Day 8: Saturday, September 10th, 2016

So I left my heart and any semblance of a healthy body in Helsinki. I woke up with swollen tonsils, a scratchy, sore throat, and general exhaustion. However, that was also the best night sleep I’d gotten so far, as it was a solid eight hours.

Today I had about a half day left in Helsinki before heading off to Riga by plane.

I saw Jaap again in the hostel kitchen and he was glad I got a good night’s sleep, being a homeopathic healer and all. He first offered me some tea, but I brought my own, so I was fine. He told me to lay low and get more sleep tonight. Little did he know that I really hoped to stay out late. Tonight was PARTY HOSTEL TIME.

I checked out of the hostel, took everything with me (the convenience of backpack travel) and headed straight to the pharmacy.

Here’s a travel tip: if you ever need to go to a pharmacy, you should always be prepared with the translations of the drugs you need. Advil won’t cut it. You need to know ‘ibuprofen.’ What’s the easiest way to look up those translations? Good old Wikipedia. Just type it in the English engine, then on the bar along the left side, select the language to translate it to. Done and done… now I had the words for “codeine” “ibuprofen” “antibiotic” and “tonsils” in Finnish.

I go to the local pharmacy and explain my situation to the cashier, who directs me to the pharmacists, who are on-call in booths similar to those at the DMV. No need to pull a number as I’m the only customer. She conveniently speaks English, but I still think my translations helped point out the drugs I needed. She was very helpful and left me with 28 euros of medicine to buy. Hey, if it means I can stay out late tonight and enjoy this trip to the fullest, then give me those 12 euro vitamin c tablets!

I converted the fifty Norwegian krona I had left into euros which gave me pretty much nothing, but just the right amount of coins to lock my backpack at the train station. Phew. Not having cash is really hard! I used my card to buy the train ticket so I don’t have to buy it in a rush later. Then I find out it expires an hour after purchase. Cool! Something to worry about later, then.

I went back to the Hakaniemi market because it was really important for me to eat as many pastries as possible before I went home. My guide book suggested a few things, so I ate them all. First was karjalan piirakka, a bread with mashed potatoes baked into the top. The vendor said she prefers the rice one since it’s mixed with butter and caramelized on the top, but I go with the potato one. After eating one the size of my face, I decided to stuff that face with even more carbs, now in the form of kalakukko, a sweet donut-like pastry filled with ground meat and rice. Both of these things I asked for using my guidebook and just pointing to the words. I also asked for mustard, as the guidebook recommended it for the kalakukko. The second vendor from whom I bought the kalakukko barely spoke English, and she took my pastry back from me and cut it open, then spread the mustard on the inside and returned it to me. She’s like my temporary Finnish mother just taking care of me without even asking.

Her daughter, however, speaks English, and once I finish the kalakukko (I spent a lot of time here) I started pointing at stuff asking what it was. What’s that? “It is a dough with lots of butter, like a croissant, but more of a bun.” What’s this? “It’s got lots of butter and it’s sweet.” I’m sensing a pattern here.

I saw a few people in the café eating a sort of puzzle-shaped pastry and asked what it was. She told me it’s a possumunuui, a sweet donut coated in sugar and filled with apple jam. "It’s really good," she tells me.  I don’t understand how it possibly couldn’t be. She tells me that children often ask for it when families go out, and it’s common to have one with coffee after eating a kalakukko. Alright, then, sounds like I have to follow the Finnish tradition and it’s time to serve me one. I eat at their café on the opposite side of their bakery counter and order a coffee to accompany it.

If I don’t get healthier from that breakfast, I don’t know what’s gonna heal me.

I hurry back around noon to the senate square where there’s a free walking tour. These tours run on tips, but I’m low on cash (read: have zero cash whatsoever) so before it begins I ask the guide where the nearest ATM is. He points down the road, and I have ten minutes before the tour begins. The door is locked, so I look for another ATM nearby (with no luck) and as I return, I see someone step out of the bank and quickly grab the door. I find myself stuck behind a woman and her husband, seemingly unfamiliar with how ATMs work and they’re both being instructed by two other women in line. The clock ticks and I decide to leave, penniless, to the tour because I didn’t want to miss it. Hopefully we encounter another ATM!

