I fear I may have been overworking a little lately. This week, I fell asleep while writing up some invoices. I fell asleep on the bus and nearly missed my stop. I couldn’t understand why my boot didn’t fit anymore – until I realised I was trying to put it on over my slipper. Then on Thursday, I had to choke back a fit of the giggles when it suddenly hit me that I was in a roomful of Latvians, teaching them English, in Latvia. This struck me as inexplicably funny at the time.
Realising that I might be at best, a little overtired, at worst, careening towards a (mild) psychotic break, I thought it might be a good idea to take a break – for a day anyway – and get out of Riga. And so, I decided to take a day-trip to Jelgava (pronounced yell-gava).
Jelgava, population 65,000ish, merits a quarter of a page in the Lonely Planet and boasts, um, a castle…and very little else by the looks of things. That’s not why I wanted to go, though. Currently, I have three students called Jānis and two of them come from Jelgava. (The other one really comes from the arse-end of nowhere.) So, I thought I’d go and see the natural habitat of the frequently-spotted Jānises (Jāņi for any Latvian readers. Pronounced ‘yahhhn-nyee’ – sexy, right?)
And so, on Saturday morning, with a belly full of Irish bacon, Latvian eggs, and ‘British’ beans (made in Hamburg), off I
toddled waddled to the bus station. With my change and ticket fecked at me by the charming sales lady, I made my way to the stop. Entertainment for the ensuing 10 minutes was provided by 3 still-drunk-from-the-night-before, glassy-eyed English guys. They staggered around, one of them clutching a litre of orange juice like his life depended on it. “We just need to find someone who looks like they work here and ask them where the bobsleigh is…” I mentally wished them luck with that one.
Once on the mini-bus and out of Riga, a look out the window confirmed what I already knew. Trees, trees and more bloody trees. Faced with looking at that view or the wart on the back of the guy’s head in front of me, I chose to doze until we arrived in Jelgava at around 12.45.
Jelgava used to be the most beautiful city in all of Latvia, even more beautiful than Riga – home to dukes, barons and all sorts of fancy folks. Then it got bombed to bits in 1944. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see this sort of building than anything befitting a duke.
Anyway, I set off down the main street, following the signs for the tourist information centre. After walking for a while, I reached the conclusion that the information centre must be invisible. Instead, I came to this pretty pointless, probably stupidly expensive bridge.
It seems that a lot of money is being ploughed into making the waterfront a nice place to be. But as usual, it’s all a bit half-arsed. You can take the load off on one of these nice benches…
…and treat your eyes to the aesthetic delights of a massive pile of mud or… a massive pile of sand.
I carried on over the bridge and found myself in a little park, faced with the one building that survived the bombings – Jelgava Palace. Former home of the Duke of Courland, the Latvians, practical as ever, have turned it into the Latvian Agricultural University. A once beautiful building, it’s very photogenic – from behind some trees or from a distance. Up-close, it could do with a lot of plaster and a good lick of paint.
Having been in Jelgava for over an hour at that stage, it suddenly struck me that I hadn’t seen any leopard-print. What was going on? Then it hit me. Single-motherhood is clearly the fashion here, not leopard-print – everywhere I looked, girls were pushing buggies, sometimes alone, sometimes with other girls pushing buggies. But where were all the men? Were one or two Jānises going around impregnating everything that moved under the age of 25? Maybe…
After a wrong turn, I found myself at the elusive tourist information centre, cunningly disguised as a church tower. A statue of Jānis Čakste, the first president of Latvia, greeted me outside.
I popped in, picked up a map (not really necessary) and a postcard for my granny. I wandered around the town for a bit longer, taking some photos of churches and the like. As usual, the Russians kicked ass in the flashy church department.
After all my meanderings, I decided that I’d earned a cup of tea and a cake, and headed back to the main street – where something strange had happened. An army of old ladies seemed to have taken over the town centre. It was all a bit surreal and Twilight Zone-y, but also quite a nice feeling to be the youngest woman in town by around 40 years.
I went into a nearby cafe and asked for a cup of tea and a cake. My foreigner’s Latvian was met with a suspicious eye but she checked my order in Latvian, I confirmed in Latvian and we were done – take note Riga. Oh, and it cost me 63 santimes.
Figuring 2.45 was too early to start drinking, I went back to the tourist information centre which is also a museum. After paying a paltry 1.50 lats for the whole experience, I started on the 9th floor where the sightseeing platform is located – and Careless Whisper was playing. Unfortunately, it had been raining and the windows were a bit fogged up so my photos were a little underwhelming – unless condensation really turns you on.
One floor down, I learned all about the dowry chests that women had to bring to their marriages in the old days – which could have been filled with hundreds of items, like handmade mittens, socks, sheets, ribbons, belts etc. The chest and the ‘worth’ of the bride would then be evaluated on the wedding day by the groom’s family… I wonder how my home-made cake would have gone down?
By the time, I reached the last level, I felt like something of an expert on Jelgava so I decided to take the interactive quiz. I answered (most of) the questions correctly and was awarded with a nice certificate for my troubles.
It was now 3.45 and a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking, so I called up one of my Jānises. Thankfully, he picked me up along the way or I don’t think I ever would have spotted the bar, nestled as it was between a bridal shop and a dentist’s surgery.
Despite looking like nothing from the outside, Balerija turned out to be a real find – cosy and dimly lit, with lots of comfortable sofas and a great selection of beers. It was also where all of the men in Jelgava were hiding.
Since Latvians are always telling me how honey is good for your health, I opted for a honey beer. And it was good. And paid for by Jānis which was even better. (I know all the best Jānises.)
Now this Jānis is probably the smiliest Latvian you will ever meet but naturally, I had to make him do ‘miserable Latvian face’ for the photo. He tried, bless him, but didn’t quite manage to pull it off.
Pint downed, it was time to head back to the bus station. I did, however, stumble across one more hidden gem on the way…
I wonder if those English guys ever did find the bobsleigh?