The Lucky Country

We have been impressed by some new stencils that have appeared on inner-city Rigan footpaths a few nights ago. The stencils are huge – about 1 metre x 1 metre, and feature a famous Latvian storybook character, Spriditis, a little boy who sets off into the world to search for luck and happiness, only to find that it has actually been at home all along. The slogans are very in-your-face and relate to the mass exodus from Latvia that is happening at the moment. This highly political subject matter, combined with the excellent artistic execution (reverse graffitti – where you don’t use paint, but use some kind of solvent to clean the design into a dirty footpath) and gutsy, may I even say – DARING delivery (one stretch of a nearby street has these stencils every 4 metres or so!) have made quite an impact on us, the daily pedestrians of Riga. The stencils are signed „with the support of Andris Grutups”, which is a reference to a Latvian celebrity lawyer with all the wrong political connections, and we are not entirely sure if this is actually a marketing campaign sanctioned by the lawyer himself, orchestrated by some savvy ad agency, or a reference by the stencil artist because Grutups is very outspoken about the amount of people leaving Latvia.

Whatever it is, it’s impressive!

I don’t know the statistics of people leaving the country – but it is an issue that has gained huge momentum since the crisis began in January. Over the last 10 or so years, it has been a common thing for country folk to leave Latvia to take up menial jobs in Ireland, the UK, the USA. These were people living in small rural communities, most typically unskilled labourers, and never really touched me personally. But over the last few months it seems that everyone is getting „on the train”, so to speak. Several of our emigre friends, who have lost their jobs or whose work prospects are poor, have found Australia (or their other country of origin) friendlier to them in terms of unemployment benefits and future work opportunities, and have left or are in the process of going. Other educated aquaintances and friends are moving away in the hope of employment and better conditions elsewhere – a landscape architect we know has found that her work has completely dried up here, and decided that Sweden, a place where she had done garden projects before, was a better option. Our friends from Saldus – a tv producer and a builder – have just moved to Norway, where the building industry loves cheap Latvian labour. Every day we hear about people of all calibres, education levels and persuasions leaving – and many friend who have not left regularly express the opinion that „so and so should leave, there’s nothing here for them”, or „if I can’t find work I’ll leave”, etc. People feel that there is no employment to be had here, and even if you can get a job, that the wages and conditions are so poor that they would rather be doing menial jobs overseas and scraping by, living in shared flats with other desperate floor-scrubbers , rather than trying to do it here.

This situation is starting to freak me out... For the record, I am not judging the people who have left or are leaving. They have their reasons - my God, if I didn’t know what I was going to feed my kids tommorrow I would also be willing to travel anywhere for work. But the staggering rate at which this seems to be happening IS worrying. It seems to be a bit like one of the psycho manias that take over big crowds of people or animals, and have people blindly following without thought – you know, like all that Hitler worship and lemmings of cliffs etc. If you’re having a shit time in Latvia, then what do you do? First reaction – you consider leaving!

What I also find disturbing, is the attitude that „those who are left behind” seem to be adopting. In conversations with people who have not been THAT ravaged by this crisis, people who are still making a living, I rarely sense any real loyalty to Latvia, or a love for this country – that they believe that while life here may be tough, this is where they want to live, that they feel loyal to Latvia. Few people seem to (outwardly) care for Latvia - I rarely hear talk of a responsibility or an admiration for our language, our culture, nature or people – everyone pretty much concludes that this country is a sinking ship and we are stupid for living here. I agree, the politics here are f**cked up. The economy is also rooted, and the regard of those in power for the rest of us plebs makes me sick. But after I get over all the doom and gloom and crisis and bankruptcy, I really do love this country, and I want to be here. I have my diaspora-Latvian emotional blackmail nationalistic upbringing firmly rooted in my psyche, and still feel a patriotic sense of responsibility for this country. I feel worried and sad for Latvia’s future – not so much because of the economy, but because there seems to be such a lack of people who truly care. Obviously there are exceptions, and obviously, I can’t assume that because people don’t pledge these allegiances out loud, they don’t feel them. I suppose I should count all of my friends who are staying put for the time being as being patriots too!

So there’s some societal context for the stencils we photographed today. Certainly hits the spot!

(translation: "Don't give in! Don't leave!")

(Build Latvia, not another country!)

(The Lucky Country is right here! Don't leave!)

(Over there, your grandchildren won't speak Latvian!)

3 Responses so far.

  1. Madeleine says:

    This is fascinating! I'm one who wants to come BACK, not stay away! :-)

  2. Fifee says:

    Amazing stencils and indeed problematic politics. stay stay staya. I will come and visit and provide an injection of money into the economy!! I like to shop!!

  3. I haven't seen these yet - they are fantastic! Love the image of Spriditis.

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