Simon James Chisholm grew up in Dover, studied in Shffield and moved to latvia in March 2018, where he now lives with his girlfriend and her mother.
1) How did you feel on 24th June when you heard about the UK’s vote to leave the EU?
Pretty awful! I can’t have been the only one. I was on tour with my (then) band which, ironically, played traditional British folk music and we were staying at my parents’ place before a gig in Canterbury that night, but I’d stayed up the night before to watch the results come in. I thought it would be close, and as someone whose political views lean on left-libertarianism I’m pretty used to most world governments, especially the British, being an authoritarian-right disaster, but like a lot of people I was surprised it was that bad; especially after some of the completely insane reasons I’d been hearing for why people were voting to leave, and the stupid thing people were posting about it on social media. I didn’t realise that a quarter of the British population were that stupid. That, and after seeing how badly thought out the whole referendum was by David Cameron – Etonian rich boy who’d never lost in his life and therefore never considered that he could – just to pander to Farage?
I don’t want to start preaching to the choir here and we’ve all seen and heard why it was a disaster repeated again and again in the last four years, so I won’t go there, but yeah, on a personal level, it felt pretty terrible. It felt like the place I grew up in was suddenly some foreign country; innocence lost, and glass shattered. I didn’t recognise it anymore.
2) What were the key driving factors that made you decide to leave the UK?
In the long term, I’d say I never wanted to spend my whole life living in the same country. There are too many people who spend their whole lives in one place, whether that’s never leaving their hometown, or never leaving their country, it’s the same. I meet so many people in Dover, where I grew up, who’ve never even been to France, or they view getting on the train to Brighton or London as some exotic holiday – seriously, I don’t see how anyone can be so uncurious about the rest of the world. When I was eighteen in my first year as an undergraduate, I developed a serious wanderlust and went backpacking around Europe that summer, and for a while I decided for some reason that when I graduated, I really wanted to live in Berlin. Then, as I said in the previous answer, once the Brexit referendum happened, that kind of expedited the process; the attitudes I was seeing in people wasn’t something I wanted to be associated with, and the UK was feeling less and less like my home and more completely alien because of that. Especially when I was travelling outside of the UK after that as soon as someone found out I was British the reaction was usually somewhere between sympathy and bemusement. I even had two locals in Thailand ask me to explain Brexit to them because they couldn’t understand why any country would vote for that. I still get asked about it now, living here.
There’s also the cost issue. It’s so expensive living in the UK. People go on their weekenders to Budapest, Prague, Riga, whatever, and rave about how cheap it is. No, it’s not. It’s not cheap here, it’s expensive there. UK is one of the most expensive countries in the world. If you look globally at all developed nations, the “cheap” former-Eastern-bloc countries that have since joined the EU are actually pretty average, price-wise. I don’t drive, so I was getting sick of the stupid expenses like having to pay over £100 every time I needed to catch a train to London for work or to go visit my parents. In Italy £100 can get you from Milan to Naples with a day of sightseeing in Rome. In Poland it can get you from Krakow to Gdansk and back. Here I could use the same money to buy a Russian visa and still have enough left-over for the ticket to Moscow. The price of living in the UK is extortionate, and what do you get for that money? Not much. The standard of living there is pretty low for a developed nation in 2020, and set to get lower with Brexit progressing, never mind with Johnson’s disastrous COVID response.
In the shorter term, it sounds a bit more fun. I was half a year away from the end of my master’s degree and went through a breakup, and wanted to get away, so I went to explore Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia just because the flights were cheap. Through various reasons I ended up stranded in Baku, Azerbaijan, for two weeks, and just made it back to Georgia for my flight back to UK. I’d made a few friends over there in that time, had loads of fun, and felt pretty gutted that we didn’t get to explore Armenia together, and that was kind of the nudge I needed to finally get out the door and do it, I guess. I’d built up so much junk over the years, stuff that I didn’t really need, so when I got back to Sheffield I sold as much of it as I could and booked the next plane ticket back over there. The only thing I had left to do on my degree was write the dissertation anyway, so I spoke to my tutor about it and he said it would be fine to finish it remotely; I think he was pretty shocked at the spontaneity of it, but I wouldn’t do it differently. That’s the same advice I’d give to other people planning on relocating or going travelling or whatever: just do it. I had the same conversation with my girlfriend when I first met her; she was telling me that her plan was to wait until she’s 35, then quit her job, sell her apartment, and go abroad. My answer to her was the same: why wait until then? Why not just do it now?
