Sunday, December 31, 2006

Are you European?

Okay, the story about Latvia. On the second morning my wife was in town, I took her to the T-Mobile store to get a phone. I already had an account through T-Mobile, it only made sense we get rolled over into a family plan. But when we got to the store, my wife didn't like any of the phones. She looked all around, looking suspiciously at each model, finding one too clunky, the other without style, a third without the right features. "God," she said. "This is all they have? In Russia, we may not be rich, but at least we have lots more phones to choose from."

About this time, one of the two clerks who worked at the store had finished with a customer and come over to us. She sort of leaned forward, to see more than my wife's profile, to get a look at her face, and asked if we needed any help. My wife said no, briefly explained the situation, still looking at the phones. Then the clerk, an ice-blonde with a sharply drawn face, asked another question. "Are you from Europe?" I'd spotted her the moment we walked in. She's from Finland, I'd thought. Gotta be. That hair, the face. But after my wife smiled, said no, she was from Russia, the T-mobile clerk said hello in perfect Russian, "Zdrastvuy," and went on to conduct the rest of their dialogue in what she said was a shared native language. She was from Latvia, had come here a little over a year ago, and was in her mid-twenties, like my wife. They quickly fell into laughing and smiling, walking around the store together. Occasionally, they broke off from their Russian to include me in the conversation. The clerk did this at one point to say, "Since we are neighbors, I will give you a deal. You can take a phone for free, and that way you can have one until you find another, in Russia perhaps, where they care more for fashion and style."

I didn't argue. The phone they'd settled on was supposed to be free only with a two-year contract, and we were signing up for only one and supposed to pay more than $100. So: my wife and I followed the clerk over to the counter, where we called up my account and my wife began to supply the information needed to put her onto it. The clerk and my wife got to talking in Russian again. I sat there, just biding my time. Then I heard something. The clerk had said something, making a motion with one hand that seemed to suggest a bouncer looking at a fake ID, turning it this way and that to check the holographic seal. She walked away to retrieve a print-out of our contract, and as she did, I asked my wife, "Did she just ask if you married for love or the card?" My wife said something like, "Gosh, you're getting good," and thank god she didn't have a reason to worry about any further translations, because I'd heard her answer -- "po lubvi" -- and it was the right one.

As for the clerk, her motives seemed more dubious. She'd come here on a fiancee visa, a little over a year ago, but already she was in the process of getting a divorce. "Won't you have to leave?" my wife had asked. But this clerk seemed well-versed in the many nuances of immigration law. "No, there are ways," she said. "We'll have to get coffee, I'll tell you everything."

It was kind of funny. I'd once defended Latvia to my wife, who would, perhaps jokingly, suggest she didn't want to visit the Baltic states, like I, because "they hate us there, especially in Latvia," a country which is anything but an openly multi-cultural state, requiring ethnic Russians to speak Latvian just as Russians once insisted Latvians speak the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, Russian. And then what happens when we finally meet a Latvian together? She's everything I should fear, like the filing a false abuse claim, a new option for the desperate or impatient (and the truly abused) which eliminates the two-year waiting period for a Green Card, and a quick friend to my wife.

One thing's for certain. There are lots of Russian-speakers in Los Angeles. I see magazins everywhere, then shops selling books and videos and gifts too. I can move out in any direction of the compass and find kefir within a mile or two. For tvorog and canadckaya smetana, I needn't go such a great distance.

So it seems like there will be plenty of Russian-speakers for my wife to befriend. I can only hope that if one is a Latvian, she provides me with a case study and nothing more.

7 Comments:

Anonymous said...

Many Latvians are in fact Russian. I liked visiting the Baltic and like you I hope to return there soon. I do consider the Latvin policy of discrimination against Russians that have lived in the country for many years un-fair and un-just. I have also heard of corrupt officials selling on the black Market Latvian passports. I wonder how the clerk is finding life in America. It would be interesting to know more of her story, how she met her husband and what problems they have experienced. Of course you need to also seek the husbands side of the story. maybe she is going down the battered wife option.

