I am appalled at the opinions expressed in a recent letter to the editor: "Visa free-for-all." To say nothing of the ill-informed ranting and misleading information provided, I am concerned that the wonderful citizens of the Baltic countries, my hosts for an enchanting five-year stay, might mistakenly ascribe these views to the greater United States population. Rest assured: This American, at least, appreciates that all parties benefit from a healthy exchange of temporary visitors and long-term residents.
Concerning the scare-mongering point that "three times as many [visas are granted] as 20 years ago," it is also true that far larger numbers of U.S. citizens are reciprocating by relocating abroad. Indeed, if other countries were unwilling to welcome foreigners, I would not be here in Latvia. Nor, I suspect, would the anonymous writer of that letter be in the Baltics. Perhaps, however, it is time for him (her?) to return home and restore at least one job to the local citizenry.
Diana Knox Wolfe
Surely this letter was a hoax, planted to either fill the editor's mailbox or stimulate yet more debate against the U.S.A. in the forum. If it's not, I'm not really sure the author really knew or understood where he grew up. The U.S.A. is founded on immigration, has prospered on the efforts and aspirations of its immigrants and still needs them to survive. Would the Silicon Valley and the technology revolution have succeeded without the huge numbers of skilled immigrants involved? Unless the author is a native American, he too is the progeny of an earlier wave of those who wanted a "new adventure." Maybe he should reconsider his right to re-enter the States.
As for Sept. 11, does he not realize that engagement and openness with the rest of the world (which means letting people come to see and do business with the country and society you are so proud of) will do more to defeat the threat from terrorism than isolationism and turning the States into a fortress? America expects that its citizens will be allowed to visit, study or work in most places in the world; responding in kind to other nations can only be good.
In reference to your article "Buggin out in Baltics" (TBT #396)... What point did that article serve? It's not necessarily that it upset me (many of the things are true), but it rides such a fine line between bad satire and pouting that it's uncomfortable to read. It seems like something that belongs in a college newspaper instead of a major publication. It's not exactly funny, it's not exactly accurate, it's not exactly serious, and it has the tone of a whining child.
Los Angeles, CA
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 American: 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 disconnect 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 (12 years 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!
I recently went to the American embassy in a Baltic capital to take care of some documentation at the prescribed time for citizen services, only to be surrounded by young students vying for visas to the U.S. for summer work. I couldn't help but look at the room full of people, which could be replicated hundreds of times over around the world, and think about the 8 million unemployed Americans - many of them the same age hoping to get the same summer jobs.
U.S. consulates have become like huge Ticketmaster outlets, granting visas to just about anybody who wants "a new adventure" in the States - in fact, three times as many as 20 years ago. Our government doesn't seem the least bit fazed by 9/11, and because of massive out-of-control visa grants and immigration my country looks nothing like the place I grew up in.