Joe Horgan came to Latvia on a one-year scholarship. Six years later, he’s still here and living in Jelgava. We caught up to chat about his move and choice to stay.
How Joe decided to move to Latvia
I came to Latvia in 2013 as a Fulbright scholar. I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go. At university, one of my favourite courses was History of the Soviet Union. The Baltics were a particularly interesting region because they had a very independent, rebellious streak. As one of 22 applicants, I got placed in Jelgava and came here not knowing what to expect.
I grew up in Maine which is like America’s version of Latvia. Massive forest, huge coastline. Students get two weeks off to harvest potatoes. Then I studied in Boston but always had this feeling there was somewhere else in the world I was supposed to be.
Some friends thought the idea of moving to Latvia was crazy, not because it was Latvia but because I had a full time job lined up at a really nice school. Most of my friends are history and geography buffs, so they know where it is. But, when people ask me what most Americans think of Latvia, I have to break the bad news that many Americans don’t know how to find Germany on a map, let alone Latvia.
Differences between life in Latvia and the USA
I’m shocked at how well people know geography in Latvia. Most people could do a map quiz of Europe and probably Asia. It might be part of being a smaller country, that you pay more attention to what’s going on outside. In the USA, you can’t even watch the International Ice Hockey Championships (which is huge in Latvia) with the most expensive cable package, it’s all about the Stanley Cup. I have friends who are the biggest hockey fans in the world and they don’t even know it exists. We care so much about who’s going to win the Superbowl and World Series. The only time we vaguely care about international sports is the Olympics and World Cup.
I teach at Jelgavas Spīdolas Ģimnāzija, which is known as a good school. It’s a fantastic place to work and it’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to stay in Latvia. My biggest culture shock moment was my first day when I saw 7th graders were allowed to go to the supermarket during break time. In America, it’s a massive formal process to leave the school.
In 12th grade, if you have good grades, with your parents’ permission even if you’re 18, you have to sign out and in at very specific times. We’re much more stressed out about safety. There’s a very obvious, sad reason why. My one full year of teaching in America, we had shooting drills every two months. It blew my mind how relaxed everyone is here. I think everything about education is a lot more relaxed.
Making friends in Latvia
My first two months in Latvia were rough, which had nothing to do with Latvia. I’d just left university and all my friends and family were in America. I had two friends who were doing similar things here and we hung out together.
We’re taught that it’s rude to speak in English when you go to a foreign country. So I was afraid to talk to people in English but spoke very little Latvian.
I didn’t make a good Latvian friend until later after flying in late at the airport and thinking I’d walk into town and get there for the 5am train to Jelgava. I got to the centre around 2am and it was -2 degrees Celsius. The old town was a maze to me. I found a cafe, went in, asked if they’re open, told them my story. They were just closing but the guy offered me tea and told me to crash on the couch. We talked the entire night.
Next weekend he took me around Riga and started teaching me how to live here. Within a couple of weeks I started thinking if I really wanted to go back to America and start over. I didn’t want to go to Boston, all my friends from Maine had left. I started looking into whether I could stay and found out I had Irish citizenship. Towards the end of the year, I started asking my employers if they had any work for me. They were happy to have me. A little bit later that year I met my wife. I fell in love with everything about Latvia.
Certain expats want to come to Latvia and hang out with other expats, and that’s really easy, you just go online. If you want to make friends with local people, there’s a very incorrect stereotype that Latvians are difficult to make friends with.
You can sit in a bar next to a Latvian for hours and they’ll never say a word to you but if you start a conversation, you can end up being their best friend. If you’re the kind of person who gets sensitive if somebody isn’t inviting you over to their house, then you’ll struggle. Inviting someone over to their house is a very personal thing, especially with foreigners. People are self conscious about where they live, comparing it with movies etc. With the younger generation it’s different, everyone’s more open. Just don’t get offended! Join a group, do stuff. People are interested in making friends.
Joe’s experience of teaching in Latvia
This isn’t about a stereotypical Latvian, it’s something I’ve noticed about people in general. They’re very critical about language skills. People say they speak bad English when they speak it perfectly. The positive of that is that if you’re a native English speaker, you almost get a blank check. It’s like your methodology doesn’t even matter because you’re a native speaker.
I’d ask for feedback in the first couple of years and the students would say there was nothing they disliked and they liked that I was a native speaker. They’re interested in hearing about America. It might be different at other schools, especially in outer regions.
I had one class who I’d ask for feedback and they told me everything was fine but then I’d hear from other students that they were saying different things when I wasn’t around. So I asked a student from the class and she said that complaining is just what they do.
Some of my colleagues have been complaining that the younger generation is becoming a little too direct and forward – we want this, we want that – to the point of becoming unrealistic.
On Latvia’s childcare and healthcare systems
Not everything about Latvia’s economic system is great but childcare support is almost second to none. The fact that you can have a year and a half of leave and a state allowance. When I tell that to my friends in America who are working and raising a three-month-old…
Regarding healthcare, I have a lot of respect for the doctors and nurses who work in the public system. We teachers complain all the time that we need to get paid more and we do. But if there’s one group in Latvia, which needs higher salaries, it’s medical professionals.
I’ve had mostly positive experiences here. I had a three day stay at the Infectology Centre and it was fine. There are good doctors and nurses and there are bad ones just like there are anywhere in the world. It’s not perfect but I have so much respect for what people have to do for such a little amount of money.
