Friday, April 22, 2011

Short side trip to Latvia

Sunday, April 17
Thinking that we will never find a better time to visit Lela's family in Georgia, we have bought tickets on airBaltic to fly from Rome to Tbilisi, with a six-hour layover in Riga, Latvia. We decide to spend our extra time in Riga seeing the historic center, so we walk into the airport parking lot to explore the transportation options. A line of shiny new vans will take us for 5 euros, but we walk farther and see an older van full of people. The driver honks his horn and motions us to get in, but we find he doesn't speak English and we don't know where he is going. A passenger offers to translate, but the driver is impatient and pulls out. The van behind us is empty, and we study the map painted on the side. It will take us where we want to go for only 1 euro each, but the driver is not leaving for twenty minutes.

At this point, a middle-aged Latvian woman named Luda takes us under her wins. Only sixty meters away is the city bus, and Luda will show us where to get off. The cost is the same, 1 euro each. Latvia is part of the European Union, but apparently it is in a transition phase between lats and euros, and the driver doesn't want our 2 euros; he will only accept lats. Luda comes to our rescue again, paying for our tickets in lats while I hand her my euros.

The half hour bus ride gives us a chance for some quality people-watching. Latvia is in Northern Europe (I confess I had to look on the map to find it when I saw where the airline route would take us), and the people are mixed fair-haired and dark-haired. The dress style is more casual than in Italy, so Lucy and I blend in perfectly. We do notice a complete lack of Africans and very few Eastern Asians, and we think that might have something to do with the colder climate and more isolated position. The trees are just barely starting to show hints of green, and there are no blossoms. Italy's temperate climate and central location make it a prime location for the immigrants which are currently crowding in daily by the thousands.

Old town Riga turns out to be a very welcoming place, with modern bands playing and singing mostly American soft rock in two of the central piazzas. We also find a mixture of foreign-themed restaurants--Asian and Italian especially--and besides the usual McDonalds, there is also a TGIF Friday's doing a steady business. The young people we meet or overhear seem to speak English quite well, and we think it would be very easy for Americans to live here without learning Latvian, probably easier than it is to live in a little village in Italy, though it's unfair to compare living in the largest city in Latvia to a small town in Italy.

Thanks to perfect instructions from Luda and an office where we exchange some euros for lats, we take the bus back to the airport and catch our midnight flight to Tbilisi without a hitch. 

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