With posts like How do you solve a problem like a Latvian? and The many layers of Latvian men, Linda sits squarely at the no-holds-barred end of the expat blogging spectrum. Looking for a career change, this Irish scribler moved to Riga several years ago to teach English and has been entertaining readers ever since with her musings on her blog, Expat Eye on Latvia. Learn about which topics she sidesteps in the classroom, Latvian stereotypes, and one of the most hilarious ESL stories I’ve ever heard.
Linda in Riga
As someone who has a background in advertising, how did you decide to teach English in Latvia? How long have you lived there?
I worked as a copywriter in Ireland for several years but, when the recession hit, it became a case of being careful about what you write, rather than being creative with it. So, I guess the fun kind of went out of it for me. When I thought about it, the reason I got into copywriting was because I loved English, not advertising. I was always correcting other people’s spelling and grammar (yeah, I was that bitch!) so I thought I’d try my hand at earning a living from it. After gaining a year’s experience in the Back of Beyond, Poland, I moved to Riga. I’ve been here for four years now – long enough! 😉
How eager are Latvians to learn English? Is English in demand, and are other languages also popular?
In my experience, Latvians are very keen to learn English. I mainly teach adults so they’re very motivated as they need it for work, or travel, or are thinking of emigrating. A lot of Latvian people speak Russian already. Scandinavian languages are quite popular, as some of the leading companies here are Scandinavian. Quite a few people will have done German at school and I think French is growing in popularity. As you may have gathered, Latvians like languages!
The amusing love Latvians have for leopard print
Are there any taboos that you find you cannot talk about in the classroom?
I generally try to avoid talking about Russia/Soviet times. Feelings run high and a lot of my classes are mixed, containing both ‘Latvian-Latvians’ and ‘Russian-Latvians.’ I like it when my lessons don’t end in a bloodbath. I also tend to avoid talking about feminism, racism, homosexuality, etc. but mainly because the responses piss me off, not the other way round. There are a lot of things considered ‘acceptable’ here that I find offensive. And believe me, I’m not overly sensitive…
Yikes! That limits conversation topics, for sure. What humorous or unexpected questions have students asked you?
I got an unexpected question yesterday from a Russian kid – “You don’t have a husband. You don’t have kids. What do you have?” I answered, “Freedom.” But there have been so many over the years! The thing about teaching English is that you can never fully prepare yourself for what somebody might ask. Even if you’ve done the same lesson countless times, and think you’ve answered every conceivable question, chances are, you haven’t. I remember once doing a lesson on the third conditional with an Upper-Intermediate level group. I knew it inside out; I was prepared for anything. Then a girl in the front row asked me what ‘until’ meant…
I can certainly relate! On your blog you’ve mentioned people of other nationalities (German, Scandinavian, etc) who are also living in Riga. Is there a strong expat network, and which professions do expats have?
There are quite a few language teachers here. If you don’t speak Latvian or Russian, your options can be a bit limited! A lot of people work in the IT field, some in recruitment. Many have set up their own companies. Then, of course, there are all of the people employed at various embassies. I wouldn’t say the expat network here is particularly strong. People tend to group together according to nationality.
Partaking in a baking master class in Riga
What activities do you do in your free time?
Blogging (and replying to comments) actually takes up quite a lot of my time! But it’s a pleasure to do it. I’m also fighting a losing battle to stay in shape. And another one to learn German. I think my brain just does not work that way. Or my tongue, for that matter. Oh, and reading – mainly to take my mind off all of the things I’m failing at!
In addition to hobbies, have you gotten to see much of Latvia outside of Riga? Is it easy and affordable to travel, or just the opposite?
I’ve got to see most of the bigger towns, cities and main ‘touristy’ things. It’s not expensive to travel in Latvia. It can be hard to get off the beaten track without your own transportation though – services to more out of the way places are irregular or non-existent.
Which cultural differences do you think take visitors off-guard? What things are still difficult to wrap your mind around?
For me, the hardest things are the unsmiling faces and lack of common courtesy on the streets. I’ve never got used to it – and I’m happy to say I’ll never have to!
What will you miss about Latvia when you leave?
The friends I’ve made. That’s really about it! Oh, and maybe the cakes. The cakes here are good.
Brownie points for the cakes. What stereotypes do you find that Latvians have about the Irish or other Europeans? What about those that the Irish have about Latvians that are false or exaggerated?
They think that the Irish are drinkers – funny coming from Latvians. They think that the Italians and Spanish are unpunctual – also funny coming from Latvians. They think that Germans and Scandinavians are unfriendly, unsmiling and unhelpful – hilarious coming from Latvians.
As for any stereotypes the Irish have about Latvians, I really don’t know. I didn’t have any before I came here. I guess the Irish and British tend to lump ‘Eastern Europeans’ together, mainly because they don’t really know any better. However, you will get your ass kicked for calling a Latvian ‘Eastern European’ – they’re NORTHERN European…
Let’s wrap up with a funny story from your time teaching English in Latvia. It can be from either inside or outside of the classroom, but it has to be from your time abroad!
I taught this lovely group at one of the state companies. There was the sweetest-looking older man in the group – you know, the kind of guy you’d love to be your granddad. But in his spare time, he was reading stuff like ’50 Shades of Grey’, to improve his English (!), so his vocabulary was somewhat questionable! God knows what else he was reading/watching but one day he asked me if a ‘crack whore was a really good whore’, thinking along the same lines of reasoning as ‘crack shot.’ The rest of the class looked expectantly at me for the answer but by this time, I was almost on the floor laughing and was no use to anyone!