What I found in Riga.
I’m kind of notorious for just showing up in places that I pretty much have no clue about. Throughout this blog you will see that I’ve written things like “I looked down from the window of the plane at the city I’m descending into and realized that I don’t know anything about the place.” But Riga, well, I have to say that my ignorance is probably at its peak here. I can make assumptions about what the view will look like on the ground — maybe an Iceland blended with a Holland — but I’m not placing the slightest wager on it.
I kind of like this — transitioning from knowing nothing about a place to knowing next to nothing about a place is what travel is for.
“Take bus 22 and get off on the other side of the river,” the girl in the airport information booth told me. A slightly better reception than I received in Berlin.
It’s a drizzly, puddly day. Not raining too hard to inhibit being outside but definitely enough to drape the horizon in a thick cloak of gray and leave the uppers of my boots sparkly moist. Although any day that’s walkable cannot be issued a complaint.
The ride into town showed a city that didn’t really look much different than any other in the uber-modern northern fringes of Europe: box-like malls, nice wide highways, green fields, trees, quaint cottage homes, huge amounts of space between it all. Northern Europe is an introvert’s paradise.
There is just something about the sharp, almost retina searing whiteness of buildings in northern Europe that really seems different than anywhere else. Light just seems to reflect differently here. I’m not sure if it’s the angle to the sun, the fact that there’s little pollution to absorb the light and dull the exteriors of buildings, or if I’m just making this up.
I got off the bus on the other side of the river in the old town. A short walk through the winding cobblestone lanes and historic stone buildings showed that the place had 100% converted to tourism long ago. All of the businesses catered to those “from away,” and the soggy streets were packed full of us.
The only place for locals here is behind counters selling us our cafe Americanos and I heart Riga t-shirts…
Or standing on the bridge decked out in “traditional” garb so tourists can get their photos taken being hugged by them.
This is an observation, not a value judgment — I don’t care what Riga does with itself. But there is just something about the downtown of a historic city with ancient landmark buildings full of the exact same businesses that are in a typical American suburb that just comes off as being about as soulful as a Chinese replica town.
Really, are the H&Ms, Hard Rock Cafes, and McDonald’s really that better in Riga as in Omaha? Is this what people really travel for — to shop in the same places as they do at home?
Apparently, yes, and that’s actually interesting in and of itself. “Interesting,” as in I have no idea how or why.
To have these international businesses in the “real” town is normal globalism, there is nothing mysterious about that, but to have them occupying the old town, the core tourist district at first seems contrary to the prevailing position that tourists want something different abroad than they have at home. More and more this is seeming like a false pretense. Obviously, the model here in Riga works, but I don’t know how anyone could come away from visiting this place without summing it up as a Disney-fied version of their hometown mall.
But this isn’t the point.
Tourism is this grand dive into gluttony, it’s a celebration of consumption and excess. You’re supposed to load up shopping bags and you gullet when on vacation, it’s the prime directive here. Tourism is a temporary escape from the real world, and now you can have this escape and all the shit from home that you like too. A win, win for everyone.
There is this interesting phenomenon that has overtaken the globe that’s known as the tourist town. No matter where they are positioned geographically or culturally the tourist town always looks the same — it has the same shops selling the same things, the same places to eat, the same bars, the same cafes, the same fast fashion outlets. The vibe is the same, the music is the same, and what everybody does is exactly the same. The lack of anything truly local — sometimes even people, as employees are often shipped in from other places — is also very much the same. If you were to be air dropped into one there would be little other than the language on the street signs which would provide a clue as to what country — or sometimes even continent — you were in.
They’ve become like the transit zones of international airports — these extra-territorial areas that’s hardly even a part of the country they’re in. They’re these quasi-colonies where outsider visitors are corralled and contained, walled off from the country at large into well-defined commercial districts. In these districts they are given everything they could want to satiate their consumerism fantasies without having much of a cultural impact on the locals who live normal lives in normal districts beyond the gates.
I’m sitting in a large beer garden in Riga watching some Kenny G wannabe playing cover songs to a packed house of tourists from around the world. They’re all drunkenly singing Stand by Me and, of course, Hotel California altogether. Kenny G began playing Smoke on the Water and a group of Chads stood up, took of their shirts, and began twirling them over their heads.
They are having fun. Everybody is having fun. It’s 6PM and Brits are already puking in the streets — the grooves in between the stones providing a very adequate funneling function that I did not previously anticipate. Who can’t like tourists? They’re happy people, blowing the cash that they save up all year for the purpose of coming to places like this and going berserk with their friends and families. These are the moments that make their year of work with it — the chit that represents the time of life needed to save it up being spent in glorious excess.
It’s not the destination it’s the escape.
Who but some sterile old curmudgeon couldn’t look out on this scene and smile?
In the distance I can hear Bob Marley playing somewhere.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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