Anna and Ksenia's passport quest: The citizenship exam

A couple of our colleagues at Latvian Radio and LSM are on their way to becoming Latvian citizens after spending their lives so far as "non citizens" with an "alien passport". Here's the fourth part of their journey towards becoming full-fledged Latvian citizens.

Ksenija: Took only the history exam

In Rīga the citizenship exam is held only at Daugavpils st. 31 in the Maskačka neighborhood. I had to take the exam at 9 a.m. Those living in the Pļavnieki or Purvciems neighborhoods can get there with a single bus, however they also have to take an underpass commonly called the "locker room" to get there. It's said that when the "locker room" had no cameras, many a passer through parted with their wallets and phones here. Nevertheless, it was the shortest route that, it turned out, I did not have to use in the end.

The morning saw the six-km Deglava st. blocked by a traffic jam, and the planned peaceful bus ride turned into something akin to the movie Taxi. Due to the traffic jam, the driver could only pick me up fifteen minutes prior to the exam. I can scarcely recall the ride through the city as I was shaking and sick with worry.

However, during the ride, the taxi driver gave me advice over how to better pass the exam. His best advice was that you have to sing the anthem. Believe me, this taxi driver knew what he's talking about.

My first attempt to obtain citizenship fell through because of the anthem. I was too ashamed to sing it and decided to write it down. As experience showed me, the naturalization committee is more willing to put up with hearing wrong notes and an awful pronunciation rather than grammar errors on the page.

I went inside the Citizenship and Migration Affairs Office (PMLP) four minutes before the exam. I forgot the way, too. I ran to one of the members of the committee that oversaw the exam and told them about the situation. Something remarkable happened: instead of an icy stare and an arrogant "please come back another day," the woman smiled at me and said: "Your passport will be enough." I took a seat, and the members of the committee - three women - explained why we're here and how we'll be taking the exam, speaking clear and well-articulated Latvian.

In my state of abject stress - comparable only to the butterflies of the first date with your lifelong love, or the first live broadcast - the three committee members seemed to me the nicest, most peaceful and polite people in the world.

You'd expect to see people like this at a crisis center for minors who've experienced violence, but not at a PMLP office.

The committee even waited for a woman who had applied for citizenship. She was running very late.

The exam takes the form of a test where you have to check the correct answers. Subjectively speaking, the most difficult part is the Constitution (Satversme). They ask you not only the main ideas of Latvia's most important law, but also specific things. Such as, for example, what the Constitution says about using real estate; or else they ask you to list what authority the Latvian president has. This was the part examinees were talking about most actively as they were waiting for the results after the test.

There were a few of us, five people in total. Two of them were retaking the exam. If you fail to pass all the parts of the exam, you can try again after same time, taking only the parts where you failed. A woman was retaking the Constitution exam while a man was trying his luck with the anthem again. All of the applicants were young Russian speakers, about my age of a bit older. They weren't keen on revealing their motivations to assume citizenship, however someone did admit they want to move to another country soon.

I passed the exam with flying colors. I think I even managed to sing the anthem decently.

A guy who sang after me recited the anthem as a poem but afterwards started doing it differently. Turns out you can do it that way as well. After my solo performance the committee handed me a paper with an oath to the Latvian state and told me that I'll be receiving a notice in a few months over when I have to come and give my oath. At that I picked up my stuff and left the PMLP building with lifted spirits. 

As it later turned out, I was not the only one to whom the committee seemed to consist of people of the nicest kind. Anna was thinking the same (read her story below) thing, as did Alina, a friend of mine who recently became a citizen. Perhaps it's no coincidence. It seems that the employees of the office understand that sometimes it's difficult to take this step - to overcome offense and to become a citizen. That's why the three women are smiling each morning and calming the worried foreigners and "aliens", showing a different face of the Latvian bureaucratic apparatus-a friendly one. 

It helps.

Anna: Took Latvian language and history exams

Language

We're met by three welcoming women. The one on the right looks like an investigator to me. Short hair, kind and wise eyes. I think she's there to spot cheating or rule-breaking. In the middle there's a woman like my class teacher, who taught chemistry. She's a kind and sensitive person. While the woman on the left seems to be the strictest of them all.

It's she who walks to the middle of the class and explains what lies in store for the test takers.

An envelope is brought into class with variants of the exams. I'm afraid as I only studied for some three hours. However the woman's voice radiates peace, and that's exactly what I need.

Listening

They're turning on the tape recorder, which plays two-sentence dialogues. You listen, and check the answer options (they're in picture format).

It's impossible to make a mistake. The dialogues are so well recorded they seem to be out of a Streičs movie.

