Things of Latvia: ''MR'' registration plates

Foreigners love to moan about Latvia's roads and road users. The dangerous drivers, the disrepair, the lack of signs, the inability to parallel park. Let's imagine I've written all those pieces and you've read them and found them a bit disappointing.

Now we can get onto a more interesting aspect of Latvian road culture: registration plates beginning with the letters "MR" and followed by just two numbers e.g. "MR 49". They are driven by special people who constitute a distinct social group within Latvian society. I fear they may be an endangered species, but for about a decade running roughly 2005 to 2015, these were the kings of the road.

A car with a registration plate starting "MR" has several distinguishing factors, as does its driver. Typically it will be a powerful yet fairly old BMW or Mercedes that may have seen several years' service on the autobahns or taxi ranks of Dusseldorf or Hamburg before making its way to Latvia via means that are probably best left sketchy. It will always have leather seats and be in black or another color so close to black as to be indistinguishable.

For two weeks following its midnight import into the country, it will be kept spotlessly clean. After that it will be filthy unless the owner wants to impress a client, in which case he will power-spray it with all the care of a prison warder hosing down a riot. 

The rear view mirror will be accessorized with a choice of: dangling boxing gloves, cartridge case or a picture of a glamor model displaying her artificial charms.

It is a given that the car never travels below the speed limit except when a police car is immediately behind, during which periods the driver is permitted to travel with sarcastic slowness through built up areas before hitting the gas and accelerating to warp speed.

Similarly the drivers of these cars are of a particular type, which prompts the question: do they have "MR" plates because they are this type, or are they this type because they have "MR" plates?

These men (and they are all men) are small-time wheeler-dealers with big plans, always moving from one bit of buying and selling to the next, whether in real estate, cars, computers, meat, machinery - all solid macho stuff. They are always on the make and always on the up. They are what used to be called "loveable rogues" in that what they do usually involves some sort of legal shortcut based on the efficiency savings offered by a guy who knows a guy who can do this without lots of paperwork and without paying all those unfair taxes. Tax avoidance is nothing less than a point of honor (if a very dishonorable one).

They are mildly dodgy but somehow you like them and they are brilliant at getting you onside with a bit of well-placed flattery or some unasked-for freebie such as a leg of pork or a few gallons of paint. You know that at some point they will stiff you, but they will do it with a smile and not change their attitude to you as a result.

As an English speaker I felt a natural affection for these "Misters" even as they cut me up or tailgated me so close I could hear them drawing on their Marlboros (they will smoke nothing else). It was a kind of compliment that they regarded being called "Mister" as something cool, even if the associations were likely to be more about "Mister Big" gangsters than anything else.

Yes, some of them probably belonged to people with the actual initials "MR" such as "Māris Riekstiņš", though I am not suggesting Latvia's ambassador to Russia likes to hoon around in an old BMW 5-Series with a fake "X" badge added to the tailgate. He probably has an official car for that.

The fact that there could be a maximum of 99 Misters owing to the "MR XX" format made them a select group, a sort of elite of the anti-elite.

"There goes another 'Mister'," I would say as he streaked past and released an acrid cloud of smoke from his soon-to explode engine as he engaged another brutal gear change.

The Misters used to be everywhere. It was fun to rank them according to how impressive the choice of numbers on the registration was. "MR 69" was obviously king of the hill, "MR 40" was probably celebrating the fact he was still alive at middle age and "MR 72" wanted everyone to know he was born in the year of a famous punch-up between Canadian and Soviet hockey players. Anything with a double number such as "MR 99" or "MR 22" was worth extra points, while meaningless stuff such as "MR 58" clearly belonged to the minor, less celebrated Misters, the foot-soldiers of the Mister brigade.

I don't see many Misters any more. Maybe I move in less dangerous, less exciting circles. But I like to think it is because the Misters finally made that big deal they were always angling for and as a result, these days they can afford the full-on personalized registration plates that constitute whole words, telling the world they still don't give a damn.

 

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