In Latvia, the kids are all right

One afternoon not long ago, I was standing in line at my neighborhood pharmacy, where the overhead lighting was almost as harsh as the saleslady’s icy glare. When my turn came to step up to the counter, I rattled off a list of items as if I were ordering sandwiches at a deli.

“I need some ant alcohol, some turpentine ointment, a box of milfoil tea and some mustard powder. Oh, and do you have any vodka?”

The saleslady’s lips betrayed the slightest flicker of a grin.

“Sick baby at home, huh?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “High fever. Know where I can get a cabbage leaf and some garlic cloves around here? I think that should do the trick.”

At the Latvian school I attended, in Yonkers, N.Y., we didn’t have a class on how to raise a Latvian baby, or how to administer the quaint brand of folk medicine still practiced in these parts. We learned plenty of other fascinating things, and I can give a pretty detailed description of the layout of a rural Latvian homestead circa 1900. But I don’t think our elderly teachers imagined that any of their young charges, who could barely formulate an entire sentence without interjecting a word or two of English, would actually move to Rīga one day, much less attempt to raise a family there. 

A Latvian-American friend of mine, who opened a bar in Vecrīga last year, once remarked, “They should teach a class at Gaŗezers about how to start a business in Latvia.” He’s right: That kind of practical, real-world information is just as important today as abstract, ideological issues were in the 1990s, when I attended the summer high school in Michigan, and we debated questions like how to set up effective citizenship and language laws, or what to make of the Russians. Plus, I don’t think it would be very hard to teach. The process of obtaining a liquor license in Rīga and obtaining liquor at Gaŗezers have some striking similarities: both require a high degree of cunning, stealth and a well-established network of local contacts. 

Of course, raising children in Latvia is essentially the same as raising children anywhere else. You’ll find the same 3 a.m., thousand-yard stare, the same no-sticks-in-the-house debate, the same arched-back-in-the-stroller struggle and the same dwindling interest in anything but having happy and healthy kids conviction everywhere in the world. These issues cross cultural divides, and are veritable constants in the project of starting a family.

The same holds true for business. As my bar-owner friend explained, barmaids and booze are pretty similar wherever you go. The thrilling adventure of moving to Latvia and raising children, or starting a small business, is not an impossible task, and even comes with a set of distinct advantages. 

Like many expatriates, I spend an inordinate amount of time following current events from the United States, keeping up with the news as if it were a lifeline supplying my American heart with a pulse. One good thing about tracking events from afar is that you are removed from the 24/7 news cycle that dominates the information space in the U.S., and can therefore pick and choose which stories to follow and which ones to ignore. You are liberated from the onslaught of cable TV channels and all-news talk radio. You’ll still find televisions and radios in public places all over Rīga, but the flat-screens are invariably switched to Russian music video channels (a triumph for Moscow’s soft-power foreign policy) and the radios are always locked in to schlager station Latvijas Radio 2 (a triumph for Raimonds Pauls’ royalties account), where the style of music is best described as country remixes of Soviet movie soundtracks set to dance-club beats.

One piece of news I have followed closely is the health care debate. This timeless American issue has captivated my attention because it makes me realize how fortunate I am to have access to Latvian universal health care. Quite simply, the cost of medical care and hospitalization is not something I have had to worry about. In America, the average cost of childbirth is about $8,000. Here, when each of my sons was born, I was handed a hospital bill for exactly zero lats, not including the 20 santīms for disposable hospital booties, dispensed in plastic capsules from a vending machine by the door to the maternity ward, and the couple lats a day for pumpkin porridge and beet soup, dispensed from a wheeled cart by a lady in a green smock.

I read online news stories every morning about American professional couples who have degrees and jobs and earnings that I can only dream of, but are nonetheless forced to worry about how to pay for the birth of their children. I’m a freelancer with an irregular income, who would have to buy expensive private insurance in the U.S., but I’ve never had to agonize over doctor’s bills. Lying awake at night, I worry about many things—Will I ever get a better job? Will I ever make more money? Do I really like pickled herring?—but the cost of health care and insurance premiums has never wrinkled my brow.

Does this have an effect on the lives of children in Latvia? Probably not. Does this have an effect on the sanity of parents in Latvia? Absolutely. It erases one of the many concerns faced by young parents, and opens up more space to worry about the two issues that have preoccupied Latvians for centuries: renovations and gardening.

