The first thing you learn as a foreigner living in Latvia is that the locals love to complain to you about everything: the politicians, the bosses, the wages, the weather. The roads,the prices, the politicians. The taxes, the emigration, the politicians…
The second thing you learn is never to join in with these complaints. Even a mild word of agreement or a nod of the head will see a remarkable transformation in the person doing the complaining from hyper-critic to uber-patriot: “You could never understand – you are a foreigner!” they say with a contemptuous curl of the lip.
That’s particularly true if you venture an opinion on the “ethnic question”. You can read every history of Latvia and Russia ever published, you can talk to historians and people of all ages, of every possible combination of ethnicities, you can visit the sites of the massacres, the deportations, the acts of despicable treachery/glorious heroism and you can never, never understand. You just don’t have the necessary “ethnic question” gene.
Only people with this gene can ever fully understand the ethnic question – which makes it even more remarkable that this same gene makes it impossible for them to come up with a satisfactory answer.
The flip side of life as a foreigner here is that on every other question you are assumed to know more than a local could. I have never understood why this is the case. Most cultures assume foreigners are slightly dimmer than themselves. For some reason Latvians assume the opposite. This why lots of foreign consultants with dubious expertise are still able to make good livings here. Possibly it explains why some foreign journalists are asked to write newspaper columns.
As a foreigner you are also assumed to be wealthy, living in the Old Town and spending most of your time buying expensive drinks in bars that only other foreigners frequent.
Sadly none of these facts is actually true of myself (or any of the other foreign residents I know) but no amount of argument will persuade some people otherwise. I can still remember the look of total disbelief when I told one Latvian businessman during an interview that I lived in half a wooden house in Tornakalns and took the tram to work every day. I was supposed to live on Smilsu iela with a Mercedes parked outside. I could hear him thinking “Why am I in the same room as this person?” throughout the rest of the interview.
But at least not fitting the stereotype means you can sometimes avoid being identified as a foreigner and thus gain some insight into Latvian society that locals might miss. It is always interesting to see in which language strangers address you. I used to get lots of English and sometimes German. But these days it’s usually Russian. It must be my hat, combined with the fact that I am short and stocky rather than tall and gangly.
You know you’ve really made some progress as a local when beggars stop asking you for money.
And on one memorable occasion I remember being asked by a well-dressed Latvian woman for directions to Agenskalns. We were standing next to the Maras Dikis pond and when I replied in Latvian I made the rather elementary mistake of saying she should go “through” the pond rather than “around” it before turning left and walking a few hundred metres.
Instead of thanking me for helping she proceeded to spend five minutes telling me how stupid I was to say “through” before marching off with her nose in the air.
Because I was speaking less than perfect Latvian with an accent she assumed I was one of those Russians who “hasn’t bothered” to learn the language.
The sad truth is foreigners are not cleverer, richer or more worthy of your time than the person living next door. Indeed one of my own neighbours already realises this. “Do you know why you’re a better man than me?” he asked the other day. I said I didn’t. “Because you don’t have a foreigner living next door,” he said.
I think he was joking – but because I am a naive foreigner who lacks the ethnic gene, maybe he wasn’t.