Finding the Words

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Enjoying the sun that has made its way back to the Baltics

Writing is a tool that I have always used to process my experiences. When at a crossroads in life, I have so often found solace in writing letters to others and essays for myself about my thoughts and emotions. I wouldn’t call myself an overtly public being, so the writing that I choose to share is only a sliver of the writing I have done personally.

I find a lot of meaning in just sitting down and letting my thoughts dribble out onto the page. Through writing, I can explore my internal and external experiences. Through writing, I can dedicate myself to a task. Through writing, I can attempt to better share with others what is going on in my fast-paced life. I wrote a lot in college — I used to joke with friends that it felt like I pumped-out an eight page research paper every three days or so. In all honesty, this is probably not that far from the truth! Yet, I love that high-intensity dedication as it yields results and keeps me accountable. Going into this year, I knew that I wanted to keep writing in order to stay in the habit and process my life in Latvia. Instead of my writing being mainly academic and structurally-focused, I have taken time to develop my style and prose. I have found a way in which I can write for personal use that helps me process the world and doesn’t feel too vulnerable to share with those who ask about my experience.

Recently, however, I have found that it has been harder to articulate my thoughts either to myself or others. In many ways, I have reached the point of full comfortability abroad and in my day-to-day. Life in Latvia is the “new normal” and life at home in the States seems far away and faint. The head space that I was living in during the fall has flipped. More often than not, I now think ahead to the activities that I have coming up in my schedule here than being hyper-focused about what my family/friends have going on back home. Instead of reminiscing about what I am missing in the Midwest, I am currently sad that I will be gone for Latvia’s summer activities. With the weather finally having turned nice , I find myself disappointed that I cannot see this country in its prime of beauty and instead have lived here through the dark months of winter. I find myself subconsciously calling this place home.

Though this turning point certainly elicits confusion, I think it is the moment in which I can say that I have fully adjusted to being an expat. In many ways, if it wasn’t for the people back in the States, I feel that I would be perfectly happy staying here. I have an orchestra to play in; a church to go to; I have a variety of friends; my schedule is full of commitments; I am doing satisfying work for others and am excited about where that work is going; I have my favorite places to go to in the city — coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, parks. I am very happy. Maybe this is the reason that when I have sat down to write in the past month I have felt at a loss for words in how I might describe this experience. In a lot of ways, the experience has now fully consumed me and I am only regretfully wrapping things up in the next few weeks.    

There are so many moments here where I wish I could pause the clock and jot down what I think about something. That I could use my writing to better sort through the messiness I feel. That I could record word-for-word the amazing, silly things my students say. That I could capture on paper the side-stitching laughter I have experienced when something ridiculous has happened to me. The pure satisfaction I felt when we started having sunny days for the first time in over five months. The horrendous feeling of losing a loved one. The unexpected joyfulness and sparkling newness of a growing relationship. That I could describe what spring looks like in Riga — it is beautiful I tell you! I have realized only recently I have really never experienced a true spring in Minnesota. Yet, instead of finding this solace in writing, I have found it stressful to think about how I will ever summarize this experience. How could I begin describe what has happened to me this year? How could I articulate the things that have frustrated me, invigorated me, and changed me? Will those closest to me ever know these things? The answer to these questions feels like “I can’t,” “I won’t,” and “no.”

Even so, instead of dwelling on this, I will choose to do the thing that takes much more effort and faith. I have to trust that time, in and of itself, will help me process all of this. I have to trust that the millions of crazy, funny stories about my life abroad will somehow sort themselves out and that I will find the best, most descriptive ones to tell others. That I will discover a comfortable and succinct answer to the “how was it?” question. That those closest to me will help me process these things and will be there for me when the transition back is difficult. That I can remember, while my family and friends in the US were not with me this year, they do know me and even better, they love me! And, maybe, most importantly, that it hasn’t been a solo experience. I have curated friendships and relationships that I hope to maintain for life. People with whom I can reminisce about that one time I moved to Latvia for a year at 23 with very little direction. People that will forever make Latvia a place in my professional and personal life. 

Yes, as these next few weeks roll forward I am doing a lot of trusting amidst my gratefulness and mix of emotions. Maybe the words and writing will come when I am finally back home in the US. Maybe, they won’t ever come. Yet, I am trusting soon enough I will be welcomed back into the fold. That I haven’t been forgotten about, even while I have been away. That this year will eventually and evenly meld into the rest of my life — the stages of “before Latvia” and “after Latvia” will become one. And, in the meantime, I will enjoy these last, fleeting, indescribable moments in a place I have found to be home. 

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Courage to Grow

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In front of the Berliner Dom Cathedral

A few weeks ago I traveled to Germany for the 65th Berlin Seminar and met with other Fulbright grantees from all over the continent. The conference was put on by the Germany Fulbright commission to bring together German students headed to the U.S. to study, American ETAs currently teaching in Germany, and other Fulbright grantees living in the rest of Europe. As I fit into the last category of attendees, I was eager to hear from others about their experiences and glean some perspective on my own time thus far.

The main theme of the conference focused on courage and placed this buzzword within the frame of living abroad, professional decisions, and diplomacy careers. Throughout the week we heard from many acclaimed speakers who expounded upon the role of courage in their own lives. A few memorable talks included Jeffrey Bleich speaking on courage within politics; Sawsan Chebli on the courage of knitting together one’s identity and public career; Adam Michnik on courage within the Polish political landscape; Sergio Jaramillo Caro on the courage he had when negotiating the Colombia/FARC conflict; and Claudia Rusch on the courage of German citizens following the fall of the Berlin wall.

To hear such a swathe of politicians and engaged citizens share their interesting and relevant stories reminded me of the wonderful opportunities that Fulbright has afforded me. I have learned so much about the world around me. Sure, the stories motivated me to consider how courage has served my current professional responsibilities — how it has been present in moments of engagement with the people I have met. However, more pertinently, the theme made me consider how courage has functioned in my personal life. Specifically, how it has functioned in the moments that have occurred between my earliest mornings in the classroom and latest nights lesson planning. The quiet times in the grocery store, attending church, walking the streets, or sitting in the park. The courage it took for me to jump headfirst into a new environment and try things that have been sometimes scary.

I found myself realizing that it also takes courage to acknowledge how you might see growth within yourself. Sometimes looking within is the hardest thing we can do. We have to face the demons inside. The lies we tell ourselves about who we are and who we are called to be. In many ways, the process of living in Latvia has made me wonder how (or if) I am changing. Because I am not home surrounded by either experiences or people that I am familiar with, it is difficult to get a sense of comparison when I am not in my “control” environment. To gain this perspective we need to ponder the hard questions. We have to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” “Can courage and fear live in duality?” “Where do I get the courage to grow beyond my current boundaries?” And, when we ask these, we must face the even greater question: “Who gives me courage when I am scared?”

