It seems that often in my travels abroad, the most challenging of experiences involves trying to accomplish the most mundane of tasks. When you don’t speak the language, everything takes a bit longer, is more complicated, and you may never be entirely sure that the way in which you set about your task is the most efficient. I have found this to be the case when shopping for things like toiletries and medicine, riding the public bus, and most of all, doing laundry… all tasks which, as I write this, I have successfully accomplished in Riga in the last few days. (On Monday I managed to find and take the correct bus to get to the school where I will be teaching starting in August. I made it back, too!)
This morning, I took on my least favorite of all chores, right up there with unloading the dishwasher. Since M. and I are staying in a hotel for a few weeks until our permanent housing is ready, we don’t have easy access to laundry facilities; that is, unless we want to pay the steep fees our hotel charges for its laundry services. Four euros to wash a pair of socks? I can probably buy a new pair at that rate. Indeed, by our calculations, it would cost us around 150 euros to have one load of laundry washed and dried at our hotel. Um… no, thank you.
Hand-washing my clothes for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria taught me three things: 1) It’s almost impossible to get all of the soap out; 2) Unless there is room to dry everything properly (and in our hotel room there is not), the clothes will mildew and I’ll have to start all over again; and 3) Hand-washing jeans, and more importantly, wringing the water out of them, requires a level of hand strength that I simply do not have… at least not to clean them properly. What’s more, my clothes were pretty battered after those two years of regular, rough hand-washing. Still, I had just about resigned myself to filling the bathtub with water and a capful of liquid detergent this morning, at least for things like socks and underwear, when I decided to search online for a laundromat. I found exactly one in all of Riga, about three kilometers from our hotel.
I collected all of our dirty clothes from the last week, separated them by color, and stuffed them in one of our small suitcases. I carefully wrote down the address on a scrap of paper and left the hotel to find a taxi. I showed the address to the driver, a huge, tattooed man of about 35 who didn’t seem too thrilled that I wanted him to drive me only three kilometers away, and off we went. Soon after we were on our way, weaving through the streets on the edge of Old Riga at what felt like record speed, Roxette came on the radio (aw, remember them?) with the song Joyride. Fitting.
The driver pulled up to the address and let me out. The trip was about €5.70. I handed him €7. He started counting back my change, and I said, No, it’s OK. Please keep it. Finally, a smile from him! Thank you, he said. He took my suitcase from the trunk and gave it to me. Paldies, I said to him. It means thank you and it’s one of the three words I know in Latvian. I am finding, though, that a simple thank you in the local language goes a long way.
I entered the laundromat, where the woman working inside seemed to have all four washers and three dryers going. She asked me how many machines I needed, and I said that I needed two, expecting to have to wait for a free machine. Instead, the woman opened two of the washers, removed their contents, and motioned for me to fill them. After I did, she set the machines in motion and told me to come back in two hours.
I set off down the street to explore the neighborhood as I waited for my laundry. I found a charming little café called Cascara, where I did some writing over a cup of earl grey tea and a delicious little quiche with cheese, mushrooms, and tomatoes. The barista greeted me in Latvian with a smile and a labdien, (good day), another of the three words I know and to which I replied, labdien, promptly followed apologetically by the four words I hate to utter when traveling: Do you speak English? To my relief, she was more than happy to practice her English with me, as I am finding has been true of many Latvians so far. Still, I dislike the feeling of asking people to accommodate my need for English. Hopefully that will fade with time.
Within a few minutes, several other customers came into the café and addressed the barista in Russian. M. and I are observing that many Latvians switch seamlessly from Latvian to Russian and back again. What we are uncertain of, however, is whether someone prefers Latvian to Russian, and thus, we have been timid about addressing people in Russian. (Although my Russian vocabulary is painfully limited, it is exponentially greater than my Latvian.) Our conversations with people in Riga have revealed that most Latvians over the age of 40 know Russian because they were forced to learn it during Soviet times, although many prefer to converse in Latvian. As we settle into life here, hopefully we will learn more about these preferences as we learn more of the language and culture.
As I left the café, I said to the barista, Paldies, dosvidanie!: Thank you (in Latvian), goodbye! (in Russian). She responded with, Have a nice day! (in English). Whatever works, right?
I returned to the laundromat to find my two loads of laundry sitting in plastic baskets, dry, organized, and loosely folded. I paid my bill, put the clothes back in my suitcase, and headed back to the hotel. My laundry adventure ended up costing me €19 for the clothes, and €13 in round-trip cab fare: €32 (about $36) in total to wash two loads of laundry. Though still a rather costly adventure, it was nothing compared to the €282.50 (about $317) I would have paid at our hotel for the same service. (This is no exaggeration; I actually tallied it up.) And it definitely beats bloody knuckles and stiff, mildewed jeans. As a bonus, I got to see a different part of the city.
Thank you for reading!