On 1 January this year, Latvians switched from lats and santimus, that had been the national currency for the last 20 years, to euro banknotes and cents. DELFI interviewed a couple of traders in a local market at Ventspils and asked how they were getting used to the new currency.
Market day in Ventspils
© U. Karaliūnaitės nuotr.

Many people are rushing to the Baltic coast by Ventspils on a sunny summer day. Meanwhile, in the centre of the city, pensioners Astra and Irma start their usual business day. Both women supplement their retirement pensions by selling flowers and plants in a local market.

During the lunchtime, the market gets quite empty, so the two Latvians sit down on a bench and discuss various topics, share their memories. DELFI joins the women to ask them how Latvians managed to get used to their new currency.

In all, Lats circulated in the country for almost 40 years: once between 1922 and 1940 and then in 1993-2013. Future generations will only be able to see the historic currency in museums, or receive the saved-up banknotes or coins from their parents or grandparents as collector's items.

In the Ventspils market, there are only a few counters still displaying prices in both currencies. A kilogram of this year’s potatoes in mid-June here costs 1.2-2 euros (LTL 4.14-6.9), strawberries – 1.5-2 euros (LTL 5.18-6.9), a cauliflower costs 2 euros (LTL 6.9), a kilogram of onions – 0.80 euros (LTL 2.76), Latvian cucumbers – 2 euros (LTL 6.9).

“We’re trying to get used to it, but it’s still difficult,” says Astra. The woman tells me that it is difficult for her to count in the new currency – she still tries to convert prices to lats and santimus.

“Clients are claiming that everything is more expensive now, but really, only the numerals have changed,” she notes. Conversion rate says one latas is now equal to 1.423 euros, or 0.7 lats for one euro.

Astra says that she used to sell her flowers for one lat a piece, while now sells them at 1.5 euro, a slight rounding-up. However, customers still think the price went up significantly.

“They are bargaining to pay one euro,” she claims.

Loss of identity

Irma joins the conversation and claims that she is having other troubles.

“I will never get used to it. We have always loved our money and will continue to do so,” she says.

While it is not the first currency change in her life, Irma admits that transition to the euro is not comparable to the phasing out of the ruble in the early 1990s.

“It was easy to let go of the ruble, but I never wanted to lose the lat. We have lost our national identity, and nothing can make up for this loss. We have lost some part of our statehood.”

However, both women agree that there was plenty of information before the introduction of the euro.

Feels inconvenienced

A completely opposite opinion is held by Ventspils Tourism Information Centre manager Inga Aulmanė.

“It’s not the first transition from one currency to another in my life. First there was the ruble, then the Latvian ruble (1992-1993),” the woman remembers.

Even though six months have passed since the euro adoption, Aulmanė admits she is still converting euros to lats in her head. At the same time, she pulls out her smartphone and shows an app which allows the Latvian to convert the currency with relative ease.

“But my sister lives in Germany and says that the locals still compare the euro to the Deutschmark, even though it has been a long time since they no longer have that currency,” she said.

Aulmanė says that the transition to the euro was well organized and she did not feel any discomfort.

“I did not have to exchange currencies in my bank account, and I still had six months to spend all my cash.”

The Ventspils resident feels that the prices seem higher psychologically – if previously something cost five lats, now the price is seven euros.

“At first, it was tough, we felt that we were spending more,” she adds.

But you also earn more money, numerically speaking? “Of course,” Aulmanė laughs. “But still, even though we earn more money, psychologically it still feels that everything is more expensive whenever you step into the store.”

Nevertheless, Aulmanė does not associate the adoption of the euro to price growth. The Bank of Latvia reports that in the first quarter of 2014, inflation stood at 0.4 percent. During same period in 2013, it was 0.6 percent.

When asked how her friends and relatives are coping with the currency change, the woman is honest: "I think that people in every country are different – some can calculate fast, some are slower. Some people adapt to changes very easily, but there are also people who cannot adapt even years later. Of course, it is challenging for older people. It was difficult for me to get used to the euro cents, because they look very alike, only in slightly varying sizes. The elderly might not be able to see the numbers on the coin clearly. We were used to santimus so much that we could easily tell them apart just by touching the coins. Now we have to start all over again.”

Translated by Monika Bakutė

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