Things of Latvia: Buying booze at gas stations

In Latvia, where a chain of round-the-clock liquor stores is branded Fuel (Degviela), it's no surprise that gas stations, too, cater to people wishing to tank up in more ways than one. 

Most US gas stations are only allowed to carry light beer. But in smaller Latvian towns, it's the gas stations that have the area's largest assortment of the strong stuff.

This works well for a Latvian tradition, the Midsummer celebration. People flock to the countryside, where they tend to have quite a bit of drink. And, after waking up, maybe in the dark of the forest, the nearest evidence of civilization they'll come across is inevitably the topsy-turvy Omega of the Statoil logo (now controversially renamed Circle K, a phrase seemingly designed to be difficult for Latvian speakers to say), a godsend for the hungry and the thirsty in desperate need of a means to ward off their hangover. 

The actual offer may differ depending on the station, however. Circle K (now known as K-aplis or "hoe" in defiance of corporate rebranding) has the best beer and wine, while Russian chain Lukoil is big on booze in novelty bottles, like phallic bullet vodka or Kalashnikov-casing cognac you'd grab at a casino for the sheer obnoxiousness. These pieces of advanced kitsch art are on display -- no touching! -- inside locked glass cases alongside rolling and pipe tobacco of equal weirdness.

Retail sales are banned 10 p.m. through 8 a.m., but I remember more than one occasion of stocking up on beer well past midnight, at least up until a few years ago. When you happen to know the cashier. And not at any of the above-mentioned stores. 

Beyond that, however, this Latvian privilege is seldom abused. You don't see some braggart putting the whole scheme in jeopardy by buying and driving off, after demonstratively chugging from the bottle in the parking lot. It's almost like a low-key thing involving a knowing exchange of hushed talk and nods between the clerk and the driver buying a case to cap off at home, with an unstated but palpable understanding that says, respectively, "I am not that stupid" and "I am sure you are not that stupid" with perhaps a tiny undertone of "We are both local and know where each other live, so let's not cause each other trouble." 

Maybe the Estonians, some of whom may spend their country's centenary at liquor stores this side of the border in what could be the lamest protest ever devised (a sort of booze cruise designed as the Boston Tea Party) are more impressed by Latvia's alcoholic liberality precisely ebcause they are not local. You can't blame them really -- we are close, cheap, and very convenient. 

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