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Spin the Globe: Emma John in Latvia

AFAR chooses a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sends Emma John on a spontaneous journey to Latvia.

Bend over!” Those aren’t the exact words the old lady uses: She’s speaking Russian. But her meaning is clear. I brace my naked body against the bench in front of me, and she starts to hit me with a bundle of branches. A few seconds later, someone else joins in, with an exhortation that I can only assume means “Harder!”

Ever since I entered the sauna two hours ago, coyly clinging to my towel, I have surrendered entirely to these fleshy, bossy matriarchs. Pummeled and pumiced into submission by strangers, every shred of modesty removed, I am now having my bottom beaten with birch leaves while the matrons’ friends look on. It’s my own fault. I was the one who insisted on hunting for Russians.

When I reached Riga four days ago, I was more preoccupied with fellow Brits—and how to avoid them. Latvia’s capital is a popular destination for British males throwing stag parties, and their ignominious antics in the city’s cheap bars are a national embarrassment to the rest of us. But I arrived on a chilly Monday in April. The weekend was over, and it was too cold for high jinks. The Old Town, an entanglement of cobbled alleyways nestled on the east bank of the curving Daugava River, was all but abandoned.

Riga’s baroque buildings present to the newcomer a multihued front of pastel colors evocative of good things to eat: custard, pistachio, lemon curd, strawberry milk. As I walked the narrow streets on my first day here, I found surprises around every corner—a cathedral peeping out from behind a row of burlesque clubs, a smart new mall among the ancient alleys. There were museums, too, celebrating everything from firefighting to pharmacy to photography. The Latvians seemed keen to share their history.

Knowing nothing of the country’s past, I began at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, a modern black building perched on stilts. Its stark and forbidding appearance should have warned me. Latvia’s recent history is a chronicle of injustice and suffering. Invaded by both the Nazis and the Soviets, the country lost a third of its population after World War II to deportation and the gulag. For roughly 50 years, the Soviet leadership in Moscow stripped Latvia of its autonomy and its traditions, punishing and exiling all who stood in its way and populating Latvia—and the rest of the Baltics—with Russians. The country has been independent since 1991, but ethnic Russians still make up one-third of the Latvian population.

The exhibitions left me choked up. I needed a happy ending. I asked Karlis, a museum administrator in his 30s, what it’s like to live here today. “Well, it can be exciting,” he said. “Everything changes so rapidly.” I could see that change after I left the museum and wandered along Miera Street, an artists’ quarter and emerging cultural hot spot, where once-decrepit factories had been converted into art galleries and crowded cafés. I could actually hear the change in the seaside resort of Jūrmala—reached that afternoon by a rumbling 40-minute train journey from the city— where the houses, dating back to the 1930s, vibrated to the renovation chorus of the drill and the hammer. It sounded like a town still being built.

Thanks to Latvian friends in the U.K., I made a connection with Zaiga, a local journalist who works for the national news agency. On my second evening, we met outside one of the city’s chain hotels, where British businessmen stood smoking cigars and telling misogynist jokes. Zaiga’s British boyfriend, Peach, recently came to live in Riga. Every time Zaiga tries to take him to a favorite haunt, it has disappeared—closed down or moved on—another measure of the country’s continuous transformation. “There’s such a small population in Riga, if you open something, you have to get everybody to come,” Zaiga said, as she steered us to the week’s most fashionable joint, Chomsky, well hidden behind a dental clinic. Bare plaster on the walls, a few sticks of junk-sale furniture, a makeshift bar. It had captured the squat vibe perfectly. Unless the place actually was a squat.

We ordered honey beer (honey is highly prized in Latvia) and joined the dozen Latvians in the room. In Riga, we were a crowd. A young DJ at a mixing board was summoning anarchic sounds—walls of static, ominous beats, the chop-chop-chop of a helicopter— at volumes that threatened to clean my ears from the inside out. Peach looked queasy. When the music ended, the room applauded soberly, as if we’d been listening to Brahms. The avant-garde is alive and well in this pocket of the Baltics.

