I am habitually late for appointments, so it was a mark of how seriously I took this red-letter day that I arrived in Valmiera an hour earlier than the 10:00 slot at which the citizenship test was due to start. I even used satellite navigation to make sure I was at the right address, which is something I rarely do, generally preferring instead to rely upon the prevailing trade winds, pigeon-like sensitivity to magnetic fields, and the position of the stars.
The address was a large school on Zvaigžņu street, just the sort of place you would expect to sit an examination. I parked the car and walked across to the building. There were no students running around outside. Perhaps they have different school holidays in Valmiera? As I reached the entrance I saw there were no lights on. The doors were locked. A sign said the school was closed for renovation. There was a distant sound of drilling. Wherever the test was happening it was not Zvaigžņu street. My internal anxiety-ometer ticked up from "low" to "medium".
Behind the large school I found a smaller school. There was no shortage of students here - they were pouring in through the front doors like gasoline swirling into the fuel tank of a chainsaw. I joined the throng and found the front office where I explained that I was looking for the school where the citizenship examinations were being held. An understandably surprised teaching assistant confirmed that this was indeed a school but no examinations were planned until the end of term, and then only for people about 30 years younger than myself. She suggested I try a red brick building a little further down the road.
It was an odd-looking building in the 1970s municipal style. Uneven steps led up to the entrance which featured a real estate display, a few benches and corridors leading to different offices. To the right was the state probation service, outside which a few colorful characters with broken noses and freshly blackened eyes were hanging around with the authoritative but slightly edgy air of stockbrokers on a trading floor. In the other direction was the state employment agency where I read about various situations vacant in the catering trade. I was once a dishwasher in an expensive restaurant, so I take a professional interest in such things. It's important to have something to fall back on.
A few other people were milling around, all talking Russian, apart from one blonde-haired woman giving strict domestic instructions over the phone in fluent Latvian. But no-one else looked worried about finding out where a citizenship test was taking place. They looked like they were checking real estate prices, looking for a job or reporting for parole.
My anxiety level had by now risen from "medium" to "high". It was only 15 minutes until the test was due to start, and the fear barely diminished when I found a locked door with a notice taped to it declaring: "The location of the citizenship test has been changed to 7 Meža street." What? Meža street? Where was that? It could be on the other side of town! Could I even make it there in time?
I stuck my head into the job center and asked where 7 Meža street was. They looked at me with that "Here's another one" look possessed by all workers who have to deal with members of the public with their multifarious forms and foibles.
"This is 7 Meža street," they said.
I returned to the door with the paper stuck to it, trying to understand its meaning. Why stick a piece of paper on the door saying the location has been changed to... HERE? There was clearly some important piece of information I was lacking. It was like a Zen Buddhist puzzle, the sound of one head being scratched or, in my condition of now acute anxiety, of one heart undergoing palpitations. As I looked at the door, it opened and a grey-haired woman wearing reading spectacles emerged.
"Candidates for the Latvian citizenship test, part one? Please turn off your cellphones and come in," she invited pleasantly.
I followed her in. So did six or seven women I had assumed were busy about other business. So did three men, two of whom I had wrongly assumed were clients of the probation service due to facial lacerations and large sticking plasters.
The room was completely neutral with five ranks of desks and chairs facing three desks joined together at the far end, behind which were the three examiners. These consisted of two ladies in late middle age who I would bet any amount of money were retired schoolteachers and one younger man with a pony tail who had a large tape recorder (perhaps it was a CD player, but my memory insists on the image of a tape recorder) in front of him. Perhaps it was the architecture, the decor, the schoolteachers, the ranks of desks or the tape recorder, but I immediately felt as if I had fallen through a gap in the space time continuum and re-emerged in the late 1970s with an acute fear that I had not done my homework and would soon be found out.
It was a very unpleasant sensation and it occurred to me instantaneously that while certain people's objections in principle to sitting a naturalization examination of any sort are well known, this might offer an alternative explanation of why others are reluctant to subject themselves to the process. Put bluntly, it makes you feel like a schoolkid, and I can understand that for many people, memories of schooldays might have painful, negative or humiliating associations that they have no desire to re-live after decades of relative normality.
But I must stress that the examiners did everything possible to allay this sense of disorientation and went out of their way to be pleasant. You could almost argue that it was not a fair representation of true Latvian-ness, they were so smiley and helpful.
The examiner who had ushered us into the room rose to her feet and began to explain how the tests would take place, once we had all provided our identification. I was called up to present mine as 'Mikhail Kolyar', or similar.
The morning session would contain the language tests: listening, reading, writing and speaking. Only the candidates who successfully passed the language test would then be able to sit the history, constitution and national anthem tests in the afternoon.
While this was explained and the examiner ran through the relatively simple process of how to fill in the multiple choice questionnaires, I glanced at my fellow candidates. Most of us were in our forties or fifties, I estimated, with a young man and a young woman in their twenties. Women comfortably outnumbered men. The guy with the sticking plaster over his eye had no socks on and seemed slightly hung over. Maybe I do him a disservice -- it might have been a concussion.
Explanations complete from the two ladies, it was time for the listening comprehension test to begin. It was now the turn of the young man with the pony tail to reveal his role in the proceedings. He was to press the start button on the tape recorder. Each short dialogue would be heard twice. He pressed the button. The test began.
