No matter how much I wished to make the call from Riga to my friend back home, I knew it would not be easy. Making an overseas phone call without a smart phone was an exercise in irritation that required multiple steps and a great deal of patience. The process was fraught with petty difficulties that might easily cause things to go awry. For those of us who did not carry a smart phone on overseas journeys at that time we were always at the mercy of an archaic form of communication. This was in the form of a pay phone. As phone calls went, this was the equivalent of a string, paper cup, and tin can.
Echoes of friendship – Answering the call
Handheld Devices – Calling Cards
In remembering my phone call from Riga, Narvesen serves as the ultimate marker of memory. It was the setting for self-medicating with cough and cold relief as well as procuring an international calling card. Conveniently located a stone’s throw away from Narvesen was a pay phone, the closest thing to a museum artifact still in daily use at that time. Even in 2011, the pay phone was going the way of the dodo. They seemed to have more in common with the telegraph than the latest and greatest of digital technologies. Another relic of that recent era was the international calling card. This handheld device made millions for telecommunication companies fleecing those desperate enough to make impromptu international calls. Skype came in handy, but only if both parties to a call had access to a laptop or personal computer. I did, but my friend recoiled at any technology that might take him beyond the television.
Thank goodness that Narvesen and the nearby phone booth had everything I needed to overcome these technology deficit disorders. To be completely honest, there is no way to understate the role Narvesen played in this personal drama. For me, the mere mention of that name is evocative with Old Riga, Narvesens is synonymous with the capital of Latvia. I am sure many other travelers who visit the Baltic states feel the same, as do the region’s inhabitants. While doing research for this post, a Google map search in Old Riga for Narvesen turned up no less than twelve. And they are not just found in the city center, Narvesen is something of an institution in Latvia. The chain is based out of Norway. where its founder Bernard Narvesen first started the business after receiving a concession from the Norwegian State Railways in the late 19th century. This allowed him to sell newspapers, magazines, and other literature at railway stations across the country. This spurred the growth of Narvesen.
Echoes of glory – Riga in the 16th century (Credit: Civitates Orbis Terrarum)
Bright Prospects – Baltic Empire
One of Narvesen’s most successful forays beyond the borders of Norway has been in the Baltic States. By 2016, Latvia (249) and Lithuania (260) combined had more Narvesens than Norway (370). I will always remember Riga not as the Baltic region’s biggest city or for its wonderfully evocative Old Town, instead I will think of all those Narvesens. The bright glow of the store’s interior and the smartly kept shelves. This was the place I came to frequent more than any other in Riga. I doubt Rough Guide, Lonely Planet or Bradt Guides will tell you much about Narvesen, but they should. Anyone visiting Riga is likely to spend time there. Pardon the digression, but my love of Narvesen has stayed remarkably pure in the twelve years since I set foot in one. Without Narvesen, I would probably not have made my call back home. Nor would I still remember it.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine the trouble that went into making a continent-to-continent phone call at that time. First an international calling card was purchased at a place like Narvesen. Then the code was found by using one’s fingernail to scratch off a gritty grey substance. This would reveal a pin code that had to be entered prior to dialing a country code and phone number. This byzantine process was worsened by the directions on those cards. They were printed in what looked to be a one-point font. A magnifying glass would have been useful when trying to decipher the directions given in several languages. These had to be read and understood before entering the booth because the caller would be pressed for time. A line would often form outside the booth as others prepared to make their own calls. If all this was done correctly the phone would begin ringing half a world away. In my case, I waited with bated breath for an answer.
Echoes of History – Old Riga at dusk (Credit: Diliff)
Comfort & Kindness – A Series of Possibilities
It was evening when I made the call from Riga. After twenty seconds, there was an answer. A familiar and trusted voice was on the other end of the line, it was Brian. He would always greet me with “Christopher.” The proper English mannerisms never escaped him, even when fifty years removed from the British Isles. He was happy to hear I was still alive, as well as my travels. With fondness he related how he had been following my journey through the photos I uploaded to the internet. He kept a Times Atlas of the world beside the sofa where he always sat. Peeling back the pages to find Eastern Europe, he followed me from point to point. One man’s journey was another man’s vicarious glory. For both of us, maps were a series of possibilities that offered infinite options to satisfy our curiosities.
The long-awaited call between us lasted less than twenty minutes. The length hardly mattered, it was the love we shared, the ability to reaffirm the deepest of friendships that always mattered the most. The comfort felt from hearing the voice of a kindred spirit, one that would echo across thousands of kilometers. The call brought comfort, kindness, and the knowledge that on this journey I was not alone, neither would I ever be. His voice still echoes in my ears and informs my imagination. 4,184 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes have passed since that call was made and it feels like today.
Click here for: A Way We Will Never Be – Esterhaza & Lost Possibilities (Eastern Europe & Me #10)
Thank you for sharing a photo of Brian with us, I really appreciate that, and yes he really did look like an English professor!
Your post in way reminded me of my life in “another” Lisbon and the little transistor radio I had there. The crackling sounds trying to pick up BBC World Service, that was my lifeline to the English speaking world. I also had the option of days old newspapers from the local newsagents. I miss the 20th Century, it was exotic and distant, not like now with instant messaging where everyone should be available 24/7. I really understand you standing at that phone booth trying to connect to the outer world and to your dearest friend.
I hope you’re gathering your writings to create a book because the story you paint of self-discovery is a journey many could relate to, Christopher.
Need a published:)