3) How/why did you choose your current country of residence?
It kind of happened a bit naturally; a bit weirdly, without even realising it. I did my master’s degree as a study of nationalism in Eastern European music; so I found a lot of weird and wonderful artists through that. One of these was “Leningrad”, probably the biggest band in Russia. I’m not kidding, Sergey Shnurov is just as recognisable in Russia as Elton John or Michael Jackson. Out of curiosity, I checked their tour dates and found that a ticket to their gig at the Kentish Town Forum in London cost £100 a ticket. Meanwhile, they were playing here in Riga Arena for €20 a ticket. Flights from London to Riga for that weekend were going at €30 return with RyanAir, and I also noticed that Gogol Bordello (my favourite band) were playing in Riga on the same weekend for €15. In other words, a flight to Riga to catch two bands was cheaper than going to London to see one.
So when I left UK to head back to Georgia I spent a month based in Tbilisi where I worked in a hostel, and I knew I’d have to be in Riga for those gigs by the end of May anyway. So, after a month in Tbilisi I looked and found flights to Riga for about €15 and took that one, getting here about a month before originally planned, but it wasn’t hard to find another hostel that would let me stay for free if I took some shifts on the front desk. I ended up finding a new favourite bar, coincidentally also called Leningrad, that I’d go to for a beer after my shift finished every night, and eventually just made friends with all the staff and regulars there. That’s where I met my girlfriend, and instead of leaving after that month I moved in with her. I’d worked part-time as a kitchen assistant at an Indian Restaurant in Sheffield during my Master’s degree, so based on that experience they offered me a job as a cook in Leningrad, and apparently after two years I’m somehow still here!
4) Do you have citizenship for your current country? Do you still have EU citizenship? If no, are you hoping to obtain it?
Well my British passport still says “European Union” at the top and that’s why I haven’t renewed it yet even though it’s falling apart and almost full. I still consider myself European over British. I didn’t vote to lose my rights, my citizenship, and my identity.
Where Latvia is concerned, I have an ID card but not citizenship, yet. The rules are here that EU citizens are eligible to register for an ID card after being employed here 3 months, and it’s compulsory if you’re employed over 6 months. I was a bit stupid and didn’t check that, so I actually registered after being here almost a year, meaning that I have to wait an extra year before I can apply for citizenship. Aside from that, I have to pass a Latvian language fluency test, a Latvian history test, and recite the national anthem. The history test I could pass already, and my Latvian’s probably a high A2 level but I have four more years to get it better. There’s a big percentage of the population here that half a kind of “half-citizenship”, because they were moved here by the Soviets from elsewhere in the USSR, and a lot of them still don’t speak Latvian, only Russian; so my friends here have a joke that even though my Latvian’s pretty bad, I still speak it better than half of Riga.
5) Do you plan to return to the UK or hope to move to another country in the future?
I’d like to live in Asia one day. Not permanently, but I’ve always loved Japan and Malaysia when I’ve been there, and I have a TEFL qualification to fall back on, so that’s still an option one day. I was in the US a few months ago with my girlfriend and we completely fell in love with New Orleans – which also has a decent-sized Latvian community, some of whom we know from when they visit back here, so that’s always an option. I don’t think I’d live outside of Europe for my whole life though. I don’t know about spending the rest of my life here in Latvia, but we’ll see how it goes. We tried Spain: two of our close friends moved to Andalusia at the end of 2018 and invited us to join them, but with it being off-season finding a job didn’t work out; so we moved back to Riga and took our old jobs back after a couple of months, when the money ran out. For now, though, I have to spend most of my time in Latvia if I want to apply for citizenship in a few years.
