Moving to Latvia: Viktorija’s story

Viktorija is from Lithuania, has lived in Denmark and New Zealand but now lives in Riga with her Latvian husband. They didn’t expect to end up here but a series of events lead to the unexpected. We caught up to talk about her experience of life in Riga.

So, what lead to your decision to move to Riga?

I moved to Denmark in 2009 for my Bachelor degree in Business Administration and in my last year I started dating Miks. That was one of the hardest times of my life! I was working night shifts at a restaurant, studying Danish almost full time, writing my thesis and trying to find the time to date but this was all for the best! I earned money, got the highest grade for my thesis, learned Danish and am now married to Miks.

After my studies I worked in New Zealand for a while before returning to Denmark to do a Masters in Marketing. We moved to Copenhagen where Miks started looking for a job. At one point he got some problems with his teeth and thought he’d fly over and get them fixed in Latvia for cheaper.

Over those few days in Latvia, Miks met his friend Kārlis who he’d confided to a few months earlier about the difficulties of getting a job in Denmark. So, Kārlis gave Miks’ CV to his boss and Miks got called in for an interview.

Before the interview, Miks had been quite sure he wouldn’t want to work in Latvia – he thought it would be boring and the salaries are small. After the interview, however, his thoughts changed, he got super excited and decided why not!

Did you start looking for a job right away?

I wasn’t sure about moving right away and started thinking about what I could do in Latvia. I could come and look for a job but in the beginning I didn’t even want a job, I thought I’d let myself adjust, learn the language and relax a bit after my studies and a full time job. My dream was to take a few months off, just be housewifing, be happy, cook for Miks. Then I wrote on my LinkedIn that I’m potentially interested in a job in Latvia. Three days later, after being contacted by a few headhunters, I had a job.

What do you do?

I’ve worked as a PR manager for a financial company for two years and two months now. All my colleagues are Latvian except two – an Austrian and a Ukrainian. Since I work primarily with English speaking media, I get a Latvian work culture in an international environment.

Is it easy for internationals to find work in Latvia?

Everything depends on your mindset. As an international, if you don’t speak the local language, it could be quite limiting but if you’re open to trying new things, if you’re open to changing jobs, I don’t think you could run out of things to do in Latvia especially if you have things to offer the market. If you don’t really have certain skills, that could be limiting but that’s the case no matter where you are.

Did you find it easy to adapt to local life and develop a social circle?

In the very beginning we both felt a little isolated. Perhaps it’s not so much that we felt it but rather were afraid of being isolated which is why we went to lots of meetings and tried to learn more about the expat community.

We found that there a lot of Latvians in the local expat community who’ve lived abroad and have come back. They want to have a taste of Latvian culture but they’re also longing for the places they lived in. I met some awesome people like a Latvian-Swedish guy, and someone who’s lived in Australia who has Latvian roots. They’ve been super inspiring and helped us adapt.

Another thing that helped me adapt was the startup community, especially Tech Chill and Digital Freedom Festival where I just naturally found people. Maybe it’s also that I work in PR so I’m generally interested in what’s happening in the industry. The country has a lot to offer. Through those connections I’ve also found that there’s so many internationals coming here to work, even a friend from New York. He loves how small and peaceful it is, how compact.

Miks still has childhood friends here and that’s helped. Generally, meeting new people is difficult even if you’re not in another country. Let’s say you’re moving cities. People tend to have the same friends. If you’re an adult, you have your work people and that’s it.

How have you found the Latvian healthcare system?

I speak Russian so for me that’s an advantage. I don’t want to speak Russian on purpose because I don’t want to be perceived as Russian but I wouldn’t say it’s been difficult. I thought it would be way worse.

When I needed to go to the dentist, I googled English-speaking doctors and so on and tried to map them out so I wouldn’t need to go far but it ended up being really easy. I just decided to go for it because I couldn’t find any English-speaking dentists near my office so I just went to the closest one. I was all shy and uncomfortable but they were actually fluent in English and that’s happened many times. You come in feeling shy and humble and it turns out to be great. It was the same with other doctors. Of course, knowing Latvian helps, even if you can just say good afternoon.

I’ve noticed a big change. When we’d come to Latvia and Lithuania on our holidays, it was way more difficult than now.

Have you learned Latvian?

I never did any formal learning but I just kept asking Miks. If I saw a word I was unfamiliar with, I’d ask him what it meant. I started making sentences and he’d correct me. He’s no longer correcting me anymore.