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The Ranger said...

It would seem to me that there may be a very angry ex around town somewhere. It is a pity that people can do such and get by with it.

Stefan said...

3 things:

first of all, i want to say that i have enjoyed your site for all the time that it has been up. . .

but on that note, i don't get it: the clerk's behavior has nothing to do with whether she is specifically latvian or russian or from latvia or russia; her behavior is, unfortunately, rather common for many a person from any number of post-socialist countries, be they in the EU or not.

it is, to my mind, a bit astonishing that after living in ukraine you would single out latvia in such manner and suggest that her behavior is at all unique in this instance!

also, i have lived off and on in latvia almost as much as i have lived in ukraine, and feel that the claims by the russian community to discrimination are really quite hyperbolic. as in ukraine, russian language and culture are in no danger but are striving in this country. the claims of abuse are almost entirely political--

the basis of the claim for many is that russians will loose their language and culture if they agree to the use of latvian in daily life and society and in schools. that is complete balderdash, for two simple reasons: a) it manifestly is not so, russian language and culture are not whithering away and it is not the goal of the government nor of latvian integration policy to preside over their whithering and b) what the latvian government is seeking to create is a pluralistic society-- yes founded upon one national language, but with minority rights, just as in the US.

i was raised with my ukrainian culture and language in tact in north america, though english was the sole (unofficial) official language. the mother of my child was raised with her latvian culture and language in tact, even to the extent that, quite surprisingly, many of her native latvian friends have come to think of her as a native to this country.

over half of russians in latvia today have gained citizenship. this may be due to the fact that some of them bought their passports, but it is manifest--especially if one comes to experience things here on the ground in riga, where over 50% of the population is ethnic russian-- most russians--especially the young--can speak and even read and write in latvian quite well.

the problem is generational. the older folks don't want to have to learn latvian now, and think that their children of grandchildren will be latvianized and that russian culture will be erased from latvia. that latter part is absurd, but i agree that the old folks shouldn't have to learn latvian; but the consequences are that they are the ones who will have to agree to give up their vote for the future of this country--i.e., for a pluralist society to emerge. for if russian is made legal and put on par with latvian, it will dominate and latvian will never survive that onslaught and pluralism will be completely out the window, especially given the authoritarian political culture of those who are pushing for legalization of russian and who are stirring things up to such an extreme, all under the banner of the persecuted russian language and culture of latvia.

this is not to say that there are not equally ridiculous latvian ultra-nationalist groups and attitudes among ethnic latvians that need to change in this country, either. but such groups and rhetorics are much more of a fringe in the latvian community than they are in the russian one.

there is the danger, however, that as time goes on and things become even more polarized (if that is possible), the older generation, through extreme propaganda and alarmist rhetoric, will pass on their extreme and dispicable refusal of integration and of the latvian language. one must very much so keep in mind that this anti-latvian attitude among much of the russian population is supported, ideologically and financially, by the big neighbor next door, whose government thinks it can leverage exaggerated claims of abuse as a foreign policy weapon. that is the absolute key to it all. it is political--the same as the russian government's chauvinist machinations in moldova and georgia.

ivanov once called latvia russia's foreign enemy number 1!

how's that for hyperbole?

but back to the older generation issue: a latvian friend (i have russian and ukrainian friends here as well. . .) and i were in a bar when a fellow came into to buy cigarettes. he did not speak latvian, and my friend turned to him and said, in russian, "where were you born? how long have you lived in latvia? why don't you speak latvian?"

the old man said to him, "look, son, i don't mean to have a fight. i was born in the soviet union. that was my country. my granchildren, they have been born in latvia. they speak latvian, and that is fine with me." i interrupted to ask, "what language do you speak with them?" and he said, "nu po-russki, konjechno" and went on to say that he wants them to know latvian, because although he personally prefered things in soviet times, there is a new situation in latvia. he even said that he understood why latvians would want everyone to know the language, and even said that, well, in soviet times, everyone had to speak russian, and so it would make sense that everyone should now have to know latvian.

i was thrilled by this man's viewpoint and very disapproving of my friend's attitude. this fellow wasn't even that much of an educated man--he had some years at a university but had worked in construction and had the rough hands of someone who has worked at physical labor all his life.

hearin lies the nutshell of what needs to change in latvia. more russians need to think like that old man, and more latvians like my friend need to chill out.

sorry for the long comment.

