When I lived in Ireland, I had just one job. I was a copywriter in an advertising agency. After almost 3 years in Latvia, this now seems rather lazy. Here, I freelance for 3 English schools. I travel the city every day teaching Business English and General English, groups and individuals from beginner to advanced level. I’m a presentation consultant. I do the odd voice-over gig. I have my own company in which I fill every position from CEO to Marketing Manager to Debt Collector to Proofreader to Teacher to Tea Girl. And yet, somehow, I have exactly 3 lats and 31 santimes in my bank account at the moment.
Actually, this isn’t strictly true. In another account, I have money. But I don’t think of this as my account. This is essentially my landlady’s account as whatever money goes into it, goes straight into her account at the end of the month. (At least one of us is making easy money.)
I remember when I got here first, I thought everything was soooooo cheap. I couldn’t understand how a Latvian could sit in a cafe and not buy anything when a cup of tea was less than a lat. Now I cling to every santime as if my life depends on it – it kind of does. You’ll find me shuffling around in my dressing gown in the semi-darkness of my flat; obsessively touching my radiators to see if the heating has gone off yet so I don’t have to pay the outrageous heating bill this month; hovering over my mobile phone waiting for the ‘battery full’ message that means I can plug out the charger and save half a santime on my electricity bill. I can make myself feel better about all of this by pretending I’m doing it for the environment but really, I’m just being tight.
I suppose, in a way, it’s a good thing. It certainly makes me think more carefully about how I spend my money – something that never really crossed my mind in Ireland. In Latvia, I actually know how much things cost. I look for discounts. I buy ‘own brand’ products. I swipe my loyalty card every time I go to the supermarket to see what’s on special offer. (I did a happy dance in Rimi today when I discovered there was around 80 santimes off Heinz Beans. My main worry now is that I’m going to turn into a slice of beans on toast.) I’m forced to ask myself difficult questions like ‘Do I want that bottle of wine or do I want to eat for the next 3 days?’ Of course, the wine wins every time but I feel very sensible just asking myself the question. In short, I’m a much wiser (and thinner) woman than I once was.
One of the main problems in Latvia is that everyone wants to improve their English but nobody wants to pay for it. So you’ll get an email from a friend along the lines of ‘Could you have a quick look at this presentation? I’ll buy you a pint!’ You click on the attachment to find a 25-page document in which someone has taken a machete to the English language. 25 hours (and a lot of new grey hairs, sweat and tears) later, you send it back. The pint never materialises.
An introduction to a Latvian in a bar is also something to be treated with caution.
Janis: So, what you are doing here?
Me: I’m an English teacher.
Janis: (now with jackpot symbols in his eyes) Oh, maybe you can help to me! I want to improve English. Is not so good now. Please, correct me if I making some mistake.
Me: (busying self with pint) Mmm hmm. How’s your weekend going so far?
Janis: Oh, is very wonderful. In afternoon, I was walked in forest. I had been picked up some mushrooms and berries. After then, I go to river. There I catched some fishes and then I rided my bicycle to home. My mother was cooking them for the dinner. She is very good cooker… Did I made some mistake?
Me: Nope. That was perfect.
Much as I love what I do, I don’t do it for love alone. A girl has to keep herself in beans somehow. Now I just need to find a bottle of wine for less than 3 lats and 31 santimes…