It also significantly flattens and democratizes the landscape of child-rearing, making it different from what you’ll find in other Western cities, where “urban parenting” has distinct contours based on wealth and status, throwing the whole project into relief. Universal health care, along with free public preschools and year-long maternity leave, makes the process of having children in Rīga available to everyone, not just those with jobs and salaries stable enough to get you good insurance coverage or pay for child care. However, the drawback to this arrangement is that Rīga does not have a neighborhood colonized by wealthy young urban professionals with small children, like you’ll find in other urban areas. There is no Park Slope, Brooklyn; or Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin; or the 6ème arrondissement of Paris; or any of the other tame urban enclaves where parents in designer sneakers push Bugaboo strollers past boutique shops, organic grocery stores and trendy cafes.

I am always taken aback when I read raging condemnations in snarky New York Web sites about the hopeless over-kiddification of Park Slope; or hear complaints from my friends in the Berlin hipster hood of Friedrichshain about the former squatters of nearby Prenzlauer Berg, who have turned their graffitied sidewalks into an outdoor daycare center; or read another eye-rolling account of what gentrification has done to the formerly “bohemian” sections of Paris’s Left Bank. I am always shocked at this contempt (though I’m versed in the arguments) because living in Rīga has made me appreciate the potential value and ease of a safe, clean neighborhood of likeminded young professionals whose concern for the wellbeing of their children—and need for stroller-friendly coffee shops with abundant Wi-Fi—mirrors my own.

If there were a neighborhood like that in Rīga, I would move there in an instant, abandoning myself to a diet of takeout sushi and milky coffee and the New York Review of Books. I’d love to see what the Latvian version of that classic urban species—the yuppie—would look like. Though all I really want is someplace without stumblebums veering down the sidewalk when I walk my kid to nursery school in the morning, or empty beer bottles strewn in the sandbox at the park, or playground equipment with broken floorboards and protruding shards of metal that haven’t been repaired for months.

However, these flaws in the urban cityscape are more than outweighed by the importance of the countryside to denizens of the Latvian capital, or, more precisely, the close proximity of the country to the dusty confines of the city. Most residents spend their weekends and most of the summer at their cottages in the countryside. Owning a country home is not a sign of extravagant wealth, as it is in the United States; it is simply an integral part of the Latvian experience. Scratch the well-manicured surface of even the most loyal urbanite and you’ll get a whiff of the rich, loamy earth of the Vidzeme countryside. As the saying goes, every Latvian is a farmer at heart, and needs a little patch of green to preserve his peace of mind. (When locals suffer from their periodic bouts of low self-esteem, this expression switches to “the Latvians just climbed down from the tree.”)

For this reason, children are given the chance to run barefoot in the meadows all summer long, and quickly learn their way around a farm and forest. It’s also why those broken city playgrounds are so neglected. They are not a necessity, as they are in Western cities where the “countryside” is practically unreachable, due to endless miles of sprawl. Playgrounds are just an added bonus, a little symbolic gift for weekday afternoons, usually funded by disgraced local companies or banks trying to burnish their reputation or overhaul their image in the eyes of the public.

This is also why nobody complains about the prohibitions regarding playing on the grass in public parks. Nobody really needs to frolic on those little swatches of park, because Rīga is surrounded by fields, forests and beaches all within easy reach of the Center. Like those woolen mittens sold at souvenir stalls in the Old City, Rīga’s parks are there just for show, and are not actually used by the locals, at least not in the sense of your typical picnics-and-frisbee American grassy oasis.

All that fresh air in the countryside, coupled with the bounty of fresh vegetables everyone hauls back to Rīga in the trunk of their car each fall, ends up producing those teeming crowds of rosy cheeked, well-nourished and incredibly active children who race down the sidewalks each year on Sept. 1. Yet sometimes it seems as if the children of Rīga are a little too rambunctious. Where are the introverted, chess-playing geeks of my own suburban American upbringing? Why don’t you ever see kids in thick glasses clutching jumbo graphing calculators, or drooling over hefty copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

I hope those freaks and geeks are still there somewhere, because Latvia is certainly going to need them. We need smart kids to take over the newspapers and fill the yawning abyss opened up by the recent departure of some of the top journalists from Diena. We need smart kids to replace the current generation of politicians who seem intent on nothing else but thwarting and then toppling each successive administration, even if that means compromising the interests of the people they purport to serve. We need smart kids who can wade through the apocalyptic doom-and-gloom of the Latvian blogosphere, the catty tit-for-tats of public radio and the thinly veiled political campaigning and paid advertising that often masquerades as journalism in the local media—who can sort through this mess, evaluate the incontrovertible facts and make sound, transparent judgments that result in real action for the betterment of this feverish adolescent of a nation.

