When Cultures Clash: Spain vs. Latvia

Spain vs. Latvia

One great thing about being an American in Latvia is that I get to sit back and just observe the way the world works with a whole new perspective. I get to watch people, like an anthropologist, and make notes about what I see. Today, I witnessed the clashing of tribes—a showdown of European cultures just about as far apart as you can get and still be on the same continent—Spain vs. Latvia.

Senā Klēts

The show began at Senā Klēts, the shop that Monta runs where they design and sell traditional Latvian costumes in a very authentic and beautiful way. I was in Riga all day working at the school and meeting Rita for coffee, and so I arranged to get a ride home with Monta. The shop closes at 7 p.m., so I hustled my way across town to meet her just as she was locking the doors. As with any business, she had to close out the register and do some math. Then, along with her workmate, we headed for the exit. Just as we were leaving, these women started knocking on the door begging to be let in. They pointed at their watches and said, “5 minutes, just 5 minutes!” They even did the prayer gesture emphasizing their desperation to enter.

They hastily explained that they were from Spain and had just finished a photo shoot. It ran a little late, but they wanted to make sure they visited the shop before they left. “I love places like this!” one of the woman exclaimed.

Spanish Hurricane

The clash of cultures began as soon as they entered the store. There were three Spanish women and they were being shepherded by a young Latvian woman working for a travel agency. The Spanish women dropped their bags wherever they were and began grabbing costume items from all over the store. I got to sit back and watch as Monta and her workmate tried to maintain their composure as the Spanish hurricane, as I aptly named them, tore up the shop.

Mannequins… do not touch!

In the shop, there is a special display with costumes from all over Latvia on mannequins. These are for display only, and if a person wants one of these items, they have to order it to be specially made. Not knowing that, one of the women just walked right in and took a hat off one mannequin and tried it on. When Monta’s workmate saw this, she walked right up to the woman and took the hat off and explained, “This is not for sale.”

“I have a very large head.”

“Do you have these in other sizes?” The other woman shouted as she pulled skirts and belts off racks grabbing this and that willy nilly. “No,” Monta explained carefully, several times, “we can make adjustments, but it takes a few days.”

They tried on hats, mittens, scarves, skirts… just about everything in the store. 5 minutes turned to 10, then 20 and when it was all said and done, 45 minutes had gone by. Monta’s poor workmate just looked so sullen. I wish i would have taken a photo of her.

The good news is that they actually did buy some of the items, so it was worth the time. The highlight for me was when the older of the two Spanish women took off her pants in the middle of the store and just started trying on clothes. She did not care at all that we were there. Incredible! Latvian modesty be damned!

Thank goodness!

I snapped a few photos because the whole thing was just too weird. At the end, I chatted with the older of the two woman a bit, and she gave me her business card. She worked for the Spanish fashion magazine, Hola!, but that didn’t mean much to me. So then she showed me her Instagram and said, “I spent the summer with him,” showing me some photo of some older man with cool sunglasses. I clearly didn’t recognize him, and it wasn’t until hours later that Ansis and Monta figured out that I should have known who he was. Then she said, “We spent time on his boat,” and she showed me a picture of an incredible yacht. “Cool boat!” I said.

Samy

Then the other woman gave me her Instagram account name @samyspain which I read as “Samys Pain”, but when Ansis read it as “Samy Spain” it made a lot more sense.

After they left, and Monta and I returned to Sēlieši, I did a little research. We found out that the woman who took her pants off and showed me her pictures was Naty Abascal, a fashion model who is pretty well known. She was once a duchess for goodness sakes. And the man in the photos? Valentino.

Samy turned out to be a famous chef from Spain, Samantha Vallejo-Nagera. When I looked them up on Instagram, I saw that Naty had 144K followers, and Samy has 280K. Well done.

