This week Latvia lost another family. The Birgelis family from Puikules moved to Germany to start a new life, as they couldn’t earn enough money even for bread in Latvia. The story from Puikule: about those that have left and the people who remain.
Puikule is a small settlement in northern Latvia, between Limbazi and Aloja. Its centre is a 19th century neo-gothic manor house now serving as a school. Three-storey residential buildings and a row of “Livani” (Soviet-era apartment buildings) on the main street dominate the rest of the village – a typical result of Soviet rural development planning. There are hundreds like it in Latvia.
The stories emerging from Puikule and the people one meets there are also typical. In nearly every village in Latvia lying away from regional centres and main roads, people have similar experiences.
Help from the “food parcel”
Nurse Inita Luste – Eglīte (41) invites us into her apartment, apologizing for the dampness. One smells the mould on entering. Although the building is insulated and there are plastic-framed windows on one side, it’s clear that there’s something amiss with this Soviet era building. Inita says that in the autumn everything is so damp that her youngest son can only be persuaded with great difficulty to put on his clothes in the morning, if they have been absorbing the humidity all night.
Inita got into medicine more than twenty years ago, having completed her studies at the Cesis Nursing School which has been closed down. She wanted to stay in Cesis, but the young nurse was promised an apartment in Limbazi. However, Inita never actually ended up getting it, as with the end of the Soviet system the program of state guaranteed apartments also ended. Due to various turns of fate Inita and her three daughters lived in rented apartments before coming to Puikule. The two-room apartment in which she lives with her two daughters and her pre-school age son (the oldest daughter is married and living in Valmiera) hasn’t been renovated for many years. She can’t put aside enough money for renovations from her wage, which is a little over 200 lats (285 euros), and Inita isn’t convinced that she’ll remain living here. When she once asked the local council for the financial support to improve her apartment, she was told that, as she didn’t work in Puikule and the village gained no benefit from her, there was no reason to help her. Not long afterwards the head of the council ended up in Limbazi Hospital, and Inita had to connect him to a support system.
“I went up to him and said – well should I connect you or not? I don’t contribute anything positive to the people in the council area,” Inita didn’t shy away of reminding him about the local council’s attitude towards her.
After the hospital reforms at the end of 2009, Inita had to leave her work at Limbazi Hospital and she now works as a nurse at two kindergartens. By doing so, she gets full-time employment and a post-tax wage of 230 lats (237 euros). After the collapse of the Soviet Union and liquidation of the local kolhoz, Inita’s husband, Girts Eglitis worked in a sawmill. “At that time, everyone headed for the sawmills. There weren’t any other jobs in the countryside.”
However, when the large Scandinavian wood processing companies entered Latvia, the small rural sawmills went bankrupt one after the other. “After that everyone went into construction, including me. I knew people in Riga.” But with the end of the building boom, many of Girt’s colleagues left Latvia. Currently, Girts has some casual construction work in Riga and his income is fairly irregular as a consequence.
“If you get less than 90 lats per person, then you can apply for “needy” status. We don’t get 90 lats per person,” – says Inita. However, the first time the municipality refused the first application for support. The next time it made a one-time payment to cover 60 lats (85 euros) of utility expenses and for a 500 kW electricity bill.
Therefore she and Girts must think of ways of economizing. The kitchen has only cold water, with the hot water having been disconnected. The dishes are washed in a bowl with warm water and get rinsed under a cold water tap. “Otherwise, as you wash a cup, the boiler gets heated up and the electricity meter just keeps turning,” explains Girts.
When Girt was without work for four months in a row, Inita tried to manage with short-term credit, according to the principle “take one, give back the other,” as she didn’t want to incur the penalty interest on their unpaid electricity and gas bills. But the loan offers of such firms is favourable only the first time you use them, when you don’t have to pay any interest. Now Inita recognizes that to pay ten lats a month interest on a one hundred lat loan is very disadvantageous and drives one only further into debt.
Recently the washing machine which had served Inita for 20 years broke down. There’s no point in dreaming about getting a new one, and now the washing gets boiled on the stove in a copper, just like in the old times. One has to do without a lot of other things too.
