Two Weeks In Riga

(Truth is in the eyes of the beholder.  The following account is my interpretation of the experiences I had in Riga, Latvia, during a two week visit):

A beautiful and well-preserved city center with many houses dating as far back as from the Middle Ages populated by a Nordic people was what I thought about Riga prior to my departure in late September, 1998.  On the photos sent to me I had seen the beautiful houses, and from various media I knew both the older and the newest history as well as what life was like in Riga - or so I thought.

But reality turned out to be very different: of the 800,000 inhabitants only a small proportion live in the newly restored houses in the center - these are offices for the many foreign investors who now control much of the economy in Latvia.
   People live around the city center in high-rise blocks from the 50s, 60s, and 70s during which the increase in population was high, especially of Russians.  The oldest of the blocks are brick, the newer ones concrete, common for them all is that they have not been maintained since they were built, and many of them are in severe decay.  Built from the cheapest of materials by Russian soldiers the endless rows of old blocks are a depressing sight, and between them stray dogs and cats jump in and out of big holes in the foundations.
   And that was where I lived - together with almost everybody else.
The two-bedroom apartment was 40m2, and my host family of grandfather, father, mother and daughter had crammed themselves together in the smallest of the two rooms so I could get the living-room to myself.  Here was also the TV, but I soon grew tired of watching American TV-series with Latvian subtitles and a dubbed Russian voice over - one voice acting all the characters.  My host and his wife were both teachers of English which was a comfort as most Latvians do not speak foreign languages very well.

My visit to Riga had been arranged by the Danish Cultural Institute.  On the Danish radio  I had heard a program about how after the opening of the borders the Latvians want contact with the rest of the world including the field of education, and I had written and faxed with my Latvian partner to plan my visit: I wanted to see English and Music classes, preferably in many different schools, and also teach some classes myself, all of which was fulfilled.  I visited five schools and saw many classes and was even allowed to instruct and perform with a good Latvian choir.  In addition to this there was time to see some of the sights in and around Riga, and I was also asked to play the piano in a night club (even when the audience was still sober).
   For Latvians are extremely hospitable.  Even though my host could hardly afford it, he presented me with many souvenirs, and the concert tickets he bought me must have cost a fortune.
   As in most other East-European countries teachers are a low-income group.  The inland revenue is not very big, and most people in public services suffer because of that.  Foreign investors create jobs and taxes, but not yet to such an extent that they can pay for the much needed maintenance after so many years of neglect and decay.

The ones making it in Latvia today are the “new Russians”.  You meet them everywhere in the city in their three piece suits, fur coats and attaché cases and with a cellular phone at hand.  They are also heard loudly in the public transport system, but most often they make crossing the street a dangerous venture, driving around in big Mercedes’ and BMW’s.
   From being privileged political oppressors they have now become privileged economical oppressors controlling much of the commerce.
   From 1945 to 1990 the official language was Russian, the textbooks in school were in Russian, thus 95% of Latvians understand Russian.  During that period young Latvians were “pioneers” (boy/girl scouts) while old national customs were suppressed.  From Latvian libraries more than 500,000 books in foreign languages were “traded” in return for 800,000 Russian books like “Manual In Trolley Maintenance On The Omsk-Tomsk Line - Part II”.  And in much the same way Latvia was drained for many of her riches and natural resources, including deportation of “unwanted” Latvians.
   Life in the city is marked by that: even though Latvia is independent in principle, the big Russian minority (about 45%) still have a saying - or they just take the floor.  Latvians find them demanding and boisterous, but apparently many Latvians have sunken so deep into despondency that they can’t muster the strength to fight back - “what’s the use?” is often heard.
   A visit to a fairly new museum for the Russian occupation in 1945-1990 made that very clear:  Having seen the shocking exhibition (Latvia lost 1/3 of her inhabitants during that period - may died in Russian gulags) I wrote in the guest diary that all Russians should be forced to come and see this documentation of the past.  An attendant was told what I had written and said to me (my interpreter): “When the museum was opened five years ago many Russians did come to the museum.  But they went vociferously about and eventually broke into the exhibition cases and either removed what they didn’t like to be on display, or just took what they wanted for souvenirs.”
   Outside the museum a few homeless people were rummaging some garbage containers for something to eat.

In general the schools were ugly and uncomfortable, and many students seemed to be cowed.  On my many travels I have seldom encountered students who were so ignorant of the world, so unfocused on themselves and their future.  Only what has an immediate value in terms of usefulness seemed to be interesting enough to attract the students’ attention; and English only qualifies if what they learn can be transformed into useful terms, e.g. in connection with import/export businesses.
   The teaching of English is result oriented.  Nearly all the time is spent teaching grammar which is also much needed as Latvian is a language of “cases” (like Latin) with no fixed sentence structure (like Danish and English).  Hence the students never get as far as to reading proper literature in English.  In the many classes I visited I saw only one novel which turned out to be a shortened, edited version with a vocabulary of about 3,000 words - an easy-reader edition for 5th-Graders, but here applied to the highest level taught.
   Even in the English Grammar School in which English is taught from the early grades, the students do not study literature.  Whereas the teaching of foreign languages in Denmark is aimed at an analysis and interpretation of fiction to enable the students to see a connection between language and culture - and thereby inspire them to compare and understand their own culture - the teaching of English in Latvia is instrumental, i.e. as a skill.  They do not see a difference between acquiring skills and being educated, and they are not interested in the fact that humans are the ones making use of these skills.
   And this may very well be the core of the matter: the Latvian system of education is still so “Soviet” in nature and character that the fine arts, literature, music and culture as such are dealt with from a “representative” point of view: not because they want the individual human being to find his own identity, but because it is “impressive” and serves as a common denominator for a state.

