I arrived in Riga early in the morning but the city was unusually deserted. Turns out, I happened to arrive on the weekend of the summer solstice, which is apparently a big deal over here. Even though the majority of Latvians are officially Christian, the pagan traditions are still very popular here. In fact, Midsummer’s Night is the biggest holiday of the year here, bigger than even Christmas.
So what is Midsummer’s Night? Basically it’s a festival around the summer solstice where people go into the woods, get drunk, sing songs and then go skinny dipping. Kind of like what hippies do all summer.
Incidentally, four years ago I was invited to a couchsurfer’s farm in Latvia. I thought this was just an excuse to get drunk in the outdoors, so I said yes. I didn’t realize until now that it was actually a Midsummer Night celebration. I really should be more inquisitive in future.
Seeing that there was no one around, this gave me a chance to get settled in my new home. First I needed local currency. Conveniently, there are plenty of money changers in Riga Old Town who give you close to the XE.com rate (ie. better than using an international credit card or taking money out with your debit card). Also, sim cards here are cheap, starting at 0.95 Lts (US$1.90) including the same amount for credit.
Last time I was here, I was a big fan of the Lido restaurant which is a buffet-style place where you are only charged for individual items you select. But after traveling for so long, what I really crave now is my own cooking. There’s something therapeutic about cooking for yourself while in a foreign country – it helps you feel settled. So I headed to a store to see what was available. There seem to be two main stores downtown, the smaller one’s called Maxima which seem like a throwback from communist times (they were out of bread when I went there) and the much bigger and more modern Rimi, which has everything one would need.
A bit about Riga. It’s the capital of Latvia with 700,000 inhabitants, also making it the biggest city in the Baltics. The population is pretty much half Russian and half Latvian, meaning that most people can speak both Russian and Latvian. You know how some travelers move to a city for a few months, connect with the locals and their customs and take pride in picking up the local language quickly? Well, I guess I’m the opposite. Learning “weird” languages for me is like learning to Waltz. Sure, it’s fun to learn for the sake of learning but all this cuts into my “socializing” time. So lucky for me, loads of people in Riga speak excellent English and no one so far has been offended when I go “Sveiki, do you speak English?”