The tour begins and I am the only American, in a group of forty, which is a first for me on these tours. Hanzi is our guide’s name, the same name of Nicolette’s dog back home. I ask him about my train ticket and he insists I’ll be fine since tickets are rarely checked. Great, I’ll pull the ‘but I’m a tourist’ card if I have any issues.

Some interesting things I learned on the tour included:
  • The main church in the Senate Square is Lutheran, and was built in an atypically ostentatious design to draw attention to Copenhagen when it was named the new capital city of Finland over Turku.
  • In 1906, Finland was the second country in the world to have suffrage, only after New Zealand in 1899. When the guide and I were talking one on one later, he told me he thought the USA had suffrage in the 1960s. Nope, that was just second wave feminism, buddy.
  • There is an area near the port where graffiti is legal. It’s also a cool skate park.
  • One percent of Helsinki is Russian Orthodox.
  • The Russian district is comprised of mostly national romantic style architecture, or otherwise known as art nouveau. It’s in an area that translates to ‘point of a pinetree’ because the area of land is triangular in shape, and because pine trees once grew there.
  • Sauna is the only internationally known Finnish word. Sauna culture is a social thing, and everyone traditionally goes in naked, but you become equal in the sauna. You can be rich or poor, but in the sauna you are all just people.
  • In Esplanade park, there’s a statue with the national poem, first in Swedish and also in Finnish. Just five percent of the Finnish population still speaks Swedish as their first language. They're mostly living in rural areas. 

During our snack break I went off to attempt to get cash again. The guide informed me that the ATM from before is still the closest one. He said banks are getting rid of them to save money.

I had no success getting any cash, so since I plan to ditch the tour early anyway (I had to get to my train at two), I would just not pay. I hated that and I felt so bad, but I had no other option. I mean, I could buy him a bag of produce at the market or thirty postcards, but I am sure he’d prefer cash.

We saw a couple more sights after the break but it was getting dangerously close to my time to leave. I lagged behind the group a bit and ditched the tour group at two, then went to the station. I have luck with my expired train ticket as no one came around to check. Score!

I go through security which again takes no interest in viewing my passport. I for once got a seat close to the front of the plane, in the second row, so I’m excited for quick boarding and exiting. But of course, it’s the first plane I’ve ever boarded from the back, so I am in one of the farthest seats from the entrance. Whatever. There’s a guy a row ahead of me who is absolutely gorgeous and looks like a famous soccer player. Not one in particular, just that he is wearing a tailored blue suit, has designer sunglasses, and a sharp haircut. Blue suits, making men look good since the Kennedy-Nixon televised debates.

The flight attendant comes around with drinks for the one hour flight to Riga. I ask what kind of juices she has and she mentions blueberry. ”Blueberry?!” “Yes, would you like to taste?” “No need, give me a gallon!” Just kidding. She only gave me a measly 8 ounce cup.

As we land, the captain informs us that the local temperature is 24 degrees centigrade. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit but I do remember that 20 degrees meant “warm” when I was in Spain, so I had high hopes. When we arrive, I go through the area where people await their friends/relatives’ arrivals and some random boy cheers for my sole arrival through the doors. Thanks, kid! No one has ever awaited my arrival at an airport, and you just made my day.

I get on the bus to the downtown area, and I get somewhat lost as I exit. Google maps told me to get off a different stop than what the hostel said, and of course the map I have saved on my tablet is the one for the different stop that I exited from. Nevertheless, this girl had her wits about her and used her trusty compass and map stolen from a random local hotel to find her way. Screw Google maps… once I had a real paper map I found myself instantly.

I find the Naughty Squirrel Backpacker’s Hostel just down the road. The downtown area is filled with tourists and locals alike, but the vibe reminds me of something super touristy, along the lines of Vegas or something. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I check in to the hostel with the lovely Liva. I ask about the bar crawl and she says only two people signed up so it may not happen. She says that the night before they had an epic crawl and everyone is sort of dead today. NO! I tell her I’ve had too many quiet nights for this to happen and I needed something social. She said I could write my name down, and there is a chance that people will write their names down later as it won’t start until ten and it’s only 7pm now. I have high hopes, Liva! I jot my name down.

