Making That Call – Riga: Land of Narvesen (Eastern Europe & Me #9a)

I never knew it would come to this. As I write, it is 1:28 a.m. on a Thursday morning in the middle of March 2023. This early hour at which I still find myself awake is not the product of insomnia, it is the product of memory. I am half a world and over a decade away from the place that consumes my thoughts. To be exact, I am 4,184 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes away from that moment in Riga. In my hand I have a calling card, in my mind I have a phone number, and I am standing inside a phone booth. It is so cold that I can see my breath. A pay phone is my conduit to contact someone I have longed to speak with since this journey began. This call is not an easy one to consummate. I am attempting to speak with someone who despises phone calls and refuses to answer unless he knows the time when I will call. I have already emailed one of his daughters who has been kind enough to let him know when I will call. He will be sure to answer. The call means the world to me, as I know it does to him.

Who is this person I must contact and why? There is no use taking the time to explain the deepest of friendships and purely unconditional love. There are some things in life you just know, this is one of them. There are very few things in life I have ever been sure of, except for this. Several weeks have passed since we spoke. There is much to discuss concerning my experiences in Warsaw, Krakow, Lviv, and Kyiv. He has no idea that I have made the leap from the banks of the Dnipro to the banks of the Daugava. Bounding over Belarus in a matter of hours in journeying from Kyiv to Riga. This great leap north will come as a surprise, but not a totally unexpected one. He knows me about as well as I know him. We are both impossible to predict, except for our adherence to habit. Mine is caprice, his is tea.

Land of Narvesen – As seen in Riga

Astonishing Anecdotes – Staying Out of Trouble
An American and an Englishman. One in the depths of alcoholic despair, the other cruising through the final years of his teaching career. When we first met, I was trying to pull my life back together after recurrent bouts with boos. He could have cared less about alcohol, but he always cared about me. I would always be the student and he the professor. His indirect manner had its way with me. Never quite telling me what to do, he inferred what would be in my best interest. For some reason he always listened to me. Spending hours taking in my ridiculous tales and wild dreams of destinies that might carry me far from home. I also scattered in a few words of advice, sometimes he even took them for everything they were worth.

He once told me that I kept him out of trouble. Many years after his death, his wife told me that I always spoke to his good side. I consider that to be the greatest compliment I have ever received. The truth was much messier, we both kept each other away from our dark sides. He escaped his with family, our friendship and by sitting in the same room for years on end telling a few fortunate souls the most astonishing anecdotes of history and of his upbringing in postwar Stockport. I listened attentively. We were going nowhere fast and that was a good thing. Ours was a match made in oblivion. His journey was from Cambridge to Cullowhee, from the heights of academia to the hills of Appalachia. He unwittingly rescued me from alcohol. I repaid him with weekly calls. This one would come from Riga, for the first and only time.

Old Riga – The historic city center from a distance (Credit: Karlie Kalviskis)

Night Sweats – The Evening Chill
Narvesen. The first time I heard the name it came by way of an Aussie accent. I needed drugs, bad. Not the illicit kind, but the ones you can purchase over the counter in almost any European country. I caught a cold not long after touching down in Riga. The difference in temperatures between Kyiv and Riga was substantial. The Ukrainian capital, where I had just spent four days was in the grip of an Indian summer. The city was enveloped in warmth, I can still recall sweating it out while running up, over, and around the hills above the Dnipro River. The weather in Riga could not have been more different. I can still recall that view from the plane as it descended over the land. The dark green forests, islands of water, and angry clouds moving closer towards the earth. This was Latvia, the middle child of the Baltic states. I knew very little about Latvia and only associated it with Lithuania and Estonia.

For all I knew, Latvia was another of those anonymous, postage stamp sized European nations. A place of relative prosperity and as I was about to discover, penetrating cold. Exiting the airport, the first thing I felt was a hypothermic chill in the air. This was just the beginning of shivering my way around Riga. The wind would sweep moisture off the Daugava River and into Riga’s beautiful Old Town. It was difficult to enjoy as an icy scythe sliced through the winding streets. I had not been in the city more than a few hours when I felt soreness in my throat, then came the congestion, followed by several nights of sweating through a fitful sleep. Thank goodness for Narvesen. The Aussie told me there was one right down the street from where I was staying. I found it with ease.

Magic act – Old Riga a starry night (Credit: Mariss Balodis)

Easing My Pain – A Degree of Fondness
The name of Narvesen will long live on my lips. I would soon discover other Narvesens in and around the Old Town. There seemed to be one on every street corner. Latvia will always be the land of Narvesen to me. Nothing was going to cure my cold, but at least they had a few things that could ease my pain. I still recall Narvesen with a degree of fondness. This is not only because of the relief I found there, but also because it played a leading role in my call home.

Click here for: Answering The Call – Riga:  Echoes of Friendship (Eastern Europe & Me #9b)

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