Latvia – this time it’s personal

The media are constantly reminding us that the recession that most Western economies have experienced in the last two years is not over. Not a week goes by without news of impending crises, the last one being the case of Greece – a country at the brink of bankruptcy. The excesses in the construction industry have been at the centre of the current recession, exemplified by the subprime debacle in the USA and the massive drops in building activity in countries such as Ireland and Spain. As a consequence, many countries have witnessed a large increase in unemployment, with many categories of jobs being affected, not the least the architects… architects everywhere have been hitting the pavement, to put it mildly.

Few people are aware, though, that a small, Eastern European country has embodied literally all the above excesses: massive real estate speculation and a housing crash, huge unemployment reaching 20% of the labour force, and a drop in GNP not seen in any other country in the world. It just so happens that this small country is Latvia – a country close to my heart. The appalling news about the suffering of the Latvian people during this recession, with cuts in salaries and pensions (imposed by the IMF rescue plan) from levels that were already pretty low before the recession, has made me recollect better times when I was travelling through Latvia…

Just a quick geography lesson:  The Republic of Latvia is bordered by the Baltic Sea, Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania.  My connection to Latvia is a personal one: my mother is from its capital city, Rīga.

What do people know of Latvia, if anything? Some might recall it winning the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest. (Gosh, I hope that’s not its main claim to fame because the performance wasn’t exactly stellar.) Or maybe you’ve seen some tough Latvian hockey players?  Surely people interested in jewelry know that much of the world’s beautiful golden amber hails from Latvia’s Baltic shores.

Perhaps we’re also due for a quick history lesson or a ‘refresher course’, as they say. Throughout its history, the small nation of Latvia has been under the control of foreign rulers (e.g., Swedes), its territories a frequent focal point for conflict and conquest. In this past century, it experienced a short-lived period of freedom of some twenty years after the First World War, followed by German and Soviet occupations during the Second World War. The country was finally annexed by the USSR in 1944, which resulted in a major exodus of Latvians to the West (my mother’s family fled to Germany and ultimately immigrated to Canada), and, sadly, the deportation of tens of thousands to the fringes of the Soviet Empire, from where many never returned. For decades afterwards, the country was subject to Soviet economic control and Russian immigration, but despite years of aggression, oppression and colonization, Latvian culture, as well as a defiant sense of nationalism, survived. Shortly after the epic events of 1989 played out, Latvia followed the lead of its Baltic neighbours (Estonia and Lithuania), shed its Russian stranglehold and declared its Independence in 1991.

On a lighter note, growing up in Canada, it was impressed upon my brother and me early on, to value the importance of learning and maintaining the language and culture of my mother’s family.  Well, that and frankly, we had no say in the matter.  Upon my parents’ and grandparents’ insistence, we went to Latvian school every Saturday morning for years.  We were in a special class for kids with only one Latvian parent because we did not speak the language on a daily basis.  That’s all well and good but I’ll tell you, it was a sad state of affairs to find myself on many a Friday night doing homework, naturally, last minute-style. When you are 6 to 14 years old and your friends are home watching TV and playing video games, being reminded that you will be grateful later in life because you speak another language, well, that rationale just doesn’t cut it.  I didn’t exactly have a rockin’ social calendar in those days but still.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who wants to be different than their peers.  In truth, though, it wasn’t all bad.  Our warm and beautiful grandmother came over on those Friday nights and helped us get through the homework, tolerating our moaning and groaning, imparting on us a lesson of patience and tolerance. At 15, I graduated from Latvian school, wearing daisies in my hair and full-fledged traditional garb as was required at the ceremony, and making my grandparents oh-so-proud.  Honestly, I am indeed grateful they didn’t take my whining all that seriously in those days and forced me to follow through with my extra schooling.

I made my very first trip to Latvia in 2005.  All my life I had learned about this ‘abstract’ faraway place and associated Latvian culture with my grandparents, with the crafts and traditions at home, and with the old “biddies” at church (where my grandmother played the organ).  But finally there I was, seeing it for myself, hearing the language in the streets, contemporary, modern young people on cell phones and that was amazing.

A guided tour of the Old City was called for and together with a group of random, boisterous Brits, I walked the cobbled medieval streets and wound up at a charming grotto restaurant where we were served a veritable smorgasbord of traditional foods.  Reminiscent of the cuisine I grew up with in Canada (grandmother’s cooking, etc):  ham, herring, sauerkraut, potato salad, dill, piragi, not just your standard hearty meat & potatoes.  To complement the food, we were treated to a sampling of local beers (the Brits particularly enjoyed this part).  In the evening, I admired the setting sun over a skyline of spires and turrets.

A typically Latvian event that I had experienced beforehand (in the New Hampshire countryside, go figure) was the ancient festival of Jāņi, which celebrates the summer solstice.  On midsummer night, people delight in bonfires burning from dusk to dawn, music and singing through the wee hours, and the donning of wreaths of leaves. While in Latvia, I witnessed again how summer is an especially magical time.  After long, dark winters, Latvians seem determined to soak up as much light as possible.  Beer gardens in Rīga’s squares were as animated and lively by day as by night, with revellers slugging pints at all hours. And any self-respecting Latvian can hold their liquor…

I didn’t venture far from Rīga, only to wander through the crumbling castle in Sigulda and to stroll along the seashore around Jūrmala with its string of small towns and resorts, and streets lined in those days with low-rise wooden houses. The long sandy beaches are backed by dunes and woods of pine. Over the centuries, amber washed ashore, and the pieces with insects trapped, fossilized inside the hardened resin are like a time capsule made by nature.  The icy blue Baltic Sea vistas have always drawn vacationers in droves, especially hoards of people from all over the USSR who, during Soviet times, flocked to holiday homes and boarding houses.  Away from the capital city, the pace slowed down drastically.

In the past few years, bustling Rīga has become the financial, touristic, and entertainment capital of the Baltic countries. Its pumping nightlife and marvellous art-nouveau architecture are an appeal to tourists. Sadly, when it appeared that the country was finally starting to reach a standard of living comparable to that of other European countries, it is heartbreaking to see it undergo such harsh (economic) setbacks, a country that has already endured so many throughout its history.

I’m proud of my heritage and proud to be able to ‘pass it on!’

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4 responses to “Latvia – this time it’s personal

  1. Steph – enjoyed reading and seeing. Wonderful.

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  2. Great post & love your photographs! I am planning a trip to Riga in a couple of months and ran across your post because I’m trying to find sketchers there. My grandparents were from Latvia and like it was for you it’s this ‘abstract far-away place’ that I can’t believe I’ll be visiting. I’m very excited to go. Thanks for your post!

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  3. Nicely written!. I’m Latvian as well and my husband and I travelled there a few years ago. Can’t wait to go back. Happy Jāņi!

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