Riga Under Western Eyes
Riga Under Western Eyes
If you’re under the impression that Americans are wealthy, check out the capital city of Latvia.
This essay was written for the launch of electronic text + textiles, a residency based in Riga, Latvia. The author gratefully adknowledges David Mace for supplying auto statistics, Linda Krumina for fashion tips, and Toms Rosenbaums for population statistics. A Latvian now working and studying in Argentina, Toms became a point on the data he researched.
On a Sabbatical in the Spring of 2003, I was going by train along the North Sea coast and then by bus through the Baltics - from Hamburg to Gdansk, through forests and farmlands en route to St Petersburg. I’d expected along the way that cities would become less and less developed. The central market in Riga, near the bus station, may have conformed to my image of Eastern Europe: crowds and cash kiosks, babushkas, container shops, pirated disks, and flowers. But I was in for a surprise, crossing the underpass and walking to the city center: the architecture, the cars, the fashion were not what I’d expected. I would not meet up with my hosts for a few weeks, but I had mobile numbers and local contacts showed me around the nightclubs, arranged day trips to Jurmala, Sigulda, and the Gauja National Park. Toms and Reinis eventually hooked me up with bankers and an estate agent. The Russian loan defaults and the Baltic banking scandals of the Nineties were not likely to recur, the city was enjoying a steady inflow of cash in advance of European accession, mortgages were available to foreigners and property taxes, minimal. So I acted on a notion I’d entertained for some time, to adopt a small city on the edge of Europe, with a mild summer climate, where I could visit during the academic off seasons.
When I arrived, Soviet culture was still observable in the Center, and the first post-Soviet wave of American pop music and iconography had not yet been superseded by Latin and Middle Eastern flavors. The dollar, not the Euro, was the currency referenced when discussing business; nightclubs used to be named after literary and film classics: the Club Casablanca and the fantastic Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta, after the Garcia Marquez story, “Nobody Writes to the Colonel.” The two cultures, Russian and Latvian, still inhabited the center but in a remarkably distinct fashion. I don’t recall ever meeting a Russian in Pulkvedims or a Latvian in Indigo. Such cultural apartheid brought home to me the difference between the Soviet multi-cultural legacy, a co-habitation of peoples with limited social and interracial contact, and the Western model of corporate assimilation that tends to conflate the social with the commercial. To check in, on consecutive summers, has provided a rare chance for observing a society in transition.
After four years, though, it’s not clear to me whether the transition is to be from one system to another, or away from both.An uncertainty about ‘ends’ in the current production of cultural identities is conveyed in the title of the ebr thread end construction.
Today there are coffee chain outlets on every street, where just a few years ago I would see low-profile shops, studios, and kafejnicas. The Mercedes, BMW, and Hummer convoys are all locally licensed, where before I would see maybe a Ferrari with EU tags, passing through, and few of the SUVs were new. Six Maybach 57 S Special (Spezial) are registered in Latvia. The other day Dave, the Brit, spotted a newly minted Aston Martin DB9 - a model with a three year waiting list everywhere else in the world, even for those who can afford it at 140,000+ Euros. The number on the plate: JB007.
Dave specializes in fountain pens, Conway Stewart, running up to 12,000 Lats ($22,200 circa 2006). Cutlery and silver gifts from Arthur Price, by appointment to Her Majesty, the Queen. He does a good business, better here, per capita, than in Bucharest, Warsaw, Budapest, or Prague (where the Boomers and Bentleys disappeared overnight, Dave says, after the Czech authorities organized surprise household visits, inquiring about back taxes). Latvia is the poorest country in Europe, with a GDP equal to the city of Liverpool. Nonetheless, by August 2006 Latvia was the fastest-growing new car market, with sales up by 55% compared to the same six-month period in 2005. Taxis, ubiquitous as late as 2003, are now available at just a few stands, and drivers who used to barter are now metered, and mostly working on call. The 30-kilometer drive to Jurmala, on a fine summer afternoon, can take hours.
