[…Riga, Latvia May 18, 2011…]
Arriving in Riga very late last night under a drizzly and heavily-clouded sky, I could only hope for a better day today. It was hard to predict how today was going to fare weather-wise. Every few minutes, the skies would change its palette from fierce grays one minute to bright blues peeking through clouds the next. If there was anything constant and unpretentious today, it was this man’s – Zbirbulu Peteris – sunny smile and disposition. Although it was the least of things I had expected coming to Riga, a smile from a stranger was what made my trip memorable.
The city of Riga sure has taken a bad rap from travelers’ forum and reviews on the web, from being dubbed as the drunk capital of Europe to having the most rude and unfriendly people in the Baltics. Although I don’t want to arrive at my destination on a clean slate as far as impression goes, I also try take these bad reviews with a grain of salt and find things out myself. After all, this city had endured quite a beating from its turbulent history of occupations, and has not too long ago just broken free from a confused and oppressed rule. Difficult times, they say, build character and perhaps that’s what it’s just all about.
While I did feel a bit unwelcome in the few hours that I’ve been here, it was nothing I was too concerned about. I merely wanted to do what I came here for. Having said that, it was a nice surprise to meet someone who would quickly change my outlook and make me glad I came. So for my first day in Riga, let me just share with you a simple encounter I had which is not really exciting, perhaps even trivial, but it changed all that negativity to something more bright and pleasant. I’d rather remember places I’ve visited this way.
Peteris – that’s what his name was, similar to Peter in English. He works as a craftsman at the Latvian Ethnographic Museum just outside of the city. Sporting a patchwork leather apron, a straw hat that covered most of the silver grays on his head, and a smile that cuts through the bleakness of the day, I found him on the top step of his hut shaving away a piece of wood and humming a tune. As I walked up right next to him to survey his work, he looked up and said hello.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
I had just picked up a wooden toy lying beside him trying to figure out how it worked. A little bit surprised perhaps that I finally got an unsolicited hello since I got here, I looked up at him and replied, “I’m from the Philippines.”
“You’ve come far away,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone from there who has come here.”
“Well, I live in England now,” I explained. And then he said something which I could not make out from his thick accent, so I followed his lips as he spoke. I continued tinkering with the crafts beside him looking for a souvenir to take home with me. Every time I picked up something, he would explain what it was and what you can do with it.
I sensed he was up for a friendly chat and quickly felt at ease with his presence, so I turned to him and asked him what project he was currently working in. He told me about a town festival and how he had to make wooden frames for picture souvenirs.
There were a few toys in his little shop – Latvian version of the yo-yo, jackstones, and a wooden disc that spins on a string. He wasted no time in showing me how each one was played, seemingly intent on entertaining his first visitor of the day. I was amused and at the same time I didn’t want to pass up on this great photo op.
“Do you mind if I take pictures of you?” I asked as he was bouncing a yo-yo in his hand.
“Are you going to send them to me?”
“Of course I will.” I said without thinking twice. “Do you have an e-mail?”
He thought about that for a few seconds, then finally he replied, “No, no” and chuckled. ” I have no computer. Paper only.”
So I promised that I will send him “paper pictures” and with that agreement, he sat back down on the top step, grabbed his knife and a piece of stick, and played the role. After a few shots, he took his wallet out from his back-pocket. He told me he was looking for his address card, but after several minutes of searching without success, he took a sliver of pine wood instead, scrolled his name and address on it, and handed it to me.
“Read it to me,” he instructed. He wanted to make sure I understood what he had written. So I did, having to go over a few words several times. When I thought I finally got it all down, I reassured him that I was going to send him his pictures – a promise that earned me another winning smile from this nice fellow.
Peter and I hang around a few more minutes and he showed me other crafts he had made, sang me a folk song at one point, and we played more Latvian games. Before I left his hut, he sent me off with a souvenir he had made – a bookmark with an etching of Riga Cathedral.
It was around noontime when I started back out into the forest. Through the branches of this thickly-wooded place, the shining sun had made multiple-pointed stars – something perhaps only a photographer who has shot one too many images with small apertures could possible see or imagine. The day just started to look promising. I was eager to hop back on Bus no. 1 and head back to the city, looking forward to more sun and blue skies.
Back in the city and into the town square, I walked along Brivibas Iela, also passing along the parks on both sides of the Freedom Monument. The main sights were my agenda for the afternoon. After all that was taken care of, I thought I’d check the popular Art Noveau architecture on both Elisabetes and Alberta Iela, which took me to the old apartment of Konstantins Peksens. Riga is big on Art Noveau having been influenced by mostly German architects. This distinct style of architecture with a hint of Medieval, Romanesque and Gothic styles thrown into the mix make this city special. I know I wouldn’t have appreciated the soft pastel skyline under a drab sky, so it was nice that it brightened up for the remainder of the day. That’s a great testament to how light is always so important not only in photography, but for general appreciation of beauty. That said, it doesn’t always have to be bright blue-sky sunlight, even dramatic light from storm clouds – so long as it complements and not distracts – makes for better scenery.
To further highlight the events of my day, a visit to Daugava riverside in anticipation of a glorious sunset and a very late – although worth waiting for – twilight, completes the first half of my journey in Riga.