Drifting into Riga

By Dipika Kohli

I am in Riga, Latvia. It is half past nine in the morning, just barely, and I can see the people on the crosswalk below moving to and fro the way I imagine I must have looked three weeks ago when I was exactly there, for the first day, walking in the then-cold and wondering how in the universe I might find my way through a new place, a new way, a new day. And the bare branches on the trees... Tokyo via Bangkok, to here. A long road. Came to Latvia because, well: it's different from everywhere I've ever been. There I go, off towards the new. As my father says, 'That's Dipika.'

I can see the front of the train station, across the way, and around the building I now know there is a bus station to carry you off to cities of Eastern Europe multiple times a day. Pretty smack in the center of things, where the people move, and the parks are vivid. I like this. I like being in a city again, but not a giant city. I like walking around all over the place and running into people from the same places, the same cafes, the same bars, the same restaurants that I like to return to. In this small way, on the road, I sort of get a chance to form a little temporary circuit, and that is how I manage to feel in a small way, at 'home.' Not always, of course, but sometimes.

I just got a gift from one of the cafe owners, Zina Olehnovica, she runs a place called Tortik Time, and we did a small event together just yesterday. She gave me an oil painting, an original of hers. It's so nice. It's so... kind. It's also very good work. Making friends, on the road, in the cities where I go. (Sounds like a promise I made to someone in Ipoh, back in Malaysia last year: 'I'm going to go to Latvia and make events and write stuff with people I don't even know yet.' But it's a thing. It is. It happens.)

Moving around in the drift that is what the Situationists talked of, as I have learned, from brief internet researches in that vein. And now I'm on to post postmodernism, ask me about it. I have been reading Urban Dictionary and Wiki How. And talking. A lot. To people in their like, early twenties. Best research ever: real life.

In the short time since I landed here, confusedly, I'm sure, blundering about that very crosswalk below me (I'm four floors up, sitting in the window on a wide ledge, the sky is changing colors and the light is going, but slowly), I've gotten to know quite a bit, by brute-force, the same method one uses to calculate square roots of things without a calculator, right?, and by which I kind of move in general. Go and see a little. Discover a bit. Suss. Ask questions if you are lost. Get recommendations from people who look like they know things. And thusly, being smartphone-less and phone-less in general, with my paper maps and intuition, I amble around for a few days and then a few weeks, slowly getting accustomed to the basics: how to say 'please' and 'thank you,' where the (best) money changers are, how to get to Sigulda, et al. Plus, of course, the stuff of Asia travel: asking for deals on accommodation, just on the off chance that a little bit of insisting will earn you a few Euros back. (It did.)

Keeping it light; keeping it non-committal. Any day I could pop off to another town. There is Tallinn to the north, in Estonia, or Vilnius in Lithuania. Both are a half-day bus ride away, and for the southern tour I just found out I could do a train thing, if it was the weekend. Then there is Warsaw, and then, there is an overnight train that goes to Budapest, I just read. These things make me curious; but I am also well aware by now that movement for the sake of movement, while incredible in its own way, isn't the trip that I am on this time. I am actually here, believe it or not, for work. Writing. Design. Art. And photography. A kind of creative nonfiction mini-journalism, and that, too, in collaboration with people in this country. So, with a gut feeling that the aesthetics of here would align with my own, I just came, out of the blue. Sometimes, believe me, that is the best way. No expectations. Happily, Riga has enraptured me, and almost immediately. Like I said, I'd had a hunch about it. Now it's topping my list, beating out places I love like Prague, Copenhagen, and Cork. Compact. Walkable. And now... Riga. Could be just really lucky with the recent warm spell. And seeing the first bits of green poke out of the tree branches, that's nice. And there are gulls...

Ornament. Old buildings everywhere, old designs from here, places that some of the locals will 'warn you is very Soviet', the old school style that you might have wandered around if you were in the old parts of the cities that have the things that carry over from parts of Europe like this. I was at one point flashbacking to Gramercy Park in New York, and another time, to the old art nouveau stuff that I have heard there is a dedicated street for, which isn't too overdone, apparently, but just is, just is there, and just is being what it is, I've heard, and that is something I am saving for my last day.

Because between now and then I am starting to think about (side-)adventuring somewhere. I have no idea where, but I'm light with the luggage (got through much of that old paper, and typed the things in, and made categories and began to understand the 'what' of the things I want to put together next). New and near and now and next, that's my thing, really, continuing to adventure to the edge, and then, press. Expanding in this way is actually the work of innovation, and I don't mean that in a buzzword-y way, I mean that in a real way. It's where things are going now, with people looking for new ways to deal with old problems. You see it everywhere, people are talking all about the design process and they take fancy courses and they come back and apply something from a handout or something, but the real thing is this. Fieldwork. Going and seeing. Doing. Discovering.

The same thing I said before, about the crosswalk. Maybe at the start you have no idea what the heck you are doing in a place; but, bit by bit, you find your footing. You talk to people, you get invited places, you talk to some more people, and that's how it starts. Networking leads to more of the good stuff, if, that is, you are genuine.

I think that by now, reading this column, you probably know that I don't do things unless I mean them, and that's part of what translates without the need for learning foreign languages and fresh vocabularies. Because now and here, right where new and different others are, together, when we meet, eye to eye, face to face: that's when we 'get' each other, despite our worlds of differentness in upbringing. 'I find the you in me, so that together, you may find the me in you,' that's a line from a poem I had written in September last year, “A Place Called Home," about getting back to Phnom Penh after being in Finland. I'm throwing a lot of places out there, at you. Sorry about that. But you know? This. Is.

The jazzy jam session I most adore: winging it, out here, but also, at times, landing in the spots where there's, wham!, the good stuff. The brilliant shining moment of a true, fabulous, and by necessity very short, connexion.

And here we are. Below, I see people springing into motion. Ah. The light. It's just gone blue-green. Just like that, the street clears.


Dipika Kohli is the author of Kanishka, The Elopement, and Breakfast in Cambodia. See www.kismuth.com.