Turns out Finland wasn’t the only country during this trip requiring me to give tons of info upon arrival. Liva hands me a similar form that I received in Helsinki and asks my passport number, arrival and departure date, etc. I ask what it’s for and she says the police or government collect them to keep track of visitors. Interesting.

A couple of other guys arrive to check in as well, and since we’re all there in the lobby together, she says it’s the most convenient time to do the welcome shot. Oh yeah! I forgot one of my hostels mentioned that in the description. She pours us each a shot of Black Balsam currant liqueur, and before we drink it, explains it’s a traditional Latvian drink, and says it’s not sweet, but instead it’s a little spicy. The two random dudes and myself clink our glasses and drink. It’s really not bad, and reminds me of cough syrup, albeit not as sugary sweet. She said it’s funny that I should mention that, since people here use it as an all-healing drink to cure colds, coughs, whatever. Liva also informs me that Riga has no laws regarding liquor sale times, so the hostel bar is open 24 hours. Whatever you need, you got it, 24/7. Sounds like I don’t need any more pharmacy visits! Happy hour is half off all draft beers from 8p-10p. She also informs me that there is one bar particular downtown bar open 24/7 as well, and it transitions from a nightclub to a regular restaurant around 8am. Can you imagine?

So remember when I said that I was so happy about being in the euro zone? Well now it’s even better because in Latvia, things are even cheaper. Basically, my trip gets cheaper and cheaper by the day. My previous hostels were around forty dollars a night and this one was a mere twelve, and it was twice the size of my room at the last hostel. And… it has cute furniture! There are silver stools propped around a large mirror, and a bright red dresser sits in the corner with a funky lamp on top. A bench is pushed up against the window covered in a white faux-fur shag throw. The beds even have nice little curtains for privacy when you are sleeping. When I enter the room, I meet one of my roommates Anja, who is German and also traveling solo. She mentions that later she’ll be getting dinner and I can join. Yay friends! Loving Riga already.

I change and sit in the hostel lobby catching up on my blog. There are a few people sitting there chatting, later I am introduced to them as Canadian Jean-Phillippe (JP) and Australian Damien, along with Damien’s step brother and some other German girls. Eventually Anja comes into the room and she knows JP, who will be joining us for dinner.

JP leads the way to the local Latvian restaurant where we’ll be eating, called Folkklubs Ala. On the way there we witness a stage getting set up for the White Nights festival going on this weekend. There were a ton of people dressed in white setting up instruments as a crowd gathered outside with drinks. Unlike Copenhagen, you can’t drink on the streets, but you’re allowed to so if you’re near an establishment.

We entered the restaurant and the bartender says we can sit anywhere that is available. One entire table of eight people clears at once, and we ask if they are done. No, just going for a smoke. I turn to Anja, "All eight people, really?"

The free feast
 We enter a room and JP realizes it’s a private party. The people in the party, all US army guys here for training, inform us that they are leaving and all this food is going to be thrown away so we should eat it. We laugh. No, really, it’s all going in the garbage anyways, please help yourselves, but only if you say you support Trump! Ugh. He asks where we’re from and I’m the first to answer, so he assumes that JP and Anja are also from Chicago. “Oh you must be a Hillary supporter." I told him I was originally a Bernie supporter but I know I won't be voting Trump. "But let's not discuss this because there's food to be eaten so in that case I'll say Trump is the greatest man in the world!" They have a sense of humor and let us eat. The spread is overwhelming and more than enough for the three of us. I felt like Sara Crewe in that scene from A Little Princess. There's carved pork, chicken, and other fatty meat. There's bowls of cold potato salads and bean salads. There's a giant bowl of honey surrounded by slices of raisin bread. There's a giant green salad. There are three jugs of beer. The table is made of thick wood and the room is lit by red candles dripping down the top of wine bottles, very medieval-style. We dig in and load up plates and enjoy our free, spontaneous meal. JP mentions that he feels like it wasn't as good, just because he didn't get to order something, and because it was a little cold. I told him it was delicious to me because it was free. Regardless, we all enjoyed the meal immensely. And I'm glad I loaded up on food for the long night ahead.

