Riga Through A Hailstorm: On The Reporter’s Red-Eye Life

Thursday, 16 July

It’s the first time I’ve heard an entire airplane applaud a safe landing, and I’m sure I didn’t sleep through any turbulence. After an early flight out of Edinburgh and over five hours in London’s wifi-less Luton Airport, what I’m convinced is hell’s mop closet, I’m safely in Riga, Latvia, ready to cover the 9th Positivus music festival for The Skinny. There’s the kind of naïveté in it, the clapping, that makes my still hands look jaded – as if the miracle of flight really is a miracle to these nor’Eastern Europeans – and in fact it reminds me of naïveté‘s etymology, from the Latin nativus, “not artificial”: it’s honest applause. And what service employees deserve our thanks and amazement more? Quickly I’m ready to adopt the attitude, this way of being, that recognizes the incredible for what it is, everyday occurrence or no.

I’m staying in the Tallinik in the city center, a modest palace of soft down, subtly funky decor, and free chocolates – or it’s a palace to me, as the last music festival I covered, just the weekend prior, saw me pitching a tent in a cold mud field and surviving on rice cakes and Irn Bru. But I’m quickly out of my room (…after eating both bed’s pillow chocolates) and onto the streets, in search of a bar called Vest, supposedly one of Riga’s hippest spots, delivering appetizers to the bearded and beard-oiled masses, pouring craft beers for bikers with daring palates, and serving the best coffee in the city. And also cutting hair, in a built-in barbershop, where you can bet you’ll find fades and quiffs galore. (All this I learn in the WizzAir seatback mag, which, until I wrote for a seatback mag, I wouldn’t have thought to pick up. Consider this a pro-tip.)


But I’ve not gone two blocks from the Tallinik before I’m sidetracked, wandering into the Vērmanes Dārzs, a park filled this evening with stalls selling wooden crafts and cottons and appetizing soaps, and headscarved and skirted folk groups playing for the Baltica festival, all on a mild and ideal continental summer evening. Within minutes the smells have stirred me to hunger (it’s as if I hadn’t even eaten Louton’s pathetic baguette), and I’m hovering over a plate of desa, kartupeļi, skābēti kāposti (spicy pork sausage, boiled potatoes, a tangy Latvian variety of sauerkraut) all washed down with a pint of kvass, what some locals call “bread drink,” a weird cross between a wheat beer and a cola, tasting like a dark rye – a bit sweet, but something I’d try again, maybe in a frigid Baltic January. Price for the lot: €4.30.

Charmed by Riga’s architecture – Noveau and Deco bumping shoulders with what I can only call Soviet Drab, and sometimes in the shadow of High Stalinist buildings, like the former “Palace of the Farmers,” now usually called Stalin’s Birthday Cake, my eyes light up even more in the reflected effulgence off the Radisson Blu, rising 27 stories and promising a rooftop bar.

I order a Cēsu and take in the sights: the Daugava, river, the tree-lined Freedom Boulevard and the Latvian Freedom Monument, the gold domed Nativity of Christ cathedral and the weird tumulus of the National Library. The ‘Skybar’ itself, gauzily gold at that hour, isn’t the most desirable place to take in such a view – it’s filled with tourists, mostly Germans, with a few young locals sipping cocktails chock-a-block with chunky fruit, €9 mojitos. The bartender’s complete disdain as he “recommends” the fine but totally unremarkable beer gets logged in my trusty notebook.


To its credit, the bar has more than overpriced drinks and floor-to-ceiling windows. Seating strikes that sweet spot between intimately close and comfortable – low slung chairs with a touch of floral funkyness, tables for two at odd heights encouraging inclined heads, hands brushing; large couches suggesting a nightclub’s VIP section without, you know, that irritating club part. I watch a husband head for the bathroom; for two full minutes his wife doesn’t move, transfixed by the pallid pink cityscape painted by a sun that doesn’t care much for setting; she becomes self-conscious and looks back inward, to the rest of us – but we just aren’t as interesting. Her husband returns, they sit on the same side now, so both can converse like quiet slow-motion squash players, faces fixed on the window. I’m transfixed, too – I imagine that a mass of white bodies rippling at the base of the Freedom Monument is a student protest, but soon I catch a pattern in the movements, one that conveys basic joy even from this distance. They’re dancing, for what, I don’t know. So the Skybar has its charms, but the wifi’s for guests only and I book it.


