit building seemed okay, until I saw big barrels of sauerkraut sitting out in the open and the proprietor reaching in, taking some kraut with her fingers and popping it in her mouth.
Believe it or not, the regular shops are much better. They have refrigerated cases for meats and dairy. I can’t understand why the people that shop at the central market haven’t all died of food poisoning.
There are two casinos in Riga featuring roulette, blackjack, and poker but no craps. Riga is also turning into a major banking center but has already had a major banking scandal of disappearing funds. The Russian mafia runs scams in Latvia, too.
The great river Daugava divides Riga into the chic side (Old Riga) and the "wrong side" (where the new Radisson Daugava Hotel is situated). On the other hand, all the great views of Old Riga come from across the river. Our ninth floor room faced the river, and the views of Old Riga were magnificent. It is said that the devil lives in Daugava. Every 100 years, he comes out and asks the residents, "Are you ready?" They all shout, "NO!" and he goes back for another 100 years.