Walking around the streets of Riga, facial expressions range from dour to miserable to downright homicidal. If you’re hoping for a cheery smile or a nod to brighten up that bleak wintry morning, you’ve come to the wrong city.
When I first got here, I used to smile at people in cafes, shops and at bus-stops – as is the done thing in Ireland. If you see a cute baby, you smile at the baby, then at the mother in a ‘Well done you!’ sort of manner as she melts with gooey pride.
This is not the reaction here. The mother growls at you as if you’re about to attempt to kidnap her (frankly, angry-looking) little darling. I persevered for a while but the day even the baby gave me a withering look was the day I decided enough was enough.
Instead of letting it depress me, I decided to turn it into a personal challenge. I was going to out-glare and out-glower every Latvian in Riga. Do you remember the scene in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’? Her final training task in order to become a fully-fledged geisha was to make any man stop in his tracks with just one coy glance. I have gone one step further and can now make any person die a little on the inside with what I coin my ‘Latvian Look’. It’s kind of a cross between ‘Blue Steel’ and a razor. Sometimes I actually scare myself when I catch a glimpse of my face in a shop window.
I fear my mission may have had a slightly negative effect on my psyche though. Now when I see someone smiling, my thought process goes something like this:
1. They’re foreign.
2. They’re a bit simple.
3. They’re after something.
The idea that they might just be friendly or in a good mood never crosses my mind.
While this new persona has helped me blend in with the locals here, it doesn’t go down quite so well when I go back to Ireland for a visit. I have to cope with the hurt looks of bus drivers I don’t thank; the confused faces of people in shop queues as I coldly look them up and down; the tears of the babies I scowl at… Sometimes I don’t even realise I’m doing it any more.
But of course, there’s always a bright side. If what my mother says is true, and frowning really will ruin my ‘beautiful face’, then I’m hoping to start a profitable new sideline as the ‘Amazing Woman who Aged 30 Years in 3’. Any takers?