Nameja Gredzens: The Pagan King

The Pagan King

I finally saw it! This is the Big Movie for Latvia’s 100th anniversary! It is named Nameja Gredzens in Latvian and for some reason, they translated it to “The Pagan King” in English.

The Namejs ring is a common symbol for Latvians, and many of my Latvian American acquaintances. It was my first wedding ring. I have had three in my life. My mother had one. My father had one. Many of my relatives wear one. It is a symbol of Latvians everywhere, I think.

The story I was told was that Namejs was a Latvian king who was being hunted by the Swedes or some other invading army. In the movie, this force is represented by Roman Crusaders. At some point in time, Namejs had this ring as a sign of his power and his family, so the Latvians (Zemgalians in the movie) made rings to wear so that the invading army would not know who the real king was. The braided bands represent the united tribes of Latvia who came together to fight the invading armies, or so I was told.

Of course this is all legend, and the movie did what it wanted to with this idea, but for all its aspirations, it could have been so much more.

The movie is in English, which is an interesting choice. The main actor is Swedish, Edvin Endre, and is best known for his role in the popular series, The Vikings. The movie seems to try to take a page from Viking history with a few of the boat and fight scenes.

The main villain is supposed to be the bastard son of the pope who goes to Latvia (Zemgale) to gain some kind of position. The motivations of characters are left to some imagination. The movie lacks exposition and a deeper sense of meaning. But it was enjoyable for the most part.

On a side note, the theater was pretty full. The Stockmann Forum Cinema has three floors and about 20 theaters or so. People were everywhere, and it was lively and exciting. So many people and so much energy. I swear that Latvia feels like the old days sometimes. And everyone looks so stylish.

Back to the movie. In the movie, Namejs is a bit of a badass, but not in line for any sort of rule until the old king dies and chooses him to be the next leader by giving him the ring. One problem with the movie is there were no backstories or sense of exposition. It would have been nice to know more about this Namejs other than his prowess at this old rugby-like game they played.

After thinking about it, my favorite aspect of the movie was that it was stylish and well done without going over the top. The battles were small, as they likely would have been back then—a group of tribal warriors versus a small band of soldiers. If this were an American movie (like Braveheart), there would be thousands of people and CGI effects and all this slow motion stuff. Here, it was just a few people with weapons fighting. Some of it was a bit bloody, but not too terribly bad.

I heard a complaint from a Latvian that some people didn’t like the accents. And sure, they weren’t all Latvian sounding, but I don’t think that is the point. This was, after all, historic Zemgale in the 13th Century. No one knows what those people sounded like!

The Christians were not shown in a very good light. Max, the bastard son of the Pope, wasn’t really religious. He just wanted to rule Zemgale. But he brought with him a priest who only had one scene that, I think, was supposed to be a little bit funny. For a history of some of the groups who have conquered Latvia over the years, you can watch this nice little animation.

The scenery was gorgeous. A part of the movie happens in a swamp where they mock up a pagan Stonehenge-looking set. I would like to know if that was all filmed in Latvia and then go to there. There were some lovely shots of rivers, woods, and the sea as well. I cannot wait for it to warm up to go exploring the natural beauty here!

Admittedly, the movie is a bit thin in terms of the plot, but the audience applauded at the end, and the final message was very nice. Toward the end, they make the rings for all the Zemgalians fighting the invaders, so every time one dies, they think they have killed Namejs and the battle is over. Then the bad guy realizes that he has been fooled. The point was that they were stronger when they all had power rather than just putting power into one person’s hands. I wish I would have written down the final quotation from the movie.

The hope was that by making this look and feel like a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings type movie, and doing it in English with an international star in the leading role, the movie might get some play elsewhere. I do not know if that will happen, but if you get the chance (especially if you have some Latvian blood in you) give it a shot. I think you’ll enjoy it!

Another Side Note: Olympics!

The Latvian Olympic team has 35 representatives. They looked really stylish and good during the parade of nations yesterday. I watched with my students. They were pretty negative despite all of my affirmations. Latvia, being a very small country, seems to breed an inferiority complex. No matter how much I point out positive things about it, my students still seem to try to find faults. I am not sure if there is a cure for this, but I intend to stay positive!

 

 

Patterns of Light

Gaismas Raksti: Cultural Experiences

After a week of cultural experiences, I need to write something to deconstruct what I have observed, felt, and discovered.