In all honesty, this has been one of the scariest things I have considered throughout my time in Latvia. Figuring out all of the logistics of living in an Eastern European country and navigating a new culture has been fairly easy compared to considering what internal changes might have happened while I’ve been away. I have asked myself what it might mean if I come home feeling unchanged — as if it was all merely a strange year “off” from my normal, regular, American life. Does that mean that I didn’t have enough courage to do what I came here to do? On the flip side, what if this year changes me so much that my family and friends don’t recognize me? Or worse yet, what if I don’t even recognize myself?

One of the speakers from the Berlin Seminar gave an interesting allegory which anyone can use to acknowledge how courage functions in our own lives. He had us picture attending a famous Viennese ball and dancing on the large, crowded dance floor (my LCSO friends can refer to your first-hand knowledge). You are likely concentrated on the dance and your partner. You bump into the people around you and can’t really see beyond the dizzying twists and turns of the waltz. Sure, it is amazing, fun, and exhilarating. However, it is also hard to gain perspective as you don’t really know what is going on in the big picture. After a few rounds of this, maybe you decide you need to go to the balcony to take a breather. Once standing over everyone, you see what you couldn’t before. You notice the way couples weave between each other and the specificities of the waltz dance technique. You notice how you were only one, insignificant aspect in the grand scheme of things.

In hearing this allegory, I discovered one way to make sense of my displacing, Latvian experiences is to view them like the Viennese ball. So much of the past 7 months has been a whirlwind of language acquisition, travel, and balancing flexibility/routine. Like the ball, it is amazing, fun, and exhilarating. But it is also dizzying. I ask myself almost daily “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?” Taking a moment to view things from the balcony not only clarifies the big picture, but gives a much-needed moment of respite and calm. When I see things from this viewpoint I notice that I have surprised myself. I have realized personal growth this year has happened whether I like it or not. And isn’t this always how it works, haha? During the time we spend and effort we exert trying to keep things the same, we are often stretched and pushed beyond what we either hoped or wanted.

When I take a moment to “stand on the balcony,” I see myself comfortably teaching lessons and private tutoring sessions that I would have never imagined I was capable of instructing. I see myself gaining flexibility in how I have imagined my future after the grant. I notice myself finding deep and meaningful purpose in the friendships and community built here. These are all things that I deemed inconceivable looking ahead to my grant last July. 

It is in these “balcony moments” that we see start to see the function of courage. It isn’t anything that we do or create out of our own willpower, but the trust that in both moments of difficulty and joy we are given strength from beyond ourselves. Maybe in standing on the balcony we can realize that it takes this courage to grow.

 

 

A Guide to the “Brexit” British Embassy Town Hall

This post is an article that I wrote for Latvia Weekly, a site which seeks to provide regular English language news summaries of the most important stories in the country of Latvia. Latvia Weekly also provides English guides, like this one, which can inform English speakers on events occurring in Latvia and highlights aspects of culture. This article was originally published February 21st, 2019 here.

It is important to note that this post is not necessarily as pertinent to my exploration of Latvia as what I usually publish. However, being in Europe this year has greatly informed me about world politics. Events like Brexit are certainly worth paying attention to. Not only does it provide an interesting perspective on country dynamics but highlights how such relationships between nations are constantly in flux. I was fortunate to be able to cover this event for Latvia Weekly and learn more about Brexit firsthand.



It is no secret that Brexit has British expats in the EU in a perpetual state of uncertainty. Without the British Parliament agreeing to the negotiated deal, Britain risks an abrupt exit without a deal just over a month from now on March 29, 2019. To soothe worries, British Embassies around the EU have hosted informational meetings and outreach events in advance of the UK’s departure. As an attendee at the Latvian Town Hall meeting that the British Embassy Riga hosted on Friday, February 15th, 2019, I was able to observe the ongoing dialogue that is underway between British officials and their citizens in Latvia regarding Brexit.

After a short cocktail hour and meet-and-greet, Mr. Keith Shannon, the British Ambassador to Latvia, commenced the meeting. He welcomed the 50-person audience and addressed them saying, “We are in quite a dynamic stage of where we are in Brexit.”

 

British Ambassador to Latvia Keith Shannon
PC: Ernests Dinks, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ambassador was clear that throughout the evening he would not speculate about other parts of the Brexit process. Instead, the Embassy’s diplomatic role is to assure British citizens and inform them of their rights going forward, as “overall the Brexit situation is complicated but [we] as an Embassy and public servants are working on your behalf.”

To address four critical areas of residency, social security, health, and education, the Ambassador was joined by Parliamentary Secretary from the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica; The Parliamentary Secretary from the Latvian Ministry of Welfare, Mr Roberts Spručs; and officials from the Latvian Ministry of Interior, the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science, and the Latvian National Health Service.

First, the Ambassador and the Parliamentary Secretary from the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica, addressed the ongoing work occurring between British officials and the Latvian government to ensure continued residency and employment for British citizens who are legal residents of Latvia on the date of the United Kingdom’s exit. Additionally, the Ambassador and Parliamentary Secretary both talked about the event of the United Kingdom exiting without a withdrawal agreement, though the Ambassador stressed that is not the aim of the British Parliament. However, even so, he stressed that “like any responsible government, [The U.K.] needs to prepare for that not happening.” The British Parliament are investigating other arrangements right now and will discuss the situation again on February 27th, 2019.

Parliamentary Secretary, Mrs. Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica, also highlighted what is happening within the Latvian Government to provide reassurance to British citizens currently living in Latvia. She addressed the current draft legislation being discussed in Saeima about other issues regarding Brexit, saying the Latvian Parliament is dedicated to providing outcomes that are as favorable as possible for British citizens, because “Latvia and the U.K. are like-minded in security, defense, and foreign affairs.” Up to this point, Saeima has given public commitment to this surety, but still has to work for it to become legal certainty. According to Kalnina-Lukasevica, this will likely happen closer to the March 29th deadline.