Only once did I witness a break-out from the rigid system: my host school celebrated what is called “Teacher’s Day”, an educational carnival in which some of the senior students teach classes as well as teachers.  All good fun - there was never any doubt as to who was really in charge - but it was a relief for me to see that some of the conspicuous students I had picked out because of their “disciplinary” problems opened out and flourished when “lecturing” their teachers on philosophical concepts like “school” and “learning”.  When I commented on one of the students’ obvious charm and charisma, the dry answer was, “Well, he’s not good at Math” - no doubt about priorities here.

Because of Latvia’s special history, choir has become an important symbol in their struggle for independence (much like the Danish alsang, the communal singing of Danish songs during WW2), and in some schools Music is synonymous with “choir”, i.e. a whole class at a time (some 100-200 students).  This leaves no room for other activities like jazz, rock, fusion etc. let alone bands.  In one school the choir had rehearsed the classic “Love Me Tender” (because I was coming, I think), but their rendition was so far off the style and beat and so completely without feeling that my whole body was hurting.  Later I had the opportunity to teach the choir a few spirituals that are common ground in Danish schools but which here fell completely to the ground.  Maybe music is where it is felt most acutely whether a country has been open/closed to the West/East.
   The evaluation of students and teaching was also different from what we are used to in Denmark (but not in the US or France, for example): the students are graded after each lesson (thus almost after each answer), and the teacher must enter the curriculum of the lesson/period in question in another column of the register.  Both columns are checked regularly by a central authority.

During the last week of my stay the room temperature fell to 10?C in school (and at home), and as district heating does not start till November, we were getting sick from the stagnant cold.  And because of the view of the cheap tables and dilapidated chairs (sometimes outnumbered by the students), the white, raw, undecorated  walls and the sharp light from the ceiling, I soon grew as tired of school as the students were.

Therefore I asked to see MANY schools and eventually came to witness other, much more tolerable conditions.  The most uplifting experience was perhaps the Grammar School of Nordic Languages in which the students appeared to be comfortable.  Everywhere there were plants in pots brought by the students themselves, and huge murals done by the students decorated the walls in the corridors.  The atmosphere between teachers and students seemed friendly and relaxed.  Interested, I asked for any Danish influence on this school, but was told that the school had been built in the late 80s according to Russian standard blueprints for schools when a huge complex of blocks had been built in the immediate neighborhood.  The students were “normal” kids, many of them had Russian parents as this was a mixed neighborhood.

The name of the Grammar School of Nordic Languages was adopted by the school’s first principal who insisted that all students be taught one of the three Nordic languages for three years (Grades 10-11-12).  This year Norwegian has the biggest following, partly because the young, male Norwegian teacher is good-looking, but also because Norway is considered a prosperous country with one of the highest standards of living due to the many Norwegian investments in Latvia.  (The Latvians did not believe me when I told them that Norwegians often come to Aalborg to shop for food which is generally very expensive in Norway, and that they cannot afford to educate their own medical doctors and nurses, but have to have them educated for free at Danish universities.)
   The Danish teacher was a young Dane who was out testing his skills at surviving.  He also had a part time job at the office of the Nordic Council two hours a week for which he was paid as much as he earned the rest of week in school.  (Latvian teachers work about 45 lessons a week whereas students are let off with some 40 lessons a week.)  I told the students about Danish affairs, in Danish, for a couple of hours.  Their text book was one used in our teaching of Danish as a foreign language for immigrants.
   Unlike in other schools, at the Grammar School of Nordic Languages the students didn’t rise when speaking, and the principal and all the teachers I met were all very forthcoming and open, and I felt a warmth radiating from them in the cold rooms.

So, after all, maybe physical conditions alone is not what determines whether life is actually livable; and from Danish long-term survivors in Riga I heard that things have improved considerably over the past seven years.  But Latvia has a long way to go before the country is ready to enter the European Union.  In the coming months and years it will be almost a torment for me to follow the development in the country: will the government grow strong, or will the Latvia-Russian Mafia reap all the fruits of any economical development?
   At the moment things look very gloomy, especially as the development in other East-European countries is one of chaos; and if the Latvians do not make a move to the better themselves, I am afraid they will be raped once again (as they have been repeatedly by the Swedes, the Germans, and the Russians).

What can WE do?  The degree of poverty is not such that they need blankets and old, second-hand glasses (after all, they try to maintain their national pride) - rather, it is a spiritual despondency where we can make a difference simply by taking an interest in them.  But like everybody else Latvians would like to be consumers with money to spend, and all improvements cost money.
   No patented solutions will be of help here, but I feel that we need to increase our trade with their registered companies, i.e. give up our EU-taxes on foreign goods to set the registered Latvian wheels in motion, so the Latvian government will have a tax revenue to spend.

What struck me the most was probably that this country - which I had previously thought of as a Nordic country - most of all looked like another Eastern-European country: in decay and with a very passive population.
   On the other hand: initiatives like the Grammar School of Nordic Languages is perhaps where we should and can begin.  Not by sending them old, worn out school books for their library, but through more direct help: more exchange programs, help to educate teachers, help to teach Latvian youth, and through friendships that may help to open their eyes (as well as our own) to the reality of the world today and thereby give them a hope for the future, a goal for their being.
  Reality will come upon us whether we invite it or not: pollution recognizes no national boundaries, banks are so closely inter-connected that economical crises have an immediate effect in other corners of the world, and political unrest is not only found in the Balkan area.
So our helping them may actually be helping ourselves.
   Suddenly our present economical “problems” seem very small.  A great part of my time in Riga a line from a song by the Beatles (White Double Album, 1968) kept ringing in my ears:

“You don’t know how lucky you are, boy…”

November 1, 1998
Erik Moldrup