There is a little used bookshop in Rīga, nearly hidden down an alley off Dzirnavu iela. There are lights and bunting outside, a covered terrasse with a bookshelf stuffed with books. A man sits alone under fairy lights and reads. I enter the shop and begin to browse the titles, almost all in English arranged thematically and fastidiously. I catch the eye of a handsome Latvian man who works there. Blonde, kind and blue eyed, sweet smile, angular features, tall. I find a Penguin Modern Classic, ‘Moon Tiger’ by Penelope Lively; attracted by its promise of history intertwined with the personal.
Vanilla dust seems to float on the air in Rīga. Sweet smells of unknown origin permeate and waft through the streets. All I want to do is walk. Walk, walk, walk these honeyed streets. I love the way my legs feel. Stronger, thicker. I can feel my thighs and my muscles. They push me forward with power and purpose. I am not an idle walker, certainly not a flâneur. I want my strong legs to bring me swiftly to fresh cups of coffee and foreign cakes. I want to taste the vanilla sugar of Rīga. There are konditoreja scattered across the city filled with warm air and pastries and older women in floral prints who sit and have afternoon cakes. There are also the new wave of cafés bringing the coffee of Africa and South America to Europe packaged in the aesthetics and interior design of the American east and west coasts; of the Mission District in San Francisco or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They are all grey painted walls and tones of natural wood and coffee kettles and pour-over apparatuses arranged in minimal displays for sale behind counters; where men with man-buns and beards rest their skateboards against counters and sip thoughtfully at cups noting aromas and undertones.
Over Latvian honey cake and black coffee, I sit and write in a little café in Miera, a street in a post-industrial landscape marked by small signs of gentrification, signs like this very café. A loud capitalist entrepreneur at the table next to me proclaims to the couple he is sitting with that this place is improving the quality of life in the city. I wonder if other geographers curse how good the coffee is in these places, guiltily enjoying their ambiances and the changing atmospheres beyond their doors. I am picked up from the airport and driven around on a brief tour by my Airbnb host. He points out the café that I am now sitting in. He describes the neighbourhood as hip with nice places for coffee and drinks, a place where his brother hangs out. He suggests it is a good neighbourhood for a geographer to explore. He gestures behind us and says there is a nice place to walk. He cannot remember the English word for it but describes it in ominous tones as a place where people lie and there are sculptures. My imagination runs wild and I conjure images of disturbing, degraded remains of Soviet occupation, KGB experiments, a sanatorium. The following day, I wander up the street towards the place, detouring to explore the graffiti and street art of abandoned industrial spaces.
I think about the intersections of sex and the urban a lot in Rīga. It relates to a paper that I am currently revising. I read the preface to Phil Hubbard’s book ‘Cities and Sexualities’. He describes a short film by Florian Sela called ‘L’amour dure trois minutes’. It is a take on Beigbeider’s book ‘L’amour dure trois ans’ which I remember reading in French many years ago. He describes the film which shows an encounter between a man in a woman in the Paris Metro, exchanged only in looks but interspersed with images of an imagined physical encounter, an arousing description: “No words are exchanged, no bodies touch, yet in the movement of an eye, a slight smile, a shift in posture, we can sense there was the possibility that this encounter could have been more than it was, just one of the thousands of random encounters that animates everyday urban life.”
My first few days in Oslo, I was wandering the city in the evening. Disoriented, unsure, I waited hesitantly at a tram stop and a young man approached me. I do not remember much of him except that he was drunk and was wearing flip-flops and he wanted me to come home with him. That was four years ago now and I still find the exchange puzzling though I understand the context better now, know that this is not all that unusual in Norway. It happens other times too, on the bus and other places where alcohol is involved. Invitations are unprecedented, all without any prior conversation or contact, not even an exchange of looks. It happens at last call, desperate and fumbling grapples for intimacy with anyone in proximity. It is not romantic or sensual, it is not even flattering, and despite the subtext of the invitations, it hardly even seems sexual. It seems foreign and unappealing; sex based only upon happenstance and location, on geography.
Henri Lefebvre wrote with concern about the abundance of sexual imagery that surrounds us in the everyday, in the city. It is not erotic or sensual but instead worrying, mechanical. I think of this when I think not just of the imagery that surrounds us through advertising and in popular culture but also of the ease and availability of sex: of the abundance of options. What might Lefebvre think of sex made so available through the flat glowing screens of smart phones, amorous decisions made in quick successive swipes? I feel anachronistic at times, comparatively chaste in the context of this pervasive and dominant hook-up culture mediated by technology and alcohol, of meaningless readily available fucking. I wonder about romance and encounter, I wonder about the moments filled with possibility that Lefebvre writes of in his theory of moments.
It is a cemetery. Where people lie and there are sculptures. I wander the lush and green space with curiosity and respect, with silence. I am more careful with my camera, taking pictures more thoughtfully. I stand in the centre and think about how cemeteries are. I think back to Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest where I was in March and how this cemetery feels similar though aesthetically looks very different. Cemeteries feel like a round space, like a sphere. Especially if you stand in the centre. You can see the cars circle past the distant boundaries, hear the sounds of wheels and grit, sirens making a soft swishing din at its edge. There is stillness and calm here. The sounds of birds rise higher than the sirens and the three pronged orthodox crosses. It feels like an empty space. Yet, it is filled with bodies, with presence, with lives and history, culture. And life and movement continue, encircle the space and invade its boundaries. In the school just across the way, little boys without their shirts on are hopping on one leg in unison like delighted little choreographed leap frogs in the sun. It is some sort of physical education drill, they hop forward and then race back and start again, one little boy cartwheels back against the concrete surface and I wonder if his little hands bear the imprints of loose bits of rock and debris.
