“My name is Emilie – I’m twelve years old and come from Norway”. This is how Emilie introduced herself when we came to visit. She has grown up in Riga’s Kipsala neighborhood. Since the age of two, she has been attending the International School of Riga. We first met her in costume, playing the part of a flower seller in her school’s production of the musical Olivia, a humorous concoction of classic tales. Expecting a humble school production, we were blown away by the complexity and professionalism of the performance. Emilie and the others had worked for almost a year, with rehearsals evolving from the boredom of repetition into a wonderful hobby that occupied most of her free time. Judging from the trophies on her room, she is a skilled horse rider, and she regularly trains with Riga United, a football club founded by expatriates living in the Latvian capital.
Emilie has lived her whole life in Riga, as her Norwegian parents moved there for business reasons before she was born. Nevertheless, although ‘home’ is in Latvia, she feels more Norwegian than Latvian, and only understands a little of the local language. Her language of preference is English, which she speaks with a flawless British accent at school, but also at home with her older sister. Her parents want her to practice Norwegian, so she speaks it fluently, but sometimes needs to resort to English words when they more readily come to mind. The family travels to Norway frequently, to see family and friends, to go skiing in the mountains, or to their cabin on the southern coast.
Emilie’s family recently moved into a new house. From the inside it is easy to forget that we are in Latvia. However, a closer look reveals that the typical Norwegian way of decorating the home is contrasted by Latvian furniture, magazines, history books and art. From the balcony, one can enjoy a view of the Daugava River, as well as the fascinating combination of old wooden houses, restored buildings and modern architecture that characterizes Kipsala, but also Riga as a whole.
While Emilie’s identity can be considered both Latvian and Norwegian, she spends a lot of time in the international expatriate community. So in many ways she has an outsider perspective of both the Norwegian and Latvian communities. When she grows up, she imagines going to Norway or Sweden to study, mainly because she speaks the language. She likes Latvia, because it feels calmer and safer than Norway, at least from what she has seen on Norwegian news reports. Latvia is cheaper, but she likes to go to Norway for shopping because that’s where her favorite fashion labels are.
People are friendlier in Norway, she says, they are more open to talking to strangers or just communicating with a gesture or a few words in public spaces. And she likes Norway’s nature, the mountains and the sea. When asked about Latvian culture, she mentions that they like to sing old songs and keep up traditions from times when people believed in witches, such as dancing around bonfires. But she soon needs to ask her mother about what is typical of Latvia. Like most teenagers, Emilie ordinarily has no need to reflect on the culture in which she is growing up, and to a large degree takes for granted. It may therefore appear that she has little knowledge of the country. But her observations turned out to be very much in tune with those of other Norwegians, and our Latvian colleagues confirmed the accuracy of her references to the current revival of pagan customs. However, beyond the stereotypical, Emilie does not experience many differences between her life in Latvia and that in Norway.
In a sense, Emilie comes across as a typical Norwegian teenager, who might be more interested in school, hobbies, family and friends than in the culture of the country she lives in. On the other hand, she is atypical, as she is simultaneously closely attached to two countries, but also to neither of them. She lives in an international community, with friends of numerous different nationalities, and they speak English to each other. Born as an expatriate, Emilie’s identity is fluid and allows her to move between two worlds that, after all, do not seem to be so distinctive.