The city still has many of the elements, unfamiliar to Western eyes and ears, that I recorded from the summer of 2003, although what strikes me, reading through my notes and emails, is the sense I had even then, of a world that is passing:
–>at intersections pedestrians cross diagonally (because for 10 seconds all cars, on both intersecting streets, are made to stop).
–>trolley line hum matches precisely a synthesized tone in Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely.”
–>a woman after finishing a drink will then proceed to eat the lemon slice, rind and all, without wincing.
–>flower shops next to news stands at practically every busy intersection (these won’t last).
–>art on the walls of all restaurants and kafejnicas (no posters, no advertising, not yet).
–>notices at swank clubs: FACE CONTROL, indicating that entry can be denied for no reason whatever.
–>armed security at clubs.
–>in cafes a common washing area for men and women leading to toilets. (occasional elaborate furnishings, frequently just a sink by the door.)
–>waiters will tap the bar or table twice, with your tip money, even if it’s only a 20-santim coin (35 cents circa 2003).
–>there’s one highway, more or less, through the entire country: if you’re driving to Riga, it’s called the Riga iela; if to Ventspils, Ventspils iela; to Daugavpils, Daugavpils iela and so on.
–>no highway is built without trees lining both sides.
–>shoe shops keep on hand maybe 20 different high heel types, for emergencies. (this won’t outlast women’s professionalization and the paving over of cobblestones.)
–>there’s only a single 10-km stretch wider then four lanes: this is where the soviets used to shoot road scenes in domestically produced ‘American’ movies. to travel this road, the quickest way to Jurmala, you must pay a toll of one Lat (approx. $1.60 circa 2003).
–>dried fish (head, tail, body, all) often next to salmon roe-on-toast, on open plates at the russian bars, all for a few santimes. (these bars are dangerous, and in the Center circa 2003 they are already almost history).
–>wooden houses outside the former city walls, built to burn quickly in case of napoleonic invasion.
–>city streets named after writers. and wives of writers. and courtesans, not infrequently. or myths - such as Lacplesa meaning ‘torn-up bear.’
–>along the Riga highway outside any outlying town, on a summer evening dozens of hitchhikers dressed up for a night on the town.
“Milda” is how the bronze lady atop the Freedom Monument is known locally. Somehow she escaped destruction during the Soviet occupation, even as the modern architecture was saved by neglect during the era of enforced communal living. Not so fortunate, the Lenin monument on Brivibas iela (“Freedom Street,” formerly Lenina iela, Adolf Hitler strasse, and Alexander ulitsa). In its place one finds a bland arrangement of three stainless moebus strips, marking the 800-year anniversary of this Hanseatic city of transnational trade rather than production. The sculpture’s generic quality is only reinforced by its exact double, erected on the airport highway.
Before returning home, after that first visit in 2003, I bought an apartment on Lacplesa and Avotu, 60 Square meters, unrenovated. Ten percent down, I paid interest only while renovations went on.
A year later, I sold this apartment and flipped the cash into a new place on Ausekla iela, between the embassies and the river Daugava. 145 Square meters. Renovations went on, in my absence, while I paid interest only to the lending bank.The constraints on academic labor, but also the possibilities opened up by a global economy and travel, are considered in the ebr thread Technocapitalism (which appears also as an Alt-X Critical e-book under the title, The Politics of Information).
The apartment is located in the city’s “quiet center”, which like the “city center” is not in the center at all, but circles the old city otherwise known as the “center.” At the end of my street the tram, number 7, comes to a halt and circles, making its return trip to the center and out to Pushkina which (contrary to Pushkin Streets in every other post-Soviet city) lies at the outskirts. In the middle of the turnaround, someone has kept up a large garden of flowers, probably an old person, whose counterpart in my home city of Chicago, would be living in one of the high-rise “homes” for the aged. One sees fairly well-kept gardens on most corners, which have diagonal paths that over the course of a day,can reduce a stroll or determined city walk by several blocks. This green space was included by design, by the modernist architects, the Eisensteins (one of them the filmmaker’s father) and I forget who else, whose Jugenstil facades are now carefully renovated and sometimes reproduced for the tourist trade and housing market. The green space is kept up mainly out of neglect, but not for long.One theme in ebr’s critical ecologies thread is that a studied neglect, no less than active management, is needed for ecological rejuvenation. On returning one summer, after a few months in Kiev, I noted three corners that were already filled in with shiny transnational buildings, carefully maintained at the same height and with motifs recognizable from the surrounding facades - except that reflective windows like gangster sunglasses return your glance and remind you that these are secure sites.
