Last Saturday was ‘The Big Cleanup’ in Latvia. Courtyards or other areas are registered online, you simply have a look at what’s happening in your area, drop them a line and show up. As with most things in Latvia, I’m in two minds about this.
On one hand, I think any event that brings people together and promotes community spirit is to be applauded. Latvians, by nature, are loners. First chance they get they’ll be in their cars and on their way to their country houses. The higher the number of hectares attached to your house, the better. Not because it’s a status symbol, but because you want your nearest neighbour to be at least 5 miles away from you.
On the other hand, what I’ve seen in some wooded areas, parks, and on the streets here is nothing short of disgusting. People seem to spend 364 days trashing the country, then 1 day cleaning it up and patting themselves on the back for it. According to the ever-irritating If you like Latvia, Latvia likes you Facebook page, “the yearly number of participants can grow to 10% of Latvia’s population – proof that Latvians are hard-working and determined to make Latvia the greenest country in the world!”
No, it isn’t. It proves that 10% of the population are willing to pick up a few butts and bottles ONE day of the year. But this year, just to be different, I decided to silence my inner cynic and take part. I emailed the guy organising the one in the city centre first. He emailed back to say that it was actually a closed group of dog owners, who would be mainly picking up dog-shit for 5-6 hours. I was welcome to join them. Right. How to say that I really didn’t fancy picking up dog-shit for hours on end without sounding like a total princess?
It was pretty easy actually.
Next, I emailed the organiser of one of three events taking part in Mežaparks, a rather fancy area on the outskirts of Riga, home to a vast wooded park and Riga Zoo. The residents would be clearing a triangular area of trees in the centre of three residential streets. That sounded a bit less disgusting. If I have to pick up other people’s shit for a morning, I’d rather it wasn’t actual shit.
With my brand-new gloves in my bag, I set off for Mežaparks. I arrived early so took the time to stroll around the neighbourhood admiring the beautiful mansions.
There were so many high fences with gates and security systems that it felt more like walking around a suburb in Johannesburg at times. I had a peek at the wooden signs on the gates to see what wonderful creative names these forest-dwelling Latvians had come up with for their homes. “Angry dog” seemed to be the most popular. Good old Latvians – welcoming as always.
I got a bit lost after a while so had to stop a rather unfriendly-looking man and ask him where the street I was looking for was. I figured I could have been there for years before someone friendly-looking showed up. I accidentally called it Hamburger Street instead of Hamburg Street but he got what I meant. I showed up just as a man was starting to roar at a group of volunteers, telling them what to do. I pulled on my gloves, picked up a huge red sack and got to work.
It wasn’t as bad as I’d been expecting – mainly bottles, cigarette butts, sweet wrappers and condom wrappers. I’m going to be very skeptical from now on when a Latvian tells me they were walking in the forest “picking berries and mushrooms”. Seems to me, they’re more likely to have been drinking, smoking, shagging and eating sweets.
We worked away for a couple of hours, filling the red sacks with trash. It was nice to see children, parents and grandparents all working away side by side. The shouty man organised games of ‘hide-and-seek’ and the kids’ laughter filled the air. It was a beautiful sunny day so there were definitely worse places to be. The shouty man called time and all the Latvians headed off together, probably to Shouty’s house for a few beers. And maybe some shagging and sweets.