The Author said...

Stefan, I'm sure I've committed the blogger's sin, of just dashing something off. An error in satire. The thing is, I'd been defending Latvia all this time, and my wife had been sort of going the other way, fearing she'd be treated poorly if she went there (I wanted to return to the Baltic, to take her with me). Then, when we meet our first Latvian together, she's only everything I could fear, and she's perfectly friendly to my wife. It was ironic and kind of funny, at least for us. I should've put some more time into writing the blog entry. Last thing I meant to do was suggest the entire country of Latvia might be like this. Don't believe it for a second. I don't. As for the rest of the stuff, that involves a more involved response -- and I'm away from home right now, not really able to give the time to it. I should get back to it. But in short, I'm against legislating language, I think right across the board, in Latvia's case in particular, and also the US's -- because despite our "unofficial official language," we'll be voting on English as an official language here soon, I'm sure of it, and it's only because we've got a growing minority that we're afraid of losing power to, the Spanish speaker.

The Author said...

Stefan, we're going to have to disagree on this one. You write that for Latvia to emerge into a pluralist society, the ethnic Russians who never learned Latvian in the schools, essentially anyone about 30 or 35 or older, has to agree to being disenfranchised. But how that creates a pluralistic society, I can’t say. Seems it’d be one that’s been socially engineered by the ruling authorities. Keep this citizen, lose that one. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.

In the states, as I'm sure you know, you can vote in any number of languages -- Spanish, Tagalog, Russian, Mandarin, etcetera. That's pluralism. I’m calling this from a distant vantage point, but I see Latvia as going for either mono-culturalism or payback. The latter I can’t I agree to, no matter the case presented to me, because I’m not an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye kind of guy. It’ll just continue a cycle that needs to be stopped. I’m just saying let the people who live there vote, be it in Russian or Latvian. If the kids are learning Latvian in school now, even the ethnic Russians, then pluralism will emerge from that, and it can survive the waning vote of a dying population, one that will slowly weaken with time. When I was in Ukraine, I encountered all sorts of kids who spoke only Ukrainian, not it and Russian or only Russian. I also encountered all sorts of Russian-speakers in Kharkov who knew next to no Ukrainian and had to live lives of hypocrisy in order to abide by Ukrainian-only laws. They were just asking to live outside of the shadows, to be acknowledged, rather exiled from the culture.

Anonymous said...

Stephan is just overreacting. he has extrapolated way too much and taken off in the wrong direction. The language debate in Ukraine and Latvia is BS. look at Ireland it does not speak its national language. Language whilst a reflection of culture its main role is communication. I do not speak Shakespearean or Old Church English. Language changes. Most of Europe now speaks English as well as other languages.

I though the point of this post was more about the fact that most of the girls are scamming and finding a way out of the country. That note to say that all relationships are some, many are legitimate relationships but Manny are not based on love either. Many Russian/Ukrainian former CIS women are quick to trade up. When I first came to this region I applies my western values of trusting people until they lost that trust. a friend told me once they are all liars. I thought that was a bit horse.

Having witnessed many "dating scams" and spent more time in the region I am more skeptical and they have to now win my trust.

Whilst is is theoretical possible to find true love over the internet it is doubtful that a meaningful relationship or understanding can be obtained during a two week tour let alone understand the Slavic mentality and culture.

angella, angee, angie said...

hello I live in Australia, and know of three brothers all of Lativan descent who are extremely handsome, tall and blond. I have no chance of a relationship with either so I am wondering if there is somewhere I could go and get a Lativan mail order husband? I think living in Australia would be attractive?