Norway vs Latvia: Experiences As An Expat

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I have now lived as an expat close to two years in Latvia. Coming from a different country I see things in a different light than the average Latvian. Norway and Latvia might not be that far apart in distance, but in terms of mentality we’re sometimes on different planets.

Both countries have a history of being “occupied”. Norway with Sweden and Denmark (Norway has only been independent since 1905), and Latvia with Germany, Sweden, tsarist Russia and USSR. Latvia has basically only been independent since 1918 to 1941 (and of course from 1991), and they were not really “independent” between the wars either due to Karlis Ulmanis’ dictatorship. However, I think he was a “good” dictator.

Here are some random thoughts on comparisons between my native Norway and Latvia (and I consider both Latvians and ethnic Russians as Latvians):

  1. First off, Latvians are much more preoccupied with the present. Most decisions seem to be based on the present time, or at least not very far into the future. This can also be seen in the traffic: I have never experienced so many cars changing driving lines so often. If driving in two lanes per direction, there are a lot of wiggling back and forth to find the fastest lane. All of this is of course just a waste of time. Of course, this also leads to a lot more traffic accidents.
  2. Latvians are in general more pessimistic. Perhaps they have reason to. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvians have struggled a lot. Life has been tough in Latvia for centuries.
  3. They are a lot less friendlier and helpful than Norwegians. I have walked the streets many times asking for directions. Most people stop and give me directions, but some don’t even look at me. Perhaps that is because of point 5?
  4. Latvian politicians seem too be most interested in how to berich themselves, and not to consider what is best for the public or the country. Norwegians are complaining about useless politicians, but believe me, it’s a lot worse in Latvia.
  5. Recently I was told by a Norwegian entrepreneur that you can’t really trust Latvians in business decisions. If you show weakness, they’ll take advantage of it, even though it is not beneficial for them in the long run (see also the first point).
  6. Latvians love flowers. Public parks and places look a lot better than in Norway. Comparing city center of Riga and Oslo, I would have expected Riga to be the rich city, not Oslo. On the countryside they may have low income and having problems maintaining their houses, but their gardens are full of colors and flowers.
  7. Latvians are more individual than Norwegians, in a positive way. Basically all houses are different and lot of different colors. I guess they are more accustomed to take care of themselves and not depending on others. It’s much less conform, and privacy is important.
  8. The government has a lot less control of the individuals. As a Norwegian I feel a lot more “free” in Latvia. Heck, even living here I’m required to pay Norwegian taxes years after I moved.
  9. A lot easier to pay taxes in Latvia with less paperwork. Turnover less than 50 000 EUR is VAT exempt. In Norway it kicks in at 5 000 EUR.
  10. Latvians have a complete distrust towards politicians. They estimate the shadow economy is around 20% of GDP. This is in stark contrast to Norway where most people say they are “happy to pay taxes” (which I don’t believe).
  11. The trust between people is low, reflecting a society where it’s difficult to cooperate. As an example, in apartment buildings it’s sometimes impossible to get anything done because of disagreements.

The list may sound negative, but all in all I’m happy to live Latvia. But no doubt the Norwegians is a lot more rational than Latvians. Norwegians plan longer ahead.

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