Where are these kids? Perhaps they are yours and perhaps they are mine. Perhaps they’re the ones who will move back here from Galway, speaking an unprecedented strain of Irish-inflected Latvian, or the ones born here (for free!) after their Latvian-American parents moved to Rīga from Manhattan in search of new business opportunities and cheaper rents during the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Maybe their appearance is just a pipe dream and Latvia is doomed to fail, a possibility that many commentators seem eager to believe and others naïve enough to ignore. But I am pretty sure this change is not going to come from uniformed, sanctimonious opinions spouted from halfway across the world by people whose only source of information is the prism of their old prejudices. To get in on the fun you have to be here, in the heat of things, where hope and history and corruption and interests and money all storm together, producing the extraordinary clash of ideologies called Latvia, where the currency perpetually flutters on the brink of devaluation, the schools and hospitals are always in danger of shutting down and even the act of laying flowers by a monument is a loaded political act, requiring the protection of heavily armed riot police.

Rīga is late 1960s Paris and mid-70s New York and early 1990s Berlin, all rolled into one. Come get in on the action while it’s hot, so that, 20 years from now, when the buildings are scrubbed clean, the red-brick warehouses around the Central Market have been converted into luxury lofts, the trendy boutiques sell “Made in Rīga” baby clothes, and the frothy lattes flow like wine, you can roll your eyes and say, “I remember when this place was really wild, when everything seemed like it was falling apart. Those were the days.”

Will things ever change? Well, if there is one thing I did learn at Latvian school, 20 years ago, it was this: If you wish for something hard enough, it will eventually come true.

Living in Rīga brings appreciation for heat

Rīga in winter

It is turning colder in Rīga and soon winter—and the need for heat—will settle in. (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

I had never thought much about heat before. Its presence indoors was so reliable that the seasons seemed to pass seamlessly from warm months to cold. Weather belonged outside. Then I moved to Rīga, Latvia.

After my arrival, in 2002, I spent the first few months sharing an apartment on a dusty, treeless stretch of Stabu iela near the edge of central Rīga. There was no lock on the entrance to the pre-war building, providing easy access for a revolving cast of middle-aged homeless couples with his and hers black eyes, who shuffled into dark corners of the stairwell to devour mushy gruel from containers made of plastic beer bottles, doled out at a nearby soup kitchen by local Hare Krishnas.

Our apartment, on the first floor, consisted of several large rooms connected by a series of French doors, so you could walk through them in a circle. I always imagined the parties that had taken place there back in the 1920s and 30s—an old upright piano in the corner, couples dancing from room to room across the squeaky parquet floors. But after the war, the Communists had deported the bourgeois owners to Siberia and crammed two or three hapless families into the flat, turning the place into one of the city’s countless communal apartments, where as many as a dozen tenants shared a single kitchen and bathroom.

Though the place was once again a private apartment, decades of communal living had left their mark on the interior. The hallway was covered with an ugly layer of orange linoleum, a scuffed trail blazed down the middle; the parquetry was brittle and broken, and felt like a floor of Lincoln Logs; the walls had been painted over countless times, in multiple shades of yellow and green; and the kitchen was dripping with greasy stalactites, left by a can of condensed milk that had been heated on the stove to make homemade candies and accidentally erupted, splattering its contents all over the ceiling.

One evening, I came home to find every surface in the apartment strewn with rancid herring bones laid out to dry on sheets of newspaper. One of my roommates, an artist, wanted to use them as invitations for her next show. The house stank of dead fish. My girlfriend and I decided it was time to find a place of our own. 

When our future landlord led us up the four flights of stairs to show us our new apartment, a block over on Ģertrūdes iela, we were ecstatic. The door to the building had a mechanical lock that you could open with a code, punching in the numbers in sequence: C, 1, 5, 6, X, Y. The stairwell was free of stray cats and discarded tubs of mush. And the place would be ours alone—no more waking up to find the kitchen hazy with cigarette smoke, the table covered in candle wax, the pans encrusted with the charred remains of onions and cheese dumplings. No more roommates, no more rancid herring bones.

There was a catch, of course. No heat.

