“Would you like the welcome shot now?”

I remember her saying as the dark, spicy liquid burned down my throat. Her name has long been forgotten but I recall a short brunette and a perky laugh as I coughed loudly, surprised by the new fire in my belly. I had just tasted my first Latvian Black Balsam shot, a herby liqueur which I can best describe as a smoother version of Jagermeifter and if that doesn’t help, go to the shop and get yourself a small bottle. They do them in tiny green replicas of the original size. Cute as hell.

Welcome to the Naughty Squirrel.

It was a crisp evening in early winter. A few touches of snow were already caressing the ground. The city was shaded and yet alive with hushed couples that huddled together in hopes of fighting the cold. I walked slowly without taking notice of the twist and turns of the city.

Riga was the closest to a Christmas village I had ever gotten and this made me as excited as a child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. The shops were vibrant and aglow with shimmering lights. Someone told me the architecture was baroque though I couldn’t have told one style from another. I just knew it all looked very elegant and refined. I walked around the main square’s market, the stalls offering sweet-smelling mulled wine of a passionate color, perfectly roasted nuts, homemade gooey caramel that took hours to eat and colorful sweets that would make Hansel and Gretel bounce for joy. Heavenly perfumes of smoked meats were drifting across the square making my mouth water. It was a paradise of smells, all of them competing for my attention. I finally chose a traditional meal of juicy, slight-hint-of-rosemary tasting beef with buttery mashed potatoes and a sauce so delicious I would have bathed in it.

Latvia Christmas Market
As I noticed all of this, I brushed long blond hair out of my eyes, which I thought was bizarre as I’m a brunette, when a wig was dramatically whipped off my head and placed onto another, going around the group until the faces, in my mind, became so mixed up they can only be pictured with straw blond hair and dark beards.

I vaguely remember getting back to the hostel after many wrong turns in the city’s labyrinth-like alleys. Rubbing my hands together to bring them a bit of warmth, a second shot of Black Balsam appeared in front of me. It disappeared quickly and brought the nice glowing heat I was in need of. I shut my eyes taking in the sensations of alcohol and the small fire that was slowly weaving itself inside me.

When I opened my eyes again the world was cheering and faces were smiling. There was a deep blue-eyed brunette with a square-shaped face and an American twang. A sensual bearded stranger to my left kissed my cheek continuously. It was one of the rules of the drinking game but I might have imagined a twinkle in his eye. A bright London accent kept discussing with a stubborn Brummie one, their deep voices mixing until they couldn’t be dissociated. As I noticed all of this, I brushed long blond hair out of my eyes, which I thought was bizarre as I’m a brunette, when a wig was dramatically whipped off my head and placed onto another, going around the group until the faces, in my mind, became so mixed up they can only be pictured with straw blond hair and dark beards. Black Balsam shots were being passed around freely, as were beers of disproportionate quantities for their ridiculously low price. My face completely disappeared inside the pint every time I took a swig and would come out with a wet smile. I had entered the drinking games completely, happy to be included in the lively bunch occupying the hostel. It was supposed to be a quiet night. But after the first sip it was already too late. I was smashed.

The world was out of balance and, to think of it, so was I.

At some point, I remember a flash of a neon pink skirt and a beard wearing a cowboy hat. He held his guitar tightly as he sang “Hit me Baby one more time” loud and clear and slightly out of tune in the otherwise deserted square. How we had gotten here is an interesting question though photos I do not possess can probably be found to prove the episode. Policemen stopped and asked us to circulate. We took a photo with them. They never smiled but they watched him sing. The night was cool and so it was decided that the only logical thing to do was to assemble a human pyramid. It failed multiple times until the cleverest of us all had a slurred thought and yelled in an even sloppier speech:

“The lightest man on top!”

He made a quick selection and I was chosen to go up at the top. No way could I make my way up there after having savored Latvian Beer. The world was out of balance and, to think of it, so was I. After a few failed attempts I was pushed up in what was probably a very ungraceful shove. I still felt like I’d heroically climbed up a mountaintop. I proceeded to hold the position for 3 seconds before tumbling down.

The next morning, I still didn’t know anyone’s name. It was not important. Some people new mine. No one cared. We snuggled up under warm woolen blankets and watched movies, all of us unshowered with a few nausea hits. Dan, the only name I do remember, brought us proud cups of tea as we sat in a satisfied silence. I felt I knew these people. Dan was a striving photographer from Sheffield devoted to the beauty of his city. He also loved tea and his bridged nose disappeared in many a cup that day. The stout Birmingham-man had one of those bottom jaws that protrude. He would have been intimidating if he wasn’t constantly talking of his amazement at teaching African kids how to eat pizza while volunteering in Kenya. The blue-eyed American beauty was studying in Germany and was here with a Russian darling who had studied with her in America. She was also an adrenaline junkie and we listened to her tales of skydiving in rapture. A sexy Portuguese had been staying here for months, in limbo. He was a bit like me; unaware of where his life was going, content about it, maybe slightly worried.

Latvia Orthodox Church
Dan, the only name I do remember, brought us proud cups of tea as we sat in a satisfied silence. I felt I knew these people.

We ate eggs. Irrelevant I know but worth a mention. When we finally made our way to the frozen wonderland outside it was to go in search of a funky photography museum where we watched a Latvian documentary for half an hour because we felt like the sweet lady running the place didn’t have very many visitors. We swayed standing, smelling of stale beer but still we remained and watched the documentary without understanding a word. We followed suit with an eerie Russian market where, instead of patterned hand woven hats and socks, were displayed Red Army uniforms littered in bullet holes and instead of handcrafted jewelry you could get yourself a new set of teeth, all original of course. We walked across mountains of coins from the Tsarist period making you wonder what was money really worth. We held arms to warm each other up and walked briskly, our toes numb.

After some days we drifted off back to our different lives. I have kept the very cheesy image of us walking under a sparkling archway, arm in arm and smiling. I’m sure there are must-dos in Riga we must have seen or loads we must have missed. I probably also have some photos somewhere that wouldn’t fit my interpretation of these events. To be fair, all I can really think of after rereading this piece is how the hell can I recreate the beautiful rosemary beef I ate my first day at the market.

             

The Writer

I write stuff for fun, if it was for a living I would be homeless.

Find out more about me, Stefanie, here.

Quotes

Boy, those French. They have a different word for everything. Steve Martin