September 30 always loomed in my mind as my last day in Latvia. So when I heard about my seven-week early transfer back to the US, I had already been getting psychologically prepared for repatriation. The reality of the quick leave-taking still put me off balance.
A deep part of me must have been missing America. My evidence is the out of the blue reactions to a couple of movies Peggy and I saw before we left Riga. The first was the opening scenes of Twister. Huge fields, honest farmers, land of milk and honey, a patient country. I found myself getting all choked up over a place and way of life-Oklahoma farming-that I had never experienced, for cryin' out loud.
The second was even sillier. Remember the parade near the beginning of Dante's Peak? Summer. Small town. Red, white and blue. Brass band music. Ordinary Americans. I got all choked up again. I was amazed. "C'mon Brent, buck up," I told myself. "Brass band music is a contradiction in terms." Sure, I'm putty in the hands of movie directors, too, because I don't distinguish movies and real life when I'm in a darkened room seeing people larger than life. But these strong responses showed a part of me was longing to go back.
So I returned. What about my re-entry shock? What has my reverse culture shock been like?
In Riga, the capital of Latvia, I happily lead a car-free life. I didn't have to worry about the cost of gas, the hassle of parking, the greed of bribe-hungry cops, or the thievery of bad guys. In Buffalo I have to have a car, because public transportation isn't convenient. I loved to commute on foot in Central Riga, but here I feel like it's not always possible or pleasant. True, I walk a mile to my bus stop, but can I do that in the infamous Buffalo winter? Though Western NY drivers are slower and more cautious, they are only slightly less inconsiderate to pedestrians than drivers in Riga.
Fear of crime must be in the air or water here. In Riga I was watchful and wary, but I wasn't scared. For the first couple weeks here, I was really on edge. Since mid-August the fear of crime has receded to the back of my mind. I only sometimes fret about opportunists looking for the lone jogger to vent some bitterness on.
I shopped in the stores of Riga after work, so shopping at 9 p.m. was leisurely for the most part. Now I often must shop after work in the 5 to 6:30 p.m. prime time when all the frickin' boomers are making certain every store is jammed because they shop for food every damn day. Why can't they bloody shop on Saturday mornings like their parents used to (yeah, yeah, I know, if you're part of the crowd, don't complain of the crush)? The stores here, incidentally, are filled with produce totally unavailable in Riga: parsnips, calabashes, starfruit, to name just a few. The choice is astonishing.
To give Buffalo its due, people tend to be a lot friendlier in stores, and the checkout people sometimes make conversation with me here, whereas they were a bit abrupt or rude in Latvia at times. Stores in Latvia were smaller, and also there were outdoor shopping areas along impressive (though crowded) streets. Here shopping is in ever bigger grocery stores and malls (getting bigger all the time since I was a kid). Walking around in Home Depot is like walking in an airplane hanger.
In Europe the only time I would watch TV was in hotels on our rare vacations. There TV viewers aren't bombarded by tile same kind of commercials as they are here. European commercials have a slower pace. In keeping with traditions established by silent movies, pictures tell the whole story with a minimum of dialogue (to save translating costs). The editing is unhurried.
Sometimes if I'm watching TV here, I think, 'What, am I crazy?" Every few minutes my brain is bombarded with messages about all the things I supposedly need or want. The commercials are frenzied, with scores of images skillfully if frantically edited together. I sometimes feel overstimulated, fatigued, and nauseated if I watch US TV for more than two hours. Also there are a lot of billboards doing the same thing outside. How did we Americans come to accept the constant onslaught of advertising as just part of the landscape, as unalterable as the weather?
Riga has about a million people in its metro area. It has a high population density, but they have plenty of green spaces near the center of the city. Buffalo has parks but they are mainly for sports and picnics. Also, to me, it seems peculiar to drive to a park so you can walk in it.
