Food, Service and the Soviets
Do you think it’s wrong to tip a waiter just because they’re cute? I struggled briefly with this moral dilemma today as I had a late lunch. On the one hand, it disadvantages the less attractive waiters, but on the other hand, a cute waiter often adds to the enjoyment of the experience. In the end I decided I would give him a tip for cuteness, but that wasn’t the only reason I left a tip.
I also felt kinda sorry for him, as he had to deliver the ultimate bad news to a customer who has already waited silently and patiently for an hour (yes, really) for his meal to arrive. “There’s been a mistake. They’ve cooked the wrong meal”, he told me with this really sad, apologetic look on his face. I just knew he was the bunny for some major fuck-up in the kitchen. As it was, it was only the difference between steamed and fried dumplings, so I just smiled and told him it wasn’t a problem. And besides, he was cute.
“I’ve never been so hungry in my life since arriving in Latvia”, a bloke told me in a bar last night. I knew exactly what he meant, as I’ve felt the same way. I’m guessing by the popularity of the central markets, most people eat at home and there isn’t a significant restaurant or cafe culture here. The food I’ve had has been pretty good, by and large, but there are nowhere near as many places to eat as you would find in a similar sized town in Western Europe.
And there aren’t that many restaurants, cafes or anything really in the area where I’m staying. There’s just lots of shops with absolute crap in them. Like really useless crap. OK, that’s maybe an exaggeration as I’m about 5 doors down from the Benetton Store, but I hope you get the meaning.
The bloke I met in the bar was Irish. He’d been here for a few days for a wedding and because his boyfriend (who was Latvian) needed to renew his passport. I went up to him and said hello, “Do you mind if I join you” because he was the only other person in the bar, literally.
I’d searched around on the internet for the names and locations of gay venues in Riga, and could really only find one that was suitable, as the only other venue sounded more like a sex club than somewhere you might go for a drink and conversation. Luckily it wasn’t too far from where I’m staying.
But to get in, you need to press a buzzer. A bloke greeted me at the door and told me it was 2 lats entry (about $5) which I happily gave him. “Turn on the music” he shouted to the bloke behind the bar. And that’s when I realised that, for the second time in the same week, I’ve been the only person in a gay bar.
The barman who was very nice gave me a wry apologetic smile as I sat alone in the corner waiting and hoping that someone else might come in. I smiled back, reminding myself it wasn’t Sydney or San Francisco, it was Latvia on a Tuesday night.
And when you’re sitting there all by yourself, you start to notice things you’ve never noticed before. For example, the decore. The place was fairly well decorated in strong red colours, including red leather lounges and with “Tom Of Finland” images all over the walls. I don’t think I’ve spent as long observing the decore of a bar in my life.
Finally, after about 30 minutes, the door bell rang again. It was a bloke unwilling to pay the cover charge, so he left. Later, there was a group of about 5 blokes who also wanted to come in, but baulked at the cover charge. If the owners of the bar are reading this, can I suggest dropping the cover charge on a Tuesday night, as I reckon you’ll make more money over the bar if you just let a few people in.
I think it was about 1 or 2 in the morning before the place had a modest crowd of people. And when I say modest, I’d say the bar peaked at about 20 people. I’m sure it’s busier on the weekend.
All of these restaurant and bar experiences remind you it’s not so long since Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, with all that implies. And this leads me into telling you about the amazing experience I had today at the Latvian Occupation Museum.
The museum covers the period 1940 to 1991 when Latvia was under the control of Russia, then Germany, and then Russia again. A strong theme of the exhibition relates to the agreement between Hitler and Stalin just weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War. Although a student and great lover of history, it’s an agreement I wasn’t that aware of. And although the US and UK said they did not support the Soviet occupation after the war, another theme of the exhibition is the west did nothing about it either.
The museum is very moving. On a couple of occasions I found myself a little teary and a little overwhelmed by the many terrible things that were done during this period. The exhibition, for example, describes the terrible position of the Prime Minister at the time when Russia moved in. On the one hand, it’s argued by asking Latvians not to resist, he may have saved the lives of many people, but he may also have condemned them to something also quite terrible. It’s explained he went missing within a couple of weeks, died soon after and his grave was never found. Chernenko apparently presented the Independent Latvian Government in 1991 with the last known photograph of that man.
The exhibition also takes you inside the kind of huts people lived in at the Gulags, and describes how people were just left to starve to death. Unlike the Nazis who killed people systematically, the Soviet system was to put people in such terrible situations they just died.
There’s a ray of optimism though, as the struggle of the resistance movement is well documented. Something I wasn’t aware of was the two-million people who in 1989 protested the Soviet occupation by joining hands, linking Tallin, Riga and Vilnius. And there’s a great photograph in the museum of the celebrations when independence finally came back to Latvia.
It’s one of the best museums I’ve been to, to be honest, and an absolute highlight of my three days in Riga.
After that I went for a bit of a wander and then went on the hunt for some food. Tonight I settled on a very Latvian looking self-serve restaurant chain. Although I don’t recall the name, their signage features a rather jolly looking older woman inviting you in. In some ways, I felt like I was at the Lismore Workers Club bistro. Looking around at what was on offer I tried to find something “very Latvian”. I have no idea if I succeeded or not. It was pretty tasteless actually.
So tonight is just a night of packing, updating my blog and backing up my photographs. And I have to be up early because tomorrow, it’s Prague (via Brussels). Yes, I’ve got a cheapie flight that involves a two hour stop-over in the capital of Belgium, which I’m sure will be loads of fun. Apparently these stop-over hub flights are quite common in Europe. When you consider the geography involved, it sounds totally bizarre, but it’s cheap and better than spending a day on a train in my humble opinion.