In regards to the residency status of British citizens in Latvia, an official from the Ministry of the Interior spoke on how largest potential change occurring in this category will be the process of switching residency cards for legal British residents. Right now, the determination has been made that the EU citizen classification currently given to British residents will be replaced with another designation. However, the process of changing over the cards will just need to take place before December 31st, 2020, giving time for systems to update per the Brexit transition period. British citizens will also receive a personalized letter from the Latvian Government informing them exactly what they need to do per their situation. This process will start later this spring when more details are given and decisions are made between the British and Latvian Governments. The official from the Ministry of the Interior told the audience that “[they] will be granted the same rights as [they] are right now as E.U. citizens,” which brought forth loud applause from the room.

Other changes that will occur to social security are undetermined at this time, including pensions, residency, education, and healthcare. The Parliamentary Secretary from the Latvian Ministry of Welfare, Mr Roberts Spručs, and officials from the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science and the Latvian National Health Service spoke about these potential changes saying that right now they are working for the best situation. Other likely changes will deal with postal service and duty-free flying between Latvia and the United Kingdom.

After the officials gave their statements on these critical areas, the floor opened up for questions which mainly regarded individual inquiries about residence cards. The Ambassador recommended British citizens that reside in Latvia should make sure they renew their passports, ensure they are legally residing in Latvia, and exchange their UK license for a Latvian one before the March 29th Brexit deadline. Further details including new procedures, will be found at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/living-in-latvia and continually updated after Saeima passes further legislation.

The Ambassador concluded the meeting saying “It is in both in the interest of the UK and the EU to be sensible about all of this.”

Lessons from Vienna

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Seeing “La Traviata” at the Wiener Staatsoper

One of the best parts of living and working abroad this year is that I have had the opportunity to travel to different parts of Europe and visit friends from the U.S. As travel has been such an informative part of my education, visiting these friends has been a reminder of the importance that adventure and worldly perspective has in all of our lives. To know that my friends are never far away (even while I’m in Latvia) has been critical to feeling and staying connected after my undergraduate years.

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with Luther friends at the production

These are some of the reasons that going to Vienna, Austria to see the Luther College Symphony Orchestra (LCSO) perform in the Musikverein was a distinct highlight of my Fulbright grant thus far. When I found out last spring that I would have the opportunity to move to Latvia, I immediately knew that I wanted to see LCSO’s performance in February. After all, the Vienna trip has always been a hallmark of our orchestral program.

While on my flight to Austria, I started thinking about what it would be like to see my friends from college. What it would be like to hear my beloved orchestra perform onstage. I wondered if I would miss being on stage with the ensemble. I was anticipating seeing the orchestra perform and being reminded of home. What I wasn’t prepared for was seeing the orchestra perform, and being reminded of why I am in Latvia doing the work I am doing.

Stepping into the Musikverein, also known as the “golden hall,” was a moment out of a fairytale scene. The beautiful gilded walls, ceiling, and tapestries were highlighted with soft lighting and grounded by blood-red velvet seats. Scrambling to find my chair on the ground-floor with other members of the “Luther crew,” I eagerly watched my orchestra colleagues file onto stage. As they prepared by warming-up their instruments and carefully tuning, I prepared for the waterworks.

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LCSO in the Musikverein

But, as the orchestra began their musical journey in the first notes, something surprising happened. Listening to them, I didn’t feel the great sadness I was anticipating. I felt something different. Instead of being sorry that I was not playing with the orchestra anymore, I was filled with immense gratitude that I have had the opportunity in the past. Instead of feeling jealousy that such an amazing ensemble got to perform in a beautiful hall, I was intensely proud of my friends and the Luther students that were playing on stage. The process those students and the orchestra were embarking in was a process that I, too, fully recognized and realized as my own. For being a member of that orchestra has been so incredibly instrumental to my own ability to also be in Vienna this year. For me to be there sitting and watching and cheering them on.

Participating in orchestra during college was not easy by any means. Firstly, it took an incredible amount of time — anywhere from the minimum 4.5 hours to the maximum 7.5 hours it took last semester when I was part of our chamber orchestra ensemble. Of course, this was all separate from the lessons, studio time, and practicing that I did on my own while studying in the department. Secondly, it was an investment beyond time and resources. It was also a giving of myself to an institution, a dedication of my emotional integrity and morale. There were moments I failed myself and others in my commitment and the effort I put in. In these moments there was darkness. But, like times in the past, the music always pulled me out.

The lessons that LCSO taught me could not even be quantified. Furthermore, I am certain that they will come into clearer focus into the future. However, here are the few that I reflected upon while attending the concert in Austria.

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with the infamous Dr. Baldwin

I learned how to listen.  I learned how to make music with others. I learned how to strive for perfection in the aim that I would find beauty. I learned life lessons from Dr. Baldwin. I learned the personal satisfaction of staying 10-minutes later to practice something just one more time. I learned what it looks like to have a severe commitment to something beyond yourself. I learned the importance of always showing up. I learned intentionality.

Orchestra was also the first community I found when I transferred colleges. It was where I met some of my bestest friends to date. I laughed with them on orchestra tour. I cried with them after taxing performances. I cheered them on while they excelled. In the meanwhile, I increased my skills and love for my instrument. I learned how to develop my own person. In many ways, I discovered the college-version of me and saw glimpses of who I wanted to be in the future.

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some of my best friends from LCSO

These are just a few of the things that I thought of while sitting in the Musikverein that Saturday night. I was reminded of who I have become because of things like Luther College and orchestral playing. I was reminded of those (now seemingly long-ago) lessons and how they are still things I practice in my day-to-day here in Riga while teaching and learning. I was reminded that even when these lessons are difficult to practice, they are done because one day there will be a payoff. It might not be a concert in a beautiful hall, but there are others moments where we get to showcase what hours of dedication can produce. 

I should note that the Luther College Symphony Orchestra had a truly beautiful concert that night. I was able to reunite with those that I have shared so many musical memories with. I was caught up on campus life and how others were doing. But the most amazing thing was that the orchestra simply soared on the wings they had developed through hard work and others believing in them. And, because I’m here with the help of others always having believed in me, I got to see what it was like to instead be the one believing in others.

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Spring 2018 Chamber Orchestra on the set of Così fan tutte

 

Winter Adventuring in Latvia

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Sunrise in Engure, Latvia

January was a great month of discovery for me! Like most people, winter sometimes starts to feel especially drawn-out, dark, and dull after the holidays. The sparkly, magical decorations of Christmas are put away. We head (sometimes grudgingly) back to work and school. Although the days start to get longer, it also feels like the increase of sunlight is pretty incremental.

