Riga, Latvia Report of what it's like to live there - 07/11/10
Personal Experiences from Riga, Latvia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Second expat experience.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
From Washington, it's an overnight flight to one of the European hubs and then a few hours on to Riga.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
For USG types, it's mostly apartments in the center of town. Unfortunately they're getting rid of nice old apartments in historic districts with newer units out in the sticks where the new Embassy will open soon.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Things were pretty expensive but the dollar is finally making a comeback. You can get most things, but there will be odd shortages at the grocery. Produce selection can be grim in winter.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Cross-country skis. There's sometimes snow, but there are no mountains. You need something to get out of the house in the winter.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
McDonald's, Hesburger (Finnish McDonald's), a pancake shop, the world's slowest pizza delivery service. Fast food is not a common concept here.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Available, cheaper than the US, but not a super bargain. Maybe changing since the economy collapsed, but we're not in the market.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Just barely. It's a mystery how Latvians stay so skinny, but it's not by going to gyms. There are a few gyms, but they're not very convenient and they're more geared toward bodybuilders than normal folks trying to stay fit.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Widespread and pretty safe.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Rumor is yes.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
The U.S. Embassy has a pile of decrepit, crumbling AFN boxes which they will make you pay to maintain but then insist are still their property. The cable packages available have a few English-language channels.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Almost none. English is widely spoken.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I can't say it would be great, but it's a European city - it's pretty good as potential foreign postings go.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Trains, buses and trams are safe and affordable. There are a couple good taxi companies and a lot of others trying to rip you off.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
I would bring something smaller for city parking purposes. But they don't really plow the roads in the winter, so 4-wheel-drive isn't a bad idea.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, pretty standard prices.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I recommend reading the literature about the small but still uncertain risk that holding a small radiation transmitter near your brain for several minutes or hours a day could cause long-term damage. But they're not really optional in Latvia.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Pretty thin unless you speak Latvian or Russian.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Men dress like anywhere in Europe, perhaps a bit dressier than the U.S. The women dress like they are going to the hottest party in town even if they're running down to the corner store to buy milk.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The people who have never been anywhere even moderately dangerous get scared because there are pickpockets in town. Riga is pretty safe for a city. Safer than most U.S. cities.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The medical care is tragically bad. Medevac for anything worse than a hangnail.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Air quality is great. One of the pleasures of a smaller city.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Summers are very pleasant, warm but never hot, with long days and some rain. Winters are long and very unpleasant. You may get clear and frigid, painful cold, or even worse you may get months on end of dark, grey days with a mix of drizzle, sleet, and snow.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I hear they're good.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Pretty modest. Maybe 1000?
2. Morale among expats:
A mixed bag. The winters get a lot of people down. A lot of people get tired of how small the city is and the limited entertainment options. The Latvians are not exactly known for their warm and welcoming nature.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
There is some. Dinner parties, bars and clubs, etc.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
As with 95% of foreign posts, single guys have a great time; single women, not so much. Good city for couples. Lots of families at post, most seem pretty happy with it.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I suppose it could be worse. It's tough to be out here; there's a lot of homophobia, but there is a scene, I gather.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes. There are occasional, but serious, problems with verbal and even sometimes physical harassment of racial minorities.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The summer in Latvia is fantastic, there is a good selection of bars, a decent selection of restaurants, and with AirBaltic sales, it is a perfect base for exploring the rest of Europe.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are some good bars and clubs, there are some good but overpriced restaurants. The summer beer gardens are a highlight. Most of the museums in town are nice for a quick stroll, but nothing you'll want to go back to. Jurmala beach is very short train ride or a nice bike ride away.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
There's not really much to buy here. There is amber jewelry. There are traditional linen tablecloths and such. There are a million wooden spoons on sale at every craft fair.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Beautiful small city, lovely architecture, easy to get around.
11. Can you save money?
As always, it depends. If you don't spend your long weekends in Rome or London, you can probably save money.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Sure. I had a nice time.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
twenty jars of peanut butter. They do have it in grocery stores.
3. But don't forget your:
sweaters, and something to do during the long winters when you are cooped up inside.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Nobody writes anything about Latvia other than turgid scholarly tomes.