The title of this post is based on the multimedia show we experienced last night by Shipsea, a Latvian rockstar, at the National Library, Gaismas Pils. The title of the show is “Patterns of Light” and it is meant to be the opening ceremony of the centennial celebration year as Latvia begins its 100th year of existence.

But in addition to this dose of local culture, I also went to an opera and an art show. I want to first reflect on the opera “Faust.” As some of you may know, I directed a production of “Faust” a million years ago at Ashland-Greenwood high school. Here I am, searching for any photos of this show, but it was right on the cusp of digital vs. analog photography, so I do not have any digital records of the show. Just memories. Fond memories.

The opera was basically wonderful. Tickets to the National Opera are about the same price as a movie, which just seems incredible to me. Here we saw this wonderful live symphony, and these amazing singers and costumes and set design LIVE, all for the same price as a regular old movie. The story of “Faust” is dark, I mean he sells his soul to the devil to have his youth back. But this version became even darker as the love interest, Marguerite, murders her own baby and is sentenced to death. The character of Mephistopheles was played by a bass with clown-white make up and a devilish appearance. He was just excellent to watch with his cross-dressing costume changes and weird manipulative ways.

 

Patterns of Light

Okay, so now that I am warmed up thinking about this classical form of performance, I need to reflect on the presentation at the National Library last night. First of all, I had no idea what to expect which is kind of fun. We showed up for the 8 p.m. show at about 7:40, and it wasn’t very crowded. In my mind, I was thinking because it was open seating, that there would be a line, and people would be fighting for the best spots near the stage. But there really was no stage.

My first clue that this wasn’t a regular rock concert was the way people were dressed. It was, as they say here, “posh.” Most of the crowd were older members of society in their fifties and sixties, and no one seemed to be concerned about getting a good spot. The Latvian National Libarary, Gaismas Pils, is a tall building with a large central hall that is open all the way to the top floor. It rises up, drawing the eye from level to level, narrower and narrower to the peak. The main floor is about the size of a large high school gym, but it is hard to estimate exactly because of the way the space feels–so empty and open.

 

Human Sculpture

Before the show started, we wandered around the space taking in all the fixtures as they announced that the concert would be starting soon. There was an elevated triangular shaped “stage” on one end, a giant black box in what might be called the center of the space, and some other features here and there.

When the lights went out, the music began with a small choir standing on small platforms in front of the large black box. The conductor stood high above the crowd directing the choir. The music was all in a minor key and rather dark and cacophonic. It was lovely, but there were no simple, easy to sing melodies. I would categorize the whole show as a bit challenging.

But it wasn’t just about the music. We were invited to move around the space as performance went on, and there were performers and visual elements occurring in conjunction with the music which was loosely based on the Latvian version of Jack and the Beanstalk, “Pasaka par garp pupu“. Although in this version of the story, I don’t see the devil being cut into pieces as the song lyrics seemed to say last night.

Carrying the Dead

As the music continued, people began walking up invisible stairs onto the black box, and forming human sculptures. The shapes were symbolic, but I am not sure what they all meant. And some of the actors walked slowly across the top of the box, zombie-like, and down another set of invisible steps to enter the audience. They walked among us in a trance, moving fluidly and slowly through the crowd.

Rita did not like the effect, but I thought it was mesmerizing. After awhile, you weren’t sure exactly who were members of the audience and who were performers. It made me feel that I was a part of the production. People moved out of the way as I walked through the crowd, and we all looked at each other with admiration and suspicion throughout the performance.

One of the human sculptures on top of the black box seemed to make sense to me as a man and a woman seemed to give birth to a human embodiment of Latvia. I felt like I was at an Olympic opening ceremony, and I needed Bob Costas to explain the symbolism of the movements and music.

“And here we have the birth of Latvia with the pagan traditions of fire and nature combined in a spiritual movement of music based in the folk tradition of the Livonian culture.”

 

Or something…

After the opening song, the attention turned to Shipsea who now sat in front of a synthesizer on the triangular platform with a full band. He sang new age music in a high-pitched, beautiful voice. He was the highlight of the entire performance because his music was more melodic and uplifting.

Waterfall

The evening was kind of a blur with all the performances going on in the midsts of the crowd, and on the various stages, and the movements and everything. The highlight of the night for me was when they dropped this giant screen down from the high ceiling of Gaismas Pils, and then projected a life-size waterfall which gave the illusion of us standing under the falling water. It was just a stunning production, and I felt like I was almost out of my body.

