We arrived in Riga on a Saturday, tired, sweaty, and jet-lagged. I had officially arrived at my destination for my first trip to Europe. After hearing stories from my grandparents about the history of Eastern Europe, where they were both born and raised, I had finally landed in a place that I knew held so much history, culture, and stories to discover.
On our first day, after checking into the hotel, we were taken on a walking tour around the city. The first thing I noticed about Riga was the beautiful landscape and architecture. There is a beautiful skyline over the river that is breathtaking when you first see it, and the architecture is heavily detailed with designs and shapes that gives each building a special kind of character that I am not used to seeing at home, where a lot of the buildings look the same.
After our walking tour we visited the Black Magic bar to try the most popular Latvian drink – Balsam. A lot of us chose to try the classis balsam and all of us drank it all at once, later learning that we probably should have sipped the drink instead. A lot of us enjoyed the Black Current more than we did the Classic, but also determined that either one tastes delicious in a cup of tea. In my opinion, the Balsam was similar to Jägermeister, which requires an acquired taste for enjoyment.
The second day included more exploration of the city, in which we had the privilege of visiting a Jewish Memorial site after exploring the remains of Turaida Castle in Sigulda. The memorial was sobering. Although we have similar memorials in the United States, it was somehow different to experience a memorial in Eastern Europe, where people were physically closer to the tragedies of World War II.
Throughout the week, we worked closely with RISEBA University. We walked there every morning to hear lectures on AmCham, EU funding for startup companies, the EU Energy Union and EU energy diplomacy, foreign investments, and the Baltic message to the world, to name a few. The speakers included the AmCham president, Arnis Kakulis, the advisor to the Ministry of Finance of Latvia, Jurijs Spiridonovs, and the former Prime Minister of Latvia, Ivars Godmanis. It was fascinating to hear not only about the history of Latvia, but also about the current state of the country and how U.S. politics affect the rest of the world. We learned that it is so important to Latvia and the Baltic states to remain independent, and that they desire stability within the European Union. I learned a lot about the impact our decisions have on the rest of the world. We also discussed the education in Latvia and how most of the people in Riga know three languages: Lativan, Russian, and English. Most of the people in the United States only learn one language in school and do not have as much experience with other languages.
My favorite lecture was given by Matiss Kukainis, who discussed the legal aspects of doing business in Latvia. We asked a lot of questions about business and government transactions, and Mr. Kukainis was very honest and open with his answers, which we all appreciated. He talked about Latvia with a great love and appreciation for his country, while also taking the time to discuss some of the areas where the country could improve. The lecture provided me with a lot of great information that I could not have learned from a textbook.
After our lectures, sometimes we had things planned for us, such as our trip to Aldaris Brewery or the visit to the U.S. Embassy, and sometimes we had free time to explore on our own. On our own, we visited Terrace Riga, St. Peter’s Church, and Galleria Riga. As we walked around the city we noticed how clean everything was; you could tell that there is a lot of attention to detail within the city. In contrast, cities like New York and Washington D.C. in the United States tend to have trash along the streets. A big difference I noticed after walking around is that if you make eye contact with a stranger on the street, they do not smile or nod at you. Afterwards I learned that most people there are friendly, but that it takes some time for them to open up to you. It is fascinating how different that is from American culture where people constantly make eye contact and smile at strangers.
After the first few days of exploring the city, a lot of us were complaining that our legs hurt. Another big difference between Latvia and the U.S. is that in the U.S., people drive everywhere. They drive to work, they drive to dinner, they drive to the mall, and they drive to go out with friends at night. In Latvia, we were walking everywhere and our legs and feet were not used to it. Additionally, it was harder to walk on the cobblestone streets instead of flat pavement. However, the cobblestone was much more beautiful than the streets in the United States. Having been back to the U.S. for a few days, it is still strange that I sit all day at work, sit in the car, and sit at home. It has opened my eyes to the small amount of physical activity I get during the week, and has encouraged me to be more active throughout the day.
Overall, I learned that Latvia is a well-kept secret of Eastern Europe as it has a lot to offer. Beautiful landscapes, intelligent and determined people, a motivated place for new businesses, and rich history all make up the city of Riga.