Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Reflections from Riga

Before I start, I must apologise for the fact that this entry is two years late.

I first intended to write a blog entry from Latvia, entitled Reflections from Riga, a couple of years ago, during one of my first visits to this tiny country.

However, then, and on each visit since, I haven't been able to find the time to share my thoughts on this little corner of the world.

That will change today.

When I first thought about writing this entry, all those years ago, I had no idea that some of those reflections would eventually come from a police cell in Riga, in which I found myself after being arrested a few days ago. But we'll get to that in a moment.

To truly understand why I was arrested, you need to first understand something about the Latvian people. That is, the Latvian people are like the weather.

By that, I don't mean that they have lots of dandruff (snow) though well they might, nor do I mean that they urinate a lot (rain), and I don't mean that that they have copious amounts of intestinal gas (wind) though I am sure that they do, what I mean is that the Latvian people are generally very cold.

And incredibly rude.

Take for example my experiences in an Internet cafe in Riga I have been using for years. Never once have the people who work there said hello to me or thanked me.

And this is not confined to Internet cafes. Again and again, every day, I am struck by the rudeness of the Latvian people. I am not hoping for a fake smile - something I would find in the UK - just a bit of common courtesy and an acknowledgement that I exist.

I realise that Latvia's past is a tortured one. They suffered through WWII and years of Soviet rule, but so did the Belorussians, and the Ukrainians, and they are not as rude as this.

It was this rudeness that led to my arrest.

To cut a short story long, I was in the Old Town a few days ago and I visited a restaurant called Steiku Haoss (no need to mention what was on the menu in that establishment).

I settled down and began tucking into my dead cow, and asked the waitress how much a Diet Coke cost. She told me she didn't know. So I started to look through the menu for the price, only to have the waitress snatch the menu from my hand and go through its pages.

I hated that. But I ordered a Diet Coke. Ten minutes passed and I didn't see my Diet Coke. I asked to see the manager. He never came. Then when I asked a young waitress where he was, the quick, rude and typically abrupt Latvian reply I got was a step too far.

I freaked out. I lost my appetite. I put my coat on, found the manager, shouted that the service was absolutely terrible and refused to pay for my meal.

But then, instead of leaving, I argued my case with the manager and tried to explain how awful his staff were. He threatened to call the police, and then suggested that I did this in every restaurant.

That REALLY got my goat.

So I told him to go ahead and call the police.

I sat down and waited for the police to arrive. Twenty minutes later they came, two of them, in a tiny little police car to match this tiny little country.

The manager gave me an ultimatum. Pay the bill in full or the police would arrest me and take me to a police station and I would have to pay the bill there.

I offered to pay for the food I had eaten, but as it was his staff's rudeness that had made me lose my appetite, I refused to pay for the entire bill.

So I was arrested.

The police took me in their tiny little car to a tiny little police station where a very big police officer was waiting for me. On the way there, I was wondering to myself what had I done, half expecting to be beaten to within an inch of my life.

But I wasn't going to pay the bill.

The police were actually very nice. I spent a total of about eight minutes in the police station. They took a photocopy of my passport and told me that the restaurant couldn't get me to pay unless they took legal action against me, and as I am heading to Belarus tomorrow morning, let them come and try.

So I didn't pay the bill.

It was a very petty event, a very small thing, not exactly hanging off a cliff in the Ukraine, and I admit I overreacted. I should have just got up and left, or enjoyed my meal and then refused any service charge, but rude, nasty people really get to me.

The thing was, before I lost my appetite, I was really enjoying that steak! It was bloody gorgeous! I was tempted to return to the Steiku Haoss - how hilarious would that have been!

As I passed the restaurant the following day, by pure chance, I saw the manager leaving. He pretended not to see me.

So that was the story of my arrest.

But my problems with the Latvian people did not end there, I am sad to say. Just yesterday I was coming out of another restaurant in the Old Town and a stupid young man very deliberately shoved into me.

I think it was my bright white coat and hat that made me a target - perhaps he thought I was a snowman come to life and he wanted to see if I was real. He shoved me so hard that I thought at first he had stabbed me and I immediately looked down at my chest.

When I shouted and asked why he did that, he muttered something in Latvian, gave me the finger and went on his way. I was so angry I could spit, and though I am no fighter, I had to restrain myself from just running after him and rugby tackling him to the ground.

And these have been my reflections from Riga.

No doubt I will return here, as it's a cheap and convenient stepping stone to Belarus, but I will not do so with any sense of eagerness. In a few weeks time Latvia hosts the next NATO summit and just over two dozen world leaders will pour into Riga. Amongst them will be the mass murdering war leader George W. Bush, for whom the entire Old Town was closed off during his last visit in May.

Let's just hope he pays a visit to Steiku Haoss and gets the same waitress who served me.

As for me, tomorrow morning I trudge through the snow and the slush, in my white coat and hat, as I make my way to the local bus station to find a Soviet era bus that will take me to Minsk, where I will arrive early tomorrow evening.

Until then, it's time to leave these cold Latvians to their weather.

Goodbye from Riga.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.