6) What was the most difficult aspect/greatest you challenge you faced in moving?
Like a lot of people, I expected it to be the language barrier or finding a job or something like that, but it wasn’t. There wasn’t even much culture shock. Ok, I’m a pretty seasoned traveller so I very rarely get culture shock these days. Things like not being able to find exactly what I want in a supermarket when I know it’s a very common thing in UK (or even France or Germany) are a minor inconvenience; nothing serious.
The biggest challenge is probably the obstacles that the British government put in the way of anyone who wants to leave. Brexiters love to compare the EU to the USSR for some reason, but they don’t realise that the obstacles people had in leaving the USSR are far more alike what the British government is implementing there, than anything else; it’s so shambolic and bureaucratic. Every few months I get another angry email from the British government demanding that I update my living status and address with them even though it hasn’t changed! I still get emails and letters here threatening a court summons and demanding that I pay council tax for an address that I haven’t lived in for three years, or pay a TV license for an apartment that I lived in four years ago that didn’t even have a TV! It’s not like they don’t have that info; it’s their job to process the info that I give them, not my job to keep updating them every six weeks because they lost my email; it’s completely shambolic, like no department is actually communicating with any other department yet they’re all trying to hunt you down for the crime of leaving. There’s that, and that if I go back to the UK for an extended period of time, I have to pay tax money for the time that I was out of the country – how ridiculous is that. There’s also the citizenship thing here. The rules are changing all the time with the Tory governments of the last few years, so it’s never really clear if I have to renounce my British citizenship to get a Latvian one, but they’re constantly putting the prices up for that to try and make it unobtainable. Renouncing my citizenship should be as easy as throwing away something I don’t want; I don’t see why I should have to pay some ridiculous sum of money for that.
Of course, there’s also the challenge that whenever I get back to UK, I have to convince all the locals that no, I’m not living in some dystopian wasteland, the Soviet times were nearly thirty years ago, and we do actually have civilisation here. It’s amazing what some people think they know better than people who live here, about a country they can barely find on a map. I remember one Brexiter in a pub telling me he bets I’m happy being back in Britain because I can finally get a good meal; as if food just doesn’t exist beyond the Cliffs of Dover.
7) What do you miss most about the UK?
Well I miss the country I thought I grew up in before all this, but just like the “golden age” in most Brexiter’s minds, it probably never existed, I was just ignorant of the reality. There’s a degree of nostalgia to it as well I guess; I miss a few small things, like being able to take a walk through the countryside and stop at a few pubs in different villages, singarounds and jam sessions (especially in Sheffield where I did my master’s degree), and that some foodstuffs I consider to be everyday items are really hard to find here (for a country that eats so much pork – Latvia has no idea about the concept of back bacon)… But for the most part, I’ve left all that stuff behind me.
8) What do you love most about your current country of residence?
Other than beer that costs €2,50 a pint instead of £4-5, and bars close between 02:00-06:00 rather than 22:00-24:00 like in UK? I love the friends that I’ve made here, who’ve been so welcoming, and people’s optimism, I guess. I was drinking with Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello) a few years ago and asking him why he loves Latin America so much, and he told me that it’s for the same reason I love Eastern Europe: because even after a century of terrible suffering and oppression, the people here still have the will to turn that around into something of joy. The Latvian people went through a lot under the Nazis and the Soviets, and especially in the chaotic years between the USSR and accession into the EU in 2004. Latvia has come a long way, especially in the last decade, and it’s great being a part of that. The main immigrant population of Latvia come from Russia or Belarus, with some Lithuanians and Estonians. For the most part, there aren’t many westerners who come and live here, it’s usually the other way around; so, people are a little surprised that I want to live here, but very welcoming. Especially when I try to say something in my terrible Latvian. It’s not perfect, and sure, Latvia has its problems as does every country, but the future’s bright; far brighter than the future the UK is heading towards.
