Friday, November 23, 2007

Giorgoba, Riga

Gilocavt Giorgobas! Today is the feast day of St. George (Giorgi), one of the most important saints for Georgians. It is also the 4th anniversary of the Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili to power. Either way, today is a reason for all Georgians to celebrate (i.e. drink lots of wine and eat lots of food) and I will surely join them.

I returned from Riga early Monday morning (4 am--almost all flights to/from Tbilisi arrive/leave around then) exhausted yet refreshed and at the same time glad to be back in Tbilisi.

Three days in Riga seemed to be just the right amount of time to explore the old part of the city, where I stayed. The city is relatively small (~700,000) and one can walk from one end of Old Riga to the other in less than 30 minutes. But that's not to say there isn't much to see. The architecture is stunning, from the 13th century Doma Cathedral to the Art Nouveau buildings along Alberta Street. At this time of year, days are short in this city at a latitude greater than 55 degrees; night came at 4:30 and the sun never rose very high in the sky, so that for all of the daylight hours it felt like morning.

When we weren't meandering through the city, Callie (my friend from College) and I visited the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, Museum of War--two museums that detail 800 years of invasion and oppression, not so unlike Georgia--and the Market. The Market is a huge complex of several buildings (it gets to cold to have a year round outdoor market) that sell everything from freshly slaughtered meat to delicious rye bread so dense that you can't compress the bread at all (I bought a 1 kilo loaf that looked half the size of one of our one-pound loaves of bread). Riga is just minutes from the Baltic Sea and fresh caught fish are sold every morning in the market. Fresh milk is sold from large steel drums by the kilo; buyers bring their own containers to take the milk.

Compared to Tbilisi, Riga feels like Western Europe to me. And if it weren't for the large Russian population (about 50% in Riga), most would probably agree with me. It was interesting for me, coming from one former Soviet Republic to another, to see how much more successful Latvia has been in catching up with the rest of Europe in terms of economic growth. Any street in old town looked nicer than the nicest street in Tbilisi. There are malls and grocery stores; Tbilisi has neither (the closest it gets is the bazaar). A great deal of Latvia's success is due to a combination of being closer to the rest of Europe and having only been under Soviet rule for 45 years (as opposed to Georgia's 70), but one still can't help but ask why it's taking Georgia so long. Interestingly, Callie, who's been studying in Prague, felt that Riga was the Eastern European Post-Soviet city she had hoped Prague to be, but apparently isn't.

But I don't want Tbilisi to feel like another Western European city. As beautiful of a city as Riga is, I felt that it didn't have half the character of Tbilisi. True, I was only there for 3 days and could be completely wrong, but I think that along with economic prosperity comes a threat to culture. Sure, Tbilisi is poor but the people are thankful for what they have and know how to celebrate every bit of good fortune that comes there way; strong families and close friends are the result of a necessity to help each other out during difficult times.

I do realize that life is difficult in Georgia and I do hope that Georgia finds economic prosperity, but I just hope that when I return in 20 years I'll still find Old Georgia in the people.

PS All the pictures of army vehicles and soldiers are from the Military Parade, part of the celebrations for Latvian Independence Day.

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