Riga, Latvia is a great place for people watching. Not as many tourists as in other Baltic or Scandinavian countries; hence a good look at the locals. Everywhere we go, we have noticed restrained behavior, especially avoiding eye contact. If fact, it seems to be the expected way to behave here. Latvians appear to avoid acknowledging the presence of strangers. This has been the hardest adjustment for me (Maggie). It is as natural for me to make eye contact with total strangers in public places as it is to breathe. Also, I have observed that people speak quietly in public places, which I like! I suspect that 50 years of Communist domination plays a big role in the restrained behavior, but I will not address that here, because Clay will be covering that in his history of Latvia, which follows this section.
We have learned that customer service as we define it in the U.S. is not the same here. It is not common to get a smile from a ticket seller at the bus station, a museum, a movie theater, or purchasing groceries. It is their job to sell you something – not to be “polite” as Americans define polite. In a grocery store, I asked one of the employees where the eggs were located. She looked at me pointed and said “over there” At home, the person would have explained aisle #10, top shelf on left, etc……,or as they do sometimes – “Let me show you”, and walk you there. After much time, I finally found the eggs, and yes, she had been pointing in the general direction, to her credit.
When walking on the street or even standing in line, it has been common for people to bump into us. I am positive that is not their intention, but since you are not to be acknowledged – so bumping you is really “nothing.” There is never an “excuse me” or a word exchanged. A painful example was in an museum when I was accidentally bumped (hard!) by a man not paying attention. I almost fell down and was so winded that he apologized profusely, as Clay came running from the next room to see what had happened. The man was genuinely sorry and kept apologizing (YES!) in broken English. This was an exception to the “excuse me” comment I made, but I think the especially hard hit was the reason. Or, could it have been the sight of that large, muscular man that I am married to?
I don’t want anyone who reads what I have said to make the mistake of thinking that I don’t like the Latvians. I do like them – a lot in fact! I see acts of kindness that indicates to me that when someone needs help, they all come running. An older lady was getting on the tram with difficulty, and a young man from the street offered his assistance. This nicely dressed business woman already on the tram in front of us got up to assist the older lady with “tapping on” her ticket. If the older lady had not needed help that day, all of the people involved would have been quietly avoiding acknowledging her. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that this lack of acknowledging strangers is not being rude, but simply a cultural difference. We Americans have our space issue which may be considered rude to others, so we have to accept other cultures and try to operate to their cultural standards as much as we can when we visit.
The most important thing I have learned while traveling so much over the last two years has been that culturally, we are all different, but we are still one human race where there are lots of good people, Riga has been wonderful to experience, and the cultural differences are there to observed and not to be judged. Judging from the these children of Riga, the future is in good hands.