And now for the weather report

Well, I haven't written anything for about a month now... we've been so busy, and thinking of something vaguely inspired is a chore. But finally I decided that I'd write about what's been on our minds lately... in fact, what's been on every Latvian's mind lately.... or is that just EVERYONE's mind? That is, this darn economic crisis. I am not going to reflect on the politics or the financial systems, God knows I know very little about it - but what I CAN talk about is what this crisis fells like at street level here in Riga.
I assume the crisis is hitting everywhere to some degree. But as I can understand from international news reports, things are looking pretty dire here in Latvia particularly. I first really started thinking about the possibility of a crisis was when Mara visited us from Oz in October (or was it November?) last year. We spent a few days in Venice, and much of Mara's conversation was about architect friends losing jobs in Australia, about how the crisis is affecting Brisbane. And I was interested (and a bit bemused), because back then, there was very little sign of the crisis on an every day level in Latvia. I wondered to myself if we were not going to feel the crisis as severely, the same way Latvia had not felt the fear of terrorist stuff that seems to have been going on in Australia, Germany, the UK, the USA in the last few years - that we were just too small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things to be included.
Oh, how naive.... then suddenly, around Christmas, things started to go crazy. Or was that after the new year? I can't remember, but in the last two months, the economic downturn is the topic of every conversation, every news report, every daily errand. And although Jem and I have still got jobs (which we count ourselves very lucky for - starting brand new, supposedly stable jobs just before the crisis hit), many of our friends have completely lost their jobs, or parts of them, and the ones who still have their jobs have been forced to take significant pay cuts. Property prices and rent has dropped dramatically, which is not great for us as part of our income is made up of renting out a flat we own in the old town - and our current tenant has just given notice. Our extra freelance work has completely dried up.
A number of our expat friends have already moved back to Australia - hoping that job prospects and social security are better than here. Most of those who haven't already moved back are talking about it. We are helping one friend organise an Austrlian visa for his Latvian wife and their children. We recently attended a going away party and spent the time talking about who will be next, about how each of us is holding up. I get asked daily why I am continuing living in Latvia if I have the option to go back to Australia by doctors, shopkeepers, people I meet on the street.
The crisis has also become obvious in a day-to-day way - apart from the increase in GST, which means that EVERYTHING in the shops is now more expensive than it was last December, all sorts of services are being cut. The airport buses from the hotel up the road have stopped running. The choices of magazine in the local newsagent have halved - they are no longer importing what they used to. Even our old favourite restaraunt Lido (if you've been to Latvia, you'll know it) has less choices on offer, less customers, and weigh the portions so that they don't give you a bit extra. The bowling centre up the road was pretty much empty when we went there last Sunday afternoon. Every fourth shop on the streets around our place has closed down and has a big "for lease" sign in the window.
As a result of all this, eventhough we have managed so far to retain a majority our own personal income and security, there is a pretty heavy dose of foreboding and pessimism - an all-pervasive anxiety in the air. The situation is "psyching us out" - and its precisely that - a psychological beat-up. I find myself getting anxious about financial issues, worried for friends, wondering what will happen next, hoping that we keep our jobs, imagining how we will get by if we don't. I'm sure all the hype doesn't help, and in reality we're doing ok, but the fear factor is rising for everyone here, as well as a feeling of sadness that Latvia seems to have taken a step back by a number of years.
On the upside, though, if we can get a bank loan (and everyone's saying we haven't got a hope), prices for building work have also plummeted.... so I suppose if we can scratch up the cash, we actually may be able to get this house renovated while its affordable. If we're willing to take the risk!
I keep telling myself that we just have to hang in there and work and cut costs where we can, and that in a few years things will start looking up again. I can't see us picking up and moving back to Oz - because I get the feeling it mightn't be that easy getting a job there either - and we are committed to staying here and making a go of it unless it becomes no longer feasible. We are doing ok - better than ok in fact, because Jem is enjoying this new job and the challenges it brings, and I am also going ahead in my museum job in leaps and bounds - so things are all good. I just have to tell my frazzled nerves this on a regular basis!
So I am interested... what's the weather report in the rest of the world? Is it as dramatic for Oz/the UK/Indo/Angola/wherever as it is here?

4 Responses so far.

  1. Madeleine says:

    Only a quick comment, because I have to send a longer email to you soon anyway, but only about two days ago it was announced that there has been an 11% drop in skilled-job ads in the last quarter. Apart from that, unemployment IS rising, and Superannuation ain't worth what it used to be. I'm also convinced, though, that to some degree the beat-up is worse than the actual situation. Having said that, my own freelancing is pretty dry right now...

  2. Mook says:

    Blogger Mook said...

    Well yeah, I suppose that's the thing. The situation is real, but our own obsession over it is not helping the daily coping strategies.

    A great comment I received from a friend the other day who's father in his day was deported to Siberia and recorded his family's life photographically: Viņi ar to tika galā. Tagad tētis no turienes vēro, kā mēs tiksim galā ar šo, ko par krīzi dēvē... http://www.foto.lv/vortals/mantojums/
    lazdins-valdis.html
    ...Jeb vērtību restaurācija.
    "Back then, they got by. Now dad is observing from the other side how we will get by in this situation, the so-called crisis... http://www.foto.lv/vortals/mantojums/
    lazdins-valdis.html... or a restoration of values."

  3. Jon says:

    Hey Mook,

    Really interesting post. In fact, I was going to write a similar post on our blog when we got back from Australia in Jan.

    Before Xmas, no one was really talking about this financial crisis in Indonesia. Sure we had heard about it, but it didn't really affect us at all. But when we went back to Aus, it seemed everyone was talking about it. People were worried about their investments and of course mortgage interest rates, and everyone seemed really affected by it.

    Upon return to Indo, I had been hearing more about it. I just caught up with one of my old lecturers the other day. He has a small rubber tree plantation which gives him about half his income. In the last few months, the price of rubber has fallen 75%. Understandably it was all he could talk about.

    It isn't until now that things are starting to trickle through to us. Fewer students are coming to the school because fewer companies are sending families abroad. Apparently this is a growing trend internationally and at this years job fairs, there were a lot more candidates than jobs on offer. More people are seeing teaching internationally as a way of escaping the economic problems in their country. Teachers at our school are getting worried about what they will do when their contracts are up.

    I had read about the IMF loans in Latvia, but sometimes all that talk seems so macro, and doesn't portray what has changed for the regular guy/gal on the street. I hope you guys and all your friends can ride it through, else wise we’ll all have to pool our money together and become self sufficient farmers in Den Ham. :-)

    Jon

  4. Marite says:

    I suppose we're the lucky ones... out here in oil-land, we're relatively untouched by this whole thing. We did notice that prices in the grocery stores had risen when we came back from Christmas- a small shop now costs what a big shop would have before. But, that said, we're still getting our raises next school year, the school is busting at the seams with too many students- the oil companies are not hesitating to continue sending families abroad it seems. So, there it is.

    I think the biggest way the crisis is affecting us right now, is in worrying about our wedding, wanting people to be there, etc, and knowing that because of the money, a lot of people won't be able to. At least, that is what is on my mind.

    Pretty minor when compared to the comment you got from your friend about Siberia...

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