.     .     .

Vest, I realize, highlights the all-too-mortal nature of the merely hip, the cool, values that resist their own names and flee when discovered, or are else counterfeited and kept up by the bellows of hype, and what passes for opinion. But revelation comes through contrast: Vest is a green and gemlike flame of hip, cool as any 90 degrees from an equator. The place has quality.

20150716_221024I don’t get to try the famed coffee, but I do enjoy an excellent Baltic Imperial Porter, the Öö from Põhjala (€5) – passing on the menu’s impressive Brew Dog selection, which warmed my pseudo-Scottish heart – and paired this with a plate of wings, 8 for an incredible €3. Stairway to Heaven starts as I order and the wings come out just as the song finishes – which I take as a good sign, given that I’ll see Robert Plant in three days. (The wings themselves, despite being hot enough to make the fingers recoil, are a bit undercooked, falling apart, and not terribly spicy. The cucumber sauce looks promising, a nice local touch, but fails to stick to the skins.) So I’m satisfied with the find, this Vest (pronounced “West,” which, for whatever reason, I find unfortunate). The liberally pierced and India inked can sit here and enjoy craft beers and pickings to satisfy a food porn Instagrammer as much as true gourmand, elbow-to-elbow with guys who basically look like Baltic versions of my dad. And speaking of the Old Man, he would have smacked down any bearded biker in Foosball, also offered at the bar¹. I leave hoping to come back (though I won’t).

I aim to hunker down for the night in the hotel room, readying myself for Day One of the festival, with a few more Baltic beers – but much like the UK, Lativa has a prohibition on booze sales after 10. Luckily I find a place still open, a little below-ground shop with bottles in front and a tiny pub (vaguely revolutionary, voices coming from behind a half-closed curtain) in back. Adopting that quintessentially American-abroad look of benign but potentially disastrous ignorance, I bring a few bottles to the counter. “Quickly bag,” the woman says, “bag quickly.”

.     .     .

Friday, 17 July

The Latvian National Opera House, a mid-19th century, German-style building, next to the Bastion Hill Park.

We won’t leave for the festival until 3, though acts start at 10 a.m. The UK press haven’t even started pounding free Media Beers yet (apparently we enjoy some notoriety for this), but they’re still late sleepers. So I rise early and head southwest toward the water, passing through Bastejkalns Park and the boxy opera house, then St. Peter’s Basilica, and arriving finally at the gloriously reconstructed House of the Blackheads, an early 14th century bachelors’ guild the Soviets demolished circa 1948.

Note the odd, stacked-cupola effect of St. Peter’s spire. In the front, you can see the evidently medieval facade of the Blackheads’ building, recreated between 1995 and 1999. Note also the unfortunate blue cast of the photo, not because of the weather, but because I couldn’t figure out how to switch off my Canon Rebel’s “Tungsten” setting. I was The Skinny’s official photographer for this trip.

Despite the Tallinik’s enormous buffet breakfasts, a perk the visiting bands and press are sure to indulge in every morning (no matter what happened the night before)², I’m in need of a coffee – preferably Euro-style, which (to me) means at an outdoor café, in the square under the Rigas Doms, currently under construction. Here I can catch my breath, write a postcard to the family, watch the seven sparrows arranged on the chairs around my table, eyeing my sugar cookies and cleaning their beaks with two sharp swipes on the wooden chairbacks, like knives, anticipating crumbs. It’s at this point, with sawdust in the air and the sky quickly graying, that I take out my notebook, in which this morning over breakfast I scribbled out a few Latvian numbers and phrases, and I realize I’ve been greeting people with “thank you” and taking my leave with “hello” all day.