Then, the conductor stood on a platform in front of us and began conducting, but there was no choir. Voices rose all around me, and I looked around to see that the choir performers were standing in the crowd with us. How cool is that?

The show ended with light, as all the zombie-walkers returned down an escalator with light sabre-type tubes. They divided into three groups and made light sculptures that resembled postmodern campfires. The making of the sculptures seemed like a real chore as they struggled with these rubber bands holding the tubes together. They had to work in silence as the music played, and I felt sorry for them when the tubes did not cooperate. Each tube was then plugged into a main board which was hooked up to the sound system, so the lights were loosely synchronized to the music as it played. The effect was hypnotic.

After constructing the digital campfires, they sat around the “fires” as a lovely song about “gaisma” (light) played. I walked around to observe each group. I was hoping that the actors would break their zombie act and perhaps smile and enjoy the light that they had created, but most of them were still stone-faced.

“Now, the Latvians are demonstrating the three ancient tribes of the Baltic region before uniting into one civilization. They sit before the prehistoric campfires and now walk together up the staircase, celebrating the formation of one united country!”

Even as I write this, I know it is wrong because it appears there were four original tribes of Latvia, and the history is really complicated and uncertain. But I am going to stick with my analysis for now because it just makes some sense to me. Perhaps the performance was not meant to be historical or linear. Maybe it was more esoteric and sublime. Maybe it was just meant to be felt rather than understood. In any case, I felt like I was moved.

My main complaint was that the overall feel of the performance was DARK. The costumes were dark, most of the music was almost chilling, but the point of the performance was to begin the celebration of the Centennial. Why not break out of this dark, Eastern European winter with some bright performance that leaves us feeling bright, hopeful, and happy?

I do not know. I am still trying to figure it all out. I feel like just being there and seeing it performed was an incredible experience because I will never see anything like it again. And it was not something I could watch on t.v. or online because it was an immersive experience that required a personal presence. I also imagine that each night the show will be a little different because of the aspect of the crowd being a part of the performance. Where you stand, which way you look, what you pay attention to, these are all factors in the way you experience this type of show. It was quite three-dimensional… maybe even four-dimensional in this sense since time was also an important aspect. I felt sorry for the people with their phones out recording it because I do not think that watching the show would be very enjoyable.

At one point, when the waterfall was pouring down, I noticed that some of the actors were standing on platforms with one arm raised in the air. I joined them on the floor, and I really wished that everyone in the crowd would do the same. I wonder if that was the point? Were we supposed to engage and do some of the things that the performers were doing? At one point, they joined in a kinetic dance, were we intended to join along?

I do not know. I do not expect to ever know for sure, but at least I am left THINKING after the performance, and in that, the show was a certain success. I am looking forward to the rest of the Centennial and more cultural celebrations!

Some more pictures

 

 

January Beach

Ziemā Pludmales

14 January 2018

After we arrived back in Riga this afternoon, I was making up new words to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and singing aloud on Gogoļa street past the cold people waiting for a bus, carrying a pussy willow branch and a bag of driftwood from the Gulf of Riga.

I like to think that we went to the Baltic Sea today, but officially it was the Gulf of Riga. I still have not gotten to the actual “sea” yet, but there is time.

Winter has arrived in Latvia. It was -8 C today which is something like “cold” in American terms. Not as cold, mind you, as Omaha was a few weeks ago, but cold enough to freeze water and make your hands bitter. We still have had no real snow, but this morning, tiny flakes were fluttering in the air as we walked to the train station to buy tickets for Vecāķi, a small beach town just north of Riga. The name, I am told, means “old fish hook” or “old lure”; something to do with old and fishing.

Cheap Tix

Here is the best part. Tickets for the train cost 1.60 Euro. Round trip train tickets to the beach and back were under 2 Euro. I checked the chart on the train, and the most expensive train tickets, to get all the way across Latvia (to the sea for example) are 5.80 round trip. I think I paid about $200 to get from New York to D. C. back in the states.

Okay, I am lying. That wasn’t the best part, but it was pretty cool. I just need to remember that I have the freedom to walk to the train station and get on the train to go just about anywhere in Latvia for the price of a hamburger. Remind me of that next time you talk to me. It needs to sink in.

