“I guess I should soon start to figure out what to do when I grow up” (Riga-Bjørn, 50)
Bjørn, better known as Riga-Bjørn, first came to Riga in 1995. He had been working in a mountain-resort hotel in Hemsedal for several years and was becoming tired of drunken Norwegians and Swedes. A friend who worked in business development called him about a job in the Baltics . Seven days later he was in Riga, working on establishing Narvesen in Latvia. Since then, he has been involved in the establishment of a number of Norwegian enterprises, fromhotels,restaurants, security and other service industry, to real estate, parking lots,shopping centres and retailers. As one of the earliest Norwegians to arrive in Latvia after the Cold War, he has played a whole range of roles through the years. But he characterizes himself as a facilitator, between owners and investors in Norway and entrepreneurs and their local representatives in the Baltics.
At first, they brought over engineers and architects from Norway, believing they needed their assistance. But they soon discovered that craftsmanship had been well sustained in Latvia, and that they, in fact, had more to learn than to teach. He admires the Latvians for their work ethic and the pride they place in delivering a good product. When they first arrived, the locals were very hesitant. They thought they had come to buy up everything and take over the country, which was not surprising since they have been repeatedly colonized. Bjørn considers that this perception changed quickly. The Norwegians wanted to be team workers and people from the two nations worked together to achieve projects. He does suspect, however, that Latvians find Norwegians a bit loud, flashy and spoiled. Most Norwegians have never experienced what real poverty means.
A few years ago, he quit his other jobs to put all his efforts into the travel and event agency he was already running on the side. He offers guided tours to Riga and the Baltics, events and services specially designed for the Norwegian market, for business travellers, conference/incentive groups and tourists. Here, he can use his experience, language skills and knowledge about the country, culture and temperament to show what Riga has to offer. The nickname Riga-Bjørn was given to him by the substantial Norwegian press corps that came to Riga to cover the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest. . Bjørn played a central role in organising their activities, and the name has stuck.
Considering Bjørn’s work, we had asked him to give us a tour of Riga. But we were quite unprepared for the unconventional excursion it was to become. Welcoming us in the Skyline Bar of one of Bjørn’s ‘babies’, the landmark Hotel Latvija, he spontaneously set the security personnel in motion to allow us to climb up to the roof. Riga-Bjørn’s social skills and charm are impossible to resist, and he has built up a broad network during his time here. For Norwegian-Latvian diplomacy in commerce, he is the guy to call when they want to give their guests a good time in Riga.
So he took us on a tour customised for female Norwegian tourists: to the aromatic Emils Gustavs chocolate cafe, where dense hot chocolate is served in espresso cups; to the beautiful 24-hour flower market where men can try to mitigate their guilt on the way home to their wives in the morning; and, a bit reluctantly, to Rosme, the underwear store where he has sometimes taken his female groups. He would then close the door, serve champagne and let the women do their shopping while he waited on the elegant red chaise-longue. As they grew more comfortable, they would sometimes ask him for advice, and he would give them his male point of view. Taking the risk of receiving angry calls, he considers that he made both the women and their men happy, guiding the women away from their sometimes too practical Norwegian attitude and towards a more Latvian approach to femininity.
Bjørn has mostly lived in Riga with his Latvian wife, but since they recently became parents they now live in Norway, to be close to the family. Travelling between the two countries, he always feels that he is going home, whether it is to Norway or Latvia. He does not perceive himself as a very conventional person, and all his life he has been searching for that which is different from Norway. He has a lot of energy and works most of the time, preferably behind the scenes making things run smoothly. Arriving in Riga, he soon became the social glue for the Norwegian community. He arranged Norwegian dinners, and still holds the title of Consul-General of the Baltic States’ Royal Norwegian Society of Lutefisk, honouring a rather eccentric traditional technique for conserving fish.
Speaking about his life in Latvia, he feels lucky to have been part of such a thrilling adventure. “In all honesty, I believe we have participated in developing Latvia. This is what has been the most exciting, taking part in shaping its direction. And many have later followed us. It gives you some sense of ownership of the things that have happened, both the good and the bad”.