To my own surprise, I did not waste that time and actually got down to some hard work, writing out long verb tables, entertaining passengers in my car with 'Teach Yourself Latvian' CDs that I left on repeat in an attempt to subliminally absorb useful phrases, and humming the national anthem backwards, forwards, sideways and every which way.
Now knowing what to expect in the second test I developed a few sneaky tricks concerning how to reach the 70-word maximum of the letter-writing section with minimum risk of error. I tabulated the garumzīmes occurring in the national anthem so that I had page after page of what looked at a glance like a very precise formalist poetic analysis of the rhyme scheme, meter and phrasing of that rather simple eight-line text. I will not detail all these tricks and tips here - I am considering writing a best-selling hypnosis/self-help book titled I Can Make You Latvian! based upon these "hacks".
Back to baravikas
Eventually the time for the re-sit of the exam came around. Again I headed up to Valmiera, again I got there early, again I hung around outside wondering who was here for the test and who was here to visit the probation service.
Sitting in the familiar examination room felt almost like a homecoming. There were far fewer of us this time, only five, and I may well have been the oldest. A woman in her twenties seemed the most uncomfortable of the bunch, twitching in her seat and asking for clarifications about what was expected. Another young woman, very smartly dressed, seemed slightly nervous but had a determined look.
The young man with the pony tail was no longer among the examiners. Perhaps the strain of pressing the 'Play' and 'Stop' buttons on the tape recorder had proven to be too much and he had gone on a well-deserved holiday. But the two retired female schoolteachers were still there, joined by another retired female schoolteacher dressed the same way and with the same precise and encouraging mannerisms.
The instructions were issued clearly and carefully, exactly as before, and the tests began. I didn't need to do the listening, reading or speaking sections, but decided not to waste the time and listened carefully to the comprehension exercise, writing my own answers and snatches of vocabulary on a sheet of paper we were given to make notes.
The dialogue I heard in this test could only ever be used in a Latvian citizenship test, nowhere else in the world. For it was a discussion of a planned trip to the forest to pick mushrooms and contained a line that will live forever in my memory:
"We only pick baravikas!"
For those not up to speed on this essential aspect of Latvian life, baravikas are the brownish mushrooms that mark the respectable mushroomer out from the amateur dilettante pickers of mere gailenes (chanterelles). It's like the difference between kicking a football around the park and playing for an actual team.
In fact it made me think up an alternative and much quicker citizenship exam: turn the candidates loose in the forest and award automatic citizenship to anyone who only picks baravikas.
By the time the listening and reading exercises were over I had assembled quite an impressive number of lines for future fictional dialogues on my notepaper, so it was painful to later have that paper ripped up in front of my face by the smiling examiner who explained that unfortunately, those were the rules and no notes could leave the room. The world was robbed of a great work of mycological literature as a result.
The trouble with grandfather's cake
Now it was time to get serious with my re-take of the written examination. First there was a form to fill in. No problem. Next was the dreaded letter which had tripped me up last time. Thankfully, this time around I did not have to make an imaginative visit to a fishing tackle shop. This time I had to write to members of my family requesting financial assistance to buy cakes and snacks for the birthday party of an elderly relative, something I am sure we have all had to do at one time or another. My letter went something like this:
"Perhaps we could obtain a very large strawberry cake for grandfather? I believe they have some very good strawberry cakes at the Staburadze cake shop on Tallinn street. Please send me ten euros. Perhaps twenty, if possible. We will need a lot of cake because, obviously, an 80th birthday is important. Plus grandfather really loves strawberry cake. If there is no cake he will become very angry and no-one wants to see him angry again. Remember last time."
Perhaps I overdid it, but it did conjure up a very vivid portrait of this ancient, bearded patriarch bankrupting his family because of his insatiable appetite for strawberry cake while they all scurry from patisserie to patisserie hoping the old boy will one day leave enough money in his will to compensate them for the expense.
I handed in my paper and was told to wait outside with the other candidates. A few minutes later I was called back in.
"We're pleased to say you have achieved the required standard," said one of the three schoolteachers, "There were a few mistakes with the case endings, but on the whole it was good." She held up my examination paper. There were fewer orange marks than last time. I had outwitted the garumzīmes at last! "Therefore you will be able to return this afternoon to sit the other parts of the test," she said.
I left to get some lunch, my elation tempered slightly by the memory that four months earlier I had come across a dead body walking this same route. Luckily there were no corpses in the street this time and I reached my favorite Valmiera cafe, Baumanitis, where they always do excellent karbonade with fries. It is usually very busy at lunchtime, but it was surprisingly quiet on this occasion. I carried my plate into the dining room and started eating, wondering why I was the only one there. A curtain was drawn across the door into the next room and a low hum of conversation could be heard behind it. There was no laughter.