To fight all of that, this past month I wanted to throw myself into the winter activities that I enjoy the most. Growing up in the snowy Midwest and being a proud Minnesotan, winter is equated with getting fresh air when outside cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and snow camping. It is a season that I always have loved when I can fight the cabin-fever feeling and take part in those activities that are specifically seasonal. So, this January I was determined to discover for myself what winter activities Latvians enjoy. I found that through the process I not only learned more about the place that I live, but I joyfully invigorated my body and soul with some good outdoor time!

Ice Skating

One of the first things that I had on my list of winter activities came from the recommendations of my Latvian peers and colleagues. Over the course of November and December I kept hearing that I must go to the Lido Outdoor Ice Skating Rink in Riga. By the time I got there this month I finally discovered what they were talking about. I was not disappointed!

The ice skating rink is located at the Lido restaurant complex a few miles from our apartment. A popular cafeteria-style eatery in Riga, this particular Lido Restaurant is the biggest of all of the ones in the metro-area. We had a delicious meal inside their big ski-lodge style building before heading out to their outdoor rink to rent skates and get on the ice. After an hour, we had quickly re-discovered how enjoyable ice skating is. Just being out on the ice with friends and loved ones was reminiscent of doing it as a small child. My friends and I commented that remember how to skate is like riding a bike — one you’ve learned how, it is always there.

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ice skating with friends

Hockey Game

Another “must-do” from my list was going to a Latvian hockey game! Cited as the most popular sport in the country, Latvia has a large range of types of teams allowing play for all ages. This past month we went to a European non-elite game between Riga’s Dinamo team and the Traktor Chelyabinsk team. I was particularly excited to attend a game because the love of hockey here is so similar to Minnesota. In fact, the most often-told reference point Latvians have when I introduce myself as being from the land of 10,000 lakes is they are familiar with the Minnesota Wild!

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As soon as we got into the arena, the excitement was palpable. This love of hockey was so effervescent. We joke that we finally found the place where Latvians go to “let loose.” In fact, walking into the complex felt a little bit like being transported back to the U.S. as everyone was so invested in cheering their team on. How strange is it to be in the stands and hearing all the same “charge!” and “hey, oh, lets go!” chants. To able able to sing the lyrics of “YMCA” by Village People loud and proud — and in English nonetheless! Yet, the fun didn’t stop there as we learned some new cheers in Latvian too. The game itself was a great showdown between teams, although Riga Dinamo lost 1:2 in overtime.

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Arena Rīga

Winter Hike in Engure Ezers National Park
For winter hiking, I was fortunate to have discovered a great group that leads hikes around Latvia and the Baltic region. Movement Spontaneous is an organization I was tipped off to by former Fulbrighters before I even arrived in Latvia but hadn’t had a chance to hike with yet. Luckily, they led a winter sunrise hike in January in Engures Ezers National Park. Located about 2 hours outside of Riga along the Baltic coast, this area is gorgeous and has hiking paths right along the seaside but also through the Latvian forest (meža).

To hike with a larger group was something I loved about Movement Spontaneous as it harkened back to my days of working at a backpacking outfitter, Christikon Lutheran camp, located in Montana. Through the structure of the group, it was so great to be able meet some new Latvians my own age and to explore the countryside with those that also enjoy being outdoors and being active. I found that it also was an advantageous way to learn about more hiking trails and tips for trekking in Latvia since the group serves as a local expert. This was evident through the hike itself as we found ourselves on remote trails that went through an ornithology research area, a farm with horses and cattle, and out to an observation tower on the edge of the frozen Engure lake.

During the hike, I was overwhelmed by the beauty that I’ve increasingly explored during my time here. I especially loved the section of hike that was along the coast, as time by the seaside is something harder to come by back home. The water that day was a slushy mix of water and ice and an ethereal cool-turquoise color. Looking out on the vast, wide waters that day, the sun beautifully reflected on broken chunks of ice and snow, it was unlike what I’ve seen before.

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sea swimming in Engure

Downhill Skiing

Besides ice skating, attending the hockey game, and hiking, the most recent winter adventure occurred just this past weekend when a group of friends and I went downhill skiing. After a fresh snowfall a week ago, the time was perfect to make a Saturday trip to Cēsis and Žagarkalns ski hill. After taking a bus followed by a taxi, we got from Riga to Cēsis in time for an afternoon in the powder.

We were surprised to find two things when we got to the hill. First, that that the hill didn’t have chairlifts but instead used platter lifts. Second, that compared to what we were used to, getting a lift ticket and renting skis was relatively inexpensive. After brushing up on our “pizza stopping” skills and teaching one member of our group how to ski for the first time, we got out on the runs. It felt so good to spend the day outside exploring the complex and stretching our legs.

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In Conclusion

Looking back on the month I’ve had, I am so happy that I was able to learn more about Latvia through sport and activity. We traveled both east and west of Riga to access some of the natural spots that are so accessible in this country. We found beauty even in the cold, dark days of winter. We laughed with friends, threw snowballs, drank mulled wine, appreciated good company, and stretched ourselves to be adventurous. And, in these moments it can be said that we found the true warmth that winter days bring.

St. Peter’s: So Much More Than a Building

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St. Peter’s Church in Riga

This is a tale about one of my favorite locations in Riga — St. Peter’s Church. Originally built in 1209, this building is considered one of best examples of medieval architecture in all of the Baltic States. Standing through the past eight centuries, St. Peter’s has persevered throughout modern history and carried herself into the twenty-first century with beauty and grace. Imagine what she has seen and heard through all this time — if walls could talk!

First, I think it is appropriate if we explore a brief history of the building. One of the most interesting tidbits about St. Peter’s is the story surrounding the multiple versions of her wooden tower. Sitting around 120 meters tall, the tower has collapsed multiple times. Originally, the tower was completed at the end of the 15th century but had already collapsed by 1666. It was rebuilt before being struck down by lightning in the 1700’s. Then, after being rebuilt again, it burned down during World War II. Finally, the most recent renovation of the tower ironically occurred during Soviet times. In 1967 a renovation started with the intention to build an observation deck and demarcate the site as more of a cultural location than religious center. This is the version of the tower that we can see today.

 

 

The other distinct thing about St. Peter’s (and all historic Latvian, Christian churches) is the use of a gilded rooster weather vane at the top of the steeple. Since the 15th century there have been a total of seven rooster vanes atop St. Peter’s. In 1970 the newest rooster was perched as a gift to the 800th anniversary of the church. However, St. Peter’s bird is just one of the “Riga Roosters.” This icon is representative of the patron saint of the city and thought to drive away evil. You can see the symbol reappropriated on gifts for tourists and has become symbolically akin to the city.

