The wind gusts suddenly, sending snow whirling past me and down the gaping, eye-sucking maw of the ski-slope at my back.
Everyone else laughs. I think I screamed.
Latvians like to have fun. And by fun, I mean a mixture of puckish wit, welcoming bonhomie and a streak of reckless, eye-bulging wibble-madness, all usually lubricated with alcohol. Befriend a Latvian and at some point you will find yourself walking into doorways and then laying on the ground, laughing so hard you can barely control your bladder.
It’s the spring of 2000, and I’ve been sipping cranberry vodka all afternoon. So has the driver of the landrover I’m in, and the vehicle’s two other occupants. Everyone has decided that to see the real Latvia, I need a roadtrip into the country. There’s a lot of it. In Riga, the capital city and my home for the week, the streets are thronged, but this is because almost all of Latvia’s 2.2 million people are in Riga. Take the sturdy motorways west any time between October and April, and you’ll soon hit snow-muffled pine forests as stark as the roof of Cyprus, empty of people.
I’ve just come from the most crowded country in Europe. I’m used to seeing people. Here, there aren’t any to see. Population density is something of a sore point in Latvia, a country whose occupants have endured a century of upheaval, deprivation and near-unimaginable suffering. Part of my jaunt around Riga had taken in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, an unflinching portrayal of the effects of first Nazi and then Soviet rule. In the decade surrounding World War 2, Latvia lost up to half a million of its civilians, some killed or imprisoned, others fleeing abroad for safety. Latvia knows oppression. Hell, I’d want to take my fun seriously as well.
There’s our communal bottle of cranberry vodka sloshing pinkly on the dash. I worry about the lid, what would happen if raw vodka poured out and down into the engine and the car caught fire, and whether we’d stop to put it out or just wind the windows down and keep going until something worse happened. I worry about what would befall us if we’re stopped by a police car.
A little later, we’re stopped by a police car. Our driver asks a few directions as a policeman glances over our flushed faces, our gimlet eyes, over the bottle on the dash. He looks uninterested, and waves us on. (Later, I’ll remember this. He could have stopped us. He could have done something).
Our driver is a professional hunter. Presumably if asked, he’d say he knows these woods well. I guess this is why he suddenly shouts something happily, punches the air with one hand and yanks the wheel over with the other. We career off the road and into the trees, bumping between frozen pines and hopping rotting logs. It’s about this point that I realise my definition of fun doesn’t include flying through a windscreen into the depths of a Baltic wonderland, so I make the internationally recognised gestures of distress including clawing at my window and emitting a noise like a mongoose being castrated.
Luckily – I use this word loosely, of course – we slam into a tree trunk with a teeth-rattling crash. There is a pause for contemplation, and we listen to the forest crackling with the cold, the engine pinking furiously. More vodka, then. Vodka will help us think. Slosh. I’m pretty sure trees aren’t supposed to grow this close together. It’s unnatural. It’s also damn cold (nothing to do with the alcohol, of course. Alcohol is warming. Any fool knows that). We back up carefully. It’s April, yet the country is still winter-locked. Nevertheless, part of me wants them to stop the car. To hell with it guys. I’ll walk back. It’s only 50 km.
Most of Latvia is forest. Like forests? You’ll like Latvia. It’s a dazzling display of nature’s leafy/needly wealth, which in winter is rendered a lovable mixture of scenic and terrifyingly hostile. The countryside isn’t well signposted because there just aren’t enough signs in the world to do it.
We get back on the road, and gradually my convulsive grip on the door handle loosens. It was…just a fit of over-enthusiasm, wasn’t it? He wasn’t trying to kill us. He was trying to…get closer to nature. Yes.
After a couple of kilometres, I’m firmly convinced the worst is over.
to be cont.