Back in the early 1990s, when our landlord bought the apartment, the entire building had central heating. Feeling flush, he had paid a local craftsman to dismantle the old wood stove in the middle of the living room and turn it into an open fireplace—an incredible luxury in those days. A few months later, the city shut off the supply of heat to the building. Our landlord was left with a fancy new fireplace but no steam in the radiators. And there wasn’t enough current to power more than a single tiny electric heater. Fortunately, he had made one good decision in those early days of feverish privatization: he had bought a spare bedroom from the next-door neighbor and attached it to his own apartment. This new space had half of an ancient white-tiled wood stove in one corner of the room; the other half jutted back into the neighbor’s living room. This divided stove was now the primary source of heat for two apartments. The only problem was, the stove had only one mouth, and it was on the neighbor’s side of the wall.

A deal was struck: the landlord would buy all the firewood each winter, and the neighbor, Juris, a middle-aged bachelor and semi-retired janitor who had lived in the building his entire life, would haul it up from the basement and light the stove every afternoon, providing heat for both of their apartments. This arrangement suited everyone just fine. Juris was happy to have his annual heating bill covered, he had more than enough time to tend to the wood and the fire, and the work kept him in shape. Our landlord didn’t have much of a choice.

Neither did we. In those days, finding a reasonably priced rental apartment in Rīga was nearly impossible, and after six months of creeping up the stairs each night, dreading who or what we might find on the landing, we were desperate for a change. Plus, it was hard to beat 75 lats in rent for a fully furnished, sunny two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a pre-war building in a quiet courtyard in the center of town. And it was June. The air in Rīga was balmy and sweet and filled with the scent of blossoming linden trees. Winter was months away. We moved in the next day.

Our first contact with the neighbor came in July, when he left a note on our door, scrawled in a barely legible hand. From what we could decipher, the message outlined the different kinds of firewood, along with their respective prices by the truckload. Birch and oak were the best sources of heat, Juris wrote, as well as the most expensive. Alder was a mid-range firewood, low-cost and long-lasting. Pine was the cheapest—highly flammable and perfect as kindling, though it burned too quickly to provide any sustainable heat. Firewood was ideally ordered in late spring, so the logs could dry out in the basement over the summer and early autumn. If wood was bought too late in the season, you ran the risk of getting stuck with a product that had been chopped down only recently, and was therefore unfit for burning. Damp wood gave you nothing but smoke. At the end of the note, Juris recommended two truckloads of a mixed batch. We knocked on his door.

Juris looked like an exiled officer from some Russian novel, fallen badly into disrepair. His long tangled hair spilled out from under a greasy fur hat that he apparently wore all year round. He had only a couple teeth left in his mouth, which emitted a putrid stench laced with garlic and sausage. And on his feet, jutting out from under a ratty brown overcoat, was a pair of pink bedroom slippers with embossed golden letters which, when placed together, spelled out the words “TOO SEXY.”

Juris’s apartment—much smaller than ours—had the equivalent of perhaps 400 square feet of living space. But less than half of that area was navigable. The rest of the apartment was piled high with stockpiled junk—old shoes and clothes, potato sacks for hauling firewood, boxes of tinder, broken electronic equipment, splintered pieces of discarded furniture, empty bottles and jars, and stacks of yellowing newspaper. A narrow path wound through the sea of hoarded bounty, from the door to the wood stove to a nest on the couch, where Juris apparently slept. Another snaked over to the kitchen, where barely enough daylight crept in through the filthy windows to illuminate the shards of kindling on the floor beside another, smaller wood stove, which Juris had installed after dismantling the gas range. Thick black cords hung from the ceiling in the corner of each room. (We realized later, with convulsive twitches of horror, that these were spider webs caked with years of soot.) And everywhere you looked, on the walls, in the sideboard, on the couch and in the pantry, were dozens of clocks of different shapes and sizes: digital clocks, alarm clocks, cuckoo clocks, grandfather clocks, pendulum clocks and clock radios, all whirring and rattling away at odd speeds and intervals. Coupled with the parched, stifling air and the naked high-wattage bulb throbbing in the corner, it was enough to make your brain buzz with delirium. In the midst of this circus stood Juris, holding forth on the different types of firewood, his favorite topic of conversation. Juris worshipped wood and fire and smoke. He loved to burn things even more than he loved to scavenge. We told him to order what he saw fit and slithered out the door.

