Online address (9 July 2020) by Kārlis Eihenbaums, Ambassador of Latvia to Canada, European Human Geography course, Department of Political Science, Carleton University: Welcome to Latvia at 102.
In 2020 Latvia celebrates one hundred and two years since we became an independent state. Latvia as a state is born on 18th November 1918 and its birth coincided with major changes on the political map of World. Only in Europe – at the end of World War I the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires broke up and independent countries appeared, just to name a few – like Finland, the restored state of Lithuania, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, also restored Poland and my country – the Republic of Latvia.
We celebrate our statehood with the very best what we can offer, especially in well rooted ancient and modern culture, great lifestyle and never ending innovation.
History is a big deal for Latvians. We feel that our history is pretty special and certainly a very complicated one. It is a history of the birth and development of the idea of an independent nation, and a consequential struggle to attain, maintain and renew it. Coming to terms and dealing with the consequences of the past is an ongoing process, especially if as in a case of Latvia it is so turbulent.
What is Latvia?
My answer is – Latvia has been both an idea and a political reality but not always concurrently. Just to mention - last hundred it is both with brutal interventions, oppressions and destructions from outside, usually from bigger neighbours who seems are lost in their history from time to time. But still, we are Latvia, we showed our persistence again and again.
Latvia is moderately sized, democratic member of the European and international system of national states with a century-long history not dissimilar to that of other national states active on the world’s stage. For Latvians, a significant turn of events was joining NATO and the European Union in 2004. Both organisations embodied the values and visions that Latvians held dear since the beginning of the fight for idea of own state. Becoming a member state also offered the prospects of cementing stability, growth and further European integration. As a result Latvia, the pearl of the Baltic states and region around, is where very different traditions have merged, creating a unique environment, the like of which is not to be found anywhere in the world, we are the one and only and inimitable.
But, I would like to suggest, in order to find out – what is Latvia for yourselves you have to visit Latvia. Consider this as my personal invitation to a cultural adventure of Latvia – a country in the Northern Europe, by the Baltic Sea.
Few personal thoughts for you to consider, to get trilled and inspired.
Riga – long standing (established as city already in 1201) Metropolis of the Baltics with picturesque even fairy style medieval town, 19th century surprising rich wooden architecture and over it all the finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. Understandably, that historical centre of Riga is granted UNESCO approved World Heritage status for years now. Unforgettable majestic skyline of Riga with Gothic spires of the Old Riga numerous churches, panorama’s pleasing harmony is just the most visible indication of the superb aesthetic sense that shaped much of the city’s architecture up to the present day, no wonder that it is what you call million dollar view. Not mentioning numerous entertainment options for all ages and for different tastes – museums, opera, ballet, theatres, exhibitions, zoo, open-air Skansen-style museum, cinemas, clubs and even casinos.
Nature in Latvia.
Any visitor will immediately discover our nature, bountiful forests, lush meadows, rich rivers, quiet lakes and above it all 500 km of fine sandy beaches.
Jūrmala - literary city on the coast, is one of the finest resort towns in the Northern Europe and can be reached from Riga in half an hour. Its white sandy beaches, pine-covered forests, mineral springs and naturally occurring, medicinal mud has made it a favourite tourist and spa destination. The Jūrmala beach and its dunes are a great place to relax and sunbathe. And even the windy spring and autumn seasons, the impressive sight of white-capped waves crashing into the shoreline recalls the untamed forces of nature at work. And once the storms have subsided, amber seekers scour the beachfront in the hopes of finding pieces of this unique, yellowish stone washed up along the coastline. And you might be lucky ones too to find this “sunstone” as Latvians call amber – dzintars in Latvian, and all country Dzintarzeme or Amberland.
Latvians and food.