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one of the seven roosters

A special place to see some of this history first-hand is from the top! I have visited the observation tower a couple of times now and it is always a delight. Not only can you get a bird’s eye view of the maze that Old Town is, but you can see across the Daugava river as well. I have now perfected the best time to get to the top and swear that 4:00pm on a clear day will provide the most beautiful golden glow on Riga’s red clay roofs.

 

Today, St. Peter’s is mainly used for concerts and art exhibitions. A cultural center of the city, it aims to serve the artistic community and bring others into appreciation of the building. This is something I’ve personally experienced as well. Visiting this church often during my time here has provided many points of reflection. Specifically, three of my favorite moments in the space have been visiting an exhibit about Latvia’s role in World War I, an exhibit about Latvian handcrafts, and attending a percussion concert dedicated to Baltic composers.

The World War I exhibit was especially interesting as it outlined the stories of Latvians that fought in multiple fronts of the war. Since the area we now consider “Latvia” was unborn and still part of the Soviet Union during the Great War, they experienced the trials of fighting in both the Eastern and Western sectors of the conflict. The exhibit also included combat boots, military uniforms, and the possessions of soldiers that have been preserved for over 100 years.

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Exhibition showing parts of bombed Old Town from World War II

As I’ve learned, handcrafts in Latvia are an important part of culture and art. A second exhibit I  enjoyed was one on Latvian handcrafts. It showcased brilliant examples of clothing, art, and mittens made in the traditional style. To learn about the fine skills that are needed to produce such quality pieces while being educated on what their designs and colors represent gave me a better appreciation for Latvian clothing.

However, this space isn’t just for art. Some of my favorite experiences at St. Peter’s so far have been when I have attended and performed in music concerts there. In fact, my very first experience in the church was playing a concert with my orchestra last September. It was a great acoustic place to play in and overall provided a wonderful atmosphere. Likewise, the percussion concert that my roommates and I attended after Riga’s independence day celebration on November 18th, 2018 was especially memorable as it was a performance dedicated to Baltic composers. Put on by members of Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, this small breakout concert was the final event we attended during the busy November 18th celebratory weekend and a great cap to the day. Performing a series of new and old pieces, the percussion ensemble intentionally included music composed by mostly Latvians, as well as a famous rendition of “Spiegel im Spiegel” by the renowned Estonian, Arvo Pärt.

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Independence Day Concert

Sitting there while listening to the pieces that mainly emulated the beloved Latvian countryside and aesthetic of nature, I realized this music was being performed in a building that seemed as old as time itself. Latvia as a place was being depicted for the audience through a distinct sound painting. In that moment, I felt I truly understood the importance of allowing yourself to settle into a space that can best emulate the whole context of an artistic experience.

This is in part what draws me back to St. Peter’s again and again. It is a building that represents so much for this country. It is a building that has been carried forward from the past and hopefully will be carried into the future. It is a building that houses culture in all of its forms. And, because of all of these things, it is so much more than just a building.

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My favorite view in all of Riga!

Es Esmu Latvija

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Latvian Flag circa 1918

Now that 2018 has passed and gone, I thought it would be an appropriate time to reflect on last year being the official celebration of the Latvian centenary of independence. “Latvija 100,” as it is known, refers to the notion that Latvia has been an established country since 1918. Yet, like any interesting story, the tales of Latvia’s coming-of-age is ridden with a diverse historical narrative that still yearns for a nuanced explanation and intentional reflection. It is a story not just detailing a completed past but a story that continues to live on today and will hopefully do so long into the future.

This has been a post I’ve wanted to cover for a while but one that I have also wanted to let digest as I’ve discovered more and more about this country every day. Here is the gist of my understanding of the significance of “Latvija 100” and how it affects me. I hope I can help explain (at least a little) to readers what this celebration might mean for Latvians and also, others while we all continue to learn more about this beautiful Baltic country.

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Why was Latvia created?

World War I was an event that majorly affected Latvians and led to statehood. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, a coalition of politicians came together under shared goals. These included asking for the removal of occupational forces and the recognition of an independent Latvia. However, it took much time and effort for such determinations to materialize. After the German collapse in early November 1918, an opportunity was seized and on November 18, 1918 the independence of the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed and the Latvian Provisional Government was established.

However, the story does not end here. A few days after this hailed November 18th date, Soviet Russia engaged in a military campaign aimed at recapturing its westward provinces. The War of Independence officially commenced as Latvia had to fight for their newly established statehood. Latvians fought together with the remains of the German army against the Soviet Red forces for the majority of the next two years. Eventually, the peace treaty between Latvia and Russia was signed on August 11, 1920, finalizing the War of Independence and leading to the Soviet government renouncing all claims to Latvia.

The early 1920’s included a great period of economic boom and democratic fervor. Latvia joined international trade with both the West and East. By the 1930’s the quality of life in Latvia was comparable to other developed European countries like Denmark and Finland.

What about WWII and the Nazi occupation?

Latvia’s period of growth and independence was interrupted as they were folded into the WWII political deals created between two totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Like the other Baltic states, Latvia was assigned to the control of the U.S.S.R. in 1939.  Then, in June 1940, Latvia was invaded and occupied by the Red Army. After Latvia was annexed into the Soviet Union, a period known as the “Year of Terror” commenced. In the first year of Soviet occupation between some 35,000 Latvians were deported to eastern portions of the U.S.S.R., with 15,000 deported between just two days in June 1941. Many of these individuals were sent to prison camps (gulogs) in Siberia.

During the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. (July 1941 – October 1944) Latvia was considered a province of Germany. Latvians were recruited into German military units. The ensuing Nazi occupation led to much bloodshed as Latvian Jews numbering between 65,000 and 75,000 were killed. Many other Western European Jews were shipped to Latvia awaiting their death as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution.”

What about the Soviet occupation?

The first postwar decade proved particularly difficult for Latvia as they again were taken into Soviet control and Stalinism was immediately reinstated. Political repression accompanied socioeconomic change while Latvia underwent extreme Russification. There were several waves of mass deportation. Again, thousands upon thousands of native Baltic people were sent to northern Russia and Siberia, most notably in connection with the U.S.S.R’s campaign to collectivize agriculture. Latvia received numerous immigrants from Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union. Russian language dominated both public and private life.

