Peace Corps - WWU
Scott Marriott, Latvia (93-96)
I came to Latvia in June 1993 as part of the second group of Peace Corps volunteers. Latvia was formerly a part of the Soviet Union from 1945 until achieving its independence in November 1991. The first group of volunteers arrived in June, 1992.
The general state of repair was pretty low when I arrived. Think of America if the infrastructure hadn't been maintained for 40 years. Lines in the shops were pretty much a thing of the past as basic essentials were in decent supply. We joked among ourselves about eating the eight-item rotation: potatoes, cabbage, bread, sausage, carrots, eggs, cheese, and beer. When the new money, the Lat, was introduced in September 1993, it was pegged at about $2. The smallest bill was a 5-Lat note, so it wasn't unusual to wander around at times with coins in our pockets equaling $10 or $15, enough to support an aging pensioner for a week.
Inflation had been so bad the first 18 months of independence that many people's life savings wouldn't buy a bicycle. Once it "stabilized" at around 25%, people felt somewhat relieved. Can you imagine what it would be like in the States if inflation were "only" 25%?. It was particularly tough on the old people. One time while walking through a park in Riga, an elderly woman came up to me with her hand outstretched. I put 50 santimes (about a dollar) in it and she promptly dropped it. I picked it up and was placing it in her pocket saying: "I'm just putting this in here so you don't lose it," when her eyes snapped fiercely alert and she said in perfectly clipped British tones, "Look at me, 30 years an English teacher and now I'm reduced to being a beggar!" We had a long talk about life in general and the present in particular before she heaved a tired sigh and wandered off to further supplement her $60 a month pension.
I taught English at a regional branch of the Latvian university system in a town called Rezekne (Rays-egg-nay), pop. 42,000. Here, in eastern Latvia about 30 miles from the Russian Border, I got two cultures for the price of one since Rezekne was about 60% Russian-speaking. Of course, all the Latvians speak Russian, but only about 25% of the Russians speak Latvian, resulting in about 40% of the town's population being unable to understand the new official language. This caused some resentment. In general, though, I found the relations between Russians and Latvians to be tolerant. They all had been victims of the old failed regime. Still, I often found myself in a shop asking for things in Latvian while the Russian clerk stared at me with a look on her face like the world was upside down. The Latvians were very happy to hear their own tongue being spoken, even if badly. I wish I had a dollar for every time some Latvian told me: "The Russians have been here 50 years and they still can't speak Latvian!"
There also was an undercurrent of prejudice between Latvians themselves. Many people in catholic eastern Latvia felt those who lived in the predominantly Lutheran parts looked down on them. They believed they were usually at the back of the line when it came to jobs and educational opportunities, especially in the capital of Riga. The eastern province of Latgale (Lat-gull- uh), where Rezekne is located, has its own dialect which is not very comprehensible to other Latvians. If language can unite a people, it can also divide them. One way to look at it would be to say that what Riga is to Rezekne, Washington D.C. is to West Virginia.
I began my life in Rezekne living with a family of two. Maria, 57, a pensioner retired from the city maintenance department, and her son, Maris, 26, who worked as a "constructor" at the local milking machine factory. I had my own room in their 3 bedroom "flat". Their rent was about $70 a month at that time and their combined income was around $160. I contributed about $60 for my room and board out of my $170 Peace Corps stipend.
Maria, a stout, red-headed, grandmother, cheerfully cooked, washed , and kept house for her "boys" with impressive energy and good humor. Maris spoke a little English, which was a big help to this Latvian learner (I was in the top half of the bottom third of my class). Maris had a twin sister, Marite, who was a single mom with an energetic 3 year old daughter, Inese. Sometimes I felt Maria had her eye on me for the Cupid treatment, but she was much too polite ever to mention it.
That first year we didn't have heat until November 1, and when you are at the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska, Winter's bite starts to be felt in late September. I'd wake up in the mornings and see my breath. Even at school the students and I would all be dressed in our coats and hats, but attendance never suffered. Imagine THAT in an American school. We had hot water every other weekend, when everyone would rush to wash clothes and take hot showers. I do remember the air in my cozy classroom being fresher after hot-water weekends.
The reason for this was that since independence the cheap, subsidized natural gas of Soviet times was now the expensive, world-priced natural gas of the present which the government didn't have the money to buy. So, the whole town was cold. There was no place to go to get warm. I'm glad I brought my sleeping bag because that's where I spent 12 hours a day during those chilly weeks. Being constantly cold is very debilitating. It saps your morale. I think this was the most difficult time of my entire three years in Latvia.
At the end of the first semester I moved into my own flat, a typical 5 story Soviet style block. Since I lived on the fifth floor, I had a nice view over the town. My neighbors were almost exclusively Russians, so it was hard to get to know them. One little girl who lived below me, Viktorija, spoke Latvian, so she became the unofficial interpreter for the strange American living amongst them. People were always courteous to me, wanting to put their best foot forward, I guess, not having met an American before. You could almost see them checking their old propoganda-laden images of Americans against the real thing standing in front of them.
I was so fortunate to have what every teacher dreams about: small classes of motivated learners. My largest class was 16 and most others were only 8 to 12. The first two years I had the same students, so we really got to know each other. This made it easy for me to be less formal and for them to more comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that one time when I was trying to explain the difference between "whole" and "hole", I thought I'd just give them the Latvian word for the latter. So I said, "you know, caureja". (What I should have said was caurums ). At this I heard sudden snorts and stifled guffaws. I looked over at one student who I knew would let me in on it and said, "WHAT?". He looked at me sheepishly and replied, "Teacher, it means 'the shits '".
We played baseball, basketball, volleyball, Monopoly, and darts. We wrote and performed a play, slid down snowy hills on plastic sacs, went on picnics, sang songs, danced the polka and, yes, even drank a little together. We made our own fun. When I came time to go "home", it was hard indeed. I am more homesick for Latvia now that I was the other way 'round when I was there. Of course, being the first Peace Corps Volunteer to be married in Latvia gave me a whole new family which I miss very much. Take heart Regina, Eriks, and Valdis, we'll meet again before too long. Until then, the wonders of modern technology help keep us more closely in touch. Es gribetu est Svedienas vakarinas ar jums visiem, un pectam "rozlikt divanu"!