The square around the Rigas Doms.

I should have paid better attention to the skies. It’s suddenly dark as evening, but I walk through Vecriga, Old Town, going into a few shops, buying a Latvian flag and a few more craft beers and bottles of black balsam, the city’s favorite (?) herbal liquor; when I step back outside it starts to rain. By the time I reach the park’s canal, in sight of the Opera House, it’s pouring, the kind of unswept, unhurried, unrelenting rain that in its indifference suggests you ought to find better shelter than a tree, because it won’t be letting up soon. But I do hide in the lee of a tree, not far from the Freedom Monument, and actually use a far-off restaurant’s wifi to Snapchat my predicament – before the rain switches to hailstones hard and fast enough to shatter my screen. When my boatshoes threaten to capsize in the mud, I make a dash for a restaurant called Buddha, mop myself dry with about 12 little cocktail napkins, and order one of the best black teas of recent memory, draining myself into a patio cushion I surely render unusable.

But the skies clear. I make it back to the hotel, change, listen to a few of the day’s bands – Jack Garratt, East India Youth, Jungle. Soon we’re on the bus, each in our ignorance thinking one Bus Beer per journalist would hold us through the three hour crawl through festival traffic. It’s going to be a long day.

.     .     .

Saturday – Sunday, 18 – 19 July

View from the southeast end of the Bastion Hill Park.

There’s much more of Riga I want to see, but the festival soon takes control – some of us don’t even make it outside the hotel, or any further than the Pakistani doner shop across the street (though the hail was a freak anomaly, and the rest of our stay is sunny, comfortably mid-60s). I wander the mall in search of a post office; revisit the Baltica festival; peruse the used book stores in Riga’s Berlin-style underground pedestrian tunnels; walk the park; and drink a pint of the highly recommended Brengulu ale at an odd roadside island, standing at a wooden barrel, going over my pictures of Saturday’s headliners Kasabian, and the Salacgrīva woods. Despite a (so-far) unbroken string of massive hotel breakfasts I make it to Crazy Donuts, where I could probably drop a nauseating number of Euros on the little things lovingly iced (I find them a bit dry, but with a distinctive butter-batter flavor).

A folk group at the Baltica festival.

I won’t say any more about the festival, but it exhausts us, in the best way. (There’s the music, of course, which sends us on rippling sine waves of emotional highs and troughs of tranquility; then there’s the fact that after depleting the Media Beers – Mežpils alus and tumšais – we find that Tuborgs in the VIP section³ are free.) On a sunny early Sunday afternoon I find the rest of the UK press at the Riga Old Town Hostel, an Australian bar with good a beer selection, bomb soul tracks spinning all day, and perhaps the sassiest barkeep in the Baltics. We spend the next three hours using our (at this point, sapped) powers of description to sing her praises, downing preparatory pints.

But most of us complain that we haven’t seen enough of the city. I’m a bit cynical hearing this, having seen more of Riga than the others: well, get up earlier, I want to say. Take a walk. But then again, it’s Sunday afternoon and though I’d intended to see a few more Doms I’m right there with them, shaded, swapping stories; we’re on Day Three, overloaded with carbs of a mostly liquid variety, dazed from the bands we’ve seen and not at all sure if the copy we’ve sent back home to our respective magazines has been anything like grammatical. This isn’t the Almost Famous life, for any of us, but it is (we’d all agree) one of the best jobs a 20-45 year-old could ask for: traveling; listening to the hottest, loudest, most surprising music; sleeping and eating and often enough drinking on someone else’s dime; meeting new people every week; and then getting to scribble about it all. But as we all tacitly agree, checking the time on our phones and ordering a fourth round, it would be nice to get to be plain old dumpy skygazing tourists every once in a while.

.     .     .

