Estonians think that Latvians have six toes on each foot...

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May 1st 2008
Published: May 1st 2008
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Damn, I'm tired. The last couple of days were rather full on, and here is how it all came about:

On Thursday evening, I was taking the plane from Liepaja to Riga. The airport was tiny, there was only one building, you couldn't even call that a terminal. The plane was a Fokker with some 50 seats, but luckily, there were only about 10 other people on board. The flight consisted of taking off, getting a tea, drinking it, preparing for landing. If it just were always so hassle-free...

After taking the bus to the centre of Riga, the thing that shouldn't happen happened again: my host wasn't there. So I waited for about 20 minutes, then started asking people if I could use their mobiles, but they either pretended they didn't have one, or were too drunk to know what was going on. After some time, I found a very friendly sober English-speaking girl who let me use her phone. As it turned out, my host Reinis was waiting at the wrong bus stop, and the nice girl even took me to where him and his girlfriend were. After introductions and a 30-minute tram ride to a suburb of Riga, I was delighted to see I wouldn't stay in an appartment block, but in a nice old house, where Reinis lives with his mother, who was a bit shy with the foreigner, since she didn't speak any English. Even more enchanting was the fact that she had cooked a vegetarian soup, since her son also follows the diet of the enlightened. So after a hearty meal and a nice conversation, it was sleepy time.

The following day Reinis and his gf were showing me around the city centre, which sported some superb architecture, nice little cafes (though overpriced), and interesting sights. It's always good to have locals show you around, avoiding the too-touristy areas, making the whole experience more authentic.
In the afternoon, the gf was replaced by one of Reinis' mates, who joined us to go to a beach adjacent to Riga. It was situated within a pretty run-down area, sparsely settled, consisting of abandoned industry buildings, which were a nice contrast to the beautiful beach. We were just chilling out, looking at the sea, eating chips and sipping ginger ale, which, combined with the fact that both guys were only 19 years of age, made me feel like a young boy again. We then proceeded to walk out on the breakwater, talking about music, and the guys were surprisingly knowledgeable about bands and different styles of music. I was also about to find out that Reinis is a more-than-decent guitar player, when I overheard him practicing in the morning.

I took advantage of Reinis' not having time the next day to walk around the Old Town on my own, being a bit touristy, happily snapping away. The Art Nouveau architecture that I was discovering was simply stunning, Riga is one of the only cities in Europe where this type of architecture didn't fall victim to WWII bombings.
In the course of the day, I got increasingly disturbed by the number of English people walking around. It seemed to be gradually increasing, for what the approaching weekend and the splendid weather might have been responsible. I tried to avoid the rowdy crowds by doing my own little walking tour a bit away from Old Town.

The next day was to be used almost entirely for the open-air Latvian Ethnographic museum. It exhibited more than 100 houses from different times, including some great wooden churches and mills, the oldest dating as far back as 1660. And yes, they had removed the houses from the place they had been standing somewhere in the Latvian countryside, and moved them to the museum. It was very interesting to see how people were living in times not too far behind, and the lack of amenities we take for granted nowadays.
The museum area ended up being way too vast for me, and the overkill on information made me take the bus back to the city centre, and exploring some more of Riga's enchanting Old Town.

But I simply couldn't leave without one important contemporary cultural experience in Eastern European countries: I went to a small pub that was filled with a dozen loud and obnoxious British people, getting increasingly drunk and celebrating the fact that one of their mates was to be married soon. So I just grabbed a seat, had a beer, and tried to find out what it is that turns them into brainless ogres behaving like football hooligans. And why the hell do they look all the same? Is it the climate, the fish and chips, or the British beer that turns normal blokes into rednecked bullies with short-cropped hair, big potbellies and at least one scratched tattoo that says 'Proud to be English' or 'Glory, Glory ManUnited', if one dared to lift their football jerseys? It was awful, they sat there exchanging their expert's opinions about Eastern European cities, citing criteria such as cheap beer and fewer crowds, not realizing they actually formed part of those idiot crowds that decent tourists try to avoid. In between this and making fun of the passers-by, they still had time to get a bit nostalgic, invariably losing one of them to the (hopefully more attractive) other sex. Why don't they just stay at home and behave like the jerks they are in their own country?

