ARTICLES, English

Latvia, what I gonna miss you

As a French, there are many reasons to like Latvia (as far as I am concerned at least 18). I live here for 12 months, in few days I will be back to France. Here are what I will be missing once back to my country…

The first reason which comes up to my mind is Riga, its capital. It is a big city (around 650 000 inhabitants), beautiful (Old Riga and the Art Nouveau area for instance), very close to the beach (20 km), and with a lot of different and unique districts. Every evening, there is something to do. Events are sometimes zany, so very interesting. There are a lot of bars, restaurants, and clubs with particular atmosphere too. Frankly, I like a lot this city.

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Then there is the rest of Latvia. And it is very disorienting. Basically, Latvia it’s Riga and … the countryside! The second biggest city, Daugavpils, is around 90 000 inhabitants but we feel there are twice less people. So when we leave Riga, we have this impression to be far from everything. Some disseminated villages, connected by electrical poles where storks birds live on, and very small roads sometimes with no asphalt (we really don’t feel in Europe but somewhere … elsewhere … far!), this whole rural area being in the middle of a huge forest: Latvia. And this feeling to be surrounded by the Baltic Sea. This is so unique!

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Besides, all this countryside is easy to reach. At least from Riga because very practical thing, the capital is situated in the centre of the country. In 3 hours by car, you can be at the very West of the country and 4 hours to be at the very East (whereas there is no motorway!). So yes, Latvia is a very small nation which is very convenient to visit it. It is a big satisfaction when looking at the map and telling to yourself “actually, I visited each corner of it”. The feeling of an accomplished duty.

And it has been possible thanks to public transport. Buses go everywhere! They almost reach all villages. Thanks God, they exist for inhabitants and tourists! And in Riga it’s the same. Buses, tramways, trolleys can bring us everywhere and pass very frequently. So I thank all these drivers which allowed me to visit the country despite the fact that I didn’t have a car.

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Let’s move from geographical accessibility to temporal accessibility.. Here again it’s awesome! Shops are always open: Sunday and during the weekdays till very late (sometimes I do my shopping at 10pm, something which cannot be possible in my town in France). I am going to miss this freedom for sure..

… And from temporal accessibility to monetary accessibility… For a French, with a French purchasing power, Latvia is a delight! Cigarettes cost 3 euros, a pint of beer too. You can have a good meal in a decent restaurant for 5 euros.

It makes me think about my nutrition..! Latvian cuisine is rather fat, cheap as I said, and damn … I gonna miss cheap fat food! And we don’t know it but in this part of the world, beers are very good. Miraculously, I haven’t put on weight despite all this fat and beers gulped down. Maybe they have found magical ingredients? Please, share your secret!

Well now be careful, I will talk about people! I gonna start mentioning theirs traditions… You have to know that Latvians are the last people who have been Christianised in Europe. Hence, they kept pagan beliefs till late. And I don’t know how nor why, but they have succeeded in being still present nowadays! The most famous pagan celebration is Ligo/Jani. It’s on the 24th of June. They celebrate the year’s longest day and the summer’s beginning. There are a lot of rituals to respect: girls make flowers crowns for themselves and oak leaves crowns for boys. The night, they have party till the morning. Huge wood fires are set up and people sing traditional songs and dance. They speak about a specific flower that they have to look for it, but which actually does not exist! It is the occasion for couples to have a great intercourse in the nature.. “We come back, we are going to look for the flower…!” Haha, what a tradition!

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Easter is an important moment too. People don’t really go to church, but celebrate it in another way. That day, they eat a lot. They paint on hard-boiled eggs with the help of a mixture of spices, flowers, onion skins, tree leaves etc. Thanks to those natural colourants, eggs become beautiful. During the meal, they organize eggs fights. Everybody holds a pretty egg and tries to break others’ shells. The loser must eat his egg, with salt and mayonnaise. It is very funny! We have to swing as well. They say that if we swing that day, we won’t be bitten by mosquitos during summer (which is not true, everyone knows that we can’t escape them…). By the way, Human beings must defeat mosquitos. Join the fight.

One last national event I have really liked … The 11th of November is the occasion for them to celebrate Lacplesis, the Latvian hero. According to the legend, he would have succeeded in beating the German Teutonic invaders. Well in fact, not really, because he would have fallen in the Daugava (longest river of Latvia) during a fight with the Teutonic knight’s chief and nobody has never found them. Anyway, this half bear half man would have helped to stronger Latvia’s unity. Thus, on that day, a lot of commemorations happen in order to celebrate important Latvians who have saved the nation. People turn on candles in former solders cemeteries and organize a great walk in the dark night of November, lightens by torches. It’s the Latvian pride day.

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To finish with their ways of living, I must mention their habits and superstitions to which we have to be careful. For a French, some can seem funny, but we have to respect them. For example, when we offer a bunch of flowers to a women, it has to be an even number. Odd numbers are for funerals. Or we must not whistle indoors, otherwise it would attract the devil. And we never greet somebody at the doorway, it’s very rude. We have to do it once the person is actually in the room. Also, we always have to remove our shoes when invited in someone’s. All these rules are not constraining, it is easy to follow them. We are even proud, as foreigners, to assimilate them little by little.

