Human Library (or Where are all the Latvians?)

On Saturday, I woke up with a vaguely uneasy feeling. It took me a few minutes of yawning, stretching and eye-rubbing before I remembered why. The day of the Human Library had finally arrived.

Since I’d decided to take part, my feelings had run the gamut from excitement to nervousness to downright terror. This last was prompted by a conversation with my boss a few weeks earlier.

Her: When are you leaving for England?

Me: Early July.

Her: And when is the Human Library?

Me: The 25th of May.

Her: Ok. Just checking in case somebody decides to kidnap and torture you and we have to cancel your lessons.

Me: It’s good to be prepared.

However, as soon as I got out of bed, a new problem arose. What to wear? I had given the Latvians/Russians such a lambasting in the past. Was there anything I could wear that wouldn’t invite the same? Should I go Irish, or go Latvian in an attempt to blend in? In the end, I decided to go for ‘normal with a hint of Latvian’. Jeans, white top, smart jacket (normal) and black stilettos and red toenails (Latvian)Β to finish the look. I figured the stilettos could also double as a weapon if my boss proved to be some kind of psychic.

Of course my hair chose that day to do its fuzzy thing and a quick look out the window confirmed that the weather wasn’t going to cooperate either. Dull, overcast, windy and about to rain at any minute. Still, there was no way I could back out now so printing out my monologue at the last minute, I left for Galerija Riga, avoiding the temptation to have a nerve-calming glass of wine on the way out the door.

Arriving on the 7th floor, I saw that Oksana, the organiser, had done a nice job of making the space look pretty and inviting.


Everyone was introduced, badges were pinned to clothing and I changed my Irish walking shoes for my Latvian sky-scrapers. There we sat, a motley crew of ‘books’, waiting for the onslaught of chatty Latvians. ‘Blogger book’, ‘bisexual book’, ‘Greek-Catholic Ukrainian book’, ‘exotic book’, ‘street musician book’, ‘famous hip-hop artist book’, ‘Paralympian book’, ‘cook book’ and ‘blind book’ made small talk while we all waited.

At around 1.30, a tap on my shoulder from Oksana informed me that I had my first ‘reader’. Excited, I turned around only to see one of my students, a Russian Latvian, sitting waiting for me. (Let’s call him Sasha as most Russians, male or female, seem to be called Sasha.) To say I was surprised to see this guy was an understatement. Having explained during one of our lessons what the Human Library was about and when it was taking place, he seemed rather reluctant about attending, fearing that ‘the gays’ would try to ‘convert’ him…

Assuming that he’d had a change of heart, I sat down with a smile and we started talking. The reason for his ‘change of heart’ quickly became apparent. While I’d been talking about tolerance, open-mindedness and breaking down stereotypes, he’d heard ‘blah blah blah free English lesson’. 30 minutes of correcting his English later, my shoulder was tapped and with relief, I teetered over to meet my next ‘reader’. Sasha left without speaking to anyone else.


Check out the Latvian shoes…

A sweet, shy girl was waiting for me. She’d never read my blog but was curious about why an Irish girl was living in Latvia. She had a lot of questions which I did my best to answer and we had a very nice conversation, soon chatting and laughing like old friends. I later found out that she was the girlfriend of ‘bisexual book’ and they made a very cute couple. ‘Bisexual book’ had been given the choice by her parents of being ‘normal’ and being allowed to live at home or being bisexual and being booted out. She chose her girlfriend and has never looked back. I feel this is someone that Sasha could have benefitted from speaking to.

My next reader was one of the helpers, a lovely outgoing girl called Dace. She had read the blog as she’d wanted to find out as much as possible about all the books before the event. A well-travelled, well-educated, multi-lingual girl, she was able to see the truth in most of what I wrote about and found it very funny. It was a pleasure talking to her and we swapped stories and experiences for almost an hour.292951_530219713690421_654983613_n

My final reader was a rather serious young man who had never read the blog either. Our conversation went something like this:

Him: It says on the information sheet that you think there are differences between Latvians and other nationalities. What are they?

Me: Have you travelled much yourself?

Him: I have visited ten countries in the last two years. What are the differences?

Me: Well, as you’re so well-travelled, maybe you’ve noticed some of them too. Like how Latvians in general are a miserable-looking lot.

Him: Mmm hmm. What else?