So we took the train with only one slight hitch. The ticket lady came by and we couldn’t find Anna’s ticket. It was sitting on the seat next to here when we left, and now it was gone. Rita spoke to the kind ticket taker and explained… we looked everywhere, but we couldn’t find it. Later, it would be discovered, that she had rolled it like a cigarette and placed it behind her ear. Curious.

 

After a smooth and comfortable 28-minute train ride, we arrived in Vecāķi. There wasn’t much to see as we walked past the old station and into the village. It was quiet. There were some nice houses, and some old, broken houses. There are these wonderful little hills that have formed over the centuries, apparently from the wind blowing sand in from the sea, and pine trees now grow on these hills. It makes for lovely scenery.

The beach was only about a kilometer from the station itself, and we just walked to it. I don’t know why that impresses me so much. I guess, growing up in Nebraska where there are no seas or real beaches, it was always a bit of a chore to get to any sort of body of water of relevant size. Usually, there were gates and fees. Sometimes we had to cross private property or get permission. But here, the whole beach is just clean, open, and stretches for miles and miles with this wonderfully soft and silky sand. No broken bottles. No oil sludge. No stink. It was pristine.

I had never been to a beach in winter, so this was a unique experience. I don’t know how it is on the ocean, but here, the waves have begun to freeze. We could see where the tide had been, and how it had receded, leaving the beach frozen with tracks of various people and animals (some of which I could not identify). And closer to the water, it looks like the waves have literally been frozen just as they crashed on the beach. The patterns and details were just beautiful. Enjoy the slideshow of beach patterns!

I made them all horizontal just to improve the flow. I think they work that way, too… but they are a bit disorienting. As you watch, turn on your favorite meditative music or the sound of ocean waves. Enjoy the flow. Let your heart breathe and your mind see. Peace.

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Tracks

We walked across the sheets of ice, sliding and laughing as the waves gently lapped the shore. We were not completely alone. There were some joggers, dog walkers, and other sight seers, but for the most part, we had the beach to ourselves.

Rita was on a mission to collect little sticks and pieces of nature to create some crafts for the flat. I think whatever she comes up with, it will be delightful. Anna enjoyed throwing sticks and watching them slide across the ice. All in all, it was a bit of magic until my feet and hands started to get cold. Just a little tip: If you take photos and take your gloves off all the time, then your hands get cold, and life is not as much fun as it could be.

I wish I could capture the magic of being on this beach on a Sunday in January, but the best I can do is to write these words and share these photos. My final thought about the beach was that my boots have kissed the Baltic sea… but it doesn’t sound as good now as when I said it at the time.

Pagan hut?

We walked back from the beach through the pine woods, climbing trees and looking for interesting branches and woodland features. We saw a weird hut that some people, probably pagans, had built to perform some kind of ceremonies. At least, that is what I am hoping it is for.

Then we ended up at a wonderful little cafe with a fireplace and warmth. It was the Cafe del Mar Rīga, and I highly recommend it! I ordered ribs and potatoes that came to the table looking like a work of art. Rita and Anna were both more than satisfied with their potato pancakes and pasta. Drinks, dessert, comfort… it is all waiting for you by the beach at the Cafe del Mar! Ļoti labi!

After a long, relaxing lunch the feeling returned to my hands and feet, and it was time to head to the train. For some reason, I thought we had more time than we did, but that is what happens on lazy Sunday afternoons. There is so much time until there isn’t.

I took a “shortcut” through the woods as Anna and Rita walked on the path through town. Suddenly, I realized that we had left Rita’s special stick bag at the cafe. I started jogging toward the road to catch her, and then my phone rang. It was Rita to tell me that she had left the bag. Great minds think alike, or something.

I did my best imitation of running back to the cafe to get the bag, and then checked my watch. 9 minutes to the train?!?! I again, jogged out and tried to catch up with Rita and Anna, but they were too far ahead. I was calculating the time and distance and thinking that if I hurried, we would just make it to the train. A little more jogging. A lot of heavy breathing. And yes, I caught them, and we made it to the platform just as the train arrived.

On the way back, we sat next to an elderly woman who had the most striking Latvian mittens. As you may or may not know, my cousins run a shop, Senā Klēts, that specializes in Latvian Mittens (Cimdi) and other costumes. They even have a book about them! So I couldn’t help but say, “Atvainojiet, skaista cimdi!” (Excuse me, beautiful mittens). She smiled, and told Rita that they were made by her mother for her husband, and that is why they are a bit too big. It was a lovely moment, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo. I showed her and she smiled.

