The Latvian National Academy of Science

Be free. Align yourself with the rhythm of the world to go far. Be as the jajabor, the nomad. Arrive somewhere from the soul, due to the appealing curl of its name or because it feels right or because we know nothing. Go because the time has arrived, sense it.

The Baltic States beckoned in such a way. I went because the idea surfaced. I went because it was there. Other than that, the reason for the journey was left to present itself as a revelation of yes – that must be why I came. Intuition would make the arrangements.

Due to the circumstances that had led to the meeting of a Latvian folk musician on an Estonian road, I had a private apartment in Riga, the Latvian capital, from the first evening. My pocket had keys. It gave perhaps a stronger sense that the brand new city was mine to explore; but it wasn’t the being somewhere new that brought meaning – it was a basic decision between old and older.

On that first morning, I’d locked the door of the apartment I was unexpectedly borrowing. I set off on foot down the busy street that judging by the traffic must lead somewhere; and it wasn’t long until the distinctive roofs and church towers caught sight of me. The famed old town was away to the mercantile right. Yet to the left a different type of building caught my eye: a stark, stalwart tower in brown, which seemed the very essence of the Soviet Union days. It was intriguing.

I knew I would see both pasts. I had the time. The question was which to go to first and on the thought that at the top of the tower I could take photographs over the old town I was inclined towards the left. In this way the communists won the moment. Yet, as it turned out, it was a decision that would bring me right to my sentimental Latvia.

I heaved those enormous doors, of the heavy wooden kind, and inside was an enormous Spartan lobby with proletariat looking lifts to the front, and to the left was a functional-looking booth with a sign that read ‘Enquiries Counter.’ In it was an equally functional-looking Russian woman, elderly and overweight. It was as though I had walked into one of those Hollywood films designed to promote a view of life in the Soviet Union that made one pleased to live in the ‘free world’. It was behind-the-iron-curtain in a clichéd way and I was excited.

I imagined Soviet citizens in the film, stooping to speak through the slot at the window of the booth, to make enquiries that ended in an inevitably firm ‘Nyet!’ I thought to try it out.

‘Excuse me, what is this building?’ I asked as prelude to my planned request to reach the roof.

‘Sprechen Zie Deutsch?’ she said, do you speak German?

‘Nein,’ I replied, in German, and for some unknown reason tried again in English.

‘Sprechen Zie Deutsch?’

‘Still Nein.’

We stood smiling at each other, at a loss, and she certainly seemed too friendly to play the role of Soviet receptionist in the movie. She would have been very helpful to a German.

With a dash of disappointment I headed back across the lobby to those gargantuan doors. I heaved one of them open again, wondering if the inevitable door-people in the Soviet era had developed shoulder injuries from the task. I was thinking I might never know what that building was, when a woman came in the door I’d just opened. On the off chance…

‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’

‘A little,’ she said in an accent delightful enough to flavour ice cream. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked.


‘It’s my favourite country,’ she said, ‘I lived in Melbourne for six months!’

We stood chatting in the doorway for a minute or two. The building was the Latvian National Academy of Science, her name was Dzintra and she worked there as secretary to a senior official.

I didn’t know then about the strength of her intuition. Nor was it clear I had met a Latvian jajabor; and yet the initial connection seemed unusually strong.

‘I finish work at seven,’ she said, ‘I want to show you some nice buildings in Riga that you won’t find on your own. Come back then.’

We must have spoken seven sentences but it felt as though we’d known each other for seven months. Latvian time was speedy, I was learning, Dzintra was teaching me. She continued into the building and I went out; and as I walked up the street I felt certain it was for that moment in the doorway that life’s course had brought me to the Baltic. I’d come to meet her.

On the Daugava River not long before it reaches the sea, the Latvian capital is the big city of the Baltic States. Of course its old town is well-endowed with cobblestone squares, churches and secret laneways; with faces, with golden roosters four floors up watching the sky; and a black cat, back arched in protest at being left out there on the peak of a roof. Of course there are streams through parks and on the railings of the little bridges are the permanent padlocks the Russians affix as a symbol of binding love; there’s a small castle and crowds on the streets, hopping on and off the sky blue trams that cross the Daugava bridge like scuttling insects. 

After a few hours with the usual trappings of Rigan life, wandering around, I made my way back towards the Academy. I was early by two hours and thought it’d be a bit boring to wait, although there was the Soviet-style market to look through, on the left side of things, where they still sold milk scooped up by apron wearing women, with ladles from big metallic urns. Nor was I entirely sure where my apartment was, so to go and wait there would have been a gamble. I only hoped I’d find it later. I had the keys.

I met Dzintra before I got to the Academy, under the railway bridge. ‘I left work early,’ she said. I suppose she’d felt I was on my way, I can say now. It was our second chance meeting.

True to her word she showed me beautiful streets of grand old buildings that I wouldn’t have found, up around Elizabetes iela to the north of the old town.

Now, when she tells people how we met they say, ‘You shouldn’t have done that! It might be dangerous!’ I’ve told her I agree and she shouldn’t do it again. But what people don’t properly imagine is how well we knew each other by then. If the first seven sentences were seven months, by the time we’d seen the best of the buildings at least three years had passed in speedy Latvian time. We were not strangers when she issued the invitation to stay at her house, as long as I didn’t mind if it was small and Soviet and featured a marginally malfunctioning bathroom.

It was a tempting offer but I had keys in my pocket and it’s not every day a private apartment for ‘whenever you are in Riga’ finds you. It was not something I wanted to quit, so I said ‘No’.

But of course, if you let it the world has ways to correct the decisions you get wrong. Wilful interference of the human-brain kind can only destroy the far better plans. Especially in Latvia, let the season take you by the hand.

This story continues here: Potato and Toothpaste Travel

The meeting at the Latvian National Academy of Science can be a nice precursor to finding memories in a waterfall, sort of eating dog due to a lack of fishing net casting skills, or meeting the Chittagonian whistler.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Latvian National Academy of Science
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