In mid January 2014 my wife, son and I moved to Latvia for a 6-month stay. My wife is teaching at Vidzeme University here on a Fulbright Fellowship. A number of friends and family have asked me about Latvia and our stay here, so I am writing this short article to share some things I have learned and experienced in our first two months here.
When we started telling our American friends and neighbors we were going to Latvia one of the first reactions was, “Latvia? Where exactly is that?” So, let’s start with the basics: Latvia is in the Baltics, located on the eastern shore of the Baltic sea in eastern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia on the north, Lithuania on the south, and Russia to the east. It has a population of a little over 2 million people. I cannot begin to relate a complete history of Latvia here as it is long and complicated, but here are the basics from Wikipedia:
The Latvians are Baltic people, culturally related to the Lithuanians. Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Despite foreign rule from the 13th to the 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. Latvia and Estonia share a long common history. As a consequence of the Soviet occupation both countries are home to a large number of ethnic Russians. The Republic of Latvia was founded on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted at the outset of World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian SSR for the next fifty years. The peaceful Singing Revolution starting in 1987 called for Baltic emancipation of Soviet rule, and Latvia declared the restoration of its de facto independence on 21 August 1991.
The basic take-away from this synopsis is that Latvia has a history of invasions and occupations and has managed to use hard work and singing to maintain its cultural identity through hardships. Strength through endurance. I like that their national anthem is about beauty, love, singing and dancing – and not war.
Latvia has been part of the EU since 2004 and adopted the Euro currency in January of 2014. They greatly value the environment (perhaps from their pagan roots) and promote eco-tourism and outdoor sports and activities for economic development.
After learning its location, the next question we often received was about the climate. We were asked, “Why do you always go places that are so cold and dark?” (Our previous stay abroad was in Iceland). It turns out that coming from Minnesota, the winter climate in Latvia offered a welcome break. Located on the Baltic Sea, the winters here tend to have less severe cold, with an average winter temperature of -6 C (21 F) sometimes dipping to -20 C (-4 F). While often somewhat snowy, this year happened to be unusually mild and snow free, with a cold snap in the beginning of February shortly after we arrived, but none of the expected snow and ice for the rest of the month. So the presence of a real winter season here is thought to be more than what most of central Europe may experience, but it was no great hardship for us coming from Minnesota where several weeks of -20 to -30 F is not uncommon at all.
We are living in the city of Valmiera in the Vidzeme region located in northeastern Latvia, not far from Estonia. With a population of around 30,000 people, Valmiera is the largest city in Vidzeme and acts as the cultural and administrative center of the region.
Coming from a small town of only 6,000 people in the remote western portion of Minnesota, this feels much more like a real city to us, although many here consider it a small town compared to the country’s capital city of Riga. So, some of the everyday differences we experience here have as much to do with being in a city as they do with being in an eastern European country.
We find Valmiera to be an interesting mix of new and old. They have been doing a lot of renovation and rebuilding in the last few years. The buildings are a mix of Soviet era apartment blocks (many updated with newer, more attractive and better insulated exteriors), some more modern commercial buildings and stores, and intermixed with the larger buildings are 40-50 year old wooden houses. The city has modern cell phone and 4G data coverage, and excellent low-priced high speed internet, but apparently many people in the city (even the modern appliance store next door) still heat with wood. On cold days there can be a lot of wood smoke in the air. In the back yards of the houses and small building there are many sheds of firewood, and I see many (closed) water wells complete with the classic hand crank bucket lift. In lieu of street cleaning machines there are city employees wearing modern orange reflective vests sweeping the gutters with classic old world birch brooms.
With assistance from a very helpful individual at the University we were able to rent a nice, modern, furnished apartment conveniently located near the city center, and only a 15-minute walk from the University building where my wife works. The rent is very reasonable, similar to what we might expect in a small town in the US, and much lower than US urban areas. The only downside of our otherwise-wonderful apartment is that for some reason it lacks an oven, which makes preparing family meals more challenging.
It is very nice to be able to walk almost everywhere we need to go, and the locals seem to agree, as there is not a lot of automotive traffic but the sidewalks are full of pedestrians everyday regardless of the weather. In our small home-town there is only one real grocery store (though there are admittedly 3 other stores which carry some smaller food selections). One of the first novelties for us here was the realization that there are at least 7 groceries of varying size and selection within easy walking distance of our apartment. The neighborhoods here are mixed use, with single or small groups of shops intermixed with houses and apartment buildings.
The two biggest challenges we face on a daily basis, and it turns out they are interconnected, are communicating and buying food. First, the language of Latvia is, not surprisingly, Latvian. Latvian is not closely related to other European languages, with its closest living relative said to be Sanskrit. Since Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union, they have been moving away from teaching Russian to children and instead teaching English in schools, so we had hoped there would be plenty of English-speaking natives. In reality, at least in this smaller city, outside of the University only younger adults seem to know English, and most store clerks only know a little or no English. I can certainly not blame them, and do not expect them to know my language, but it has made things more difficult. We made an effort to begin learning some basics before we came, and are now enrolled in a beginning Latvian course at the University. Our progress has been slow and we still are only barely able to communicate simple ideas. I like the fact that (unlike Icelandic) the pronunciation of written Latvian is fairly straightforward and follows consistent rules (mainly that every single letter is pronounced, it has no silent letters.) This allows us to sound out basic words, or learn stock phrases. The problem lies in the grammatical rules. There are two genders and seven cases (!!) which all change pronoun, adjective, verb and noun endings. There are no definite or indefinite articles. I am not particularly good with languages, and it has been a long time since I was a student, so my progress has been slow. Which leads me to our second challenge, buying food.
