Our Liepaja Adventure – Liepaja, Latvia

Our Liepaja Adventure
Liepaja, Latvia

Patricia and Jean-Francois

Patricia Perkins and Jean-François Llorens

At the last bus station in Lithuania, headed into Latvia, my intrepid French husband, Jean-François and I are so involved in debating our itinerary – start with the next city in Latvia, Liepaja? Go on to a smaller place? – that we plumb forget to change any of our Euros or Dollars into Latvian money.

“Adventure,” said polar explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928), “is just bad planning.”

We emerge from the Liepaja bus station on a Friday evening about 8 p.m., blink twice, and realize we have not a penny of useable money to our names. The woman at the station, shrugging, suggests trying the three-star hotel in the city center. After one false start in the wrong direction, we start in. About a mile and a half later, schlepping baggage, of course, through some of the most depressing city scenery we’ve come across so far, we straggle up the steps of the hotel. No change money, says the desk clerk. Nope, not even five dollars. Nottink.

We could pull out Mr. Plastic and pay $80 for a night there. But we are intrepid! We know an adventure when we see one!

I lay out the tourist brochure we picked up in Lithuania and ask if any of the youth hostels are anywhere close by. The desk clerk, ever helpful says, “You have to take a bus to all of them.” “No money, remember?” we tell her. No money, no bus. She picks the closest, which is an hour’s walk, in fact not far from the train station. We walk. And walk. Past rotting wooden buildings peeling paint, past boarded up windows, past rusting, streaking iron gates, past gritty gray concrete. Unrelenting ugliness. Potholed streets. Not a flower. Not a fresh coat of paint. And we tell ourselves that we haven’t done anything this stupid in a very long time. What will happen when we present our moneyless selves at the hostel? We hope we can pay for the room tomorrow. If we can find a moneychanger on a Saturday…uh…really, really stupid.

Liepaja hostel

Liepaja hostel

The youth hostel in Liepaja, Latvia, is in a Soviet-style barracks-type building. Four stories: Jean-François says the Soviets had a law that over four stories and they’d have to have elevators, so they saved the expense and maintenance and just built these cereal-box places, rows and rows of them everywhere. Up the steps of what looks like a 1950’s urban utilitarian high school, you walk into a dim lobby and there’s an office behind a glass window the size of a Playboy club entry window. Inside is a woman who speaks not a word of English, French (of course), or German. She is fluent in Latvian and Russian.

I signal to one and all that I can still master this situation and haul out my Lonely Planet Fifteen Word Phrase Page. Room? Bed? She indicates that will not be the problem. I manage to convey to her that we would like to pay tomorrow (a handy little word that is in the phrasebook). Nope. No way, no how. Paying as you go here in friendly suburban Latvia. I haul out a tenner. American Dollars? How about that?

She makes a phone call. I hesitate to suggest that this is a universal Latvian response to semi-unusual situations, but I do have to report that it happened in every hotel where we had anything like a novel situation. Discussion. Phone call. Answer. Okay, she will offer us a choice of two rooms, one for $20, the other for $10. The $20 room has its own shower and toilet. The $10 room has a fridge, a TV, two single beds, a table, chairs, and an armchair. We accept for ten – heck, it has more than we need. She shows us the toilets. There are no toilet seats except for the stall with a padlock. The shower, too, has a padlock but she offers to open it for us if we would like. The hallway echoes. The linoleum on the floor is painted.

That takes care of the bed for the night. But, I explain, in my best mime school communication system, we need to eat. It is now nine p.m. We had a very nice breakfast about twelve hours earlier. Hunger. She agrees to change $5 with her own Latvian money so we can eat. We are now in possession of a pitiful little pile of Latvian coins, 2.50 Lats in all. Then we pass the kitchen. Kitchen? Pots? Pans? Plates, knives, forks, cups, spoons? No problem, she says, and goes to a special cupboard where she unlocks these treasures.

It just so happens that, in the spirit of never turning down anything free, Jean-François picked up a complete spaghetti dinner package at our last hostel. Since there was no kitchen there, one of the other guests was lightening his load, which we scooped up on the theory that you never know. Et VOILA! Jean-François puts a pot on to boil and we are in business. The Russian lady from the lobby disappears and then shows up with a couple in tow.

What is the mysterious equation that makes magical intervention a function of idiotic suffering? We were stupid, but you get stupid, stupid is a constant bedfellow of the avid traveler. You’re always stupid when you don’t speak the language. How does this sweet serendipity come in here, as if it were waiting in the wings, as if it had hesitated at the brink to see if we would plop ol’ Mr. Plastic on the fancy hotel counter?

“We can help?” asks the tall, lanky, bearded guy in a broken but understandable form of English. His black-haired wife is smiling. The truth is that at this point, we have the whole thing sorted out. Our desk lady does want to communicate that checkout time isn’t until ten p.m. the next night, so we are welcome to use the room all tomorrow. We invite the couple to come back after supper and we’ll practice their English.