My bank occupies one of those glossy buildings. My estate agent, whom I used to meet in an attic accessed by a 2-person lift, has now set up in another such.
That second summer (2004) I refinanced, and in December of that year, while Ukraine was re-arranging its elected government, I flipped my earnings into a Kiev apartment: 65 meters (with balcony), built in the 1930s, capital renovations from the Seventies.
The glossy buildings are going up in Kiev, also, but at this stage of my travels I was no longer depending on agents. In Ukraine I learned to keep bills of the local currency in a clip, and hundred dollar notes (unmarked and crisp, lest they be rejected at the exchange box) in a wallet in a zipped inside pocket, separate from my passport that is with me at all times. In Ukraine (twice) a bribe was needed, which I extracted from the money clip, so that militsia could see that I was carrying only 50- and 100-Hrivna bills (10-20 dollars circa 2004).
You can trust a cop who takes a bribe. It’s the law-and-order, true believer type you need to stay clear of. In Kiev, if you give the address clearly in Russian, you can trust a driver not to cheat you and if he tries, you can always hitch a ride at half the taxi rate. Kiev’s a sizable city, and expensive: its cost of living is equal to that of Rome or Vienna, circa 2006, even while average Kievite monthly income is reported in three figures. Many car owners therefore supplement incomes by taking on passengers. (Not the drivers of boomers and SUVs, but these are not so prevalent as in Riga where a Porsche Cayenne is considered a girl’s car.)
To complete the Kiev paperwork, on the winter day before I was set to fly home, I needed one last document from an office woman who was about to go on break. My translator, Alexander, was all smiles as he and the woman agreed to settle matters c gastronom - with a visit to the corner shop. A bottle of Sovietskoye shampanskoye (40 Hrivna or $8) and a box of chocolates (20 Hrivna) completed my third property purchase in a single year.
My days in Eastern Europe, for the most part, are spent writing. In the evenings I go out. When I tell people I teach seminars in “American” literature, I get more responsiveness from graduates of Latvian and Ukrainian schools than from Americans: people here still read Dreiser and Jack London - terrific writers, but they are the same writers put on syllabi by the Soviets. Everyone, even students, seems to know about Dale Carnegie, who is (thankfully) all but forgotten in the U.S. But here there’s a fascination with an earlier mode of capitalist development when “making friends and influencing people,” or the pretense of social exchange, still mattered. Carnegie at least imagined that subjectivity, culture, and human relations, were important to doing business. The Soviets for their part assumed that knowledge of a country’s literature was important to understanding, or conveying to students, an enemy ideology. Their own Russian literary heritage (Tolstoy for example) was important enough to be suppressed, and contemporary writers (Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Bonner) might achieve canonicity by virtue of their dangerous and limited, but consequential, circulation.The redescription of literature under global and cultural rather than national headings is to be a theme of the ebr thread internet nation.
Nowadays, neglect has proven way more effective than repression ever was. Any opportunity of imposing or encouraging “American” culture in the manner of past colonialisms and cold-war propaganda is long past, as is any hope of serious democratization. George Soros has done what he can, and each East European capitol city has its Open Society center and international college of economics (the “Stockholm School” in Riga, for example, situated at the end of the Art Nouveau row on Alberta iela). The British Council, Goethe Institute, and Alliance Francaise do their slow, patient spider-work of language education and event sponsorship. The U.S. has left such work largely to private enterprise and commercial culture, and for a few years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, an impression of American cultural triumph was created by the presence of the world’;s largest McDonald’s on Tverskaya Street in Moscow, the free circulation of Hollywood films, the dollar as a world currency, and the ubiquity of Coca Cola which in 2006 is being banned in Latvian schools for health reasons. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has protested, though nothing in her appearance belies the impression that America imports obesity.
