Familiar Infrastructure

Corner Currency
Exchange Booth, Riga
RIGA, Latvia
July 18, 2012

The two Baltic capitals I've passed through so far on this trip, Tallinn and Riga, are among the loveliest cities I've seen. Narrow, cobblestone lined streets twist through elaborately carved mediƦval and art nouveau architecture. Those cities must be among the most beautiful in all Europe. But, for me it's not the beautiful old towers that feel nostalgic and comfortable. Rather, it's the recent buildings laid on over the decades prior to independence--the boxy, clunky, Soviet infrastructure--that I find familiar.

I never did live anywhere that was part of the USSR--before or after its breakup. But over various trips I have managed to travel throughout all but 2 of the 15 SSR's that are now independent nations. The template for building up cities across the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century feels so familiar to me. Even today, even from decidedly Scandinavian Estonia all the way out to traditionally nomadic Kazakhstan--so much of the street-level existence is still consistent. What I see out around me includes:

Exchange Kiosks

These are found everywhere in every city I've been to that was once part of the USSR. They're not those sleek affairs with electronic listings run by Thomas Cook or American Express found in touristed areas of major cities. These are very much mom and pop operations. Buy and sell rates for various currencies are displayed on signs by manually swapping out large plastic numbers every day. All money traders will deal at least in U.S. dollars, in Russian rubles, and in the euro. Some take on wider spreads to dabble in less desirable currencies such as pounds sterling, yen, Swiss francs, and even Canadian and Australian dollars.

One notable exception I've seen stricken from the charts of currencies and their corresponding exchange rate: the Estonian kroon. There is now a blank space along that line for exchange kiosks displaying older signs. Estonia dropped their kroon and joined the euro last year.

Cream Cheese Logs Covered in Chocolate

Tram Leaves Riga
Central Market
I recall initially stumbling onto this treat over my first visit to Kazakhstan. Neither I nor the friend I was traveling with knew what they were; we found them lying on the refrigerated shelf of a Kazakh supermarket alongside sour cream, kefir, and cheese. There were various pictures on each wrapper indicating flavor, usually some fruit or nut. Even without understanding what was written in Russian on the product--or exactly what it was--we took a chance and bought a couple. I've been hooked ever since.

Inside the wrapper is a block of soft sweet cheese similar to cream cheese or marscapone. It could be flavored with vanilla, hazelnut, peach, berry, or just about any other common dessert flavor. The outer shell is of soft chocolate.

Whatever it is they're called, they're cheap, they're ubiquitous, and they make a great snack. I haven't seen them anywhere outside of countries that were part of the communist bloc.

Of course, these cream cheese logs aren't the only familiar food that I'm happy to find on return trips throughout the region. I've come across kwas, buckwheat, and plenty of dill in the days I've been on this journey. I'm still looking out for that brand of salty croutons that I remember enjoying on previous trips.

Transport Network

In Tallinn I saw the exact same model of tram running that I last saw in Ust-Kamenogorosk (Oskemen), Kazakhstan. Here in Riga there is a marshrutka network of private minivans providing public transport along fixed, numbered routes--a system I first became familiar with traveling throughout the 'Stans.

I don't think any of the three Baltic capitals I'm visiting on this journey have the other staple of Soviet city transport infrastructure: the elaborate metro system. Each station was built up with artistic design in mind, some containing elaborate murals, frescoes, and sculpture mounted alongside and above the platform. I'd be happy if it turns out I'm wrong and do find a metro system when I get to Vilnius. Riding the subway through any of these countries is worth paying the fare just to experience the design.

City Planning

Park Sculpture Facing
Riga Opera Hall
I think every city above a certain population had to have an opera hall built. By-and-large these are still in operation with a standard repertoire of cheap ballet and opera on several nights a week. It's often the same show; symphony musicians must be able to play all the standards by heart with or without sheet music. Whenever I pass through town there's always some production of Faust, Carmen, Swan Lake, and always some extravagant piece scripted by an ethnic local.

My sense of how the cities were planned is that not far from the opera hall will always be some neatly maintained central park with benches and sculpted fountains. Not far from opera hall and park will be a huge stone memorial commemorating World War II. Nearby will be a more recent post-Soviet monument to the date around 1991 when the nation achieved independence.

I assume my sense of what superficial elements dominate Tallinn and Riga isn't neccessarily what the locals pay attention to or certainly take any pride in. Aside from their richness in classical European architecture that long pre-dates the Soviet period, each city is located in a country with long-standing, rich traditions of culture that I can't fully appreciate over a brief summer holiday. To start becoming familiar with Estonian and Latvian culture I have, as usual, turned to food to find something local and new to me. I've been happy to find fresh herring is a common staple in both countries' dishes. As with so many places around the world, I guess I'll have to come back again to explore more deeply another time.

Herring- and Beetroot-
based Latvian Dish
One day I will complete the set and visit the last two remaining countries I've never seen that were part of the USSR. Those are Azerbaijan and Belarus. I know I've put off crossing those on previous trips as my charge for a visa to enter either of those countries would be $140--a lot more than anywhere else in the former USSR. Absurdly high as that sounds to me for a visa, to be fair, that does match what the U.S. charges everybody worldwide who requires a visa to travel there.

Someday: Azerbaijan & Belarus. Next stop: Lithuania.