On the kafejnica trail

  • 2004-07-01
The great thing about Riga is how many different cafes there are. Few of them are actually any good in terms of food, but for atmosphere they do me just fine.

Having lived in Riga for several years, I have a sort of cafe trail that I ceremoniously follow, according to the day of the week and the peculiarities of my mood. My friends and acquaintances often express their astonishment that I know so many obscure places.
The other day, for example, I was walking around Pardaugava with a friend of mine. I took her to a cafe in Agenskalns Market that overlooks the bustling market stalls on the ground floor. "How on earth do you know about all these places?" she said, while carefully avoiding the gaze of a psychotic looking drunk at the next table. How indeed.
When your life is as superfluously useless as mine is, the best thing to do is to sit in cafes as much as possible. The cafe subtly sublimates time so that thought becomes refined into real experience. One sips one's coffee, gazes out of the window and one actually realizes oneself to boot, if only for a fleeting moment.
The Latvian "kafejnica" may not exactly be the mythical European cafe so beloved of mythical European intellectuals. It's said that the dada movement was created in a Zurich cafe when a group of artists arbitrarily chose a word out of the dictionary. In Latvian kafejnicas, however, dada would more likely represent the emphatic response to an offer for more vodka.
But Latvian kafejnicas have their very own charm. Although nobody ever wrote a book such as "Being and Nothingness" while feverishly sipping away at a glass of Aldaris beer, the Latvian kafejnica is nevertheless an esthetic and existential experience of sorts.
It's true that the Soviet-era of kafejnicas are fast disappearing, at least in the center of Riga. A new generation of Coffee Nations, Coffee Planets and Double Coffees is emerging. But these are pathetic places, designed not to engage in radical conversation or hair-tugging catharsis, but rather to try and woo yourself over an espresso.
But some of the Soviet-era kafejnicas are halfheartedly trying to play catch up with the modern world. They're slapping up new wallpaper, getting the latest model slot machines and replacing the plastic ferns with organic ones. Some even have their menus translated into English.
The other morning I went to have some breakfast in one sad little cafe that I like very much. It's a tiny place, and so well hidden from the street that it's amazing anyone can find it.
I was surprised to see a Finnish man forlornly sitting opposite a prostitute who was drinking a large measure of vodka and nodding her head along to the radio. It was about 9 o' clock. She kept grinning at me, and I became concerned that I might actually know her. The Finn, meanwhile, looked so miserable that I was quite mesmerized by him. I only knew he was Finnish because she gave the fact away in conversation. He was probably wondering what diseases he had just contracted. But as for me, I devoured my mushroom pancakes and felt strangely at one with the world for a short while.