9) Do you consider yourself to have a “European identity” and what that does that mean to you?
If I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. The culture, attitudes, and freedoms that we have here are unmatched in the rest of the world, I think. As a continent, we have some of humanity’s biggest achievements. Other people have put it way more eloquently than I can right now. We all have a shared history. European cultures, for the most part, are more like each other than on any other continent. We have our problems and there’s a lot that needs reform, but we should work on that instead of abandoning it.
10) Do you still consider yourself to have a “British identity” and how do you feel about it?
Not really, if I’m honest. When I first settled here, maybe there was still a little bit of it, but especially with how the May and Johnson governments have been so eager to give British immigrants living in the EU a huge final kick out of the door in the last two years, I’m over that. On the one side, my ancestors are from an old Scottish clan, so if there was ever an independent Scotland again I’d love to reconnect with that part of my heritage. On the other though, I also have ancestors that were Polish/Jewish immigrants to the UK themselves, so right now I definitely feel more inclined towards the immigrant side of my identity at the moment. For the majority of my adult and adolescent lives it’s been one disappointment after another with the British government; as far as I’m concerned, the sooner I can finally lose the passport, the better.
Additional Questions (relating to Corona Virus)
11) How has the Covid19 pandemic affected your life?
Pretty drastically. I worked hard last year to be able to go travelling through the winter, I pulled in fourteen-hour shifts every day for almost two months without a day off, so that we could afford to go south for the winter and have 2-3 months off. We got back here at the end of February, and by the time I found a job I worked for one week before we closed for the lockdown, and then a few weeks later we were told that it wasn’t possible for us to reopen at all. So, I’ve had one weeks’ worth of pay since the start of December, and the money is getting really tight right now. I’m trying to keep optimistic as we’re beginning to reopen, but since so many people have lost work it’s going to be very competitive – especially for me. I’ve already been turned down for several jobs purely because other applicants spoke better Latvian or Russian than I did. Outside of cooking, I make most of my money from events, playing music, and DJing; so given that we’re not really allowed to do that either, it’s tough.
12) How do you feel about your country’s response to the Covid19 pandemic compared to the UK government & media?
Well unless you’re Donald Trump it would be pretty hard to mismanage it more spectacularly than the UK has, that’s for sure. People over here are looking on amazed, especially since I was reading the other day that the UK wants to reopen borders with the US as fast as possible, but not the European countries that are actually handling this effectively.
Latvia has one of the lowest infection rates and lowest death tolls in Europe. When I last looked at the statistics, we had even fewer cases here than the Diamond Cruise Ship off the coast of Japan. We just reopened our borders with Estonia and Lithuania last week, and are preparing to reopen the borders with the rest of the EU (subject to 14 days’ quarantine) next week. Given how few cases we’ve had here, I’d say the response here has been too extreme, to be honest.
We implemented compulsory 2-metre distances in every business that remained open, and police have been checking. There’s compulsory hand sanitizer everywhere, and far fewer people out on the street or in bars anyway. There was no need to force reduced hours, and that’s going to hit us hard. The economy here relies greatly on summer tourism and hockey tourism. The hockey season is cancelled and the summer season is going to be brief and quiet. Our nightlife, restaurant, bar, and music industries are fucked – for lack of a better word – without more financial support from the government, and it’s really worrying how a lot of us are going to survive.
There’s been no government provisions for me, since I started my contract three days after the cut-off date, and I can’t apply for unemployment benefits because I don’t have a Latvian bank account, I use Revolut and Transferwise because they’re far cheaper for foreigners. So, the response here hasn’t been perfect. Maybe it would have been worse if it hadn’t been so extreme, but since we were one of the first countries in Europe to close our borders and implement these measures to stop the spread, it could have been a less extreme impact on our livelihoods and still had the same effect. On the other hand, at least it’s been handled better than the disaster you’re seeing over in the UK.