Riga, Latvia Report of what it's like to live there - 09/21/16
Personal Experiences from Riga, Latvia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
This was not our first expat experience. We have previously lived in Bulgaria and Mexico.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
We have not returned to the U.S. since arriving in Riga. To get here, we traveled from Washington Dulles to Riga via Frankfurt. The total trip took about 15 hours, including a long layover in Frankfurt. Riga has many flights daily/weekly to other large European cities.
3. How long have you lived here?
One year, five months.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We have a very cozy townhouse between Riga city center and the U.S. Embassy. Our neighborhood is quiet, peaceful, and safe. We can walk to Old Riga (about 35 minutes), or ride our bikes, drive, or take a bus. The commute to the embassy is about 10 minutes by car; 20 by bike; 15-20 by bus.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
We can get just about anything we could possibly need here. The cost of food is generally cheaper than in the U.S., with the exception of some specialty items. We are vegan and have had no problems finding groceries and products to fit our lifestyle.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing- in fact, we brought many things with us, not knowing what would and would not be available, only to find that we had over-shopped. However, we don't consume a lot of processed foods.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Riga has a wonderful, wide variety of restaurants. Typical Latvian fare is similar to German food- a lot of meat and potatoes. However, there are many restaurants offering other options, such as Indian, Thai, Italian, and general modern cuisine. There are also many outdoor bars/cafes in warmer weather, and plenty of bakeries as well. There are not many vegan options as far as restaurants go, but there are many vegetarian options. Some restaurants will deliver within a few kilometers of the city.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the DPO at the U.S. Embassy. Amazon Prime packages and mail from the U.S. typically arrive within 10 days or so.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We do not employ any household help; however, some families do, and I believe it is affordable. Most household help is in the way of nannies and housekeepers.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Embassy has a small, basic gym with a couple of treadmills, bikes, and an elliptical machine, as well as weights. This is open to Embassy staff and EFMs 24 hours a day. There are also many local gyms in Riga, as well as a couple of swimming pools. Memberships can range from about 50-100 EUR per month, depending on where.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Yes, yes, and yes. Credit cards can be used just about anywhere (grocery stores, the mall, restaurants), with the exception of perhaps some of the market stalls / vendors. ATMs are very common and safe; just be sure to use one that is affiliated with one of the major banks (Swedbank, Nordea, SEB, Citadele, etc.).
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I believe there are services, but I don't know enough about them to comment.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Many Latvians, especially in Riga, speak excellent English. Latvian is the official national language, although many people also speak Russian (especially older generations). Local language classes are definitely available.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
While Riga is not as accessible as a city of its size would be in the U.S., growth is coming in this area. Ramps and elevators
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. Buses and trams cost 2 EUR per trip; 1 EUR if you purchase a multi-use bus pass. They are safe and reliable. Taxis aren't too expensive either; just make sure to use a reputable company like Riga Red Cab, Baltic Taxi, Panda Taxi, or Taxify and make sure that the driver uses the meter.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
In Riga, you will see cars of all kinds - beat-up old Ladas, as well as huge, shiny Range Rovers, and even Jaguars and Rolls Royces on occasion. The roads are generally good throughout the country. We brought our Honda Civic and have had no problems at all. In the winter months, snow tires are required in Latvia, although all-weather tires meet this requirement. We used our all-weather tires last winter and had no problems. There are dealerships for many different car makes throughout the city.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes! Latvia boasts the 5th-fastest Internet speed in the world, so using the Internet and streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime is very smooth. We were fortunate to arrive to our home with Internet already installed, so I cannot comment on installation.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Many people here use local providers for their smartphones. We kept our U.S. T-mobile Simple Choice international plan (unlimited texting and data; free calling when connected to Wifi; 20 cents/min. when not) and I bought a cheap Nokia to use for local phone calls and texting. I pay 5 EUR a month for my local mobile phone service.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Riga is very pet-friendly. We brought our mid-sized (50-pound) dog here, and she loves it. There are a lot of green spaces for pets, including a couple of off-leash dog parks. When in the city, leashes are technically the law, but many people do not adhere to this law, so just be aware. There are a few stray dogs and cats (more cats than dogs) throughout the city, but often they are at least fed by people. Great vet care is available in English from any of the many veterinary clinics here. I believe there are kennels as well, but we bring our dog to a wonderful, trustworthy Latvian family when we travel, and they take such great care of her. The cost is reasonable. No quarantine is necessary in Riga. There is a rather large tick problem throughout Latvia, so just use caution and make sure to get a good tick collar/preventive.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Many spouses work at the Embassy. I myself am a teacher, and spent my first year teaching at the International School of Latvia, full time. Teaching positions open up there each year, and there are also many opportunities to substitute teach or tutor as well. Some of the other schools likely have opportunities for teaching also.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
I am not familiar with and specific formal volunteer opportunities, but I would imagine that one would be able to volunteer at local schools and orphanages.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Latvians dress very nicely for work- usually business or business casual; the same is true at the Embassy. Formal dress might be required for special events.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
