The British couple at home in rural Latvia with their alpacas

British couple Joanna and Ian Storie have been living near the small Latvian town of Ērgļi for eleven years and have an interest in rural sustainable development - which most obviously manifests itself in the form of a large number of alpacas roaming their fields in central Latvia. 

Joanna and Ian told Latvian Radio about their unusual lifestyle and how they now come to regard Latvia as their true home.

They first came to Latvia in the early 2000s and taught English at children's camps.

"And we loved it. We really loved the people, we loved the place, and we felt like – yes, one day we would really like to come and live here,” says Joanna.

The idea became a reality and now they have twelve and a half hectares of land and 18 alpacas. The idea for alpaca farming originally came from a visit they made to Australia. 

“We are used to the shyer, more reserved, 'take your time but make good friends' attitude. And we can appreciate that,” says Joanna.

"It's really hard to put into words, but I felt more at home here than in England," says Ian.

The day to day business of animal husbandry is time consuming but Joanna is also a researcher at the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

"That’s one of the reasons for the studies that I do. When we came here, I could see the need for development. This was 2008, shortly before the crash. I’ve been learning the language of development over this time. What does development in rural Latvia and Estonia actually look like? What is needed? What do people think? What keeps them in a place, and what drives them away? These are the things I’ve been looking at, thinking – how can we do things differently?” explains Joanna.

“If everyone keeps moving out and our farmers keep getting older, who is going to be raising our food?” Joanna emphasizes.

“When you look around, you can see changes. Like in Ērgļi itself – they had the new fire station built, some of the old buildings have been renovated. So you can see European investment. But like Joanna says, it’s the physical things. And if there is nobody here to use it and look at it, in some respect it’s a waste of time,” says Ian.

The talk of the European Union inevitably raises the subject of Brexit. And for some reason, the roosters living at the other end of the greenhouse become particularly loud when it is mentioned.

“I can only apologize for the British government and the way it is going on. The Latvian government has said that they would make some changes for the British citizens here if Brexit happens, deal or no deal, to change our status. But there’s that little sentence at the end “but we’d still want reciprocal arrangements with the British government”, with Latvians in the UK. And currently, they don’t fill me with a lot of hope," says Joanna.

"There have been so many situations where people have been living in the UK for so many years, and the paperwork they now suddenly need... and if they haven’t got it, they’re being moved back. And I think – what happens if they start doing it with Latvians? Will the Latvian government then start to say: well, actually we have some British people that need to go back? I feel very vulnerable about the situation with our government, I mean, the British government...I don’t feel very connected with it. And the hostile environment Teresa May has created. We just have to sit and watch it all. It’s bizzare!" Joanna says.

"For us, Latvia is our home. I’m happy to call it my home. We still have family in England, our children and grandchildren live there, but apart from them, there’s no reason for us to go back. And apart from seeing them, we don’t like going back. All our possessions are here,” says Ian.

So do the Stories now feel more British or Latvian? 

"We were born British, you can’t really do anything about it, can you? I have the characteristics of a British person. I do apologise all the time. Sorry! There is the dry, black British sense of humor. But then again... we pick mushrooms, pick herbs of tea, we like gardening. And people say: well, that makes you Latvian! Especially with the mushrooms!" says Joanna.

She is also enthusiastic about the close connection many Latvians retain to the land and to agriculture, which to a great extent has been lost in their homeland.

"Latvians still haven’t lost their gardening skills. Some are beginning to, but there are still people you can go to and ask – how do you grow a carrot? And they would still know. It’s still with in memory. It’s been lost in the UK. Even people in my age in the UK and their grandparents do not know how to grow things like that. Latvia hasn’t lost those skills. And people are beginning to realize: actually they are quite important! It’s important to know where your food comes from, how it’s grown. Unless you understand that, how can you know what’s a good carrot and what’s a bad carrot? The taste is so different! I talk to a Latvian, and you understand that. I talk to some British people, and it’s like: I go to the supermarket. That’s it. So I suppose that’s where we are more Latvian than British.,” says Joanna.

As for the language question, they admit that picking up Latvian is a struggle.

"When we have visitors, I always tell them as a joke: I’m really sorry I can’t speak Latvian, but fluent in alpaca!" says Ian.

 

You can read more about their life in a blog by Joanna.

Society
Society