ARRIVING IN AN EMPTY CITY. Why is Riga left deserted for tourists?

When tourists barge into Old Riga from nearby hotels or cruise ships in the summertime, little do they know about the reality they will experience. Not as packed as Vienna or Prague, Old Town in Riga is still a tourist Disneyland and barely local. But when travellers dare to visit the centre or nearby suburbs of the most populated city in the Baltics, every tourist is caught by surprise with half empty streets. Where did the people go?

capital r riga 2019, barona iela

Some time ago I didn't have the luxury of having much of a vacation. Working in tour business is always an active occupation, and there were moments I even did several tours per day for more than a month non-stop. After working like a horse, a day or two were my only holidays. A weekend off during Midsummer was a real success, too. Then, when winter came, tour rates went down, and I needed to occupy myself with other freelance activities that, again, fragmented my workflow and left me unable to take a break until mid-spring.

Many people work even harder in Riga, much harder than I do; I am well aware of that. There was even a wave of downshifters after the crisis, leaving cities for more rural environments or reducing their capitalist footprint. Some wanted it because of the workload, some to save money, some - due to misdeeds of the suspicious city council. And I felt I earned the big playday, too.

Meanwhile, my acquaintance Margo, back then a Berlin-based theatre director from Riga, admitted that Latvians really know nothing about the need to downshift. She said that only a few have really become slaves of labour in Latvia, and it's only bigger metropoles that really run on the blood and sweat of those burning out.

riga, capital r, 2009, 2019, empty city, park, uzvaras parks, victory park

It all changed naturally, when I got a job as a civil servant. Now I work set hours "from 9 to 5", no downshifting in the near future (only if I want it), and vacations have become a planned and even mandatory activity. Not yet being able to identify myself with such an option properly it sometimes makes me wonder - what do you do on days off from work? (Don't get me wrong, vacations are still a no-brainer here like in any other country).

What interested me more, was to find a convincing answer from my friends and acquaintances that we really have a slightly specific way on how to get along with the city when on a summer holiday. Especially, when a big part of it is keeping off the streets.

So here are a few main scenarios Rigans usually choose when on vacation. Things that explain the emptiness of the city outside Old Town - ten years ago, today and, most likely, ten years from now:
  1. The most Latvian habit is to leave Riga at first chance and be off to the countryside. The funny thing is that a large portion of Rigans are actually from rural areas, have allotment gardens in the periphery of the city. The vacation can be a bummer, the weather shite, the company or family disappointing (again), yet - when it's spent outside the city walls, it feels like it's spent well. Even those who were born in the city have a tendency (or an instinct, or a trend?) to escape to the countryside, and it seems common (mostly) among those born in the Soviet times (e.i. before 1991).
    Those generations are also berry- and mushroom-picking-mad! Whenever there is a chance of any gifts of the forest, we are on it. Finally, Latvia is also famous for its cemetery traditions and events, and visiting the family gravesite is a mandatory duty to many. So, this all forms the top reason Riga's so freaking empty during the warm season. Streets are empty, and the city only blooms around bedtime (constantly postponed because of the long-lasting light). By then many are back from the beach, from picking gifts of nature, from a two-day trip to somewhere, and the city finally becomes alive, at least in the core of Riga;
  2. Another habit is to travel everywhere, mostly to a new place and mostly to a new country. Such activity is very common among younger people. It's good for a while, to see the world and indulge in "out-of-your-comfort-zone" situations, learn and experience (not assume or stereotype) cultural differences. Or it's good to hit a more exotic sea, sun and sand with, possibly, no phone or e-mail coverage (outside Schengen zone is perfect these days).
    But it will take some courage to realize we have come as far as to replicating the same old Western irresponsible traditions that has lead the world to increasing CO2 emissions and a distorted tourism industry and authenticity. One must be very careful in enjoying oneself while not going too far into consumerism. Yes, I do sound like some annoying climate anorak, but "flight shaming" is really taking off these days for a good reason. Thankfully, there are many other means of transport to use in the Eurasian continent, also many travellers in their thirties and early forties have tried backpacking or hitch-hiking pretty often. Campers and #vanlife for Latvians are still not a thing as huge as in the west, although cycling, exclusively or accompanied by car, is a growing market;
  3. Many have a really deep sleep. When you stay at home and hit the sack for days doing nothing but sleeping more and then watching TV shows and eating comfort food you get by slipping to and back the closest shop unnoticed. However, there is no real proof this very much deserved slumber really helps recover some sleepless nights and smother the stress accumulated at work. Maybe ageing is a part of "this is not working", but, regardless, some sleep is always a good plan, and it keeps many Rigans off the streets again;
  4. Work, get married, work again. Turns out that many use their vacation to do what other people do around the world - finish up their personal things. Sort out their freelance duties, fix the apartment, get married or organize a wedding, or even pay the doctors a visit. People here are really not that different from workers elsewhere, and sometimes a week off to pull your personal things together feels ordinary. Some even get crazy and succumb to ennui when worklessness seems to appear ahead.
    It reminds me of a thought by Susan Sontag from "On Photography" that all the Japanese and German tourists in the sixties were such workaholics they could not relax from working even on vacation. Hence the culture of taking pictures. At least you feel like doing something. Are Latvians there already? Not being able to relish holidays fully? You tell me;
  5. Finally, if you are a kid having a summer break, you're most likely away from the city, too. Many of those who attend schools in Riga actually live in the vicinity, not within the city, so most of their days are spent in the outskirts at their family's private property already. Then, many children are either deported to their grand parents' place in the countryside, or enrolled in summer camps that, again, take place away from anything urban. Finally, many teenagers are most likely hanging out at their or friend's den during the day, engaged with the same Netflix, video games, Snapchat or Instagram;
  6. Did I miss anything else?
zemitānu stacija, capital r, riga, empty city

Yes, maybe Latvians know nothing about the real need to downshift. Maybe Latvians are not as economically successful as a few other countries sharing a similar history. And it's not that typical yet for us to be major-level workaholics today. But maybe it's so because many of us have always kept nature and the right to it closer than many others.

Despite that, Latvians still rank high in suicide rates in Europe (also mirroring unhappy lives, despite our passion for nature). But I believe we can still learn from mistakes of many nations that there's nothing wrong to wish for a healthier mental life rather than a fatter wallet.

Mārtiņš Eņģelis