Here’s my number, so call me…at your peril

If meeting a Latvian on the street is a bit like running the gauntlet, speaking to one on the phone is more like running into a brick wall. Usually you end up playing the role of both caller and receptionist. When you phone most companies in Latvia, you’ll end up having a conversation along these lines (pardon the pun):

Brrrring… brrrring…

Receptionist: Jā? (This ranges from bored to angry – either way, you’re not off to a good start)

Me: Uh, hi. Do you speak English?

Receptionist: (Patronising sigh) Of course.

Me: Is this ‘Happy to Help Communications’?

Receptionist: Jā.

Me: OK. Is Janis there please?

Receptionist: No.

Me: Do you know when he’ll be back?

Receptionist: No.

Me: Right. Can I leave a message for him?

Receptionist: Jā.

Me: Can you just tell him Linda called? I have a few questions about the document he sent me so I need to talk to him. Can you ask him to call me back? He has my number.

Receptionist: (amazingly quickly for someone who should have been writing that down) Jā.

Me: Great. Thank y…


As you stare at the dead phone in your hand, you wonder if Janis will ever get your message. But as there is no voice-mail in Latvia, you just have to take your chances and put your faith in the little ray of sunshine who took your message.

I suppose the upside of this approach to answering the phone is that there are probably very few sick days due to sore throats or laryngitis. Presumably, it also saves on staffing costs as the ‘Dial zero to speak to a customer service representative’ option is the last resort of only the truly desperate.

Carol Beer – Trained in Latvia?

Alternatively, you could try sending an email. The response will usually make you wonder why the recipient hates you so much but at least you’ll know they got your message. I’ve struggled through many a lesson of polite email English with my Latvian students and the only question they ever ask is ‘why?’.

They just don’t see why anybody would say ‘Would you mind doing…’ or ‘I was wondering if you could…if it’s no trouble…’, when you can just say ‘DO IT.’ It takes less time, there’s less confusion and of course, there’s the added bonus of the person on the receiving end curling up into a ball and having a little cry.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a student. She had finished her course and done the exam but had missed the lesson with the results, feedback and certificates. The subject of the email was ‘I’m interested in test results’. I clicked on it expecting to see a ‘Sorry I missed the last lesson but I was wondering if you could tell me the results in an email. Kind regards, Ginta.’ or something like that. But no, ‘I’m interested in test results’ was the beginning and end of it. She hadn’t even written her name.

But optimistic Irish girl that I am, I sent her back a very nice email, telling her congratulations – she’d passed, giving her her result and informing her that she could pick up her certificate at the school any time that suited her. Expecting at the very least a ‘Thanks’, I was rather dismayed (but not altogether surprised) to receive absolutely nothing. It was like emailing into a black hole.

A rather worrying side effect of all this is that when somebody is nice to you, you feel pathetically grateful. If a shop assistant smiles at you or a customer service person offers to help you (things that would be considered normal or the bare minimum in any other country), your mind starts taking a little wander down crazy street. You picture yourself becoming facebook friends, going for drinks and chewing the fat (quite literally in Latvia), or maybe even going on a little trip together… And all because they said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’.

All things considered, maybe it’s better if they keep glaring and speaking in monosyllables… and I’ll try to keep what’s left of my marbles.

About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
This entry was posted in Humor, Humour, Latvian people, Rudeness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to Here’s my number, so call me…at your peril

  1. Tom Sendez says:

    Hi Linda, great job writing the blog. It’s funny, hilarious and so true. As Latvian living abroad, I find the level of truth in your words to be 100%.
    Don’t even think about changing your sarcastic attitude towards way of living in Latvia, or you will miss a follower.

    I will be saving your phrases as a GoldStandard of describing the way Latvians live and behave to other people. You basically summarized everything that is happening in all countries of post-USSR era.

    Living abroad I have quickly accustomed myself to the western style of living especially in UK. With all its politeness and proper civilized attitude to people. I have same feelings now when I get back to my country, facing rudeness, ignorance, arrogance, sometimes pisses me off, sometimes make me laugh.

    Even then, I feel you when you describe yourself being changed by Latvians way of life and feel a bit of proud, that Latvians identity managed to accumulate in you a little bit.