These cultural distinctions lasted until the pending collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. As instability increased, all three Baltic countries protested their inclusion in the U.S.S.R. by forming a chain of people holding hands and singing, stretching 600 km from Tallinn, Estonia through Riga and down to Vilnius, Lithuania. This was a symbolic demonstration of the Baltic people’s united will for independence. On May 4, 1990, the Latvian legislature passed a declaration restoring the independence of the Republic of Latvia. However, Moscow and the U.S.S.R. military circles could not come to terms with the plans to reinstate Latvia’s statehood. Finally in 1991, Latvia’s full independence was recognized by Russia. Following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Latvia moved towards their own foreign policy goals including entering into NATO and the European Union.

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Propaganda exhibit at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

How is this celebrated today?

Like the birth of any nation, making Latvia into a country took a lot of sacrifice and arduous work. For this reason Latvia decided to create a State Centenary program that would actually stretch across the course of five years – from 2017 to 2021. Over these five years, Latvia has aimed to proclaim their independence with a celebration of their freedom. After all, there is much to be recognized. Never has Latvia had such a long period of growth and independence as what they have to this date. Independence for this country is exhibited in its day-to-day.

Just two months ago, on November 18th, 2018, Latvia’s Independence Day was hailed around the world. The holiday program defined the event as one of accomplishment and recognition through worldwide extravaganzas that were to “encourage each and every person living in Latvia to contribute their ingenuity and good deeds as gifts to our nation.”  I was excited to be right in Riga for that weekend, but was equally overjoyed to see the events that occurred back home in North America, including a Latvian gala in Minnesota and a patriotic display at Niagara Falls.

On the holiday I felt overjoyed to be part of the festivities. Through my experience of living here this year I feel I have done my best to adopt the lifestyle, culture, and language of Latvians. I have tried to learn and understand the difficulties that the Latvian people have faced, especially the past century-long fight for independence. In part because I live here now but because I also come from a democratic society, I could celebrate the salience of democracy and the benefits of what it has brought to this country.  

As for the specific day of November 18th, the city was filled with open exhibits commemorating the event, a grandiose military parade, and spectacular fireworks. My secondary school celebrated the day before with a traditional dance festival, folk-song concert, and birthday cake feast!

 

To stand in the crowds cheering for NATO forces walking the streets and contemplate art commemorated for the event will always be a fond memory in my mind. I would say that this year has generally been one of opening-up for this country. I have seen an embrace of history and identity like nothing I have ever experienced. I am certainly thankful to have been here this year to witness it all.

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American troops fly a Latvian flag during NATO military parade

What does this mean for you?

During my journey this year I oftentimes have had people question how I’ve benefited from coming to Riga for a year. They want to know how being here has changed me and they ask how my stories might have relevance to their own lives. I oftentimes start off by explaining that living somewhere where a society has to embrace their long and harried history everyday is incredibly self-reflective. I say that keeping this in mind changes how I choose to interact in the communities I am part of. That this intentionality in relationship is something we can decide is worth the effort it takes to improve our connections.

So next time that someone asks me, “how is this relevant?,” I hope my tales from this year can demonstrate how salient history actually is. It isn’t just the old, musty tales we read in a book about a country’s past, but is the truth-filled experience of people who are still alive. When I get to talk to a taxi driver or a teacher colleague about what they have lived and grown-up in, I understand that a different past-reality is really not too far away from us all. In fact, it is grappled with everyday through the places and people I encounter.

The “Latvija 100” celebration is one that I have merely stumbled upon in my coincidence of living in this country this year, but it is a coincidence that has changed me. The November 18th day was one of patriotism, but my experience this year is one of empathy. No matter the importance of a national holiday like this one is, I strive to create a kinship with myself and my community day after day. I feel a solidarity with the people here in a way that is indescribable. I want to understand them, I cheer for them, I love them. For I, too, am a part of Latvia. For now on, I will now always chant the cheer, “Es esmu Latvija, I am Latvia.”

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Flag displayed in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Riga, LV

Hail to 2019!

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the sun rises on 2019

We are now to the new year and I am also about a week short of my official halfway point for this journey in Latvia. And man, what a journey it has been! Besides just traveling around Europe the past couple months, I’ve also been traveling through the stages of what an experience like this can encompass. I’ve managed the initial excitement of moving abroad, battled the struggles to find normalcy and pattern, found my routine, welcomed family and friends into my new places and spaces, explored my research interests, attended concerts and cultural events, and generally invested myself into community through giving time and effort.

The best part about this realization and marker of January 2019 is that there is still time! I have ample weeks and months to do my work as I continue to ingrain myself into Latvian culture and my communities. There is something comforting about this as I am neither strapped for time to accomplish what I would like to do, but I also don’t have to worry so much about fitting in, adjusting, and acclimatizing.

Working towards achievable goals has always been part of my strategy for both getting through the tough times in life and also structuring my day-to-day. A huge part of this Fulbright journey has been doing the same, although the goals I’ve set here have been more personal and nebulous than what I would have imagined. When a friend recently asked me what my goals were for ‘Part 2,’ it got me thinking. What can I do next? Sure, I will continue in the work that I’ve set into pattern and that I enjoy. Yes, I will actively work towards some of my long-term goals and not just use this year as an excused running away from my life in the US. But I will also make new creative and professional goals and use those to propel the next few months of this journey.

I feel that I have to add a caveat to all this as I have never been much for making New Year’s resolutions. Instead I definitely ascribe to the mentality of  “if you want to change something, just do it.” However I do try to regularly reflect on my experiences to pull the past into the future. This has been especially helpful this year amidst the constant ebb and flow that oftentimes entails nebulous and creative work. Since I feel that I am steadily accomplishing most of what I’ve wanted to this year, I am going to try to stretch myself in a few new and fun ways.

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exploring my world

So, here we are. These are some silly, serious, and (most importantly) attainable goals I have for my next few months in Latvia. Ready, set, pursue!

