Oh my goodness I’ve been busy of late (I’m starting to ask myself when am I not crazy busy?) and I’ve got plenty more on my “plate” this week but I had to take a moment to write a story.
It’s a story that most of you should know, at least in broad strokes. It’s about a former Communist country in eastern Europe. It’s about a country had a revolution in 1989 and become “democratic” albeit with a lot of problems. It’s about a country that suffers from corruption, poverty, issues with healthcare and many of its citizens leaving to work abroad where the salaries are better. It’s about a country that although it is a member of both the European Union and NATO it still has fears that some of its minority citizens want to re-unite with their “motherland” and shatter a fragile sovreignty.
This story should sound familiar because it is almost identical to Romania’s in many ways but in fact today I am speaking about Latvia (Rom: Letonia). This week I had the great fortune to meet and talk with two Latvians who are here in this country as part of an EVS type program, similar (in broad scope) to the American Peace Corps. These two are giving up nearly a year of their lives to come live in a village in Romania to help others. And yet they do not come from a “rich” country like Germany or England but from one that usually ranks only just above Romania on most statistical indices.
Two friendly people from Latvia (or any country) is a pleasant anecdote but what compels me to write today is the fundamental difference in their outlook, both about Romania and about their own country where they are from. I’ve written hundreds of times (and watch my documentary to see video) about how much foreigners really like Romania, really enjoy traveling here, seeing the various cities and wild, natural areas and how friendly the people are. But pretty much all of them were foreigners who are “rich”, who come from countries which are “better” (in some indescribable way) and so maybe they have the luxury of mind to comment freely on a visit (or extended stay) here in Romania that Romanians themselves don’t have.
But you really couldn’t find a country in a more similar position to Romania than Latvia. Poverty, corruption, restless minorities (Russians in their case), being utterly devastated and pushed around in World War 2, a long history of servitude to the bigger neighbors, etc, etc, etc. And now with a shaky democracy and more promises than deliveries and all the best jobs seem to be anywhere else but at home.
But not only did these two Latvians really enjoy Romania (as well as told me so do all of their Latvian friends who are elsewhere here) but they took their extremely meager salary (less than Romanian minimum wage btw) and used it to hitchhike around the entire country. Why? Just to see it. In one week I think they’ve seen more of Romania than 99% of Romanians ever have. And they did it all with almost no money, no rich parents, no credit cards and for no other reason than that they really like Romania and wanted to see it. And whether they were in tiny villages or honking metropolises, they’ve been warmly received and treated well and seem to be having the grand adventure of their young lives. Right here in Romania.
What truly moved me however was how they spoke of their own country, which certainly has almost all of the problems Romania has plus a few more to boot. Their capital city and all of their big urban areas are completely dominated by quite often hostile minorities who are only a few kilometers from their motherland and wouldn’t cry a tear if Latvia was wiped off the map. Their weather is far colder and more brutal than here in Romania and they have far fewer wild natural areas or variation in climate and environment. Their political system is shaky and jobs don’t pay well and yet despite all of this they are unquestionably proud and positive about their own country.
In fact, they’re positive people in general. I felt like I was at an optimism “boot camp” or motivational seminar talking to these two. I realized that I’ve been living in Romania a long time and that it’s easy to get lost amidst the sea of petulant whining from Romanians and the fatalistic stoicism of Hungarians and remember that other people from other cultures see things in different ways. I’m used to the religious fervor of Americans with their sugary optimism but this was something different. It was more just glad to be alive, glad to enjoy the little things and life has enough problems without having to let them overrun you. If it rains, carry an umbrella but don’t let it force you to stay indoors. I must say it was absolutely refreshing and invigorating.
I also met lots of other people over this past week, including some more of the “usual” sorts, from Romanians to foreigners, and again I explained myself, who I was and why I do the things I do. But quite honestly if I had to encapsulate it all it would be to just point at these Latvians and say, “This is how it could be.” It could be that Romanians explore their own country and see all of the wonderful richness that is to be found here, from the seaside to the mountains to Maramures to the cities. It could be that one would find living here a grand adventure that is to be enjoyed and that with a little motivation it can be done for almost no money at all. And it could be that despite all the problems and corruption and everything else, one is glad to be Romanian and proud to be from here.
When I tell Romanians that I live here, that I actually chose to pack my bags and belongings and set up roots here and learn the language and everything else, the first question they ask (always!) is, “Why?” And so the most important question I asked these Latvians is if they knew some foreigners from a “rich” western European country who had moved to Latvia and learned the language and all the rest – and they did know some people like that. But to them why a foreigner would choose Latvia was neither a mystery nor some shocking act of foolishness. Why not move to Latvia? Latvians love their country and it’s not surprising to them that other people would too.
Well I’m never going to be “More Latvian Than You!” or “Sam Cel Letonian” or whatever the Latvian equivalent of that is but I also know that if I lived in Latvia I’d be out of a job, at least in terms of appearing on television or giving interviews in the newspapers. The only reason the media pays me the slightest attention is because I’m some kind of circus freak here, the weird American who actually likes Romania (oh my God can you believe it? I know, right?). Over in Latvia I’m afraid I’d just be another ordinary person because what’s so unusual about wanting to live there? Italians don’t ask why people move to Italy. Spanish people don’t ask why people move to Spain. British people don’t ask why people move to Britain.
But I have a feeling it’s going to be a long, long time before Romanians truly realize how wonderful their own country is.