How Joe founded Latvia Weekly – a local news website
Latvia Weekly started out as posts on the Facebook group for Fulbright scholars. I thought it would be nice if someone did a weekly news summary for people living in Latvia or who lived here in the past. I watch Panorāma, read ir, consume massive amounts of LSM, Delfi and everything anyway. People really liked my summaries, so I started posting on Expats in Latvia as well.
People started asking for permission to repost on their websites, so I started the blog. The elections were coming up, I did analysis posts and they did well. I had a background in radio and have always been on the fence between teaching and media. With teaching, you can have a “normal” life. With media, you’re completely tied to breaking news, you have to be on all the time.
I started the podcast with my friend Otto because there’s no audiovisual coverage in English in Latvia. Mike Collier of LSM used to do a Minutes of Latvia podcast years ago.
Otto’s like a walking encyclopedia. We talked through the news every week and started doing other things. It’s lighthearted but serious, perfect for when you’re exercising or driving to work, just listen once a week.
In January, I abandoned the weekly posts idea. I could no longer manage between the baby and teaching at five places. LETA does update posts every day, so I told people to go there while we focus on the podcast.
On learning Latvian
The only problem with integration was language. I’m not a natural language learner but I had great motivation. For teaching at a Latvian school, you need to pass the C1 level, which I did.
Latvia’s English speakers tend to be younger and more cosmopolitan. But one of my favourite experiences from living in Latvia was when my wife and I lived in Ķengarags. I was buying a record player from a guy in Salaspils. We were waiting at a cafe at the station, and we were talking to the woman selling us coffee. She turned the TV on and a rerun of a previous Song and Dance Festival came on. She pulled out her guitar and started playing, so we started singing along. You couldn’t get that if you didn’t speak Latvian.
Officially, I took classes through Latvia’s Integration Fund. Every few months, they hold free classes if you’re a third country national. I did the classes at the Zemgale branch. But there’s such a wide range of people taking the classes. The courses were helpful to keep me on track but what was most helpful, was trashy Latvian TV.
I highly suggest finding a show like “Viņas melo labāk” or “Ēnu spēles”. I’d been listening to the news all the time but then I’d go to a party and have no idea what people were talking about. The language they use on the soap operas is everyday language. Phrases like ko tu murgo? (what are you going on about?). A movie you watch beginning to end and that’s it. With TV, you get sucked in. I tell my students to watch stuff in English too. You have to be active, you need everyday practise, not just a weekly class.
Joe’s tips on what to do and where to go in Riga
Riga is such an amazing place, not just the centre. I used to have a blog called Visa Rīga with the goal of visiting the city’s 58 official neighbourhoods. We made it through Bolderāja, Imanta, Kleisti.
Daugavgrīvas Cietoksnis (Daugavgrīva Fortress) is amazing for anyone interested in history. Daugavgrīva in general with its abandoned factories right along the sea coast. The fields in Kleisti and Bumbukalniņš viewing tower with its epic view over Riga.
My favourite walking path in Riga is the path along the River Daugava that runs through Ķengarags. I think, in 10 – 15 years, if Latvia continues to develop, Ķengarags will become one of the hip areas of Riga. And I’ve been saying this since before the arrival of the Akropole shopping centre.
Ķengarags is the only part of Riga with access to the Daugava that isn’t just port, port, port or the middle of the city. It’s also got the tram line. If I was a developer right now… The only thing about Ķengarags is its reputation. It was the same with Maskačka. I liked living there.
One of my favourite places is Kļavas Lapa (Maple Leaf) bistro at Riga Central Station. My wife and I must have eaten here the most over the years. It’s an extremely cheesy, non-pretentious version of Lido, which hasn’t been renovated since when Origo opened. There are these ridiculous plastic maple leaf trees, they’re always playing the worst schlager music you’ve ever heard, elevator music or bad cover versions. People who eat there are passengers coming from places like Aizkraukle for doctors’ appointments, grabbing a meal before heading home, tourists taking the train back to Moscow.
I love everything about the Central Station. The old town has become such an international place while the station still feels very Latvian. That’ll change when Rail Baltica comes in.
Tips on where to go outside Riga
I love Pāvilosta, it reminds me of places in Maine, a quiet place by the sea. Talsi – I don’t understand why it isn’t as famous as Kuldīga. The hills there! It’s beautiful.
Ķemeri National Park – it’s famous but still not enough people know about it. The town of Ķemeri, the sulphur springs.
Gauja National Park is great but if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere, you probably have somewhere similar.
Check out Daugavpils. It gets a bad rep, which is very unfair. It’s a historically and culturally rich city. So many of my Latvian friends have such strong opinions about it but they’ve never been.
Come to Jelgava! Jelgava had a bad rep in the 90s but the city council’s done a great job with what they have. The old town was completely destroyed by the war. The Soviet council put up whatever they wanted wherever they wanted. Pasta sala is great, like a smaller version of Riga’s Lucavsala. Best palace in Latvia.
Thanks to Joe for sharing. If you’d like to stay up-to-date on what’s making people talk in Latvia, visit Joe’s English language news guide www.latviaweekly.com. And if you’d like to read more experiences of moving to Latvia, continue with Miguel and Ignacio’s insights into life in Riga or chef Fabrizio’s story!