Two days later, at 6 a.m. on a rainy Saturday, a man called to say our wood would be arriving in half an hour. When I knocked on Juris’s door, he was already wide awake and dressed in a fur hat, woodsman’s jersey, canvas pants, woolen socks and heavy black boots. We went downstairs—he bounding, I shuffling—and stood in the drizzling rain, waiting for the truck. Half an hour later the wood arrived on the cargo bed of a belching Soviet-era GAZ diesel truck, which we helped guide through the gateway into our courtyard. The driver stuck his head out the window and shouted back at us, a cigarette dangling from his lips, cursing when he couldn’t hear our directions and was forced to stamp on the brakes to avoid a haphazardly parked car. Soon half our neighbors were watching at their windows, fuming with groggy rage. When the truck had weaved its way back to the building, it squealed to a sudden halt. The driver hopped out, undid a latch and flipped a switch to raise the cargo bed. The wood came tumbling out of the truck with a thundering crescendo. But the noise instantly ceased, as if on a conductor’s cue; heavy pieces of wood don’t scatter very far once they hit the ground. At our feet lay an enormous pile of split birch, pine and aspen logs, ostensibly enough fuel to heat two apartments for an entire Baltic winter. I handed the driver his payment; he flicked his butt at a nearby car, jumped back up onto his seat and drove off. Juris smiled and rubbed his palms together, eager to get his hands on this fresh batch of fuel. We got to work, tossing the logs down a pit to the basement, where we stacked them up in neat rows, like bottles of wine in a cellar. And like a great vintner, Juris carefully examined each piece of wood, remarking on its size, shape and weight, caressing it with his long, calloused fingers. He was a lord of the stove, a steward of fire, a master of heat, a guardian of the flame.

Most apartments in Rīga have central heating, provided by the city. The building administration uses a formula to calculate when to turn on the heat: If the average temperature drops to 8 degrees Celsius for three days in a row, the heat goes on; in the spring, when the temperatures reaches 10 degrees for more than three consecutive days, the steam is promptly shut off. Unfortunately, the sum of this equation falls far below the comfort level, so most residents of the city spend the first couple weeks of October and April shivering under several layers of blankets, clutching mugs of steaming herbal tea. But if you live outside this network of central heating, and have your own wood stove or autonomous supply of gas heat, you can choose when to start warming your own apartment. We had Juris. The first chilly morning in late September, we knocked on his door again. He opened it immediately, as if he had been waiting for us. “It’s time,” he said, his eyes shining with excitement. “Let’s light the stove.”

When the old white-tiled contraption finally crackled to life, we thought it was going to explode. The sputtering and snapping erupting inside the ceramic squares was accompanied by the biting stench of soot and smoke. But after airing out the apartment, we settled in to enjoy the heat, chuckling about our friends freezing in their centrally heated apartments.

The first couple of weeks were cozy and warm, and we celebrated our good fortune by cooking sausages, campfire-style, in our fireplace. The apartment seemed perfect. The living room was filled with sunlight all day long, and, just outside the window, birds sang from the branches of an enormous chestnut tree. The second bedroom was big enough to fit my desk, all our extra stuff and a bed for friends visiting from abroad. The large kitchen looked down on a leafy playground next to a school for deaf-mute children, who filled the basketball court every afternoon for recess, playing in complete silence save for the sound of bouncing basketballs and sneakers pounding on asphalt. Across the street, right above a cafeteria that sold cheese pancakes, pork dumplings and cold beet soup, was a two-story pool hall with a full bar, open 24 hours a day. If we ran out of beer at a party, we went across the street and ordered some to go; the bartender would uncork the bottles and then snap the caps back on, dexterously avoiding the law prohibiting the sale of closed containers of alcohol after 10 p.m. But most of all, we appreciated the cheap rent and the central location. Most of our friends were paying twice as much as we were, for tiny apartments in crumbling Soviet-era buildings far from the center of town.

But when October turned into November, and the temperature dropped below freezing, the weather outside crept in. The apartment beyond the heated bedroom, where we slept beside our half of the wood stove, and the small space in front of the fireplace, where we spent the rest of our time, was basically uninhabitable. In the kitchen, soup left out overnight turned to slush. Sitting in the bathroom, you could see your own breath. And the guestroom, at the far end of the apartment, had been turned into a giant freezer. By morning, the windows in the apartment were covered on the inside with a thick layer of frost, the vapor from our bodies having frozen on the glass.