And that was it. We got back to Origo in Riga, and I walked home singing my song, carrying by branches and thinking about how incredible each day can be if you are open for adventure and not scared to be a little bit cold.

My biggest fear is running out of places to go and new things to see, but I can also find beauty in the ugliness of everyday life, and I think that is a lot of fun. I will finish by sharing some photos of the walk home that are not as scenic as the beach, but they have their own beauty.

Oh, and there will be a few more beach photos in here as well. So enjoy more pictures! Have some hot coffee and relax!

 

More Photos

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

29 December 2017

This is something I have been trying to process for awhile, so I’m just going to write it out in a short post here to see where it takes me.

When I woke up this morning, I saw this article in the Omaha World Herald about the Millard South Principal who is accused of assaulting a student. My first thought at seeing his face and name in the article were, “His life is over.” If I, as a teacher, were accused of something like this, it would be hard for me to find a job ever again. Even if I were later found innocent and the chargest against me were dropped, the image of me in the newspaper with my name against that headline would be enough to discourage many future employers. I am not condoning what this guy did or is accused of having done, so please do not think that.

I found out that not all media works this way. I had my students perform translations of crime stories, and I noticed a trend. None of the stories had names. Here is a quick example from the Baltic Times. Notice that it does not include the names of the suspects. This is not an accident. My students pointed out that in Latvia, you are innocent until proven guilty. So journalists do not publish the names of the accused, but only of the convicted.

How simple is that idea? In the United States we claim that people are “innocent until proven guilty”, but as we have seen, the court of public opinion is a much more powerful force than perhaps even the justice system. It moves quickly to convict those who are accused as soon as a face and name are shown on the local news. Reporters go out of their way to dig up dirt on suspects and, if the story is sexy, they will milk it until it bleeds.

I really do not have much more to say about this topic other than the simple and clear point of how wrong it is in our American journalism to convict those on trial before a jury or judge has a chance to. I wonder if it has always been this way, and if there is any way to turn the clock back to make it so that suspects are given at least some rights? Why is it that I only had this notion after leaving the system and seeing that it could be done another way? It always makes me wonder about how many things we just assume are done a certain way… and thinking that this is the right way… only because we have never seen anything else.

 

Changing a Bike Tire

28 December 2017

If you know me at all, you know that I am no mechanical genius. However, I have come to terms with this in my own way, and I am able to fix most things around the house. I grew up with no understanding of tools. We had a screwdriver, and we had a hammer, so we were in good shape. I thought screws and nails came in different shapes and sizes, born of a can in the garage. A butter knife was as good as any flathead screwdriver, and for everything else, there were duct tape and pliers.

Since then, I have learned that the right tool for the job is the simplest response to most household crises.

But here in Latvia, the rules don’t necessarily apply.

Last night, we had some guest over, and they asked me about the difference between living in Latvia and living in the United States. My reply, somewhat to the dismay of my Latvian friends, was that everything in Latvia seems to take three tries or three times as long to get right. I used some of my bureaucratic quests to illustrate my point.

Today, I set off to change the inner tube of my bicycle which had developed some kind of leak as I was riding home the other day. The tire and tube are almost brand new. I bought a set of those little plastic levers and a new tube from my favorite store, Depo.

I have changed many bike tires in my time. The process, sometimes frustrating, usually takes about ten minutes. My bike has quick releases, and I had thought that once the tire was off, everything would go pretty smoothly. As you have already probably guessed, this was not the case.

First off, I thought I bought a presta valve tube, but it was some kind of weird hybrid that looked like a presta but was as wide as a schrader. Luckily, it fit into the hole of the wheel. I had to figure out how to inflate it a bit before replacing it in the tire. So far, everything went pretty much as planned (aside from dropping things and fumbling a few times). But then, when I tried to get the wheel back on, I could not coerce it into place. I had to go back upstairs to find this wonderful video that even had the same brand of tire as mine! Wire bead. I had never encountered this before, but with some determination, I was able to get the tire on and inflated.

