My First Week in the Baltics: Meeting the Ambassador & Overcoming Language Barriers

Well folks, I’ve been in Latvia for over a week now, and want to give you my first impressions of work at the Embassy and the city of Riga.

I’ve settled in a place in what is known as the Quiet Center, since there are no bars or party places, and it feels really safe. I’m living with the editor of an English language newspaper for the region, in a nice two bedroom looking out over a courtyard. My apartment is a little bit away from the Old Town, on the edge of a park surrounded by embassies. There is a grocery store across the street, and a coffee place on the corner. I can walk to work in 15 minutes, and it’s a really pretty stroll.

My first week of work was amazing but also terrifying. Whenever I start a new job, I’m so nervous because I want to make a good first impression and I don’t want to mess anything up too badly. This time, those hopes were multiplied by 10!  Thankfully, the embassy staff were all incredibly welcoming. Our Ambassador was out of town the first few days, but when he returned he called me into his office for a chat. Before this year, I had never pictured myself sitting across a coffee table from a Canadian Ambassador, being asked questions about my interests and career goals. It was one of the most nerve-wracking, yet humbling experiences I’ve had.

I’m really looking forward to the nature of my work. I’m the only native English speaker at the embassy-the staff are all Latvian, and even our Ambassador is a native Francophone. This may mean that I’ll spend a fair amount of time editing documents this summer. If everyone sends me edit requests, I’ll learn a lot more about appropriate formats for a range of documents, which should help me in the long run, career-wise.

Additionally, I’ve been signed up to attend four different events over the next two weeks. At the events that the Ambassador will be attending, I will be charged with note-taking and summarizing. I’m really looking forward to attending a variety of events over the summer! I think they will be incredible hands-on learning opportunities, exposing me to a variety of new ideas. And for those of you who know me, you know I love any excuse to get dressed up and meet new people.

Outside of work, I am picking up some of the language here. When you move to a new country, I highly recommend learning at least a few basic words. By making an effort, and not assuming everyone speaks English, locals may treat you better.

In Latvia, Latvian, one of the oldest languages still in common use, is the official language. In my first week here, I’ve learned to say hello (sveiki), please (lūdzu), and thank-you (paldies). Although many people here speak English, I’ve found that throwing these phrases into dialogue makes people more open to helping you.

Russian is also widely used-movies are subtitled in both languages, and the big grocery stores will offer translations in both languages. I have a much better understanding of Russian than Latvian, because I took a few courses in my undergrad. It’s been super helpful when grocery shopping and trying to find information on Latvian websites, but I am hesitant to use it in conversation. This is partially because my oral skills are very rusty, and partially because using Russian isn’t always well received. I’ve been warned that speaking Russian to native Latvian speakers could offend some people, and I want to avoid that.

Although I haven’t launched an in-depth discussion with a local about this topic yet, I think this tension is mostly related to the legacy of the Soviet Occupation. Latvia was one of many countries that came under Soviet Occupation following WWII, and didn’t regain her independence until 1991.

While May 8th is the day that the Baltic States and most of the EU mark the end of WWII with wreath-laying ceremonies, Russia celebrates her “Victory Day” on May 9th. There is a huge parade a celebration in Moscow, but for Latvians, it commemorates the start of the Occupation. Although I saw a few people carrying balloons, Old Town seemed very quiet. I later learned that there was a celebration in a park across the river that more than 200,000 people attended, which I think illustrates the cultural divide that can exist in the city.

Rather, the Latvians prefer to celebrate on May 4th, the date that marks the end of the Soviet Occupation. There were lots of performances and celebrations in the parks and at the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga, which commemorates soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence

I could probably write another three pages on things I’ve learned this week, but I’ll leave it at this for now. Have a great week Canada!

 

*The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the Canadian Government.*

photo credit: National Library of Latvia via photopin (CC)

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