By Sari Baum (Spring 2017)
As I looked out the bus window on the way into the city I felt we had made a mistake. Years of communist rule had turned what was once picturesque Latvian suburbs into a graveyard of boarded up apartment complexes with cast iron balconies hanging from the buildings windows like loose teeth. To some people we were traveling off the edge of the map as Riga is a city that’s fame has been smothered by a tragic history of occupation. The destitution we were witnessing was amplified by my “high-functioning” anxiety.
I stayed silent for most of the twenty minute bus ride into the center of the city. Our sleepless night made it easy to claim exhaustion as the cause of my quiet mood rather than a panic attack. But slowly Riga unveiled its beauty and suddenly we were in a blooming city center framed by eclectic Art Nouveau architecture and barren trees drenched in twinkling blue lights. It was a quiet fairy tale none of us were expecting.
Once in Old Town we agreed to search for food and as we ambled along I touched each of my fingers one at a time to my thumb, hoping that the repetitive motion would keep me calm. We walked towards a bakery, following some locals who we figured knew where to find the most authentic food. The bakery had pastries filling the windows; little Christmas cakes covered in powered sugar and traditional heart shaped gingerbread cookies decorated with piped icing lace. The women behind the counter were patient as we tried to point to what we wanted to order and helped us count out our money on the counter. I ordered something familiar to me, poppy seed cake, because I find that food has a way of making me feel at home. It connects you with the culture around you and each bite gets you closer to figuring out your place in all of it. The four of us took an exhausted selfie together, capturing the moment before enjoying our first round of baked goods (we came back again the next day). But that picture also captured the moment my anxiety began to dissipate and the tense feeling in my stomach was replaced with the scrumptious fruitiness of poppy seeds.
Later that night we befriended two girls at our hostel and decided to go out. You haven’t truly visited Riga until you’ve experienced its nightlife. With this decision to skip going to bed my anxiety intensified. But buried beneath the worry that everything could go wrong I realized I was excited. Walking into the club was like stumbling onto the set of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dense air, the jiggling of change as it’s exchanged for shots, and distorted visions of people dancing beneath frantic strobe lights. The environment was abstract and yet my travel companions had already become a comfort to me and that was enough. We stayed out until four in the morning, wandering around Old Town trying not to trip on the cobblestones and watching people as they staggered home singing drunken lullabies. All day the city had been quiet, almost reserved. But at night the city was revived, and its people seemed acutely aware of the need to live unapologetically.