But we learned to cope with the difficulties, as you always do. The advantages of our new apartment—the view, the price, the location, the all-night bar and billiards across the street—seemed to outweigh the lack of heat, which we tried to think of as a minor inconvenience for just a few months of the year. We unplugged the refrigerator, which slashed our electrical bill in half; set up an elaborate system of candles, to defrost the windows; and bought a tiny electric heater (the only kind our weak fuse box could handle) to warm up the bathroom, giving us an excuse to hop back in bed in the morning and wait for the room to thaw out. We even had a complex system for synching up the heater with our appliances, to avoid blowing the fuses. The extra room became a storage area for apples and vegetables from our summer cottage, though it was increasingly filled with wood and wood briquettes for the fireplace. On weekends I chopped wood at the cottage, packed the logs into potato sacks and piled them into the trunk of our car to transport back to the city. Then I’d haul the sacks up the four flights of stairs to our apartment, often meeting Juris on the landing, lugging his own bag up the steps. We’d stop to chat about wood and fire. Later, huddled in front of the fireplace eating dinner, I would lovingly turn over each piece of maple and aspen—like Juris had that morning down in the cellar—and recall the summer afternoon when I had sawed down its trunk, or the autumn morning when I had split the log and brought it home. Driving in the country, I would eye a grove of trees and think, What’s the street value of that birch? I was gradually turning into my neighbor. Our apartment was beginning to look like his sooty den.

Our lives eventually came to be defined by wood, fire, smoke and ash. Whenever our room began to fill up with more smoke than usual, we called our local chimney sweep, who arrived on his bicycle, dressed in a black coat with shiny buttons that Latvians touch for good luck. Once, he gave us a large bucket of clay, which we used to fill the cracks in the tile on our half of the stove. Living amidst the smoke, the ash and now the clay, we began to feel as if we had returned to more primitive times, when man lived face-to-face with the elements. Most of our conversations concerned heat and how to maximize it. Was the place getting too smoky? Was the wood dry enough? Should we chop more kindling? Should we pile up some loose bricks around the fireplace to trap the heat? Could we burn this stack of moldy New Yorkers? Our waking hours revolved around the open flames of the fire, where we ate, drank, sang, talked, read and entertained guests. Wood, fire, heat, smoke, ash. What myths would they beget?

One was the belief that we couldn’t leave. Whenever we thought it was getting too cold or too smoky, whenever the sacks of wood seemed too heavy or the task of worrying about the fuses too cumbersome, we’d stare out the windows at the chestnut tree, which announced the passing of seasons by sprouting its elongated buds in June, blossoming in July, hardening into spiky green shells in August and shedding onto the cars below in October. Or we’d watch the deaf-mute schoolchildren doing laps on cross-country skis in the playground out back, laughing and shouting, silently. Or we’d head across the street at 5 a.m. for a round of billiards and beer. Or we’d stoke the fire early on a Saturday morning and toast pieces of bread for our omelet. We’d think of all the money we were saving and think, We can’t leave. We’ll never find a better place. Ever.

And then one day we did. After four years of living in the perfect, unheated apartment, next door to Juris, we heard that a friend of a friend was moving abroad and needed to rent out her place, an airy one bedroom with parquet floors and high ceilings, overlooking a bustling pedestrian street in the Old City. The rent was triple what we were paying, but still cheap for such a beautiful apartment, especially one with a view of the rooftops and church towers of the medieval section of Rīga. It was time for a change. We were tired of freezing, tired of thawing out the windows, tired of cooking dinner in scarves and mittens, tired of hauling wood up four flights of stairs, tired of all the kindling and ash, the smoke and the soot and the clay. Most of all, we were tired of thinking about heat all the time. We moved out in October, right before the first frost. Now, every autumn, when the radiators clatter to life, we celebrate—not that we have heat but precisely that we don’t. It’s not ours to supply and stack and carry and stoke and clean. We don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s just there.

How do you say ‘zaglis’ in English?


Illustration by Andris Straumanis

I’m a liar and a thief, a deceiver and a cheat. I steal precious goods with one hand and give back an inferior product with the other, drawing a profit from the difference. I make a living peddling mere shadows of the truth, spend my days practicing the fine art of deception. I translate texts from Latvian into English.

To translate is to engage willfully in deceit, to misrepresent the fundamental meaning of a language to unsuspecting readers who don’t share your coveted access to the source. When translating a text, you rob the original of its living essence and palm it off in diluted form, intermingled with your own subjectively biased interpretation. Perhaps this is why people rarely plan to enter the profession; they’re sort of forced into it by a mixture of circumstance and necessity. Yet another way in which translation is like a life of petty crime.