    And by the way, the ‘lard and grey peas’ is my favorite dish :)))

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Tom, thanks so much for your comment! And don’t worry, I’m not planning on changing my style any time soon 😉 I’m not sure I could if I wanted to! There’ll be one last post before Christmas I think so you can keep an eye out for it 😉 Hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year wherever you’re spending it – and manage to find some lard and grey peas if you are abroad 😉 Linda.

  2. Maria says:

    “Emailing into a black hole” – that is just so spot on! How many times have I not thought that during email communication with Latvians? I’m so glad to discover it’s not only me! 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful blog, lots of interesting reading about my home country for the time being! I’ll be sure to pop in again! 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Maria, great to hear from you! Glad you can identify! How long are you here for and what brought you here?? Linda.

      • Maria says:

        Work brought me here, I suppose (and curiosity;-)), I work as a translator for a company here in Riga. Been here since April only, and so far I have no plans on leaving. 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        Cool, hope you’re enjoying it! There are certain things I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to but I’m still trying – it’s been almost 3 years now! Are you fluent in Latvian?

      • Maria says:

        I wish I was, but no, I’ve only just started to learn the language – and let’s say progress has been slow so far. Luckily my work doesn’t require Latvian language skills, so I get by … Yes, I suppose no matter where you go, there will always be some things in your new country that you just can’t really get used to – but it usually gives you a new perpective on your home country too!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Very true! I guess I always took the Irish sense of humour and banter for granted when I lived there – I thought everyone was like that 😉 My progress in Latvian has been pretty abysmal. I know lots of words – just can’t put them into grammatically correct sentences!

      • Maria says:

        Yes, it makes you appreciate the good things, but also see the things that are not so good. I’ve been living abroad since 2008, and whenever I go back home (to Sweden that is), it’s always with mixed feelings. But it sure is always interesting to see how different things can be in countries that are so close geographically!

      • Expat Eye says:

        That’s true too! I feel much safer walking the streets here than I do in Dublin for example – especially on Friday and Saturday nights. There’s good and bad in every country I suppose! Living abroad certainly makes you more aware of that fact…

  3. Justin says:

    I have stumbled across this blog just last night and keep going back through all your posts to see what you wrote. This is sooo Funny. I am from NY here in the USA. I studied in Estonia and have spent some time in Latvia. I have some Latvian friends and everything you say with regards to smiling, small talk, email and phone conversations is too true. I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. I think some Latvians thought I was a crazy person. I’ll be sure to follow this from blog from now on. It’s just too amusing. I was in Riga this past April visiting a friend and was reminded how different our cultures are with regards to how open we are and how closed they seem.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Justin, thanks so much for your comment! I felt like I was going crazy too before I started writing this, then I had so many people say to me that they felt exactly the same way! Plus, I’ve almost been run over by around 18 wobbly, unsmiling, unapologetic local cyclists today so I needed a positive comment! Hope you keep reading and keep identifying with it! Linda

  4. Džuris says:

    I really enjoy your diary 🙂

    Few comments on these topics:
    If I were receptionist I’d do the same – I’m instead annoyed of people needing two minutes to get the pen and paper and 2 more minutes + 10 repetitions to write something like “Jānim: Linda called. Call her back.” In such situations I listen the message, say “Labi, visu labu!” and write it down after the talk so the caller shouldn’t wait and spend the money for the call. I think it would be inpolite to make someone wait while I write…

    Actually we usually ask in a very polite way. Most common form to ask something is “could you … ?” (“vai jūs varētu … ?”) or “can you” (“vari … ?”) to more familiar persons. Also quite used is a more polite request form which is rarer in English – “couldn’t you … ?” (vai jūs nevarētu …?). I this case where “no” is attached to varēt/can it would also be ok in English, but we attach it to anything like “vai jūs nepadotu cukuru?” – “could you not-pass me the sugar?” I don’t think you do that in English 🙂

    There are two more “polite” unances which you might have missed.
    1) Unlike in English, we have both plural and singular forms of second-person personal pronouns. If I address a single person in plural form, that’s already the polite way. Like “padod āmuru” (“pass me the hammer”) would be considered as an order, while “padodiet āmuru” (also “pass me the hammer”) would be a polite request. However be warned that the plural form is only used in a more distant relationships like talking to a stranger (unless it’s a kid) or teacher-student interaction, but not among friends or colleagues.
    2) We have moods (izteiksmes) for verbs. The polite/unpolite nuance might also be hidden in whether one uses subjunctive (vēlējuma – wish) or imperative (pavēles) mood. That’s one more detail that could easily be lost in translation. For example, “Ja es ietu” = “If I were to go” while a student might just translate it to “If I go”.