I love to photograph beautiful women in the city, to appropriate the male gaze. It is not necessarily sexual but there is something so evocative in the way that women move through the city, how their softness and curves contrast with the hard edges of buildings and dark shadows of architecture, how their skirts and dresses catch the breeze and lift with their stride. Women are so feminine here, elegant. I pass a woman clutching a bouquet of Lily of the Valley. I catch the intoxicating scent again as I pass flower sellers on the way to the train station. It a scent of childhood, shady forest flowers with their angular stiff stalks holding up clusters of little bell-shaped white blooms, framed by the broad curve of a sweeping single leaf – so much like the very forms and motifs of art nouveau that this city is known for. In the evening I wander the streets of the art nouveau district. Art nouveau – or Jugendstil – seems everywhere in Rīga. It is breathtaking. I am mesmerised by a blue and white building, I imagine it must be one of the most exquisite in Rīga. At the top of the building, amidst many other details, two prominent faces in profile look outward, away from each other, a man and a woman, they are the corners looking. I think about the male gaze, the real one and the theoretical one. I think about how I do not wish to vilify male gaze in practice. Men look into your eyes here, with desire. I think there are few things more exciting than that male gaze in the city, a glance held a moment too long, a fleeting connection made in the city.
The bookshop is quiet. It is the end of the evening. We talk. I order a glass of wine. He sits with me, lays a map of the city out on the table. He shows me how to get to the Baltic Sea, to Jūrmala where he’s from. In Rīga, he tells me where to find graffiti and interesting architecture, shows me where he lives. He tells me which days he will be working. He is half introvert, half extrovert he says. Musician, dj, creative, he tells me about his family and asks about mine. I look at the map upside down and cannot make much sense of it but as a geographer sitting in a bookshop with a handsome man, a glass of wine, and a map is just sublime.
I like the space that opens up around European railway stations; it is as if buildings simply fall away as you approach. I take the Pasažieru Vilciens train to Jūrmala. I like the straight lines over Latvian letters, making vowels longer. I am curious about ancient Latvian signs too, graphic linear symbols adorning viscose scarves and stainless steel jewellery in souvenir shops. I see them also in the design of ornate street art stickers. The train feels vaguely Soviet and I hoist myself up with far less elegance than other passengers. Sparse stands of spindly red pine line the edges of the railway tracks from Babīte to Majori. Red pines in sandy red soil. The Soviet Union had plans to build a metro system in Rīga, as it did in any city which exceeded a certain population. It is these sandy soils that prevented them from doing so. This is what I overhear at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The sand on the beach is hard, so much so that bicycles are able to pedal in parallel lines to the shore. The sea is soft and the breeze gentle, the sun is warm on my eyelids. The rippling water in the distance catches the sun and playfully bounces it back like white gold.
If I wait 15 minutes while he closes up shop, he will walk me home. I wait and am amused by the offer so much so that for some reason I want to laugh. It is a kindness, it is romantic, it is a moment. It has never happened to me in Norway. He smiles sweetly as I sit patiently as he arranges the shop, counts out the till, turns out the lights.
I catch young women taking selfies and it makes me smile. I welcome the idea of women photographing themselves and each other and thinking that they are beautiful. I watch two girls at the Baltic Sea, at water’s edge. Head shake and hair flings, letting the sweet Baltic air sweep up tendrils and brush them backward. Hip forward, head tilt, smiles. Then convergence over the small screen in bright sunlight, assuring that beauty and moment were captured satisfactorily. In the Latvian National Museum of Art, I stumble upon two other girls taking selfies. In a room for conceptual art where there is nothing but a small CRT television in the centre spitting out white noise to blank white walls and corners and two girls taking selfies. In flagrante delicto, they are making themselves beautiful for Instagram or Facebook, to empower, spark yearning. I retreat and divert my gaze to modernist paintings and recognise one which I saw earlier in Miera across from the café, as part of the Outings Projects which liberates images of paintings from museums and pastes them up as street art. It is ‘Three women in the streets of Baghdad’ by Jāzeps Grosvold. I also see photo montage of the Russian avant-garde, social realism, and large contemporary paintings that remind me of Basquiat.
‘Three women in the streets of Baghdad’ by Jāzeps Grosvold in Miera (2017)
We walk through the evening city streets. He pushes his yellow bike, pulls his hood up over his head, tells me about his jobs, his athletic aspirations, marathon running and long-distance bicycling, his music. We stop outside the former KGB building, a stunning example of Latvian architecture. It reminds me of another evening walk I took once. I love how the conversation of evening walks in particular pick up cues from the landscape; buildings and places conjuring memories, evoke the sharing of stories and histories, and the close proximity of someone, shoulder to shoulder, looking ahead calms nerves and quells awkwardness. I am hopelessly romantic. Reading Plato, I search for Aristophanes’ play about soulmates. Reading quantum physics, I look for evidence of predestination. He compliments my smile and my harmonious company and it is the first time that I have felt visible in such a very long time. He walks me home and I revel in the moment, in the romance. We stand awkwardly outside the gates of the apartment building I am staying at on Brīvība iela. Freedom street. We hug goodbye and he reaches out and touches my shoulder gently, twice; touch filled with such warmth and soft energy and the evening ends so sweetly and innocently. Just like vanilla sugar floating on air. In a moment so full of possibility.