The India connection

When you think of places which Latvia has connections with, the Indian subcontinent is not exactly the first place that springs to mind. Yet links do exist. Firstly there’s the language. Just as Santa Claus was wearing red long before coca cola ads and giving someone two fingers has nothing to do with archers at Agincourt, Latvian is very different from Russian. In fact it inherits quite a few basic words from Sanskrit, the classical language of the Indian subcontinent. Outside of north-west India, the languages closest to the ancient Sanskrit are Latvian and Lithuanian. A lot of basic Latvian words like vējš (wind) , gatve (avenue) , ūdens (water) , vīrs (man), kad (when) , tad (then), pār (across) and pret (against) would be easily recognisable to a Sanskrit speaker.

More controversially, another link with the Indian subcontinent that Latvia has is the use of swastikas in local culture. While use of the symbol in Latvia (called pērkonkrusts or thundercross here) goes back at least 900 years, it hardly does the image of the country much good to have displays like this on national TV:

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Traditional symbol it may be, but in Europe it’s irrevocably compromised by World War 2 associations. In a country where over 80% of the Jewish community was massacred in the 1940s, it’s hard to believe that people need to be told that this can be offensive to foreigners.

Latvia’s links to the Indian subcontinent don’t extend to love of Indian food. The usual reaction of Latvians is to say that they don’t like spicy food or worse, to repeat some old Russian wive’s tale about spicy food being unhealthy and causing stomach ulcers, when in fact they have a lot of health benefits.

Against this background, it was a considerable surprise when, on the third “visit all Riga’s districts” outing on 28 September, we found a decent seemingly Indian-run bar in Riga’s northern suburbs.

We’d a fair bit of luck. After a week of heavy rain, the skies cleared for our Saturday outing. Planning to go to Sarkandaugava, we missed the main stop and decided on the spur of the moment to go to Vecmīlgrāvis. Getting off at the main bus stop, the Maxima supermarket nearby at least hinted at culture and civilisation. Initial impressions were that Vecmīlgrāvis was nasing speshal . There were the archetypal grey tower blocks, which were probably hip and cool in North Korea in 1954, but should now be Berlin walled:

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Surprises were in store. Wandering randomly, we stumbled upon a half decent riverside bit

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and nearby a quite welcoming bar

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The barmaid seemed quite bemused when we entered speaking English, a feeling which probably only heightened when she heard, undoubtedly for the first time in her life, Russian with a Belfast accent and Latvian with a Welsh Valleys accent. And all on the one day!

Settling down, it was quite a decent neighbourhood bar

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and I even had the blast from the past of a Kazakhstan flag overhead. Like the barmaid, everyone in Vecmīlgrāvis was speaking Russian first and foremost and I mean everyone. Adding Ukrainians and Belarusians to the mix, Russian as a first language speakers slightly outnumber Latvians in Riga. I tried to get specific neighbourhood statistics by emailing the Central Statistics Agency of Latvia, but they told me they don’t have those. 😦

As well as a port, the area has a few oddities, like a church converted into a lighthouse

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Heading north was like entering the countryside, even though we were well inside Riga. We caught a woodpecker, enjoying his a la carte afternoon menu of finest Latvian oak and passed a house where people were keeping goats in the garden. Woodland and rivers ran through this part of town

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After a few kilometres hike through this and the attached Zvejniekciems (fisherman’s village) we still hadn’t found any bar or cafe. Tossing any pretence at culture in the river,  it had to be a bit of street drinking, when in Rome etc!

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Eventually we’d walked to Vecāķi. A popular beach destination for Latvians, it’s not as famous as Jurmala to non-locals, but at least can say it’s the best beach within Riga city limits (Jurmala is a separate town.) Unlike Irish people, who gamely stroll around in t-shirts, teeth clenched to prevent chattering, when it’s +14, Latvians don’t believe in milking any mild weather for what it’s worth. The summer bars had long packed up and we strolled through near empty streets, ska music playing in my head . We’d virtually given up hope of finding a bar until I spotted a shop down a side street and said (more hopefully than anything) “where there’s a shop, there’s a bar nearby!” Amazingly I was right and what a decent bar it was. Apparently owned or run by an Indian guy, Waves has a decent selection of Indian dishes on the menu, good service, a long abandoned terrace, lounge music and big screens.

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Even in late September, no trip to Vecaki is complete without a trip to the beach and we got there in time for late evening photo opportunities

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After all that, it was the train back to Vecriga for a celebratory beer. Eight districts done, fifty left.

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4 thoughts on “The India connection

  1. I’m sure most Latvians would be horrified to learn that their language is linked to sanskrit!

    This looked like a really fun one! That bar was a real find! And Vecaki beach is lovely too 😉

    • Vecaki was great, but first time I’ve been there out of season so a bit weird to see the beach and town empty. Latvian’s a bit of an unusual language as I’m sure you know. In Dusseldorf a few years ago I was shocked to find that I could now read a fair bit of the German only menu due to a fair few food words being the same as in Latvian (they undoubtedly borrowed them from the Baltic German community.) Was a great day out. Soapmaker’s Hill will probably be the next one…. in a bit of a dash before the clocks and weather change.

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