Things of Latvia: Misleading Vans

Children like to spot trucks from other countries and even adults get a little tremor of pleasure from seeing such things.

"He's a long way from home," is the inevitable comment when a Bulgarian registration plate is spotted. "You don't see many of them around here," is the approved response to a Portuguese or Slovenian lorry and even the ubiquitous Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish hauliers give a glow of pleasure in the awareness that we enjoy open borders and a single, pan-European market.

But then there is the other type of foreign truck -- the type that isn't foreign at all.

These are generally smaller trucks or large-ish vans with their overseas origin displayed on the sides in the form of a lurid design and large name advertising a business in France, the Netherlands or Germany.

"Boulanger Leclerc, le meilleur pain tous les jours!" would be a typical example, perhaps with a large cartoon drawing of a happy, fat patissier waving a rolling pin and an address in a small-to-middling regional town such as St Quentin or Dax.

The German variant would be something like "Müller und Sohn. Sanitär, Abfluss und Rohre. 24-Stunden-Service. Sie können sich auf Muller verlassen! Quedlinburg 12345."

The initial reaction upon seeing such vans is: "How on earth can it be economically viable to ship fresh bread from France to Latvia?" and "Mr Müller and son sure are prepared to travel to fix a cracked pipe!"

And then the sensory seduction of warm pain de campagne and the reassurance provided by the proximity of reliable Herr Müller is shattered as you realize these are not emissaries from other EU economies at all but vans with Latvian number plates. They have been bought cheap at auction after racking up huge mileages with Monsieur Leclerc and Herr Müller, driven to Latvia and used by some other small businessman who can't even be bothered to change the name on the side of his van.

Why they neglect to put their own names on the side of the vans, or at least paint over the names of the previous owners, is a mystery. Perhaps there is some vestigial sense of showing off that you have a van from France or Germany. Perhaps the business is on such a tight budget that even the outlay required for a paint job cannot be justified. Perhaps it's something else. In many places the first thing to be done upon taking possession of a vehicle, or anything else, would be to remove all traces of the previous owner. It speaks of a very curious, almost literal, blind spot in the Latvian world view that there is no overwhelming compulsion to do this. 

The vans chug around the highways and byways of the Baltic for a while as misleading mobile advertisements for goods and services you cannot buy. They continue to evoke the long-developed skills of the master baker and the experienced pipe-bender even as the vans themselves are full of logs, animal feed or bits of scrap metal.

Then, when the transmissions finally give out the vans are hauled to the scrapyard to be pecked at by people in need of a steering wheel, a door lock or a starter motor, still amid the wreckage and ruin they offer to the elements their testimony to Leclerc's delicious bread and the Müller family's 20 years of saving people from blocked toilets.

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