The shortage of money also affects eating habits and options. “We don’t buy any meat. My child only sees meatballs at kindergarten,” says Inita. But being an optimist, she’s able to look at the situation positively. “We have enough to get by, we’ve got enough food, we’re clothed, it’s not that bad yet. We have a vegetable garden and I plant carrots, potatoes and cucumbers. The cellar has been filled with jars for the winter. I also receive the Food Parcel (the EU’s free food parcel), we also have grits. That’s the only assistance we get. But we take it and why not if they’re giving it?”
But even for the greatest optimist, living like this for an extended period is difficult. Inita admits that she stays in Puikule only because her son has to finish kindergarten there and that she’s thought about leaving Latvia on more than one occasion. During summer, her friends gave her a present of a two week holiday in Ireland. Inita enjoyed it there and she looks optimistically at learning the language. As she herself says: “You can plough your way through a language, it’s not that bad.”
However, what Inita would like most is to return to her profession at the hospital.
“I’m still drawn back to the hospital. Operations and tense situations, that’s my calling,” says Inita. Currently, she’s been actively contacting her former fellow students and is weighing up the possibility of moving to Cesis or Riga to work in one of the hospitals.
Sandis Birgelis (32) is spending his last days in Puikule, where he was born, until the flight which will take him, his sons Davis (4), Lauris (1) and his mother Sarmite (58) to Germany. His wife Kristine has already been living and working there for more than eight months. At the time of our meeting, their departure was only ten days away.
In previous years this carpenter’s and musician’s family couldn’t complain about their living conditions. After his service in the Latvian army, Sandis worked in a joinery in Sigulda and received a wage on which he could fully support his family. That’s why they decided to have another child when their first son was a little older. Unfortunately the joinery company went bankrupt, and to “make ends meet” they moved to Sandis’ mother’s place at Puikule.
At first Sandis got a carpenter’s job making furniture at Korgene which is 30 km away, but after a few months the owner of the joinery could only pay him 20 lats (28 euros) a week. “The money didn’t even cover the cost of petrol for getting me there,” remarked Sandis, explaining why he quit the job.
He remembers the ensuing period as the bleakest in his life. With tears in his eyes, he recounts how he felt when his son asked him for some bread and he had to reply that he couldn’t buy any because there was no money. For many months, while living without any money and surviving only on the potatoes and other vegetables they grew in their own garden, the realization that their only option was to emigrate became more and more clear. They got in contact with his wife’s sister who had already been living in Germany for a number of years and asked her to help them find work for at least one of them. They agreed that whoever got the first job would go. It turned out that the first job offer was in a laundry and his wife Kristine, after considering it for a long time, agreed to go. Their youngest son was only eight months old at the time.
“These months were like a complete nightmare for us,” remembers Sandis, talking about the family separation they endured. His mother added that the children often called her “mother”, although she is their grandmother. “In the evenings we talk on Skype and cry. Luckily that will finally be over.”
Asked about job opportunities here in Latvia, in Limbazi or Riga, Sandis replies: if we didn’t have children, we definitely wouldn’t leave. We’d make ends meet right here and get by somehow. He and his wife stayed till the very last moment as they consider themselves to be Latvian patriots. But currently it isn’t possible to earn enough even in Riga, with two children, paying rent for an apartment, food and clothing for them, a babysitter for the younger one and kindergarten for the older one. In Germany Kristine has just rented a three room apartment for the whole family and organized a kindergarten for the youngest one and a job for Sandis.
Sandis’ mother plans to spend the first three months with the children in Germany, to help them get settled and to look after the little ones. After that she’ll return to Puikule where she too was born. Asked about job opportunities here, she replied, that nobody wants to take on near pension-age people. She tried to apply for work at the Aloja Potato Starch Factory, but received a direct reply of “ You’re too old for us”. Now Sarmite does some seasonal work at the potato complex for 5 lats (7 euro) per day or finds other casual work for 2-3 lats per day. Asked if the amount doesn’t seem a little small, she snapped back: “At least it’s some money.”
Sandis says: the closer the moment of departure approaches, the more emotional he becomes. In the depths of his heart he understands that they most likely won’t be returning. The rental agreement in Germany has been signed for a three year period and this corresponds directly with the time that their oldest son Davis has to start his first year of school.
“If nothing has changed for the better in Latvia, most likely he’ll be going to a German school. Our youngest son too will be learning to speak in an environment where he is surrounded by the German language. I think that‘s it. Obviously, we’ll be visiting my mother in Puikule during the summer holidays and we’ll definitely be speaking Latvian at home, but it’ll all be completely different.”
