I try to chat to my mother once a week on the phone and, over the course of our conversations, the blog usually comes up.
Me: So, what did you think of such and such a post?
Mammy O’Grady: Well, it was good, but couldn’t you try to be, I don’t know, a little nicer?
Me: You know I hate ‘nice’. Anyway, it really doesn’t matter what I say – somebody will disagree with it.
Mammy O’Grady: Really?
Me: Really. I could write a blog about Latvian recipes and, er, cats, and they’d still find something to argue about.
And based on my experience over the last year or so, this is absolutely true. It seems that I really have managed to create the ‘Marmite’ of blogs on Latvia. To all the Latvians who have no idea what Marmite is, it’s a dark, sticky spread made from yeast extract, with a rather powerful taste. The slogan for Marmite is ‘Love it or hate it’. There is no grey area – much like this blog.
However, in the interest of appeasing my long-suffering mother, and anyone else who thinks I should be ‘nicer’ (pah!), I’ve decided to write a little dialogue based on various comments, reactions and conversations I’ve had since I’ve been here – a sort of ‘Linda vs The Latvians’ if you will.
Me: Hi, I’m Linda. Nice to meet you.
The Latvians: Hi. Where are you from?
Me: I’m from Ireland.
The Latvians: Oh, Latvian people love the Irish! You’re like our brothers, y’know? Your struggles with the English, our struggles with the Russians. We have a lot in common.
Me: I’d never really thought about it, but yeah, maybe you’re right!
The Latvians: What are you talking about? You know nothing of the pain and suffering of the Latvian people. Latvia is THE MOST TRAGIC COUNTRY in the history of the whole world – what could you possibly have in common with us?
Me: Oh, OK. So, I guess that explains why everyone here looks so miserable then?
The Latvians: Well, that and the weather.
Me: Yeah, true. Your weather kind of sucks.
The Latvians: Are you crazy? Latvia has THE BEST WEATHER in the whole world! Cold, snowy winters; hot, sunny summers – why don’t you go home to ‘your Ireland’ and the rain if you don’t like it?
Me: Well, I’m here now… So, what’s life in Latvia like in general then?
The Latvians: Fantastic. We’re over that pesky recession and the rising star of the Eurozone, y’know.
Me: Yeah, I couldn’t help but notice all the BMWs, Porsches and Audis around Riga.
The Latvians: God, you’re so stupid. Latvia is THE POOREST COUNTRY in the world! Open your eyes, foolish Westerner! Try visiting anywhere that isn’t Riga and then you’ll see the real Latvia.
Me: Well, I have been to a few places – Cēsis, Kuldīga, Liepāja, Pāvilosta, Bauska, Rundāle, Jūrmala, Sigulda, Jelgava…
The Latvians: You really are dumb. That isn’t the real Latvia. The real Latvia is hidden among the trees of our wonderful forests.
Me: Oh yeah, the berries and the mushrooms. Right. Anyway… what is it with you guys and all the leopard print?
The Latvians: That’s not us. That’s the Russians.
Me: I don’t know. I’ve seen Latvians wearing it too.
The Latvians: No, you haven’t. It’s 100% the Russians.
Me: Who’s she then?
The Latvians: That’s the Latvian Minister for Culture, Dace Melbārde.
The Latvians: So, how’s your Latvian?
Me: It could be better…
The Latvians: Sigh. Latvian will be very difficult for you. Latvians are THE GREATEST LANGUAGE LEARNERS in the world. Unlike you Irish.
Me: Yeah, I really should start making more of an effort with it.
The Latvians: Why on earth would you do that? You should be learning Russian. Most people here speak it anyway and it will be far more useful to you in the long-run.
Me: But I live in Latvia. I don’t want to learn Russian.
The Latvians: Rightly so. Latvia is THE GREATEST COUNTRY with THE GREATEST PEOPLE in the world. But you’ll never really get to know us.
Me: Why is that? I’ve tried smiling and making conversation with people but most of the time, it’s like talking to a brick wall.
The Latvians: You smiled? What are you? Some kind of idiotic American?! We Latvians only smile when we really mean it. We are not fake like you Westerners with your toothy grins and your ‘How are yous?’ when you don’t even care about the answer.
Me: But I do care!
The Latvians: Pah!
So, there you have it. ‘Proof’ that you really can’t win, no matter what you say. However, if you come to Latvia and you do decide to open your mouth – I advise against it – stick to a simple ‘No, no, please let me pay!’ This is (probably) the one phrase that won’t meet with any resistance.