Back in August, the UK’s New Statesman published an article on Riga, arguing that it was becoming a ghost town with out migration, poor social security and lack of investment in infrastructure, coupled with politicians constantly playing the ethnic card to distract people from the real issues in the country.
I didn’t agree with all of it, ghost town sounds fairly wide of the mark and Latvia is far from the only country with politicians trying to distract from real issues by targeting foreigners. However, the comments in response were depressingly predictable. As if to prove the writer’s point, rather than dealing with the substantive issues raised, a lot of those commenting attacked or blamed other nationalities. First up was the blinkered patriot:
U really suck with these comments,Riga is one of the beautifull cities of europe and we have nice culture and nature.Not only Riga but all latvia.Even Uk isnt so beautifull and most countries.We have clean country .Im living in other country but not compare with my darling latvia.I want return to Latvia again
nice nature, yes. Clean country…? Ummm…
Latvia does have wonderful nature. Unfortunately, not all of it is clean or well-maintained.
Worse, the “no one except Latvians can criticise our amazing country” mob were out in force:
A person like Agatha Pyzik, who is Polish and is living now in UK, should not comment things (Latvia,), she has no exact knowledge of.
AGATA PYZIK you are Polish aren’t you? So why didn’t you write about your own ”poor country”, where people aren’t just working for poor money but even stealing and demolishing? I know I just got off topic but, women, know your place!
What next? Scientists shouldn’t comment on Mars, since they haven’t been there and don’t live there? (Especially if they’re women.)
I do agree with one aspect of the comments though, a little bit of exact knowledge would be useful.
One of the recurring themes among the comments was about language.
You have to know language and basic historical facts about the country where you live…
It is the Russians, who invaded the country, who remain, and who can’t bother to learn the language of the country where they live…
it is laughable that a great many of them still cannot speak even basic Latvian, despite it being their host country’s language…
How can you expect to give a political power to people who don’t give a rat’s ass about Latvian language?
Now, you’d think, given such attitudes, that Latvians would be going out of their way to help and assist anyone who takes the time to try and learn or speak a little Latvian, right? Sadly, the opposite is true. The title of this post isn’t a reference to Latvian’s series of noun cases, moods or verb declensions, it’s down to the difficulty of getting native speakers to speak it with you.
A few months back, I headed off to Berlin by bus. Entering the ticket office, I checked the name on the ticket seller’s name badge, to give me an idea of whether I should try Latvian or Russian. She had a common Latvian name, so Latvian language then. The conversation at the bus station went like this:
Ticket seller: Hello.
Me: Es gribu celot uz Berlini
TS: To Berlin? Okay, when do you want to go?
TS: What time?
Me: Pus septinos?
TS: Okay. One way?
Me: Nej. Tur un atpakal.
TS: When are you coming back?
and so on. It was only when we got to the payment stage that she finally switched to speaking Latvian. Now, I know my grammar isn’t the greatest and my accent hardly sounds the most authentic, but I was trying and getting nowhere with someone who clearly understood my Latvian but refused to engage in the language with me. How can I improve if I can’t practise? It’s catch 22.
It’s not just me, my friends here from The UK and Ireland have had exactly the same. My friend has been having Latvian lessons for a while, but when he asked in a bar (HHC, in front of Pulkvedis) in Latvian, the barman rudely laughed at him and said “Man! Just speak English with me.”
Often, there is absolutely zero attempt at understanding any foreigner speaking Latvian. Last week, I was out with my friend in one of the beer gardens in the centre. I’d just finished a Kvass and asked for another. “Vēl vienu” I said. He just looked at me like I was speaking Chinese and said “Uhhh?” My Latvian friend shook her head astonished “He really couldn’t understand that?!” Indeed. We’re at a beer garden, I’ve just finished my drink, what could I possibly be asking for?
It’s not only foreigners speaking Latvian that Latvians are rude and dismissive of. Try and speak Russian and you might often get derisive sniggers. The friend learning Latvian went to the cinema. It was a Russian film, but had some American actors playing the part of Russian people. Rather than applaud their efforts at learning a language which is not the easiest for English speakers, the audience constantly laughed at them.
That’s kinda ironic, since many Latvians who go to Moscow tell me that they are instantly pinged as non-locals and charged the foreigner price for museums and so on.
When Riga tried to introduce a two-tier pricing system for public transport in the city, the former President, Valdis Zatlers, compared it to the times he was charged higher prices in Moscow museums. If Zatlers, a highly educated man who spent the first 35 years of his life in what was then the USSR, can’t speak Russian with an accent which passes as “native”, then it’s not realistic to expect Americans who learned the language later in life to do so, nor laugh at them for trying.
It’s really bizarre stuff. I got paranoid about speaking Russian here, but down in Kazakhstan, no problem. I maybe had to repeat the odd thing here and there, but I was able to communicate. Now, it could be that the mountain air in KZ magically improved my Russian, but it could also be that people made an effort.
Most shocking of all was in Stockholm. I’ve passed A1 level in Swedish so decided to try it there. Given that Swedes have exceptionally good English, I worried that I’d be wasting my time and that people would just switch to English. Not at all. Everywhere I was able to just speak Swedish. The one exception was in a metro station, where she switched to English with me. However she looked like she was from The Philippines or near, so it was possibly easier for her to speak English as well(?)
Incredibly, it’s not only Westerners who get this. I was out with my friend, an ethnic Russian who speaks fluent Latvian. The waitress asked her something in Latvian, she replied in Latvian, the waitress switched to Russian. Oh dear. My friend must have seen my reaction because she nodded and told me that it often happens to her. She tries speaking Latvian, they reply in Russian. It’s a no-win situation.
Despite all of that, I will have a final go at learning Latvian if I stay here an extra year, but just a little bit of cooperation from locals would be wonderful. It’s hard to work up the motivation to speak Latvian with Latvians if they refuse to speak it with you.
In conclusion, speaking Latvian is hard, speaking it with Latvians is harder still.