Zaiga said she had never been to the Occupation Museum herself. “It would make me too mad,” she said. This year a referendum emphatically rejected a proposal to make Russian the country’s second official language, demonstrating the strength of feeling that remains toward the country’s former oppressors. She told me about the taint the Soviet legacy had left on Latvia’s people and culture: selfishness, corruption, and appalling ’80s synth-pop. I’d encountered all three in my taxi from the airport; the driver charged me 28 lati for a 7-lat journey, despite the presence of several religious icons in his car. When I mentioned my visit to Jūrmala, Zaiga explained that it’s rubles paying for the remodeling—holiday homes for vacationers from Russia.

A day later, I dropped into the offices of the British Council, an organization that promotes U.K. culture abroad, for tips on things to see. I met two young Latvian women there, Ilze and Maija, who took me to Mežaparks, the Beverly Hills of Riga, where the super-rich live in traditional wooden mansions. Driving back through the Left Bank, to the west of the Daugava, we passed an obelisk, decked with stars, that shot 250 feet into the sky. I asked what it was, and they both groaned. “It’s the statue to Victory,” Ilze snorted. “It’s where, every Soviet holiday, the ethnic Russians who live in Latvia come with their roses and their flags and their vodka, and sing about how it used to be better in those days.”

I realized with a jolt that although there are nearly 300,000 Russians in Riga (almost 40 percent of the city’s population), I had yet to meet a single one. Ilze told me it was because the two groups don’t mix. Russians have their own hangouts, their own music, their own television and radio stations. We passed a new pavilion under construction at a sports club. It was white and gold and looked far too grand for the scrubby soccer pitch on which it sat. “I bet that’s Russian,” said Ilze. Maija nodded. “Latvians like good design,” she said. “Russians like to show off.”

I emailed Zaiga that night and told her I wanted to meet Russians. It felt rude, somehow, to come all this way and leave with only other people’s impressions of them. She endorsed the idea and sent a couple of suggestions. I took a 30-minute trolley ride into the suburbs to a Russian restaurant, where I failed to engage anyone in conversation but did eat a delicious pork shashlik. I’d never associated kebabs with Eastern Europe, but what did I know? I headed to Moscow House, Riga’s center for Russian culture, where the only English speaker worked in the travel agency and looked disappointed that I hadn’t come to get a Russian visa. I had barely finished my first innocuous question about the center’s origins when she told me briskly that whatever I had heard about Latvian-Russian disharmony was untrue. “This is just politics,” she said. “In real life, people are nice to each other.” She smiled briskly, and I sensed that I was being dismissed.

On my last day in Riga, I abandoned my search and opted instead for a sauna. I had heard that saunas are a part of traditional Latvian life, so I booked a session that started with a massage. A woman subjected me to the rough application of knuckles and the repeated squeezing of my ears. Halfway through my 30-minute slot, an old red-haired lady walked in and had a loud conversation with the masseuse while I lay on the slab like raw steak. Only when I entered the large, open shower room, where a dozen women gossiped in unfettered nudity, did I realize the chatter was all in Russian.

All the women wore felt cloches and looked horrified that I was bareheaded. Jana, the only English speaker, explained that this was a Russian sauna, and that I must wrap a towel around my head or I would damage my brain. The women clucked around me and, through gestures and barked commands, introduced me to the sauna’s complex routine: sweating, self-flagellation, and a plunge in an ice-cold pool, followed by an extended ritual of cleaning and grooming, loofahs and razors, full-body mudpacks, and a homemade face mask I swear had once been guacamole. And then begins the birch-leaf bottom-beating. When that’s finally over, and before I get up to leave, a woman insists on scrubbing my back till it almost bleeds; another dresses it with honey. I’ve never been so clean. Or so attractive to bears.

That night, I have dinner with Zaiga and tell her about my experience. She wants to go. Meeting Russians sounds like fun. A

Photo by Joshua Scott. This appeared in the September, 2012 issue.