All Latvians craving for a piece of the Motherland in London, be it entertainment, friendly support or company to celebrate Ligo with, can now find it at the Web site LaLonda – a community which just in a year has grown from seven people to almost 700 members.
LONDON - “When I moved to London I was mostly spending time with Lithuanians. I was amazed how strong their community is: they have their own clubs, restaurants, shops, while Latvians were very passive and mostly hanging out on their own. That’s how it all started,” says Peteris Baumanis, 27, a lettings negotiator, the main ideologist and the co-founder of LaLonda.
Peteris and few more people, including Artis Onckulis, started to bring together young immigrants from Latvia in December 2011 through social networks. “I was looking for people everywhere, talking to them, advertising out events. It was quite a challenge, as even my brother didn’t believe that I would do it. Still, we succeeded.”
Now the organization has almost 700 members on their Facebook page, about 200 of them are active and are regularly participating in events. The community’s aim is to gather around 2,000 people. Peteris and other activists are planning the events in their own time voluntarily, sometimes even investing their own money. They are not complaining though, but launching new projects. The latest LaLonda meeting, one that was tailored especially for girls, took place in a beauty salon and featured strawberries, nail art and putting on professional make-up. The other recent events include a trip to Turkey, an excursion to a botanical garden, concerts with Latvian DJs, skating, cycling, trips to nature areas and regular BBQ parties with traditional Latvian food.
Apart from having fun, LaLonda members share useful information, such as job opportunities and rooms that are available for rent. What is more important – they are encouraging and supporting each other, which is essential for survival in a large foreign city. These people are more often bartenders and hairdressers, than investment bankers or doctors of philosophy, but they all are definitely looking for something more in the UK than just a bigger salary. Though their events do not involve visiting the Royal Opera House (yet), spending Friday evenings in a local pub over a pint is not their favorite activity either.
“This community has definitely changed my social life,” says LaLonda’s 24-year old photographer Arnis Usackis, who works in a hospital. “I was looking for opportunities to get engaged in photography and, thanks to LaLonda, I got some useful contacts. It is easier when you talk to your own people. Britons are so different: they think different, they talk different and sometimes it is really hard to get on with them.”
When the group was small, they used to meet in a small cozy bar in Kensington - Daugavas Vanagi. The venue, with the Latvian First Channel on and Aldaris beer, looks and feels exactly like a bar in the outer center of Riga, somewhere on Tallinas or Stabu street, maybe. Every Friday and Saturday evening the bar serves traditional Latvian dinners for a moderate price, such as pork with cheese and mushrooms, young boiled potatoes with dill, “soljanka” soup and vanilla cream with cranberry jam. Daugavas Vanagi bar is part of a hostel and was founded by the same name organization, which unites mature Latvian immigrants and offers such activities as Latvian folk dancing, singing and language lessons.
“LaLonda is more like famous rapper [DJ] Ozols, while Daugavas Vanagi is like Raimonds Pauls. We have different aims, but we are still joining our forces from time to time to launch some events, such as Poker tournaments,” says Peteris.
Unfortunately, the bar is open for only a few hours a week and is too small to fit all of the Latvian community. That is why the group is always looking for new venues to host its events. Peteris’ biggest ambition is to get funding and start their own place at some point.
“I would love Latvians to have more - their own shops, their own restaurants. I was always dreaming of our own place. I am not scared of doing that, but it all requires money and time,” he laments.
The community is equally open to native Latvians, Russians and even Lithuanians: basically, it is for everyone who wants to communicate. Perfectly trilingual Peteris has probably done more for integration than what all ministers have done together. While definitely being a big loss for Latvia, Peteris does not consider that he has betrayed his Motherland by relocating to London, as he still lives in the European Union, he says.
“A long time ago my mother moved from Liepaja to Riga to start her life from a scratch, which means that she left Kurzeme for Vidzeme. The same is with me: I am a citizen of the European Union and I just changed the city,” says Peteris.
LaLonda activists say that they do not feel like Latvia wants them back. “[Latvian] Parliament is not helping us and I don’t really see how it is trying to get us back home. So instead, we all are helping each other: friendship, talk, support,” says Arnis, who is currently saving money to come back to Latvia to open his own photo studio, and then maybe go abroad again.
Both guys hope that new immigrants from Latvia will chose London or another big city as their destination to develop themselves. “If it is a small town, people can easily get stuck. They often work the whole day in a factory and then go home, where they get drunk. There is nothing else to do,” says Arnis. He and Peteris do not consider the massive emigration from Latvia to be a huge tragedy, as it actually reduces the costs of paying unemployment benefits. It also brings more money to the Latvian economy as most of the emigrants are sending their salaries back home to their families to help them to pay off mortgages and loans, they both point out. LaLonda in its turn will be happy to welcome all newcomers and help them to get the most out of life in London.
“I am not a politician. They probably have a better education than me, but in reality I am the one who is helping people. Anyone can call me any time, email me, message me, so they know that I am real; the thing that we do here is real as well,” says Peteris.
(you can see what they’re up to at: http://www.lalonda.co.uk)