One woman's deep retreat from the rat race

  • 2009-09-24
  • By Philip Birzulis

RIGA - In these difficult times, a high-flying corporate career would be a dream for many in the Baltics. But at least one person has gone the other way, hanging up the briefcase to go native in a remote corner of Latvia.
The soaring spires and throbbing nightlife of the major Baltic cities has attracted numerous expats since 1991. But as far as she is aware, Marta Ozols is the only Western-born resident of Valka and its surrounding countryside. And at first glance there wouldn't seem to be much for an outsider to do in this economically struggling town on the Estonian border.

From boardroom to backwater

However, Ozols has a habit of making offbeat moves. Raised in an emigre family in Canada, she came to Latvia in the mid-1990's and got an entry-level position with Procter & Gamble, owner of Duracell batteries, Pringles, Pampers diapers and many other gold-plated brands. Within two years, she was heading the behemoth's European HR division.
It is rare for locally-hired people to rise so far and so fast up the ladder. It is doubly unusual for someone without an MBA, who has never held back from telling superiors exactly what she thinks.
"Business is actually really easy," she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. "I was in the right place at the right time with Eastern Europe opening up."

Ozols attracted the attention of headhunters, and senior positions with appliance maker Whirlpool and pharmaceuticals giant Novartis followed over the next decade. Brussels, Milan and Basel were home for several years. But eventually, burnout raised its head. The hours were deadly, corporate ethics dubious and conversations in business class mind-numbing. She squirreled her money away rather than de-stressing on the golf course or the beach, and eventually had just enough to make an escape. About five years ago she purchased and renovated an abandoned house a few kilometers outside Valka, a part of Latvia she knew well because of ancestral connections. Three dogs, two cats, chickens and bees are now also part of the family.

"Before, I spent 80 percent of my life working so I could spend 20 percent of it doing what I like. Now it's the other way around, with 20 percent spent working so I can enjoy the rest," she says.
That doesn't mean Ozols is cashed up and retired at age 45. Her home, a spacious and comfortable place, is filled with antique furniture she has restored. The first rugs are coming off a weaving loom she also fixed up, and she plans to spend winter evenings at a recently acquired spinning wheel. And she does have to worry about making a living. Ozols says corporate recruiters are still calling, but she adamantly refuses to take temporary positions which would see her in funds for a long time for just a few months' work. Instead, she has firmly locked herself into the local economy. Some money comes from teaching English and French and doing translations of documents locals need for the wider world. But more often than not, she barters these services for things she needs. The chicken-coop was built by beneficiaries of her language lessons, for example. And there's simple, good old fashioned friendliness 's she lets the neighbors use her car in exchange for them doing the upkeep.

Keeping it local

This cashless approach to life may offer clues on how many Latvians are surviving the recession. And living like a local has given Ozols an intimate view of the local community. Before embarking on this journey, a Western friend who has spent extensive time residing elsewhere in rural Latvia advised her to "take a low-key approach." Building relationships in Latvia means giving people time to get used to you, rather than rushing over to shake hands with the neighbors on your first day. And after a hesitant start, Ozols says hardly a day goes by now without a neighbor popping in to gossip. They leave bags of apples and mushrooms at her gate as tokens of unspoken affection.

This kind of warmth is certainly not felt by people in Valka towards the government of Latvia, a distant entity which is doing a poor job of explaining the painful decisions it is making. Ozols admits to concerns about where the country is heading, and says that planned tax hikes may necessitate some changes in her life. But she is adamant that this is no temporary change of scene before returning to the "real" world. A self-described introvert, she says she can live without cafes and bars and hasn't been to Riga for 18 months. Apart from socks, her clothing comes from local second-hand stores. She invested part of her nest egg in an apartment building in Valka town, where she says she will move when old age catches up with her in a few decades. In fact, her future is so well planned out that even her car, a diesel SUV with low mileage on the clock, was chosen with an eye on it lasting 20 years.

This lifestyle is obviously not for everyone. But Ozols' approach is a reminder that money is not the only thing that can bring happiness.