Latvian expats ponder which is their home from home

  • 2004-05-27
  • By Justin Petrone
NEW YORK - It's another Monday morning, and while Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga is still getting some shut eye in Riga, Daina Gross is getting her three children, Laila, Olivers and Toms, out the door in Melbourne, Australia. Gross is married to Arnis Gross, another Latvian-Australian, and the couple's three children all speak fluent Latvian at home.

"My husband and I still have a strong sense of our heritage, and it is very important for us to pass this onto our children. Consequently we only speak Latvian at home and encourage our children to take pride in their heritage," says Daina Gross.
Another time zone away it's still Sunday in the U.S.A. and Andris Straumanis, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, is busy at work with his other major project - being the coeditor of Latvians Online, a Web site devoted to Latvians worldwide, a duty he shares electronically with the Gross family.
Like the Grosses in Melbourne, Straumanis brought his daughter Kaija up in a small community of Latvian expats, around 2,000 of them, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But the idea of Latvia consumes both men, despite their vast physical distance from the tiny Baltic country.
"My students probably think I bring Latvia up too much in class," Straumanis admits.
Kaija Straumanis, his college-aged daughter, says she feels more Latvian than American.
"Maybe it's because I have such a rich cultural background, but I don't feel American. I feel Latvian, inside and out," she says.
The Grosses and Straumanises may be far apart, but they all have to deal with the existential dilemma of being Latvians who don't live in Latvia. However, things have recently become slightly more complicated with the news that Latvia wants them back.

To move or not to move
In February, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said that she would like to see the Latvian Diaspora return to Latvia, and in a recent interview with The Baltic Times, she singled out Latvians living in Siberia and retirement-aged people as the two groups she would like to reach out to.
Couple that with former Prime Minister Einars Repse's call for Latvians to begin repopulating the countryside (he pointed out that Latvia desperately needs to have a baby boom) and it's clear that Latvian expatriates all around the world find themselves in something of a quandary.
"Part of me both intellectually and emotionally wants to move back. And moving back is the subtext of being in exile," says Andris Straumanis. But "moving back" is something he has always planned to do but kept putting off. He currently estimates his departure date at four or five years.
Though not alone, Straumanis is one of the brave ones. Many foreign Latvians, some now three generations deep in their adopted countries, are caught up in their quotidian lives and find themselves too bound by mortgages, car payments, kids and careers to consider scrapping it all for Riga or Cesis.
Daina Gross is among the crowd that does not foresee a return to Latvia in the immediate future although she does have personal experience of living there. Her family and her stayed in Latvia for up to six months at a time during the 1990s, enough to make her reconsider the wish of all exile communities - to repatriate.
"With my head and partly my heart I felt this is where I should be living - that we are Latvian, we were raised as Latvians in Australia and that this would be the fruit of both our parents' efforts - for their child to feel strongly enough about their Latvian identity to return to their parents' homeland and live happily ever after. But this was, unfortunately, not the case for me," says Gross.
Gross cites a long list of reasons why it was hard for her, even as a native Latvian speaker, to get readjusted. The crime rate in Latvia was higher than in Australia, she had a hard time adjusting to the big city life of Riga. The people also had different attitudes about gender and child rearing, she says, not to mention the gloomy winters and the idea of casting off her Australian roots.
Mara Gulens is also ambivalent about the idea of returning to Latvia. She's a first generation Latvian-Canadian who has played a major part in the Latvian exile community, having hosted a TV program called "Sveiks!" (Hello) and founded a new Internet news magazine called Toronto Zinas that is published in both Latvian and English.
Gulens says that despite Vike-Freiberga's entreaty to return "home" she still doesn't feel at home when she's in Latvia.
"Honestly, I don't think they really welcome us back yet. I'm still viewed as something unique because I'm from the exile community," she says, "so there's always a buffer zone around me because of that."
Gulens has thought about relocating her family to Latvia and is excited by the course the new country is taking but says that for her to get started up in Latvia she would appreciate something more substantial than a cordial state welcome.
"It would be good to have some kind of package that would help me pick my way through - where I could find schools for my kids, for example," she says.
With the start up of a new life, there is always the fear that something could go wrong. For every Latvian who returns to become president, like Vike-Freiberga, or former ambassador to the U.S.A. and current Latvian Institute director, Ojars Kalnins, there are those who have a much harder time readjusting to life in Latvia.

Homeward bound
Many people like Gulens are resigned to letting their lives play out before they get around to moving to Latvia, and leave the emigration to pensioners and adventurous young Latvians with little to tie them down.
She also predicts that the last wave of return-journey emigrants from Latvia's 200,000 strong exile community will most likely take place because of the EU accession.
"With the EU accession there'll be one last wave of people going back, and that will be it," she says.
Ingrida Erdmanis is one of those likely to take the huge step of trying to start a new life for herself in Latvia. She comes from the same Minneapolis community that Straumanis comes from, and though she didn't marry a Latvian, her husband is now fluent in the buzzing Baltic language. Erdmanis runs a Latvian folk dance group that gathers each week at the Estonian House in midtown Manhattan.
"I think it's a very patriotic thing to do," she says of relocating to Latvia and adds that she and her husband may be doing just that in a few years' time.
But Adam Rang, a 17-year-old student from Chichester, England, is even more gung ho about moving to Riga. He says its his first destination after he graduates school.
"My parents joke that I'll be the only one moving east after the EU accession," Rang says.
What is interesting about Rang is that he is only one quarter Latvian, and can only speak a smattering of the language. Despite this, he grew up in an extended Latvian-British community and feels Latvia calling.
"Latvia's a beautiful country. Riga's got a beautiful nightlife - something very different to what we have here," he says.
Rang, who says receiving lessons in Latvian would greatly benefit him once in Riga, is inspired by Latvia's transformation since regaining independence. Being part of that energy is what has piqued his interest in the country.
Ironically, Andris Straumanis cites Rang's inspiration to "move back" as his own.
"My personal desire to move back to Latvia comes from the wonderful feeling I get when I am there," Straumanis says.
"There's always something new. There's always change. It's such a kinetic environment. I would love to be part of that."