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.


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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 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!


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!


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…