From Latvia with love

Written by Russ Benning

How well do you really know your friends?

When is the last time you sat down and listened to their story, prompted by a few intentional questions?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me this month.

The email I received was giving me the brief as normal. I had to double take because it seemed so familiar to me…

I get a message shortly after telling me “it’s actually one of your friends and you know her well!”

Third message that day was from my friend and member of our local friend group (shout out the Epic Weirdos!), Baiba Grinberga. She had heard the news, was obviously excited and could’t wait for me to contact her to set up a time. I had to chuckle.

The opportunity and a giant penny-drop moment didn’t hit me until much later.

I arrive to her house and exchange the usual big hugs and pleasantries. We make our way out to her balcony, welcoming us with lovely nature views. I realise it’s the first time I’ve been there that hasn’t been either a photo-shoot, or a gathering of some description with others from our social group.

I spot two enormous, ceramic containers of some thick, white fluid, sitting in the sunlight. I go a little closer and ask Baiba what they are.

“Cheese!”, she replies.

It was a Latvian specialty, left to curdle in the sun. Upon further questioning it turned out she was hosting a traditional celebration that weekend for the local Latvian community, honouring the ‘Summer Solstice’ (Latvia is in the Northern Hemisphere).

This doesn’t surprise me at all! Baiba’s nickname in the group chat was fittingly, “Hostess with the Mostess”. She’s very well known for organising and going above and beyond with our gatherings. There’s never a hungry mouth or a dull moment when she is around. Oh, remind me to tell you about how hilariously out of hand our games of charades get when Baiba is running the show. For now I’ll just say that one little letter ‘p’ can make a monumental difference to a word one is trying—completely in vein—to act out! More on the hilarity of the language barrier later.

I love writing these articles, in no small part, due to my love of people and making new connections. It was a whole different experience to dedicate a solid session to ‘interview’ a friend I’ve known for so long and shared so many experiences with.

It was engrossing, hearing her speak about some of the differences between our cultures.

“In Latvia it’s very cold, so the families have to be very tight-knitted to survive. They rely on each other. Like, if you didn’t grow your potatoes, you’re dead. It’s very intense. But if your crop is weak and a sibling or a cousin’s crop is strong, you can exchange and everyone survives.

“In Australia, it’s like you guys are all on holiday mode, like permanently. Everyone is very relaxed.”

It was quite beautiful for me to hear some highlights of my own country through the lens of an expat from abroad.

Baiba continues to share and in my head I paint a picture of some type of mystical, elven land. She produces her phone to show me a video of a particular summer celebration and I see that I’m really not far off.

This particular event is a choir of 16 thousand people singing to a crowd of 30 thousand! Even more significant when you realise the entire population is just one and a half million people—roughly the population of Adelaide.

“Yeah, we like singing and dancing.”

Baiba, having been here for almost 14 years now, gets to enjoy both countries holidays. As we explore this notion, she shares that most of the holidays in Latvia are in summer. Continuing the theme of seasons, she went on to talk about how in Latvia, people rest a lot in winter and autumn (because of the extreme cold and the short, dark days). Moving to Queensland where the weather is quite enviable all year round, she noticed that she never got the rest here.

“It’s all go go go, all the time, all year round! It can be exhausting.”

I was interested and proud to hear some of the reasons Australia is such an attractive proposition to expats.

“I like that it’s young. There’s not so many cultural rules. It allows many cultures. You can make it here.

“Because it’s a young country it’s easier for foreigners to come here and establish themselves.
“Everyone fits here. Australia is alike a tapestry. It’s a hotpot (it took us a couple of tries to get the correct translation of this one!), all different ingredients.”

I had to pause and reflect on this. I knew this intellectually, but it was only when I heard it from someone—a friend at that—who had come here and added to our ‘hotpot’ that it really sunk in.

“You’re very lucky here” she added as if to read my mind.

“It’s very easy to make friends here. Especially in Hervey Bay. A lot of people here, especially my age, haven’t been here their whole life. It makes it easier to approach them.”

Being raised in a country where work is akin to survival, Baiba, as a result, has an outstanding work ethic.

She studied Geology in Latvia and completed her masters here in Brisbane. Now working as a supervisor in the mining industry, we laughed about how it is for a tall, blonde, foreign woman to work in the mines.

“Yeah, it’s challenging. Especially for older men, Australian men, but yeah, I don’t let them walk over me. Especially when they first arrive, they have a few questions, haha. But I enjoy it. I enjoy working with men, they’re straight shooters.

“They sometimes make fun of my sayings or phrases. It’s all in fun. They’re usually quite interested in my culture because it’s different.”

Not one to sit still, she also owns a cleaning business, that she started in the early days of the pandemic. She started doing it herself, then hired one to replace her when she was at work, now, Personal Maids has 25 staff.

I didn’t know how much it had grown to be honest. I didn’t know half of the details of her current life. I knew almost nothing of her story before Australia and very little of the Latvian culture.

I loved our chat! I loved reconnecting and talking about things we probably wouldn’t usually have.

This was the penny-drop moment and from this, I decided I’m going to ‘Interview’ more of my close friends! I want to dedicate time to really learn more about them and their stories.

I’m grateful to have some pretty awesome people in my circle and I’m looking forward to learning more about them.

What about you? Is this something you’d like to prioritise in your own life?

How well do you really know your friends?