Karlis Ulmanis – Good Guy or Bad Guy? and other unanswered questions

karlis_ulmanisJust when I think I’m starting to understand the Latvian psyche I start to observe things for which I can find no logical reasons. I have 3 questions which I would like some rational answers.

  1. Why is Karlis Ulmanis still so highly thought of?

I don’t understand why a man who overthrew a democratically elected government, banned all political parties including his own, disbanded the Saeima (parliament), appointed himself President, Prime Minister and Head of the Armed forces is still so popular. I accept that he didn’t murder thousands of people, but no other dictator in Europe between the wars did what he did. It wasn’t as though his star was shining brightly at the time of the Coup d’etat. Before the coup in 1934 his party only achieve 12.2% of the popular vote in the parliamentary elections. The only 2 claims that can be made for this period which can be verified are improvements to the education system and development of Latvian cultural identity. From my perspective, based upon what I have read by Latvian academics, Ulmanis was simply a megalomaniac.

  1. Where has the Latvian motivation and desire to instigate change disappeared to?

Between 1988 and 1990 Latvians demonstrated amazing courage and fortitude to rid themselves of their Russian occupiers. Having done the very difficult part and gained independence all they seem to do now is complain, but don’t seem prepared to do anything about it. They complain about the unfair tax system, the success of other Latvians, the dreadful roads but mainly about the perceived high levels of corruption. Yet, I don’t hear about any protests or demonstrations and only 59% voted at the last election for the Saeima (parliament). I often hear people say “it doesn’t matter who I vote for, because nothing will change”, so they don’t vote. Why has this apathy towards instigating change surfaced? I don’t understand.

  1. Finally do Latvians really know what democracy is or do they even want it?

I have come to the conclusion that Latvians think they want Democracy but don’t really know what it is, and the commitment required by individual groups in a society to make it work. I have heard it said that countries without a sizable middle class struggle to make a success of democracy. That was certainly the case between the 2 world wars.

Please help me understand more about the Latvian psyche. I welcome your comments and opinions

Posted in History, Latvia | Tagged , , , | 57 Comments

Teaching in Latvia – Compared to the UK

educationEducation, Education, Education – Part 3

Before I start, I think it only fair to point out that these are my first impressions. I have only had 4 months teaching experience in the Latvian education system so I have much more to learn.

The most striking difference for a UK teacher in Latvia is the use of student performance data. In the UK the whole system is data driven. For a teacher it seems to pervade every waking moment of your teaching life; have I analysed my exam data?, have I analysed my school reporting data?, who is meeting target?, who is not meeting target?, why are students not meeting target grades? and on and on it goes. Latvia appears very different. I am not aware of any target grades. I am not even sure if the government does any baseline testing. This lack of target grades certainly reduces one of the main contributors to teacher stress.

The second major difference is the reporting to parents of student attainment. Unlike the UK where reports contain an array of comments and grades for all types of student achievement or non-achievement for all subjects , reporting in Latvia is much more simple. No hours and hours of checking reports for spelling mistakes or grade anomalies. Reports to parents contain an attainment grade for each subject. The grade is calculated by averaging the grades awarded over the semester. One grade for each subject. All work that is marked only receives a grade. No written formative assessment is required. Formative assessment appears to be verbal.

Finally the other major difference appears to be the difference in emphasis between recording what is going to be taught against recording what has been taught. Whereas in the UK hundreds of hours are spent preparing and documenting schemes of work, long term plans, medium term plans and lesson plans, that does not appear to be the case here. The main emphasis appears to be recording what has been taught. This is all recorded on the E-Klase system which all schools use and just needs to be a simple description the like of which a teacher in the UK would record in their planner. I cannot speak for all schools or event all subjects in my school, but I follow the chapters in a textbook for my scheme of work.

So there you have it, the 3 major differences. Which produces the best outcomes for students bis debatable. One final difference; basic teacher salary in Latvia approx. 700 euro/month, in UK approx £2000/month. Still wouldn’t swap my life though.


Posted in education, Latvia, School, Teaching | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Latvian Education Compared

Education, Education, Education Part 2

So weducationhat’s it like for a non-Latvian speaker working in a Latvian state school, I hear you ask. Challenging to say the least. First and foremost, most of my colleagues don’t speak English so staff meeting are very interesting. Secondly all information is, as you might expect, in the Latvian language, so simple things, like finding out when I return to school in the New Year presents all kind of problems.

