Observations on a transition

When I came to live here three and a half years ago, I was familiar with the typical list of an outsider’s superficial observations of Latvia: frequent gruff answers, bureaucratic absurdities, a nation-wide fear of drafts, and so on. These things were often frustrating, but as already said, superficial. Something you’d better get used to…or move back.

It’s the issues that show up months or even years later that I find interesting. They range from the trivial (such as the fact that putting young children to bed at 10 p.m. and later is a common and accepted practice for many Latvians) and pleasant (well-developed information technology; thorough dry cleaning), to deeper and more personal issues that may surprise us. Though some are specific to Latvian émigrés, many of these deeper issues are typical of anybody who moves to a foreign country and culture. And, more often than not, Latvia is a foreign land to a Latvian-American of my generation.

For example, after the initial euphoria wears off, life in Latvia settles into a normal rhythm and becomes, well, normal. “It’s just another place to live,” a Latvian-American once commented. Former drinking buddies have settled down with wives, children, and stable jobs. It’s often hard to arrange meetings with friends, because they’re busy with their everyday lives, too. We realize that day-to-day life is similar wherever one lives. This is kind of a let-down for perpetual adventurers, risk-takers, and change-seekers. Besides, the reality of living in Latvia may not live up to our expectations of the country. Latvia isn’t all birch groves, puffy clouds, and folk songs. In fact, the immigrant communities we left usually turn out to be “more Latvian” than Latvia itself. We still have to seek out “ethnic opportunities”, because they’re not just floating around in the air. And that realization may spiral into deceptive thoughts about what is a “real” Latvian and doubts about “do I really belong here?”

Although my generation tends to have a pretty realistic view of Latvia, having no personal childhood memories of the country, we were nevertheless indoctrinated by our trimda [exile] upbringings. The reality on the ground, though, is usually quite different from the rose-colored geography and ethnography lessons we had at our Latvian Saturday schools. It may make us question our idealistic upbringing. Was it worth it? Do I really want my children to continue this cycle of double lives? Because of this double life (a privileged gift if there ever was one), I often catch myself comparing the two places: when I’m here, I think of the things that are better there; but when I’m there, I long to be back here. All the more frustrating for a Gemini like me.

We moved here out of idealism. Adventure, too, but mostly idealism, whether we admit it or not (try explaining it to a local without sounding sentimental and saccharine). Being Latvian defined our former lives. But now what? Once we’re in Latvia, we may find that we have to reinvent ourselves. We used to belong to a small community called “Latvian exiles”, and that’s what set us apart from others. Now everyone around us is either a Latvian or at least belongs to Latvia in one way or another (our grandparents gasp when we admit that we’d like to learn some Russian!), and the label “Latvian” is no longer as relevant to us as it once was. So, we have to “find ourselves” again, which can come as a surprise. Should we continue to identify ourselves with our old friends—the expatriate community—or should we search out a new community? We have to ask ourselves what else we are interested in, besides “the Latvian thing”. Being Latvian is no longer enough of a basis for friendships.

During our first year here I overdosed on folklore. Then came the hangover: was I really interested in Latvian folklore, or did I like it only because it was so quintessentially Latvian? I was shocked at how I could lose interest in something that had always been such a large part of me. So I cut back for a while. And eventually I realized that music—pretty much any kind—really was my passion and am therefore more or less back up to speed with Latvian folk music again.

Some Latvian-Americans, on the other hand, breathe a sigh of relief in Latvia. We finally feel free to just plain live. No responsibilities to a shrinking ethnic community and no positions of leadership in various organizations imposed upon us. We are free to attend cultural functions purely as guests, with no accompanying obligations, and free to spend vacation time actually relaxing.

Among other issues for those who move to Latvia is family. No matter how close our Latvia-born relatives and friends are, they cannot take the place of our immediate family. This becomes especially evident if we have young children. Sure, no grandparents around means no babysitter at the drop of a hat. But it also means that our children will have at best a once-a-year relationship with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Expatriates have many similar experiences and therefore naturally bond. For some it takes conscientious effort to hang out with locals, instead of our old trimda friends. The differing life experiences and attitudes between “us” and “them” often make it difficult to develop close friendships with our Latvian-born peers, especially if we belong to older generations.