So when we told him, Ansis just laughed and laughed about the poor Latvian peasants and ignorant Americans for not recognizing these famous people who are probably recognized everywhere they go in Spain. Monta and I agreed that it was probably refreshing for them to be treated like normal customers. But I feel like Naty just wanted me to know who she was… especially when she showed me Valentino.

Oh well, live and learn. So that is my little brush with fame all the way in Riga, Latvia.

 

Earthiness: A Reflection

Zeme: Earth

As I become more acquainted with my mother and father-land, I am trying to put it all in some big picture perspective. What is the big takeaway? What am I learning about myself and life in the process of relocating to Latvia? The short answer is that I do not know, but one thing I have noticed is that Latvians are much more “of the earth” than the Americans I am accustomed to.

 

What do I mean by “of the earth?” I am glad you asked.

Not the edible kind

To illustrate the point, when Rita and I went hunting mushrooms in the woods, she knew which mushrooms were which. She knew how to pick the right ones and discussed how to prepare them once they were picked. Rita grew up in the moderately sized city of Cēsis, and has lived in Riga for much of her life, but she knows the berries and the flora that grows in the woods of Latvia. I know she would simply respond by saying, “of course!” It is so obvious. And that is the point.

 

Explaining the Merits

Ansis and Monta are much the same. At every meal we share, they discuss the various fresh produce that they have gathered. They know when it is ripe, where it comes from, and what to do with it when it is procured. They also know what is good for what, as in “this is what you drink in winter because it has nutrients.” Ailments and cures are discussed as a part of a person’s daily diet habits. They all seem to be way ahead of the curve on the American farm to table movement and the push for what we call “alternative medicine.” They are aware of the seasons, the passing of time, and the natural processes of life and death.

I do not want to get all romantic about this and suggest that there is some kind of superiority in this way of life. And I do not want to you to read too much into what I am saying. I am just making an observation about the people whom I have had the pleasure of interacting with in Latvia.

Rita Picking Grass

Last night, I went to the “night market” in Riga. This is there version of the farmer’s market where locals come to sell their produce. It is just a beautiful sight. Dozens of vendors with fresh vegetables at incredible prices, and you know these come directly from their farms… not shipped in from some other faraway place posing and locals. Each item states proudly that it is from Latvia. I bought some veggies last night, and I just keep thinking how the woman added up the prices in her head as I kept adding this and that to my order. No paper. No calculator. Of the earth.

 

This website speaks to my general thesis. The country is mostly unspoiled. As you drive across the country, the roads wind through untouched forests and fields. You do not see bulldozed swaths of land cleared for another housing development. Even where houses are built, the trees and grass stay as undisturbed as possible. Old buildings are renovated rather than torn down. Recycling isn’t just a fad, but a way of life as things are rationed and saved for repurposing. Ansis told me about saving something completely disposable that may once again be used for something else later. We had a nice talk about how my parents were both like that… and I always thought it was a wartime thing, but maybe it’s just another Latvian thing. Waste not, want not.

One more quick illustration is that we do not have a microwave. Monta says they are unhealthy. I have not had a processed meal of any kind since I have lived here. No frozen foods. Refrigerators and freezers are generally very small because they like to buy fresh food. Walking is not an issue. Carrying things is common.

It’s not a paradise. No place is perfect, but I find this concept of living in touch with nature, your body, and the seasons to be practical and rewarding. There is definitely a spirituality behind all of this.

A Latvian Working Stiff

Darbu

25 August 2017

Celebrate!

I am sitting in my old friend, the Beer House having a celebratory IPA and fish and chips while pondering my future here in Latvia.

Today I signed a contract for a half-time teaching job at Gymnasium 2 in Riga, Latvia. Rita tells me it is where her heroine, Anna Bērzkalne was a teacher back in the day. The school is what I call the “Westside” of Latvia. It is prestigious, but instead of AP classes, they focus on their International Baccalaureate program which is taught all in English. They need someone to teach the Theory of Knowledge course, which sounds wonderful. I will also be taking on debate and IB English for 11th grade.

