I thought you guys might appreciate a funny little story from Riga, so I’ll tell it.
It was late in the evening, and there was little to do besides watch CNN International. Although I was happy with Latvian food, I hadn’t stocked up sufficiently, and I wasn’t tired, so I thought I’d go see what a burger tasted like in the Baltic states.
First I went down to Hesburger, a Finnish burger chain that’s pretty popular in the region, but Hesburger was closed. Fortunately, there was a McDonald’s around the corner, so I started on my way there. McDonald’s in Riga is located right on the edge of the Old Town, which is the scenic core of Riga.
The Old Town is full of beautiful old buildings of the Hanseatic style, churches, narrow, winding alleys and, above all, bars and clubs. From Thursday through Saturday, it’s full of people and cheer every evening till daybreak. Groups of young men and women roam the streets from bar to bar, making noise and having fun. People come from the entire region to enjoy Riga’s Old Town, and I was lucky enough to be staying there. I met Norwegians, Russians, Swedes, Finns, English, Irish, Germans, Poles and more. Oddly, there were very few Americans. This being the case, people tended to assume I was Norwegian (thanks to my Norwegian grandmother and Anglo-Norman ancestry I look that way) until I opened my mouth.
As I slowly made my way to the McDonald’s, I was approached by a rather hefty young woman who began speaking to me in Russian. She could easily have passed for a suburban American girl, being rather on the large side, but not all that bad-looking overall. I soon told her in English that I couldn’t speak Russian, so she asked me whether I was British or Scandinavian.
“No, I’m American,” I responded.
She replied, saying “You don’t look like an American,” upon which I told her “America is a big country.”
She then said “you have such beautiful blue eyes,” asking “why don’t you buy me a drink?”
“I’m sorry,” I said “I’ve already got a woman.”
This rejection angered her, and she said something sharp in Russian, then told me to get rid of my beard. Before I knew what was happening, she pinched my beard and started yanking on it. Having made her point about the beard, she then reached for my collar and took hold of my chest hair, pulling it hard.
I was a bit shocked, but kept my composure. Somehow, I managed to avoid even wincing from the pain. I really had no idea what to say, so I told her “you are quite a strong woman.” Shortly thereafter, her embarrassed friend whisked her away, and I went on to order a burger and onion rings.
For the most part, women in the region are reserved, but apparently Russian ladies are a breed apart — especially when they’ve been drinking. I would advise the adventurous American traveler to keep this in mind while traveling in northern Europe, but not to let it frighten him too much. The key, I think, is to keep your cool.
Following is a video from a couple days ago at the exact spot and same McDonald’s where this hair-pulling incident occurred. A dustup between Russians results in some fisticuffs (one guy gets knocked out cold) and a contentious arrest. Note that it is 6AM and the parties to the scuffle had probably been up all night drinking: