This rental car idea was a pretty good one. Getting out to Liepaja was so painless, that right then and there I decided I’d run the same game-plan in upcoming Lithuania (visit to capital, followed by a whole bunch of driving). I fired up the strange squawking GPS, did a quick paper-map study to make sure my incomprehensible little electronic buddy was at least indicating the right general direction, and rolled out of Cĕsis after an early breakfast. I was just turning onto the highway as the sun rose up over my left shoulder.
The radio offered only one dance-music station after the other, so I snapped it off in order to be with my thoughts for a while during the drive back through Riga. I thought about the great town I had just visited, and about what a dramatically different post-Soviet experience Latvia seemed to be undergoing, compared to, say, Armenia.
I like multi-level puzzles. I enjoy thinking about problems that have both quantifiable and unquantifiable aspects to them, maybe because in the space between the brain and the heart is a semi-factual area where many different viewpoints have operating room. To me, the Latvian-Armenian comparison became just such a question to ponder along the drive. Economic comparison? Done. Demographic influences on each? Considered – to the extent that I understand them, at any rate. Possible geopolitical futures of the Baltic and South Caucasus regions? Duly pondered. I was beginning to feel that I was darned near to solving some serious world problems, when the building traffic around Riga required more of my attention than I could spare to the erstwhile mental exercise. The GPS was getting rather excited as well, and staccato-bursts of gibberish increasingly brought the little screen back into my scan.
The better part of a decade ago, Sandy and I drove up to Maine from North Carolina. She’s from there, so for her the surroundings were familiar in a way in which they were not for me. At some point on that drive, north of the coastal fishing villages, the road becomes straight for miles, flanked on either side with tall pine trees. The stretch west of Riga is just like that for much of the way to Liepaja on the Baltic Sea coast.
I’ve got one surreal experience to share with all of you, and then I’ll call it a night. I sat into the hotel bar downstairs to (at the bare minimum) use the free drink card they give you upon check-in. There happened to be a hockey game on the screen, Dinamo Riga vs. Russia’s Avangard Omsk. During the game, waitresses were frantically setting up tables in the bar’s dining area, down a few steps off to my right. I glanced over to see them setting up glasses of orange-juice by each place-mat. “What a weird place for a children’s birthday party”, I thought. Soon after, clusters of college-age men began to pass by me, all dressed in sports-garb. I raised a quizzical eyebrow to the bartender, who in turn pointed first at the screen, then at the young men trooping past. As it happened, the players from both hockey-teams were staying at the hotel, having played the pre-recorded game currently being shown on our hotel bar’s t.v.-screen. Everyone seemed to be on their best behavior while I finished my drink. I slid the bartender a tip and went to explore the town a little.