Down at the love-trade hotel

  • 2001-05-10
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - What a bizarre feeling, mixed with a sense of awe, to walk into a room with 100 women carefully analyzing every movement you make. While I felt just a little uncomfortable at the gathering at the Mystic café, organized by A Foreign Affair on May 2, other men appeared unperturbed by this sensation. These are men who seem to be used to the idea of looking for a wife via a match-making company.

A Foreign Affair, which offers 28 destinations in Eastern Europe as well one in Colombia, is one of the world's leaders in pairing up men and women for marriages. On their Web sites it's possible to browse through women's photos and profiles, invite them to social gatherings for a meeting and, perhaps, to fall in love.

"This kind of service is pretty expensive," Noda said. "You have to be very serious and very rich to take this step."

Matchmaking is a business known more commonly as "mail order brides" or the "meat market." Kenneth Agee, Web designer for A Foreign Affair, says that, despite these degrading names, in some circles going on trips to find a wife has become more socially acceptable.

In Riga, A Foreign Affair has a franchise in Mystic café, situated in Riga's Old Town. It has been operating for three years. Female members can access the Internet there, which enables them to keep in contact with men who are looking for love anywhere but in their home country.

The owner, Noby Noda, said his line of business is doing well. "Women in America talk about MTV and eat pizzas," Noda preached. "Men are getting tired of women there. They are too independent," he said, apparently catering to the man distraught by women's liberation.

Agee followed up with: "You walk into a bar in America and 90 percent of the women don't want to be bothered, and the remaining 10 percent you don't want to bother."

This also sounds a little like the bar scene in Latvia and other parts of Europe.

"The women here seem so much more educated," Noda said. "They go to the opera and read a lot."

On Mystic café's Web site it says most women in Latvia live in small, state-owned apartments with their parents, brothers and sisters.

"All apartment buildings are old and in bad condition without proper hot running water systems and, of course, no elevators."

The site exposes a reality of Riga sure to be found, although it will take some searching now that living conditions have improved over the last decade. But it does give the Western man the feeling that in his search for a wife he is performing a good deed by coming here.

Katija Ekaterina, 22, who participated in this particular group social, said she was there for the first time. "I want to find a man, a serious, intelligent man, who will love me."

The women used different tactics to get attention from the 10 clients at the gathering. A common sight was women sitting in groups of four, waiting for the men to curiously saunter over. Some women attempted to woo the men, while others sat alone, trying to look mysterious and intriguing.

The clients had different ways of approaching the beckoning Mystic café members. A few attempted jokes, without much success, and the air was thick with pick-up lines.

"I might be old, but I'm in good condition," one of the clients wheezed to a possible future wife.

Some women were clearly disappointed with the selection of men. But as long as champagne was served free of charge, they were happy.

Throughout the evening champagne corks popped loudly - at least 80 of them. The result of the bubbly freely flowing was that one young woman, having drunk rather too much, leaped up on the nightclub stage and began to molest a pole.

So there are no guarantees of finding someone to wed just because the $3,195 fee has been deposited at Mystic café.

The minimum age for women who want to sign up with A Foreign Affair free of charge is 18 and the company policy is to try and keep the members younger than 40.

Many of the women at this particular gathering were young, some very young, while the men averaged 45 years of age.

Noda said they have one wedding per month through Mystic café, and that 80 percent of the marriages are, so far, still going.

Agee said there are companies out there looking to rip people off and break hearts doing so. "There are companies in Russia that hire 20 girls to sit and respond to e-mails from men all over the world to make them think they have found someone special, while the company providing the service is just making money off them," Agee said. "The top 10 companies in the world in this business have a turnover of $25 million per year."