After moving to Rīga, many foreigners with even a minimal understanding of Latvian work as translators for a while, to pay the bills until they find more gainful employment. Translation is the perfect occupational manifestation of an in-between state, a transitional mode of existence: you have one foot dangling back in the mother tongue and the other stretched forward precariously into the language of your new home. I often feel like I’m the only American unsteady enough to keep at it full time, while everyone else puts their feet firmly together on the ground and ascends the ranks at law firms, corporations, international organizations and chambers of commerce, getting rich in the process. I’ve wanted to get out of the trade for years, to find a real job, though I can’t seem to shift my weight enough to catch my balance.

Of course, the translation racket doesn’t come without its incentives. If anything, being a translator endows you with an ear for comparisons, a tendency to think in terms of the “as if” and the “like.” This is because there is no such thing as a pure translation; words and sentences have only near approximations in other languages. There is no meta-system binding two tongues together, no Venn diagram highlighting areas of easy overlap. Even a cursory glance at the contents of the Tilde or Letonika dictionaries—the trusty tools of the trade—proves this to be the case.

I like to exercise my translation skills by strolling through the streets of Rīga and interpreting the city around me, removing the phenomena from their immediate context and dropping them into a foreign web of meaning, rendering them from Latvia back to America. This helps me try to bridge the gap between the two isolated linguistic units—Latvian and English—engaged in constant combat up in my brain. But my efforts never quite bear fruit, and the object of my exercise always slips from my grasp, resisting translation. I get the sense of falling short, reaching out but not quite catching it, of being perpetually stuck in the “almost,” the “not quite.”

For example, I’ll think, the Maskačka district of Rīga is sort of like the Lower East Side of Manhattan or Wicker Park in Chicago, and might someday share the fate of those areas—formerly rundown havens for drugs and crime transformed into trendy neighborhoods. Or when I take a walk across the Daugava River, I’ll muse, Pārdaugava is sort of like certain parts of Brooklyn, or the entire city of Philadelphia: the place you move to in search of cheaper rents, more space and a tighter sense of community.

But I know these translations aren’t quite right. Latvia doesn’t have a strong class of young urban professionals with that crucial combination of ample free time, educated tastes, and disposal income needed to support the renewal of a derelict neighborhood. And the notion of a close-knit neighborhood is completely foreign for this land of staunch individualists, who historically resided on small isolated farms in the hardscrabble countryside. You’ll get the same impassive frowns and cold stares in the districts of wooden houses across the river as you do in the art nouveau center of town. Plus, these days, property all over the city is cheap no matter what the size, if you’re lucky enough to have a job to pay your rent.

Sometimes, when I go to concerts in the abandoned machine shops around the former industrial port, or in the 19th century brick warehouses by the Central Market, I’ll observe that the hipsters look as if they were transplanted from those converted factories on the Williamsburg waterfront. But, of course, this interpretation doesn’t quite work either. The Rīga hipster is a very different breed from his New York counterpart—more DIY than MFA. This means you can’t have a conversation with him about Lacan or Bataille, but if you need to install, say, new windows in your apartment, you can call up a few guys who will appear at your door in skinny jeans and ironic T-shirts, wielding power drills and soldering irons. The same ascendancy of praxis over theory also holds true for young women. The Latvian hipster chick wearing clunky plastic glasses and a neon jumpsuit on a Friday night will probably spend the next morning pedaling her fixed-gear bike to a nearby forest, to pick berries for making jam or wild mushrooms to preserve for winter, instead of packing her iPod with lectures by Žižek. At a bar, they’re all more likely to order hot mugs of chamomile tea than frosty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, especially if it’s hot outside. 

I also try to translate Rīga for my 2-year-old son, explaining the place to him in a way that is inescapably my own faulty interpretation of what I see. But I haven’t had much luck there, either. My son already understands this city better than I do, and knows how to distinguish a bad translation from the real thing. As I push him on his scooter through the park near the Orthodox cathedral, I’ll whisper, “Watch out for those guys in track suits and leather jackets. They’re gypsies.” But my son just laughs off my warning and practically runs over their pointy leather shoes. He’s right: These aren’t the gypsies you read about in fairy tales, who steal children in the middle of the night. They’re čigāni, who have been here for ages and have no need for extra children, since most of them are grandfathers by the time they turn 30. They make a living picking blueberries in roadside forests, not roaming the countryside in wagons, and the most aggressive thing they’ll do is stub out a cigarette on the dial of a watch they’re trying to sell you, presumably to show you it’s made of real glass.

