Bugging out in the Baltics

  • 2004-04-15
I was surprised to see that only Latvians objected to your "Bugging out in the Baltics," so allow this American to express my dismay at this display of "ugly Americanism."

At the time, I thought it had been written by your "Baltic Exile," who has epitomized to me the quintessential Ugly Ameri-can: won't learn the language, dislikes the culture, disdains the food, etc. I've never understood why such people leave America, where they must feel at home.
So let me itemize some of this American's likes and dislikes about Latvia.
LIKES: First and overwhelmingly, the extraordinarily friendly people and their hospitality, especially once outside Riga. It has been a rare occasion for me to sit on a bench to eat lunch without folks - especially kids wanting to practice their English - coming up to talk or just be friendly. This has resulted in my receiving numerous invitations to stay overnight in family homes - beating a sterile hotel anytime. The low cost of living, at least for Westerners, is great. Outside Riga, there is little traffic, so I could feel relatively comfortable bicycling even on the main highways. The local transport works well (taxis are expensive, but buses and trams are good and cheap). Cuisine? No - but good eats! As I traveled around Latvia I never had a bad meal: good pork, dairy, and plenty of wonderful dill (no ketchup!). The manageable size of the country. 118 - in a country without up-to-date telephone directories or printed timetables, it's invaluable.
DISLIKES: The immense disconnection between the people and the government. The people generally distrust and try to avoid contact with the government (think of the old Russian saying: "God keep the tsar - far away from us!") - and it shows. This may be either the result or the cause of the staggering governmental corruption, dominated by the unreconstructed Soviet mindset of officials. (That will unfortunately plague the country for a generation or more.) The unnecessary ethnic divide, perpetrated by attitudes not yet ready to enter the second half of the 20th century. This is all aggravated by the irresponsible media. The national characteristic: nenoteikts (indecisive, uncertain), which probably explains parliamentary inaction (1years after independence, the "justice" system still follows the Soviet system). Trains - slow, uncomfortable and not as cheap as the vastly superior buses. And a touch of low self-confidence, which may be masked by bravado and disdain. This may be tied to centuries of being oppressed.
LANGUAGE: A category by itself! While hardly mellifluous (that's Swedish - the only European language which is sung), and with such a limited vocabulary that one word may need to cover a range of meanings, Latvia's pronunciation is fairly straightforward (even if the "sk" is a combination impossible for the human voice) and the transliteration is usually sensible (though why Vasington when Osington is much closer?). But, like Latin, its dominating feature is the need to fully structure a sentence mentally before starting to say it, making for a slower, more thoughtful conversation. Now, if only Latvian would follow the lead of Estonia, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc, and end the voice-overs of television imports, and let kids hear the original languages to learn English, German or Spanish!
As Ojars Kalnins of the Latvian Institute has said, if we force all our friends to learn Latvian, we won't have any friends! But as a friend of Latvia, I can at least try!

Tom Pendleton


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