Things of Latvia: A Pensioner From Balvi

Take note – story published 7 years and 7 months ago

As an employee of Latvian Public Media (LSM) I naturally take a passing interest in its content. By which I mean not just the work of my ace news-gathering colleagues, whose stories I steal, mis-translate and pass off as my own, but the other content strands, TV channels and, most particularly, the radio stations.

Radio has come to dictate the timetable of my life. The morning is heralded by the cheesy jingle of the 'Euranet plus' news segment, a noble attempt to make centralized EU press releases slightly interesting, and lunchtime is marked by the terrific Krustpunkta (Crossroads) show which combines first-class in-the-field reporting with equally accomplished studio interviews.

But the hors d'oeuvre is always Brivais mikrofons (Open microphone), a 15-minute segment which goes off like a cannon every day to signal lunchtime.

The important thing about Brivais mikrofons is that it is nothing like call-in shows elsewhere. Rather, even though it would like to be like call-in shows elsewhere, the peculiar Latvian sensibility ensures that, thankfully, it is not.

In theory callers will respond to some of the excellent reportage previously mentioned. In reality however, approximately 90% of calls will be by pensioners, of which 90% of calls will be about how expensive medicines are and related topics: how expensive it is to call the local health clinic, how expensive it is to take a bus to the local health clinic, how expensive the cafe next to the health clinic is.

These folks invariably describe themselves as "a pensioner from Balvi" or "a pensioner from Vilaka" - in the way that a French aristocrat might call himself the Comte de Boissy or the Duc de Valciennes - and are obviously the only people with time to fill and a headfull of thoughts at lunchtime while everyone else is sloshing down soup.

Their ability to improvise on the theme of how expensive medicines are is limitless. The listener can only admire the arabesques and trills, the digressions and diversions which A Pensioner From Balvi employs in each tale of what things used to be like, where the rest of the family has emigrated to and what an old friend said at the post office, seemingly disparate strands which will be woven together with the skill of a jazz improvisation to return to the main theme in blaring climax: medicines are very expensive. And they are, if you are living on a tiny pension. The calls are quite justified.

Against this broad backdrop of pharmaceutical dismay, the remaining 10% of calls sparkle like rare stars, occasionally exploding into supernovas of the bizarre. My favorite ever call went like this:

Host: Hallo?
Caller: I'm a pensioner from Balvi. I want to complain.
Host: Complain about what?
Caller: The standard of callers to this show. They are very bad. I'm tired of listening to them. They are always complaining.
Host: Hmm... thank you for your call. Anything else to add?
Caller: No.

A running battle between the hosts and one bigoted regular caller (who seems to think Brivais Mikrofons is his personal shock-jock show) has added a note of suspense to proceedings. Will the next caller be reliable racist Aivars from Daugavpils? How soon will the hosts cut him off? Can a fascist really complain that his freedom of speech is being restricted? It's a show-within-a-show. After such high excitement, it's almost a relief to return to work for the afternoon.

But the best is yet to come. On the drive home there is one show on Latvian Radio 2 that genuinely deserves the epithet "unmissable". That is Tirgus (Market). No boring financial news here, no rundown of the price of Brent crude or how the banks fared in the latest stress tests. This is the real economy.

Tirgus is brilliantly simple. People call in and offer to sell things. It is classified ads on the radio. Chairs, tractors, old tin boxes, pigs, chimneys, unused tickets, clothes, scrap iron, shovels, timber, books, blankets, fruit trees, rocks - it's all available. Throughout the show a relentless backbeat plays, which the host turns up and down, seemingly at random. It gives proceedings a strange sense of urgency and pressing mortality.

Callers can offer a description of what they are selling but most make only a token effort to do so. It is not uncommon to hear someone offer to sell a car with a 1.9-liter diesel engine, 350,000 km on the clock and no road tax, without even bothering to mention the make. Then comes the kicker: how much do you want for it?

Here there is always a slight pause, as Latvians in general hate to haggle or discuss prices.

"Three thousand five hundred euros?" ventures the seller, at which point every single one of the listeners falls around laughing and says "That pensioner from Balvi is living in dreamland! It's not worth six hundred!"

A call from October 5 went like this:

Host : Hallo. You're on Tirgus.
Caller: Hallo, is this Tirgus?
Host: Yes, you're on Tirgus. What do you have to sell?
Caller: Cranberries.
Host: Oh, Cranberries. You picked them yourself?
Caller: Yes. Good, fresh cranberries. Straight from the woods.
Host: We all like cranberries. How much do you have to sell?
Caller: One thousand liters.
Host: Goodness, that's a lot of cranberries.
Caller (suddenly desperate): But they don't have to buy them all! I'm willing to split them up!
Host: Where are you?
Caller: Balvi.
Host: And your phone number?

Yes, that is the most remarkable thing of all. Having offered their wares, callers then give out their phone numbers on live national radio. This is unthinkable in most countries. I find it a touching tribute to Latvians' essential honesty. It makes national radio feel like a conversation over the village pump and it shows national media relating directly with ordinary people in a way that the super-slick, self-important, egocentric broadcast media in many other countries have either forgotten about or sneer at, as if helping someone sell a wardrobe was beneath them but speculating on the reasons for a celebrity divorce is essential and edifying.

It also makes me want to call A Pensioner From Balvi and buy those cranberries - though perhaps not the full thousand liters.

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