Me: Er, Latvians don’t use egg-cups.

Him: Mmm hmm. What else?

Me: They don’t do small talk. They have a too close relationship with leopard print. They are obsessed with walking in the forest.

Him: Mmm hmm. Thank you. Goodbye.

Me: Er, ok. Goodbye!

All too soon, it was 4pm and time to finish up. I was presented with a goodie bag by Oksana which contained L’Oreal Absolut Repair shampoo, hair masque and hair oil, Maybelline mascara and L’Oreal Nude Magique moisturiser. Thinking that maybe this was a hint and that my hair looked worse than I had previously thought, I was relieved to see that everyone else had received the same.

As the books walked to La Kanna to gorge on snacks and cake, I was left with a vaguely empty, flat feeling. Over the course of 3 hours, I had spoken to 4 people. In total, maybe 35 people had turned up and most of those seemed to be friends or partners of the people involved. As the population of Riga is 750,000, this seemed to be rather a poor showing in my book. My blog has receivedΒ 6,676 views in Latvia alone, many of the viewers having quite strong opinions about it which they are not shy about sharing from the safety of their living rooms, under the cover of their usernames. Couldn’t even one of them have come out and told me what they think to my face?

2013-05-25 14.49.17

Where is everyone?

This was absolutely not a reflection on Oksana. She had promoted the event to within an inch of its life. Posters were placed all over Riga, daily (sometimes hourly) updates were added to social networking sites, and a great location with a lot of foot traffic was chosen. The helpers ran around the shopping centre for three hours, explaining to people what the Human Library was and that it was taking place upstairs. ‘Not interested’ was the response from most people they spoke to. Throw in the fact that a famous Latvian musician was one of the books and this is even more bizarre. It would roughly equate to Bono sitting in the Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre for three hours with not one Irish person bothering to speak to him.

So what’s the explanation? The other books seemed to think that Latvians are too shy and too socially-awkward to have a normal conversation with a stranger without a skinful of booze. I think there is some truth to this. I also believe that this social-ineptness is compounded by an innate lack of curiosity about or interest in other people and their lives, which seems to be a character trait in a lot of Latvian people.

In addition, I suppose an inherent flaw in the concept of the Human Library is that only open-minded, tolerant people attend. Ignorant, intolerant people either don’t realise that they are ignorant and intolerant or are perfectly happy to remain that way.

Whatever the reasons, I live to blog another day. There will be another Human Library and another chance to meet some really interesting people with some truly fascinating stories. Whether or not anyone wants to hear them is in the hands of the Latvian people.

Food for thought

Food for thought

About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
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46 Responses to Human Library (or Where are all the Latvians?)

  1. It is interesting to read that you think Latvians don’t care about others because they don’t really talk to strangers. As someone who considers himself and ethnic latvian – though born overseas – I find I might give the same impression myself. The kernel of truth in your humour… But actually I am very interested in others but I don’t usually like having to talk about myself unless I feel I have something important/intelligent to say -which rarely happens. That may be why so many Latvians have visited your page but are unwilling to meet you in person when they have the opportunity.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha, I’m sure you have plenty of important/intelligent things to say! Yeah, I guess I was just disappointed when I wrote that – I’d hoped to have a lot more people come out and have a chat. And not just with me, but with the other people who were there as well. It was a really interesting bunch of ‘books’ but the turnout was poor. The organiser was actually really happy with the numbers though, whereas I’d anticipated 100+, she’d anticipated 0 so I guess it wasn’t so bad! Of course, it’s the first time it had been done in Latvia too so maybe people just didn’t know what it was about – or what they would say. Then with me, there’s also the English issue. People might not have had the confidence in their language skills. So many reasons! Hopefully the next one (if there is one!) will be a bigger success! Thanks again for commenting. Linda.

  2. I think the Human Library is an excellent idea. Perhaps the good people of Latvia will need a few seesions to get used to the idea of small talk and chit chat, and actually being interested in someone else!

  3. Jude says:

    Ps-hot shoes! Def sitting only haha

  4. I gotta tell you, I was waiting for the outcome of the Human Library. It’d be something I would totally be a part of, I mean, the idea of a ‘human book’ is already exciting to hear! Its a disappointment the event didn’t turn out lively. I should’ve been in Latvia! :p

    • Expat Eye says:

      I wish you had been too! The good news is that it’s been getting a lot of positive feedback from those who were there so hopefully people will be a little braver when the next one rolls around!

