The Decision to Stay

This post is dedicated to Stephany Kecy who always seems to have my back on social media! (fixed the misspelled name)

She asked me whether I had made my decision—was I coming back to Westside or not? I thought I had posted about it, but I haven’t written any sort of thoughtful explanation or reflection. Today seems like a good day to do so.

 

Actually, I wrote that little introduction a couple of weeks ago, so I think it is important to finish this before my trip to the U.S.A.

In March, I officially gave my notice to Westside that I would not be coming back for the 2018-2019 school year. From a financial point of view, I think many people would look at me like I am crazy to give up such a great teaching position. And, honestly, I have never been much of a financially-minded person. I sometimes wonder what will happen with my retirement, social security, and other stuff as a dual citizen, but I also think it will all work itself out (as most things in life seem to do).

The most important thing in life is… I hesitate to finish that statement. Is it love? A sense of purpose? Fulfillment? Happiness? Choose any of these, and I think Latvia and my current path brings more contentment to my soul than any other option. When I made my original decision to come to Latvia, I kept thinking about how living in Nebraska was never really a conscious choice that I had made. I visited friends living in other parts of the United States, and I thought about how it would be nice to live somewhere else. But when I came to Latvia, it really felt like home even though it is very foreign and different in so many ways.

Last night, Rita and I decided to go for a bike ride at 8:30 p.m. We rode to a nearby island with the television tower I can see through my window. The island is mostly deserted and has paths threading across from one shore of the Daugava to the other. In just ten minutes, we were surrounded by nature, listening to birds, washing our hands in the river, and picking flowers. This is just one tangible expression of the amazing world that I have found here in Riga.

But it isn’t just about location and all of the cultural experiences I have been exposed to. Last year, when I visited in the winter, I met a German man who had chose to relocate to Latvia. He had lived all over the world, but he picked Latvia, and when I asked him why, he said, “Freedom.” I have been keeping that idea in my mind ever since.

For instance, we rode our bikes to Meža Parks and I rode on a free, little zip line on a playground. It was such a simple thing, but something that would not be allowed in America because of liability, capitalism, etc. etc. The only experience I have had with a police officer in the Baltics was in Lithuania. He politely told me that I should turn my lights on when driving even during the day. No flashing lights. No intimidation. He didn’t even ask for my papers.

Spiikiizi chilling.

I haven’t seen any crime beyond littering, speeding, and lots of graffitti.

It isn’t paradise. There are lots of regulations that I do not understand, and navigating any of the bureaucracies is a bit of a nightmare for a non-Latvian speaker. I am struggling to learn the language, but that is mostly my fault. It is hard to learn, but I have found it almost effortless to just speak English to people, so the incentive is not as strong as it could be. I even found a group of Dungeons and Dragons players who were looking for someone who spoke English to DM!

After only a few months here, I have a few regular places that I go. I stop at the Beer House in Old Town, and the bartender and a couple of the servers recognize me, shake my hand and ask me how I am doing. After 10 years in Omaha, I don’t think I ever had that happen. I walk into the Spiikiizi coffee shop, and I get a handshake, a “How are you?” and a short conversation about learning the language. The owner even asked for my information to pass it along to someone trying to learn English.

I have met people from Russia, Belarus, Kosovo, Slovenia, China, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, and many more. I watched an Italian prodigy play piano and listened to a four-piece orchestra playing Beethoven and Schubert, attended an experimental Estonian play, and stood on the shore of the Baltic Sea. I eat meals at local restaurants that feel like gourmet experiences on almost a weekly basis. And living here during the Centenary of Latvia is truly a special experience. It seems like there are celebrations and a mood of optimism that is tangible permeating daily life.

But ultimately, isn’t it love that makes the world go round? Love that clouds all the other senses and gives us hope and helps us believe? I know that Rita may not enjoy reading about herself in this public space, but I would be remiss not to mention her as the main reason that I am staying in Latvia. We have been together, officially now, since September. We have made a home in our little flat on the Daugava, and I cannot imagine a more amazing partner to explore this great big world with!

I have seen the seasons change from summer, to autumn, winter and now spring. Each season is reflected in the city itself. I watched in the winter as the streets were deserted in Old Town, and everyone was exhausted from a lack of proper sunlight. And then, suddenly, everything is green and flowering. The streets are full of people, and Old Town blooms with tourists and sidewalk cafes. The light never seems to end as evening lingers on until after 10 p.m. I know I will get used to the differences, but right now, everything amazes me.

What do I miss? I miss my family more than anything. I miss Kyle and Maija terribly—my father, nephews, nieces, cousins, and especially my incredible siblings who have made this move more tolerable by keeping me up to date via every form of social media available. I miss my friends in Omaha, and especially my cribbage partners. I miss my colleagues and my intellectual partners who constantly challenged and pushed my professional world. I miss the Nebraska Writing Project and everything to do with that. I miss Twizzlers. I miss Mexican restaurants. I really miss driving and my Honda Civic Si. I know that anyone I don’t mention here who reads this might feel like I have forgotten them, but for the sake of word count, I am going to leave this right here.

So, I hope this post captures a sort of 9 months in review as well as covers the fact that I will be in Latvia for at least one more year, and that the future, as Tom Petty once sang, is “Wide open!” Thank you for your support and kind words! I appreciate all of my readers more than you can know.

Some more photos of my adventure!

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Side Note:

Here are some photos of the chestnut tree outside of our flat. I apologize for the trash bin, but enjoy the changing seasons.

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Fortnight of Culture

I was going to write a post last week about our cultural activities, but time is what it is and lo, here I am at the end of May pondering existence on a Monday afternoon. Enjoy!

Tvīda brauciens: Tweed Ride Riga

12 May 2018

A few months ago, Rita and Anna brought up the idea of this bike ride in Riga where you get dressed up in “old-timey” clothes and ride your “old-timey” bike through Riga. Then, the idea would come up again every couple of weeks until the day actually came. You can see some official stuff here.

We decided that we were going to do it, and in order to prepare, we went to the second hand shop for clothes. Remember that everyone in Europe is skinny, so finding used clothes is a challenge for me. However, I was able to find a nice sweater vest and a jacket (which did not get worn). Anna found a really cool 1950s looking costume. Rita decided to wear a lovely dress she already had with some accessories. I bought some tweedy socks, and I was good to go.

The ride was at 4 p.m. in one of the parks in the middle of Riga. It was unseasonably warm, but we steeled ourselves for the ride with a bottle of water and some sun screen. By the time we arrived, the park was full of people dressed fashionably in “old-timey” costumes with bicycles adorned in flowers and other decorations. We signed up for the ride, and I was participant 150. Cool, I thought.

After some organization, the event coordinator started shouting in Latvian into his megaphone. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but we all lined up and started ringing our bells. Soon we were off!

Promenade

I had no idea it would be such a well-organized event. We had police escorts to clear the roads for us as we merrily rode along. We stopped at the Freedom Monument and posed for photographs while tourists looked on. I met a lady participant who had a ferret in her basket. Quaint, I thought.

Then we rode through Old Town, right through the Gallery Center mall. We were greeted by bubble blowing machines, and carried on through Old Town, weaving our way through tourists. It is amazing how much busier Riga is in the spring than it was in the winter.

After a brief pause for an ambulance, we resumed the ride and rode across Akmens Tilts, the Stone Bridge. It felt very special to ride with police motorcycle escorts and no automobile traffic. I am certain that drivers were not happy, but we were having fun.

Once across the bridge, we went by the Soviet Monument and then along this promenade I had never ridden on before. It was lined by trees and just gorgeous on this sunny spring day.

Eventually, we wound our way through the neighborhood streets until we came to Vanšu Tilts, the newer, albeit crumbling, bridge back to the other side of the Daugava. We made a loop past the Presidential Palace, under the bridge and on down Elizabete Iela.

The ride finished after 10 kilometers or so at this hipster bar where we were served free drinks and treated to a musical show. They gave out prizes for best costumes and such. We didn’t win anything, but it was still a very good time.

As we road together, I envisioned carless cities, and I just keep thinking how wonderful that would be. I am not sure why cars became the default mode of travel. I do sometimes wish I had a car to go out into the country and explore. Our last trip to Lithuania would not have been possible without a vehicle, but in the center of the city, they seem so superfluous. Imagine no parking, no potholes, no pollution. Just people walking and riding from place to place. I know there are flaws, but I can dream, can’t I?

Some more photos:

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Muzeju Nakts: Museum Night

19 May 2018

After a busy week of work and planning, Saturday arrived and I was treated to another European tradition–Museum Night! The idea is that all (most) museums in the city are free and people go with their families from museum to museum.

Rita and Anna have been doing this tradition for awhile, so I was happy to join and go along for the ride. We looked at the list of museums and kind of decided a general area where we could go to some that we hadn’t been to and wouldn’t be as crowded as some of the more common ones. I was told to go to the International Hat Museum, but, spoiler!!! We didn’t make it there.

We did, however, make it to the Riga Psychology Museum. It is on the campus of a university hospital in the Sarkandaugava district of Riga, and I was under the impression that this is where mental patients go for recovery. As we entered, there were no signs or anything, so we just kind of wandered around until we saw some people so Rita could ask them where to go. The campus is surrounded by tall walls on all sides, so it was a nice surprise to see this wonderful garden stretch out before us. It was green as far as the eye could see with a fountain, lovely walking path, and a weeping willow to top it all off. It felt so serene and peaceful.

The museum itself was pretty small, and most of it in Latvian, which I am still struggling with. They had a display of an artist who was living there for awhile in the early 1900s. His art was powerful and painful. I am still thinking about the meaning of the last display. It was a chair facing the wall sitting in a pile of grain with blinking lights intertwined under the grain. One of my students suggested it was representative of his mind. We are not certain.

After we finished our tour, we walked to the Aldaris brewery which is adjacent to another museum, a a mansion in a park. Aldaris was the highlight for me. The beer was good and the price was right, and my new favorite Latvian party band was playing: Labvēlīgais. Omnibus! Everyone was dancing and happy. We toured inside the museum and saw how they make beer which is always fascinating.

Then we went to the mansion which was given to President and UNL graduate Karlis Ulmanis. It is called Dauderi, and it was quite a lovely home on beautiful property. After the concert though, I think we were most thankful for the restrooms.

We took Tram 5 back to Old Town where Rita took us to our final museum for the night: The Three Brothers. The Three Brothers are three of the oldest homes in Old Town Riga, and they were open this night with a special exhibition of some Latvian architects. It was just one small room with a few photos and some other displays, but the house was just lovely. You walk in and it is like a time machine with the stone work and exposed wooden beams. I recommend a visit if you get the chance!

Then it was a walk through the rest of tourist-friendly Old Town and home again on good old Tram 7.

Photos:

Side Note:

Many other events took plac during these two weeks including seeing The Avengers: Infinity War. We rode to Meža Park and picked some lilies of the valley. I have watched the chestnut tree in our yard go from its winter colors to exception green to blooms of incredible white. The 12th grade students had their Last Bell celebration where the school celebrates their last day in style!

The days are longer and longer, and the evening night never seems to fade. I have stopped drinking coffee. And the world, as it is, continues to turn. Just remember that wherever you are, you can find these adventures and spirited expressions of life! Take someone’s hand, and lead them to the lights!

 

 

 

Labor Day Vacation

Labor Day: Latvian (and Lithuanian) Style

In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September, and it is typically the end of summer. However, in most other countries, May 1 is the traditional day to recognize the importance of labor movements throughout history.

In Latvia, Rita, Anna and I had Monday and Tuesday off for Labor Day giving us a four day weekend, so we went on a good, old-fashioned road trip (thank you to Ansis and Monta for the use of their minivan!).

One of the great adventures of driving across Latvia is that the highways are a lottery. You will drive along a smooth, nice road for a few kilometers, and then, bumpity bump bump! You hit a patch that looks as if it were hardly a road at all. And the drivers are all a little bit insane. My running theory is that Latvians do not give an F. I was driving mostly the speed limit, using Waze to guide me through speed traps and such, then people would zoom up behind me and pass on single-lane, curving roads with lories right in front of them. You just never know!

We made our way across the country toward the seaside. I had always want to see the actual Baltic Sea. Here, we only see the Gulf of Riga. Liepāja is the place to go! Latvians say that the wind begins there.

Karosta Prison

Our first stop just north of Liepāja was the Karosta prison where Soviet naval officers learned the meaning of discipline if they messed up at some point in their careers. The prison is fairly famous because you can pay to spend the night there and be treated as a prisoner by people playing guards. We checked, but it was not warm enough to spend the night.

Our tour guide was a Latvian gentlemen dressed in an officer’s outfit. He was funny, knowledgable, and he knew where Nebraska was. It is kind of famous in Latvia because Karlis Ulmanis, one of the the presidents of Latvia, went to UNL. The prison holds all kinds of German, Soviet and even American artifacts from the old days. At one point, he shut some of us up in a room to show us how spacious and generous the accommodations were. I asked him about toilet paper when he showed us the bathrooms. He got a kick out of my question by showing us his finger. He referred to the prisoner’s bathroom time as “going to heaven” and they got to do it twice a day. I cannot imagine only being able to go to the bathroom twice a day.

My favorite part was the solitary confinement room. He shut the door on me, and I stood in total darkness for all of thirty seconds. I could imagine how completely insane a person would be after spending a day there. Makes you wonder how we can treat human being as bad (or in some cases worse) than animals.

The Northern Forts

Another incredible sight to see near Liepāja is the Northern Fort complex. I had read about it prior to visiting, but seeing it is really the only way to fully appreciate this place. At some point back in the late 1800s, the Russian Tsars decided to fortify the coast north of Liepāja against possible attacks. They soon abandoned the forts, and may have even used explosives to destroy some of them. The waves have done the rest, and now these stone monuments stand as a memory of a forgotten time. The beach is covered with giant concrete monoliths. We all climbed up and around them for a few hours. It was magical.

I was happy to feel healthy and find a place to rock climb again. I didn’t realize how much I missed the feel of pulling myself up and routing through obstacles until I actually had a chance to try it again. One little goal I have now is to find some rock climbing here in Riga!

 

A Gallery of the Forts

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Liepāja

Outside
Inside

This leg of the journey ended at our hotel in downtown Liepāja. Rita and I walked to the Amber Hall and had a wonderful dinner at the Piano Bar watching the sunset and just relaxing after a long, eventful day. The Amber Hall is a figurative and literal jewel of Latvian architecture. Luckily, a concert had just ended and the guard let us go in to look around. The amber-colored glass of the interior makes for a lovely light.

I also got to ride on the tram in Liepāja. I now have done trams in 3 Latvian cities. I am trammaster J.

 

More photos of Liepāja.

Pape and Lithuania

The next day, we drove down the coast of Latvia toward an old fishing village called Pape. Rita had always wanted to see the nearby nature park with oxen and horses, but she called, and they were not open for the season yet. They opened on May 1, and it was only April 30th. But we drove to the seaside again and walked along the beach collecting rocks and sea glass. It was another gorgeous spring day.

The little historical fishing village was also not open for the season, but we walked around it anyway seeing the old building. Anna told a story of a magical fish and how it got fed to a cat. It was lovely.

Most of Pape seems to be for sale and Lithuanians are the new owners. It seems that they are invading Latvia through legal and financial means. As we drove along a dirt road sightseeing, we spied some wild horses. Rita made the most of it and got some wonderful photos of these woolly equines.

 

More photos of Pape.

Klaipeda

Then we found ourselves in Klaipeda where we had a long stop at Bukowski Bar. Anna and I had two of the biggest hot dog creations I have ever seen, and the food was terrific. We walked the streets of the city. It is about the size of Lincoln, and seems like a very nice, modern city. One thing I was told you notice about the difference between Lithuania and Latvia is that the roads are better. I would guess it is comparable to Nebraska and Iowa. You go from one state with a smaller population and more land to another with a larger population, and naturally the infrastructure is a little better. But that doesn’t mean I would ever want to live there! (Iowa or Lithuania… no offense).

Luckily, the bar was fairly close to the ferry that we had to take to get to the Curonian Spit, a tiny strip of land that goes all the way from Lithuania to mainland Europe but you have to stop about halfway down because Russia owns the lower half. Rita tells me that the original inhabitants were Latvians, but the Lithuanians own it now. Someday… someday.

 

Curonian Spit

I had never driven a car onto a ferry before. It only took three tries to find the right dock, and the trip only cost 12 Euros. We exited in a very logical manner, and I drove down the only highway on the spit. It was getting dark, and the landscape in the long shadows of evening was gorgeous. We had planned to stop at a place called Hill of Witches which has lots of wooden carvings, but by the time we got there, it was too late, and the mosquitos had taken over. We decided to just keep driving. And now we still have a reason to go back.

For a tiny strip of land, the drive seemed to take longer than it should have, but we found Nida just as it was getting dark. Have I mentioned that the evenings seem to linger forever this far north at this time of year? I keep getting fooled into thinking it isn’t as late is it is. Shadows are different as well. Even in the middle of the day, they are longer than they should be. Of course, I am the only one who notices.

Nida

Nida is a lovely resort town at the very bottom of the Lithuanian Spit. Its claim to fame is that Nobel Prize winning author, Thomas Mann, had a house there. The house is now a little museum at the top of a hill.

Our hotel was run by a nice man named Arturis, I think. He told me the history of the hotel as best he could. From what I understand, a French queen stayed there and helped to found the hotel. Lithuania has an insane history. Klaipeda was once the capital of Prussia. It has been ruled by more countries than I can name, with different parts being influenced by all these different groups at one time or another.

When Rita and I visited the Nida cemetery, we saw lots of  German graves that suspiciously were dated 1939. I have no idea what it means, but it was weird.

After a lovely dinner at a nearby cafe, Rita, Anna and I watched the lightning on the horizon for about an hour before we finally went to bed. The storm never seemed to hit the island. It just moved parallel in the distance on the sea.

The next day was another amazing spring day. When I checked the weather for the trip, May 1 was supposed to be cold and rainy, but someone forgot to tell Lithuania. We went for breakfast and then ended up walking all the way to the famous sand dune, Parnidis Dune. Rita had always said this was one of the places she had always dreamed to go, and now I saw why.

The dune stretches about 150 feet above the sea, and to get to the top, you climb this wonderful wooden staircase. The view from the top is spectacular. I could literally see Russia! Take that Sarah Pailin! We tromped around the dune in bare feet, which is legal according to Latvian custom after the first thunderstorm. At the top of the dune there is a tall sundial with intricate astronomical carvings and runes. Again, it looked like something out of a fairytale or story book. I even got to sit on the throne on the beach. It was just incredible.

Unfortunately, all trips must come to an end, so we packed up our things and started driving back to the ferry. Along the way, we bought some of this incredible syrup that you mix with soda water to make delicious mixtures. We also picked up two Lithuanian hitchhikers. They were cool.

Hill of Crosses

The way back to Latvia led us straight to another incredible site, the Hill of Crosses. Rita had told me of this place, and I thought, “another roadside attraction.” I had no idea what I was in for.

We arrived, and you can’t really see the hill from the road, so I thought we would take a quick look and then jump back in the van. I am always nervous about getting home and parking. I have scars from parking in Latvia.

We parked at newly developed visitor center where we got some coffee and Anna bought a little cross at a market with tons of religious iconography. I wasn’t sure what this was all about, but as we left the visitor center and walked closer to this holy site, I began to be overcome with this sense of awe. The booklet said that two popes had visited here, and that there were now over 200,000 crosses planted on this single hill. You can read the number “200,000” a few times and think, “Boy, that sounds like a lot.” But no amount of reading will prepare you for the the actual experience of witnessing that many crosses placed in a small space. It was inspirational.

There are giant crosses covered in medium-sized crosses, covered again in smaller crosses. The whole thing is cross upon cross upon cross. You cannot believe how many people have visited this place and planted their own crosses. Some are labeled with obscure groups like “Slovakian air troops” and there is even a Jewish Star of David. Lithuanians traveled here during the Soviet occupation and risked getting into trouble by putting up their crosses. This kind of devotion made even the lamest Christian (me) get a little verklempt.

If you ever get to Lithuania and you are interested in this sort of thing, I would put this on my list as a “must see!” I don’t think I have seen anything like it… maybe the Grotto of the Redemption in Iowa… but this hill represents hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. There is something beautiful about that.

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Back to Latvia

I have to give Lithuania credit. The spit and the hill were amazing, but the rest of Lithuania felt a lot like driving across Nebraska. It was almost oddly familiar with its rolling hills and flat, treeless cropland. I was happy to be back in Latvia with its unpredictable roads and forested landscape. The untamed spirit of Latvia feels a bit more at home to me!

I cannot wait to go on another adventure! There is nothing quite like a road trip to start the spring!

Side Note

I almost forgot about the abandoned school we found in the city of Rudbārži⁩ (Red Beard). We took a little diversion off the highway. I saw a hill that looked cool, and sometimes you just do things on a whim. So we stopped in the town by this large manor house. Rita spoke to a local and found out that it was a renovated school that had shut down recently due to a lack of students. It had a lovely yard with a track, playground, and beautiful landscape. I thought it was a shame for it to not be operational. As Latvia, and many other countries, deal with aging populations and a lack of growth, I think how sad it is to see all of these towns losing their schools, and losing people. What can you do? Probably not much. It reminds me a lot of the situation in Nebraska from one small town to the other.

I felt like I was in a fairytale much of the time, and this place started off the whole trip on that kind of note. Latvia (and Lithuania) are magical places where people have lived for thousands of years. There are old stories here, and I swear, a certain magic!

 

 

 

 

Here is my parking job back in Riga and a video of the mosquitos. Enjoy!

 

Trams 2017-2018

WARNING! This is likely to be the most boring thing I have ever written.

DEDICATION: I dedicate this to my older brother, Paul, who loves data and odd collections of numbers and bits of information that others might not think twice about.

I live a few blocks away from the Turgenev tram stop, and tram #7 takes me directly to the Latvijas Nacionālis Teātris which is very near to where my multiple teaching jobs are located. As a result, throughout the winter, when the weather was less than desirable, I rode the tram quite frequently.

What is a tram? The official word in Latvian is “Tramvaju” and they are light-rail electric trains that carry passengers across town. There is no subway or elevated system, so the trams just follow the regular roads to the dismay of all Riga drivers. As Omaha contemplates maybe some day getting something like this, Latvians have come to depend on these reliable and somewhat comfortable (sometimes not smelly) transportation services as a matter of daily life.

My commute takes about ten minutes each way, and because I am a public school teacher, I get to ride any public transportation any time anywhere in Riga for 16 Euro a month. Why not?
National Theater Stop

So, one day, I decided to start keeping track of which tram I was riding on. I just wondered how many trams there are in Riga and whether or not I was riding on the same one each day? I wondered if the trams were random or if there was some order to them? I wanted to learn. These are the things I think about on any given day. Don’t judge.

Trams are numbered in two ways. The main number (1-11) tells you which route the tram is on, but each tram also has a serial number which tells you which specific car you are riding on. I guess I became curious when I got on one tram which had orange rails when most of them are painted blue. I knew the new trams were different from the old, but now I realized that even the old trams were individualized and somehow deserved to be noted and remembered.

If you ever want to see how to get around Riga via tram, trolleybus or bus, just check out 1188.lv for information!

Side Note: I just realized that I do not know if the front car and back car have different numbers or not when they are linked together. Now I feel like all of my data might be off. More research is needed.
Magic Yellow Tram

If you are traveling to Riga, the public transportation system is quite efficient. I know that other Riga residents complain about the smell of some of the trams, and sometimes they are crowded, but for the most part, they get you there on time. My biggest issue is that I run out to catch the tram in the morning, only to find that it was 2-3 minutes early, and is already leaving before I get there. This just teaches me to be more disciplined. And during the morning and evening rush, the trams show up at 7 minute intervals, so even if I miss one, I don’t have to wait long.

Just for the record, I have 151 photos of tram serial numbers stretching over the past 4 months or so. I did not take photos of every tram ride I took, but I tried to get most of them. Sorry, a lot of them are selfies, and if you are really bored, you can look through them! They will be at the bottom of the page in all of their glory!

Tram Vignettes

I know it sounds crazy, but I have been trying to write this blog post for a long time. I have decided to share some little stories from the tram this winter. These are distilled to short little bite-sized observations.

The queen of the tram

Queen in her Fur

I see her most working days in her matching coat and hat. She has at least three very colorful varieties, and she always looks serious and sometimes angry. One time, I saw her step onto the tram and some young woman was sitting in one of the “old lady” seats. She stood there glaring at the girl until she finally gave up her seat. There are rules to riding the tram, unwritten, but more important, perhaps than the laws on the books. You get up to let the ladies sit down. She is a keeper of this code.

 

One of the many drunk men

He gets on the tram near the market and rides, sitting on the floor, drunk or hungover with his long face and disheveled clothing. On one winter day, the tram police were checking for cards, and he did not have one. They told him to get off at the Opera. They got off, and so did he, but as the doors were about to close, he jumped back on with incredible speed and sat on the floor for the duration of my journey.

 

Brothers

These two young men ride the tram on school mornings. They are both red heads, and the older brother is very short with some hair on his face. He could be any age from 15-30. I cannot tell. But there is an unspoken devotion between him and his smaller sibling. They always stare at me like I am some kind of sight-seeing object. I want to speak with them, but I am afraid that they wouldn’t understand or might even ruin our delicate understanding.

 

Kids

One thing I love about Latvia is that kids are free. They aren’t taught to be afraid to do things, and they go outside and play and ride bikes and do stuff that we used to do back when the world was more normal than it is today. So I was so happy to see this girl who lives somewhere near our flat dominating the tram. She gets on, finds a seat, and gets off and heads for home like she owns the world. It is hard to explain the confidence that I see in the young people here. It isn’t that cockiness of the kid whose mom bought him an expensive pair of sneakers, but the real self-assuredness and lack of fear that all children should be blessed with. An innocent understanding that if we do what we are supposed to do in life, then everything else will be okay. The world isn’t out there to hurt us or destroy us, but for us to explore and learn from. Maybe I see too much, but she was an inspiration, nevertheless. This girl, is, of course, just one example of many of these free-spirited young people who use free public transportation all over Latvia to get to and from school each day.

 

Old Lady Hats

Call me sentimental, because I am, but I see so many old ladies in Latvia who remind me of my mom or one of my aunts. The kids I teach make fun of public transportation because it is crowded with elderly people, especially when you hit the central market. Public transportation is free as a part of social services for pensioners, so they can ride whenever they want wherever they want. So why wouldn’t they?

My favorite thing is to see these older men and women sprinting to stops to catch a bus or train. It could be the national sport of Latvia and likely explains their strong showing in past Olympics in the sport of walking. They never want to look like they are running because Latvians have a certain dignity, so they walk, faster than most people run, toward the stops. It is incredible.

So sometimes I take pictures of the hats on the tram. The old ladies, all have different looking but much the same feeling hats. It is like seeing winter flowers.

 

Drivers

Trams are currently manned or womanned by human beings pushing buttons and guiding them through the streets. The one variance of their duty to simply keep the tram on the tracks is to sound their horn at anyone who gets in their way, even other trams. One particular driver must have had his own version of Latvian tram road rage because he was just sounding this loud, annoying horn every five seconds. At one stop, another tram was on the tracks, in his way. I think the other driver was taking a smoking break, so our driver just sat there pushing that horn button like there was no tomorrow. God bless that tram driver!

This was likely the same driver who threatened to throw this young woman off the tram for not getting up to let an older woman sit down. I don’t know if that particular case makes him a hero or someone who is overstepping their authority a little bit. What do you think?

But can you imagine sitting in a little cabin for 8 hours a day basically just avoiding accidents? I am glad for them, but I don’t think I could do that job! STRESS!

Data

Graph of trams and frequencies
Old Tram
New Trams

I promised data analysis, but I really am not good with Excel graphs and charts. I don’t know how to make this meaningful. However, over the past few months, I have ridden 63 different numbered trams. The most frequent tram was 35228 with ten rides; however, most of the trams were ridden only one time.

Most of the trams were in 3000 range. Every tram 57xxx or higher is a new model, and these trams are not on my regular commute. I am not sure what all of the numbers mean, but the Riga trams range from 30024 to 35304 and 50574 to 58055. Maybe someone with a better understanding of things can figure it out.

The main mystery for me was whether or not the same trams are used in the same places at the same times. I do not think so, or else I would have been on the same tram more often since I leave at the same time most mornings.

Daugavpils Tram

The one anomaly in the data is the outlier far to the left. This is the dot of the tram in Daugavpils which was number 108. It was a whole different tram line, but I felt like I should include it. It was a completely different experience and about 1/5 the cost of the  Riga trams.

In other news about data, when I look at a map of all the photos I have taken in my library, apparently, I have taken 5700 photos in Latvia over the past several month, and only 6300 in the Nebraska over several years. Maybe there is some study about the meaning behind that?

Side Note

As a teacher, I can ride public transportation as often as I would like for 16 Euro a month. I keep saying, “I am just going to go out one day and ride the trams to every stop… from one end of Riga to the other.” I still have not done this. So at least I have something to look forward to. I think the only tram I have actually been to the end of the line is 7 and it ends near my cousin Bruno’s flat. So the first tram I likely rode on in the summer of 2016 with my sister Susan (when we didn’t know how to pay and were completely clueless) was also the one I would end up riding for most of my days here as a commuter. Harmonious.

Photo Gallery

Note: If you have been accidentally depicted here against your will, I apologize. Let me know and I will take the photo down. I figure that I am seen here at my worst, in the morning, at night, tired and cranky. So if you are somewhere in these photos, sorry!

 

 

Easter: Lieldienas

Priecīgas Lieldienas! Happy Easter!

I love that “lieldienas” literally translates to “Big Day!” I have spent the last few days soaking in some of the traditions of the Latvian version of this Christian holiday with lots of pagan influences.

Let us just break down Holy Week from my perspective. I want to preface this, however, by shamefully admitting that I did not go to any church services during this period. Things happened that are far too complex to explain.

Palm Sunday: pūpolu svētdiena

Because palms are not native to Latvia, they use pūpolu, more commonly known as “pussy willows” to ring in the first day of Holy Week. As I learned, not only are these pūpolu used in churches, but the first person to wake up on Palm Sunday gets to beat the others with the pussy willows! What a wonderful wake up call that was. Let us just say that I am not a morning person.

“Remember to bid your family “apaļš kā pūpols, vesels kā rutks, slimības laukā, veselību iekšā” as you wake them – wishes of good health in the coming year!

We had a nice brunch party with Rita’s oldest friends. I made omelets to order and Anna made the menus. It was a wonderful time!

The next few days went by normally, but there was energy in the air, and it was finally beginning to feel like spring. That would not last. It was my third Spring Break… this time from RTU, so I did not have to work on Tuesday. Latvians officially get Friday and Monday off for Easter weekend, so it was a short work week for everyone.

Zaļā ceturtdiena

Thursday arrived, but instead of the Maunday Thursday I grew up with, it is called Zaļā ceturtdiena or “Green Thursday.” I have no idea where this idea comes from. Two people admitted that it is likely pagan. The only tradition that I could uncover was that you aren’t supposed to bring home anything green from the market on this day. I kind of forgot as I was walking home, and I ended up buying strawberries. They aren’t quite green, so I am not sure if I broke the rule or not. These things are hard to police.

Lielā Piektdiena

Good Friday or rather “Big Friday“, as translated in Latvian, arrived. We all had the day off, and I decided to have a little dinner party with my cousin, Gita. Rita invited her Russian friend (who also studies Latvian and Indian culture), Svetlana, to join us as well. In America, I have tried to have a little Good Friday celebration every year culminating in the observation of the 1970s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a big Grinvalds’ family favorite. This year, I see that John Legend is doing a live version in America… maybe I will get to see it! I like to see that other people love this show, too!

I decided to try my hand at a roast leg of lamb for supper. I was really feeling like having something roasted in the oven, something to give the evening a special formal feeling. Rita found these cute lamb-shaped cake pans, so we made little lamb cakes for dessert. The dinner started early, and we had wonderful company. Gita brought a photo album with pictures from my father’s time in America including old pictures of me and my siblings, many of which I did not remember at all. We shared food and wine, and then watched a bit of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was so impressed that Rita could sing along with most of the songs. This is something that I do with my family every year! If you’re in the mood, this song just jumped in my head as I was typing:

Holy Saturday

We didn’t really have any big tradition on Holy Saturday, and I didn’t find out if there was a name in Latvian. But we did go to a traditional Latvian market in Kalnciema kvartālā. Anna forgot her e-talon (tram fare card), but we thought we could fake our way there. To our surprise, a controller got on just before we crossed the Daugauva. Luckily, he got into an argument with some other man, so we jumped off at the next stop instead of trying to figure out what to do. We hopped a bus which took us right to the market, and all was well.

The market was mostly made up of local craftspeople selling their wares. There was a lot of delicious food as well as handmade items like wooden tools, ceramics, and clothing. Inside one small pavilion, along with a display of Soviet era posters, were children decorating eggs in the traditional German way with paints and such. In another, separate building, Tatars were having a celebration with their own traditional decorating workshop. It was truly a multicultural experience!

We had a wonderful time bargaining with a ceramic shopkeeper who loved that I was from America. We bought a sort of matching set of mugs, a vase, and large pitcher. All in all, I spent too much money on wonderful food.

Now it was time for the most Latvian tradition of all, EGG COLORING!

Last year, Rita came to visit America and we met in Washington D. C. We spent Easter together coloring eggs the American way with Paas egg coloring kits!  I didn’t understand how novel that was until I got to see how they do it here. All year, Rita had been collecting onion skins. “What are these for?” I would ask. “They are for Easter eggs!” She would reply. I kept trying to imagine how onion skins could be used to color eggs. I was so naive.

Step 1: Find white eggs

 

I hadn’t really noticed, but all the eggs I had bought since I had come to Latvia were brown. They don’t really have white eggs except at Easter time. So we had to go out of our way to buy 30 white eggs, and sadly, they all come with red ink on them to designate some kind of code that they are not radioactive or something.

Step 2: Buy more onion skins

Rita was afraid that she had not collected enough onion skins, so she asked a shopkeeper for some, and she was able to get them. When we went to the market, we saw them selling bags of onion skins for a Euro or so. Can you imagine? Capitalism is awesome!

Step 3: String, lots of string

So, the trick is that you wrap each egg individually with onion skins. In addition, you can put other leaves and flowers inside the skin to create a negative effect when they are boiling. I had no idea how this worked until after it was all over, so I was just guessing. The hardest part, however, is that you have to wrap the egg with thread to keep the skin in place while they cook. You have no idea what a challenge this is until you try!

Only two eggs were harmed in the making of this blog post, so please do not report us to the egg-cruelty police.

Step 4: Boil

After binding all the eggs, they go into a pot with all the extra onion skins. Then they boil. We added vinegar while they were boiling. This seemed to be a part of all the recipes I found online. I don’t know if it did anything or not. I couldn’t believe how the water turned this lovely burgundy color as the skins started to release whatever chemical they have in them that colors eggs.

Today, I have been pondering the origin of this tradition. Who was it who first boiled onion skins and saw how they turned reddish-brown and thought, “I wonder if this will work with eggs?” And so on. Traditions are so cool like that.

Step 5: Cool down

After we finished boiling, then the eggs were carefully removed from the hot water and left to soak in the sink filled with cold water for many minutes. We passed the time by finally watching “The Young Pope” on HBO… little did we know that Cardinal Ozolins, obviously Latvian, makes an appearance.

Step 6: The unveiling

This was the moment I had been waiting for. With Paas, there isn’t much suspense. You can see what color the egg will be. You put in in a cup and wait, and voila, yellow! Blue! Pink! etc. But with this process, each egg is unique and you really don’t know what they will look like until you cut off the thread and take off the strings and skins. This was when it all made sense to me.

If you don’t wrap the eggs in skin, then they will all just turn the burgundy color that the skins release when cooking. This is what I thought we were going to be doing, and I did not understand the appeal. But when you wrap the eggs and put other leaves and such inside, it creates a negative marbling effect that makes each one special and interesting.

We cut each egg open to find that many had cracked, but all of them were beautiful. I just marveled at the variety of shapes and colors that could be produced with only purely natural ingredients. It felt so good to do something so sustainable and authentic!

Now that I fully understand the method, next year, I look forward to trying different shapes and methods of tying to come up with interesting patterns. You can also use different vegetables to produced different colors. Legend has it that red cabbage will turn the eggs blue! Rita wants to try that next time. I am all in!

The final step was to rub a bit of olive oil on them to make them shine… oh, and then, of course to eat them.

Egg Parade

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Easter

Šūpoles (Swing)

Lieldiena arrived without much fanfare. Rita said she heard bells ringing from various churches across town, but with my limited aural senses, I could not hear them. We made coffee together and began the morning with egg fights. I had thought that this was a purely Grinvalds’ tradition, but all Latvians (and many other ethnic groups) are quite aware of the joy of pounding one egg against another to see which is the strongest.

I made an American-style Easter basket for Anna and we hid it before she woke up. Although she is a bit old to show the enthusiasm that I had on Easter morning searching for my basket, it was still a nice time, and we all enjoyed the candy together.

Unfortunately, we missed our church service, and a walk to the newly the newly renamed “Freedom Square” revealed that they had one Easter swing (read about the witches and swings here!) on display… but Anna and Rita admitted that they were too introverted to wait in line and have people watch them swing, so we passed. The weather really wasn’t making us feel very Easterly.

Last night, I saw the full moon rising, and I thought that I would wake up to be greeted by a bright and sunny Sunday morning, but it was cloudy, windy and gloomy all day. I guess it snowed in my part of America, so I shouldn’t feel too bad. And hey, we get Monday off, too!

 

Side Note: Enjoy the Dance of the Egg

 

And a slideshow of the eggs and some other pictures! Enjoy!

 

March 16

16. Marts

I just read a pretty good explanation of this holiday here... so I don’t need to completely rehash it. The basic idea is that this is a Veteran’s Day march for the specific group of Latvians who fought in World War II. The problem, of course, is that those men who were drafted into the German army, like my father and uncles, were given the SS tag and later called “Nazis.”

When I was growing up in small town America, I heard slurs from both sides of the aisle. Because Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union, there were people who called me a “Commie!” and a “Ruski!” and made fun of me for that. I chose to simply ignore their ignorance. Latvia never had a choice in the matter.

However, the issue of being “Nazis” was a bit more difficult to deal with. My father and my mother’s family both owed a debt to Germany after the war. When Latvia fell to the Soviets, it was Germany, a war torn impoverished country with issues of its own, which took my people in and fed them and housed them when they needed it. Because of this, I grew up hearing these stories from my mother about how the Germans kept track of every single item that they took with them on the ship when they left Riga, and my father singing German marching songs with my uncles. It was something they had in common.

I read the post which I referenced above, and it seems to completely absolve the Latvian soldiers from any allegiance to the Germans during the war, but honestly, this isn’t the way I understood it while I was growing up. My father and my uncles definitely felt an allegiance toward the Germans. I do not know what would make one cross the line from being a supporter of Germany in WWII to being a “nazi”, but I don’t think there was much separating the two in my family.

I am not writing to simply whitewash or excuse this history, but trying to understand and cope with it.

Today, I had a break during our debate tournament (see the side notes below) for lunch, and I rode my bike to the march to see what I could see. I could not believe how cold it was. When I rode this morning, it was not nearly as frigid as it would become only a few hours later. Otherwise, it was a gorgeous sunny day. I approached the monument and saw a crowd of people, but more police than anything else. They stood out in their neon, glowing green vests, surrounding the monument with yellow barricades. It was an impressive show of force to make sure that the peace was kept. Then, at about 11:00 a.m., the procession slowly moved from Old Town to the monument square in front of the Laima clock. The march itself was silent. People carried flags and flowers. Men and women, young and old, walked quietly across the street toward the monument. It was one of the most peaceful marches I had ever seen. And as I stood in front of the Liberty Monument, watching the bystanders and police watching in the freezing March morning air, protecting the marchers, I felt lots of emotion.

I saw three old men talking about the old days. I saw the marchers, and I thought about Vitauts, my father, and how he would love to be here to share stories with all of these men who went through what he went through. He was only 15 when the draft orders came through, and he left his home and his family to go fight in a war that really had nothing to do with him.

The war swept him away, as it swept millions of people away, as war does. But here, on this day, those few remaining souls came together to march down the street holding Latvian flags, celebrating the service that they completed so long ago. It was… nice.

I am happy that the reports of protests were exaggerated. I did a search for news, this link was the first to show up. One protester was arrested at an otherwise completely peaceful march. There were no Nazi flags. I saw one sign protesting about these people being lovers of Adolf Hitler, but that was about it.

In America, we have similar arguments about what should be celebrated and what should be forgotten. I have no real insight on any of these issues. I just know that in this case, my father would have appreciated being surrounded by others who went through what he went through… as mixed up and turbulent as it must have been here from 1939-1945… and then under Soviet rule for 60 years… I think we can give these people a little slack when they want to celebrate some Latvian pride.

Photos:

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Side Note:

After a semester of frustration, I finally got a team to commit to going to the Riga Go! debate tournament. I am now an international speech and debate coach. I can check that off of my list. Impressions? It was neat to see an Opening Ceremony at a tournament. I like the idea of making these contests more meaningful with some kind of pageantry. Here they had each nation send up delegates to represent. There was some singing and some speeches. Most of it was in Russian, so I didn’t fully understand, but it was still cool.

The tournament lasted two days, and the organizers provided mixers and excursions for those visiting from out of town. The main topic was about cryptocurrency, and we prepared for it pretty well. Then there were two impromptu rounds where students were given a topic and 30 minutes to prepare a case. What an interesting challenge!

The debates themselves were a bit sloppy in terms of structure and argumentation, but it was great to see these kids putting in such an effort to debate in English as their second language. What a great way to put language into action! They were enthusiastic and very fierce with their engaging rhetoric.

My kids went 1-2 and got a bye in the final round. Four teams went to semi-finals, we were not one of those teams. The results were okay considering this was our first contest. I have a feeling that we all learned quite a bit about the Karl Popper style and format. Like so many other things in life, you don’t really get it until you experience it.

I have to share this final video of one of the speakers singing during the opening ceremony. I have never heard a voice quite like hers. I had the pleasure of judging her during a round and thanking her for her incredible singing! I hope you enjoy…

Latvian Dentist: Zobārsts

14 March 2018

The Dentist

BEFORE

Before I left America, I went to all of my doctors to make sure everything was okay while I still had insurance. After seven months and some prodding, I decided it was time to visit a Latvian dentist. For some reason, getting back injections and having my ears cleaned here didn’t bother me, but I was still a bit afraid of going to a dentist here. I blame Marathon Man (warning… do not watch if you have a fear of dentists). 

Rita helped me find the Dental Art clinic and told me that yes, they speak English. I conveniently booked an appointment online, no questions asked. This is the week of Spring Break for most of my students, so what else do teachers do during Spring Break? Take care of their health.

I found the building easily enough on Barona Iela. I opened the door to a staircase in an old building that was dimly lit. Hmmm. I guessed that the dental office would be somewhere upstairs. I was right! I opened the door, uncertain of what to expect. For some reason, I keep flashing back to the old J. C. Penney in Wahoo. It had this dark staircase that led to a door at the top of the steps. Was there a dentist there? I never know what to expect when I enter a room here. Will it be a dimly lit, damp, old, moldy office with concrete walls and linoleum floors?

No, no it wasn’t. It is a brightly lit, very modern looking office with a wonderfully friendly staff. I went to the desk, and the nice woman knew I didn’t speak Latvian, so she gave me a form in English. Typical questions. There was no talk of price or payment, so I wasn’t sure how much this was all going to cost me.

After a few minutes, I was escorted to the examination room.  Wow! The equipment looked even more modern and advanced than my dentist in Omaha. Everything was clean and very organized. The technician didn’t seem to speak any English. She pointed to the reclining exam chair, and I sat down and waited. I had no idea what to expect. There was a certain bit of fear and excitement as I tried to figure out what all of the instruments were for. A tray of at least ten different corded apparati was laid out before me.

I write this now in the hopes that an American dentist might read this and make some comments on my observations. I doubt it, but I can hope.

The actual dentist entered. I didn’t get her name. I meant to ask. She spoked some English, but politely asked if I spoke Latvian. She wore white scrubs while her technician wore blue. I will try to recall all of the things they did in a series of steps:

  1. She started with a pain killer. She squirted some burning liquid into my mouth that made my tongue and lips numb. That was pretty cool. They also put these yellow sunglasses on me for protection. After each procedure, I was allowed to drink and rinse.
  2. Then she used a metal pick to examine all of my teeth and gums reporting everything she found to her technician. No x-rays. Just a manual examination. She found three small cavities. When I left America, I knew I had at least one. Shoot. Darn these Latvian sweets!!! She said I could make an appointment to have them filled.
  3. After the metal pick, she had me rinse, and then she used the high-pressure water pick. I love that thing.
  4. Then there was the typical dental floss, but after this, it got a little different.
  5. I asked if she could get my fake front tooth a bit cleaner, and she said probably not. I would need to redo it to get it white again.
  6. She polished the teeth using some standard paste.
  7. Then there was some gum thing… I couldn’t see what it was, but I think it was the water pick again. This was the only time I felt any discomfort. It felt like they were peeling my gums off of my teeth.
  8. She then had a little sander/polisher that reminded me of a Dremel. I think she was smoothing everything out.
  9. After that, she put this weird plastic thing in my mouth and covered my face with a paper towel. “Soda…” she said. Soda? NO clue what this was, but it sounded cool. It was some kind of bubbly liquid that did something, I suppose.
  10. She did a bit more polishing and shining, and finally put my teeth in a mouth guard filled with some gel. I suppose it was fluoride or something? I don’t know.

As she did all of this, at least four procedures I had never had before in America, I was wondering about the cost. I figured in the U. S. all of this would be a few hundred. In Latvia, I estimated 90 Euro. It turned out to be just 70 for an hour long treatment and diagnosis. Not bad at all with no insurance of any kind!

AFTER

My big question is about the lack of x-rays. Every time you go to the dentist in the States, they x-ray you. They have a bunch of different kinds of x-rays, and all of them must cost thousands of dollars. This dentist said they only do an x-ray if there is a specific type of tooth issue. I can’t remember the word she used.

I sometimes wonder how much of the medical costs in America are due to lobbyists and salespeople pushing products that we don’t necessarily need. There is this feeling of overkill that keeps the costs incredibly high. I could, of course, be wrong.

I think I told this story already, but when I lived in Stapleton, a bunch of people had sliding glass doors for front doors. I had never seen that before, and all I could think is that there must have been a hell of a sliding glass door salesman who came through Stapleton at some point in time. Daugavpils had a bunch of iron balconies because they had a factory there that specialized in making them. How much of what we have is what we need versus what we are sold? I guess that is the big question about capitalism and marketing, isn’t it?

Overall, I recommend Latvian denstistry. The cost is low, the quality is outstanding, and my teeth feel brand new. Some stains still remain, but what can you expect after drinking coffee for 27 years or so?

Side Note:

On the way home, I saw a little Italian shop, and I decided to stop. I wanted some olives, but the little plastic containers they came in seemed a bit leaky. Instead, I bought some real tomato sauce with NO SUGAR (yay!), and a tiny thick-crust pizza. I decided to try the pizza after I got home. It only cost 2.5 Euros, but it might have been the best pizza that I have ever had. I know I say that a lot. I expected to eat just one piece, but guess what, I ate the whole thing. It was just a personal pizza, but still. I will definitely be a customer of that place again! I just wish I knew the name of it. I checked Google Maps and the internet, but no luck. I will update you when I know!

Žetonvakars

What is “žetonvakars”? The closest translations seems to be “badge night.” Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. I will do my best to explain another new Latvian tradition I have learned about since moving here!

I first heard about this celebration,  a month or so ago when my colleague and I were planning presentations for our 12th graders. She said they would be very busy this week because of this Žetonvakars. I kind of asked her about it, but I didn’t really understand what it meant. She said that students would get pins, badges, or rings with the school emblems on them, and there would be some kind of a performance.

As the date came closer and closer, I came to realize that this was a big deal for both students and the school.

I think that every school in Latvia had the event on the same weekend, the first Friday in March. I teach at two schools, and for the entire week, it was what people were talking about and focused on. There was a buzz in the air.

My main school is Rigas Second Gymnasium. Here, I was given two fancy invitations. One was a gold scroll and the other a wax-sealed folded black engraved cardboard letter. Both were hand-made and impressive. One of the girls said she spent 20 hours making them, and I would not be surprised to find out she wasn’t exaggerating.

At the other school, the Engineering High School at RTU, students were practicing for the big night. As I understood, each of the 12th grade groups was to prepare some kind of performance. It is like a talent show without the whole contest element.

In Latvian schools, classes are divided into groups of 20-30 students. Each “klase” has a teacher. It is kind of like our homeroom system at Westside, except all of the students are in the same grade, and the bond seems to be pretty close after four years. At the Second Gymnasium, there are about 900 students. So the 12th grade has about 8 of these individual klases. I only teach the International Baccalaureate group, which is the smallest with only 14 members. There are so many 12th graders, that the Žetonvakars is divided into multiple nights. At the engineering school, each klase is only 28 students, so all of them can perform at once.

When I showed up for my teaching duties at the Engineering School, I heard music from all the way downstairs. The school is on the third floor, and as I climbed the steps, the music became louder, and eventually I could make out the base line. I heard students singing, “We don’t need no education…” I peaked into the performance hall to see students on a stage dressed in all black with red accents dancing and marching to the beat. They were playing live and singing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.” It was pretty awesome.

As I continued to teach, I heard them singing different songs. The hallway had become a dressing room, and they seemed to have several costume changes planned. The younger students all seemed pretty excited for the big show which was to be at 5 p.m. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend because I was meeting Rita at Gaismas Pils for a Herders and Barons presentation with blue statues!

I was able to make the 6 p.m. performance at the Second Gymnasium. I went in by myself hoping to find my colleague. Instead, I ran into two of my 11th grade students. I asked if I should just sit anywhere, and they said, “Yeah, sure.” I didn’t see anyone I knew, and I was feeling a bit anxious, so I just sat toward the back hoping that no one would ask me any questions. It was a pretty formal occasion. All the parents and guests were dressed very fashionably.

The show began promptly at 6. The school song was played as younger students dressed in traditional costumes walked in. Then the three klases walked in and took their seats to much applause. Then they played the Latvian National Anthem. The boys wore suits and even tuxedos, and all the girls wore very nice gowns. The headmaster, Guntis, was also in a tuxedo. Two younger students (I think) were the emcees for the night, and they made announcements. Everything was in Latvian, so I can only guess at what was being said. Guntis gave a speech to the students saying how terrific they all were. Then each klase teacher helped him hand out pins (the badges in “badge night”) and each student was called by name. Then the klase teacher talked directly to the class, and one of the students gave a speech to the teacher. It was quite moving, and one of the students was crying so hard she couldn’t even get through her whole speech.

All of this took just over an hour. The 12th graders then got up and handed out flowers to parents, teachers, and friends. Two of my students found me in the crowd and gave me roses. What a nice gestures! Then, they set up a band with a drum, a couple of guitars and a fantastic singer. He sang “I Would Walk 500 Miles” and another song in Latvian. I thought that was the show, which was weird because I had been told the 12th graders were preparing, and this singing group was made up of 11th graders.

Everyone got up to leave, and I thought it was over. I got my coat from the coat room, and started to exit when my colleague, Inga, caught up with me. “Jeff, where were you?” she asked. I explained that I didn’t see her, and she said that teachers were all sitting together in the front. Now was time for a break with coffee and snacks. The performances were to reconvene in 20 minutes. I was so glad she found me. I would have left thinking, “That was it?”

We had a lovely break in the teacher’s lounge with delicious snacks and coffee, then I took my seat with her in the second row for the real performances.

Each group had a planned production, and it is really hard to believe how hard they worked on this on top of all of their studies!

The first group made a clever video of a fake news television station with lots of funny skits. Then they came together to sing a song.

The second group were the IB kids. They also had a neat video where they did one take of questions and answers. The camera person walked through the school running into each of the students and asking them questions. They were dressed in the same outfits as they were wearing for the Žetonvakars, and after they finished, they came running into the auditorium as if it were a live broadcast. The one take thing was impressive. Then they played a song and performed a little sitting dance with meaningful gestures. It was touching, especially because their klase teacher was a part of the performance and you could feel the love.

But the third group really went overboard. Their teacher also helped them. He is a chemistry teacher, and they had this whole theme of “The First Day of Kindergarten.” And all of them came out with matching outfits, white shirts and black pants and skirts. Then, they had a series of funny skits like judo, boxing, and dancing. Each one was a full production. Then they performed a song, and had people dancing which was very cool. But it still wasn’t over. They had another big song and dance routine in the end! Everyone joined in. My favorite part was the guy in full hockey gear and rollerblades skate dancing with one of the girls. How much time did it take to prepare all of this with the costume changes, signs, and everything? It was incredible.

At the end, I had Inga ask the headmaster if the other groups who had their Žetonvakars the night before were as good, and he said, “Yes, all of them. Every year.” Rita later confirmed that she remembered her own Žetonvakars as having been quite a production. So has this been going on forever? I wonder if Vitauts would know what žetonvakars was? He left Smiltene before his 12th grade year, so he never had one… unless they also did it in the DP camps. I can totally see him dancing and singing for fun.

So, it isn’t quite graduation, but I guess it represents a coming of age. It takes place a couple of weeks before the final state exams, and the 12th graders are showing that they are ready to move on. Later, they will have a formal graduation where they receive their diplomas and everything, so that will be more like what we have in the States. But I can’t think of anything equivalent to the tradition of Žetonvakars. In all honesty, it felt like some throwback to the 1950s. Something that people might have done back when we all had more time, and no one was too self-conscious to just let their hair down—when there weren’t so many rules about what was and wasn’t politically correct. It was a reminder that if you let these kids just work together, they can create something wonderful on their own. Well done, Latvian 12th graders, well done.

Side Note:

After the final performance, I checked the tram time, and good old number 7 was going to be at the National Theater a block away in one minute. I said goodbye, and I ran out the door thinking that there would be no way I could make it. But I did. I have become a Tram Runner!

Some more pictures…

Daugavpils: Part 2

11.2.18

We all got off the tram at the last stop in an empty part of the city after we had purchased breakfast items at a local supermarket. We followed our leader down a path and through a tunnel. The fortress was not immediately evident.

Another View

Then we came to another tunnel that turned out to be the entrance to the mighty citadel on the banks of the Daugava River. If our walk was an indication, the wall seemed to be about 100 feet thick. It is surrounded by a moat, and, once inside the walls, there is a feeling of impregnability. The entire fortress is actually city property, so it is open to the public. You can just go any time and walk around all these historical buildings. Our destination was the main Arsenal building where the Rothko art center is located.

The main building is yellow and looks and feels a lot like the castle at Rundale. It is wide with a beautiful courtyard. Our hotel rooms were located in one wing of this enormous building. It felt good to check in and sleep. I was completely exhausted.

Through our window, we could see the statue of the Ghost Horse lit up in the night. It was mysterious and hauntingly beautiful.

The next morning began with a traditional Latvian-style breakfast. Everyone brought their provisions to the small kitchen area and we sat together talking and eating. I wish I spoke and understood more Latvian. This is a constant struggle. At least most of the people spoke some English, but it wasn’t the same.

After breakfast, we had an hour or so until the tram arrived to explore the grounds and see the exhibits at the Mark Rothko Center. Rita and I walked to the ghost horse and were impressed by its size and stature. Then we walked to the top of the wall where there are no guardrails or warning signs. Anyone could just fall down into the moat.

She posed by a cannon, and I took some pictures of the buildings.

Then we had a quick cup of coffee at the fancy little cafe, and joined everyone else at the museum.

Here we were in Daugavpils, Latvia at a center for art dedicated to a native son. Rothko and his family left Daugavpils before it was even Daugavpils and before Latvia was even Latvia. He was ten years old or so when his family went to New York in 1913 to escape the possible conscription into the Russian army.

I didn’t know much about Rothko other than I liked his paintings of colorful stripes and his earlier works that have more of a form to them. The museum was disappointing at first with some slide shows, histories, and reprints, but no actual Rothko originals. It wasn’t until the end of the hallway when you get to the room where the “real” art is. The room is manned by a guard and is climate controlled. Rita felt like it was too humid for an art gallery. They had a loud machine running in the corner which ruined the ambiance a bit for me. In all, there are five original works in the gallery ranging from an early 1936 painting of a railway station to his later work in 1969 or so of a mostly navy blue canvas that feels a bit oppressive. It wasn’t until after I left the museum that I read about his suicide. He seemed like a troubled person who was able to transmit emotion directly onto canvas, even through seemingly simple designs.

One of my students kind of made fun of his work by asking how someone could pay upwards of $7 million for stripes. I am not defending the price people will pay for famous works, but his paintings do have some kind of emotional impact. Even though they look simple, they are complicated and he worked hard to make them. They aren’t as simple as they appear. In a way, he reminds me of Jackson Pollack. I get that same unexplainable emotion when looking at his works. It is hard to put it into words. I am no art critic; I just know that these canvases make me feel.

We didn’t have much time to really explore the other temporary exhibits, but they had a similar tone. They were very colorful, large, abstract, and expressive. We were particularly impressed with the fabric art with its incredibly intricate details and subtle beauty. However, Rita objected to owning one because all the little ridges and surfaces would collect dust. I concur.

After the Rothko Center, we took a tram back into town. The Latvians all went to see a Russian play, and I gave my ticket to Baiba because I didn’t think I would get much out of the show anyway, and she had forgotten to get one. Instead of attending the play, I sat at a coffee shop editing some writing, and then I had lunch at a cozy restaurant called Art Hub.

Rita met me after the play and had an amazing looking bowl of fish chowder. This is the first chowder that I have seen in Latvia, so that was exciting.

We finished our tour of Daugavpils at Sokoladna, a coffee shop with an incredible selection of desserts.

When we got to the train station, it was packed. The ticket line was long, and the train was leaving soon. We made the train, and it was crowded, but it was still a pleasant, effortless drive. I was able to sleep a little.

 

Some more photos:

 

Side note:

I would love to see some historical reenactments at the Daugava Fortress. Apparently, back 1812 or so, Napoleon’s army was pushed back by Russian troops, and it wasn’t even completely finished yet! Imagine seeing French soldiers marching toward the fortress with cannons blazing and Russian troops holding the line? Wouldn’t that be spectacular? On my tram ride this morning, I was thinking about how expensive these reenactments must be and how Americans have so much disposable income to fund all of these hobbies and interests. We may not be a practical people, but we come up with inventive things to do with our time and money!

 

 

 

 

Daugavpils: Part 1

10.2.18

For those of you who don’t know, Daugavpils is Latvia’s second largest city and is sometimes thought of as the most Russian city in Latvia. According to Wikipedia, it is over 50% Russian. As I look at the Wikipedia page, I am struck by the complete desertion of the city from 1920-1950 when the population dropped from over 100,000 to fewer than 20,000. Is that even possible? Now the city is again in a population decline because, I think, of economic reasons.

I cannot begin writing a happy-go-lucky travel piece about this place without first acknowledging the dark history that surrounds me. I have been in a funk since we went on a city tour with this old Latvian man. Through Rita, my translator, I was told that the cobblestones paving the sidewalk were taken from the Jewish cemetery. This led me to do some research on Daugavpils, and I was just shocked. I probably shouldn’t be shocked anymore, but, on the other hand, I think some historical events should still shock us. Once we are beyond feeling the awesome responsibilities of our own history, then something is lost.

Daugavpils was once home to a very large Jewish population. During the German occupation of World War II, they rounded up Jews and put them in the abandoned fortress outside of the city turning it into a large ghetto with upwards of 20,000 prisoners. According to one account, only 500 or so Jews survived the war. This city was built by Jewish industrialists, and the Nazis gutted the art and beauty they brought to this region. It just leaves this horribly sour taste in my mouth and a rock in my stomach. I do not know what to do with it, so I am writing.

Last night, we stayed at the Daugavpils fortress. As we checked into our rooms, I couldn’t stop thinking about those victims who died so near to where we were staying. Right now, I am sitting in this lovely restaurant listening to jazzy American music and watching a screen display beautiful images of this city. It is surreal.

I am supposed to be watching a play at the theater with Rita right now, but one of the members of our 15-member Riga contingent did not have a ticket for the play, so I gave mine to her. The play is in Russian, so I think I made an okay sacrifice. I do not feel like a martyr.

Rita’s acquaintance, Ieva organized a tour for fourteen of us, and we arrived in Daugavpils on Saturday afternoon after a wonderful train ride across the Latvian countryside. It was about 230 kilometers and took just over 3 hours. Rita loves architecture, and one of her specialties is pointing out the Soviet era Stalinist buildings like the train station.

Stalinist Station

After arriving, we split up from our group and walked down Rigās iela all the way to the Daugava river. Daugavpils doesn’t feel like Riga at all. The buildings are lower and many are adorned with balconies, in the style of Paris. The main street we walked down was paved with bricks and for pedestrians only. This was nice.

On the walk, we noted some interesting architecture while we struggled to get to the river itself. We took a turn and walked up to the main highway before discovering a tunnel that seemed to be for cars leading to the river. Sure enough, it led directly to the river. If a car were to go through the tunnel, it would find itself sinking quickly into the icy waters of the Daugava.

In the tunnel, Rita practiced her Russian by explaining these depressing, heart-breaking phrases to me. It seemed to be a tunnel of lost love.

The river itself was iced over completely and looked more like an empty field than the flowing Daugava we know from Riga.

After reaching the river, we had to make our way back to the other side of the train tracks to meet up with the rest of the Latvians at the DSR buckshot museum. The museum is an operational shot tower where they convert lead into shot for shotgun shells and such. If I heard our guide right it is either the only one still in operation or one of two in the world. People from all over the world enjoy tours here. For only $5 Euro, you get to tour the premises and shoot airguns at targets.

Blurry and Terrifying

The highlight of the tour for me was climbing to the very top of the tower. This is, again, one of those things that just wouldn’t be possible in the United States. The stairs were terrifyingly narrow and the handrails seemed rickety. I felt as if a collapse were imminent. Rita gave up the climb about halfway. I didn’t know it, but she has a bit of a fear of heights. As I continued going up, more and more people gave up, and I think only 3-4 from my group of 8 made it all the way.

The final staircase was made of steps constructed of three narrow bars. You could see all the way down with each step. I gripped the railing and took one careful step at a time. I knew that I wouldn’t fall through, but it was still pretty awful.

At the top, I had a nice view of the whole city and saw some unique machinery that still works despite it looking like something out of some defunct sci-fi museum.

Our guide was a fun-loving Latvian with great stories. I just wish I could have understood them. He told one story about Italian tourists who applauded as one of the workers made the shot. He was just doing his job, but the tourists thought it was a performance. They put a dummy under a pile of stones to dissuade curious tourists from entering a dangerous part of the building. To me, it all looked pretty dangerous.

He showed us where the lead dropped down from the top of the tower into a tank of water 20 meters below the ground. From a ton of lead, some amount would be left in the bottom that the automatic scoops could not retrieve. Therefore, a diver with a special mask would be lowered into the tank to manually bring up the leftover lead. Rita said that there had been no deaths at the factory over its 130-year history. I just saw deathtrap after deathtrap without even considering the lead poisoning that many employees must have suffered. The diver was fed oxygen by a hand pump. I cannot imagine a more terrifying profession.

We watched a movie of how the lead is melted and poured down the tower to create little balls. Then, the balls are filtered on glass steps to make sure that only the round ones get used. Sizes are filtered through sieves, and that is how it is done. There were other chemicals and polishing processes and this and that, but the basic idea is pretty simple and cool. The lead falls so far that it turns into round balls, and cools off to the point where it is solid by the time it hits the water. People are so clever!

However, when I was told that the tour included a shooting range, I thought it would be shotguns, since the place made shot. But it was airguns. on the plus side, we were given seven or so guns and ammunition. Then he left us alone to shoot at the targets. No supervision. No eyes were shot out. It was a good time, and Rita was impressed with my marksmanship.

 

After the tour, we were met by the old Latvian man who took us around Daugavpils for a walking tour. We started on Church Hill which is home to churches of four faiths all within just a block or so of each other. We started at the Russian Orthodox church which looks like a big, delicious cake. Then we saw the church of the Old Believers, which is what I imagine inspired the Latvian Orthodox episode of Seinfeld.

Finally, side by side stood two cathedrals, Catholic and Lutheran. But we only went inside the Russian Orthodox church. It was beautiful and there are no seats because everyone stands during the whole service. No wonder Napoleon never had a chance in Russia! The no-seat look does make the interior much more inviting.

Then we took a Daugavpils tram downtown to continue the tour. The trams in Daugavpils are .47 cents. Why not .50? I don’t know. Today (Sunday) they were only .22 cents. Why not .20? I don’t know.

The tour in downtown was a bit exhausting because I couldn’t understand him, and I had to use the bathroom. But we finished and went on our final museum trip of the day, the Šmakovkas museum dedicated to the official moonshine of the Latgale region.

Šmakovka is a kind of illegal homemade liquor that is popular in this region of the world. The museum was created, I guess, to bring awareness to it and maybe legitimize it? I don’t know. But we learned about the harmful effects of alcohol, the history of the liquor, and how it is made. Our tour guide was the Daugavpils answer to Mick Jagger or maybe Jim Morrison. I am not sure, but he was a cool guy.

The tour ended with a tasting of the stuff. We had four varieties including apple, oak, blackberry and coffee. I am trying to remember what it tasted like other than burning, but it is hard to describe. It didn’t quite taste like any other liquor I am familiar with. I guess vodka would probably be the closest. The oak one was almost undrinkable because of its smokiness (scotch drinkers might enjoy it). I preferred the coffee flavor even though I didn’t really taste the coffee notes. I may have to visit the mall to see if I can find a bottle just to serve to guests.

So, our busy day ended with dinner at a pizza place and drinks at a local bar. We then all took a tram to the Daugavpils Fortress and Rothko Center. We all had rooms booked, and the Latvians, even after such a long day, were still ready to party, while all this weakling American could do was crawl into bed and sleep.

In the next installment, I will share my experience at the Rothko Center and my other thoughts on Daugavpils. For now, I will just listen to this ambient jazz music and finish out my Sunday waiting for the train back to Riga. Once again, two days in Latvia feels like about a week anywhere else. For better or for worse!

Side note:

I had my first-ever Čebureks at a little lunch truck here. Rita and I were starving for some hot food, so we had this fried thing with meat inside. Maybe because we were cold and it was hot. Maybe because we were hungry and it was food. But for whatever reason, it was one of the most amazing culinary experiences of my aging existence. Thank you fried things for bringing if only the briefest pleasure to our meager lives!

Now some photos of the trip. Enjoy!