There Goes The Neighbourhood

Number 10 tram

The number 10 tram - Tornakalns' very own bullet train

Flicking through a copy of the recent guide book Another Travel Guide Riga this week, I was amazed to see that my street has become an official tourist attraction.

The amazement stems from the fact that, as I frequently like to relate my flat is on the Pardaugava side of the river away from the bright lights of the Old Town in an area of wooden buildings, dusty yards and communally-owned dogs.

When I announced my intention to move to Tornakalns a few years ago, reactions varied all the way from “It’s full of Russians” to “It’s full of drunks” and “It’s full of crime.” One respondent even questioned my sanity, and I don’t think he was joking.

But it wasn’t and isn’t full of Russians, drunks and criminals, though you could probably find a drunk Russian criminal (the best sort) if you really want to.

And apparently people do want to. Far from being full of undesirables, Frica Brivzemnieka street may soon be full of tourists, if Another Travel Guide Riga has its way.

First a word about the guide itself. I found the first efforts of anothertravelguide (all lower case, all one word) a few years ago almost as irritating as their stupid name. They seemed to specialise in sycophantic chats with avant-garde fusion chefs and Peterburgian art collectors in the mistaken belief that ordinary people gave a flying fig whether some private villa in Yalta was booked up two years in advance or whether face control was strict enough in Moscow nightclubs these days.

But they must have had some sort of Damascene conversion in the interim because as well as discovering the spaces between the words of their name, their new Riga guide is actually very good – if a little pricey. The photography is excellent and while the text is brief (and thankfully the translator for the English version has done an impeccable job), it is hard to argue with their selections of what is worth seeing in Riga.

As far as my street is concerned, the attraction apparently lies in the unique atmosphere of the aforementioned dusty yards and the wooden buildings which represents the ne plus ultra of lean-to architecture.

While it’s true that there is indeed a unique atmosphere in summer when the neighbours gather round for day-long sessions of shashlik and schnabis, it’s not something you can just walk into brandishing a Pentax.

In the last few wintery weeks the atmosphere has been a bit different, as much grotesque as picaresque.

Looks pretty outside, but it's cold inside

Someone noticed that during the coldest days of the winter, the old woman upstairs in number 7 had left her window open. She hadn’t been seen for a while, and some of the neighbours got worried and called the police. They entered the building and found her dead. They also found the old man who lived on the floor below dead when they tried to ask him when he had last seen her. He had been there a while and no-one had even noticed his absence.

They were both pleasant old birds and always gave me a sad smile or a nod when I said hello to them in Russian. They were two of the people referred to in the oft-encountered phrase “You speak better Latvian than some people who have been here 50 years!” They didn’t speak Latvian and they had probably been here 50 years at least. They weren’t bad people because of that.

A couple of days later, the yard saw more action. I was clearing snow in front of the sheds when two women rushed into the yard brandishing brooms like hussars’ sabres and started laying about a middle-aged man with a backpack I hadn’t actually noticed until that point.

The women displayed their impressive command of colloquial Russian as they chased the man out of the yard. It was like something from a comedy film of the 1930s, but it turned out to be less comic than tragic.

He was a well-known local thief, they explained. He’d heard about the deaths – and the still-open window – and thought he would take a spy with his little eye. But he’d reckoned without the spying eyes of the neighbourhood women and, more importantly, their broom bushido. The police were called again and this time they closed the window behind them.

Over the next few days, more people arrived at the empty house. Interrogation showed them to be relatives of the deceased, so they were left alone as they carelessly removed the few possessions of worth in their beaten-up BMWs. No-one had seen them visit before and they didn’t seem particularly savoury sorts themselves.

When everything else had been cleared out, one of them tried to sell me the firewood the old woman had stacked for the winter. Sporting an England football cap and a nose broken so recently that it was still swollen and blotchy, he said he couldn’t be bothered to take it in his car and offered a bargain price well above the rate I could get by calling the man who leaves his number on a sheet of paper pinned to the wooden walls of the houses.

I declined the offer, and sent him on to a building on the far side of the yard where I said they burned lots of wood. They told him the same thing and sent him on to another building. In this way he was made to drag his sack of dead woman’s wood three times around the yard with no takers in a sort of Danteesque penance before deciding he could be bothered to lug it after all and throwing it into the back of his crappy 5 series.

Can you sense the unique atmosphere?

I look forward to seeing busloads of stereotypical Japanese tourists disembarking every half hour to enjoy Tornakalns’ answer to Kabuki theatre.

Maybe the tochka across the street will be transformed into a shi-shi gastro pub serving slow food sushi. Maybe a statue will be erected to Dan the dog, who showed up one day and realised he was onto a good thing when people in a dozen flats started leaving scraps for him in return for border patrol duties. And maybe the two men who go through the bins every Sunday morning at 9am precisely can be given shiny uniforms to transform their clockwork ritual into a sort of changing of the guard ceremony.

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