Sandis, on our walk around Puikule, points to the various windows of a building and tells us how many have left each apartment, inferring that it’s mainly the pensioners who are left. “My little one says – father, I want to go outside to play. I ask him – where do you want to go little one? There are no other children of your age out there. “That doesn’t matter, I’ll play alone,” he replies. In my childhood, there were just so many children here, but now only one person from my school class lives in Puikule. I look around at what’s happening and can’t understand, does it suit somebody that Latvia is losing its people?””
Deer garden for Brussels
Although there are about 300 inhabitants registered in Puikule, the opinions of those who remain are divided about the number. The Head of the Brivzemnieki Rural Municipality (Puikule is the centre of the rural municipality), Arvids Berzins, thinks that about a third have gone, which is the typical ratio for Latvian countryside.
However, Raimonds Logins (43) whom, we met at the local shop and who currently works in construction in Riga, says that no more than a hundred people live in Puikule. Having travelled to different countries and having done different kinds of work in England and France, Raimonds has returned home to his family. He found a job in Riga and leaves each Sunday night, returning on the Friday night.
“Dombrovskis is trying to get us through this crisis on the shoulders of those people who have an affinity with this country and its environment and who want their children to go to a Latvian school. If I wasn’t like this, long ago I would have left forever.” Raimonds mentions that the only positive feature is that the local council is trying to fix the infrastructure, the roads, waterworks and the lighting. “It’s important that those who leave have a place to return. Perhaps after a couple of years something will change and those people who want to come back will find it pleasant to return here.”
The manager of the local shop, Inguna Krauze, says that the government’s declarations that the lowest point had already been reached and that Latvia is successfully emerging from the crisis aren’t true in Puikule. Turnover at the shop is continually falling. The reasons for this are that many people from Puikule have left for other countries and the fact that people who spend the week working in one of the regional centres buy their food at a supermarket there. The only steady source of income is from pensioners, but even their numbers are decreasing with the years. Inguna is convinced that if she hadn’t taken out a loan for shop fittings, she would have left long ago.
Inguna’s partner, Ivars, comes from Cesis. His previous family broke up due to economic migration. “My wife went off to work overseas and after a while I found out that she was pregnant to someone else. That’s how our family life came to an end. But, everything in life gets better. Now I have a wonderful girlfriend and I can’t see the slightest reason to feel bad,” says Ivars with a smile on his face.
The people of Puikule, like many residents of country villages in Latvia, consider that those in power don’t really understand their situation and are unaware of the harsh reality out in the countryside. The saying goes – “the regions have to develop, go out and form companies, think and do it!” But what can be done in a village where there are one hundred people, the bus to the nearest town only goes three times a day, plus its timetable doesn’t correspond with people’s hours of work? The locals also maintain that bureaucracy makes the establishment and running of small businesses burdensome – both the often unjustifiably high demands of the Food and Veterinary Service, as well as the State Revenue Service’s attitude towards small businesses. Only very smart people can survive in such a situation. What can the rest do? “You work and work, but you can’t earn enough, no matter how much you work. In this situation, weaker willed people just turn to the bottle, while the rest leave,” adds Raimonds.
When asked about solutions, the locals are of one mind – the operations of small businesses in the countryside must be facilitated and the government should clearly define and honestly inform people what’s going to happen to these former kolkhoz centres. “Should everyone move to the cities or to larger regional centres? Well, then say so – there’s no future where you are, you should all leave!”
In 2001, three years before Latvia joined the European Union, Latvia’s Long-term Economic Strategy was developed and was full of determination, saying that the “regional development policy must ensure an increase in the competitiveness of all Latvian regions on a European and global scale, as well as creating equal living and working opportunities for all residents of the nation.” But Latvia’s Long-term Economic Strategy to the Year 2030 (Latvija 2030) which was developed in 2010 has changed this determination with a different goal: “A significant challenge for the future is to maintain and develop the countryside as a high quality living and working space, fully utilizing the diverse economic development potential.”
The people of Puikule speak ironically about this, saying: by continuing in this manner, after 50 years the Latvian countryside will be a deer park, where the gentlemen of Brussels will come for hunting expeditions.