All the computer systems including the school management system, Windows and Office are all in Latvian. Simple jobs, that in the UK I could logically work out how to do, now take what seems a lifetime to complete. At times, I feel so useless and very isolated. Were it not for the positive feedback I get about my lessons I might be reconsidering my position. The vast majority of students are great and really seem to appreciate the opportunity of having a native English speaker as their teacher.

Before I start to describe the differences between the UK and Latvian education systems I would just like to say a few words about my students. What an amazingly talented group of young people they are, I feel privileged to teach them. I have attended two school concerts this semester and I am just amazed at the high standard of musical competence among the student population. I taught in three schools in the UK, all much bigger than the 250 (approx.) students at our school. I don’t think it would have been possible for any of the schools to match the quality the students here deliver. I suspect this high standard is repeated throughout Latvia, and is largely due to cultural differences and the Latvian passion for music, song and dance. Long may it live.

So, to the differences between the two education systems I’ve observed. Bear in mind that there is not much difference in the relative achievements of students in the UK and Latvia. I believe that according to the OECD the UK is in the top 30 countries for educational achievement and Latvia in the top 40. What should be worrying for both countries is that Estonia and Finland, with populations of 1.3m and 5.4m respectively are in the top 5 countries. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | 14 Comments

Education, Education, Education Part 1

When I started writing this blog I intended to record my first 12months experiences of living in Latvia and then stop. I did wite for 20 months and then stopped. It wasn’t a conscious decision but it dropped down my list of priorities as other pressures mounted.

It’s now 12 months since I lasted posted an update and I felt the need to communicate.

Much has happened in the last year, the most significant being I no longer work in Pinki. Meaning I don’t have to drive the 100+ km to work and back every day. I had thought of retiring but that thought didn’t last long when I considered the financial implications. I was starting to worry a little when it got to May and I still hadn’t figured out what I should do. After all, for a 62 year old non-Latvian speaker, living in the Latvian countryside, the options are limited. Fate, however had plans for me. It appeared that a Latvian teacher of English, at the local secondary school (Vidusskola) had become ill and they needed a substitute teacher, to teach 6 lessons a week, until the end of the school year. I was unaware of this until I received a phone call from the school Head teacher (Direktor) asking could I help them out. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | 3 Comments

Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus

Svillas xmas eve merry christmas

For my English readers the title of this post reads “Merry Christmas”. Why write the title in Latvian you may ask? Has my written Latvian improved significantly? Definitely no!! Am I going mad? Quite possibly if you saw me tonight. So what leads me to this conclusion?

Under the cover of darkness I performed the Latvian custom of Bluķa Vilkšana, which literally means Drag the Block. In short you have to drag/roll a tree stump around the perimeter of your land whilst chanting strange incantations and then burn the stump.   As you roll the block around your land the stump is supposed to collect all the negative energies it comes across and when you burn the block the negative energies are destroyed. In true Latvian style you just have to believe. I was then persuaded to march across a field to two beehives, get down on my knees, put my ear against the hive and see if I could hear any bees buzzing. The theory is that if you can hear any bees, summer will be great. If not, start to pack up now. You can see now why I am questioning my sanity.

So before I go completely mad, I would like to wish all my readers and your families a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you for reading this year and I look forward to more adventures in 2016.


Posted in Latvia | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

No Rubbish Here


I always wanted to reduce my carbon footprint  but living in a flat in London meant it was almost impossible to do so. Now quite by accident and as a consequence of countryside living we have done so.

