Today’s interview is with Rick, a Dutch expat who is living in Latvia. Rick is from the Netherlands but has called Latvia his home since 2012. We met to speak about his big move and the experiences he’s had so far adapting to life in Riga, from co-founding the food delivery company Ēst – est.lv to navigating the dark and daunting corridors of a local hospital.
Reasons for moving to Latvia
I quit my journalism studies when I was 18 and spent a while writing for a military magazine. I’ve done acting from a young age and have also been a magician so I decided to do camera acting masterclasses. After completing my studies, I got invited to be a dealer by an online casino that had a studio in Latvia. For Dutch people everything beyond Poland is Eastern Europe so you can imagine people’s reactions when I told them. I mean, even I could already picture the guys in black jackets and black Land Rovers from the movies.
Anyway, I went to the interview and it was actually all very nice. Since the contract was for one year and I was keen to travel and do something, I accepted the offer. Eventually, my contract became indefinite.
Working in Latvia
The online casino I worked for as a dealer decided to move operations to Malta but I didn’t want to go. At that point I moved back to the Netherlands to start my own venture but it didn’t work out so I chose to return to Latvia.
I was keen to do something that I’m good at, I wanted to perform and I came across the perfect opportunity – my friend asked me to take over one of her drama classes. I’ve now worked as a drama teacher at two private schools and also run my own start-up company together with a non-local business partner.
It’s called Ēst – est.lv and it’s an online food ordering service in Latvian, Russian and English. I got frustrated with my own experiences with restaurants and decided to do something about it.
Fitting into local society
I’m not an active member of the expat community. I don’t see the point in moving to a different country and not meeting locals. It’s like going to India and eating at McDonald’s. There’s also too much turnover in the expat community – you meet people and invest time but then they leave or turn out to be someone different.
However, I do like to keep in touch with my Dutch roots which is why I started organising events for the local Dutch community which are now also open to people who aren’t Dutch but speak Dutch, like students. I hope to expand it to a King’s Day celebration in the centre of Riga.
There were a few reasons why I chose to move back to Latvia again. In the Netherlands, when people study they usually move out of home but I commuted every day for 1 and ½ hours. I like travelling a lot but not every day. So the first time I moved away from home was when I moved to Latvia where nobody knew me. If I wanted to, I could have told them anything and they would have believed me.
I liked how people always thought it was interesting that I’m from the Netherlands. “This is Rick, he’s from the Netherlands.” It didn’t matter what I did, just that I’m from the Netherlands.
I realised I’d already built my life here, I’d become active in organising things for the Dutch people here together with the embassy and started to work on projects together with orphans. Basically, I got really involved in local life.
In the Netherlands my home town is small and it’s like life stands still there. After two years nothing had changed – same bars, same people, same events. I realised if I went back it would be like starting over again and it’s quite expensive to do that.
I would have had to be on a waiting list for two years to get affordable housing but I was already spoilt because I was used to living in a nice place in Riga. Pretty much everyone can afford somewhere to live by themselves in Riga.
Although I lived in Amsterdam when I moved back, I didn’t like it and quit my job after two weeks, and moved back in with my mum. It was a crazy time in my life. I realised I wanted to work on starting my own company and I was still crazy about a girl in Latvia so I came back to Latvia with one bag and went from having a big salary to nothing and sleeping on my friend’s sofa. I didn’t have a job or a girlfriend anymore, plus most of my friends moved to Malta, so I comfortably slipped into depression but teaching helped me get out of it.
Learning the Latvian language
I speak better Russian than Latvian because most of my colleagues at the casino were Russian. Since I’ve started teaching, I’ve become better at Latvian and I’m actually studying it as well.
People from outside Latvia don’t care so much about the Latvian – Russian language conflict even if we are aware of the history and the politics. I have my own life and if I have to choose between learning two languages then the internationally most widely spoken one wins. When I first moved here I had a one year contract and I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in Latvia so I didn’t want to have a useless half-finished skill.
My approach is never to focus on grammar. Listen a lot and expose yourself to the language. I learnt a lot of Russian at the market, for example, from the sales ladies.
