Saturday, July 25, 2009

Where are the queues? - Impressions from Latvia

If someone would like to visualize the Great Depression of the last century - the one that shaked the world between 1929 and 1933, with far reaching consequences - the first images to pop up would almost certainly be those monochrome ones with horrified people incredulously looking at the headlines or each other, incapable to grasp that a life's savings were lost literally in one moment, or the ones with peoples in ragged clothes queuing in front of a kitchen for the poor, hoping for their daily soup. Not that it was necessarily the general appearance of that crisis, but poverty, misery, hopelessness is dominant in its memory, and somehow defines our visual perception as well. Black and gray, shabby places, rags, dust and dirt.

In the last week I had the opportunity to visit Latvia and travel a bit around the country as well as in its capital, Riga. The primary aim of this journey was not to collect experiences from the middle of the crisis, it was a quite ordinary trip, at least it was simply a kind of holiday, even though our host proved to be an extraordinary one. But anyway, it is almost impossible to forget about the circumstances and the experiences and discoveries of a traveller, however vague, contourless and obscure they could be, will be measured against the background of the present economic misery. Even though if one is aware of the problems with such experiences, the usual behavior of foreigners either to miss the deeper context or to perceive a given place in a stereotypical, often contemptous way or admiring it without real basis and placing it in an uneven and unequal relationship with one's own country.

At the moment the first impression of a superficial traveller would be that Latvia is quite a normal place, where the signs of the crisis are still not visible. Thriving nightlife in Riga, shamlessly high prices, tens of thousands of young people at a pop-rock festival, middle class Latvians making boat trips, German, Italian etc. tourist groups do not signall the inevitable collapse or at least extraordinarily painful adjustment suggested by the economic data and commentators.

The signs of the problems are there of course, we spent our days next to a newly erected residential area, where only one flat from 280 had tenants and after some days spent in the country someone will inevitably make a hint for the spending cuts affecting people, first of all pensioners. But the crisis was not an everyday topic in the circles we were fortunate enough to move in, and even among those who mentioned it - besides those, who addressed the substantial issues as well - some people were speaking of it as being exclusively the fault of reckless banks lending money for those who are not capable to repay it. There was no explicit despair, feeling of the inevitable end etc. Latvia was rather colorful - vivid green, white sand, paler blue sea, yellow, blue and purple flowers, deep blue of blueberries and slowly reddening cranberries in front of the background of harsh green mosses, red bricks of the churches in Riga, light blue, yellow and shining white buildings - not the grey and black. (Ok, dust exists, but it wouldn't be ECE if just next to the National Theater one wouldn't find a shabby road with a dust covered tramway track :) )

Of course any of these observations (better to call them impressions as they weren't the result of any thorough examination or discovery) are only superficial and have no broader relevance. They can at best be anecdotal evidence, nothing else. And there are clear signs of the boom-bust economy, almost everyone uses a car at least one category higher than would be affordable according to their income compared to the "West", BMWs, Audis, Lexuses, Volvos, Mercedeses are running on the roads (otherwise infrastructure was not a favorite destination of money for investment, at least as far as I could have assessed), real estate prices were in an incredible height etc. But on the whole, up to this moment it is rather a pleasant crisis, still nobody really hurt, far from the apocalyptic imaginations. Not that it can forecast anything relevant for the future, it is just a single moment, frozen for eternity...

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