From one-bedroom flat to three-storey house. Latvians in the UK.

By Laura Appena

This is it – the first story of LIFE IN ONE CIRCLE! Here are three reasons why we wanted it to be about Latvian family living in the United Kingdom. First, because we are Latvians ourselves :) Second, most of the Latvians that have emigrated, currently live in the UK – more than 100 thousand or more than 5%. Third, we decided to start with a family that we know very well – my cousin’s family.


From one-bedroom flat to three-storey house


Normunds, my cousin, was born and raised in Latvia. At one point, he tried living and working in Norway and Spain. And almost 8 years ago, when the world had been hit hard by the financial crisis, he decided to move to the United Kingdom. In Latvia, he couldn’t find a job. His family lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and had a hard time making ends meet. Selection of the destination where to move, was not a specific choice, but rather circumstantial. Our mutual cousin had already moved to Grantham – a small town in the middle of England. And Normunds decided to join him. First, he went there by himself, and for nine months, Madara, his significant other, and their kids were staying in Latvia. After finding work and a place to stay in Grantham, he bought plane tickets for his family. They are now living in a decent three-storey house with a backyard, one of those row-type houses, quite typical in the UK (also called terraced or townhouses). So, enough room for everyone. Masalski family joke that their house is like a hotel. They have opened their doors to several friends and relatives to live there while looking for a place to stay. By the way - a fun fact - famous Sir Isaac Newton went to school in Grantham! ;)

The oldest child, Rudolfs, had just celebrated his 6th birthday, so he was almost a school kid, when they moved. Before I met him this January, I hadn’t seen him for almost 5 years, which is quite a lot for a boy his age. So, I almost didn’t recognize him. It seemed to me that he looks totally like a British teenager. And he considers himself as such. But he knows that his roots are Latvian. He knows Latvian language and speaks with a cute accent. His brother, Markuss, had just turned 2, when they moved to the UK. Or as Normunds put it – “still in diapers” :) He was still practically a baby. Ok, toddler. But still, all the learning to talk happened in England. They spoke Latvian at home, but in the kindergarten, where much of his time was spent, he communicated in English. Now he is 9, and he knows some Latvian words, but over the years, he has gotten to a point, where basically all his conversations are in English. 


At school or any other places where they hang out with other kids, they have never experienced being treated differently, just because they are not natives. Both kids are very much immersed in the local society, and they feel like they belong. As for their parents – being adults, they naturally are aware of the fact that they are newcomers not locals (Normunds more often than Madara though), but luckily, they have not had any unpleasant or hostile experiences.


Meet Masalski family


First of all, we want to thank for the warm welcome and hospitality that we were shown while visiting Masalski family who were so kind and brave to be the first participants of our project. So let me shortly introduce you to them.

Normunds believes that being a hardworking employee and performing at your best is the way to go, no matter what job you do. He does repair works, mostly at houses, flats and schools. Last year he bought his first car. And this summer he plans to take his family on a trip to Scotland. He is quite strict but very sincere, and he always goes out of his way to help the people he cares for.


Madara is very warm-hearted and optimistic, smiling and laughing a lot. She is usually the first one up in the morning, brewing the coffee and making sure that everything is ready for the kids to start their school day. And then she gets on her bike and goes off to work in the pet food packaging factory. Oh, and, by the way, she makes amazing tomato soup!


Rudolfs is 13 years old. He is one of the best students in his class. For good grades, he has earned a gift voucher, tickets to a live concert, trip to a seaside town and even a meeting with Princess Anne from the British royal family! Rudolfs reads books, sometimes trying to read in Latvian. And two short stories of his own are printed in a book. He won the competition of Young Writers – a company that encourages young people to enjoy creative writing by seeing their work in print.  


Markuss is the silent type who prefers spending time alone and is not a big fan of chitchat. And then there are those moments when he suddenly shows off his adorable dance moves :) He also expresses himself through action – he loves kicking football with friends and training in ju jitsu martial arts, same as his brother. By the way, they started practicing that after watching the Karate Kid movie. Markuss is nine and when he grows up, he wants to be a chef. He likes to help his mom in kitchen, especially when she makes pancakes.


