Archive for December, 2011

Liège 13/12/11

I have a couple of drafts about my travels waiting to be completed and subsequently published – I’ll do that soon, now that I have holidays. And I’m going to fix the dates so they are published in chronological order, so you may need to scroll down. But for now, one week later, I must write about this.

As you may have heard by now, there was a grenade attack followed by a shooting, carried out by the same man, at midday. I was at the scene. Needless to say it was terrifying, but I got away safely, without really knowing what on earth was going on – I was just out wasting some time on my lunch break, why would this be happening in Liège? I only realised how close I had been to getting seriously hurt or worse when I got home and read that 2 people had already been killed (a number that rose to 7 eventually, I believe; along with over 125 injured).

This is to remember those who were not as lucky as me.

My time in Liège has come to a premature end, as I and my home university felt I was not in a fit state to carry on studying there and sit my exams. So I am now going to meet with my department today to discuss that. I’m nervous about it, as I actually need to appeal to the university, but I am hoping for the best. Nobody could have ever predicted that something like this would happen.

Riga, Dobele and Jurmala

This weekend, I went to Latvia. It was a part of Europe I’d considered visiting for quite a while for a couple of reasons:

1. Over the past few years in the UK there have been a lot of people immigrating from Latvia and some of its neighbouring countries, in order to earn better wages and to get a better quality of life. I wanted to experience some of their culture in the land it came from, especially since there is a lot of prejudice against them.

2. I’m just very interested in Russia in general, and back in the days when it was the Soviet Union, Latvia was one of the nations it occupied. Going to Russia is actually still quite tricky – you need a visa, flights are not in my current price range, and I’ve heard a lot that even in metropolitan areas not many people speak English (I’ve taken some Russian lessons before, but I’m still not really confident I could make myself understood over there). So, I wanted to see some of its influence elsewhere.

When I told people where I was going, a lot of them had no clue what I was talking about. So, here is a map:

(Sadly this is only one of the results you get when you type “where is latvia” into Google Images.)

My trip got off to a bit of a bad start. I had to pay in excess of 30 euros just to get from Liège to Charleroi Airport (a.k.a “Brussels South”… it’s about an hour away from Brussels), because I had forgotten my student train pass; and then I found out there was a bus strike, so I had to take a taxi! Also, the airport itself was probably one of the worst I’ve been to – but maybe I was just more annoyed than usual because I was already in a bad mood. The facilities were generally terrible, the building was of this weird narrow design which meant you could hardly move, I don’t know… basically, I’m just making a note never to travel from there again, which I probably won’t.

But I arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia and indeed its only city, one time zone later. Without knowing a word of Latvian, I somehow got a bus to the street where, Zane, the girl I’d be staying with, lived (I found her on Couchsurfing). She lived on the 5th floor of a very old building which “homeless people and junkies” unofficially inhabited. On the inside, though, she had made it very cosy. I met her sister and best friend who she lived with, they were very nice people – and by the end of my stay, I felt like I’d got to know them all equally, even though I’d initially only contacted one.

We went to a bar where there was a Russian ska band playing and I tried some local beer – which was nice, and very, very, very cheap. In general, there were awesome places to go at night in Riga, even though I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you the names. A notable sight for me was a couple of prostitutes standing outside smoking and wearing Snuggies.

The next day, it was time to go to Dobele, a small town about an hour away from Riga. Zane was part of a choir and they were going to perform some traditional Latvian songs there. She had informed me of this, and said that if I wanted I could stay in Riga for the day, but I wanted to come along because really, when else was I going to have this experience?

I have to admit that going to Dobele felt a little bit like stepping into a time warp. It was very quiet, for a start. The weather was extremely gloomy. There was absolutely no hope of anyone speaking English – maybe German, at a push. For lunch, I went to a quiet café straight out of the 1980s, and had cabbage, potatoes and beans, as well as a black coffee. I took pleasure in the bleakness. In the town, there was also a ruined castle:

The concert was in the afternoon and it was very interesting. I was the only person in the whole room who was not Latvian, and therefore did not understand the speeches, introductions and songs. It was surreal. All along, I was thinking, “A week ago, how could I have foreseen myself doing this?”.

The next day, we took the train to Jurmala, a seaside town just outside Riga, still very popular with Russians. It was lovely. We took a walk out to see the Baltic Sea. However, as we walked along, a massive rainstorm ensued – and indeed, it started hailing. It was incredibly, incredibly cold. To make matters worse, we were trapped on the beach; luckily, we climbed through a gap in a fence so we could make our way back to the station. The station was one of the most grim and downright dodgy places I’ve been. Not only was I freezing, soaked through and needing the toilet at this point, but we were alone in there with some rather unsavoury looking characters. At one point one of them pulled out a knife, and the transport police walked past without blinking an eyelid.

Of course, by the time we got back, which was only about 16:00, it was dark, so I still hadn’t actually seen Riga by daylight. My flight home was at 14:00, so I needed to cram in some sightseeing the next morning. Here are some photographs I took from the brief walk that Zane took me on around the lovely Old Town:

Riga's three oldest buildings

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip. I honestly can’t recommend Couchsurfing enough for the lone traveller on a budget – you get to know such great people, you get opportunities and insights you may not have had otherwise, and another advantage is saving money. I would go there again, but in the summer, as my Siberian hailstorm story illustrates. And it was so cold, so bitterly, bitterly cold. I’m now very interested in the Baltic countries in general… I’m thinking a trip through Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia may be on the cards one day…