  1. Continue Writing: This blog is just one of the many platforms and mediums I’ve explored post-college in how I can continue to share my thoughts and improve my prose. Along with this site I also have the work I do for my research gig and writing/organizing for the news blog, Latvia Weekly. However, I would ALSO like to focus my efforts on some personal projects I’ve put on the back burner lately. Writing not to produce but to simply explore is what is motivating me here.
  2. Read Lord of the Rings: Seriously, it is just something I finally have to do. I picked up a  thick volume of the combined trilogy during my recent trip to Dublin and am already invested in “The Fellowship of the Ring.” All I can say is, what better time than this?
  3. Research Teaching Pedagogy: As I was a non-education major in college, teaching this year has really opened my eyes to all the facets and nuances that this career substantiates. I have always been passionate about learning both inside and outside the classroom, but couldn’t imagine what I would encounter this year in my teaching positions. Since I will continue being a teacher and professor next year in my graduate program and likely into the future, this is a certainly apt and pragmatic time to research more about teaching itself. I knew many of my own college professors read-up extensively on pedagogy, social issues, and learning abilities when they started standing on the other side of the classroom. I aim to do the exact same thing.
  4. Watch Star Wars: This is another fun, pop culture must-do. Sure, I have seen most of the movies before and am a fan, but this goal includes watching all the movies in order (including the prequels), and exploring some of the fan-based aspects of the series. As this post goes up, my roommates and I are on Revenge of the Sith so I’m making good progress!
  5. 10 Concerts a Month: I have greatly immersed myself into the Latvian music scene in ‘Fulbright Part 1’ by attending a wide variety of events. I’ve seen opera, ballet, quartet, choral, orchestral, jazz, and contemporary ensembles perform. Next-up I want to further get to know specific ensembles as their seasons progress this winter and spring. For example, the National Opera of Latvia, has so many great productions planned for the next few months. Becoming a more-regular attendee is part of my vision for getting as much as I can out of specific parts of my experience here in Latvia.

I hope that the beginning of this month has been a time of reflection for you as well! Whether your goals for the next year are serious or silly, whether you feel the need for security or the itch for adventure, whether you are happy or frustrated with what you’ve made of your experiences, we can always stretch ourselves. If there is anything I’ve solidified in my year abroad so far — there is always something to learn and grow in.

Hail to 2019!

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beautiful Riga at sunset

Have Yourself a Merry Latvian Christmas!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my friends/family back home and to all my friends around the world! I hope that all of you have had a joyous holiday season filled with music, food, and coziness. It certainly has been a busy month for me with my usual work and play. Yet, I’ve still been able enjoy how special this time of year is and appreciate all the ways I can make it merry from my new home-away-from-home. As December 25th nears, I thought that I would share some of the ways that I am celebrating the holiday season in Europe.

Visits

December started off with my parents coming to visit me all the way across the Atlantic. I was so thankful that they made the 4,500 mile trek from Minnesota and that I was able to see them during the holiday season. While here they were able to attend two orchestral concerts that I played violin in, visit the many historical museums in Riga, see my city’s lovely Christmas market, meet my new friends, and get a feel for Latvia. It was a blast and I am so thankful they came!

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Look who came to Latvia!

In addition, I took a (working) trip this past week after administering my finals to visit a good friend. Making my way back to western Europe I saw Ethan in Lille, France who is teaching English there through the TAPIF program. During this latest adventure I was also able to go to Brussels, Belgium. Together the two of us explored the Musical Instrument Museum which was an all-too-perfect excursion for us music-lovers. Likewise, seeing how signature countries like France and Belgium celebrate and decorate for Christmas was amazing.

 

Taking time to see the people I love has made the season come alive for me. There is nothing quite as special as being with those you love near the holidays. This alone is so much to be grateful for.

Music

The Christmas music scene has definitely been in full-swing throughout Latvia. This is the first year that I haven’t performed in a large December concert in pretty much forever, but I was still have been able to enjoy the music of the season through performances where others shared their gifts. I have been eager to go to the National Ballet with my roommates this fall and the perfect opportunity came up when we attended the Nutcracker on December 16th. It was family day at the National Opera House and so enjoyable to see this classic show amidst lots of little kids falling in love with Tchaikovsky for the first time. There is nothing quite as magical as happily falling into the wonderland of Clara and her dancing friends for a couple of hours.

 

 

Besides this, I have also seen a few smaller concerts performed at my music academy, watched and rewatched Christmas at Luther 2018, and will look forward to a Gershwin piano concert I am attending on December 26th.

Fortunately, I was also still able to create some of my own music this month. As mentioned, my orchestra concerts at the beginning of December went superb and gave me so much joy. With a program full of Piazzolla, Oskar Strok, and Palmeri, it was far from a traditional Christmas program, but nonetheless lively and energetic. I will miss playing music at my church and in my community this year, but look forward to this for Christmases in the future.

Orchestra Concert

Christmas Markets

The Christmas Markets in Europe are definitely all that you have heard about them (and more). So far I have checked out them in Riga, Brussels, and Lille. And I can certainly remark that they are all different and unique in their own ways.

Riga’s market was the most traditionally decorated, with the houses adorned with candy-cane striped roofs, a tree decorated with straw mushrooms and bunny ornaments, and venders dressed up in monk robes and heavy wool overcoats. As you walked around, you could peruse crafts and goods or just eat your way through the rows. If you came with an empty stomach there was lots of piping hot mulled wine, seeded breads, honey-flavored sweets, steaming sausages, and heaping spoons of sauerkraut to be had. Last weekend when we visited there was even a traditional bagpipe ensemble playing! This market has definitely been my favorite of the three.

 

The Brussels and Lille markets were wonderful as well, full of balloons, churros, Belgium waffles, and crafts. My favorite comparison I’ve made is all of these markets so dearly reminded me of county fairs in the Midwest. At its simplest and best, it is a place for families and friends to gather and have a good time!

Advent

Taking time to remember what this holiday is about important, and I am thankful that I have been able to walk through the weeks of Advent intentionally this year. One of the things I have appreciated the most in Latvia is the presence of so many Advent wreaths. When out and about you might see the familiar lit garland hanging in store windows or even displayed on doors at school. We have made-do in our apartment with some candles grouped together but the meaning is still the same.

Going to my little Lutheran church has been essential this season as well.  I have found that no matter how lost I get in the Latvian liturgy that I can always sing the hymns effortlessly. Since I have plenty of Advent and Christmas hymn stanzas memorized, I can still join in. 

The Latvian Christmas Tree

Maybe the best part of being in Latvia during Christmas, however, is being in the fabled location of the first Christmas tree! Wait, you didn’t know? Neither did I until I was researching Latvia before my travels. Dating back to medieval ages and Latvia’s pagan traditions, the first trees used during this season were allegedly decorated with artificial roses and set on fire. Since then, the Christmas tree tradition has spread from Riga to all over the world to become one of the biggest symbols of the holiday. Today, there are many lovely Christmas trees set-up around the city and it has been fun to admire their grandeur.  The only thing that is different from ours in the U.S. is we don’t still use candles to decorate our trees, like many Europeans do!

Medieval Christmas Tree.

a Latvian, medieval Christmas depicted by Latvian artist, Ingmara Zalite

Here is a picture of our little tree at home. No, we didn’t venture into the deep Latvian woods to extract our tree as is common. We got ours from Ikea this year — but it is still adorable, if I do say so myself!