A waitress emerged from behind the counter with two enormous plates of steaming potatoes. The cook followed with two equally large plates of cutlets and sauerkraut. As they drew back the dividing curtain and went in, I got a glimpse into the next room. A large number of black-clad figures with morose expressions were sitting around long tables and shaking their heads. It was a funeral wake.
"Maybe there's something to that 'one out, one in' policy after all," I thought. Perhaps it would be strawberry cake for dessert?
Back in the examination room, I finally got to tackle the constitution and history questions. They were pretty straightforward and because most of the questions were in multiple-choice format, the chance to engage in Latvia's unofficial national sport - historical debate - was thankfully limited. A question on "the significance to Latvia of the revolution of 1905" is a subject that might normally involve hours of heated argument and counter-argument. Here, you simply chose the option which sounded least silly, even if you didn't necessarily find it comprehensive or convincing.
Next up was the national anthem test. Candidates do have the chance to speak (or sing) Dievs, svētī Latviju rather than write it down, but no-one took up the option. Besides, I was not about to waste my hours of textual analysis and was confident I could write it with sufficient grammatical accuracy.
The people sitting these afternoon tests were not exactly the same as the ones who had sat the language tests in the morning, which I supposed must mean some had failed, as I had the first time. The young woman who had fretted about the exam papers was gone. But I recognized someone from my first test. Surprisingly, it was the middle-aged blonde woman who had been so efficiently organizing her domestic affairs over the telephone in very good Latvian last time around. It turned out that she was here only to retake the national anthem part of the test, having passed everything else.
The tests were simple and everyone completed them in just a few minutes. It was time to leave the room again and await the verdicts. We paced around nervously. The blonde woman fanned herself and made more domestic arrangements over the phone in excellent Latvian. The smartly-dressed young woman chewed her beautifully manicured fingernails. I read the real estate ads by the entrance. Not many houses seemed to have sold since last time I looked.
The blonde woman who had only had to do the national anthem was called in. She emerged like a misfiring moonshot a minute later, red in the face, and stormed out of the building without a word. Presumably she had failed again. If someone who spoke such excellent Latvian could fail, it was not looking good for me.
Next in was the smart young woman. From outside I heard indistinct voices and suddenly a "YES!" and a stifled scream. She tripped out of the examination room with a huge smile, punching the air. "You can go in now!" she told me as if she was offering an all-expenses-paid spa session.
I edged into the room. There they were, the three wise women sitting at the desk. I gulped, bracing myself for more disappointment. If I failed I would only get one more chance, after which I would have to start the whole naturalization process again from the beginning.
"We are pleased to inform you that you have reached the required standard demanded by the law," one, or possibly all three of them, said.
"Thank you," I said. I couldn't think of anything original.
"You will still be required to take the oath of loyalty to Latvia before becoming a citizen and your candidacy will need to be confirmed by a decision of the Cabinet of Ministers. You will be informed about his by letter, and about the opportunities for obtaining a Latvian passport. This could take several weeks or even a few months. Congratulations," they said.
Sign on the dotted line
That was in late March. I finally received my letter in June and on July 1 I attended my citizenship ceremony in Cēsis. It was just me, my son, and two ladies: one from Cēsis council and one from the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs (PMLP) who oversaw proceedings at the local registry office. It was a simple ceremony that began when a recording of the national anthem was played.
We all stood up. This time I sang it out loud, and the memory of standing there next to my son while his little voice sang it as tremulously as mine is something I shall never forget. After all, as I wrote at the very beginning of this account, the main point of this whole process was that nothing should be able to come between myself and my family. We were indivisible again.
The oath was written on a certificate and technically speaking all I had to do was read it and sign, but I made a point of reading it aloud, pronouncing the words carefully and clearly. Then I signed. I was a little disappointed I didn't get a copy myself.
But I did get a very nice book titled Latvia's 100 Most Beautiful Places and a lovely bunch of flowers. I thanked the ladies and made a particular point of asking that my thanks should also be passed on to the various PMLP staff who had helped me. I found them to be efficient and helpful throughout my unusual and lengthy path towards citizenship.
"What are you going to do now? Will you celebrate?" asked the lady from Cēsis municipality.
"I think we'll go to lunch," I said, "Would you like to join us?"
She laughed and replied: "That's the first time anyone has ever offered to take us to lunch!" They politely declined the invitation. I would gladly have bought them a strawberry cake.