After you’ve pissed off an entire country, there’s really only one thing left to do, and that is go to a place where there are lots of people from that country moving around, at speed, on very sharp objects. Yes, it was time for me to go ice-skating – for the first time in years.
I’d had an invitation from a Latvian girl I know, called Ulla, who was organising a surprise ice-skating party for her American boyfriend, Nat. A novel idea if ever I’d heard one. Despite the fact that the party was taking place the day before I was due to leave for Ireland, I decided to throw caution to the wind and accepted.
I made my way out to Majori on the train and paced around outside the station waiting for Ulla’s sister to meet me. Then I waited some more, and then I waited some more. To keep myself entertained, I played ‘That’s probably not Ulla’s sister’ with any bald men or stooped old ladies who happened to pass by. After around 15 minutes, I decided to make my own way to the ice rink before I froze to death.
I set off at a trot in what would (of course) turn out to be the wrong direction. I decided to stop a likely-looking passer-by and ask him for directions. I racked my brain and even managed to dredge up the Latvian word for ice rink. Very pleased with myself, I waited for his response. As luck would have it, he didn’t speak a word of Latvian but (reminiscent of Brits on the Costa del Sol – “EGG-O and CHIPS-O”) proceeded to explain to me, IN VERY LOUD RUSSIAN, where it was.
Naturally, I couldn’t understand a word of this but I do understand the universal language of pointing. And so, around 20 minutes later, this happened.
Realising (after I’d put my skates on) that I still had my handbag with me, I had to make my way across the lethally slippery reception area tiles (to the horror of the staff) and ask them to put it in a locker for me. For some reason, even though this is a rather large sports centre, some bright spark had deemed that around six lockers behind the reception desk would be sufficient. They weren’t. Stuffing my phone and wallet into my already bulging coat pockets, I had to leave my bag under a bench beside the rink and hope for the best.
When Nat appeared, we all burst into a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ and he couldn’t have been more pleased or surprised that we were all there – good job, Ulla! Then, unfortunately, it was time to get on the ice. I don’t know if there is a way to make clinging to the railings look graceful, but I sure as hell didn’t find it. My confidence grew with each inelegant shuffle though and soon I was doing (rather slow) laps around the rink, unaided. Even though one kid appeared to be taking pot shots at us with an ice hockey puck, we all managed to survive, unscathed.
With my dreams of one day playing for Dinamo Riga utterly dashed, it was time to head back to Ulla’s place for cake. Taking two cars, we eventually pulled up outside a house that wouldn’t have been out of place in Beverly Hills, 90210. And while I ambled about, feeling about as useful as, well, me in a kitchen, the Latvian ladies managed to produce this…
Plonking myself down beside two sausages that I just knew would feel better in my belly, I looked up to notice around 8 horrified faces staring back at me. Quickly checking to make sure I hadn’t sat on their beloved cat, Jānis, I asked what I’d done. It seemed I’d inadvertently fallen foul of a Latvian superstition – sit at the corner of a table and you won’t get married for seven long years. As seven years didn’t seem nearly long enough, I stayed exactly where I was, and we all dug in.
Conversation flowed, and after a while, Ulla’s mum and stepdad joined us. When ‘James Joyce Quiz Time’ began, I was rather relieved by the distraction of the birthday cake. And what a cake it was…
But before we could eat it, we had to wait for it to be cut. This led to a discussion of another superstition – what happens if you eat a piece of cake that has fallen on its side? I can’t remember what the dire consequences were but they were probably something to do with (not) getting married.
Most Latvian superstitions seem to be designed to persuade women that they’re nobody until a Jānis has shoved a ring on their finger. Luckily, as getting married is roughly as appealing to me as corpsewater, I would have quite happily eaten the cake upside-down off the floor with a rusty spoon. (It would have been worth it too – it was a mighty fine cake.)
Just as the games section of the night was getting underway, a new arrival in the form of a handsome young gentleman appeared.
Not Jānis: Hey, don’t you write that blog?
Me: Right, gotta go!
This was the first, and probably the last time, I will ever be thankful I left my packing until the last minute. I never did find out what he thought of the blog…