Here's a strange thing. Big differences are easy to accept and tolerate so Riga versus Buffalo is no problem. But trivial differences between Buffalo and Detroit are annoying. For example, finding bagel-like bagels is easier in Detroit. Or, Motown has better video rentals. Faced with such a minor Buffalo vs. Detroit difference, I find myself mildly derisive and ready to brag on Detroit's edge. My pugnacity amuses me but I hope that I can keep it out of my conversation.
Rigans and Buffalonians suffer from the ignorance of outsiders. When I lived in Latvia, a visiting professor from Canada said to me, "When I was accepted for reaching in Latvia, the first thing I did was go look for it on the map!" A Latvian once told me he was asked by a US citizen, "Is Latvia near Nigeria?" Similarly, Buffalo people forever have to explain, "I'm from the state, not the city." The state of New York is huge and diverse so it seems a shame that only New York City is world famous. Buffalo ought to be famous for its chicken wings, its honest blue-collar ways, Martha Stewart, and the first guy to be executed in the electric chair.
People in Riga and Buffalo differ in their attitudes about their own cities. Rigans acknowledge that their city has its problems, but are also very proud of its beauty and place in history. They are proud of the technological and manufacturing traditions too. Some Buffalonians, on the other hand, have a dreadful inferiority complex. They go on about the climate; they miss the industry of 30 years ago when steel and carmakers employed a lot more people than they do now. So marked is this inferiority complex that the arrival of' Starbucks was greeted as a sign of Buffalo not being that far behind the first tier cities after all.
Let's talk about what's similar, however. On the lighter side, people in Riga and Buffalo are loyal to local beers. Order Aldaris Golden in Riga and O.V. and Genny in Buffalo. People in both places like greasy food made with meat just this side of rancid. Riga is the capital of the Greasy Karbonade (Pork Chop). Buffalonians take nearly inedible chicken wings, fry them in grease, slather them with hot sauce, and then dip them in blue cheese dressing. At least you get celery with this too. Unbelievable.
Both the Rigans and Buffalonians must re-consider their economic strengths and attract investment in new ways. How can traditionally blue-collar manufacturing-oriented economies such as Riga's and Buffalo's reorient themselves to compete in the 21st century?
One problem is that both must deal with the fact that their leaders are stuck in old ways of thinking and doing business. After reading the local papers for a couple of months, during bad moments, I feel that the politicians in Buffalo and Central and Eastern Europe are all too similar. They are like vultures fighting over a decaying carcass. Places like Buffalo and second cities in former bloc countries are dying because there are no jobs and the young people are leaving.
The response of the politicians? All they worry about is their political games and acting like a bunch of tin-pot Machiavellis. They lack vision and any real plan for getting their areas out of the mess they are in. In the long run, I know the people will win, but in the short run (our lifetimes, as long as I'm being arbitrary), I'm not sure if leaders are smart enough to attract investment.
The students at the Riga Business School studied for an MBA. A major question on their minds was whether that degree was going to be recognized outside of Latvia. See, being realistic, they had migrating on their minds. Latvia is not stagnant economically like Belarus or Bulgaria, but it is not a comer like Poland either. Plus, who knows what kind of military dictatorship or fascist putsch or (fill in your nightmare of the Russian future) might occur in Russia? What would that mean for civilized places like Estonia and Latvia? I don't blame young Latvians for keeping the option of leaving open.
Buffalo too faces a brain drain. Young people are leaving Western New York and the Queen City for places like Atlanta, Austin, and Columbia, which have better employment possibilities. Buffalo is losing population, so the job market is tight and there is a surplus of university graduates (there are as many as four in the Buffalo metro area alone).
Buffalo's work force is made up mainly of baby boomers. People born from 1955 on have to wait for death or retirement or unexpected resignation of their older colleagues for a chance opening or promotion. With little or no chance of promotion, these people have to either work in a field not their own (for lower wages, to their dissatisfaction) or move. Given the choice between telemarketing and retail jobs versus working in one's chosen profession, moving seems the most sensible choice.
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