I have lived in Latvia for the past few weeks, and have spent more than three months visiting the country over the past seven years, during which time I lived in Guernsey and Brighton with my Latvian ex-girlfriend.

This is by no means an authoritative piece on Latvia, its people or its culture.

However, I am an observant chap and wish to offer a few of my thoughts about a country with which I have fallen in love. This piece therefore contains personal experiences and judgements that may not resonate amongst all readers. Of course there will be exceptions to the generalisations I am making; this is the nature of generality. If you disagree strongly, which I don’t think you will, I want to hear from you.

The island of Guernsey has – or had, pre-Covid – roughly 3,000 Latvians living and working in Guernsey. That is (again, roughly) 1 in 20 humans on Guernsey originating from that nation. Quite the diaspora, eh?

My first impression of Latvians. Grumpy-looking women with dyed-red hair serving fast food in St Peter Port, Guernsey. That was the totality of my exposure to the country until I was 19 years of age, at which time I met a Latvian with whom I became close, eventually visiting her home country each year for one or two weeks at a time. Meeting the family, I was blown away by their hospitality and generosity, which I continue to be spoiled by to this day.

This carries us to insight number one. Latvians have a cold exterior, a public face, which shows no emotion. In the UK, southern England foremost, the public face often wears and speaks transparently meaningless smiles and pleasantries. If you smile an unsolicited smile at a stranger in Latvia – a mistake I used to make once upon a time – it will be returned with a look of concern and of confusion. Where did he escape from?

Frittering away smiles to strangers for no sensible reason cheapens the currency of happiness. Whether it is politeness, a learned behaviour, or fakeness, smiling to strangers is just not present in their social sphere. I’s great. Smiles actually mean something.

Anyway, the cold public face bears no resemblance to the warmth with which Latvian friends and family treat you in private life. Displaying disingenuous emotion to strangers and acquaintances does not determine genuine goodwill or friendliness. They are quite honest and immediate with their emotions, I find. They do not pretend to feel something they do not, or fake a face. Your waitress will sigh loudly. Your friend frown openly. Reactions are gloriously unfiltered.

The whole “I am offended” schtick is not a viable category in Latvia. Nobody cares. Nobody cares. Mother-in-law was asked, “Are you pregnant?” Catastrophic blunder. Shrugged off, without the slightest hint of offence. A friend tells me outright he doesn’t like my hairdo, because that is what he thinks. Latvians are reserved but do not reserve their thoughts and opinions for family and friends. Why should they?

Latvia has had a modest amount of Covid-19 cases. My Latvian friend thinks it is because “Latvians are calm.” Though I have no (publishable) opinion on Covid-19, I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment. Latvians are calm. Centred. Almost everything is an understatement. Everything is ‘labi‘ or ‘normal’. They are chill in attitude and demeanour, though by no means lazy. They do not rush things; they do not panic. They get jobs done. They do the jobs in Guernsey that locals do not want to do.

Latvians have honest, old-school, straightforward tradespeople, likewise with their work ethic.

(Disclosure: incoming personal vendetta here. Bear with me. There is insight to be had from it. I Promise.)

I visited three dentists in Guernsey in the last five years. All three charged me upwards of £100 in the first consultation to gawp at my teeth and tell me they need fixing, without actually fixing a single one. I happen to know my teeth need fixing already: they resemble a bag of mixed nuts; they ache, throb, and disrupt my eating and sleeping.

The first dentist I could not bear returning to, truly extortionate. The second I returned to once, and he botch-jobbed me a molar for my troubles. The third I told outright: I am not here to be told I need my tooth fixed. I will not leave here without having my tooth fixed. I want the blasted tooth fixed.

I left £100+ lighter, with a three-visit plan to fix three teeth, totalling many hundreds of pounds. My nagging tooth remained unfixed and aching.

Latvia. I go to an old dentist, in a small office inside a sports school of all places. He sees me out of hours at last minute. He arrives on his bicycle, late, unlocks the school and inspects the sorry state of my tooshy-pegs. He fixes no less than three teeth, in one go, for little more than €100. He deserves his tip. I leave without being able to feel a square inch of my face.

Latvian tradespeople – certainly outside of the city, anyhow – trade with time, favours, produce and gifts as much as they do money. One of my jobs on a farm in Cēsis was insulating a loft, with sheep’s wool, which was traded with the neighbouring sheep farm for carrots. How old-school is that? “What did your insulation cost?” “Carrots.”

Latvians are hands-on and resourceful. Men have a knowledge of carpentry, cars, and cookery. I spent an afternoon on a lake with some friends, drinking and eating from the barbecue onboard our rented boat, and the engine malfunctioned. It was brought to berth by the side of the lake, in some of Latvia’s typically pristine forest, where a fire is lit, and a workbench fashioned out of wood which the engine was then mounted on. The gents dissembled it, stood around it, discussed it, and after a few drinks and hacking at it from a few different angles, they manage to fix it.

Latvians are civilised. I was shocked to see chairs left outside restaurants and bars in the capital city Riga after closing time. This is the biggest city in the three baltic states, yet they can trust its 1.5 million inhabitants enough not to throw, steal or otherwise damage the chairs left outside, not even chained to something secure. Unthinkable in Britain, even in smaller towns. Even Guernsey. I have walked home between 1am and 3am multiple times in Riga, by myself, encountering unchaperoned women en route, and have witnessed no trouble. You see primary school kids running and riding around the streets without a parent in sight.

(Quick aside. There are policemen stationed beside the Latvian Freedom Monument in Riga, pictured below. Why? Drunken British men repeatedly pissing on it. A Latvian bouncer I have befriended tells me one of his old haunts has a ‘no English’ policy, because they pester women, drink too much – you know the story.)

Latvians have civic pride. Each time I walk past this monument, and the soldiers who march around and stand sentry beside it, I get goosebumps. For all its faults, innumerable as they are, Latvia has a palpable consciousness of and contentment with the freedoms they enjoy. They have not enjoyed them for long. Perhaps this is why they appreciate them. (Perhaps being spoiled by freedoms is why the British abuse them – pisses on them, even?)

Latvians are not just nationally and spiritually connected through their shared society, language and culture. They are also connected to their land, their motherland, in a physical sense. If you do not farm your own vegetables and animals, you have friends and/or family who do. It is the norm. If you do not have a house with a garden, you have an apartment with a garden in a nearby location. Riga contains the few exceptions.

Take my diet from last week, for example. (Leave it alone, actually, it’s mine!) Tomatoes grown in the house in which I’m staying. Boar hunted from within the forest by the brother-in-law. Pickled cucumbers from the grandmother’s garden, pickled by the daughter. Salmon caught in Scandinavia, brought over to Latvia, traded at the roadside by a family friend. Broad beans grown in the garden. Mushrooms foraged from the forest, cooked with eggs laid by the hens of a friend, garnished with dill from the garden. It is confounding to Latvian-Dad that a person’s diet could be purchased mostly from a shop, which is for fringe items neither growable or tradable.

In Latvia, vegetables – darzeņi, from the word dārz, for garden – are important. In the UK, there are beautiful foot-long cucumbers to be bought; tomatoes are plump, without blemish; pink lady apples shimmer, almost shine; and berries, black and blue, look indistinguishable. These are not darzeņi. These are products, commodities even. Pretty to the eye but watery and tasteless to the mouth. Latvian vegetables don’t always have that same inviting exterior, but the substance is rich and more colourful than their appearance would lead you to believe. Latvians, too.

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