Just for a change, I think I’ll start this post on a positive note. I have had some great service in Latvia. However, (yep, here it comes), the problem is that service levels here are so woefully inconsistent. When out and about in Latvia, I would say hope for the best, but expect the worst. In one shop, you might get a friendly smile and a ‘Have a nice day!’ as I did today in Narvesen; in the next, you’ll be wondering what you did to make the shop assistant hate you so much as she scowls and grunts her way through the transaction.
In a bid to stave off the usual comments on this sort of thing, I’ve decided to get in there first.
1. Latvians are not fake like ‘you Westerners’. We only say ‘Have a nice day’, or ask ‘How are you?’ when we really want to know the answer.
Amazingly, the girl in Narvesen today was still alive and kicking when I left. It didn’t actually kill her to smile and wish me a nice day, but it did put me in a good mood. And really, why would anyone prefer being grunted at over a cheery ‘Have a nice day’?
2. Latvians are not fake like ‘you Westerners’. We only smile when we really mean it.
A Swedish man I know here was looking for bar staff a while back. Some interviewees actually said the words ‘You don’t pay me for my smile. My smile is personal.’ Sorry love, but a smile and a little politeness is exactly what you’re being paid for. And in a country where the women are so willing to flaunt their bodies, I find it a little ridiculous that a smile be considered private.
I’m not always in a good mood when I go to a lesson but the student doesn’t need to know that. He or she is paying for a service, just as I am when I go to a restaurant or bar. Leave your attitude at the door and do your job.
3. The wages here are so low. Why should staff do more than the bare minimum?
You have a job. You are being paid to do it, however low the wages. Have a little pride in that and try to do it well. Just by having a job, you’re already better off than some.
I was once in a Burger King in the States . I know, I know, but there was a breakfast burrito that had been calling to me from the billboards for days and I finally gave in. When she said that they didn’t do tea, only ‘joe’, I probably looked a bit disappointed and headed off to get a soft drink instead. The woman behind the counter called out that she could try to microwave me a cup of iced tea instead. It had a bit of a head on it afterwards, but it actually tasted OK. Even though she was probably on minimum wage, she went above and beyond and I’ve never forgotten it. Here I’m pretty sure I would have got a ‘We don’t do tea’ and that would have been the end of it.
Here are a couple of experiences that I’ve had in the last few weeks:
On Easter Monday, I went to a bar/restaurant with a friend. He got there ahead of me and asked what time they were open until. The waitress told him that the kitchen would be open until 10.30 and the bar until 11. When I arrived, we ordered food and beers. As it was a Monday, and in particular, Easter Monday, it wasn’t exactly packed but there were still a few customers. As we ordered our second beers, she told us that they might close early. Hmm, OK. My friend ordered a third beer and some garlic bread (I was still working my way through my second, probably because I was talking too much). When she brought it out, she announced that we had 11 minutes to finish up and leave.
While we were sitting there, she turned away TWELVE customers who’d shown up, saying that they were closed. Will any of them come back? I doubt it. I know I probably won’t.
Then on Tuesday, I met up with a Latvian friend of mine. As she normally lives in the UK, I had the weird experience of feeling more local than a local. First, we went to the excellent Stockpot on Gertrudes iela. Friendly service, great food and a warm welcoming atmosphere – couldn’t be better. After that, it was over to the equally fantastic Muffins and More for a little dessert.
On a beef and sugar high, we headed around the corner to a bar. In the distance, we could see a couple of guys sitting on the front steps. I assumed that they were just customers sitting there having a cigarette but as we got closer, we saw the almost empty bottle of vodka in a plastic bag.
As we went to walk inside, one of them lunged at my friend’s boobs. His friend, by default the ‘good’ guy in this scenario, tried to pull him away, while he shouted ‘I just want to get to know them’ repeatedly in Russian. And this was in broad daylight at around 7pm. Naturally a bit shaken, we went inside where I instantly told the barman what had happened.
Jānis: (Latvian shrug) It’s normal.
Me: It most definitely is NOT normal. You might want to go and get them off your steps before they scare off any other customers.
This was probably the one time in my life that I was willing to wait for a beer but no, he slowly poured the beers and made light of the whole situation.
Maybe for a Latvian, if they go out for food and drinks and eventually get food and drinks, everything is ‘normal’. For me, this was anything but.