Now came the hardest, strangest part. Normally, this would be easy. Just put the wheel back on, tighten it up and hook the brakes up. Done. But for some reason, this bike makes nothing easy. The wheel would not go back on. I had to completely remove the quick release for it to fit back into the slots. Then, I had to really coerce it to get it to sit properly. Then the brakes were too tight, and the tire kept rubbing on the fender. There just seemed to be no way to properly balance the wheel in place, and every adjustment I tried to make, only made it worse.

After 20 minutes or more of making tiny adjustments to the fender, wheel, and brakes, I got it back together, but nothing would completely eliminate the slight rubbing sound coming from somewhere.

Ultimately, I gave up trying to make it perfect and instead accepted the repair for what it was. Complete but imperfect. I am sure this has some deeper philosophical resonance, and I should learn from the experience. I have always just wanted to be a person with a system, who could do things the “right” way, but very few things I do are completed with perfect, precise, professional results. Instead, things are thrown into a pile, rearranged, and I hope that the chaos comes to some kind of final order. Perhaps I should stop hoping for change, and just accept this life that I have chaotically created. After all, chaos ultimately trumps order, so why fight it?

Winter Musings 2017

I will not call this my Christmas letter or epistle or whatever. I am just sitting here on a Sunday night thinking that I should really probably be writing something.

There is this interesting phenomena that I have noticed happening when you disconnect from people. When you are in the immediate circle of intimacy with a person, you know what they do in general each and every day. Their pattern of life is known to you. You share their daily work stories, their relationship ups and downs, and even the minutiae that, at the time, seems unimportant you later realize was exceptionally intimate.

These friends are few and far between and should be cherished.

Once you lose the intimacy, you are left with the occasional hello. The big picture is put into focus through updates here and there. It is the difference between watching 30 seconds of highlights on ESPN versus watching the whole game. I believe this is called, “Keeping in Touch.”

Social media was created with the promise of allowing us to be close with people from around the world. And yes, it does give us that broad picture of some of the people in our giant friend circle. It picks and chooses stories giving us glimpses into the lives of all of these personas with an image here and there to really make it feel real. But it isn’t real or truthful. The general picture we get from the social media posts is just a persona. I often wonder what people must think of me if they just read a post here and there based on my Facebook or Twitter profile? What is the impression you get from me?

More dangerous is that these tiny updates become expectations, replacing actual conversations and intimate moments. Rather than listening to one another, we simply expect others to follow our thoughts on our pages, and sometimes we feel burdened by having to repeat something that we posted. “Just read my feed!” One of my most hated phrases is, “Didn’t you read the email?” Yeah, I read it, but is it so bad to actually use my voice to ask a question? I have been guilty of saying this as a teacher, I am sure. But I have tried to be much more open to repeating myself as often as needed, because hearing a person say something is much more real than reading an email or social media post.

We talk about different learning styles, and I think I am a social learner. I used to think I was a good reader, but I am pretty sure I am awful at it. I go too fast and miss little details. But when I talk to someone about what something says, I get it. I appreciate giving my students chances to cooperate in class. ESL training really taught me the power of this social structure in the classroom. How often must we rely on just ourselves to understand? Are we in a vacuum?

The worst possibility, however, is that we are misunderstood. Sometimes I fear responding to people’s posts because I am so often misunderstood. Sarcasm and humor just do not work well when typed in isolation. A smile or a wink can go a long way to sell irony or a fun idea.

So in this reflection in the darkness of Winter 2017, I encourage you all to talk to one another, and that includes me. Maybe during our mutual Christmas Breaks, we can touch base. One of the patterns that people notice about Americans is our relative insincerity… “Let’s keep in touch!” or “I’ll call you!” we say with a smile, knowing full well that we will not do these things. If there is one thing I try to do it is to maintain a certain sense of sincerity.

Now, some fun observations?

 

I love the Christmas Village in Riga’s Old Town. I have been through the market 5 or 6 times, and I cannot resist the hot mulled wine or Balsam drinks they serve. The little shops and vendors are wonderful, and, if you get the chance, make sure to get yourself a crepe. Incredible.

I think the dark of winter affects everyone. I notice my students getting smaller and quieter as the sun goes down by the end of the school day. They do not learn well in darkness, and everyone is just a bit tired. It is kind of cool to be caught up in this pattern of life. The weather here and everything is much more gradual than in Nebraska. There are no days when it is 60 and then -10. Here, it is always just around freezing. There have been some windy days, but nothing like the Midwest. We have had a few flurries, but the snow always seems to melt almost as fast as it falls. It is very beautiful while it lasts. Everyone is tired of the grayness.

