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!