    Finally, about the emails. As you see – I’m into long and detailed writing. However, most latvians are somehow unused to the internet, so they tend to write very short emails pretending it’s an SMS (“pretending they’re texting” if that’s more familiar form for you) or it’s some telegram/ pager message… I have sometimes felt the same as you did when I write a long and detailed e-mail to lecturer and get back four word answer.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Dzuris, thank you for your (lengthy) comment! 🙂 I agree that certain things might be lost in translation and that my Latvian isn’t good enough to pick up on the finer points! I know that you have a formal and informal ‘you’ which we don’t have in English. Also, that negative question structure – we wouldn’t say ‘couldn’t you’ but maybe ‘ I don’t suppose you could…?’ I had fun trying to explain this one to some students yesterday!

      And like you, I hate writing a nice text or email and just getting back ‘ok’!

      Thanks again for your comment and keep reading! Linda.

      • Juris says:

        So actually noone uses that “couldn’t” thing in requests?

        It’s just that I intended to write that you don’t use the “couldn’t you”, but checked on google and found:
        and in the request part there is “Couldn’t you help me with this for just a second?”

        Am I getting something wrong?

      • Expat Eye says:

        You can use it but I think more people would ask ‘could you…?’. To me, ‘couldn’t you…?’ implies that you think the person is going to say no!

    • Bob Lewis says:

      Hmmm! After that I’m even more glad that I gave up trying to learn Latvian.
      Makes me wonder how I ever learned English……!

  5. Your blog is brilliant, Linda! :)) I wish some (lets be honest-most) of my Italian friends would read it ( pitty they don’t understand any English), in order to understand that it is not really me, but my Latvian mentality, what makes me so, “unfriendly” in their eyes time to time! 🙂

    I can confess, that after I had spent some time living outside of LV, being in Latvia, even for me- not realy people person- can sometimes be frustrating, especially the first days after arrival.. But I adopt very fast, ha ! 😉

    If it calms you down or makes you feel a bit better, I can say, that as hard as it is for you to accept Latvian frigidity, for the most of us, is hard to accept other cultures’ warmth and openness, what involves all your described things: small talks, smiles, kissing (ok, this is my “italian life” pain), fast friendship, etc.

    Keep writing! 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Oksana, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you like the blog! I guess I’d never really thought about how the rest of the world must seem to a Latvian – crazy, smiling faces everywhere, arms outstretched to try to grab you and hug you – scary stuff indeed!! I hope you survive ‘Smile at a Latvian’ Day! 🙂 😉

  6. $name = $_POST['name']; says:

    Hi, Linda, great blog, love the way you write. I’m not too polite because I don’t see the point. How can you determine @ which people you should smile, wish a nice day or offer something? You can’t do that to all people you walk by, can you? In Ireland you smile and wish a nice day to every1? Don’t think so. So, what is your [sorting] algorithm to determine when to smile or say something to a stranger?

    I can see myself to smile @ my friends and talk to them some small talk, but to strangers for no reason at all? No, thanks. If I would do that, then I wanted to be consistent and so I had to smile like all the time while I’m walking somewhere. And, if I did that, it would be fake. In my opinion, fake politeness is more rude than no politeness @ all.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha, only a Latvian would try to come with a formula to decide who to be nice to!! 🙂 I don’t really see the problem with smiling! It makes you feel better and you’re probably brightening up somebody else’s day too! I guess that’s why there are Irish bars all over the world – we’re known for being hospitable and friendly! I’m going home next weekend though so I’ll keep you posted on how many people actually smile and say hello to me – maybe I’m remembering things with rose-coloured glasses 🙂

