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Living in Valmiera, Latvia

  • 2000-07-27
A businessman volunteer from California is drawn to the north Latvia town of Valmiera each summer, just as the swallows must return to the Mission Capistrano. Memo Merlino reports.

It is comforting and pleasant to see so many young mothers, and sometimes fathers, strolling in town, gently pushing their babies who sit and jabber in their prams. These scenes give one immediately the reassurance that Valmiera is the perfect town for raising children. In fact there are many children living in Valmiera, and they respond with a smile if you smile at them.

Valmiera is a small city with many wonderful parks, interesting architecture of large wooden buildings spared by the fire that consumed half of the town over a hundred years ago. The Russian Orthodox Church in the center of town is a neat and well kept place of worship. Further out the beautiful Lutheran church built in 1283 and the ruins of the castle attest to a glorious past for this city that goes back to the Hanseatic League.

Valmiera is also home to many unemployed factory workers in their mid-40s or 50s, who are victims of both the Soviet system and the market economy. You cannot feel anything else but empathy for these people, who have nowhere to turn, who in some cases have lost their families, and find solace in the bottle.

If you walk around town early in the morning you also see many older women and a few men busy sweeping the streets, which are always immaculate and devoid of trash. These people are quiet, almost resigned to do their job as it was done a hundred years ago, with just a broom of the same kind used then. These people live and care for their community.

Young and old engage in many folkloric activities with their regional and traditional clothes. The little ones, ages 4 to 6 are particularly endearing. The strong cultural background of people living in Valmiera, kept alive during Soviet times, is the fabric of this town's society, and everyone shows up at festivals, or other events.

People in Valmiera are hard working, and understand that this city will thrive if the whole community pulls together. The children are of course the center of attention, and parents are very interested in their education at the many fine elementary and secondary schools. Many children also attend the art school and the music school, both excellent.

From the point of view of a foreigner, there are some downsides as well. The city infrastructure, while being repaired with limited financial resources, is really in disrepair. Walking on the sidewalks can be a tricky exercise in avoiding going down face first.

The housing built during Soviet times, even as recently as 12 years ago, is rapidly aging with very little maintenance going on. The people who live in these buildings, and own their flats as well as the land and the building, have no money to spare to improve the playgrounds for the children, repaint the common areas, or the entire building. There is no new construction of housing going on in the whole city, and there are a few unfinished housing projects left over from the days of central planning. The central heating plant for hot water and winter heating is an environmental calamity, with a large oil burning smokestack that socks the community with pollution, as do other smokestacks around town.

The Gauja River flows calmly and it provides fishing and recreation, with a few white sand beaches, where children flock in the summer months. The woods and forest along the Gauja are pristine, and are a good place for young couples to stroll in the warm summer evenings. The open theater in the woods by the Gauja provides good summer entertainment. The new theater, completed three years ago, is remarkably opulent for the size of this city of almost 30,000 inhabitants.

Valmiera should take pride in itself, for, an outsider can have a great feeling living here, knowing that the streets are safe, people well mannered, and the children absolutely wonderful.