Monday, 30 March 2009


Russian women are Essex girls with cheekbones and palatal consonants. Riga, from where I have just returned, was absolutely packed with them, all long legs, orange permatans and lustrous hair extensions. It takes, as St Dolly of Parton quipped, a lot of money to look this cheap.

All this I discovered when my friend Dan and I wandered into what we had taken to be a bar but, judging from the line of jaded Slavic dollybirds in the 'disco' area, the shifty manner of the manageress, and the police visit, might well have been a brothel. It was also rammed with British ladzabroad at their most utterly charmless. 'Latvian?' slurred some stubbly man-trull at me, totally wrecked at 7pm. 'No, English, I live in Cambridge', I replied. 'Well, you look fucking Latvian', he said, as though offended that mere manifest fact had got in the way of his expertise in the comparative international physiognomy stakes. While Dan was at the bar, another pair of lads asked me if I had any pills. I thought, Christ, boys, do I not look a bit of an unlikely source for that kind of thing!? Reader, I was at the time clutching a copy of the New Collected Poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Riga was bleak in a rather excitingly post-Soviet way, with its concrete towerblocks, black trees and brown, snow-parched grass. We nipped over in one of the aerial veal-crates that pass for planes with Ryanair ('I'm afraid there is actually a surcharge of £40 each for the actual process of slaughtering...') and found that it was about 3 degrees centigrade, with hard-packed frozen snow on the ground and not a sign of spring. It was bizarre leaving Britain in warm sun and full equinoctial array to arrive somewhere where there was not a flower, not a shoot, not a bud to be seen anywhere. It was like going back in time three months and thirty years at the same time. As we crossed the bridge into town on our first night, I stared down at the Daugava - which is huge - and watched polygonal slabs of ice cracking and snapping as they drifted down, looking for all the world like strange, pale flatfish moving slowly below the water's surface. It was very cold.

There were a number of pretty churches and cathedrals in the Old Town, and some delightful pseudo-Parisian boulevards filled with cafés and amber shops. Art Nouveau was obviously big in Riga: a lot of fine townhouses, usually now doing service as embassies, were decked out in stucco swags and organic curlicues. Art Nouveau is, as it happens, very much not to my taste. The floral, simpering Mucha-esque brand is saccharine, and as Dr Johnson said of pastoral, 'easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.' It's alright for the front door of a café and not much else. The loftier style, on the other hand, is incredibly sinister: those rows of open-mouthed classical faces (singing or screaming?), turbaned and swathed, have a heavy, Moreauvian, encrusted feel. Can one actually criticise a building for solipsism? Perhaps not. But I like to look at buildings - I don't like them to look back.

On our second night we walked a long way into a rather desolate area of town to find a Georgian/Armenian restaurant, called Restaurāns Aragats. This really was the oddest meal out I've ever had. The main dining area appeared to be someone's front room, tables separated by wooden fencing of the kind you see in suburban British gardens. These were wound about with dark-leaved artificial ivy. Clinking mini-chandeliers cast a weird light over the walls, which were the colour of an aqua bathroom suite. Our hostess, a doughty, uncrossable Armenian matron with a maroon bob and Sophia Loren-style tinted spectacles, spoke to us in a mixture of Russian and English, lifting baskets of fresh bread to our noses and spreading said bread with a homemade spice butter, which was an unmentionable brown but which tasted delicious. The main course was grilled lamb ('straight from village, fresh, young') which came with a garnish made at the table: roasted pepper, aubergine and tomato were mashed up with dill, basil, mint and spring onion, all chopped up by our hostess with kitchen scissors as she talked to us. She was a firm, rather melancholy presence. 'But then earthquake - then I leave Georgia', as she told us. We rounded off the meal with an extraordinary dessert consisting of walnuts enclosed in a brownish, lumpy tube of grape juice aspic (if that makes sense), which tasted of nothing at all, not even of walnuts or grapes.

We ended up that night in a club called 'Purvs', which means 'The Swamp'. It had the most unbelievable decor I've ever seen: lurid green and silver coagulations on everything, painted in glitter with kitsch plastic starfish. The toilets looked rather like the grotto to the Madonna in the town's Catholic cathedral. There was a tiny girl there in black and red stripes with long dark hair, dancing energetically: she looked so like Lourdes Ciccone-Leon that I leaned over to Dan and said, 'That's Madonna's real height'. Incidentally, on that subject, it is terrifying how like the younger Madonna Lourdes now looks: she may take her colouring from her Cuban father, but in every other respect parthenogenesis seems to have taken place:

And again, while I'm in full flow, here's a random Image Association for you: Lourdes and Madonna, then Leonardo's sinisterly sfumato 'The Virgin and St Anne'. Madonna is in full Elizabeth Bathory mode:

Back in Riga's clubland, Dan copped off so I wandered back to our hotel, tottering over the Daugava and staggering in through the revolving door at around 5am. On my way back through the freezing streets, I passed by the magnificent neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral. As it was the wee hours, I couldn't pop in to light a quick taper to, say, St Steven Protomartyr, but we had in fact been in earlier that day. This was one of the highlights of the break for me, in fact; the cathedral is quite wonderfully frescoed in the proper Byzantine style, without too much of the awful soft-focus sentimentalism that infected Russian icon-painting during the 19th century:

* * *

Riga was, in all, an invigoratingly bleak destination. I'm not sure I'd go again, and if I did it would be in the summer, when I imagine there would be long days and flowers instead of frozen slush and chilblains. It was certainly interesting to see a place where everything, from architecture to the food to people's looks, was such an intriguing mixture of Slav and mitteleuropäische Lumpenproletariat, as Dan put it.

On landing at Stansted yesterday, one of the ladzabroad was arrested for being drunk and abusive, at 11am. Home sweet home.


Anonymous said...

"We ended up that night in a club called 'Purvs' ..."

Oh come on now. No parenthetical chuckles?

Sounds like an ideal place for Spandau Ballet to launch their new tour. Thirty years behind the times ... might just fill the place.


Bo said...

There were on the unexpurgated version over at The Expvlsion!

Anonymous said...

Oh! .. I was referring the potential comedy of a night club named in honour of Peter Purvis, of course ...


Hans said...

It's definitely better to go to Riga in the summer, although even in July it can be windy, chilly, and rainy - the weather is quite capricious. I've been there twice and liked it - it's a pity that you got off to such an unauspicious start with a city that can be really charming.

Fionnchú said...

I had a mean boss of a boss who was Latvian. I work with a colleague whose parents fled there in WWII. My wife's good friend's parents also fled from there, those who were not sent to the concentratio camps from Riga. So, it's a pleasure to read about your own delightful (?) stint next to whichever other capital's the true Venice of the Baltic.

Did you, with your linguistic acumen, hear much Latvian rather than the imperial/ imperious Russian? If so, could you tell the difference? I am being facetious, but I am curious, having obviously no idea of the language. I suppose it's not the orthographically challenged Finno-Ugric Estonian cousin, but more a sturdy Slavic varietal?

Bo said...

Hm, Fionnchu, I could--usually--tell the difference, if only because I know a little bit of Russian and no Latvian, so if I recognised a word it must have been Russian.

ambergirl said...

Favorited, forever. This made me laugh for an hour. Thanks.

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