March 2, 2014 § 2 Comments
The colour palate of Wizz Air, which is, arguably, the world’s most creatively named airline, looks like it was chosen by myself two decades ago. The two intense shades of pink and purple that engulf the entire exterior set the plane aside from the navy blues of the Ryanair and Scandinavian planes on the runway. But more shockingly, perhaps, is the fact that the stewardesses had applied this color palate to their faces. Their makeup is reminiscent of a Baz Lerman movie, gaudy and with an intensity that suggests it has been spray painted on. One half of each eyelid is pink; the other purple. Remarkable.
I had the privilege to fly whizz air from Oslo, Norway to Riga, Latvia this last month.
As the plane took off in a snowstorm, on a runway of packed snow, I thought: What am I doing surrounded by film charecters? Where the hell am I going? What is Latvia anyways? I’ve never fucking heard of it. But, it was too late to be asking questions.
I flew over Sweeden and crossed the Baltic Sea and landed in Riga. The first stop in Latvia was a cashpoint, since I had only dollars and Euros on me.
The cashpoint seemed that it would give me only dollars or Euros. I was frustrated. I had done my research, back in San Juan with my dodgy wifi signal, so I knew what was up. Latvia had a currency known as the Lat, and there were two US dollars to every Lat. Simple!
Of course, I was right but not completely because I was also wrong. I had arrived at the very beginning of Latvia’s transition to the euro. It wouldn’t be possible for anybody to withdraw Lats again, but, of course they were still in circulation. As a result, there were two prices for everything, one in Lats, and one in Euros.
Latvia was good to me, for the most part. For 11 euros, I stayed in a room in a hostel by myself and enjoyed free breakfast and a welcome drink. And for three days, I learned what life was like in a Baltic State that had been part of the Soviet Union from 19– to 1990.
I’d received advice from the girls at the front desk of my hostel to go the black market ‘because [i seemed] to be so interested in these old soviet things’, she explained, raising one eyebrow on her pale, angelic Eastern European face. She was very skeptical of my fascination with the Russian suburbs, those rows of forsaken wooden houses in various dull colours, with a few onion-dome Russian Orthodox churches, scattered about, their insides full of gold decorations and chanting old ladies.
This turned out to be some of the best travel advice I’d received, ever.
The central market of Riga was impressive enough, sprawling nearly 4 city blocks, where giant glass buildings sold more food than I could imagine- fresh cranberries, pigs heads, heaping piles of sauerkraut, unpasturized milk- everything, really. And then there was the outdoor section, full of vendors braving the cold to sell pots and pans, house dresses and coats, tea, mittens, and housewares.
I thought one could really buy anything that they could want or need at that market. But then I went to the black market.
It was everything I could have hoped for. To say I didn’t match the demographic would be a severe understatement.
Boxed in by a metal wall nearly 3 meters tall was a world of old men, wrapped in black coats and shouting in Russian amongst piles- literal piles of…. Stuff.
Countless bicycle tyres, soviet army uniforms, gas masks, mirrors, antiquated electronics, this place had everything.
The high that day was negative sixteen and because I know no Russian opening my mouth to speak was not only futile, but also painful.
I did so anyways. Trying on a brown fur cap, I inquired how much it cost. The fat Russian man, from underneath his fur hat smiled and said something that I imagined was- “You are way too young, female, and western to be here. What year is it? Where did all the soviets go?”, and handed me a mirror, i mean a real vintage price- heavy, silver, ornate, ancient.
The fur hat fit perfectly. I could have been a head extra in the film Dr. Zhivago. I gave him the thumbs up, hoping it was a universal sign of approval, and asked again, ‘how much!?’
It was the desire and desperation in my voice, instead of the actual words I spoke that conveyed what I was asking. The man pointed to the number five on an ancient grandfather clock. Five euro. Just five euro. It wasn’t even worth haggling, I handed him six euro, took my wool cap off and put the fur hat on, grabbed a few soviet coins that he was also selling, and walked off, puffing self-satisfied little hot breaths into the cold Riga air from underneath my warm new hat.