In Latvia: Beautiful, friendly … and gray

Tomorrow is supposed to be at least partly sunny. I sure hope so. Since Wednesday afternoon, when I arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia, it has been foggy, chilly and damp. Visiting an English-language bookstore yesterday, I wasn’t surprised to read in a short guide to Latvia that gray is a popular color here, as witness this bit of folk poetry mentioned in the same book:

God rode over the rye field
On a gray-colored steed;
Gray was the rye field,
Gray was God’s steed.

It’s not quite cold enough for a winter jacket, not for me anyway, but the constant, almost imperceptible mist does eventually worm its way into your bones, making a walk around Riga not quite enjoyable. As I know from experience, having walked almost 11 miles today and seven miles yesterday, partly owing to my habit of getting lost, partly because Google Maps seems confused by the streets of Riga, and partly because I failed to notice that another English-language bookstore I went to didn’t close at 5 p.m., it opened at 5 p.m. And a walk down to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia ended in front of construction fencing. The museum’s website failed to mention that it is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion.

(Just dropping by for the first time and wondering what Travels with Xavi is all about? Click here to read the introduction.)

Despite the general gloom and pointless excursions, my ramblings did result in one stroke of luck. Friday night about 11, as I was slowly making my way back to my lodgings, I noticed a small group of people sitting in what appeared to be a little art gallery, listening to a man singing and playing guitar. I stood outside trying to figure out what was going on, and whether maybe there was another entrance up or down the block, when I caught the eye of one of the listeners. I used sign language to ask if I could enter, so she walked over and opened the door.

In answer to my questions, she told me in good English that it was “kind of” a private party, but that I was welcome to join them, upon which a man holding a guitar added, “And if you know guitar, you play!”

It was, as I would learn, a weekly gathering of Russian-speaking Latvians who come to this gallery, owned by an artist friend, to listen to music, drink and eat every Friday evening. The English-speaking woman, named Maria, and the man with the guitar, a scholarly looking gent with a kind of skull cap bearing embroidered crosses, turned out to be the most talented of the bunch — so  talented that Maria says they will be performing at a Russian festival in New York next May. The man, whose name I never heard, was an accomplished guitar player, adept at blues, jazz, pop and Russian folk music. The highlight of the night was when he and Maria, she singing to his guitar, performed a traditional Russian song set to the tune of Brubeck’s “Take Five.” (I’ll put a video on Facebook soon.)

Maria and her accompanist play a Russian folk song set to “Take Five.”

I should say that was the musical highlight. The wildest, strangest scene was on display when I came out of the bathroom to see Maria singing an old patriotic Russian song while the woman who owned the gallery was dancing and waving a hammer-and-sickle flag from the old days. (See photo above.) Maria assured me afterward that they weren’t celebrating Communism, as such. It was just a throwback to their youth, she said, when as children they all sang the song at school.

The protocol was for each musician to play three songs and then pass the microphone to someone else. I duly played three songs, one by Jimmie Rodgers, one by Big Bill Broonzy and then one by Memphis Minnie, after Maria asked me to play a straight blues song so her guitar-playing friend could accompany me. It was fun, but these folks were there to hear each other and to hear Russian singing, so I was only too happy to relinquish the guitar after my turn.

Another musician was a tall man named Sergei, a 69-year-old hippie with long, gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. He said in Russian, and Maria translated, that in my honor he would play an “Amerikanski blues with a Russian accent.” It was brilliant and beautiful. Another fellow was singing Russian pop songs and then played one of his own compositions, which Maria described as “a song about sex. Weird sex.” It sounded even more salacious because she pronounced the “w” in “weird” as “v.”

They plied me with shots of vodka and one shot of cognac, but I had to pass on the exotic appetizers, having had a fine meal of risotto at a hip little joint a mile or two away. I staggered home at last sometime after midnight. I couldn’t call Mrs. Kemmick at work, but I had to tell someone, so I called daughter Hayley, one of just a few people on my new WhatsApp that allows me to call overseas without breaking the bank. I filled her in as I walked along, but even as were talking I consulted Google Maps and found that I had somehow, before discovering the Russian soiree, gone quite far out of my way and was now on a nearly deserted, mostly industrial-looking street.

A typical street in the Old Town section of Riga.

I told Hayley that I had a four-kilometer walk ahead of me and that my phone was almost dead. The last thing I heard before I hung up was her laughing. Hayley has traveled with me and could easily imagine the situation I had described. But I got home just fine, though so tired that the 10 flights of stairs (two flights for each of five stories) at my Airbnb were slow going. And my phone still had about 2 percent when I plugged it in.

But I have gotten way ahead of myself. To revert to a chronological narrative, I flew into Riga about 2 Wednesday afternoon and was met there by Shannon Ritchie, a North Carolinian and press attache at the American Embassy. She first whisked me off to the embassy, where I had the strange honor of being given a half-hour briefing on the state of the Latvian nation and its media by U.S. Ambassador to Latvia Nancy Bikoff Pettit. She was kind and relaxed but clearly accustomed to getting the job done in the time allotted.

When she asked if had any questions, I told her I had only one: Was she by any chance related to Lawrence Pettit, former CEO of the Montana University System? The ambassador said she didn’t know, but she guessed that anyone bearing that French-Huguenot name in America was probably related to her husband’s family.

I had no engagements Friday night, but I did have some things that needed doing, all of which Shannon went beyond the call of duty in assisting me with — including finally doing some laundry and getting a SIM card so I could use my phone on the streets. I passed the rest of the evening, after checking into my hotel, getting used to life as a boulevardier in Riga. I mostly stayed close to the Old Town near the hotel, an area of narrow, winding, cobblestone streets, the remnants of battlements and guard towers, grand, ornate stone and brick buildings and huge churches that suddenly rise up in front of you as you round a corner, many of them with high, high steeples clad in pale-green, oxidized copper sheeting.

If only I had been able to see it all a little more clearly through the dense fog…

I had intended to write about the actual work I did on Thursday, the most crowded day of my trip, but I see this is already quite long enough, and I am tired. Goodnight.

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