Guntars first came to Norway in 2006. Even though Latvia’s so-called ‘years of plenty’ were by then already approaching their decline, the construction sector was doing quite well. Thus the opportunity to make some extra money in Norway during the summer was seen more as an adventure. For the first two years he moonlighted – worked without a contract, and his wages did not differ much from those in Latvia’s construction sector at that time. Apart from the typical challenges related to working in another country without knowing the system and language, he also faced problems such as being paid irregularly. In 2007, Guntars returned to Latvia for a while, but as soon as 2008 he had returned, this time feeling his hand had been forced. The situation in Latvia had become dramatic. “I was just scraping along, it was not living, but I wanted to live”, he remembers. Since 2009, Guntars has lived in Norway permanently.
When we meet Guntars in Oslo, he takes us not only to several buildings he had worked on, but also to the place he currently calls home. It is a two-storey construction of mobile cabins or ‘barracks’ as Guntars calls them. Now he is looking for an apartment though, because even if living like this is very cheap and reasonable for a single person, he would finally like to have a normal, established place of his own. He is tired of living like this. The constant moving (along with each new project, and not only within the city, but all over Norway) has in actual fact influenced his ability to integrate into Norwegian society, to develop new contacts and friendships.
The work experience in Norway has led Guntars to seeing the many shortcomings of Latvia’s construction sector even more clearly. In Norway, only people who really can build can call themselves builders; in Latvia anyone can work in construction, he tells us. Also, the company he works for had hired non-professional construction workers from Latvia. Guntars and his colleagues had to redo almost everything they had worked on. But workers like that are cheap. Builders from Eastern Europe and other poorer countries are here to earn money, ready to work overtime for the same pay. Furthermore, since most of the workers live in cabins near their site and are here alone, without their families, unscrupulous construction managers can also make them work on weekends without any prior notice. They would not even dare to call on a Norwegian to work at the weekend. Norwegians, on the other hand, are quite lazy: “They are much too laid back. Coffee and stuff. You ask one – when will you finish? The answer – well, this job will take as long as it takes. But they often earn much more than we do, us with our backs dripping with sweat.” Nonetheless, Guntars loves his work and he feels appreciated. He has even gained a number of private customers and is thinking of obtaining a master craftsman’s certificate.
Before we had even arrived in Oslo, Guntars had invited us for dinner at his cousin’s family home. On Saturday evening, we arrive at a place that could be described as a small, remote idyll – a house enfolded by forest, near a small lake. No wonder Guntars loves to spend time here. They barbecue, build a bonfire and go fishing. Guntar’s cousin’s husband has even built a little smokehouse for the fish they catch. Spending time together, even if it’s just watching TV (Latvian channels), is very important for Guntars, since most of his family and friends are in Latvia.
One of the most emotionally outstanding events for Guntars this year was taking part in the European Festival of Latvian Culture in Brussels, as a member of the Ziemeļmeita Latvian folk-dancing group. Guntars tells us that he had never experienced such a unique feeling of togetherness. Back home, in Latvia, he wouldn’t be interested in folk dancing. He says that somehow, it is only when you are away from them that you become attracted by all the traditional things, Latvian things.
Getting involved in the local (Oslo) folk-dance group and meeting new people through other activities of the Latvian Society in Norway has been a significant turning point in Guntars’s social life. Going out for a drink with his colleagues has also become a very rare event. To a great extent, this is related to Guntars becoming an actively practicing Christian and a member of the Latvian Catholic congregation in Oslo. Recent years have seen Catholicism become more widespread in Norway, directly as a result of immigrants. The Norwegian Government has even organised a major investigation of Catholic congregations, including searches of priests’ homes, because the State finances religious denominations according to numbers of worshippers
Guntars had a plan to return to Latvia at the age of 35. Now there is a new deadline – 40. But he is absolutely certain he will return. “I am a Latvian, from the tips of my hair to my toes; I will go home”, he declares. Norway is beautiful and wealthy, but here you cannot do what you can at home, be able to speak in your mother tongue. Besides, (..) “here you are and always will be a foreigner” he concludes. In Latvia, he intends to start a family and develop sheep-farming at his grandfather’s country property.