Friday, 2 February 2007
The Best Fans in the World
Alex Horne – 1st February 2007
I'd been looking forward to meeting a Latvian. I'd visited the capital, Riga, a few years back with my Rachel and, unusually for us, we'd actually spent a whole afternoon exploring a museum and learning about the country's history. Admittedly, it was partly because we were there for a week and had already done pretty much everything else there was to do (including eating caviar and drinking champagne for about 50p and enjoying a dodgy but apparently humane cat circus) but I did feel that at last I'd have the upper hand over Owen in the 'knowing some facts about the country' stakes.
When we met Lyosha, the final global contact up Nastia's generous sleeve, he was not necessarily in the best of moods. Don't get me wrong, he was utterly charming, extremely helpful and wearing a brilliant green tank top that Owen and I were both envious of, but he was clearly having 'one of those days' (i.e. not a very good day). Arriving an hour or so behind schedule after being asked to fixed nearly all the computers in the offices above us, he finally sat down with us and his lunch at 3pm, weary and in need of a break. At one point he told us that he was quitting his job in a couple of weeks and needed to sort out problems either with his house or with his health – we weren't quite sure which and didn't want to make things worse by asking him to repeat and clarify his problems – but whichever way round, Lyosha had a lot on his mind.
This did not come as a huge surprise to my experienced Riga-trained eyes. A lot of the people we'd met on our holiday had tended to be a bit world-weary (cat circus ring-master excluded). Not rude or nasty, but a tad downtrodden, slightly brusque even. I presumed it was an after-effect of all the recent political problems I'd learnt so much about in the Occupation Museum of Latvia.
"Oh no, don't believe what's written in there", said Lyosha precisely puncturing my one and only Latvia-based theory. "These days they say one thing about what happened. A few years ago they said the opposite. You can't trust any commentators. Everyone has an agenda'. Fair enough.
So, hopefully without any bias, here's a very brief account of how the last hundred years have been for Latvia: A devastating First World War was swiftly followed by the War of Independence which ultimately resulted in an independent Soviet Latvia being proclaimed in November 1918. Over the next twelve months the army had to withstand attacks by German and Russian troops before the Great Depression of 1930 and a subsequent coup and dictatorship that lasted until 1940. Soviet forces then occupied the country again and kicked off the Baigais Gads (the Year of Horros) in which thousands were either arrested or disappeared. In 1941 German forces invaded. By the end of the Second World War 200,000 Latvian citizens had been killed. Following the conflict the Soviets reoccupied the country deporting thousands of Latvians and replacing them with Russian workers, causing the ethnic Latvian population to fall to 62% by 1959. After Glasnost, the Declaration of the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia was finally signed in 1991 and Russia's military withdrew completely in 1994. Ten years later, Latvia joined both NATO and the EU but, according to the democratically-written Wikipedia, "after a difficult transition to a liberal economy and its re-orientation toward Western Europe, Latvia still has one of the lowest standards of living in the EU".
Lyosha told us he'd watched the events before and after Independence unfolding on the TV but he was young and didn't really experience it first hand. I also got the impression that after a hard day in the office and potential health/home issues on the horizon, he wasn't too keen to discuss politics at this particular moment.
"Did you go there on a stag weekend?" he asked instead. "Stag weekend? Oh no. I was with my wife", I said, a little defensively, but slowly realising why perhaps we'd been greeted with suspicion in most of the restaurants, hotels and bars around the city.
"We got lots of them coming over now", sighed Lyosha. I've witnessed lots of people in this country making the same remark and expression when talking about the influx of people from new EU countries. I can't help thinking being on the receiving end of plane-loads of drunken men is a much more depressing prospect than the arrival of fresh and hard workers, keen to make the best of a new opportunity.
But Lyosha himself is even-handed about his worries: "Stag weekends aren't that bad at all. For some reason since we joined the European Union we're not allowed to produce as much sugar as before and a lot of the factories have been forced to close. Farmers are also forbidden from producing as much crops. So tourism is now extremely important for us. But I am concerned about the stags themselves. They come and get drunk and shout and don't understand that there are people in Latvia who will punch them in the head. In Latvia you can still get away with fighting".
A sound warning which brings me neatly onto our final topic of conversation and a much happier way to end our encounter: ice hockey – a sport in which you can also still get away with fighting. To make up for our afternoon of (unreliable) culture, Rachel and I spent our last night in Riga in a Latvian bar watching the national team play ice-hockey against Russia. It was fantastic and quite unlike watching the England football team under-perform in an English pub. Literally everybody wore the maroon colours of Latvia and most beat drums or sounded horns throughout the game. When Latvia actually scored a goal the whole place erupted, strangers hugged, everyone laughed and I immediately bought myself a Latvia hockey shirt which I wear with pride to this day.
The score at this point was 3-1 to Russia. "Yes", said Lyosha, with the biggest smile of the day, "we have the best fans in the world."
Who am I to disagree?