In the United States we bent over backwards to speak Latvian in the home. But how shall we speak to our children now? Because levels of English instruction in the schools usually do not satisfy us, shall we switch to English in the family in order that our children not lose fluency in such a useful language? Or will books, movies, and television programs in English do the trick? But the very reason we moved to Latvia was to raise our children in a Latvian environment…. One (expensive) way to dispel this dilemma is frequent trips back to the United States. Another (ironic) option is to form an English-speaking circle of friends in Latvia. Maybe what we need is an English language Saturday school in Riga, like the Latvian schools of our childhoods!

Speaking of English, it’s funny how living in a different country can make one sentimental for the country one left behind. Where we used to crave rye bread and Gotiņa caramels, now we long to taste “real” ketchup, read in English, and shop at Target. Where we used to idealize Latvia, we may now idealize America (remember that rose color mentioned above?). True, most of the time we do feel like we fit in here. But other times we feel like real Americans who just happen to speak Latvian (remember the comment about Latvia being a foreign land?).

But we enjoy living in Latvia, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, right? On the other hand, our children may not like living here. We’ve done all we can to help them find “their place”—activities, friends, a good school—but to no avail. What then? Are we wronging them by staying in Latvia? Shall we allow the children to determine where the family will live? Or shall we stay put and risk embittering them not only towards their parents, but also towards Latvia and their heritage?

The same goes for a marriage. One partner may be happy in Latvia, the other not. A move anywhere is hard on a marriage, even if both spouses have similar dreams and hopes and good communication channels to express those feelings. Add the hormones that are said to saturate the Latvian air in spring, and the result may be too much.

For much of the year, though, Latvia is wet, muddy, dank, and cloudy. On top of that, Riga has had very little snow in recent years to cheer up the winters. If enthusiasm kept depression at bay during our first winter here, it’s probably inescapable in subsequent years.

Which leads to sickness. In our first six months in Latvia we were sick more often than in the previous six years in the United States. I blamed it on unfamiliar bacteria, coughing and sneezing passengers on public transportation, preschool, etc. But now a few years later I think that we still get sick more often than we used to. It seems like somebody is always coming down with or getting over a cold or the flu. Blame it on those same obviously very hardy bacteria and viruses, or maybe start blaming it on the climate, like the locals do.

It’s amazing how big an impact the environment can have on a person. The air and soil have a certain feel to it, depending on where you are in the world. For example, the ground in Minnesota is harder and seems more solid than Latvian soil, which feels more like a padded carpet. Minnesota air smells, feels, and sounds differently—all year round, not just in the summer. Is it the air pressure, the altitude, the humidity, or the (non-)proximity of the sea? There’s nothing wrong with either environment, they just feel…different. And right now I don’t know if the air and soil in Latvia will ever feel quite “right” to me, if I’ll ever be able to truly feel at home in them.

Speaking of the environment, for a nation that seems close to nature (just watch the city empty out on weekends!) and to value fresh air and clean and natural produce, why has it taken so long for recycling programs to take hold? All in good time, though, I suppose.

Sometimes Latvia seems like a manic-depressive nation. There are delightful ideas, great energy, and creative spirit in the air, wonderful things going on, and amazing people to meet. But then there are days when my thoughts are gloomy, I see only the ugly things, and meet only the somber people, in addition to the regular doses of corruption, apathy, and poverty. In Latvia it seems that the two poles are more palpable, more unavoidable, and nearer each other than in the United States, so if you want to experience the highs, you need to tolerate the lows.

Readers, please forgive what may seem like negativity on my part. Obviously, I’m still in Latvia. If I didn’t like it here, I would have left long ago. Rather, I consider thoughts like these to be interesting fodder for a mind going through a transition. A mind still getting used to the air and soil in a different place.

This article was originally published in the Jauno laiks supplement to Laiks. By now I’ve doubled my time in Latvia, reached a sort of equilibrium, and tend to think less of these issues.