We have felt very safe in Riga. As a woman who often runs very long distances alone, I have always felt very safe, but I exercise caution in keeping aware of my surroundings. Petty crime happens here and there, but I am not aware of any more serious issues.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Tick encephalitis is a concern, but this can be prevented with a series of vaccines given by the Health Unit. The overall quality of medical care, in my experience, is excellent. I had an MRI at a state-of-the-art orthopaedic clinic and have visited the dentist for routine care, as well as a filling, and both experiences exceeded my expectations. The Embassy Health Unit is great and can provide assistance with small issues, such as prescribing some medications and drawing blood, and can refer one to other facilities for more serious issues. Pharmacies are plentiful and well-stocked throughout Riga.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Good air quality with seasonal allergies for some people.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Seasonal allergies are quite common among expats and locals. There are over-the-counter and prescription medications available to help with them.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Yes - SAD is a very real issue here, and is, for me, the most difficult thing about this post. Owing to Latvia's high latitude, the winter months are very dark, with only about 6 hours of cloudy daylight from mid-December to mid-January. I did not realize how difficult that would be until I experienced it. "Happy lamps" are available at the Embassy, though it may not hurt to buy an extra one. Vitamin D levels also tend to drop dramatically during the winter months, so taking a supplement is a good idea. (On the bright side, the summer months offer extra long periods of daylight.)
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Latvia has four distinct seasons - spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The summers can be cool with a few warm or even hot days sprinkled in here and there). Winters aren't too bad- generally in the 20s Fahrenheit, with a few days that may go below 0F. Last winter, we had a couple of snowstorms that left a few inches of snow behind, but nothing too bad.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Most Embassy families send their kids to International School of Latvia (ISL). Some, as well as many other expats, send theirs to International School of Riga (ISR). There is also a French Lycee, a German school, and a new British school is currently under construction. We do not have any children, though I have experience at ISL as a teacher. ISL's students range from age 3 through grade 12 (about 350 in the total student body). Of the aforementioned schools, it is the only IB World School. Most of the teaching faculty is American or Canadian, and many of the support staff members are Latvian. Instruction is given in English, and students have the opportunity to learn a foreign language (Latvian, Russian, German, or French, depending on the grade level).
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
The Learning Support team at ISL works with students who have special needs such as autism, cerebral palsy, emotional/behavioral needs, and mobility needs. Accommodations include accessibility, one-to-one assistants for individual students, and special equipment as needed, etc.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
ISL's preschool is open to kids aged 3 and 4. The fee for this is around 9,000 EUR per year. I am not familiar with other preschools and day care facilities.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes- there are many local sports clubs, and ISL offers after school activities for its students.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community in Riga is quite large, and morale tends to be fairly high, as this is a safe place with many things to do.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
It seems that there is always some kind of festival happening, and there is no shortage of cultural events. Bars, restaurants, and cafes are plentiful, offering many places to meet and socialize.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
As a couple with no children, we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here. We can go to the ballet, the cinema, out to eat, etc. I can imagine that for singles who want to meet new people, it may be difficult, though the Internations group organizes various activities where people can come together. Embassy Riga has a number of families with children, and our wonderful CLO is always organizing activities and outings.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There is one LGBTI association in Riga, and it is working steadfastly to promote change and greater acceptance of the LGBTI community. Overall, I imagine that Riga would be a difficult place to be openly LGBTI, as homophobia is unfortunately still quite common. However, in 2015, Riga hosted a successful EuroPride event- a sign that change is happening, albeit gradually.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Latvia is quite homogenous when it comes to ethnic diversity and the recent relocation of refugees has shown another area in which acceptance of change is slow-going. While I am not aware of any issues involving violence, the attitude toward the refugees has been unwelcoming overall (of course, not for everyone). Tension between Latvians and Russians is on-going, due to the country's long and difficult history.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Running everywhere and anywhere, exploring Latvia's beautiful nature, and generally feeling very comfortable and safe.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There is a lot of history here, with many sights to see. Latvia's national parks and green spaces are also scenic and offer great hiking and camping opportunities.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Crafts such as hand-knit mittens, wooden toys and trinkets, amber jewelry, and linens are among the most popular. These items are available year-round at local shops and some markets. Each June, there is a huge folk art fair at the ethnographic museum, where visitors can find just about any craft imaginable.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It is very safe, not overwhelmingly large, and easy to get around.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes! We don't want to leave.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
expectations of fast, smiley customer service. While it does exist in some places, patience and flexibility are good things to practice.
4. But don't forget your:
Warm coat and sweaters, happy lamp, and camera.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I can't think of any particular titles, but reading about Latvia's history and, especially, the last 100 years, will provide a valuable understanding of Latvia's place in the world and its people today.