I had just put my bags down in Riga, Latvia, when a black car pulled up to the curb and out of it, a stocky Eastern European bulldog of a man appeared, speaking in grunts, hand gestures and no English. Sent from the Latvian Squash Federation, he was here to fetch the American pro and bring him across town to a nondescript squash and tennis center. And off we went.
Greeting me at the club entrance was Latvia's sixth best player who, along with his hitting partner, took turns hurling everything they had my way for over an hour on a tucked away, dimly lit court with multicolored walls. Playing top club players is a different game than pro matches- instead of being the underdog, this time I was the target. These guys, and later the Latvian #2, 3, and 7 players, took turns throwing the kitchen sink my way, and in some ways this was a better way to train: play with the bullseye on your back and find a way to fight off everyone else gunning for you.
When the battle was over I met up with Ieva, the daughter of a Pauls, who is a close friend of my friend Catherine's Latvian-American friend from college Erika's cousin's parents. Of course. I slept on a couch in the top floor apartment of Ieva's grandmother who was out of town, sharing the space with two other friends visiting Riga that the family also generously took in. Ieva's dad, born and raised to Latvians in the US, spent a summer during grad school at a newspaper in Riga during the early 90's. When, that same summer, the country's independence movement took hold, he found himself playing the role of late twenties grad student turned independence advocate. The family hasn't left since.
Ieva led me into the old town of Riga and down a winding stairwell into a cellar of a restaurant serving classic Latvian cuisine (aka, creative variations of meat and potatoes) at Latvian prices (aka a few bucks a plate). We split potato pancakes and in a narrow decision I elected to play it safe for homemade Latvian meatballs over the one kilo of roast pork served on it's own carving table, keeping in mind I did have to workout early the next day. Laughs and cheers from the friendly Latvians mixing with jams from a three piece string band echoed throughout the den, potatoes and beers on a crowded Riga Tuesday night- it was pretty easy to begin to see why everyone around the Baltics spoke of Latvia as on the way up, shedding the last remnants of it's Soviet occupied past. The next day after squash we hit a microbrewery and then headed to Piens, Latvian for "Milk", which was the Wednesday night scene in the city. Amidst tight jeans and deep house beats the locals lamented to me Piens was once an underground hipster hangout but now is mainstream and yuppy. I learned Latvian yuppy is still American hipster but a lot less pricey.
Ieva and I wandered by the cathedrals and cafes along the cobble stone roads of Old Town, and one of the Latvian players, Miks, led me through the remodeled harbor and beaches, past quiet residential streets of townhouses lined with blooming flowers and green trees below stone cut facades and balconies – Riga's take on Manhattan neighborhoods, just less busy, a little less in a rush. I spent a couple mornings just wandering. On foot in Riga you could pass a Russian potato pancake parlor and a tunnel from the 17th century, pile up dumplings at a dumpling buffet for a couple Euros, stop by a raw garden food bar before taking a seat along the river and in just a few hours feel some kind of bond with this unassuming city and its people you wouldn't ever have predicted. I ran into an older American couple from Washington State and we marveled in what seems like one hell of a kept secret that are these Baltic states. As we parted, the husband turned back and threw a pat on my shoulder, "keep up the journey. You'll only be young once. You'll be old forever."
After my last day of training with Miks, Ieva took me on a walk a few streets down her neighborhood. Rounding a nondescript corner things turned alive, as we ventured into an evening summer market in a courtyard enclosed by a rebuilt cluster of wooden buildings, previously abandoned from the Soviet era. From the courtyard came live music, a wine bar and food stalls with families and young couples wandering about, their Thursday routine. From one woman I bought "sklandrausis", a potato mashed with carrot puree and pressed onto rye bread, which Ieva explained was usually only found in the Kurzeme region in the northwest of Latvia.
Next to the woman was a hunter grilling sausage from deer he had hunted the other day, and across from that stand a woman sold buckets of sweet juice from inside a birch tree. Across the street stood a few other abandoned buildings that hadn't been touched, one of those little reminders of the past for a country enduring change. With this market and others, as we walked block by block, could see the evolution of a city. A checkered mix between the last remnants of it's old guard and the new seeds of what's to come. And that's what made it so cool. I'm sure in ten or twenty years things here will be different- maybe there will be chain restaurants, pricey booze and entrance fees- but for now there was none of that, just friends hanging out on a Thursday together. I couldn't help but think these Latvians have figured it out.