Political influence in Eastern Europe was left to Non-Governmental Organizations. Democratic activism is limited mostly to election monitoring despite flattering claims by Russia that such groups, under instruction from the United States Government, fomented revolution in Ukraine. NGO activism is short-term and media-dependent, whereas the Russian government is single-minded and patient. A little over a year after the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the same Russian-backed candidate who tried to steal the presidency, is now the Prime Minister (a position that, as a result of alterations to the constitution by the Orange coalition, now carries more economic power than the presidency denied to Yanukovitch by the popular vote).
The Russia backed Ukrainian PM, incidentally, is a convicted criminal. But so are many politicians who obtain high office in the former Eastern block. The long delayed establishment of a juridical system could not stop the grab for assets that produced, overnight, a class of local capitalists (deemed necessary by Western advisors in the early Nineties, even if the new upward mobility depended on, in the first place, connections inherited from the Soviet system and, secondly, new commitments to an emergent criminal economy). There was never much chance for broad-based cultural or economic activity to take root here. Many among the educated classes have emigrated, and the composition of the remaining population is increasingly grey. Pensioners, for the most part, are the voting constituency for Russian-backed regimes in Belarus, Ukraine, and elsewhere; financial support comes from the energy and service sectors, which depend on an infrastructure that has not altered significantly (or been upgraded substantially) since Soviet times.
Populations are on the move.
That grey constituency, while not now prevalent in the Baltic states (circa 2006), could soon regain its voice. The last census, taken in 1998, registered around 2.7 million Latvians, living in their home country. There has not been another census, but estimates published on the Internet put the current figure around 2.3 million, a loss of 14% following EU accession and visa-free work in England, Ireland, and Sweden. Below 1.8 million, demographers say, the population will cease to reproduce itself.
In Estonia, 1,300,000 (down from 1,410,000).
3,400,000 citizens in Lithuania (down 300,000).
Ukraine down from 52,000,000 to 46,700,000.
I do not wish to play down the stringencies of the Soviet occupation and the hardships brought on by its collapse, and I would not for a moment forget the thousands of Latvians shipped to Gulags - including a portion of its professional and intellectual classes sufficient to render the population pliable. But I don’t believe that wholesale extinction, the loss of a language, and the dispersion of a people, was ever purposely contemplated or threatened as an indirect result of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics. Populations in Central Asia, the Tajiks, the Khirghis, and even the Chechens are not so threatened, in territories where development is now under way. The Crimean Tartars and Kazakhs were resettled, but not removed from their place of habitation. Races can be decimated by wars; they are made extinct through declining birthrates. In Eastern Europe, ecology has overcome ideology in the construction (or potential loss) of a national identity.
200,000 Latvians, all of them either young or established professionally, moved to England and Ireland between 2004/06.
English, not Latvian, not Russian, is the language heard most often in the streets of Old Riga during the brief tourist season, July through September. (A typical Latvian resident of Riga might spend these weeks in the countryside while a Russian, especially if he or she is an alien ‘non-resident,’ might take the overnight train to Simferopol and spend the best weeks of summer on the Black Sea, among friends and relatives). But the English heard here is not the language spoken in London or New York. Like Russian, and unlike French or Portuguese or German, English developed by accretion, welcoming foreign words into its vocabulary and not worrying about dilution: the simplicity of English syntax helps make the language flexible and robust. Prior to the emergence of any individual writer or poet, the language itself has developed so as to “contain multitudes” (Walt Whitman, circa 1850). It is no accident, then, that our best examples of a modern world-literature appear in English and Russian: these are the languages that produced the “modern epics” identified by critics such as George Steiner and Franco Morretti, the works of Shakespeare, the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses. The French roman, by comparison, is limited to the terms of domesticity, professional identity, gender, and class; Balzac and Flaubert might be encyclopedic; no work in French has approached the status of epic.