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our tree

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As the Christmas season comes to its climax and winds down in the next few days, know I am thinking of all of you at home. For many, Christmas is a hard holiday to celebrate. Just like me, some can’t travel all the way across the world or their country to be with family or close friends. As the days have darkened to their worst in Riga (8:40am-3:40pm) and we’ve dealt with constant sleet, drizzle, rain, and snow, it is hard to remember the warmth and light that exists in the world.

So easily it seems that even the beautiful, seasonal candles we see carefully displayed in our windows and on our tables can’t break through that which is dull and miserable in our lives. Yet, at the same time, that one flicker of a candle can cast the dark and shadows out of a room. That small light can and will provide hope. And with that, I wish that in these next days we will all take a minute to find the small things that put a little magical, Christmas sparkle into our darkest days.

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winter in the Latvian countryside

 

 

Čau/Ciao! (or “Where Have I Been?”)

 

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No worries, I’m still chilling in Riga with a drink in my hand!

Hello everyone! I apologize that it has been a hot second since I have posted on my blog. In all honesty the past month here has both blurred by and crawled by. I have gotten to the part of the journey where my days have fallen into a pattern of what school I teach at, when orchestra rehearsal is, when I help with the Latvia Weekly news blog I have been writing for, when I call my family, when I socialize with the new friends I have made, go to church, etc. But that doesn’t mean that my patterned days are void of the normal feelings of missing home, struggling with the murky November weather, or feeling like I need to escape all that routine for some fresh spontaneity. In many ways I suppose I have entered into a life here that is pretty normal with its ups and downs.

However, whenever I face challenges here, I have usually found that the solution I come up with or the lesson I learn has overall improved how I see my world and this experience. So, I thought I would make a quick list of what things have been exciting me and challenging me since I last posted.

  1. Teaching:

This, of course, is the main thing that I am doing in Latvia. I am placed at two schools and am officially in an assistant educator role at both of them. Unofficially, I teach a full-blown university course that I self-created to 4 sections of students at Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music. I also co-teach with another instructor the set English curriculum standards to my secondary students at Riga Teika Secondary School.

The good news?

I absolutely love it!! I have found that I can really sink into the creativity and flexibility that is needed to create lessons, plan activities, and pass knowledge and ideas onto younger students. It is wonderful that I am fresh out of university as I feel I can really connect with my music students at the conservatory and am not far ahead of my 11th and 12th grade students in secondary school. I also love learning more about my students and Latvian society from being in the schools regularly.

The challenges?

No joke, teaching is difficult. Obviously, I knew that but I mean that it can be really difficult. A special shout-out to my education friends at Luther College and my past teachers as they have specifically decided to take on this as their profession. But, in all seriousness ….  figuring out how to grade students on my own, pass or fail them, create an attendance policy, form lesson plans efficiently, give makeup exams, and get a feel for the educational philosophy of the institution is tough work. I am certainly still figuring that out. I am just grateful that this journey allows me to work independently through difficulties and that I have a passion for learning. That makes things so much easier.

2. Extracurricular Projects

I am not always teaching. In fact, I am probably keeping myself more busy  with the other things I work on. These consist of playing violin in orchestra; serving on a committee that is planning a 2019 Academic Conference at Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music (more on this later); writing news summaries and other material for a news blog, Latvia Weekly, that is officially run by another former Fulbrighter living in Latvia; expanding my academic experience while serving as a research assistant/intern for the Baltic Security Strategy Project (also more on this later); and lastly, co-leading a U.S. Embassy sponsored conversation club two times a week.

The good news?

These things give me immense joy and the variety keeps me sane. I am a pretty independent worker so the fact most of these commitments are self-directed gives me room to explore these varying responsibilities at my own will. I have also been adopted into a few social circles pretty quickly. I see other young adults and graduate students my own age at orchestra, work with other Fulbrighters on continuous projects which fulfills our goals for the fellowship, and meet new Latvian students and professionals every week!

The challenges?

There are a lot, to be honest. For one, I have struggled to determine what my exact place or position is within some of these organizations. How do I provide my skills and insights gently and usefully? Is what I’m doing making a difference? Are people enjoying working with me? Besides these questions of self identity and meaning, I also have a lot of questions about the “how and why and who and what and when” of the different projects. I guess I am just still getting a feel for how things work or have been previously set-up before I came. I also do a lot of writing, which is one of the reasons you haven’t heard from me as of late. This isn’t a negative as I love writing, but freelancing and researching is time consuming.

3. Small Wins = Larger Victories

I have found that earning small wins translates to gaining larger victories in the life of someone living abroad. Since you last heard from me I have hired a private Latvian tutor to help me with language acquisition, checked-out library books from the library, refilled my transportation card, paid my phone bill, sent packages back to the U.S., replaced a light bulb, and found duct tape at Latvia’s version of “Home Depot.” These wins have greatly increased my quality of life although they were difficult to achieve.

The good news?

I have become more trusting of my innate learning ability bit by bit. This is the first time I have ever been out of school but I have found that my brain DID actually retain some tools for how to teach myself pretty much anything (thanks liberal arts and philosophy degree)! There is immense satisfaction in accomplishing small tasks when they are new and you are on your own. I am also proud of my language acquisition. I was worried before I came to Latvia that either a new language would be impossible to learn or that I somehow just didn’t have the gifts, talents, or abilities to pick-up Latvian or Russian. Luckily, I have been proved wrong as practicing them everyday and using the resources around me has ensured that I will keep improving a little at a time.

The challenges?

Small tasks usually take a lot of effort and chunk of my day to complete. Usually more time than planned for. I have to say that I kind of hate living in the city and taking public transportation everywhere. It is great I live so close to many of the things I need and like to do. However, I miss having a car and driving myself around. I miss the freedom and the fact that it took under 15 minutes to get anywhere in Decorah or Austin. Other challenges? It is also hard to learn new languages, make a fool of yourself while practicing in public, try to mime to someone what duct tape is at a customer service counter in a store, or build-up the courage to finally ask about something you have been previously avoiding. Frankly, it is exhausting. Especially now with the sun only out at 8:30am and setting at 4:00pm, often times all I want to do is one small task before I crawl back into bed. But I trek on, knowing that many small wins lead to larger victories.

Well, I think that is all for now. Thank you for reading and sticking with me through the good and the bad. Stay tuned for posts up soon about my upcoming trip to Ukraine this next week, explorations of Christmas in Riga, and thoughts on Latvia’s Centenary Year. I send my love to everyone reading from back home. I miss you all so much and thank you for supporting me on this journey.