Masalski family spends their free time relaxing at home, watching movies or sometimes playing board games. Though, kids prefer video games much more :) When the weather is nice, they enjoy going to park. On weekends they often visit their Latvian friends who also live in Grantham. And, on a regular basis, they Skype with the grandma, the mom of Normunds, who live in Latvia, as well as with his younger sister, who moved to Canada, short after they had moved to England.


Fingerprint scanners and pet food packaging factory


We almost visited the school of Rudolfs and Markuss, to do small photo session there. Yep, unfortunately almost. After first agreeing to let us do that, couple of days before our trip to Grantham, the school sent us an email, saying that they regretfully decline our request. Oh well, it is what it is. At least we got to take picture of both kids at the big school fence :) 

By the way, to get inside the school, all kids must be checked in by fingerprint scanners. They also pay for their lunch by fingerprints. So, the schools over there are pretty high-tech. Normunds and Madara are very happy with the UK education system. And most of all – with teachers, doing their best to take individual approach to each student, considering his unique personality.


So, we did not get the opportunity to visit the school, but we did get a chance to see the workplace of Madara. Her boss Paul was so kind to arrange the photo shoot. And he gave us a tour around the place. Not sure if that’s because he is so friendly or because his hobby is photography. Or both :) But jokes aside, we really appreciate him and all the other people who have helped us to move forward with this project and make it more interesting and diverse.

“Henry Bell”, the company where Madara works, is one of the major players in the UK pet food industry. Interesting that half of her colleagues are foreigners. Mostly from Eastern Europe. And even one guy from Brazil. While Madara is being modest about her job performance, Paul admits that she is one of the best employees. She is trustworthy, hardworking, always shows up on time, does not only all the assigned tasks but even more. As she has a background in visual arts, Paul has given her a chance to develop this talent by helping out with label design.


Missing loved ones and Latvian celebrations


With each of the families in our project we do a video interview, asking them various questions about their experience. And one of them is about gains and losses. So, what is it that they miss the most, after moving away from Latvia? The first thing that came up was family and relatives who live back home. As Madara told us, the hardest part is when she looks at pictures from a gathering of family or friends, and she is not in those pictures. Talking about family pics – I stumbled upon an old photo of our extended family in the kids’ room, taken at a get-together party when they still lived in Latvia. Ok, frankly, that was the only photo there. Kinda made me feel special, seeing myself on the wall in the bedroom of my little relatives.


When they get a bit home-sick from time to time, they usually listen to Youtube playlist of Latvian songs. Mostly hits from the 80s – from their childhood years and from those times when Latvia fought to become an independent country.

The lyrics of those deeply national songs in some way reflect their longing for the things they have left behind. But then the daily life kicks in again and they remember, why they made that decision in the first place. As Normunds said, you must live where you feel good. Madara adds that her home is where her family is. Since also her parents moved to the same town recently, she has even more reasons now to stay in the UK than return to Latvia.


Another thing they miss is Latvian midsummer festival. I would say it’s the biggest and most typical Latvian national celebration, with bonfires, beer and songs. There is no Latvian expat community club formed in Grantham, and obviously Latvian holiday is not a bank holiday in the UK. So, working full-time jobs, they usually just have a small party with few of their Latvian friends who live nearby.


Normunds considers Latvia as his one and only motherland, and he is strongly committed to return to Latvia at one point or another – before (and I quote him here!) taking his last breath. Anyhow, it will be rather later than sooner. Both parents are in total agreement that, even if some things changed and they considered moving back to Latvia, that would happen only after both kids have graduated from school. The alternative plan for Normunds and Madara is fulfilling a dream to spend their retirement years, soaking up the sun in Spain :)


What about your own experience? What is your opinion and attitude towards your fellow citizens that have left the country or foreigners that live in yours? Are you perhaps also a Latvian living in the UK? Maybe of another origin, living somewhere abroad? How is your life there? Share in the comments below!