Anyone still thinking the EU is anything but an awful, unworkable contrivance should visit Riga.
Whose deranged mind decided it’s possible to a create a single federation out of 28 (30? 40?) European countries? Having spent four days in Riga, I can testify that this mind wasn’t only deranged but also evil.
It’s possible to create a federation out of different countries – provided they have something in common, a little area where they overlap.
What I mean by an area isn’t shared geography, even though that helps. However, much more important are shared culture, history, behavioural modes, social responses, aesthetics – all those things that add up to civilisation.
Hence some bright European sparks must have got together and decided that, say, Greece and Holland have enough in common to blend naturally into a single country.
I suppose an experienced sophist could argue the toss, referring, for example, to Greek philosophy and its input into our religion and culture. And indeed a peripatetic Westerner visiting Athens might be impressed by treading the ground trodden 2,500 years ago by peripatetic philosophers.
But then he’d look for more up to date evidence of kinship, only to find none. Greece and Holland, though both technically speaking European, haven’t much more in common than either has with Mongolia.
They may be forced under the same umbrella, but neither will be home and dry together. There’s no umbrella big enough to cover both.
If you agree, then let me tell you: Athens is more of a European capital than Riga is. Yes, Greece has had a chequered history, punctuated by foreign occupation, most recently by Nazi Germany.
But, even though Nazi Germany took over Greece’s land, it never took over Greece’s soul. I’m sure that no foreigner visiting Greece in 1972, 27 years after the liberation, would have said that the country still remained Nazi.
Well, this visitor, here in Riga 27 years after the country left the Soviet Union and 14 after it joined the European one, can argue that the country remains Soviet to its core.
It’s not the Latvians’ fault. Communism corrupts nations so absolutely that its effects will linger for at least as long as communism lasted – and I’m being generous. Twice as long would be closer to the mark, and that’s provided the country makes an honest effort to cleanse itself.
The first thing one notices about Riga is how dingy it is, and I don’t mean its physical plant. Quite the opposite: the medieval Old Town is lovely, the city centre boasts more Art Nouveau buildings than any other city in the world, and the parks separating the two are beautifully landscaped and maintained.
True, Riga’s Gothic churches aren’t a patch on those in France, but then whose are? And Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture isn’t exactly Gaudi, but then whose is?
Yet one central park stopped me dead with the notice above. My first impression was that it was some kind of inside joke. Surely children don’t drive?
Oh yes they do. And I don’t even mean grown-ups driving like irresponsible children, zipping through the streets at 70 mph in their clapped out jalopies with mufflers shot or non-existent – there are plenty of those in Riga. No, it’s tots, some as young as three, actually driving their electric go-karts through the park.
I pointed them out to my wife, and her reaction was that the cars were paddled. Yet she realised they weren’t when one three-year-old hit a kerb and then reversed out with the élan of a get-away driver. Obviously Latvian standards of ‘elf and safety aren’t quite like ours.
Riga isn’t exactly dingy in any physical sense, even though veering off the beaten track of Gothic and Art Nouveau areas landed me smack in the middle of the Soviet suburbs of my Moscow childhood.
Still, Riga’s dinginess isn’t in the buildings. It’s in the people.
They don’t look, act, walk or deport themselves like Europeans. Language apart, they are indistinguishable from the inhabitants of the bad outskirts of Moscow.
Speaking statistically, in terms of GDP per capita, Latvia is better off than most Eastern European countries and certainly than Russia. Yet in the four days we didn’t see a single well-dressed person, male or female.
I mean M&S or Gap well-dressed, not Bond Street or Savile Row. Yet Riga has many of the boutiques one finds in those streets. Who shops there? Certainly not the equivalents of the Russian Mafiosi – those chaps shop in London and Paris. And evidently no one else.
Then there are the 20-stone, misshapen women, some of them still young, one sees everywhere. I’m sure they don’t add up to half the female population, but one could be forgiven for getting that impression. There are plenty of obese women in any European city, but nowhere do they dominate the human landscape to the same degree.
The number of falling-over drunks is also far greater than in any European capital I’ve seen, although some places in England may compete with Riga in that respect. But drunks are different there: they’re simply barbarians who can’t think of any other way of having fun. But have fun they do, if you can call it that.
In Riga people clearly drink the way the Russians do: not to have fun but to forget, ideally to die. One can almost see the abyss of despair into which they’re falling with every gulp. Many drinkers are down-and-outs on their last legs.
“There’s nothing else for them to do,” explained a woman we chatted up. “There are no decent jobs for them to find, so those who have anything on the ball just up and leave. Those who stay drink.” She herself prefers New Zealand as her holiday destination, to get as far as geographically possible from her native city.
There are boozers and off-licences at every corner in Riga, sometimes more than one per corner. Yet I’ve found only two bookshops in the whole city, each the size of a typical newsagent in London.
I’m sure there must be more, but it’s hard to walk through the centre of, say, Paris for five minutes without catching sight of a sizeable bookshop. The Rigans’ interests must lie elsewhere.
Even the way they try to be Western is touchingly childish. We stopped at a rather chi-chi restaurant for a late-night snack. All we wanted was their celebrated tuna tartare and a glass of wine.
The celebrated tuna tartare turned out to be mostly avocado, while my request for two glasses of the house white raised the curtain for a major production. The wine waitress delivered a long soliloquy, talking about plonks in the terms normally reserved for women: “Lovely legs… full body… beautiful nose…”
I wanted to say, “For God’s sake, we aren’t ordering Meursault here. Just give us two glasses of plonk, will you?” Instead I said, “Pinot grigio is fine. And no, I don’t want to taste it first.”
The last time I visited Riga was in 1973. The place was then as unmistakeably Soviet as anywhere in Russia – and in many ways it still is. I don’t think it has much in common with Western Europe; in fact, Riga comes across as a little girl trying to walk in her mother’s shoes and looking silly for it – or, more menacingly, as a little boy trying to drive.
But then who says the EU has anything to do with Europe? Like any other socialist Leviathan it just wants to swallow as many countries as possible. Latvia fills the bill perfectly. So would Mongolia for that matter.