By Michaela Brady
Photography by Michaela Brady
11 Novembra Krastmala has the best seat in the city for sunsets. From our apartment’s kitchen window, I can see the line that divides Old Town from the glitzier modern buildings in the distance. The river, sloshing amber and black, splits Riga in two as it tumbles to the Baltic Sea. There’s pride in the air, drifting in through the window: a daily reminder that the world, and life within it, have continued.
“You’re destined to live here,” Rebecca says with a glint in her eye. Mid-afternoon, day two of our holiday, I’m still adjusting to the three-hour time difference. Following a walking tour of Old Town and the Holocaust memorial, we sample Black Magic’s artisanal truffles and admire the waitresses’ 18th-century uniforms. In some ways, yes, I could belong here. We agree I could follow a timeline in which I forget my MSc at Oxford, get a job waitressing in this famous café, and live in historic reverie.
I would stare for days at the golden florets whirling on top of the House of the Blackheads, or the mediaeval houses crouching beside the embassies. I would spend my afternoons in the museums absorbing everything I didn’t know I wanted to know, then emerge in time to watch that perfect sunset from 11 Novembra. I would be close to a part of the world I was taught to fear back in America, and boldly explore it all. I’d learn to love the language, as I love any language that has survived constant occupation and reclamation.
“Yeah, the timeline exists, but is it one worth pursuing?” I reply. Meghna shrugs and reminds me that it’s all hypothetical, that not every moment in life needs to be mapped out. Rebecca, who’s dreading her return to Moscow for the remainder of her teaching gig, reminds me that these trips are a chance to get a feel for a new city, to try it on. How do I feel, wrapped in Riga?
I feel its overpowering silence. Riga wakes up slowly, so only insomniacs like Meghna and I detect it. It’s a smooth hum, like in the outer boroughs of London. By 9 a.m., I expect to hear arguments, honking horns, groups of tourists with their cameras fluttering like butterfly wings. But Old Town is mute, almost reverent, as though to behave like a modern capital would insult the city’s spirit. Come midday, if I wander through the streets, past the cathedral and the squares with their reluctant suvenīri shops, I doubt I’ll see or hear anyone. When there are people around, their feet hit the cobblestones in step with mine, but they’re never in my way. It’s April, the start of the high season, and even traffic flows like the river. Maybe this is what I need.
I don’t want to know Riga as another crowded must-see. New York’s most astounding and annoying attraction is the people. Rome bends its shoulders to hold the history of its people, and the tourists who grasp its remains. Riga is the first city I’ve visited that exists outside of its people—those who have loved it and drained it. It speaks for itself, and it knows I’m listening.
MICHAELA BRADY graduated from Oxford in 2018 with an MSc in Social Science of the Internet. She’s putting her degree to use in her work on the Online Safety Bill, but will gladly introduce herself as a writer to avoid controversy.