Or perhaps the recordings come from his movies' auditions.

The second task is a longish conversation. We get a story about how students are about to go to the countryside to earn some money.

The third task is more difficult as you have to answer in writing. Later it turns out that comprehension, not correct grammar is of what's most important here.

Reading

The first task has five boxes with phrases in Latvian. Next to each are three answer options. You have to get the gist of the text and check the required variant. For example: "The post office is closed on weekends," the table says. You pause: "The post office is open each day", "The post office is open on workdays", or "The post office is open on weekends." What should one choose?! I'm joking - it's very hard to make a mistake.

However you could fall into a sort of a logic trap in this assignment.

The second task is simpler - you have to read a letter. A young student is put into the care of her mother's friend. Her friend is writing to the mother about the daughter's life: where and with who she's spending her free time; and what are her hobbies. It's all well for the ladies but I'm not exactly envious of the daughter. 

Onward there's a 150-160 word text featuring press materials.

I'm told about a tasty bread made in a regional Latvian bakery. The text is nice and smells of pastry.

There may be some pitfalls here as question-answer pairs might not be so obvious.

Then there's my favorite part - five job seekers' ads have to be linked to six ads by employers (one of the latter is unnecessary). The task is in the manner of "get a whiff of what's it like being State Employment Agency clerk". I feel it! I like it.

Letter writing

This is the part I worry most about. However the first of the two tasks is simple. "Fill in the form." I have to go to an atelier and make an order.

As I moved past the everyday matters, I made it to the second part. It had a standard 'topical writing' task for 50 to 70 words. Before the task - making a letter - there was a five-point plan. If you follow these points it's very easy finding 50 to 70 words. I prudently write the letter twice on the draft paper that was given to us before the exam.

It's the most important draft paper of my life as it's signed and sealed.

"Dear Alīna," I start...

Break

I have to wait for the results of the writing and speaking part for an hour and a half. I'm going to the canteen that's right here at the PMLP building. It doesn't have any delicacies but it's tasty - and there's tea. Just like on the Riga-Moscow or Riga-St. Petersburg train. Only the cup holders are missing. I'm trying to read but am worried and cannot concentrate. What's worst is knowing that if I fail a part of the exam I'll be able to retake it only after two months.

"Well, there it is," I think, "You have to write - it's lost."

Naturally I would have to write Ksenija and my boss that "it's lost", meaning the next blog entry has been lost for two months. I'm feeling very bad.

Speaking

I rarely speak Latvian and mostly do so at work, so I'm not confident. In cases like these you should reply with one syllable and not show off.

Following the warm-up - name, family, work, free time - it's time for everyday conversation. I have to order a table at a restaurant, to choose where I'll be seated, with how many people and what we'll be doing.

Afterwards I have to describe a photo. It's very simple. I get a counter with pastries.

We talked a bit and I became less worried. Everything is okay - I've passed. I haven't had enough speaking practice, says the committee, but that can be amended. However they're glad that I, the only one in the group, was able to write an application without any mistakes.

They can give you the papers and show you where your mistakes were upon request. My letter was red with mistakes, albeit small ones - several macrons, a couple of word endings. An error: I'm stubbornly writing "izīrē" (rent out) instead of "noīrē" (want to rent). 

My subconscious apparently paints reality to be more beautiful than it really is, or rather it paints its exact opposite.

I'm skipping across the street. "I passed, I passed, I passed," I tell myself. Suddenly I catch the first fragrance of the spring and understand that everything will be alright.

History

There are three parts here - an anthem, ten questions over history and culture, as well as eight questions over the Constitution. You are allowed to make one mistake with the anthem. I chose to write it as it's so simple and beautiful - two strophes with four lines. It's basically an address to God, a prayer so that the people in Latvia would be happy. Instead of "Laid mums tur laimē diet" (Let us roam happily there) I wrote "Lai mums tur laimē diet" (So that we roam happily there).

Another mistake was in the Constitution questions. For reasons I'll never understand (a liberal instinct?), I mistakenly allowed non-citizens and citizens of other countries to serve in our country's police force.

It's a pity that there are so few questions about the first Republic of Latvia, and even less about the Baltic Way.

It's a pity that the questions concern hardships that our country has suffered.

However there are things over which people here fought and reached their own. I think it's important to remember not only losses but our successes too.

On the other hand, the culture part talks in length about our successes. It must be so: to me, culture is an escape in to a space that has nothing painful in it.

* * *

Now we only have to wait. To wait while our backgrounds are checked, after which we'll be able to make our oaths, receive our passports and become full-fledged citizens of our country. So we'll write at least another blog entry, or perhaps a few.

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