As a gift on Osiris’ 25th anniversary, Vita Matiss has allowed us to publish the chapter on “Osiris” from her upcoming book.
CHAPTER 4. CAFE OSIRIS
“An actor? A filmactor?”
At the time, I did not regard this as the most auspicious profile for the job at hand.
George Soros was coming to Riga in less than two months, and the café that needed to be up and running by the time Mr. Soros arrived in May 1994, was still, at that point, a construction site below our offices with no staff, no equipment, and most critically, not an official permit to its name (no name yet either).
The actor in question, Andrejs Žagars, one of several candidates for the job of director of our still non-existant café, turned out to be just the person we needed, and the café – the Café Osiris in Riga, will be celebrating its 25thanniversary in June 2019, a longevity record for Latvia. The news of Andrejs’ untimely death in February 2019, at the age of sixty, caught us all unprepared, in Latvia and beyond. Heartbroken Facebook postings from Metropolitan Opera soprano Kristine Opolais, from Boston Symphony orchestra conductor Andris Nelsons and many others attested to the wide swath cut by this imposing figure, as Andrejs Žagars went on to become the director of the Latvian National Opera, spreading his talent for cultural entrepreneurship far and wide. Over the years, the Café Osiris became a natural accompaniment to many cultural ventures: the wedding reception dinner of the Latvian international classical music stars Opolais and Nelsons was held at the Café Osiris, Mikhail Baryshnikov often dined there during the run of his “Brodsky/Baryshnikov” show at the New Riga Theatre across the street.
Twenty-five years is a long time for Latvians, ever wary of the evanescence of institutions and regimes. Twenty-five years is longer than the first period of Latvian independence, from the declaration of independence in 1918 to the first Soviet occupation in 1940. Twenty-five years for a Latvian café, in the same spot, with the same name, with the same décor, under more or less the same management, with the same profile, many of the same menu items and a steady, artistically oriented clientele – this is quite unfathomable. The Café Osiris alone has survived the unbridled early 1990’s, and the fact that the Café Osiris, at a mere 25 years, is considered the oldest café in Riga, with a continuing presence and décor at the same location, begs disbelief. We are in an ancient Hanseatic city, not some American strip-mall town.
In his Nexus Institute lecture on the “Idea of Europe”, George Steiner formulates five distinctly European traits, first among which is: “Draw the cofeehouse map and you have one of the essential markers of the ‘idea of Europe’ .”
For Steiner, the coffeehouse or café represents a European “club of the spirit”: in the Paris of Baudelaire or the Milan of Stendhal, it is the café that “housed what there was of political opposition, of clandestine liberalism.” The ethos of an American bar is radically different from that of a European café Steiner says, concluding that “so long as there are coffeehouses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content.”
The café map of Europe is also a map of European history. One goes to the cafés La Procope, La Coupole, or Les Deux Magots, at least for the first time, not so much to partake in a meal, as to share a history. Paris is exceptional in this sense; the food may be appealing, but so is the prospect of such easy access to the past, of such an effortless entrée into the company of greatness, where surely, while imbibing the Saint Emilion, you are also soaking in the spirit of Joyce, Voltaire, George Sand, Franklin and Jefferson. They all were here, sat and ate and drank at Parisian institutions that still exist today, at the same place, with the same name.
In Paris, the “sit-in-Sartre’s corner” business is a cottage industry, but what proper European city today cannot boast of at least one café where the historical pedigree is as attractive, if not more so, than the gastronomical offerings?
Lenin and Trotsky plotted the revolution here, at this table in the old Landolt café in Geneva; Sartre and Beauvoir debated nothingness in smoke filled rooms, there, on the boulevard Saint Germain; Hitler hawked his sketches at the Café Sperl in Vienna, while in that same city Mozart played his last public concert at the Café Frauenhuber in an earlier, less crude century.
But in Riga, Latvia, which before World War II was vaunted as the “Paris of the East”, in part for its café culture, there is no such continuity, no easy access to a storied past through the transporting effects of walking through the doors of a café that has stood in place through the vagaries of a century, or even half a century. What was not bombed during World War II, was liquidated (liquidation being applied to both premises and owners) or nationalized during the years of Soviet occupation. The “Rudzīša” restaurant – gone, the “Milk” restaurant – gone, the Sukubs and Skapis cafés, where artists gathered respectively before and after the war – gone. The attempts at re-constituting pre-war institutions after the re-establishment of independence in 1991 often flailed on the shoals of privatization schemes, racketeering, and sheer greed.
That the Café Osiris has survived, that the grande-dame of Riga’s café world will celebrate her 25thanniversary in June 2019, was never a given. It is also not a given that the Café Osiris will survive the next 25 years.
The existentialists gathered here, the impressionists met up there – the reputation of a café begins and is made by a cohort of like minded individuals, long before the myth supersedes them. I begin to write that the advantage of being only twenty-five years old is that the cohort that tends to congregate at the Café Osiris is still in the process of creating the reputation, but then I take pause: with Andrejs Žagars’ death, an era is over, and the center of the cohort is gone. The mythmaking can begin.
The Café Osiris may not have Voltaire or Mozart as part of its back story, but it does have a historical pedigree of some note. The café was a project of the Soros Foundation in Latvia, and the guest of honour at the first dinner at the Café Osiris on 29 May 1994 was George Soros himself.
