Riga cafe declares 'I Love the '80s'

  • 2006-07-05
  • By Paul Morton
RIGA - According to VH1's "I Love the '80s," the Reagan era was a frivolous time marked mainly by such cultural monuments as Billy Idol, the Smurfs and "The Breakfast Club." Apparently, the Americans don't have a monopoly on '80s nostalgia. Gauja, a new bar/cafe on Terbatas Street in Riga, gives some sense of what the great decade meant to Latvia.

There is some purposely cheap, shit-colored brown furniture, which clashes with the purposely cheap blue wallpaper. There's a Social Realist painting on the wall and an old television with an antenna.
One Eastern European once said to me that America's '50s was his country's '80s. A look around Gauja complicates the picture a little. The '80s here in Latvia seems to have been a weird anachronistic combination of '50s throwbacks with some hints of Western modernity. After all there's a record player and a box full of LPs. There are four wooden speakers placed in the corners of the ceiling. And the most popular selection is Queen.

The students in the well-lit place sing along loyally, enthusiastically, to every track of the album, "Live Magic." There's a young man with a red tie holding his girl close to him, and there's a man with a white star on a black shirt: "I Want to Break Free" and a version of "Under Pressure" sans David Bowie. The menu, typed up on white paper taped to a wall next to the bar list dozens of alcoholic drinks, but all these kids are drinking cider, Coca Cola or coffee.

(Completely unrelated sidenote: You hear a Queen song on the radio here once every five minutes. How could a country that is so noxiously homophobic love Freddie Mercury so much?)

The sound is a little scratchy, a little far-away and rough through the speakers. LPs have a way of sounding a little more authentic, a little more real then the clean sound of a CD or an iPod.
Gauja is a small place. There's a counter with some stools, and, of course, the vintage furniture, but much of its clientele seems content to stand outside in front of the bar on the sidewalk. It was a mild summer night and it seemed like a nice place to stand with a cup of coffee in your hands. Is this what people did in the '80s?

The German film "Goodbye, Lenin!" helped spark a new, weird nostalgia for the final days of the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Many older folks were not so ready to look back on the long breadlines with fondness, but looking around at the clientele at Gauja, I think I can see where the nostalgia comes from.

These are college kids in their late teens to mid-twenties. They were toddlers in the '80s. And though the world was changing rapidly around them, they were, probably, blissfully unaffected by international events. A Social Realist painting, a crap television, for them, is just a bit of fun kitsch, a throwback to the innocence of the first years of their life. There's probably no surer sign that communism is good and dead.

Gauja, Terbatas Street 56
Open 12:00 - 24:00