On our way out of the restaurant we saw the band (who was previously setting up) playing music, with a huge crowd before them. We squeezed our way through to get back home.

We returned to the hostel and found a group of people hanging out drinking from the hostel bar and playing card games. Piers, one of the people who works at the hostel, organizes the bar crawls, but he deduced that the crowd wasn't feeling the usual formulaic bar crawl. He asked if we wanted to go to the "hipster" area and check out a brewery and night club. Yes, please! Since it wasn't the usual bar crawl, he didn't charge us the regular 7 euros to do it. And as you may have guessed, yes, more than 7 people signed up, since it was now 10pm on a Saturday and people were in the mood to parrrrtaayyyyy.

Piers said we'd head out for the crawl at 10pm. 10pm rolls around...nawww let's make it 11. 11pm rolls around "we'll head out at midnight." Luckily the mood in the hostel was lively, with a group of about 15 of us gathered around one of the tables playing some drinking game that is like horse racing/betting with cards, if that makes any sense at all (it doesn't, but it's a thing). Then it transitioned to "never have I ever," and then it was time to head out. Anja stayed behind as she was exhausted from the previous night's crawl, but we got a decent crowd out the door and hailed two cabs. Splitting it amongst us, it cost a euro each.

And so we arrived at the Alus Darbnica Labietis, which is a small place with an edison-bulb chandelier and a communal table in the middle. They brew the beer on-site and they have about 20 on draft. They also had beef jerky, which was where my interest piqued. To share, I ordered the sweet jerky and the spicy jerky and the first one was flavorless and the second one was okay. Someone eventually ordered the third flavor option, rye, which tasted like the sweet one, which again, tasted like nothing. I'll say it here first: American jerky is better than Latvian jerky. I don't care WHO I offend.
Me, Eric, Damien, JP and Alex
Eric, Damien, Jess, David, Toby, Alex, Piers, JP and I gathered our bar stools in a little circle and sat and enjoyed the chill atmosphere. It was definitely not a party bar, but more of a place where you could enjoy some horrible beef jerky and lovely company. After everyone had a couple beers, Piers suggested we move on to the next locale. Piers asked if we wanted to check out the club next door, which was "quieter," or if we wanted to go to more of a "party club." We were curious about how a club could possibly be "quiet," so on we went to the first option.

The brewery was located just next to the ONE ONE night club, so there were tons of people sitting outside both locales. It was almost like a dimly lit alley, and initially when we stepped out of the cabs to head to the brewery, I thought we were going to someone's house. It just didn't seem like a place where businesses are located. We entered the club, which had no cover (favorite thing about these places...NO COVERS, EVER), and I am really excited to explain to you what this place was like, because...all of the words.

If a person who hates electronic music were to create a song in an audio program that they deem as "electronic-sounding," that is exactly what was playing on the speakers. There was no change in tune, no difference, no "tweaks" or "glitches" or "dropped beats." Just...sounds. Electronic ones, I guess. The atmosphere was creeping me out as I believe this is what people imagine secret illuminati meetings are like. Everyone was facing the DJ, who was performing on a stage only slightly higher than the dance floor, and no one is talking or dancing together or interacting, they are simply using their bodies to worship the electronic beats. The room has no lights on, with only the glow from the projector behind the DJ providing any sort of light. And that light comes in the form of black and white imagery flashing on the screen, with a rotating graphic in the middle that at first was Michelangelo's David, then a deer head, and then a skull. Geographic triangular shapes flash on either side as the image rotates in the center. I felt like the strobes and the projector screens were brainwashing us.

The bar is in the far back, so you can't falsely worship the liquor gods while you're dancing. Drinks are reasonably priced by American standards for a major city ($5 for a mixed vodka drink). Piers was right, though, since the place is somehow  more  chill for a dance club. I think it's because you could still talk, but I wouldn't want to disturb anyone's religious experience, so we hang by the back bar where it seems more appropriate to talk.

Upstairs there's a coat check guarded by a very bored girl standing just outside the bathrooms, and there's a large room with a single pinball machine and an arcade racing game. No one is in these rooms.

