“Your card has been declined,” the ticket kiosk flashed before spitting out my debit card.
Riga and I were getting off on the wrong foot.
I had just landed at the Riga International Airport after a cramped and pungent flight from Oslo courtesy of RyanAir. All I wanted was to get on a bus, find my hostel and start exploring the Latvian capital.
This kiosk was pissing me off. A bus pass was 9 Euro, even though my guidebook said it would be only 2. “Whatever,” I thought, slipping a smooth 10 into the machine, which was promptly spat back at me, yet again.
Oh. The kiosk accepted only exact change, a fact I learned by piecing together a few English-Latvian cognates with my elementary knowledge of Russian. If I wanted to take public transportation, Riga was going to make me work for it.
I walked back into the airport, trailing my suitcase behind me, my backpack straps digging into my slumped shoulders. I broke a 50 buying an espresso and returned to confront the kiosk.
Success. I traded 9 Euro for a canary yellow rectangle of paper. I headed for the bus, number 222, and swiped my pass. The machine responded with a prohibitive buzz. I tried again with the same results. The bus driver looked at me and just shook his head “No.”
“Oh, okay,” I muttered, stepping off the bus. “Helpful.”
I eyed the taxis on the other side of the road, but I didn’t know how taxis worked in Latvia and I feared that I would be mistaken for a wealthy American and significantly overcharged. Or, you know, kidnapped and force-fed salted herring and dumplings while my abductors tried to get a few thousand out of my father. But my father screens his calls and I hadn’t given him the money I owed for this credit card period yet, so their efforts would be in vain.
Briefly, I contemplated walking to Riga, because I know how to walk and I couldn’t imagine that walking in America was any different from walking in Latvia.
Just as I began resigning myself to spending the rest of my life at this airport bus stop, kinda like Tom Hanks in that movie I never saw, a long blue bus pulled up. It was Bus 22 to Riga Center. I got on, swiped my bus pass without incident, and stood for the 30-minute drive to Riga, admiring the vacant Soviet-era concrete towers covered in quaint English graffiti that lined the highway. I learned my first Latvian word which was reinforced at every stop. “Iela.” Street.
I got off Bus 22 at Gogola Iela. Gogol Street. That was either a good sign or a premonition of absurdity. I double-checked the directions from the hostel website. “The entrance to the building is between the McDonald’s and the McCafe. We are on Third Floor.” Sweet Jesus. The salty smell of French fries tempted my nostrils as I got on the elevator with two rotund, Latvian teenage boys. This did not thrill me.
There was nothing on the Third Floor save an insurance office.
“You want Fifth Floor,” one of the rotund said, “Fifth Floor is Third Floor.”
Yes, of course, how foolish and literal of me.
The door to the elevator opened on the Fifth Floor (Third Floor?) to reveal a group of girls walking out of the hostel. “Oh, ladies! We found you a man!” The boys chirped in that acerbic sing-song I recognized from middle school locker rooms. Great. I’ve been in Latvia for 2 hours and I’ve already been benignly gay-bashed by high schoolers.
I had booked a hostel solely for The Experience in spite of my hatred of all things collective, healthcare, education and transportation excluded. Walking into the hostel, I was aurally assaulted by 90s soft rock blasting over the polyphony of multilingual chatter. People were taking off and putting on their shoes in front of the door, their heads covered in beanies, their backs bent under those offensively vertical backpacks that loom over your head like an L.L. Bean watchtower. Folks were spread out on the low, bright red couches and bean bags. A kitschy sign told me to “Keep Calm and…”
And I tried to keep calm. “This is good. This will be fun. I will meet so many people,” I repeated to myself, tightening my jaw and forcing a smile for the Latvian Front Desk Girl who took my reservation and showed me to my 6-bed dorm room.
“You have the room to yourself,” she said, “For tonight. A few more are arriving tomorrow.”
Oh, thank GOD. I said a prayer of thanks to St. Jude, to St. Christopher, to Nikolai Gogol and locked the door after she left, overjoyed to finally have some alone time. Faint from jet lag and too much coffee, I collapsed on a bottom bunk. The room was clean and smelled fresh at least. I closed my eyes, ready to mentally regroup and prepare for The Experience.