  5. Jude says:

    It’s true what they say social media is really good at people thinking they’re connecting while actually being more alone than ever! i can say knowing Linda in real life that is her in the photo, she is legit that witty and she is the best book out there! Now I sound like a crazy fan!

  6. Bob Lewis. says:

    Well, you might have mentioned there was going to be cream cake at the end of it….!
    I did think of coming to it – but then I thought there’d be so many ‘borrowers’ that you’d all be overwhelmed!
    (Plus the fact that if I said I wanted to borrow a ‘book’ for about 10 years I’d have been shown the door!)

    • Expat Eye says:

      Maybe everybody thought I’d be overwhelmed so nobody came πŸ˜‰ And the cream cake was only for the ‘books’ sorry – 3 hours of non-stop talking gives you quite the sugar craving!

  7. Lasma Kokina says:

    Will do. πŸ™‚

  8. Lasma Kokina says:

    I’d totally love to talk you in person. I think it’s not every day you meet a person who has such an amazing sense of humour. Well, at least my being in Scotland stopped me from looking like a creepy Latvian fangirl (I’ve probably read every blog entry!). πŸ˜€

    • Expat Eye says:

      Aw, thank you! I could have done with some more fangirls (or boys!) on Saturday, creepy or not! Even if people didn’t like it, I was hoping for some interesting debates on it! Maybe next time πŸ˜‰

      • Lasma Kokina says:

        Not unless you’re planning a summer trip to Edinburgh. πŸ™‚
        I agree that people are very brave on the internet but not so brave when they have to say the same thing in person. I think it’s ridiculous, and I’m totally okay with using my real name when making comments online. If one isn’t brave enough to say the same thing during a face-to-face conversation, it shouldn’t be said at all, period.

      • Expat Eye says:

        Yep, I’m with you! I think I’ve been pretty open about everything. I use my real name in my comments, the picture really is me and I left myself open to whoever came along on Saturday – turns out, nobody cares! πŸ™‚ I’ll be in England during the summer alright but probably not Scotland! Watch out for expateyeonengland πŸ˜‰

  9. Phew! We’re all glad to hear you’re safe. Maybe your comment about the leopard print relationship hit home…serious guy just needed it confirmed. The program sounds way cool..maybe since it’s the first time and out of peoples’ comfort zones. I second (eighth?) the targeted audience and/or booze..

  10. pollyheath says:

    Very cool experience (glad you made it through without becoming a sex slave). I think, like you said, attendance would have been much higher if you had some alcohol. Maybe at a bar next time?

    • Expat Eye says:

      Not such a crazy idea. We were surrounded by bars and restaurants though as that’s the floor they’re all on. But I guess then people would have to pay for their own drink!

  11. Pecora Nera says:

    Well done for going and being an open book, I am sorry the Latvians didn’t bother to take advantage of the event.

    Brilliant idea from Lady of the cakes.

  12. Aww, I’m sorry it turned out to be a bust but I think it was very brave and open of you to give it a shot. I also agree with Gypsy that people use the Internet to voice their opinions in their comfort zones instead of being able to have a face to face discussion. No one likes confrontation. But what I don’t understand is why people can’t just agree to disagree and freely discuss opinions without judgement or emotion. I’m sure it is easier said than done, but if you start a conversation framed in that manner, and you could be free to have an open discussion, how interesting would that be?!

    Anyway, I definitely would have shown up to be one of your readers! πŸ™‚

  13. Marianne says:

    OH well done, you! Inaugural events can often be rather hit and/or miss, but the main thing is that it happened, you had a few “readers” and next time will be “not so new”.

    Great idea from Lady of the Cakes to hold the next event midweek so that school children can attend. They may even be inspired to hold their own Human Library!