Monday, 20 July

I awake to a knock and high voice chirping Cyrillic syllables, and before I can stop myself I’ve shouted something incoherent, that might be interpreted as an obscenity.  It was odd, as I’d kept the Do Not Disturb sign on my door handle for the duration of my stay.  Now I’m awake, and they don’t knock again.  The festival’s over; I’d chosen the 7 p.m. flight instead of the 8 a.m. flight, and I’d been looking forward all weekend to a few quiet hours today drinking in the last of the city.  Of course I’d made peace with missing the final buffet breakfast, which ended at 10 that morning; I’d grab a coffee and a croissant in Old town, I thought.

My phone reads 1:38.p.m.  The facts of the moment begin to spin and align themselves like the brass planets of an astronomer’s orrery.  I’ve not arranged a late checkout, hence the knock.  Most of the media have gone, I’ve not packed, I have no idea who’s getting me to the airport or when.  And when my feet hit the floor and my left hand grips my own hair for balance, I realize my general sense of (Pleasant.  Wait – pleasant?) disorientation has nothing to do with a hangover.


.     .     .

On Friday we were grumbling about our driver’s speed, but Sunday night – i.e. Monday circa 1 a.m. – the Danish journalist Mikkel and I are rocketing down the road from Salacgrīva to Riga (the best road in the country, someone says), the last of the press to leave after being Trampled Underfoot by Robert Plant’s holy closing set. This driver speeds the entire way (admittedly, how I prefer it: there are parties, parties all over the world just waiting for our entrance, we feel), but also drives down the center of the two-way road, riding the white line for most of the 104 kilometres. And it’s evidently common road behavior, because the other drivers know well to pull aside for him. It’s all I can do to stay abreast of a conversation with an I Love You Records exec while watching the road, more fascinated than afraid.

Sunday’s ride to Positivus was the quickest yet, and commenced with the satisfying cap-crack of a fresh bottle of Jägermeister, which made a circuit among the seven of us until it landed empty on the floor.  We felt a bit nackered, and the skies were gray in the morning, but the excellent party jams of Basement Jaxxx did everything short of resetting the clock to noon on Friday.  Thus the day begins in earnest: I enjoy the Latvian band The Big Bluff, and then a bizarre interview with the trio back in the Media Tent; Warpaint and St. Vincent enchant us; and then, finally, after a sherbet-colored sunset over black Riga Bay, I find myself riding the crest of three-day wave of emotion, vibrations, and enough Tuborg to drown an orca.

The streets of Riga, when get back some time between 1 and 2, seem deserted; there’s a fine mist, and we seem to fly through it, straining all ten senses to seek the “action.”

We find it, after a sneaky pint at the Old Town Hostel: after striking up a conversation with a local girl who hears my attempt to order drinks (“Es gribetu … [points].”) and insists that I’m also a Riga native, we descend into what looks like a converted wine cellar, where two sweaty punters are doing their level best to keep up with the words scrolling across the low-def, pixelated screen, dragging them through a rendition of some forgotten early 90s ballad, now immediately recalled – we’re mouthing the words, too, and without even exchanging a glance Mikkel and I know what we’re going to do next.

And so we’re quite the contrast up there, the svelte Dane in black leather and aerodynamic hair, me in my boatshoes, magenta shorts, and Hawaiian shirt, each of us gripping drinks, tangoing with our mic stands, and shout-singing the Stones’ Satisfaction – something like David Bowie in his monocrome phase and Hunter S. Thompson.

I split some time around 5, responding only to that homing sense that swells after a certain number of drinks and a certain number of earnest interfaces entered and forgotten – I ditch Mikkel (to my shame some nine hours later), but I was acting on animal instinct: my feet move while my head sits up on a carriage seat, enjoying the mist, the aquarium blue of the morning sky, the lights spelling RIGA atop the Origo mall clocktower, telling the improbable time.

.     .     .

So after shooting off a few texts, showering, packing, and checking out, my first thought is for food: coffee, I croak to the waitress in the Tallinik restaurant, much quieter now without the throbbing half-awake breakfast hordes.  “Water too?” she asks.  She gets me.