Gymnasium 2

So far, everything is a bit confusing, but I am hoping it will come into focus by the time school begins next Friday! The headmaster, Guntis, and my colleague in charge of the IB program, Inga have been wonderful so far, so I look forward to working with them for the next 9 months or so.

I will, of course, keep you updated on the ups and downs of teaching public school in Latvia. My expectations are off the charts because I have absolutely no idea. They tell me the students are highly motivated and very good at speaking English. Weļl see what all that means.

wow!

I still have to figure out how to make my accreditation valuable here in Latvia, but the headmaster thinks that will not be a problem. He does need documentation to prove that I am a teacher… and I am not sure which documents to use. I showed him my transcript and my certificate, but I think he wants my diploma. I have my UNL Masters diploma, but my Midland one was not found. We will see what happens from here.

Peace to you all!

 

Wish me luck!

 

 

Piebalga: A Trip to the Past

Piebalga

August 19-20

Beer map

This weekend, Rita invited me to join her for the last day of her folklore collecting project in the region of Latvia known as Piebalga which is right in the center of the country. This is a map of beer breweries throughout the country, and you can see Piebalga to the east. When I rented a car (another story that I will not tell), I told the man where I was going and he asked, “To drink beer?” So I guess it is what you do when you go there.

I told him that wasn’t my intention, but some beer might be consumed at some point in time.

I drove across Latvia on Saturday without any major hiccups. I just had to figure out exactly where Rita and her people were staying. She was in a schoolhouse in a tiny town called Ineši. But there was no address, so I just drove through the town until I saw her daughter, Anna, waving me down.

Shortest River in Latvia

As the head of the Archives, Rita has many duties, and she was busy getting ready for a reception, so I took a walk to the Veikals with Anna and bought a bottle of the infamous Piebalga brew. It was a bit sweet, but drinkable. So we walked around the grounds of the manor, swung on a swing, and discussed some of the people she met on her story collecting trip. She told me of a gypsy woman (her word, not mine) who was going to tell her her fortune using a regular deck of playing cards. So Anna was carrying cards around, just in case this woman came to the reception. She also told me how this same woman pretended to be a man during the war because there were no men to dance with. It was an interesting story that either ended in violence or accolades… that part was hard to figure out.

The Manor

The reception was lovely. It was held in a beautiful ballroom of this old manor built by some Russian lord. We had seats for 50 or so people, but only about twenty were there including all the folklore collectors that were a part of Rita’s group. It was rainy, so that likely discouraged the locals from making the trip. Most of them don’t drive, so they would have had to find a way to get there. But we had a great time! A family of folksong singers came with their accordion, and everyone sang songs. Then we had coffee and some nice finger foods. Presentations and gifts were exchanged. The whole thing just felt right.

 

Turning on the Lights

It felt right until the lights kept going out leaving us in almost total darkness. Each time they went out, Aigars or Rita had to enter a code to make them turn back on. Here was my joke for the evening without a punchline… “How many folklorists does it take to turn the lights on?”

 

 

 

The Fool

Then Rita invited me to the “after party” with her and her colleagues. This was also a traditional part of their outings. We gathered on the second floor of the schoolhouse where I learned how to play a Latvian card game called “The Fool.” Then, Aigars showed up with his button accordion… he called it a “harmonica” of some kind. I someone will tell me I am wrong and tell me the official name. He is a fantastic player who knows so many songs by heart that it is almost unfathomable. It is his specialty, but still… impressive.

 

 

Aldis, Rita and Aigars

He would start a song, and then most of the folklorists would join in and sing. Sometimes, they would forget a word here or there, or how to start the next verse, and someone would jump in and keep it going. Aldis performed a few solos and showed off his vocal prowess. It was an incredible event, but by 23:30, I was feeling overwhelmed, and tired, so I retired to my English classroom where I slept on a thin mattress on the floor under the loudest clock in the world. When I can hear a clock tick in the middle of the night without my hearing aids in, then you know it’s a loud clock!