Live as a foreigner in Latvia and the Baltics

Officially, Latvia is a western country, closely linked to the European Union. Riga is full of foreigners and tourists. Nevertheless, it is difficult in long term for many westerners to gain a foothold here and live happily ever after. These are some of the challenges foreigners in Latvia face:

      • Long dark and cold winters are depressing for many foreigners.
      • At first glance, people seem cold, almost rejecting. Emotions and your own opinion are not communicated openly.
      • Different rules apply in the world of work and business. Bureaucracy is challenging, confusing and sometimes illogic. Local wages are rather low, but not room rent or restorans, especially in Riga.
      • The language is a big challenge and also a barrier. It may take years to be ready for a real conversation. Many Latvians are uncomfortable with English.
      • In a multicultural relationship, different cultures, role expectations, styles of discussion and ways of life collide. With children, there are often different ideas about raising children and the argument about them.

As an expat myself, I am familiar with all of this. I know about the beauty and thrill of living here, as well about the hardship of Latvian economy and winters. I struggle with the language and the cold water, with cryptic forms to fill in and absurd business rules. But I am still here and I love it! Few countries are so challenging but at the same time so rewarding when you try hard.

There is a lot of organizational and technical advice on the Internet. But after a few years in Latvia when the technical issues have been resolved, some people have found that they find it difficult to feel emotionally at home here. They appear bitter and have difficulty building deep friendships. Some fight with the thought of moving away. Here are some pointers to support your emotional arrival.

      1. Learn Latvian! 
      2. Learn Latvian! No, that’s not a mistake, it’s on purpose! Language is the most important tool to get a foothold here. Most languages make it easy for you to pick up a few sentences and expressions at first. If you go deeper, it gets complicated. It is the other way around with Latvian. The beginning is very difficult and nothing works without studying grammar. But once you get used to the endings and the somewhat weird nature of the expression, it goes relatively easy. There are few exceptions and almost anything can be constructed using logic. But Latvian is not a language that can be learned just through conversation. It takes real effort. For starters, I can recommend the free language courses offered by the Riga city administration. Every sentence is highly appreciated by the locals. 
      3. Culture! The Latvians are a cultured people. Folk song, dance and contemporary art. Learn to dance, paint and take part in their folk festivals. 
      4. LIGO! Celebrate a week in the middle of summer. Best in the countryside. If you don’t know anyone, then Turaida at Sigulda is recommended. 
      5. History! Latvia is deeply connected to its proud and painful history. To understand people, you have to know and understand their story. They still carry the trauma of the Soviet occupation. You can find out more in museums and books. The national celebration days (mainly in autumn) bring pain and pride to life. 
      6. Nature! The sea, swamps and forests are the treasure trove of Latvia. Go outside, there is a lot to discover. A car will make you a lot more flexible. 
      7. Cold water! Get used to it, it’s cold here. Start small, swimming in summer. And then just keep going through the winter. Find a group. And as a reward in the sauna. Wonderful.

Maybe you feel the need for individual support in this questions. I offer tailored advice for foreigners and international (mixed) couples. This can help to understand the locals better, to overcome the cultural hurdles, communicate more efficiently and to find your place in a new country. After all, the Baltic States are a wonderful place to live and well worth the extra effort.