The friendly suits of Profitcenter

Scheduling problems force me to take another 5-hour bus ride from Tallinn to Riga, and spend the night there. The thaw is on in the Baltics, and the rivers are melting, snow sliding in dangerous torrents from sloped rooftops. In the old town, it’s best to walk in the middle of the street, lest a pile wind up on your head, dropped from four or five stories, or worse.

I arrive in Riga late, and carry my bags to the elegantly named Hostel “ProfitCenter.” Whose profit, I’m not sure. It’s a Friday night, and the streets in the old town, too near the bus station, are filled with drunks, shouting and weaving. It is part the Easyjet crowd, the weekend stag partiers, partly local, partly Russian, I think. The apologetic woman in the hostel tells me there has been a problem with my reservation, but that they’ve set up another room for me elsewhere, same price. Security will walk me over.

Security? Already I’m not liking the sound of this. A small man, not much larger than me, in an immaculate black suit emerges. He nods and says something in Latvian. I smile weakly, and follow him outside. The odds that he’s going to take me into an alley somewhere and steal my things are probably not high, I figure. But they exist. We walk through the streets, taking a circuitous route, apparently the direct streets. Someone screams loudly. An old woman sings on a corner, unaccompanied, a minor-keyed dirge, a cup held in front of her. I’m getting more nervous when he points ahead at a sign, says “Hotel,” and smiles at me warmly, and I realize he’s younger than I had thought, and perfectly friendly. The mafioso-tough is just a mask.

In my new hotel, I go back on the streets for dinner, but all the kitchens are closed. Beer is enough, I try a few Latvian brews, and then head back. In the dark alley that leads to the hotel door (why are they all dark alleys?) another man in an unwrinkled black suit stops me. This hotel’s security.

“Excuse me,” he says in English, all politeness. “May I ask you a question. If you would just want maybe some girl…”

I understand. Politeness is best. No thank you, I say. But thank you for asking. It’s quite generous of you. I go inside, and upstairs, and to sleep.