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Learning diplomacy.

Solveiga Silkalna left Australia in 1993 for a new life in her parent's homeland--Latvia--and has never looked back. She has since worked as translator for a former president and served as Latvia's UN ambassador in New York. She is currently on maternity leave and is due to start a position as spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. The married mother of two spoke to The Baltic Times about the challenges of juggling career and motherhood.

What is your connection to Latvia?

I grew up in a Latvian family in Melbourne. My parents were refugees during the war. They left with their parents. My mum actually grew up in Germany in Bavaria and they ended up teaching at the Latvian school in Munster. They were both teachers there and that's how they met. My grandmother actually influenced me a lot in coming here. She was always talking about her youth in Riga. I can understand that she embellished it a lot because she was young at the time and it probably all seemed so much rosier then it really was, but of course it made me curious to see it.

What bought you to Latvia?

It was the right time. I had heard of other Latvians from America and Australia coming here and having a great time here and doing very interesting work. When I finished my higher education in 1993, I decided I wanted to come too and become independent as well. I didn't have any work lined up before I arrived, so I just turned up and stayed with relatives while I was looked for something. I was very lucky that I eventually ended up being the president's translator. Guntis Ulmanis had been elected in the summer of 1993 and he didn't speak English. I had fluent English and Latvian, and they needed someone quickly. I came for the first time in 1991 for a few weeks right after independence. I enjoyed it very much. It was at the beginning of a very dark, cold winter and there were still shortages and queues for bread. But I was hooked, so the moment I could I came back.

Do you still feel a sense of connection to Australia?

When I came here I really made an effort to blend in and to feel local. I certainly have very fond memories of growing up in Australia and I appreciate all the opportunities I had there, but I just felt that life here and work here would be much more interesting and so I'm just very happy about how things turned out.

What has been your career highlight to date?

Being an ambassador is a career highlight for any diplomat, but there have been many stages along the way that I have also enjoyed immensely. They were three very interesting and very challenging years in New York. I worked at a time there was a wave of expectation and hope in the air that the UN might undergo some reforms that it really needed. That was very exciting to be there at that time and to work toward that.

What is the most challenging aspect of being in the diplomatic corps?

In a sense being a diplomat can be a bit frustrating especially if you want to achieve something. You have to watch what you say and how you say it ... in that sense, that wariness and searching for words is difficult. It's something you learn, but it's not in my character. And so that's something I have to constantly be aware of. Like any person, diplomats also have political views and opinions and emotions, but a professional has to keep those very much in check and that's challenging ... one of those over used words.

Do you believe the UN still has a relevant role in the world stage? I really do think the UN is useful. There needs to be one forum where every country has a voice, but it's a question of what can actually be done and achieved in reality. There are obviously very useful things like global conventions, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief and so on, but in the everyday it gets very politicized and less practical.

Did you always have aspirations to join the diplomatic corps? A lot of it has been about being in the right place at the right time. In Australia I studied botany-zoology and also I got a teaching qualification. But frankly that wasn't what I wanted to continue for the rest of my life. So part of coming here was also about finding something else. I did a degree in political science in Latvia while I was working at the Foreign Ministry, so I sort of changed gears.

What challenges do you find juggling motherhood and career?

I have a five-year-old daughter and a seven-month-old son, so all my free time when I'm not working tends to go towards my kids. I think like any working mother; I'm constantly feeling guilty that I can't do everything at once. But I'm doing my best and that's all I can do.

What changes have you noticed in Latvia in your time here?

It's changed immensely. It's obviously changed on the surface--the cars, the houses, the people-the way things look and the way things are, are light years from what it used to be. Although the old way of thinking still sometimes comes through when you talk to people. As long as you have money you can get anything you want. In those days you couldn't even get things in the shops. The other thing I've found is travel is much easier now because we now have all the budget airline connections and also the borders are now more open and so in that sense you feel a lot more part of the world, of Europe. Things in general have also changed since then-e-mail, Skype, mobile phones ... You don't feel so isolated here anymore, it's not an island. I think I've been here long enough that I think I've gone a bit native as well, so I can't really tell as much.

Do you believe the political environment has changed over time?

[It is] hard to tell, because in politics so many people from those times are still around. What I would really like to see is that new generation, the younger generation coming in, but there's obviously some kind of block to that. They feel like they won't find a place or perhaps have a say in the existing political system ... That's a bit sad.

What ambitions do you still have?

Obviously having a family makes you reassess life a bit and right now I'm just busy trying to juggle the everyday, and especially once I start working again it will be more about just getting through the day. But once I get back into the stride of things I think I'll be able to plan ahead a bit more. Certainly I'd be interested in getting another posting somewhere and just see what life throws at me. The thing with the diplomatic service is you can't really plan too far ahead because things change all the time and sometimes you get a very sudden unexpected turn of events.
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Title Annotation:Opinion
Author:McIntosh, Kate
Publication:The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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