Ah Riga – the ‘Paris of the North’, the ‘Jewel of the Baltics’, and recently voted ‘Europe’s prettiest city’ in a survey by USA Today.
Right now, you’re sitting in your cosy pad in the US, the UK, or wherever, a little starry-eyed. You’ve seen Riga on travel programmes, you’ve read all the guide books and you’ve had your crazy Latvian girlfriend in your ear about it for months/years now. And yes, I am mainly talking to the guys out there because, in all honesty, very few women choose to move to (North)Eastern Europe solo.
I’ve also chosen to focus on ‘Riga’ and not ‘Latvia’ for a couple of reasons:
1. At the risk of offending the million or so people who live outside Riga, let’s face it, the rest of the country is basically forest.
2. With your probably non-existent to limited Latvian/Russian, you don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a job anywhere else. And if you’re going to keep your lady friend, her mum and her grandma in the leopard print to which they’ve become accustomed, you’re going to need a job.
So what are your options in the job market? The way I see it, you have three – set up your own company, teach English, or work for an international company. (I chose a combination of options 1 and 2.)
Working for an international company (Statoil, ATEA, etc.) you’ll probably take home between 800 – 1,500 lats a month, depending on what you do. Working as an English teacher for any of the schools in central Riga, you can expect to earn 7 to 10 lats an hour. If you’re prepared to work 35+ hours a week (not including planning, prepping and admin), you might just make it. If not, you’ll probably DIE.
If you do choose the TEFL route, lessons might be at the schools, at various businesses around central Riga, or out in the middle of nowhere – you’ll have to make your own way there and back, so you can factor in an extra 10+ hours a week walking/taking public transport.
At the end of the month, you’ll be faced with some tricky decisions. And no, I don’t mean your ‘first-world problems’ of ‘Should we go to Paris or Budapest for the weekend, dahling?’ I mean situations like, ‘Damn, we need bread, cheese AND milk, but we can only afford two out of three…’
OK, you’re thinking, I can do that – surely, it’s worth it to live in the prettiest city in Europe…
Let me stop you there. Yes, Riga’s Old Town is beautiful, but unless you’re willing to spend 3/4 of your meagre salary on rent, you probably won’t be living there. No, you’ll be living in what’s known as ‘the quiet centre’ or out in one of the suburbs. If you choose the latter, may god have mercy on your soul. (I haven’t mentioned the other option – living with her mum and grandma – because it’s just too terrifying. There’s a reason the men ran away…)
Me, I’m living in the ‘centre-ish’, around a 20-minute walk from Old Town. I pay 250 lats a month for a one-bedroom apartment, NOT INCLUDING utilities. Depending on how honest or dishonest your landlord/lady is, these vary wildly. In this flat, I’m paying 50 in summer and 90 in winter; plus an extra 20 for TV and internet and around 20 for electricity. In winter, you’ll be paying roughly a lat per square metre for heating so bear this in mind when choosing your pad. (You’ll likely have no control over this, so you’ll be stuck with paying for it for 5-7 months of the year.)
In an effort to give you a more realistic idea of what to expect if you move here, this afternoon I dragged myself out of my sick bed to take a few photos. So, come join me on a little tour of what could possibly be your new home. Please, watch your step because the pavements round here aren’t exactly even, and I don’t want to be responsible for you doing yourself a mischief.
First stop? The local bar/shop.
Here’s where you’ll find all the drunk Russians, standing around the doorway with their mongrels – and their dogs. Sasha, Pasha, Sasha, Pasha and Sasha will not move to get out of your way, so you’ll have to step out into the street to get around them. Once or twice a week, you’ll be treated to the free entertainment of their girlfriends/wives, sometimes with mini-Sashas and Pashas in tow, dragging them away from the bar, kicking and screaming. Having never actually ventured inside, I don’t know if there is a bathroom but mostly, the men seem to drain the lizard here:
Carrying on down the street, you’ve got to watch out for the crumbly buildings – I usually give this one a wide berth.
You’ll be spoiled for local stores.
As the people around here are sweet enough, there’s no need for a local bakery.
In case you’re getting a little tired, you can stop and have a sit down for a few minutes.
Rested? OK, let’s continue. Here’s a quick look at your local hairdresser’s, gym and church. And no, I’ve never set foot inside any of these either.
In case you’re still on the fence, I’ve compiled a little checklist to help you decide, once and for all, if Riga is for you. I was going to start with ‘Are you of sound mind?’ but if you’re dating a Latvian chick, I think we both know the answer to that one already. So, on with the quiz:
IS RIGA FOR ME?
1. Does the prospect of 5-7 months of snow excite you?
2. Are you prepared to have your name ‘Latvianised’?
3. Do you like dill?
4. Do you like lard?
5. Can you cope with people scowling at you/ignoring you/only saying ‘hello’ to you once a day (if you’re lucky)?
6. Are you ready to spend your weekends picking mushrooms or berries in the forest?
7. Are you quick enough on your feet to avoid snot rockets and unscooped poop?
8. Are you prepared to work your ass off for around 1/4 of what you’d make ‘at home’?
9. Do you understand the rules of ice-hockey?
10. Are you willing to accept that tea is the cure for every illness known to man?
If you answered ‘yes’ to five or more of these questions, then maybe Riga is for you.
If not, stay where you are puny Westerner because this place will eat you for (bland, lardy, dill-speckled) breakfast.
Edit – before you comment, read this: