July 20, 2010

Latvia, 20 years later

So, after a less-than-enjoyable Charles de Gaulle airport experience,  where pretty much everything is at a very inefficient level of functioning, followed by a departure delay of at least an hour, we made it via Air Baltic to Riga.  Again, just boarding the plane and hearing Latvian spoken by the flight attendants was thrilling to me.  Latvian is a language I've grown up hearing as my mother is Latvian, but it never seemed like a real language to be used out in the world.  Growing up in a small city, I heard Latvian only rarely and only from my mother, my grandparents, and a few Latvian families with whom we gathered for important occasions such as St. John's night (midsummer), "the 18th of November" (Latvian Independence), and the odd big birthday.   To hear Latvian spoken in other settings than those cozy, homey circles is surprising to me.

Arriving at Riga airport was a moving experience for me, once again.  I had visited Latvia twenty years ago, in January 1990.  At that point Latvia was still under Soviet occupation, only officially re-gaining its freedom the following year on August 21.  My 1990 trip meant that I was the first of my entire extended family to visit Latvia, or to return to Latvia.  Blessed by being of both Danish and Latvian heritage, I had grown up regularly visiting Denmark on family vacations, but Latvia was not really a place one could ever conceive of visiting.  Due to the Soviet occupation, Latvia to me was more of a story, a tradition, a set of great songs, cool words, and yummy Easter traditions.  Gradually more and more people were given the opportunity to travel in and out of the country, but still their numbers were very few.  I was "allowed" to go as I was to do concerts with my long-time friend, bass Paul Sketris.

That 1990 arrival was very moving due to the improbability of even being here, meeting the fabulous people, getting to know the long-lost relatives I didn't even know existed, and just feeling some deep cellular recognition of belonging here.  The people were bright, generous, and the interactions were rich. But it was a dark, damp, grey and bleak time and place.  Life was clearly difficult, and what we North Americans consider necessities were hard to come by.

Somehow twenty years managed to sneak by me (motherhood may have something to do with that) between trips here, and now in July of 2010, the contrasts between my two trips couldn't be greater.  First of all, just the contrast between January and July has to be taken into account.  1990 was fur hats, crowded busses full of damp, musty-smelling coats, and a short period of daylight each day.  2010 is a bit of a heatwave, daylight forever - it's dark by about 11pm and light already by 4am - and people dressed in brightly coloured sundresses, shorts, etc.

The biggest change though is that  Latvia is now apparently operating as a "normal" northern European country.  A huge amount of restoration has happened.  The predominant colours are no longer grey and brown.  Commerce abounds.  Anything one needs is now available.  Restaurants, outdoor cafes, bistros, you-name-it international or local cuisines.   Cars, lots of them, and most of them looking new and well-kept. The Ladas and Skodas of twenty years ago are nowhere to be seen.  Also, in 1990 I found it very difficult to communicate at first until I began to understand Latvian a little better.  Now, nearly everywhere English is spoken, especially among the younger generations.

All this improvement of quality of life is so very evident, it doesn't seem possible that this is the same place.  Except...that the beautiful spirit, the cultural richness and the wonderful and deeply generous people are clearly still intact, and that is the main attraction of Latvia.

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