The recent acceptance, in American letters, of a literature concerned primarily with issues of race, class, and gender, regardless of this writing’;s political effectiveness, has been of a piece with the global domestication of American English, reducing our literature to the French model (without the cultural cohesiveness and capacity to work wonders within constraints, that energize French writing.)Examples of writing under constraint were gathered by Belgian author Jan Batens at the turn of the year 1999/2000. These essays vary in length from 1999 to 2000 words.
The English heard by the authors of a world literature is not the English heard today on the streets of Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn. Shorn of cultural and social content, the language of former colonizers loses force, subtlety, and diversity through its successful dissemination globally. When English becomes the language of business, language itself is reduced (the way populations who served under English speaking administrators, were themselves once reduced).
You are what you are able to say.
At the same time that English as a language loses force and diversity, the language spoken among Latvians themselves could easily disappear altogether. A minority language is like an endangered species, and (despite the imposition of Latvian in schools, and restrictions on the use of Russian), the Russian/Latvian culture wars will be settled in ecological, not political terms. As the Latvian population declines, the number of Russians living in Latvia steadily increases. (The decreasing population in Russia itself is being addressed, as the decrease in Latvia is not; moreover, Russia with its current population around 150,000,000 might have time to reverse the decline, and enough border control to limit travel to the rich, who generally return.)
The possibility is real that in a generation or two Latvian will not be heard in Latvia’s capitol city, in any month of the year.
Unlike St Petersburg (several hundred kilometers further east, and north), Latvia has no “white nights” although the skies in Latvia, during the long summer days steadily turn a deeper and deeper blue, so that the coming of morning is rarely noticed – not “sunrise” so much as a slow dispersion of darkness and light.
Ecology and economy (not politics) are likely to determine the kind of society that emerges in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The contribution of Latvians to the world economy has been, traditionally, in the professions. Trading, shop keeping, design. Medical tourism, with westerners seeking personalized, relatively inexpensive care, seems to have kept doctors in the country despite monthly salaries from the State around 300 Lats ($615 circa 2006). Within Latvia, the rise of private practice at upwards of 1000 Lats per month (considerably more if patients are herded), also helps retain Doctors although the rise of plastic surgery deprives the population of health care.
The majority of jobs in government and corporations, however, leave computer programmers, managers, and engineers with few incentives to stay. Artists and designers are encouraged to give a “Latvian” flavor to their production, touring writers are asked to tell their “Latvian Stories,” and cultural centers present their deep purple and distinctive Latvian textures primarily to a European audience. Commercial design remains almost exclusively European, even when raw materials are close at hand (wood from the Baltics, energy from Russia and electronics from Scandinavia).
The other day, Lesja told me she’d moved her agency office across town on Dzirnavu iela. Europetravel, her company’s called. When I had a free hour, I headed over and discovered more than ten travel agencies on a single block between Terbates and Brivibas - each agency specializing in luxury cruises, travel visas, and international flights.
Europetravel, Eurotours, Europe Trips, Evropaturs. Alida Turista. Eirovia Turisms. Ozolciems Ture. TBS. tonas turs. Beta Turs. Juniversal Celumi Virogs. Vanilla Turs.
Surprisingly, InterTours is still there, up a flight of stairs, down a hall, around a corner, behind an unmarked door, and still offering trips as if they were adventures “to Eiropa and Eksotika.”
Reinis chose Lesja’s agency when he reserved his Chicago flight and helped me out with a conference I organized there, in November 2005. Katrina, age 20, unmarried, without property, and with less than a year in higher education, was denied an American visa.
For those of child-bearing age who do stay, what prospects?