Local phenomena aren’t the only things that resist translation. Some Latvian words and expressions are so deeply ensconced in language’s tight weft of associations that they can’t be coaxed out of hiding. For instance, how to render the old colloquial phrase patriekt ar sūdainu mietu? How do you convey the good humor inherent in the shit-covered object—that there are piles of shit everywhere in the countryside, left by roaming dogs and grazing cows, and not much malice is required to procure a smearable sample? Or how do you show that the vexation apparent in the original phrase, patriekt ar sūdainu koku, has, in this case, been intensified by the replacement of a simple wooden stick by a solid metal rod, a miets, to chase away the offending party with the fetid threat of defilement?

Latvian grammar also has some tricks up her sleeve to help resist English-based understanding or translation. For example, if you’re lucky enough to be served a traditional Latvian country meal of kidney beans and sour cream, you will be urged to piedzert klāt kefīru, that is, to intersperse your bites of bean with sips of kefir, in order to spare a sudden affliction with gas. Afterward, you’ll probably be treated to some rich and creamy dessert, and then asked if you want to uzdzert kafiju, top it off with coffee to wash it all down. Following the meal, of course, you’ll all stay in the kitchen and someone will sing out, Iedzersim pa glāzei!—let’s have a drink, pure and simple, with the inevitable possibility of more. If you do stick around for another couple glasses, you’ll begin to iedzīvoties, start to feel at home. Perhaps the neighbors will come over and you’ll all uzdzīvo—live it up. But come the wee hours of the morning, you might begin to sense that you have aizdzīvojies, stayed a little too long, perhaps even begun to feel piedzēries, drunk (piedzerties not to be confused with piedzert). In short, piedzert, uzdzert, iedzert; iedzīvoties, uzdzīvot, aizdzīvoties; piedzerties—the story of many a Latvian evening, easily compacted into two basic root words (dzert, dzīvot) and the cunning alteration of four short prefixes (pie, uz, ie, aiz), each of which gives a crucially variant meaning and has no readily available counterpart in English.

Nevertheless, I feel most at home in Latvia when I turn off the translation application in my head and let the place reveal itself for what it is, when I stop trying to interpret—to compare and approximate—and simply allow the country to flourish before my eyes.

Though I wasn’t born in Latvia, and certainly don’t share in the collective consciousness of people who have lived here all their lives, something clicks in my brain when I encounter certain scenes in the surrounding landscape. It is almost as if these tiny elements hidden deep inside the phenomenal world are the thing itself—Latvia the noumenon—basking in the glory and fullness of its being. A triangular birch hayrick leaning against a craggy apple tree. The deep, coffin-like cold emanating from the boarded-up windows of an abandoned brick building on a hot summer day, interlaced with the caustic stench of Soviet-era construction materials. Those perfectly straight paths cut through the meadow grass from house to woodshed, well to garden. The sharp angle of a barn roof on a misty morning. Two bulbous-nosed drunks dressed in ratty slacks and blazers, shuffling arm-in-arm to a musty basement beer bar in the middle of the afternoon. “Miglā asaro logs” belted out at three in the morning on a rainy Vecrīga street. The infinite net of associations ignited by these presences stretches out into oblivion, and cannot be corralled back into the closed circle of a hermetic translation.

Perhaps you’re better equipped to intuit these noumena if your engagement with Latvia is impartial and disinterested, untainted by some deep inner need, a desire to have it a certain way or make the country conform to your expectations. (A friend of mine, an American who lived here for a year back in the mid-1990s, recently wrote on her Twitter page, “Whenever I dream of being lost in Latvia, I wake up with the faint taste of biezpiens and strawberry soup in my mouth.”) Or maybe you have to live here for a while in order to plow through all the sauerkraut and sausage and get to the underlying, subtly flavored soul of the thing: the strawberries and cream. I’m not sure if you should avoid being a translator, a dissembler, a stealer of meaning; or, conversely, if perhaps a brief foray into a life of crime—translation—is exactly what you need to understand the futility of interpreting Latvia, the sheer beauty in letting the thing itself come out of hiding and speak its untranslatable truth.

In Latvia, there are no big mountains that scrape the clouds and tall waves do not crash into rocky shores. The sun does not burn in the sky and the fallen snow quickly turns to slush and then ice. There is no teeming metropolis, no famous landmark, no single defining national character trait. There are no large, striking features that might lend themselves to easy translation. It’s hard to get a purchase on Latvia, difficult to secure a grip. It is elusive, evasive, recalcitrant—resistant to appropriation as well as to occupation. In the time it takes to translate, to steal its meaning, to plunder its depths, to invent some mendacious interpretation, to lie about its honest words, it has already slipped from your greedy fingers and sunk back into the cool coastal night.