Twelve hours later, I awoke to a neon orange glow illuminating the room. It was the sun filtered through the sheer orange curtain. I sat up and inspected the room. It was still mine. All mine. I planned my day with the help of my guidebook. The hostel was only 5 minutes from Riga’s Old Town, 10 minutes from the Art Nouveau District and right around the corner from the opera house, where I would see Verdi’s Rigoletto that night. The morning of solitude had recharged me, and I emerged from my room, took the stairs this time, paraded under the golden arches and strolled down the iela in search of coffee and Latvian carbs.
I returned six hours later, full of cafe au lait and dizzy from the winding streets of Riga’s medieval old town. My feet ached from hours of walking on uneven cobblestone, but the city was so beautiful and so clean, I didn’t mind. I opened the door to my room slowly, pleading with Jude, Christopher and Gogol, that my room would still be my own at least long enough for me to change for the opera. My prayers worked. The five other beds were untouched. Maybe Latvian Front Desk Girl had been mistaken, or maybe I had forgotten about some good Karma I had in layaway and my absent roommates had canceled their reservation. Either way, the promise of my own space lifted my spirits, and I happily inhaled the crisp evening air as I walked through the park toward the opera house.
All in all, I counted 25 bedazzled codpieces onstage, six men who did not belong in black leotards wearing black leotards, two oversized fake serpents on stage and one very disgruntled Latvian woman sitting to my right. “Jesus,” she exhaled, as the Duke’s men started thrusting the air.
I was still counting codpieces in my head when I returned to my room at 11:00pm. Nobody was there but backpacks were heaped on 4 out of 5 of the remaining beds. I calmed my panic by reminding myself that this was all part of The Experience. We’d all be fast friends, I was sure of it. Then, to make sure that I’d be properly knocked out by the time they returned, I swallowed two NyQuil, knowing they would mix beautifully with my glass of sparkling Latvian wine.
But NyQuil and effervescent booze were no match for what jolted me awake at 3AM. The door flew open and men stormed in like a SWAT team, whispering, cursing, stamping all over the tiny room. Strange men breaking down doors in the middle of the night. Whispers. The cacophony of a frenzied search. It all felt so very SOVIET. Were they the KGB? Did Putin see that comment I made about him on Facebook last week and send some of his old chums from Moscow to find me in Riga? Was this my chance at becoming the American Solzehintsyn? What does one pack for September in Siberia?
“Come one, man! Get him in here.” A voice whispered.
I abandoned my fantasy long enough to realize these nocturnal guests were my new roommates. From what I could gather, one of them had gotten spectacularly wasted at the bars. I could hear him grunting, panting and slurring as the others paced back and forth.
“Let’s get him into that bunk,” one said, his heavy steps getting advancing toward my bed.
With considerable difficulty, they hoisted the drunkard into the bunk above mine. He passed out quickly, or died, and the others retired to their beds. Silence. Then someone began snoring enthusiastically. I chalked all this up to The Experience and surrendered to the NyQuil.
Five hours later, I woke up in a place of clarity and sobriety. The room reeked of cheap, hoppy beer. The creature in the bunk above mine was intermittently grunting and thrashing. Bare limbs hung over the sides of beds. My room had been invaded.
“I’m too old for this shit,” I thought.
I escaped to the iela and peered into the hotel across the street. Hotel Irina. Irina was the name of my Uncle’s friend’s wife, a Russian woman who had taught me a few Russian words when I was 11 and ignited my obsession with all things Slavic. This was a sign. The receptionist ran my debit card without incident and I returned to the hostel to gather my stuff. I told Latvian Front Desk Girl I was leaving early to join a friend in Vilnius and made my flight to the solitude of my room at the Hotel Irina.
A small, metal bed with a red and gold duvet cover. A private bathroom. A desk. A nightstand. A room of one’s own. This was my kind of Experience. I tied my shoes and slipped a pen into my shirt pocket.
“Let’s try this again, Riga.”