Chances are that a university student will major in ‘tourism’ or ‘economics.’ Women whose mothers were instructed by the Soviet Book of Tasty Recipes are now studying for degrees in “food technology.” Hospitality and the keeping of accounts, formerly the provenance of households, are now subject to corporate discipline - for those aspiring to a European standard of living. (Such degrees however carry small value in comparison with a Western MBA.)
The class of world travelers, unsupportive of higher education, has essentially pressed the new generation into servicing the mobility of an older, recently established generation.
The tourism coming to Riga has a much different look about it.
Groups arriving from Germany, from Italy, from Sweden - these are mostly old people, often traveling by bus. Their excursion to the Baltic capitals and the coast might be their only getaway of the year. These are people who, for most of their working life, might have driven a C class Mercedes or Series 4 BMW and counted themselves fortunate. They know nice neighborhoods, at home. What do they think, when they look down from the newly renovated Jugenstil facades and notice that none of the Alberta Street residents displays anything less than an S class or a Series 7? When a Canadian hockey fan, flying to the Baltics for the European matches (June 2006), discovers that his hotel fare and beer prices are double what they were just a week before, prior to the festival - how likely is this person to return? How likely is a future visit from anyone who reads the reports on price gauging in the European and Canadian Press?
The Brits and the Irish, flying in on cut-rate flights - how long will they go on visiting strip bars and casinos? How long will the cigarettes that weekend partiers carry home in cartons, remain priced at under a British Pound a pack?
In Old Riga at the end of the workday, women and men are on the move.
Crossing the plaza near the Freedom Monument; waiting in front of the Laima Chocolate Company clock; there is a kind of safe zone, imposed by the city architects and respected by the city councils, who once shut down the McDonald’s because their signage was too large. At the crossing to the Hotel Roma, pedestrian right-of-way is observed scrupulously by trams, taxis, and even the cars with darkened windows. In the EU country with the highest per capita road deaths yearly, here is one place where you can safely cross without a glance to the left or the right. Peter, a Brit who’s been living here more than a decade, thinks of the city as one extended catwalk except that the ladies, not infrequently, are the ones looking. That’s happening less and less often, with every season.
That girl over there? with the Birkinbag hanging from her wrist? She won’t be returning my glance, not today.
And what about the high incidence of feminine beauty? Even this, apparently cultural and “subjective” feature of the Baltics and Eastern Europe might be understood from an ecological, rather than social or political, perspective: The Soviet empire was authentically multicultural, and the occupation following the Second World War was only the most recent in a series of conquests, over centuries, by Germans, Russians, Poles, and Swedes among others. All of these encounters have ensured a high degree of continual racial intermixing, resulting in northern physiques resistant to the cold and a diversity of facial types. Slavic features are easily distinguished from the Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian. You are what you eat, and agriculture surely has an effect: the Green Revolution and high-yield agribusiness never came here, so the extensive arable land continued until recently to be divided into small farms, the soil was not depleted in vitamin content (as it has been, by some 50%, in the past half century in England and the U.S.). Cars have only recently become prevalent, the single state-supported television station, even two or three years ago, would stop broadcasting at bedtime, and so it was never easy to establish a sedentary culture, not during the Soviet or transitional European periods. Body fat is only now, in the first decade of the third Millenium, starting to become frequent and noticeable among unmarried ladies in nightclubs, and it will not be long before jeans, business suits, and flats replace dresses and high heels, in public.
The layout of Eastern European cities encourages girls to get out, to circulate and be seen as a matter of course, in open streets rather than under high-security enclosures in malls.
But this was before the employment, in significant numbers, of girls in offices and strip bars, a development tending to limit the freedom of physical movement and restrict sexuality.
Because first-time fathers generally leave, mothers think twice before having a second or third child. (When birthrates average less than 2.1 children per couple, a population will not reproduce.)
Those women who do enter the professions and achieve a household with some discretionary spending power, will now hire nannies and maids, often from the same villages that supply domestic labor to Europe and the several cities of corporate America. Because wages are small, houses are often fit out with security to monitor the domestic’s activities.