  7. Luize says:

    Hey Linda! I really enjoy reading your blog and it’s interesting to see how we, Latvians, are perceived from a foreigners’ point of view!
    I think it’s just our culture – Latvians are not raised to smile at strangers on the street and if somebody does that, he’s viewed as a weirdo.
    In addition, when I was a kid my parents taught me not to talk to strangers because they might be pedophiles!! 😀 But overall – we are nice people, it just takes some time to get close to us 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Luize, thanks for the comment! It’s true. It takes a while to get to know people here but when you do it’s usually worth it! PS your parents sound like very sensible people 🙂

  8. Pingback: Solipsism, or am I a figment of my own imagination. | Englishman in Italy

  9. Latvian girl says:

    It shouldn’t be that surprising that Latvians appear grumpy or whatever, given that the average winter lasts 6 months and the average monthly salary is what you’d earn in Ireland in a week. Also, while a lot of points you’ve made are fair, there is some sort of ‘holier than thou’ / condescending attitude coming through your posts. Try looking behind superficial stereotypes and generalisations and you might just surprise yourself how friendly Latvians really are once you get to know them and what a little gem of a country Latvia really is.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Latvian girl, thanks for your comment! I’ll try to respond to some of your points! First of all, the blog isn’t meant to offend so I’m sorry if it has. It’s supposed to be a (hopefully) light-hearted view of some of my experiences here. Of course, I’ve had positive experiences here and I do have quite a few Latvian friends. However, if I wrote about a really nice chat I had with my friend or the time an old lady smiled at me on the bus, it would be a very different blog. I doubt you, or anyone else, would be reading it – let alone commenting on it! It’s also not meant to be a travel advisory – people can visit the Latvian Tourist Board website for that sort of thing. I am planning on seeing more of the country this year though – if the weather ever improves! – so more on that later!

      Ok, next point. Yes, the weather here is terrible and definitely brings out the worst in me so maybe that comes across in what I write. But bear in mind that it rains in Ireland pretty much all year long. At least you guys normally get a summer; we don’t even have that to look forward to. We think 3 days of 20 degree weather is a heatwave!

      And finally, the money. Of course the salaries in Ireland are much higher – now. However, if you did a little research, you’d realise that it wasn’t so long ago that a lot of Irish people lived in real poverty. My mother grew up in a 2-room stone shack in the South of Ireland, with no electricity or running water, and 9 brothers and sisters – so hardly what you’d call the lap of luxury. Half of her family had to leave the country to find job opportunities in much the same way Latvians are doing now. It wasn’t always rosy and hardly is at the moment either with the current economic crisis. However, I still like to think that even though people had nothing, they’d smile at you, wish you a nice day and offer you something they could barely afford themselves. So I don’t really buy the weather/money excuse, sorry!

      In response to my ‘Crazy in Love’ post, I did actually receive some very interesting comments and articles which really gave me an insight into why people are the way they are. I’m always interested in learning more about a culture and its people so please, keep the comments coming!

  10. Lasma Kokina says:

    Your blog is awesome. 🙂 If anyone can describe what it’s like to live in Latvia in a hilarious way, it’s you. As a Latvian living in Scotland, I so know what you’re talking about. Please keep writing! 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Thank you so much! Sometimes I wonder if I’m going too far but it’s really great when Latvian people find it funny! How do you find living in Scotland in comparison? 🙂

      • Lasma Kokina says:

        No, you’re describing things the way they are, and doing that in a very witty way. 🙂 To be honest, I found many things you describe here very frustrating before I managed to develope a more light-hearted/let’s make a sarcastic joke about it attitude and accepted Latvia the way it is. Having said that, I can’t imagine spending my life there.
        Scotland, as you might imagine, is very different. It’s odd in its own way, and I could write a book about all the crazy stuff going on here, honest! 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        Maybe you should! I certainly find writing very therapeutic! It definitely helps to be able to laugh at yourself and the situations you find yourself in – if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry 😉 I hope you enjoy your Scottish adventure! Do you find the people hard to understand??

      • Lasma Kokina says:

        For some reason, I can’t reply to your most recent comment. I have considered writing about it, but I don’t like anonymous writing, so I’m still unsure if I want to share all the craziness with pretty much everyone. Maybe I will eventually share some of it. 🙂 It’s a bit different for me, as I more or less knew what to expect, so there were no major culture shocks. That being said, I have experienced some really odd behaviour. For example, a random guy started following me around the local shopping centre, and when I walked out, he kept following me, saying that he just had to say that I have nice perfume. Mad!

