AS A NATION CUT OFF from the planet until two decades ago, Latvians may seem even more baffling than the average species of foreigner. But if you’re moving to Riga, making local friends is harder than just not peeing on sacred monuments. No, to get on the good side of Latvians you need subtler foot (or other appendage) work. Here’s how to bungle it.
Neglect the language.
Latvians have no delusions about how far their language reaches. With around two million speakers of Latvian in the world, your chances of randomly meeting a fellow Lett in a bar in Mumbai are slim (when it happens, you dine out on the story). Having “Fluent in Latvian” on your CV will not deliver you the keys to the corporate bathroom. Folk abroad lead happy lives without telling Latvian and Lithuanian apart.
But if you’re going to live here, taking an interest in the local tongue will soften hearts, for small as it may be, Latvians are very proud of the richly poetic broth they speak. True, educated young Latvians are precocious learners of foreign languages, and thanks to their efforts you can live comfortably in Riga using English.
No, those six cases and that ‘ķ’ sound unique to Latvian are not easy to master. But plenty of foreigners have done it, and it has helped them transition from grazing in Irish pubs to feeling like they belong. Even many Russian-speaking Latvians, long resented for their monolingualism, now speak beautiful, intriguingly accented Latvian. Start with a few words.
Mention the war.
The following is a brief rundown of Latvia’s history over the last century or so:
- A revolution in 1905
- Three years of World War I on its soil, followed by a bitter independence struggle between nationalists, communists, maverick Germans, Estonians, and the Royal Navy
- Chaotic but cheerful democracy followed by the father-knows-best authoritarianism of Kārlis Ulmanis, in turn snuffed out by Soviet occupiers who shipped much of the elite off to Siberia
- Nazi invasion, the Holocaust, and bloody fighting across the country (World War II ended a day later in Latvia than in Germany.)
- More Soviet misrule, extermination of the best farmers during collectivisation, partisan warfare, then decades of stagnation and Russification
- A mostly peaceful Singing Revolution in the late 1980s, leading to two decades of democracy marred by corruption and bipolar economic gyrations (how many countries have gone from double-digit growth to the world’s worst slump overnight?)
Yet somehow Latvia has managed to join the EU, adopt the euro, and even win Eurovision. Given this turbulent record, it’s hardly surprising that interpretations of history can be controversial. The March 16 parade of Waffen SS veterans (which, depending on your viewpoint, either honours brave Latvian soldiers who defended their homeland in the only uniforms available, or glorifies Nazism) and May 9 (the day the USSR beat the fascists / the continuation of totalitarian oppression) bring tempers to the boil.
As an expat, unless you have really done your research (and let’s face it, not too many have history PhDs), nothing you say about this whole mess will be the least bit constructive. Offering cut-price analyses of stuff this murky and painful is bound to mortally offend at least one person within earshot. Besides, the delirium passes quickly — the most amazing thing is that Latvians get along okay on the other 363 days of the year.
Deny them their personal space.
When a Latvian tells you he bought ten more hectares next to his farm to “keep the neighbours further away,” he’s not some loony loner or a drug pusher brewing meth in his shed. No, he’s merely expressing his culture’s insatiable craving for personal space.
How many angels sit on a pin? Just one if the pin is Latvian. The five-yearly Song Festivals with thousands of singers on stage together are a big deal precisely because getting together is the exception not the rule. Surnames are rarely given during introductions, and you can spend years not knowing your neighbours’ names at all.
That doesn’t mean Latvians are unfriendly — it’s just that levels of intimacy are not formed in Mediterranean all-in love-fest-in-the-piazza style. A sure way for expats to shut themselves off from Latvians is by dismissing them as cold, distant, or uncommunicative. They’re not, even if it takes ages for them to share basic personal information. And don’t stand so close in the supermarket queue.
Gleaning your first impressions from the capital, you may think Latvia is an urban concept. With a sushi joint here and a hipster cyclist there, Riga could be a lowrise Manhattan (well, kind of). Over one third of the Latvian population lives in Riga, and a fair chunk of the remainder work there.
But the truth is Riga isn’t just Latvia’s biggest city — it’s the only one. Sorry, second-placed Daugavpils. With your 100,000 souls you’d barely qualify as a town elsewhere. And many of Riga’s 700,000 denizens hold their mind’s eye on the countryside, where relatives still farm, summer holidays are spent, and berries and mushrooms are sourced in autumn.
If you’re invited for skinny dipping in virgin lakes, listening out for nightingales on long forest walks, or singing songs to the accompaniment of grilling meat, don’t turn it down. Bucolic trips like these are essential to getting who Latvians really are — even iPad-wielding Dace and Andris, perky in the office after a weekend gathering wildflowers.
Forget your chivalry.
If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t need to be told that behaving like a horny baboon sprayed with a scent of eau-de-Aldaris is unlikely to get you a conversation, let alone laid. But dispiriting numbers of foreign blokes apparently need reminding. Yes, local girls are beauties, and come summer they strive to absorb Vitamin D in the most interesting places. True, as a glance at any Jugendstil building or sauna reveals, this is a nation with few hangups about the natural human form. Indeed, you probably do have more money than the average Latvian lass.
But none of these facts alone or in combination make them easy targets, and acting like they do is a fast way to get yourself branded a stinking sex tourist. And that is a breed even more despised than statue urinators.
This post was originally published at Life In Riga and is reprinted here with permission.