After trying out all the nearby stores we have settled on 2 or 3 that we prefer, and we have learned a lot of basic words for different kinds of meats and other foods. I usually shop with my Latvian-English dictionary handy on my ipod and frequently stop to look up words. Most packages are labeled in Latvian and Russian, and often Lithuanian and Estonian also, and occasionally even some English. When we are brave we try to buy meat from the butcher counter, but it often involves some embarrassing pointing, gesturing and mispronunciations. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes the clerk smiles and looks as confused as we feel.
So what foods can we buy? Well, there is beef, though pork products are much more common. There is chicken, though if not whole then mostly only dark meat, and we have yet to see any turkey at all. There are many fish and smoked fish products, and most groceries have a large tank of live ocean carp. There are a wide variety of sausage products we cannot seem to figure out. There are hot dogs, but we are challenged to choose the ones without a non-edible skin on them, and even then they seem to be too mushy for our taste. There are a variety of tinned meats (many from Russia) such as wild boar, elk, and even horse which we have not tried, but we did get some quite good local(ish) beaver meat at a market. Before we arrived we had read conflicting reports on the availability of peanut butter (such an important staple of my diet that one jar came in our suitcase), but were relieved to find it readily available, though not popular among the locals. The other staple of my diet, Cheerios, has turned out to be a little harder to get. The stores only have the sweetened Honey Nut Cheerios. There are far fewer cold breakfast cereals in general. They offer a small variety of the “sugar bomb” kids cereals, and one or two adult “fitness” cereals. I am getting used to corn flakes.
A few other discoveries have become regulars on our table. First are small filled ‘dumplings’, which are sold frozen and easily prepared on the stovetop. They are available with meat or cheese filling and we usually choose the meat. The larger traditional style ones we would call pierogies at home. There are also wonderful ‘pankukas’, which are like crepes wrapped around a meat or cheese filling. We call them blintzes. There are also potato pancakes (or Latkes). Although we have not yet sampled any of the wide variety of Russian and Latvian Vodkas available in every store, we have purchased our first bottle of Riga Black Balsam, a dark herbal liquor that looks a little like molasses and tastes a little like cough syrup, but is quite good mixed with kvass or dribbled over some ice cream.
One of the common fillings used in everything from the pancakes to deserts is biezpiens. The locals translate it to cottage cheese, but it is nothing like our cottage cheese. Google translates it as ‘cheese curd’ which is closer, as it is a pressed dairy curd kind-of similar to our ricotta cheese. When we see a delicious-looking gourmet dessert that looks like it has layers of chocolate cake and rich sweet cream, we have learned that it is in reality layers of dark rye bread and biezpiens. Not bad, but not nearly as sweet and rich. In the cooler case there are also small chocolate and biezpiens dessert treats.
Latvians are said to love their dairy products, from milk to yogurt, drinkable yogurt, kefir, paninas (like a strong buttermilk), biezpiens and more. The containers are smaller (and sometimes a bag instead of a bottle or carton) and they are sold with a very short expiration dates, usually one or two days, which the locals say means they are fresh and natural. Historically, a rural Latvian family was said to have all they needed if they had a spot of land for a garden and one good cow. Because of Latvia’s history of occupation, most “traditional Latvian” foods are actually foods of the occupying countries such as Russia, Germany, Sweden, Poland or Lithuania. If you look back far enough for true Latvian natives, or Balts, then the foods are mostly peasant survival food like cabbage or potatoes.
In general the stores feature much fewer packaged, prepared foods like frozen dinners, ‘hamburger helper’ type meal kits or even canned soups. In fact, we were surprised by the complete lack of any canned soups, which occupy most of an aisle in our home grocery. We have also learned that between our lack of a car and the shorter shelf life of foods here that we have to make almost daily small shopping trips instead of the weekly big stock-up shops we did at home. Overall we find the cost of food to be very reasonable here, similar to what we would pay at home for most items. Buying food in a foreign language and preparing meals with only a small 2 burner stove has turned out to be a significant feature of our life here (at least for me, my wife of course has her University teaching job to occupy her).
A few other random small cultural differences we have noticed:
Latvians do not believe in small talk and are known to have a somewhat cold, standoffish demeanor until you really get to know them. In Minnesota, strangers regularly smile and say hello and comment on the weather or the food on the store shelves. Here when we pass people on the street, or even our neighbors in the apartment stairwell, they tend to just look straight ahead and avoid eye contact. We are told they are not being rude, just reserving friendliness for true friends, which they value highly.
In shops, people do not exchange money hand to hand. There is always some kind of special little dish or tray on the counter where you put your money, and they put your change.
When we first arrived, we often felt like we stood out on the city streets in our green, blue and red winter coats, as everyone else (over the age of 6, at least) seemed to be wearing only black, brown or grey coats. As the weather has warmed we are starting to see more colors about, so maybe it is just a seasonal thing.
Latvians love their flowers! There are flower shops everywhere, and flowers are always the right gift for any occasion or function. We eagerly await spring when we are told the cities parks, gardens and yards will explode with color.
They use the same word, ludzu (loodzoo) for both “please” and “you’re welcome”. Store clerks also seem to use it as a kind of “can I help you”, and I hear people answer their phone with it also. It is slightly humorous to us (though a completely understandable translation) that shopkeepers trying to use English will often answer our “thank you” with “please”.