      • Expat Eye says:

        Hmm, how nice?! In a creepy, stalker-ish sort of way!!

  11. AA says:

    On the one hand I feel sorry for your bad experience with impolite people. I’m not sure whether it’s the climate, politics or what that makes us,Latvians, so grumpy, but it really sometimes is annoying. On the other hand, I hate when I hear fake smile and fake politeness, which is very typical for example in UK. So I’m not really sure which situation is better. 😀 However, I wish you a pleasant stay in Latvia 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Thank you! I haven’t had all bad experiences in Latvia but enough to warrant a post on them! Also, I don’t really think it is fake in the UK. I think people are genuinely friendlier and more interested in people – or maybe just nosy!

  12. Pecora Nera says:

    I dread phoning anyone in Italy. I had to call a doctor to book a medical for my Italian driving licence. I think the appointment is booked for Monday but I could be wrong..

    Today I tried to phone SDA a parcel delivery company. It appears that they think my address doesn’t exist. My Amazon parcel is sat somewhere in Italy. SDA has a helpline. unfortunately the number doesn’t exist. Even Mrs Sensible couldn’t get it to work. SDA is part of Poste Italia the company that causes grown Italians to cry. I think it will be quicker to ask Amazon for a refund.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Curses – you almost made me spit out my wine laughing! Your address doesn’t exist, phone numbers don’t exist – maybe it isn’t everyone else…maybe it’s you (cue Twilight Zone music – showing her age now)

      • Pecora Nera says:

        I have just pinched myself and it hurt so I must exist. The gas / Electric and Taxman have found me.

        Google can find me,Berroni+Province+of+Alessandria&gl=it&ei=qatMUazwDeve7AaJhIHwBQ&sqi=2&ved=0CIcBELYD

        The delivery driver thought, it is Friday afternoon, stuff this for a game of soldiers, I think I will just tick the can’t be bothered box, and go home for a cup of coffee and a pizza

      • Expat Eye says:

        Way ahead of you on the pizza and one glass of wine down already! I love Friday evenings! That is a bloody long link – I can see why the delivery man might just think ‘sod it’!!

      • Pecora Nera says:

        Our village consists of 10 houses 14 old people 6 dogs 30 chickens and one crazy Englishman

      • Expat Eye says:

        I like the way you put yourself after the dogs and the chickens 🙂 Very modest of you! Take it you didn’t get your sticker today then?

      • Pecora Nera says:

        Nope, but I have an appointment for the medical. I was going to write a post but I thought I would drown my sorrows first. And the medical should make a good part 2 to the Driving Licence fiasco.

        Do you have problems with driving licences?

      • Expat Eye says:

        To my eternal shame, I don’t have a driving licence. And even if I did, I don’t think I’d drive here. The drivers are terrifying. Even when you’re on the path you’re not safe. I saw a guy reverse the whole way up a (quite long) street when I was walking home this evening. But the Latvians tell me the Italians are far worse… 🙂

      • Pecora Nera says:

        The Italians are pazzo. The further south you go the worse the driving gets. Palermo in Sicily is very bad, however Naples is by far the worse place I have ever driven in.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Maybe the Latvians are right then. Or maybe you should visit Riga! Oh, and I remember one Italian word I know – penultima – as in this drink is always the penultima – I like the Italian way of thinking!

      • Antuanete says:

        Friend of mine who had her Italian friend visiting Riga said that his driving experience in Latvia was awful because he was trying to drive like in Italy, i.e., cross the street under red light because “he was feeling that he has the right to do that and in Italy everyone would see and understand that”. Unfortunately Latvian drivers were looking at traffic lights, not at poor Italian man 🙂

      • Expat Eye says:

        I hope he survived the experience!

  13. traveller says:

    Rationed kindness is a valuable commodity. Think about how much happier it makes you when it’s a rare gift rather than the norm:)

  14. Well described! The feeling of cultural isolation as an expat English teacher is a pretty bizarre, for sure – you captured it well 🙂

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