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