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.
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