Before we moved to Latvia I spent two weeks or so learning the absolute basics. As a Lithuanian it’s also easier for me. I would take a text from Delfi or somewhere, nothing too difficult, and I’d mark the words that were completely unfamiliar and would try to learn them. You start seeing a pattern and it just starts becoming easier.

How else do you spend your free time?

We’ve travelled around Latvia a lot. It seems sort of natural to want to explore where you are. Maybe it’s just our couple dynamics but I’m generally more interested in our surrounding world than Miks. He’s more a thinker, an explorer whereas I’m more like let’s do this, let’s go!

In the beginning I thought he’d be the one telling me about exciting stuff going on but usually it’s the reverse. For example, I found out about Miķeļdienas tirgus (Autumn equinox market). He’s always psyched and excited and confused that I know more than he does but I do tend to look for that stuff more.

Lithuania is close. Do you go back often?

I go back twice or maybe three times a year. It still takes time, four and a half hours to go to Klaipeda. So, if I have a free weekend, I’d rather go to Paris. Riga has a very good airport.

Where do you like to go in Riga?

Miit is always full of internationals. If you’re daring enough, you can just take your coffee and chat to people and the majority of them will be interested.

The Mill and Tech Chill conference if you’re interested in events related to tech.

DAD Cafe – awesome concerts, plenty of internationals and generally interesting people.

Fat Pumpkin – for vegan and vegetarian food. It’s run by a Dutch guy. The portobello mushroom burger is amazing!

Wok n’ curry – run by an Indian who’s married to a Latvian. He’s lived here for 10 or 15 years. Delicious food, really authentic and not expensive.

Himalaju virtuve – delicious and cheap.

As you can tell, I choose quite international places!

What do you think of the prices in Latvia?

Riga is super cheap compared to Denmark where going out is a big thing. It would normally happen once a month or so because it’s very expensive and definitely not a casual thing. Here it’s like, yeah sure, let’s grab a falafel or a burger. Paying 10 EUR per person for dinner isn’t expensive. Of course, if you want something fancy, you’re going to pay more.

Was it easy to find somewhere to live in Riga?

I never had the chance to look for an apartment. Miks came to Latvia while I was still working in Copenhagen. When I came here a couple of weeks later, we already had an apartment. He tried to find something that would be good for both of our jobs so he found an apartment on Miera iela.

We’re planning to buy a house. I don’t mind driving so it would be outside the city.

Do you see yourself staying in Latvia?

I never know. Nowadays, it’s just so easy to pack your stuff and leave because the world has become so globalised, there are opportunities everywhere. I would like to experience living in Asia, especially Singapore or Hong Kong, at least for a few years to get a sense of that culture.

I like the feeling of being thrown into an environment and having to deal with new stuff, to absorb. I’ve had that feeling a few times in my life and it’s addictive. I generally like to meet new people and explore a place. Then you realise you have friends everywhere. And I do! Whenever I travel, I can meet up with people in Europe, in Asia, Australia, New Zealand – ex classmates, colleagues.

Any observations about Latvians?

Latvians are quite similar to Lithuanians but Latvians are definitely way more reserved. They don’t want to get attached to you as an expat because they don’t consider you to be settled and think you might leave. If you compare Danes and Latvians, I see way more similiarities between Danes and Latvians than Lithuanians. Latvians are way more Nordic. Lithuanians are generally more outgoing.

When I just came to Latvia, I tried to apply the same model as when I moved to Denmark where I didn’t have any friends and was basically alone so I established my network through my studies and through networking. I went to startup, university and art events and networked. I was also running a blog and introducing people to it.

In Latvia, the networking failed miserably. I had a panic attack because I thought it was my fault, I cried thinking I was doing something wrong. I went to a few events feeling really pumped and excited to talk to people and realised that people only talk to people they know. I attended four or five events and all of them were the same so I felt excluded. You want to apply the “How I met your mother” approach and be like “Heeey, have I met you?” but it just didn’t work. There was only one event where it worked and it was because they served free beer.

But prior to me moving, people were like why are you moving here, it’s a post-Soviet country, so sad and boring. Small salaries, people are grumpy. What are you going to do here? What’s wrong with you? Well, I decided to compare Latvia to the USA which people think of as a dream. Sure, salaries are smaller in Latvia but think of the positives! Healthcare in the USA is so expensive and maternity leave doesn’t exist. In Latvia, you get a year or 18 months, and dads get to take two weeks of. Education is also much more affordable in Latvia. There are so many advantages which Latvians take for granted.

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