There is a problem with learning Latvian. The State Language Centre is demotivating, raiding offices and demanding to see paperwork in Latvian. We got a warning at our office because I was the only one in one day and answered the phone in English. It makes people get a negative feeling towards Latvian. If I want to pick up the phone in Dutch, it’s my choice.
Also, some Latvian people aren’t really encouraging, they just make me feel bad for not speaking the language, it was like that after just six months of living here and still is. Whereas Russian speakers congratulate me and cheer me on for trying.
Regarding Latvian lessons, I found out through the government that you can get free classes if you get a group of eight people together. I went through the effort of finding people and found over 16 so we could actually make two groups. By now I’ve emailed three or four language schools and none of them have responded. So now I have to go and complain to the government. That’s not really encouraging people to learn Latvian. There are also very mediocre learning materials. And I’ve never heard of the free lessons being promoted to the expat community. I only found out by being proactive.
When I was unemployed I got coupons for language lessons but I didn’t use them because I went back to the Netherlands. When I came back they told me they weren’t valid anymore. Latvia’s like the land of procedures. It wouldn’t have taken much to revalidate the coupons – just a few stamps.
Observations about locals
At the schools I meet very interesting parents who I treat like everyone else but they’re actually really high up in the government or they’re famous.
The younger generation thinks like me, they don’t really give too much thought to the Latvian-Russian conflict. But I find it very strange that the really bright young people are short term thinkers and would rather go abroad to work instead of going into doing something here. In the US, there’s a 25-year-old running for Congress! In Estonia, young people get elected.
I get the impression that people think you have to be dumb to go into politics in Latvia. It’s strange – you hear everyone complain about Lembergs yet he’s re-elected. Latvians love complaining. All talk, no action. It’s always the case of letting someone else do it or take care of the problem.
People have asked me how I get jobs and whether I’m not afraid. See, Dutch people see something and think “ok, let’s see if it works, let’s try” whereas some Latvians go “it might fail so we won’t even bother.”
My company is a food ordering service born out of frustration towards previous experiences so I thought I’d try to make a change. People told me they’d been wondering when someone would do something like that so I thought to myself “Why didn’t you?” I only have a high school diploma!
Every once in a while I do a seminar for 18-30 year olds on personal finances. In the Netherlands loan companies are forbidden to place ads. In Latvia, people think it’s normal to have loans. Our generation is probably going to struggle to have jobs or pensions so I feel like I’m doing my part to improve the world or Latvia, or Riga at least, the people around me through educating.
A Dutch lady earned the Latvijas lepnums award for implementing a foundation in Latvia, for arranging a system that helped a local community. It’s interesting that someone from abroad had to come to fix a problem in Latvia.
Finding a place to live in Riga
It’s a really interesting real estate market. With ss.lv/en you don’t need any help to navigate it. I’ve lived all over in places like Maskačka and Ganību dambis. I’ve moved a lot for different reasons and I’ve now moved into a place that I want to buy. Expats are used to fancy apartments but I know how people live in Riga.
The Latvian health system
I still don’t get it. I cut my finger and we walked to 1.slimnīca but it was closed. So I went to Traumas (Traumatology hospital) and we couldn’t find the right building. In the Netherlands, you enter a hospital and someone directs you where you need to be. In Latvia, you just enter a building and see if any doors unlock. Finally, I found the right place, there was an angry guy who showed us. People don’t make an effort, it’s the same in shops, probably a Soviet scar.
The doctor was a horrible young guy, Dr Dick, but he spoke English. He looked like the kind of guy who used to bully me at school. He told me to get my finger glued but later on my doctor in the Netherlands told me stitches would have left me without a scar. At least the nurse was lovely.
Two years ago I went to see a private doctor and it was very expensive. I kept going to her out of laziness but then I emailed the national health agency and they were very friendly. I had to go and fill out paperwork (because why do it online with Swedbank e-ID?). Then I got a very long letter stating that I’m in the Latvian patient register which I show the doctor together with my teacher card which gives me a discount. Now a visit to the doctor costs two euros or so. I hacked the Latvian system.
People say the system in the Netherlands is better but my GP there didn’t recognise symptoms that turned out to be very serious. You pay a lot of money in the Netherlands but that still doesn’t guarantee you get good treatment.
Published by “Life in Riga”