I was a little confused by the presence of armed guards at the Freedom Monument in Riga.
The monument is quite big. Actually, it is very very big.
It’s been there since 1935, in memory of soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920)and it’s 138 feet tall. You can’t miss it. Which is what makes me think that it’s rather unlikely that there might be an attempt to steal it – someone would be sure to notice.
And yet there were the guards, standing there in the statuesque way that guards do when they’re protecting a queen or a president or someone like that. I don’t know if it’s the same set-up as, say, Buckingham Palace guards, where you can go up to them and wave your hands in front of their eyes and they won’t even blink, but it certainly seemed that way to me. Anyway, I have since learned that it’s a Guard of Honour, which is not really a concept I was aware of until now, but it does make more sense than guarding a 138ft monument against theft, for example.
The first time that I passed them, I stopped curiously and watched to see if they were going to do anything. They did not, and I almost froze to the spot as I waited, so I gave up and left them to stare into space by themselves while I went in search of coffee.
The second time, they scared the wits out of me by suddenly stepping off their posts and marching around with their guns hoisted, just as I was level with them. That was decidedly unnerving.
The third time, I was delighted to be just in time for the changing of the guards ceremony, which really was quite good fun, because they marched very slowly, with big, exaggerated steps, and utterly solemn expressions on their poor cold faces. They looked awfully important. Three new guards marched slowly towards them, and then stood very still as the two on duty left their marks and marched to meet them. There was some sort of salute thing, then two of the new guards marched to the designated positions, and the old guards, accompanied by the third new guard, marched off around to the back of the monument, where they did another salute thing and clicked their guns and then walked off quite normally.
I tried to video the whole thing on my phone, and followed the original guards as they marched off to the back with their escort. It was all very exciting. All the citizens of Riga were just scurrying past without a glance, but I was following the procedure with the thrilled attention of one who doesn’t get out very much. Thinking about it now, I must have looked somewhat ridiculous, in my bright blue Scarf Hat (pulled over my mouth and nose) and 23 layers of clothing, eagerly videoing a common everyday procedure with a big excited smile on my face.
This may have caught the attention of the guards, although they very much gave the impression of not being aware of anything around them, with their blank, wooden expressions and an unwavering stare that made them appear blinkered. However, as soon as they did the end salute, they instantly became human. It was quite bizarre; like wooden puppets coming to life. They relaxed and I watched as they strolled off, chatting quite normally. I was enchanted. This must be how Geppetto felt.
One of the guards glanced back at me, standing there with my camera and a happy touristy smile on my blue-tinged face. He grinned in what I hope was a flirtatious manner, as I have never before received the romantic attentions of a man in uniform, as is every girl’s dream. I suspect he was more likely to be laughing in amusement at the shivering, overly-clothed, excessively enthusiastic creature in the Silly Hat, but I continued to grin back and he raised a hand in farewell as they got into their transport. Unfortunately this was a blue van and not a horse-driven chariot, but still.
It’s not every day you get to watch the changing of the guards, and have a Latvian soldier smile at you.