I am thinking about something I liked it a lot here. The very short summer nights. I see myself having parties in Riga, or better, in the countryside, where it was never completely dark. It is very surprising, light is still present and it doesn’t come from the moon or towns’ spotlights. I was having fun during those nights, watching sun going down but it looked like it couldn’t make it. Around midnight, it was still illuminating, as not really sleeping. Then for 2/3 hours, it seemed that it was just under the horizon, on several hundred meters, in order to make a slow and sweet appearance towards East around 3 am. Here nature elements are the same than in France, but behave differently. A true joy for eyes and a feeling to be part of another world.

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Besides, winter is the season I especially like. Yes Winter! It is authentic, hard, vigorous, long and sad. It shows me I am very little facing Mother Nature. I must adapt, and protect myself. And it is possible. Here many people told me: « No, no it’s not cold. You don’t wear good clothes, that’s it.” So yes, we all wear many layers. But with that preparation, I swear that we face easily -10 degrees! And those rural or urban immaculate landscapes appear timeless. It’s beautiful. And these frozen lakes, where people ice skate on them to have fun. Some practice even rally on them. Fishermen dig holes in order to keep fishing. All those images are the most unfamiliar for a French person. Indeed, this season barely exists in most French regions. Moreover, winter here has a very particular smell that I can’t describe. But I like it. This reminds me my childhood in Poland when visiting my grandparents. There, this smell exists too.

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Obliged to listen carefully to natural elements in order to live peacefully, the Latvians have become very close to their environment. They respect it enormously. Forests are clean, urban spaces as well. They go cycling a lot for their daily trips, compared to the French. You just have to walk in Riga to notice it. Here, throwing its cigarettes in the street is considered as very VERY inappropriate. We can find fag dustbins everywhere in the towns. All of this collective eco-friendly consciousness pushed me into buying a pocket ashtray in case of, we never know, I can’t find these bins. A very good new habit, thank you Latvia!

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Another aspect I will miss: multiculturalism. Indeed, in that country and more especially in Riga, a lot of different communities live. The 2 principal ones: the Latvians (about 60 %), then the Russians (around 35 %). Unfortunately, this nation has some difficulties in mixing them, for numerous reasons I don’t fancy explaining them here. Concerning me, on the contrary, I have found very interesting to experiment that situation. I had never lived in a country split in 2 parts. Very selfishly, I learned a lot from that. For example, instead of learning one culture, I learn two. Instead of learning one language, you have the choice to learn two. Etc. It is a bit like a two-in-one country. Hence twice more interesting than only one country, twice more complex too. And there are also other minorities I never had the chance to meet with, coming from former communist block: Ukrainians, Belarussians, Estonians, Georgians, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijani, etc. Oooh yes, I gonna miss these people because I know that in France, I won’t have new opportunities to meet them…

Oh and another category of people I won’t have the chance to meet with: babushkas. Even if it’s difficult to talk (they don’t speak English generally), I have always had good relations with them: when I leave her a seat in the bus and they give me a smile full of love. When they try to speak with me but they see that it won’t go anywhere and they give me a smile full of love. When I try to start a conversation with them to pass the time but I can’t make it and they give me a smile full of love. And when I validate their transport tickets to prevent them from doing useless efforts and they give me a smile full of love. In short, these women touched me a lot. And they have their own lifestyles, their own codes. For example, they always wear something on their head. During winter, it’s a shapka. In summer, it’s a headscarf. It’s very old-fashioned but I am sure that one day it will be trendy again, and they would become avant-garde. I am a bit teasing here but it’s true, I respect them a lot. They have lived so many things and different periods: World War 2 (for the oldest ones), cold war and its communism, Latvia’s independence and its capitalism. Today they are probably widows, “babushka men” are being very rare. They are ancient living books, but which unfortunately will be soon closed, with their stories and a time forever over…

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Damn, this paragraph can appear a bit too melancholic. Let’s find happiness back by speaking about another category of women: the young women. They are so beautiful! The prejudice that the French have concerning Eastern and Northern women is true! Many of them here are tall, blond, with blue eyes. We can be in a small village in the middle of nowhere, and there will always be an enchanting beauty getting out from we don’t know where. It’s incredible!

And finally, what i gonna miss a lot is all those discussions I had with the Latvians in night bars. I like their opinions and states of mind which are often different than mine, debates I had the chance to have about many topics. They taught me a lot of things, and I hope I did the same in return. Latvian people are usually colder than French people, but once contact and trust established, conversations can last for hours. And they are interesting as I would say that the average Latvian is generally more cultivated, respectful and intelligent than its French fellow human being. I have rarely met completely stupid young people here, like we can find in France, well at least this population category which has decided that school and intellectual effort were useless.. Besides, here communication is possible since most of them have a good level in English (contrary to us).

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So here it is.. As you can see, there are many positive aspects in Latvia. You have to go there! You have to move, to see the world in its diversity… Yep! It’s a very small and new country (only 27 years old, after finding back its independence after 50 years of Soviet occupation). I know that many French don’t know where it is. I invite you to check on a map, and then to book a flight Paris-Riga through Airbaltic company. 3 hours trip and about 150 euros spent. Thus, I hope you won’t think anymore that I spent one year in Lithuania…! Yes, some of my relatives or colleagues haven’t still made the difference unfortunately. You will understand by seeing with your own eyes this part of Europe. Well hopefully !

Thomas Wild

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