Nannies, maids, sex workers, accountants, estate agents, and tour guides: such are the options for Baltic women in the current global economy. Along with a very few designers and artists, whose success will take them out of Latvia (even as the most visible role models, the woman politicians, typically move from high office to positions in the UN and the EU.)The phrase ‘nannies, maids, and sex workers’ is from the subtitle of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s and Barbara Ehrenreich’s edited collection, Global Woman. Ara Wilson continues these explorations in her own scholarship on Thai prostitutes and in her reconsideration of the ebr writing post-feminism thread.
Like tour agencies, casinos, and night clubs, the cultural outlets in Riga tend to cluster.
On Lacplesa street stands the Rigas Juanas Theater, whose performances, legendary since Soviet times, do attract a wider range of Europeans to the city. It lies among a congregation of understated cafes, confectionaries, apotekas, and specialty shops, mostly Latvian owned and confident in their service and character. Here you will find no sticks on the walls, no kitsch woodwork, or lighted windmills. There’s no need here (away from the Old City) for rustic caricature as an assertion of cultural identity. The Osiris cafe on the corner, the day I was there, had on display a series of postcard-sized oil paintings by Latvian artist Vineta Kaulauca; scenes from the cities where she has visited over the past few years, since the time when European Residencies opened their doors to young artists from the Baltics.
The paintings give multiple views of a single place (a highway, a street) seen differently at different times. Objects not seen in one painting become focal points in others, as the eye of the artist zooms in on a detail carrying intellectual or emotional interest. These are partial presentations of cities inhabited, not lived in. Vineta’s experience of Dublin or San Francisco are in this respect not all that different from my own perceptions of Riga, observed from one summer to the next.
Women and men on the move: on the day I stop by to look at the paintings, Lacplesa street is closed to traffic and filled with hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, people darkly dressed in formal styles not seen much, any more, in Riga. They are morning the death of a Latvian actor, Eduards Pavels, famous since Soviet times. Most of the mourners are old, many have travelled hundreds of kilometers for the event. You can see that, even in mourning, they carry themselves differently from the current generatione - walking not through the city, but in it. Their lives are here, in Latvia, and they expect, most of them, to die here - though many must also suspect that their grandsons and grandaughters will not be here to mourn them when they go.
You are what you wear. Eduards Pavels in a velvet jacket, playing Gomez in a Latvian rendition of The Adams Family. He is still, always, driven inevitably to distraction whenever Natasha speaks a word of French. For an American looking on who grew up watching Cold War sit-coms, that is as good an expression of Latvian identity as any to be found here now.
Can this development continue?
This summer (2006), after my third refinancing in as many years, I bought a pied a terre in East Germany, fully renovated, cash in full. The rise of the Baltic economy has allowed me to create a triad of East European residences that support me and the literary network I’m involved in, mostly writers and new media artists in Europe and the United States. At various seasons in the coming years, as conferences, seminars, gallery, and museum openings take place increasingly in the East, my colleagues, friends, and I will use these apartments while working on various projects at the intersection of new media, literature, and the arts. In the time that I’ve built up this network, I have transferred out of the Baltics maybe twice the dollar amount that I brought in. I imagine that other casual investors have done the same, while professional and commercial concerns probably export a much higher percentage of the wealth they’ve created. I would not even try to imagine the cash flows within and out of the grey economy. But I can see its effects, on the streets of Riga, in its living rooms, and in outlying areas where most residents don’t drive cars, buy houses, eat at restaurants, or book vacations through agencies. Because I don’t speak the languages, I cannot say what is going on in the minds of Latvians and Russians. But I know enough about Europe and the United States to see that, if economic “integration” is tenuous, cultural integration is almost nonexistent. When the population that supported integration has dispersed, who among those who remain will have any reason to be loyal to Europe or the idea of an interstate “union”? When Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians experience the first recession, will Europe be there for them?
If not - Russia is always close by.
Riga August 2006