I remember as a child being sent to the green grocers with a shopping bag, a list and some money. I went home with a bag of fruit and vegetables and less money. Amazingly for the youth of today there were no other bags inside the shopping; the produce I bought wasn’t but in bags. All the produce was just loose inside the bag. With the advent of supermarkets we have gone packing crazy. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | Tagged | 3 Comments

Problem solved

I like my food, particularly meat. As much as I adore freshly grown vegetables and salad, I can’t do without meat. In the UK I can go to any supermarket or butchers shop and buy exactly the cut of meat I need for a particular recipe. Now here is the problem. When I buy meat in Latvia I have great difficulty in recognising  which part of the animal the meat comes from. This is not unusual. I remember as an eleven year old going to buy meat with my dad in a market in Rovinj, a beautiful coastal town in the old Republic of Yugoslavia. We hadn’t a clue what we were looking at in front of us. Continue reading

Posted in Food, Latvia | Tagged | 19 Comments

I don’t know – I was in China

Politicians worldwide are known for making the wrong decisions at the wrong time and Latvian politicians are no exception. Last Friday whilst the very poorly paid teachers of Latvia were on strike, the members of the Saima awarded themselves a large pay increase. On her return from China ,the Prime Minister, Laimdota Straujuma was interviewed by reporters. Her response, “I don’t know anything about this, I was in China”. It would appear that “I don’t  know” is her stock answer when faced with challenging questions, that is unless she is hungry, when she excuses herself because she needs to go for her lunch. Such is the consternation among the Latvian population that she has now become the butt of many jokes lampooning her on the internet (#StraujumaNezina is currently trending on twitter). Continue reading

Posted in Latvia, Politics | Tagged | 32 Comments

King of The Castle – Not me

Many years ago, whilst living the ignorance which comes with inexperience, I foolishly believed that when I became a house owner I would be the King of all I surveyed. With a little more maturity I came to realise that it was not men who ruled the roost but their partners. Unfortunately some men are still deluded enough to believe they are in charge when it just their wives/partners allowing them to continue living in their own fantasy world. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | Tagged | 3 Comments

Latvian Identity – what is it?

What is it, that uniquely identifies a Latvian? For a country where the notion of a Latvian consciousness didn’t appear until the later stages of the nineteenth century, there is certainly a very strong sense of Latvian identity now. Some would say that Latvians are the only true descendants of the ancient Baltic tribes, as the Estonians have many Finnish connections and the Lithuanians have many Polish connections. So what is it that identifies a Latvian? To me it appears to be a passionate defense of some of those old and some new traditions. Continue reading

Posted in Culture, Latvia, Latvian music | Tagged | 6 Comments

Why no improvement?

Driving down the Tallin motorway, as I do four days a week, the poor quality of driving and the high level of unnecessary risk never fails to surprise me. I know I blogged about this topic last year, but having seen no noticeable improvements I decided it was time for a  revisit. Continue reading

Posted in driving, Latvia | Tagged | 8 Comments

A Bountiful Harvest – For our first attempt

Growing your own food successfully is a mystery which only seems to be solved with the passing of time. Inta is a true Latvian so planning in advance is not something which comes naturally. She has to feel what, where, when and how we should plant our fruit and vegetables and if you believe hard enough everything will be ok. I’ve lost count of the number of discussions we had on this subject. However as she has done most of the work, she has had her way with the garden and created a patchwork quilt. It’s interesting she says, no boring straight lines. Continue reading

Posted in Food, Latvia | Tagged | 7 Comments

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry!!!!

I’m in envy of my fellow bloggers who in their busy schedules find time to write their blogs. I know my time management skills aren’t the best but when I started to write this blog I fully expected to at least keep writing it for the first year. I failed miserably. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | 3 Comments

Hommage to Scotland

Latvia and Scotland have more in common than one at first might think. They both produce porridge oats, they produce wonderful dairy products, they grow scrumptious berries and they both produce very drinkable spirits. As everyone knows Scotland produces fantastic whisky, however not many people know that Latvia produces a lovely invigorating tipple known as Rigas Black Balsam. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Latvians take responsibility

One of the most striking differences between the UK and Latvia is the degree to which individuals take personal responsibility for events in their lives and don’t take to the courts or expect the state to sort their problems out. Let me give you a few examples.

In the UK the road systems are designed so that you really need to be an idiot if you are going to have an accident. Motorway junctions all have roundabouts so that traffic entering and exiting at a junction who are travelling in the same direction don’t come into contact with each other. Not so in Latvia. When exiting at a junction you have to be very mindful of vehicles joining the motorway from the inside lane. It is your responsibility to be aware of what is going on around you.  Another major difference are traffic light signals. In the UK when a traffic light changes to green, you can go. Not in Latvia. Continue reading

Posted in Latvia | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments