Weekend Adventuring: The Best Way to Get To Know Latvia

Wow, my past month here in Latvia has been simultaneously delightful and exhausting! Since it takes awhile to adjust when moving to a new country, I have tried to give myself ample time to unpack Riga as I may. I’ve found that going in one new store, exploring one new museum, or having my signature Americano at a new coffee shop a day has provided more than enough to digest contextually and culturally. I’m sure those of you that have spent significant time abroad and/or are going through the Fulbright experience right right now can relate.

By getting to know Riga in this slow fashion, I feel that I’ve really started to grasp the deep history, political structure, and culture here. However, the past couple of weekends have also been focused on adventures outside of this city. In leaving the neighborhoods and streets that have already begun to feel comfortable to me, I’ve been able to also explore the many other environments, communities, and people that make up this beautiful country. As the weekly schedule of my two Riga Fulbright counterparts and I usually consists of being in the city teaching at our schools, going to events, and helping out with other community engagements, we have made a concerted effort to take the weekend to get away. Some of our past trips have included going biking in Jūrmala, going to the beach, and traveling to see the bogs in the Ķemeri National Park. And, this past weekend consisted of castle exploring, a bike race, and seeing Pope Francis.

During those first weekends I quickly came to realize how peaceful and idyllic the Latvian countryside is. Our inaugural train trip outside Riga was to Jūrmala which is the beach region that is located in the central, coastal part of the country. There we visited the beach and forest park of Dzintari. We liked it so much that we went back the next day, this time traveling there on bikes escorted by a medical professor from Rīga Stradiņš University. It was a great introduction to the country as time spent leisurely outside is considered a very Latvian activity. The next weekend is when my five other Fulbright English Teaching Assistant colleagues were visiting Riga for orientation at the U.S. Embassy. We also decided to spend time outside, and a weekend trip with them included visiting Ķemeri National Park, also in the Jūrmala region. This was something we were all very eager to do as visiting Latvia’s bogs was on a somewhat “top 10” list provided by previous Latvia Fulbrighters who we met this past summer at the program’s Washington D.C. orientation. Different than any natural area I’ve been in before, we were able to walk the luscious bogs on raised boardwalks. The prettiest part of the park is when we got to an area of the bog that had small ponds interspersed among the greenery. After our walk we got doused in a rainstorm as we made our way back to the train station. With some desperately fast walking (or slow running) and good fortune we arrived at the train platform just in time!

So, going into this past weekend I knew I wanted to again take advantage of the unseasonable (and wonderful, warm, sunny) weather to visit one of the many castles/palaces that are scattered in the Latvian countryside. After some consultation, my roommate Megan and I decided to take the bus to Bauska and then see where our adventure went from there. Besides nearly missing its departure in Riga, the bus ride was such an efficient and cheap way to get outside the city. During travel, I looked out the windows upon the cloudy morning and could see miles upon miles of farmland and scattered patches of Scots pine, Norway spruce, and silver birch trees. It so easily reminded me of the millions of car rides where I’ve looked out upon the early autumn fields of Minnesota and Iowa. It always surprises me how these simplicities can be what most often reminds us of home.

We picked our adventure well as the castle in Bauska was absolutely fascinating. Including both the older ruins of an earlier fortress and a newer palace, the building grounds are situated in the narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Mūša and Mēmele where they form the Lielupe river. Apt placement for a building meant to fortify the surrounding area, the castle was intended to strengthen the Livonian Order and protect their border with the European state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It also helped control the trade route from lower Lithuania to Riga as the castle was a military and administrative stronghold. Today, the castle has been fully restored since 2008 with E.U. funds and offers a unique view into ancient times.

After exploring the castle and surrounding grounds, Megan and I darted back to the bus station in pouring rain. Something I have learned here is to always carry an umbrella/rain jacket as this is the second time we’ve been caught in a Saturday storm.

Sunday, I had a grand adventure in Ikšķile, Latvia riding in their SEB MTN Marathon 2018. Their website lists it as “one of the largest series of MTB marathons in Europe with about 1800 – 2300 riders participating in each stage,” and I easily believe it. When we got off the train we took from Riga to Ikšķile, we came across a town flooded with European bikers. Fulbrighter colleague, Khalid, and I had rented mountain bikes in Riga beforehand but didn’t exactly know what we were getting ourselves into. The whole race was on rugged terrain consisting of farm fields, forest trails, meadow paths, train tracks, and water obstacles. After exhaustingly crossing the finish line, we came across the other competitors, some of which we noticed were bearing the Olympic rings on their coats and gear. Little did we know we competed against some Olympic athletes that were from all around Eastern Europe!

Luckily, this past weekend extended into three days as it was declared a Latvian National Holiday because Pope Francis was visiting. Monday morning the other Riga Fulbrighters and I walked downtown to the Freedom Monument to see the Pope lay flowers at the site. I still cannot believe how close we were. What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such a renowned international figure. However, I was even more eager to see how many citizens of rural parts of the country had ventured into Riga to see the Pope. It gave reason to our weekend excursions, as during our adventuring we get to meet people like these. Not just other foreigners/expats who live in the city, but individuals who have lived their whole life in places like Bauska and Ikšķile.

All-in-all I would say my weekend adventures have been one of the best ways I’ve gotten to explore this beautiful country. It has also proved as an effective method to parse through Latvia’s differences and similarities in comparison to the places that I have come from. Walking in a bog and visiting a castle is unique to what I’ve seen in the U.S., but traveling into the rural farmland reminds me so much of home. Although Latvia is a small country, being the size of West Virginia, we must remember diversity exists everywhere. My fellow Latvia Fulbrighters and I will have vastly varied encounters even in the same city or region. By exploring such diversity and seeking to uncover all we can within our experiences, however, we will best come away understanding the nuances that are hard to articulate. Then, perhaps, we can start to advocate for the grayness that constantly exists in a black-and-white notion of stereotypical peoples and places. I have realized that traveling slowly around the countryside is an important aspect of my year here and weekend adventuring allows me to do just that. 

What is Latvian-ness?

 

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Pin honoring ideology of independent Latvia worn in World War I

What is Latvian-ness? This is a question that has become embedded into my being during the past few months. It is something that I contemplated this summer while I prepared myself for beginning my Fulbright. It is a question that led me through a preliminary study of the texts, music, artwork, and places of Latvia before I even arrived in Riga. It is a question that prompted some initial hemming-and-hawing on my part while people asked me where the heck I was going. However, I always knew it was something that I wouldn’t truly be able to parse out until I started living in Latvia. And yet, even as I am finally here this question continually motivates me in how I go about my day. While here I want to learn more about Latvia’s history. I look at my experiences as a way to collect and categorize information for myself and others. However, I have recognized that this question of “Latvia-ness” must be deemed unanswerable. It is a question that forces its inquirers to merely ask and investigate. It is a question that continually and naturally folds into itself, as the “ness” of a place is always in flux.

Last week, especially, this question gnawed at me as I ventured into a deeper learning and understanding of this country. Through the exploration of three museums, The Museum of “Jews in Latvia,” The National History Museum of Latvia, and The Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, I struggled to open myself up to the bloody and difficult history that lies on the shoulders of this nation. And let me tell you, it is truly a cathartic and humbling experience when you realize that you have previously not even known the history that resides somewhere.

The following is a rough summation of what I’ve initially learned while being here. It is my basic understanding of Latvia’s modern history and what I hope to continually educate myself on during the next year. By writing it down here, I wish to provide a record and reference of my historical understanding early on during this journey. It is post that perhaps can be a resource to others and will serve as a reflection for the future as I add to, edit, elaborate, and reflect upon my understanding of Latvian-ness.

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Latvian identity has drastically changed through the decades. Starting out as a poetic ideal formed in the 19th century by public activists, Latvia was a place that strived for defense and development as it demanded autonomy. The Latvian State was proclaimed autonomous at the end of World War I, which provides the reason there is a national centenary of independence this year. However, the German Army and Red Army were still present in the territory making the Latvian people struggle from the very beginning for a totally independent state. This happened (yay!) and between 1920-1934 Latvia was a fully-fledged political nation that adopted Western democratic values and created state institutions for culture and education. In these formative years, Latvia was an emblem of a successful and vibrant European lifestyle.

Yet, this ideal was lost and forbidden during the subsequent and many years of invasion. Between the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Latvia became the bloody battleground that larger nations fought over. Even though these two regimes had differing ideologies, their power structures were similarly characteristic of totalitarian dictatorships. During the Holocaust around 70,000 Latvian Jews and around 20,000 Jews from other countries were killed. This is the part of Latvian history that I was ashamed to know the least about and would like to explore more. I learned that I live less than .5 miles away from the old Jewish ghetto.

For most of the world the ending of World War II was a joyous occasion, but for Latvians it meant the resuming of Soviet rule. During this followed occupation Soviet authorities killed, arrested, repressed, and relocated around 140,000 Latvians in total. Relocations consisting of Latvians being sent to remote parts of Russia and Siberia. Even in these years of struggle, however, many still remembered an independent Latvia and worked to restore the nation underground. The Republic of Latvia continued to exist de iure. Since the Western world regarded the Soviet occupation as illegal, an understanding of an independent Latvia was stored safely away and continued to be passed onto future generations.  

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the daily life of Latvians gradually normalized. Under these circumstances, the question of “What is Latvia?” was crucial to explore. The public and private spheres were almost completely separate under the Soviet rule. The public space was the place that offered individuals a career and Soviet community, but was also characterized by slogans of communist ideology and the subjection of history and culture. The private sphere, however, existed in circles of family and like-minded people that offered an alternative experience of history and culture that existed in which Latvia was a uniting value. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Western-Latvian families helped to express this cultural heritage and fears of Russification. This is the period of dialogue and civic discourse that I hope to further study this year.

At the end of the 1980’s, an invigorating feeling of participation and unity prevailed in Latvia. Restoration of national independence became the unifying goal. People were proud of their land, nation, and culture. The Soviet Union fell in 1991 and independence was restored. Citizens joined rallies, demonstrations, and patriotic events which inspired a period of National Awakening. This is the point in which historic memory became society’s focal point. Pre-war Latvian traditions were revived, forbidden history was studied, travel outside the former U.S.S.R. was reinstated, Latvian songs were sung once again, and traditional literature was accessed. This is a country that was rebuilding and recapturing the independent ideology. This is the Latvia which is known and loved today.

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Like in any place, Latvia’s political history is intertwined with cultural processes and the experiences of daily life. The Latvian people have persisted not only in times of prosperity, but through periods of crisis and destruction. As I’ve said before, this is an incredibly resilient place. Yes, while I’ve only just begun my journey in Latvia, I admit it has been difficult to stare at the history here directly in the face. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of so many afflicted persons and understand first-hand what a war-torn country looks like. But it is important to do so and I am thankful that I am here to learn the answers to questions I’ve asked. Most importantly, I wish to seek out more questions that are worth pursuing. I believe that this question of Latvian-ness will be one that lives on eternally in both of these categories.  

First Encounters

I’ve now been in this beautiful city for 12 days and my-oh-my what a European treat is has been! I could be grievously ignorant to the adjustment period usually included with moving across the world, but so far it’s all been fun and games as they say. Or maybe I should say it’s all been music, coffee, history, trips to the beach, and pastries.

Here is a run down of what I’ve been up to. My teaching assignments still won’t get into full swing for a bit so I’ve enjoyed taking my time to explore, meander, and get a taste of my surroundings. But I also haven’t felt the need to cram it in. After all, I still have 8 months! What a unique experience it is to travel slow and truly learn a place from the inside-out.

1. The Music Scene: During my first three days in the city I went to an opera, sat in on a intimate café concert, and saw the performance of an early music ensemble. After arriving to Riga in the afternoon on Wednesday, August 29th I learned that there was a performance of “Faust” at the National Latvian Opera House that night. A rich and lavish cultural introduction to my time here, this 3.5 hour and 3-act opera performance included ballet dancers, advanced technology, and the wonderful opportunity to see Latvian locals dressed to the nines on a Wednesday night. Oh, and tickets were only 7€ (in the future I get in free with my ID from Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy)! The early music ensemble’s performance was equally stunning and my first time in the acclaimed Small Guild. As an instructor at the conservatory I can’t wait to fill my nights with performances like these all week, every week.

 

2. Jūrmala: This seaside town is located just outside of Riga, and the go-to place to get away from the bustling city. My Fulbright counterparts and I ventured to the beach last Saturday via train which was a mere 1.40€  for a one-way ticket! After a small mishap of leaving one member of our posse on the train (whoops), we traipsed around a lovely pine tree park in Dzintari and found ourselves on a gorgeous, sandy beach. Later we made friends with some French tourists and treated ourselves to American pizza and ice cream. Because it was such a perfect location the next day we biked from Riga to Jūrmala AGAIN and enjoyed a ride on the sandy beach. This will be my new favorite weekend getaway spot!

 

3. Coffee: Cheap, dark, and strong. What more could you want? An intriguing daily outing has been exploring the many local coffee shops or kafejnīcas. Additionally, I’ve already found my favorite brunch spot (yes, yes, I’m a typical millennial). I love creating routine like this.

 

3. Museums: A place where centuries of European and Russian culture have collided, Latvia has proved to be a history-buff’s playground. Walking the streets of the city one can enjoy the constant display of Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture. I have a running list of museums and sights I would like to see in the next year but I have already started my visits off with the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Museum of “Jews in Latvia.” Full of quality exhibits, these places have only just started to tell me about this country’s eclectic foundation. Additionally, I attended the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology last week which was hosted at my conservatory. It was so very European and so very academic. Yet, this is a city where you needn’t step into a verified exhibit to learn the stories of place and people. Also surely something to note is I am here during Latvia’s 100 Centenary of Independence, which means all these museums and sights are in top-notch shape to celebrate Latvia!

 

4. Mushrooms & Cheese: These items are becoming fast-favorites of my Latvian adventure in gastronomy. Mushroom hunting is popular in the vast forests of the country and I’ve reaped the benefits by trying mushroom croissants, mushroom risotto, mushroom pasta, and mushroom salads in Riga. Due to the likelihood I would misidentify, however, I might wait a bit until I try my own mushroom hunting. Latvia is also known for its dairy products and my flatmates and I are slowly eating our way through the cheese building (yes there are that many cheese venders!) of the Central Market. So far I’ve had honestly the most delicious goat cheese, blue cheese, and parmesan cheese of my life. 

 

5. Orchestra: I knew that part of my plan for long-term living in Riga was finding an orchestra where I could play violin and meet people my own age. I’m grateful I’ve both already found the perfect ensemble which is comprised of young people studying in Riga and have been able to rent a violin through my conservatory. When I showed up to my first rehearsal last week I was pleasantly surprised with our music, international demographics, and commitment. I sit next to students from Germany, Turkey, Finland, the Netherlands, and Latvia! Orchestral playing is something that has always given life to my soul and something I am beyond excited to continue during my year as an expat.

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My new instrument for the year!

6. Church: If you know me, you understand that I had to attend a traditional Lutheran service as soon as I could. Though I visited the historic St. Gertrude’s church and St. Peter’s church in Riga, I found a cozier congregation just a ten-minute walk from my apartment. It was traditional, liturgical, historical, and home-y, with the one issue of it all being in Latvian! Luckily, with a building dating back to the late 1800’s the architecture and artwork provided more than enough visual entertainment as I “listened” dumbfounded to the sermon. At least I still understood sharing-of-the-peace and communion. A favorite moment was singing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” in Latvian with the grandiose organ accompaniment. 

 

7. Apartment Hunting: So apartment hunting abroad is more challenging than what House Hunters International romanticizes. In more than one instance I found out that asking for a bed and bedroom in an apartment consists of the broker showing you a pull-out couch in the living room, lol. After asking myself if I was being too choosy I found a gem of a place that was hidden right under my nose! Since it is a close walk to Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy (JVLMA), the gym, the grocery store, and a main transportation line, I think I’ve found home for the next year. As it includes American amenities like a dishwasher and clothes dryer, I would call myself lucky. Pictures to follow! 

So with that, I hope to give you a taste of my new life! I am excited to see what follows and explore more of this wonderful city and country. On this week’s agenda I have an orientation at the U.S. Embassy, a visit from the other Fulbrighters in Latvia, starting observations at Riga Teika Secondary School, and a meeting to help plan an upcoming conference that JVLMA is hosting! Plus I hope to explore more museums, drink more coffee, and go to the National Ballet. Until next time, Ciao!

The Winds of Lady Liberty

“When you let the winds blow you where they may, it’s amazing the places you’ll go.” These words were spoken to me last year when Fulbright Scholar, Andy Meyer, presented at Luther College and shared some of his adventures in Norway. A lecture given just a month before I found out that this same Fulbright program was sending me to Latvia as an English Teaching Assistant, I remember anxiously sitting in the auditorium wondering where the winds might take me if and when such a travel opportunity presented itself. It seemed the whole world was sitting in the palm of my hand. Fast forward months later, I again felt these words sink deep into my body and soul as I prepared myself to move across the world to a place, people, and culture that I largely didn’t know. I arrived to Riga last Wednesday scared, nervous, elated, and joyful.

Though the past summer and preparatory travels crawled by at a languid pace, something I’ve continually hoped for in that time of anxious advent is that through this experience I would ride these same winds through any uncomfortability, difficulty, and challenges I faced. I’ve prepared myself for set-backs, for it taking time to feel that I’m at home, and for loneliness. And as a self-declared Mover-and-Shaker this is a reality not easily accepted.

Yet, flying into Latvia last Wednesday and looking down upon Riga I saw a familiar symbol that breathed the life of those winds back into me. Raised high above the city, Lady Liberty was lifting her hands in salute of opportunity and freedom. With three gilded stars in her palms she is said to “Mirdzi kā zvaigzne!” (“Shine like a star!”). Not unlike the Statue of Liberty, this is a maiden who is a brilliant beacon of hope. She stands guard over a city, country, and people who have suffered occupation for decades and the many political scars of the 20th century. She is a reminder of the “good” to a society that is incredibly resilient. However, the Latvian Freedom Monument is also a symbol to those who come woven from beyond the tight fabric of a Latvian identity. I oddly find myself comforted by her presence in a land that I do not know.

This is because as long as she stands, I know that this is a country that welcomes me. It is a place which protects the sovereign. A country in which I can carry out the Fulbright mission of mutual understanding to the best of my ability. A calling to international appreciation, educational exchange, and grass-roots cultural diplomacy. And because of that I am certain of one thing. Latvia is a place in which I can continue to grow, find my way, and will carry me onward from the winds that blew me here.

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