Many people ask me about the weather, and I will repeat what the locals say. This pattern of relatively warm Decembers has been on the rise. I think that most people here do not doubt that global warming has had a direct and definite impact on the climate. They have become used to it not actually freezing until January and winter really beginning in February. I haven’t done the long term research to confirm or deny their claims, but you will hear it from almost any Latvian you ask. “It just doesn’t snow like it used to.”

I bought Latvian Scrabble. I have only played one game, but it was fun. There are 30 Latvian letters, and I do not know how to spell very many words. I think that if I played regularly, I would learn. I am currently taking Latvian language lessons. I was going to type some Latvian, but it is after 10 p.m., and that is when my brain just kind of stops working so well.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts on what the purpose of life is. I keep engaging people with this question. I had a nice talk with some Latvian teenagers who were aghast at the seemingly American drive to be happy no matter what the cost. As if happiness were enough. And if it isn’t happiness, then what is it? An accumulation? Good will? Good deeds? Progeny? How do you measure a life well lived?

Maybe it isn’t a question that needs to be answered, but it’s a good way to start 2018. I am hoping to write a Christmas letter at some point, but in the meantime, enjoy a random flurry of photos!

Maybe part of the meaning is just to live to see what Laima unveils when they show us their rejuvinated clock!

Pictures!

I saw Star Wars. It was okay.

Latvian Holidays: Viva Atšķirības

The Holidays

Holiday season is upon us! So far, I have survived enjoyed a few Latvian and American holidays here in Riga. I have already written about Halloween, and this week we had a sort of Latvian/American overlap. Right now, a turkey is cooking in my tiny Latvian convection oven. I hope it is okay.

November 18th is arguably Latvia’s most important holiday, the celebration of independence in 1918 when Latvia was officially recognized as an independent nation. Prior to this, Latvia had been tossed around from Germany to Sweden and finally Russia until World War I and the Communist Revolution allowed it along with many other smaller countries to exhibit their sovereignty. Officially, it is called “Proclamation Day”. I had some nice discussions with my students about their celebration. This year, the actual date was on Saturday, so the official government holiday was on Monday the 20th of November. The week before Proclamation Day was Lāčplēsis Day which is kind of tied to the independence, so the whole week was filled with little celebrations including the 10th annual light festival!

My students said that they would spend the day with their families and have a nice formal meal with everyone. It sounded a lot like our Thanksgiving day celebration except for the fact that they would watch the fireworks later in the evening. Some of them attended the military parade in the morning.

Happy 99th Birthday

Other festivities that we took part in were a concert filled with delightful traditional Latvian songs thanks to cousin Gita. Then we walked through the center of Riga and observed the torch march where thousands of people held flaming torches listening to heavy-metal folk music before marching through the streets. We caught up with the marchers as they entered Old Town on their way to the liberty monument.

We also saw the cutting of the cake. For their 99th birthday, Riga baked a giant cake and displayed it under a tent at the park. Thousands of people stood in line for a large piece of free sheet cake. It looked wonderful, but I couldn’t justify standing in line that long for a piece of cake.

Torchwalk!

We also watched the fireworks. Our location gave us easy access to the river promenade.  A short walk gave us a nice view of the bridge. I was a little surprised at how low the fireworks shot into the air, but the variety of colors and shapes was very nice. I still put the Estes Park fireworks display as the best I have ever seen, but this one was terrific. I look forward to New Year’s!

I had Monday off of school, which was refreshing. We all went to a movie, and then wandered the streets of Riga.

Then, in my mind and heart, it was Thanksgiving week. So I have been dealing with this idea of not being with my Grinvalds’ family for this traditional family holiday. I think the last time this happened was when I was in Stapleton, and my car broke, so I spent the day in my sad little duplex by myself. Trish and Kyle had already gone home without me since she had extra time off. Bummer.

So here I was, working on the holiday and discussing it with my students. I had them share something they were thankful for, and that was very special. Then, I showed a video of Black Friday door busters to my Latvian students. I swear, this has to be one of the worst displays of Americanism in the world. When is it every worth demeaning yourself for some kind of monetary gain? Especially when it is for products you probably do not really need and will not really improve anything? It just makes absolutely no sense to me. Does anyone need a television that badly?

