If you do come to Latvia, chances are you’ll meet a few Latvians. And, if you’re really lucky/unlucky (delete as appropriate), you might even get to know some of them.
One day, you might bump into the same Latvian twice. It happens. So in the morning, you’ll smile, nod and say ‘hello’. The Latvian will say ‘hello’ back and look a little constipated, but really, they’re trying to smile. When you see them later in the day, if you’re like me, you’ll smile and say ‘hello’ again. And this is where things get interesting -the Latvian will blank you.
The first couple of times this happened, I made excuses. ‘OK, I’m short, maybe they just didn’t see me’, or ‘Poor guy – he must have a lot on his mind’. But when it kept on happening, I started thinking ‘Well, I’m not that bloody short’, and ‘Really, nobody has that much on their mind’.
So one day, in a bid to at least rule out the short thing, I jumped up and down in front of a student, waved my arms around, shouted ‘HELLLLLOOOOOO’ and wiggled about a bit. There. Nobody could miss that. He did – he walked on by, not a peep out of him.
Refusing to believe that someone could just not want to talk to me, or shock horror, not like me, I decided to ask my students about this bizarre situation.
“Could it be that, in Latvia, people only get one ‘hello’ per day?”
Luckily, my students are used to my weird/stupid questions at this stage, so they were more than happy to answer. Yes, that’s exactly what it was.
It’s not often I’m stuck for words but this was one of those rare occasions.
Me: But, but…why?
Jānis: It’s a waste of time.
Me: (My speechlessness never lasts for long) I don’t get it. How is it a waste of time? You don’t have to stop and share life stories, just a nod, smile and you’re on your way. You don’t even have to stop walking.
Jānis: But what would he think if I said ‘hello’ twice in one day?
Me: No, you’re right. He’d be running home to his wife ‘Oh my GOD, you won’t believe what Jānis did today…’ (getting into my stride) Oh, oh, and then down the pub at the weekend, he’d be laughing with all of his mates, ‘Wait until I tell you about this crazy guy called Jānis I work with – he said ‘hello’ TWICE in one day!!! Guffaw, guffaw…’
Jānis: (Serious face) Exactly.
Me: (Sigh) I was joking.
Jānis: (Blank look) But seriously, it does get confusing from time to time. Sometimes I can’t remember if I saw the person that morning or if it was the day before. So I’m thinking ‘Was it today or yesterday? Should I say ‘hello’ again or just walk on? But what if it was yesterday and I don’t say ‘hello’? Will he think I’m rude? But what if it was today and now I’m saying ‘hello’ twice? Will he think I’m a fool?’
Me: (Slack-jawed) Honestly, wouldn’t it just be quicker and easier to say ‘hello’ again – just to be on the safe side, rather than go through this tortured internal monologue every time you see someone?
So there you have it. The reason why there will never be a Jānis Maguire movie made. He’d be too busy standing outside, dithering over whether he said ‘hello’ that day or the day before, to ever make it through the door.