On the bus trip from a small town in the east of Latvia to the capital Riga in the west, worlds passed outside the windows and the mundane metamorphosed into the profound.
The bus didn’t go directly to Riga.
Instead, it meandered through the countryside passed fields and wooden farmhouses and stopping at small towns where the atmosphere of the past was clearly discernible in the stark, functionalist buildings and apartment blocks, the ordered parks and squares.
The past: 45 years of Russian colonialism.
People got on and got off, many of them dressed in an old style of clothing reminiscent of American movies set in the 1950’s.
After an hour or so, a change occurred;. From a bus transporting locals from one town to the next, it was now a bus full of young people on their way to wider horizons….to another Riga and a very different one to what we had experienced only two weeks before….. …..
The bus stopped somewhere at the outskirts of Riga instead of going to the central station, as we had expected.
We got down with our rucksacks and everyone went their own ways. We found ourselves in a unfamiliar part of Riga; there were wide streets lined with historic buildings yet there was not a single tourist to be seen.
Mindful of our negative experience on our last stay in central Riga, this time we had booked a small hotel at the outskirts. The only problem was finding it, especially after a long bus trip. And this was a journey in itself.
It was sunny with a strong wind blowing. The wide pavements were busy with people, many of them young. There were cafes, bars, small restaurants, trendy shops and fashion boutiques. Asking for directions we were surprised at how many people spoke fluent English – and gladly.
Inadvertently we had booked a hotel in the student area of Riga, where there was a university, a technical college and art school. After a lot of walking around, getting lost, asking for directions, we found our hotel. It was as opposite as could be to the apartment where we had stayed on arriving in Riga: a bit run down, but it was quiet. From our room, on the top floor, there was a view of rooftops, high tension wires and in the distance the golden dome of a church.
Later we walked into the centre of Riga to have a meal at an Indian restaurant which we had discovered on our last stay there . We were taken aback at the number of tourists. What we had thought was ‘busy’ two weeks before was nothing in comparison with now. And it was early June, only the beginning of the tourist season. Looking out the window in the Indian restaurant, we saw not only throngs of tourists, but also the ubiquitous groups of young males, drunk and loud and swigging from bottles of spirits.
On departing the Indian restaurant we made our way back towards our hotel. It was a slow process manoeuvring our way passed people and more people.
Then as we reached the outskirts of Riga, we returned to the other city where there was not a foreign tourist to be seen: only Latvians, many of them young.
We walked around for a while in the looming summer twilight. The dark hours of night were very short now, about 3.
In small restaurants, cafes, and bars groups of young Latvians congregated. The streets were almost deserted. We got lost. Consumed by the other Riga. In central Riga many different languages could be heard. In this other Riga, it was the English language which made the deepest impression on me. Once again, when we asked for directions it was striking how fluent the younger people were in English.
We were in no hurry to return to our hotel. This was our last night in Latvia. The further we walked the more certain things came into view. Twilight was a good time to see things in another perspective.
Normally, I’m not one for lauding the prevalence of the English language as the international language of communication. Furthermore, I’m not inspired to want to travel to nations where the English language is the lingua franca – the New Zealand, The U.K. or North America for example. Our four months a year in Australia is enough. When we depart Australia, my first priority is to travel to countries where English is not the lingua franca. And in private Anya and I always speak Dutch.
But in Riga, this other Riga, I began to view things differently.
The single most powerful force relentlessly freeing Latvia from its Russian past was the English language.
At the time, much was being made of the necessity of Russians to learn Latvian. Courses had been established to teach Russians Latvian and behind this was a clear message: for those Russians who did not learn Latvian there was no place in Latvian society, no chance of a good job or social benefits. It was a tough approach alright, one which Comrade Putin was singly responsible for bringing about.
But beneath this Latvian campaign, there was another far more profound revolution unfolding. Young Latvians were fluent in English and for obvious reasons. It opened a gateway for working elsewhere. It opened up a world of communication with the rest of the planet. Riga was a city of opportunities with its institutions of learning – and its thriving tourist industry. If you were a student and fluent in English you could work in that tourist town, whilst living and studying in the other Riga.
Thinking of the bus journey earlier that day the east of Latvia to the west (a rich symbolism to be sure) I thought of an amusing episode. At one stop, a group of boisterous teenage women – probably 14, 15 – got on, using their phones to pay for the tickets. None of them would have drawn any attention in a modern western nation; short dresses with short sleeves, necklaces and earrings. Normally those young women might have spent their time silently entranced in the screens of their phones. But they were too excited for that. They made a hell of a racket, laughing and yelling. What might have ordinarily irritated me, now struck me as a liberation, something immensely positive. After weeks of seeing deadpan faces and quiet word for word communications between people, these young women represented something profound and wonderful. A break with the past in more ways than one.
At the outskirts of Riga, dominated by apartment towers, they got down. At a guess, they had arranged to stay with relatives or friends. To leave their provincial town to visit Riga just for a holiday was an exciting trip. In their excitement you could read a lot more than just teenage emotions.
Riga was life!
Yes, there were two Rigas. Tourist town and city of hope.
The Russians in the Baltic States, once an imperialist master race, had been reduced to irrelevancy. They could hang on to their language and culture but this was a complete dead end. The Latvians had moved with the times. Their prime minister was the first gay head of state in Europe (in Putin’s Russia, there was no place for gays, they were open season for thugs and psychopaths).
Riga was a portent of the future. Those Russians who failed to take that bus were doomed to living their lives in the past, in a dreamland that was really a nightmare.
The bus was moving elsewhere. You were either on that bus or you weren’t .