The most confusing part about this meal wasn’t the spoon of cheese, weird black dots, white cream, and a sliver of strawberry that must have been sliced with a razor (“Do I…just put it all in my mouth?”), but the flakes (look, seriously: flakes) of seedy bread crust. Note also that I consumed the entire basket along with my buckwheat pasta, and still considered buying a doner kebab about an hour later.
This wouldn’t be anyone’s first thought for a recovery breakfast, but the surprisingly tight-packed pasta gets me through two flights and almost 12 hours before I eat again, grabbing a discounted salmon sandwich at the Edinburgh Airport’s M&S, before a tram and then a bus ride back home, where I die, “to fight no more forever.”

I end up with the chili and lime buckwheat spaghetti, which comes with a bizarre dish of grainy breads, including mini-muffins and the bread-equivalent of flakes of plaster.  It eat it one-handed, using the other to support my suddenly outsized skull and ponder my next move.

And of course everything works out: Mikkel shows up, not quite sober but still standing, and he, the UK journalist Ali, and I make it to the airport in time for our flights.  Booked on WizzAir, Ali and I allow ourselves to be shuffled and harassed all the way into our seats, and then rocketed out of Riga.

I recall our conversation a little over 24 hours earlier: I’d love to come back, I’d definitely come back, we all said.  We offered up hopes of meeting again at Positivus 2016, as easy as letting go of a balloon.  We followed each other on Instagram.  We promised ourselves we’d see more of Riga, meet more Latvians, Next Time.  But even then our thoughts were a least a quarter dedicated to the more immediate Next Thing, the next assignment, the next shoot, the next city.  It all makes me think of our trade’s interesting toolbelt, which has less to do with grammar or ISO settings than you might think.  To be a reporter you have left your sense of shame in high school; you have to understand that it’s possible and necessary to be compassionate in reporting and ruthless in writing; you have to be a conversationalist, a deipnosophist, with Renaissance courtier’s eleventh sense for bullshit; with rare exceptions you have to be able to drink¹´; and you ought to be able to sing, when required.  But the key, it seems to me, to making the most of a reporter’s red-eye life is to sleep seldom, and never blink.


1. Foosball, it turns out, is something of a national obsession.  I find tables in several bars, and Positivus offered a popular Human Foosball attraction: analogous to Wizard’s Chess but apparently without rules, an ungovernable number of players run laterally, gripping blue and red bars, and kick at a soccer ball, all inside a rope cage.  Despite his skills, I doubt the Old Man would have fared as well in this version of the game.

2. I overdo it every dayª: eggs scrambled and fried, sausage, ham, bacon, meats and cheeses continental-style, cottage cheese over liver pate; salmon, herring, croissants, four varieties of bread; boiled potatoes, sauces, salad fixings, seeded mustard; apple turnovers, fresh jelly- and chocolate-filled donuts with tubs of strawberry, elderberry, and lingonberry toppings and even fresh vanilla cream. 20150718_100230

a. Except Monday morning, which (for me) begins at midnight and ends five hours after this – I miss the 7-10 a.m. breakfast and wake at 1:48 p.m., in need of some sobering sustenance before my 7 p.m. flight, but without the Tallinik’s endless potatoes to aid me.

3. Unlike T in the Park, where the VIP section, distant from every stage, offers a patch of grass, food options priced a few pence above anything else at the festival, and an “exclusive” bathroom (OK, OK, also bottle service, but you can’t take the stuff out), Positivus’ VIPs lounge on couches or beanbags under the trees drink champagne and eat canapes, and can actually watch the main stage from a two-tiered platform where, by some miracle, there’s always enough space for everybody.

1´. It has to do with endurance, but, as a wise man once said to me, “I don’t trust a man who won’t take a drink.  That’s why I didn’t vote for Romney.”  (This wise man happened to have served his time as a journalist in the historical wilderness of the 2010s.  He’s since largely retired from the profession.)


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