Investments in cafés and restaurants not being an activity that the philanthropist and financier Soros is noted for, how did he find himself sitting together at a table with the Latvian Minister of Education Andris Piebalgs (later EU Commissioner in Brussels), the Rector of the Stockholm School of Economics Steffan Burenstam Linder and other educational luminaries at the Café Osiris on that May evening in Riga 25 years ago? How was it that, for a moment in time, a Soros foundation branch owned a café – the only one in the far-flung Soros network to do so (by the end of the 1990’s Andrejs Žagars had paid back the foundation loan, and ownership of the cafe passed over to him)? Cafés may be an essential marker of the “idea of Europe” and the fulcrum of an open society, but what was a Soros foundation doing in the café business?
Nobody was asking this question back in 1994, not even George Soros. The Café Osiris was founded in an atmosphere and at a time where not only everything was intoxicatingly “for the first time”, but where the expectation of promising beginnings and continued upward trajectories (the starting point being so low) lent a positive glow to everything we touched. The first West European style café in Riga, complete with international newspapers on wooden sticks for all to read – of course! (Writing in the Financial Times during the economic meltdown of 2009, Simon Kuper called the Café Osiris “Riga’s ultimate Western café”. Ultimate, perhaps, because it was the first).
Real estate bubbles, bank crashes, corrupt freedom-fighters – all of that was still ahead of us, the first serious jolt to the illusion of continued upward trajectories occurring a year later, with the 1995 demise of the Baltija bank. In 1994, every day brought new Volvo and BMW cars into the streets and the West was winning: Mafia style murders and the random cacophony of car alarms set off by the tram passing in front of our offices, only served to remind us of the exciting times of transition we were living in. A few weeks after the opening of the Café Osiris, in early July 1994, Bill and Hillary Clinton came to Riga on a glorious white-nights summer day. President William J. Clinton was the first American president to set foot on free Baltic soil, and the image of President Clinton along with the presidents of the three Baltic countries, their profiles set against the Freedom Monument, a monument encircled by a choir clad in folk costumes singing the unofficial Latvian anthem “Pūt vējiņi” – this image captures a singular moment of optimism. Ex-Soviet, Russian troops may still have been present in Latvia, but that they would soon be gone, and forever gone, of this we were sure. “Brīvība!”, “Laisve!” , “Vabadus!” cried president Clinton, having learned the correct pronunciation for the word “freedom” in all three Baltic languages. That America would remain a beacon of this freedom – back then, of this too we were sure.
Among the prominent guests invited to lunch with president Clinton on that optimistic day, more than one, not long thereafter, helped to puncture that momentary bubble of optimism for the Latvian populace: Tālis Freimanis, president of the Baltija bank, Raitis Gailis, president of the Deposit bank, Valerijs Kargins, president of the Parex bank– all presidents of banks which were no more than elaborate Ponzi schemes and/or money laundering operations, sucking up the savings of both ordinary Latvians and the Latvian state before disappearing along with many an illusion.
But in early 1994, these banks too, were still benefitting from the heady sense of possibility, from the “first-time syndrome”: first Western-style banks they said, closer than Switzerland they said.
The first dinner at the Café Osiris on 29 May 1994 also took place on a historic “first” date. It was the day of the first municipal elections in Latvia, the first democratic municipal elections to be held after the restoration of independence in 1991. The first national parliamentary elections had been held a year before, in 1993, and a year later the newly formed Latvian political parties matched their forces at the local level throughout Latvia.
The dinner discussion however, focussed on the higher education projects that the Latvian Soros foundation was supporting, mainly the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, and a future law school. The Swedish ambassador and his wife were present, as was the rector of the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden, along with rectors of Latvian universities, the Latvian Minister of Education and other Latvian politicians. Education had been a priority of the Soros foundation in Latvia from its inception.
Politics did enter into the dinner discussion, but on a light-hearted note. In order to commemorate the two coinciding historic dates – that of both the first dinner at the Café Osiris and the first municipal elections, we had created a special menu, where each course was named, in an ironic way, after a Latvian political party competing in the municipal elections that day. In retrospect, we may have made the menu longer on purpose, so that all parties could receive an equal dose of irony. Given the singular circumstances of the creation of the Soros foundation in Latvia, I took great pains to preserve the political independence of the foundation, to avoid even the intimation of an association with one party or another.
To the credit of the Latvian politicians who were sitting around the table that evening, they good-humouredly laughed at the joke which was, in a sense, at their expense. 25 years later I wonder at the ease with which we poked fun at politics, fearing no repercussions. Reading the menu today, I am not convinced that all of today’s political parties would react with similar insouciance.
The first dinner at the Café Osiris served the following courses:
Toasted black bread in equality with lard (In hommage to the party “Equality”)
The real boss’s paté in lilac blossoms (In hommage to the party “The Boss”)
Thin crepes with mushrooms from the roadside of Latvia’s way (In hommage to the party “Latvia’s Way”)
Sorbet: frozen conserved fruit juice (In hommage to the party “Conservatives”)
Latvian rasols: herring in harmony with red beets and tomatoes (In hommage to the party “Harmony”)
Borscht with a white stripe of cream, à la el-el-en-kay (In hommage to the party “LNNK”)
Ecologically cleansed green greens salad (In hommage to the party “The Greens”)
An assorted, also Latvian, cheese alliance, farmer-style (In hommage to the parties “Alliance” and “The Farmers”)
Fatherland Mousse au Freedom chocolat (In hommage to the party “Fatherland and Freedom”)
Twenty-five years later, not one of the ten political parties served up on this first Café Osiris menu still exists in their initial form.
Excerpts from the chapter are published here in serialized form. Any reproduction of these texts requires copyright permission.
George Steiner, The Idea of Europe, Overlook Duckworth, New York & London, 2015, p. 36.