Only at this point did I discover that my ears were full of sand, treacle, engine oil or some similar substance. I couldn't hear a word, just a sort of vague rumbling like the noise you hear underwater at the swimming pool. I was so nervous that my anxiety-ometer had burst a gasket. My senses had actually gone on strike and refused to function. I was teetering on the verge of a panic attack. The only word I could understand in the dialogue was "cabbage". Or was it "carrots"?
Salvation came from an unexpected direction. In the pause between the first and second performance of the cabbage/carrot dialogue, another sound made itself heard. It went something like this:
Eighteen inches away from my right ear, a power drill tore into the fabric of the building. It was incredibly loud and luckily it was on the other side of the wall.
The examiners looked at each other uncertainly. The candidates looked at each other uncertainly. We all looked at the wall uncertainly, as if a drill bit might emerge like the historic moment when the French and British sides of the Channel Tunnel joined up.
The noise ceased. We waited for it to return. It didn't. The cabbage/carrot dialogue began again. I could hear it perfectly! A miracle worthy of St Francis of Assisi, if that blessed individual had ever owned a Bosch 5/8 inch heavy duty keyless chuck impact drill.
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The listening and reading exercises seemed simple enough. The written examination was more challenging, requiring you to fill in a form and write a 50-70 word letter on a given subject which had to include certain facts, points or questions you were told about at the beginning. Even though I spend a lot of my day translating things from Latvian to English, I very rarely do it the other way round. I was also fearful of my tendency to wander off topic, which all readers of this story will already have noted.
In this case, the topic was the purchase of various items of fishing gear from a specialist fishing shop - a vital everyday skill, to be sure. I am not a fisherman and cannot tell a bobber from a spinner, but as the examiner explained before the exercise began: "Even if you have never been into a fishing tackle shop, it doesn't matter. Just imagine that you have."
Again, I would underline that the examiners gave every possible hint and encouragement without stepping over the line into overt help.
"Make sure you understand the question... make sure you understand who the letter is to... make sure all the five facts are included... don't rush it, take your time..."
I muddled through the exercise thinking I had probably done well enough to get a pass. Each part of the test has a minimum pass score of around two thirds of the maximum. There was still the speaking test to go, but I was already starting to think with confidence about the history and constitution tests in the afternoon where my work as a journalist gave me a clear advantage. I even flattered myself that I had found a couple of mistakes in the history and constitution sample questions, though I wasn't about to risk it by pointing these out.
The spoken tests were carried out one at a time, so each of us was handed a slip of paper with a specific time on it. I saw I had nearly an hour to wait so decided to walk into the center of Valmiera for a coffee. I was still very nervous. Along the way I saw a dead body being lifted from the sidewalk and put into the back of an ambulance.
"Maybe it's a 'one out, one in' immigration policy," I thought.
Beware of the garumzīme!
I returned to 7 Meža street where I recognized a few of the candidates chatting about the tests in Russian and the blonde woman issuing more domestic instructions in fluent Latvian. Again, a few tough-looking characters were lounging around outside the probation office, but they appeared to be linguistic advisers rather than ex-cons. My Russian is almost non-existent but even I could tell their consultations rested on two main recommendations: 1) "Sing the national anthem instead of writing it, they love it when you do that," and 2) Beware of the garumzīme, the macron or "long sign" that extends the sound of a Latvian vowel, like the ī in Rīga. There is not much that scares Russians but every single one of them seemed terrified of the garumzīme, and the word was sprinkled liberally throughout their conversations.
I was called back into the examination room, was shown a picture of Rīga central bus station and asked to talk about it.
"This is a place I know very well..." I began, which was absolutely true, and I began a rambling account of my very uninteresting experiences there which consist almost exclusively of getting onto and off buses. After a couple of minutes of this torture, the lead examiner broke in.
"Yes, yes, I think we can all agree that your spoken language meets the required standard. Also your listening and reading were both fine. Unfortunately however, I must inform you that you missed out on the written test by two marks..."
She held up my examination paper. It was marked all over with little orange circles and crosses.
The damned garumzīmes had got me, too! I had also tripped over a few tricky galotnes or case endings and I had stupidly misread one of the instructions and addressed my letter to a family member instead of a friend. But like the Russians, I blame the garumzīmes!
The examiners were very nice about it. Even the guy with the tape recorder looked sympathetic.
"According to the law you must wait at least three months before re-taking the test, but the next test we can offer in Valmiera is in four months. You only need to take the written part which you failed today," they explained. I agreed to put my name down for a re-take in four months' time.
At first I was a bit upset, but even while I was driving home my mood changed. There was a certain poetic justice and even humor in someone who fancies themselves as a novelist failing a very basic test of their writing skills. Epic novel about eighteenth century Baltic history? No problem. Note to buy a fishing rod and a can of worms? Forget it.
Plus, I knew that in all honesty I hadn't put enough effort into my studies. I had assumed I could wing it. I didn't deserve to pass. Now I had a second chance, and this time I vowed to go about it the right way. After all, there are worse things than feeling like a schoolkid again, confusing your case endings or screwing up your garumzīmes. I thought again of the body on the sidewalk and offered my silent thanks to whoever that had been for keeping my sense of perspective intact.