It struck me just a few months ago that I finally felt really settled in Riga. When I say finally, I mean seven years after moving back from my stint abroad to study and get my first work experience. This sense of calm and contentedness took me by surprise just like the pangs of homesickness which had sparked my return. Symbolically, it was just a few weeks before we were told to #stayhome and I’d recently returned from what I didn’t know would be my last big international trip in a long time. This year also marks 25 years since my family originally arrived in Latvia from Australia.
So, for me this summer has been all about celebrating my arrival in a new comfort zone. And reflecting on the hurdles it took to get there. Through the ups and downs, I’ve found solace and comfort in the words and experiences of others who’ve moved or returned to Latvia. My hope is that this post has the same effect on readers. It’s a collection of our shared findings and observations. They may help you understand why things happen the way they do, what to keep in mind when trying to integrate into Latvian society and steps to take to make that process a little easier.
Accept That Things May Be Done Differently To Where You Come From
Ever had a manager who slates the way things have been done and promises instant reform? I have. He lasted about a month. Don’t be that manager. Chances are, change is needed and would be welcome but it’s a question of time, respect and cultural sensitivity. Or, maybe things are fine just the way they are and you’re the one who needs to adapt.
Many Systems Haven’t Been Built Yet
It’s frustrating as f**k. You’re in a situation or you have a question and you can’t seem to get or find an answer or solution. You think there must have been thousands of people like you in the past yet there’s no user-friendly infographic, no explanatory Q&A, no direct phone line. Instead of a simple answer you get a game of football. Futbolēšana (footballing) is when you get passed from one contact to another because no one wants or has the duty to take responsibility for the matter in hand. You jump from website to website, office to office. Eventually, you find a way but then you hear someone else paid less for the service, got a different form to fill, turned to another organisation. There may even be a system but staff don’t know about it because there’s no employee onboarding and training system.
The plus side? You can be part of building these systems! By which I don’t mean you have to go into politics or apply for a leadership position. I’m a great believer in the power of feedback. If we all give it (and are willing to receive it), it will help identify issues and create people-friendly solutions. Imagine if social media rants became thoughtful and constructive emails…
Six Degrees Of Separation Is More Like ‘Two Handshakes Away’ In Latvia
The common finding is that Latvians come off as being cold and unapproachable but then you break the ice and discover we’re a really warm and sincere people. We’re also a very small and interconnected network because we’re either distant relatives, schoolmates or ex-somethings. So, whether you’re looking for an investor, a cat therapist or someone to come and fix the doorbell, you won’t have to knock on many doors to find the right person for the job if your request is serious. Facebook groups are a great resource. Twitter works and matters in Latvia. Ministers are just a tweet away.
One of my favourite stories is how I found my longterm hairdresser. Every time I met up with my friend Lara on one of her visits from Germany, she’d have an amazing new haircut. I asked for her hairdresser’s contacts, have been going ever since and referred at least four other people to Ina’s salon in Riga. Lara’s mum had kept seeing women come out of the salon with beautiful hair and eventually gone in to book her own appointment. Since then, word of mouth has been working wonders in our circle.
Form Your Own Opinions
The proverbial bandwagon isn’t always a warm and welcoming environment. If you do read heated social media threads and the comments section, let them guide you to shaping your own opinion rather than throwing everyone in the same bag. We don’t all hate Russians, homosexuals and the minister for health (bless her) but some of us have louder voices than others or just want to be heard more.
Read Up On The History Of Latvia
“What’s a typical Latvian dish?” – “Umm, sauerkraut?” Our identity struggle is real and understandable when you look back in time. History has a way of providing context for habits, quirks and characteristics. And it stretches way further back than the Soviet occupation which, of course, left its mark and scars too.
Leave The Old Town, Leave Riga And Love Life In Latvia
Just like Amsterdam isn’t the whole of the Netherlands and London the whole of the UK, so too Riga is just one part of Latvia’s story. Take a train to Zilupe. Learn to tell a boletus from a russula in the woods. Visit a herb lady for a talk on tea. Go hike along the Baltic Sea coast. Melt in the hands of a trained sauna master. Find someone to teach you folk dancing. Be open.
Develop Some Common Ground
Watch the latest Latvian movies. New releases come with English subtitles at the cinema and online platforms like Filmas.lv. Listen to some local bands and iconic Latvian music. Choose a local author. Book shops like Globuss and Valters un Rapa stock translated editions. Read the news on eng.lsm.lv and relish editor Mike Collier’s witty humour. Listen to Joe Horgan’s excellent Latvia Weekly podcast. Find an events space or a community to be part of. You might be hard-pushed to win a cultural reference quiz, but so would many locals (me included).
A friend of mine recently returned to Riga after ten years of living in Germany and the Netherlands. He never lost touch with Latvia and has become an active member of a political party, campaigning every day in the run up to the 2020 Riga city council elections. He grew up in the neighbourhood of Purvciems and has now decided to get involved with the local community group. Because he sees the potential to use his skills, knowledge and perspective to make it a better place to live and has found likeminded souls.
Assertiveness Is A Virtue
Airport taxi drivers have a bad rep. Landlords aren’t all loved. It’s a sad fact that some people like to take advantage of others. New arrivals to a city are obvious and, often, easy prey. The supply and demand dynamic applies to the Riga rental market too. Don’t know how much is a normal rate? Think you’ve been quoted too much? Run it past your colleagues, friends or local Facebook group. The more these situations come to light, the fewer people will fall into the trap if they do their research. And the closer we inch to a utopian future in which all Riga residents are satisfied and content in their daily lives.
There Are Some Things You Just Have To Find Out For Yourself
No person, book or blog will tell you whether you’ll like living in Latvia. No one knows if you’ll find a good job. It’s hard to say how much money you’ll need to sustain your lifestyle because it’s your life. But resources like the Expats in Latvia group on Facebook and, hopefully, this blog can help research the hell out of it and make a decision. Unless it’s a six-month Erasmus exchange, moving somewhere is unlikely to be easy. A sense of belonging may only arrive years down the line and with a lot of effort. Perhaps, maybe, hopefully, out of the blue you’ll feel at peace with where you are and why.
Channel Your Energy Into Something
To me, the blog has been a passion project which has given me the motivation to explore, dig deeper and find my own answers on life in Latvia. Sharing and receiving reader feedback has been a big part of the process. If you enjoy my content and would like to see more in future, your support is very welcome through Ko-fi.com and will go towards covering the blog’s maintenance costs.
Photos by Jānis Lungevičs.