  14. 1WriteWay says:

    Thank goodness you’re alive to talk about your experience as a human book! But how anticlimactic. Like Gypsy, I would have done anything to trip over and talk to you, as well as the other books on display πŸ˜‰ And I also wonder if the safe anonymity of the Internet have made people less willing/interested to make face-to-face connections. I also grew of age in pre-computer times and find it interesting how much people hide behind their avatars. Cowards. I like Ladyofthecakes’s suggestion to arrange for school kids to participate. I’d like to think that kids in Latvia are the same as kids in other countries: curious and unselfconscious πŸ™‚ Glad you are still among the living πŸ˜‰

    • Expat Eye says:

      Me too πŸ˜‰ Thanks so much for your comment. I too find the ‘avatarisation’ of the world a bit depressing. I think we’re definitely losing the human touch. You can walk past any group of teenagers here and none of them are actually speaking to each other – they’re all on their smart phones That’s one of the reasons I like blogging – I get to know so many like-minded people! Even if it is only from my laptop, it’s good to know they are out there! πŸ˜‰

  15. It occurs to me… wouldn’t it be a good idea to hold an event like this during the week and have school classes attend? Maybe kids of between 14-17 years of age? They could talk to the books in groups of five or six. That way, you’d get much more exposure, and you wouldn’t be preaching (only) to the converted, but you young people who are in the process of forming their first independent(?) opinions.

  16. YOU ARE STILL ALIVE!!! ‘Twas a brave thing to do, considering the 6666 views, or however many it was. Sounds like you had a leeeetle bit of fun, at least πŸ™‚
    (I’m not scrapping the obituary till after the second event, just so you know.)

    • Expat Eye says:

      Always good to have it on hand – just in case! It was good fun – just hoped for a few more people to talk to – maybe next time πŸ˜‰ Good to still be here anyway!

  17. noveerotaaja says:

    The first time is always the hardest. Maybe after a few more times it’ll be more attended… Do you already know when is the next Human Library planned? (of course, I could also ask Oksana as I know her myself, small world, but just thought to add the question)

    • Expat Eye says:

      I’m not sure yet! Yes, the fact that it was the first time could also have had something to do with it – hopefully it will just get bigger and bigger! It’s such a great idea and so much planning and organisation went into it. A real credit to Oksana and her team. (Small world indeed!)

  18. rjschutte says:

    This story is so true. it was perfect arranged. A lot of effort was put in this to make it a success. Latvian people still have a long way to go. And if that road is as bad as the real ones, it will even take longer.

  19. Gypsy says:

    Hi Expat Eye,
    I’m not surprised at all by the paltry showing. In fact, I’m very impressed that you agreed to attend as an ‘open book’. And I am strangely proud of you … as if being a follower and posting replies on your page gives me some type of ownership privileges into your success.
    I think today’s society feels a great degree of security in hiding behind the written word and lurking in the fibre optics without ever having to show their face and be accountable for their opinions.
    I say this without judgement, as I am a perfect example. Unfortunately I am old enough to remember pre-computer, pre-internet existence. Even in those days of yore, I preferred to express myself in writing. I remember having a very hard time with confrontation. My Dad had always told me, “If there’s something you can’t talk about, why don’t you just write to yourself?”
    And from the age of about seven, I did. It was a great relief without the hassle of face-to-face confrontation.
    I think the internet today emulates that ‘letter to myself’ concept. It has allowed people who wouldn’t otherwise do so with such bravado to vent, rage, (and unfortunately) disparage. Oddly enough, I have rarely, if ever, felt the need to comment negatively about others online; I still prefer to do so only in letters to myself (that’s the schizo in me … there I go, talking to myself again …). And oddly enough nowadays, at the ripe old age of one hundred and thirty two, I feel that if given the opportunity to do so, I should face people head on (e.g. ‘in person), whether to compliment them or blast them. And I credit that to the many letters I wrote to myself in my youth.
    But I have a feeling society in general is headed in a different direction. Much more comfortable tackling world hunger and the plight of war-torn nations from the comfort of their living room, seated before a screen.
    Unfortunate. Had I been in Latvia, I would have made it a point to go and see you, both to get to know you as an actual living breathing being and to let you know in person how you’ve made me laugh out loud while showing me a foreign land.
    Thanks, and keep it up. Congratulations on having the guts to do so.
    Keep on doing what you’re doing.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and positive comment. It’s much appreciated. I guess I was just kind of mad that so much effort and organisation had gone into it and so few people made the effort to attend. Even people who were actually in the building couldn’t be bothered to go up a couple of floors and see what it was all about. I totally agree with you about the online anonymity craze sweeping the globe. If only more people put themselves out there and put their faces and names to their opinions. The ‘books’ who took part were brave enough to do so – it just wasn’t appreciated by the population at large. Better luck next time I guess!

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