But even this didn't stain the great time I had in Riga. It's truly one of the best European capitals, and definitely deserves more than a couple of days. One small downside is that it's pretty expensive, and that a service charge of 10% appears as a bad surprise on some restaurant bills.

So the next day I went to Sigulda then, and what is there to say about it? I only spent one night there, which is definitely not enough for this beautiful, relaxed little town, situated amidst forests and a river. You can spend your time there hiking, biking, enjoying the nature, having a look at the castles, or just chilling out. I did a bit of everything in the sparse time I had there.

After that, it was onwards to Estonia. After a train and a bus ride, I arrived in Tartu at 23:20, a very uncomfortable time if you don't know your way. But luckily, I was fetched by my host Helena, without having to wait or having to hitch a mobile in desperation to ask her where she is. When we were walking to her place, she seemed a bit worried, saying her flat mates were a bit drunk, and they were always getting aggressive then, and the fact that they were Estonian nationalists didn't do anything to make the upcoming situation more promising. I tried to calm her down, saying they would certainly not harm me.
When we entered the flat, she wanted to introduce me to them, but one of the guys apparently couldn't wait for that, and came running out in a frenzy, stopping just in front of me. As I was about to find out later, he had thought I was Helena's Italian boyfriend, who had been promised a Thrashing in the event that he show up again at their place, just because he's Italian. Apparently they didn't have anything against my being German, and went back to being long-haired True Metal-heads, playing World of Warcraft (oh, the surprise!).

Helena is a member of an ethnic minority from Estonia, the Seto people. There are only about 7,000 of them left, about half of which now live in Russia, which stole their territory from Estonia after WWI. They have their own distinct culture, language, traditional costumes, folklore, and, most noticeably, songs. The singing is quite archaic, an elderly woman starts with a line or a verse, then all other women join in, repeating the same verse, creating songs which can go on for several hours. They live in Setomaa, a small region in the extreme Southeast of Estonia, next to the Russian border.
So Helena asked me if I wanted to go there yesterday, and of course I did. We met with her Italian bf last morning at the bus station, and took the bus to a small village about two hours away from Tartu. The village had an open-air museum, not unlike the one in Riga, just much smaller. We got to see how the people lived, and sometimes still live, and I even got to taste a traditional meal, which was vegetarian, lucky me.

Afterwards, we hitchhiked back to Tartu, which wasn't so hard, since hitchhiking appears to be a lot more widespread than in, say, Germany. All the people I've stayed with in Eastern Europe have told me they preferred it as a means of transport when traveling, some even going as far as Morocco, or Greece, the Netherlands, etc. After trying it, I decided it's not for me, I'm too sensitive, and can't take the rejection it involves most of the time.
Back in Tartu. we had a look around the inner city, which was pretty busy, since the Tartu Student Days are going on currently, one of the biggest parties in Estonia. Actually, it's more like a reason for Tartu students to get drunk, there aren't so many things happening, like shows or concerts. I was pretty weirded out by the high number of well-dressed fraternity students, sporting their unique sort of hats and sashes. More fun were the people mocking them, using toilet paper as sashes.

Thus the Tartu experience ended, and the one in Pärnu began. There is actually not very much to say about it, just took the bus here, walked around, had a look at the beach, which I liked a lot, ate dinner, and started writing this blog, for the second time, by the way, since Helena's computer crashed yesterday during my writing this, an incident which drove me close to desperation.

So my Baltic experience is coming to an end, and there might be a slight change of plans the next week. Stay tuned for more of my ramblings.

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