Just as we are licking the plates of the last sauce, back comes our desk lady, our fiver clutched in her hand. Since we have eaten, she reasons in Latvian, we are no longer in need of the five, right? She would like her Latvian money back, please.

I have two thoughts at once. The first is that I saw a little shop around the corner selling both pastries and beer, both of which were going to complete my evening repast. The second thought is about the long walk back to town and the usefulness of some of these rupees to buy spots on a fast little bus back to the (we are still fervently hoping) money changer the next day. We settle on her taking $1, giving us an even smaller, hardly visible pile of coins, and us taking back our $5. At this point, it’s a beer or a bus ride, and we’ve picked up our coats to go out for the beer when there’s a knock at the door.

Ainars, Ilona and their daughter, Alyssa

Ainars, Ilona and their daughter, Alyssa

It’s Ilona and Ainars with their daughter Alyssa (who can count to ten in English and sing Jingle Bells), bearing a bottle of Latvian champagne, a bottle of Latvian beer, and a box of chocolate liqueurs. And a Latvian/English dictionary. Wow. We invite them in, go through the photo albums and then out together for a walk on the beach to watch the 10:30 p.m. sunset. The next morning promptly at nine a.m., the whole family is knocking on our door. We are off with them for a whirlwind tour: first downtown to change money and then sightseeing. It was a perfect Servas visit without the letter of introduction or the “write/phone two weeks ahead.”

All these drab, sad high rise apartments, these tufts of orphan grass, and here are people willing to bring presents and work very hard indeed to tell us that Ainars is a heating technician and their eldest daughter is in modeling school. That Alyssa sings in an ensemble and their apartment near the beach costs the same as one closer to the city. That Ainars’ mother is 92 and does mosaic pictures. That we have to visit Sigulda where Ilona was born because it’s a beautiful place. (Traveler’s note: We did indeed visit Sigulda, stayed in an empty tuberculosis ward in a palace converted to a hospital, and took a cable car back and forth to town.)

Ainars and Ilona’s English is far from fluent and we often struggle to find the words, passing the dictionary back and forth between us. It doesn’t help that Ainars thinks in sociologically and economically sophisticated sentences. Every sentence is pulled out of a tiny vocabulary with an extraordinary will to connect, to communicate, to welcome us strangers to their world. On our side, too, it takes a certain skill to reduce one’s thoughts to simple sentences, small words, to speak very slowly and watch for signs you aren’t making sense.

After money-changing, over breakfast at a great little coffeeshop only he knows about, Ainars asks: What will you see? (Meaning, what do you want us to show you?)

I answer: When we travel, we like to see what you like to show. You say, this is my place. We like. We don’t have one idea (tapping my head)…oh, museum…oh, cathedral…no. We like everything you are showing.

Mid-Summer Night festival-goer

Mid-Summer Night festival-goer

He nods, understanding. We leave the flower market downtown going great guns. It’s the eve of the Mid-Summer Night festival, a big deal here in Scandinavia. The girls are all wreathed in oak leaves. Ilona and Ainars decide to show us the old Soviet army barracks, now a kind of Bronx, full of unemployed people, Russians mostly, or abandoned, or already rubble from the wrecking ball. Another sad place – though unlike the Bronx, not a hint of threat or danger – with a magnificent Russian Orthodox cathedral right in the middle of it. There’s a mass in progress in the cathedral. Everyone is standing; there are no seats. But there is spiritual energy there – wham – that causes goose bumps on my skin.

At the gates of a military base, Ilona presents her passport while Ainars tells us this is a scuba diving school for the Latvian Navy. Okay. Tour of military base. We’re game. But no. It turns out that Czar Nicholas I’s summer palace is located on the grounds and we are given a private and personal tour, with our escort detailing the intricacies of the diamond chandelier (since packed off to Mother Russia) and the acoustics of the ballroom, leading us through the dust of a century to the topmost attic and a ladder up to a balcony from which the Czar could survey his entire fleet.

Summer palace

Czar Nicholas I’s summer palace

We see the Czar’s bedroom, the balcony he, and only he used to look down on the ballroom. We walk through the entrance also for Nicholas’s sole use, paved with marble imported from Russia and tour a historical photo exhibit in the Czar’s smoking room with the original tiles. We see the ladies’ dressing room. Some of this building has been restored, but much of it is in dire need. One whole wall of the ballroom is draped in plastic.

We walk for hours, talking and passing the dictionary back and forth. It is a splendid adventure. At the end of the day, we present Ilona and Ainars with a bouquet of roses, though the gift is inadaquate, could never be anything but. We invite them to visit us in the States. We give them our addresses. What could we give them for this window into their world? It’s part of the Great Swirl of generosity out there, the one that showers you with magic like this, the one you have to scramble if you ever want to get close to giving enough back.

That night at 8 p.m., we squeezed into the overfull mini-bus to the fishing village of Pavilosta. Midsummer night was upon us.