We used to think that we do not have our own cuisine. But we do have it and it is a great fun. Ask a Latvian about typical Latvian food and you will hear – pear barley, grey peas with bacon, bacon rolls (pīrāgi), rye bread, herring and smoked sprats. In reality we eat and it remains typically Latvian is that all would be prepared from fresh, locally grown produce. For Latvian, a salad is always on the menu, soups are appreciated and so are rich dairy products. Probably what really stands out as unique is our smoked meat and fish, the revered Riga sprats (available in Canada), fresh cottage cheese and traditional cheese with caraway seeds, sour cream and kefirs, wild berries made into delicious desserts, jams and pastries, as well as mushrooms straight from the forest. Just to be enjoyed!
What we celebrate.
A “typical” statistically average Latvian is likely to celebrate a healthy mix of Christian, Pre-Christian and commercial traditions. Just to name few.
Every Latvian almost like in the rest of the Northern Europe celebrates the Summer Solstice or Midsummer, called Līgo and Jāņi (23rd/24th June) with folk songs and customs like jumping over a bonfire and singing until dawn. Great festivities for a few days all around all country. To be experienced once and to be remembered forever.
Very Latvian and even important is to celebrate Name days. They are festivities like birthdays and all guests even without invitation are welcome.
Quite special are cemetery “celebrations” and they are another very Latvian tradition. Once a year during summer Latvian families gather at cemeteries, where family graves are tided, decorated with flowers and candles. There is service typically followed by a buffet table or a get-together at a relative’s home.
Singing and dancing.
Unquestionably, the biggest of all is nationwide song and dance celebration every 5 years. Imagine some 16 000 mostly amateur singers on one stage a capella with all the nuances, technical skills, tonal colour and style that you would expect from a professional academic ensemble. Imagine a corps de ballet of around 16 000 again but dancers who perform by creating patterns based upon ancient Latvian designs. Imagine a 50 000 people audience and almost entire country watching on TV. All that, remember, in a country of two million people. The Latvian Nationwide Song and Dance Festival is an incredible phenomenon, recognised as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. With this tradition back to 1873 it is a grass-roots event that literally pervades all of Latvian society, engaging huge numbers of people from all walks of life and all-around of the world.
What language do Latvians speak?
We like this question as we can inform anybody interested that we speak very ancient language, similar to Sanskrit (language of ancient India) and it is not Germanic and neither Slavic. Latvian language belongs to the Baltic language group of the Indo-European family of languages; its closest and today only living relative is Lithuanian language. In history books, you can find also Old Prussian language another close relative to Latvian and Lithuanian. Our languages appeared in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. There are a few small special features in our language. They are based on the Latin alphabet with a few special features – diacritics: ā, č, ē, ģ, ī, ķ, ļ, ņ, š, ū, ž. We also keep old tradition, we transcribe names and surnames as they are pronounced and we add Latvian endings in order to properly conjugate names and surnames in sentences. You have to use your smart side in order to see that Charles Dickens in Latvian is Čārlzs Dikenss but Jean-Jacques Rousseau in sentence could be Žanam Žakam Ruso…
In order to understand us you have to know that every Latvian has his folk song called dainas. Dainas – quatrains in form of songs or poetry, carrying ancient wisdoms and traditions. Dating back to well over a thousand years, these tales were part of celebrations, daily work and reflections on life preserved in oral form. Dainas capture the Latvian world view and are the core of Latvian cultural history. They tell of Latvians working, living, singing, thinking as thousands of years ago. More than 1.2 million texts and around 30 000 melodies have been identified and collected in the Cabinet of Dainas, and they were first published in 1894.
And don’t miss.
You can visit the Castle of Light, the new building of the National Library of Latvia by Gunārs Birkerts (Gunnar Birkert) the most famous North American architect of Latvian origin were the unique Cabinet of Dainas is on display. The architectural form of the Castle of Light draws inspiration from the metaphors and images of rich Latvian folk legends. Originally it was associated with hill of glass as a symbol of obstacles that have to be overcome in order to reach your worthy aim. But over course of construction time the building is linked with the Castle of Light – representing the nation’s aspirations for freedom and spirituality.
I have a lot more to tell you, but visit Latvia, and you can see this all for yourself. Before you go, check out www.latvia.travel and you can use the trip planner at that site.