So yes, a handful of us hated this place. We first entered and embraced it, just dancing like crazy, but then after a while we got sick of it. Toby, being British, appreciates electronic music and clubs like this, but he also was open to hearing our negative opinions on the subject.
Me: I didn't know places like this actually existed outside of movies. This is like what movie nightclubs are like. 
Damien: I don't get it...this has been the same song for the last 35 minutes. I need to be on MDMA to enjoy this. 
Toby: I get what you are saying. It's not for everyone. But it is all part of an experience, and it's just not an experience for you, which is totally fine!
Damien absolutely hated the club the most, and I loved egging him on so he'd rant about it until someone interrupted him. No, really, Damien, how do you really feel? "It's just fucking awful! How can you call this music? It's the same beat! The DJ JUST changed and he's still playing the same song? How do people dance to this? They have to be high. I just don't see it. I can't understand. Why would you be here for more than ten minutes?!"

After a while, Toby, Damien, Eric and I hang out at one of the tables just outside the club so we can hear more of Damien's rants about how much he enjoys being here.

Then JP joins us outside, and he notices two girls and a guy about 100 feet from where all the people are hanging out between these venues, in an alleyway. JP mentions that when he was in the club, he saw the two girls dancing, and that guy just walked right up and started making out with them both, without any sort of introduction. And now they're in the alley chatting. I told JP it sounds like he made up that story, since the three people I'm looking at right now look like they have no sexual attraction since there's no touching, no close-talking...just three people standing about a couple feet apart from one another, just talking. Damien insisted he saw it too, and wondered aloud why they would go for that ugly dude when Damien was RIGHT HERE. Good luck with that.

Eric suggested we all let the guides (Liva had joined us now, too) know we wanted to go somewhere else. We wrangle the group together to head off to Rock Cafe, back near the hostel. We split up into two cabs. Jess, Toby, Piers and I head off in the first cab to the bar. Piers gets us Kahlua shots upon our arrival. There are multiple floors to explore, but much more my vibe compared to the club in Copenhagen. The main floor is a regular bar with a DJ spinning music, but not encouraging dancing. Downstairs in the basement is a pool room and a karaoke room, as well as a small bar where the bartenders were seriously jamming to some Dizzee Rascal. All the way upstairs are lounge rooms with couches that have music playing but are good for conversation, and then there is a main floor with a stage playing music where everyone is gathered to dance. A bar lines the back wall.

We go to the dance floor and the DJ is playing music. We walk in to "Numb" by Linkin Park. As soon as it ends, a live band takes over, starting off with Coldplay's "Yellow." It's an odd song to start a set, but the crowd is feeling it as everyone knows the words. At this point I think they'd do some mean covers of Young the Giant, but since that band isn't a European hit, I doubt we'll hear it (we don't). They then go into some Latvian pop song, and the group continues with this pattern of popular European hits and Latvian pop songs for a couple hours. I really start getting into it, though, when they play my Mark Ronson jam of Valerie. You got me now, by my dancing shoes.

Meanwhile, the second group finally arrives, with Liva, Damien, JP and Eric. Eventually the group on the dance floor consists of me, Toby, Damien and Eric, and I have them protect me from several creepers. The first one is a local (or I assume so...he never talked so I can't be sure) who introduced himself by hip-bumping me on the dance floor, and grinning. In the hoards of people he disappears, but then eventually returns by grabbing my hand and twirling me. I slink back towards Eric and Toby for protection. He high-fives me several times, and then, even when there's a protective barrier of people between myself and this stranger, he reaches through the crowd and tickles my stomach. GOD! I can't even look to see if he's attractive or not because every time I glance over he's staring right at me and I have to look away. There's no way to be covert. Another weirdo, this time a middle-aged male with a ponytail, glasses, a creepy smirk and a martini glass filled with some sort of bright red daiquiri drink, walks from behind us and creepily stares. I keep pointing out these weirdos to Eric and Toby, and Eric suggests it's because all the guys want to dance with me. Look, all one has to do is ask. Tickling without introduction is not the way.

Around 4am the live band finishes their set of cover songs and a DJ takes over. A female DJ! I've never seen a female DJ before. You get it girl. She spins more popular songs like Rihanna or The Village People (typical playlist, right?). We dance the night away and end the night with a walk through the park until the sun rises around 6am.

What an amazing night.