Then our discussion digressed to how shops are closed in the United States on Thanksgiving and other holidays. I quickly learned that Latvian stores do not close for any holidays, not even Christmas. They said that some shops may close a little early, but that is about it. They found it completely foreign and strange that any store would close on any day. And when I told them that when I was young, everything was closed on Sundays, that was a shocker.

Christmas is Coming!

This is one of those cultural moments where I suddenly realized that everything I thought was true and universal is completely arbitrary and local. Who knew?

Probably a lot of you, but that is a topic for a later discussion.

For now, my mind is turning to the 7.5 kilogram turkey in the oven, the potatoes that will not peel themselves, and the stuffing recipe that my sister Susan so graciously shared with me. It is Saturday, but since no one gets Thanksgiving off here, this is the perfect day for our celebration. As long as everyone’s health holds out, my cousin Ansis and his family members, Monta, Darta, Laura, and Norah should be here for a big supper soon! I had to track down a turkey through my British connection, and everything is ready to go! Wish me luck!

Happy Holidays to Everyone! I am sure I will have more to say come Christmas!

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A Better View of the Fireworks:

The Folding of Time: A Complex Boring Issue in a Time of Turmoil

No pictures. 18 WordPress updates. It has been awhile since I wrote anything other than emails and Facebook posts, so on this Wednesday I am attempting to get my thoughts in order.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, but it is not a holiday here in Latvia. I am, however, attempting to make some sort of celebration this weekend. I just hope that I can find a turkey.

I have been depressed lately. I may even up that to distressed. The news coming from America just continues to burn into my psyche, and the stream of noise and disillusion never seems to come to any sort of close. It just continues, getting louder and louder, more and more obtrusive and obscene. Until what?

That is the question I am wrestling with right now. I started reading this article  by Claire Dederer, but have to admit that I was unable to finish. I felt like my mind was burning as I was reading because I too deal with this issue of what happens when our artistic idols get burnt down by scandal?

I loved Louis C. K. I never thought he was a saint or moral individual. I thought he was funny, and in his comedic way, he was able to expose some deeper social truths in the vein of George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Eddie Izzard (among dozens of others). I have always admired these artists because they say things that many of us thing but are too cowardly to voice. I think that is the role of artists in any genre.—expose truth through beauty, laughter, whatever.

I am writing all of this while trying to eat grapes. The grapes here have seeds. It is a beautiful, gorgeous inconvenience.

Anyway, Dederer questions how much she can enjoy art created by people like Woody Allen who have become grotesque to her because of their actions. I have a hypothesis I want to share, and I know there are exceptions, and I am not asking you to agree with it, but please, just hear me out.

I have this meta theory about our current state of reality. I taught Humanities for many years, and in this class, we started with Ancient Greece and progressed through historical eras (as determined by, I think, historians) teaching the concepts and main ideas of Western Culture spanning over two-thousand years. The more I taught this course, the more I thought about how it was strange how these eras seemed to be getting shorter and shorter. The Classical era lasted for a thousand years. Medieval, over 500. Then the Renaissance and Romantic (with some others) seemed to last for a few hundred years. The Modern era? Less than 100. Then the Postmodern era which many believe we have already left behind after only 50 or so years.

I always joked with my students about how when I was young, nostalgia was fifty years ago, but for people today, nostalgia was yesterday. Kids in their teens are nostalgic for stuff they were doing two years ago. Dance themes are the 90s and the like. We do not even have time to reflect on the past because it is folding into the present so quickly that we just keep standing on the edge of the surfboard trying to keep afloat before all this history comes crashing down.

I see some interesting results from all of this. Right now, my students are self-aware. I was not self-aware when I went to school. I was simply a student, playing the role of a student, functioning as a good student should. One of my architecture students brought up the point that the school was designed to keep students in the school whether the students were good enough to be architects or not because it was in the best interests of the finances of the institution. My high school students also make astute statements like this about the system they are a part of. There is no more curtain. There are no more secrets. God is dead, and so are all of the people who play him.

What else does it mean? It means that we live in an age where the sins of the past are no longer a generation or two away. We could not judge slave owners just because they owned slaves because that was the way it was back then. We have relied on this logic for centuries. We allow time to become a lens for looking back at the past and not allowing the present to stain our former heroes with the sins they may be accused of today. Of course, we have gone back to try to smear them and belittle them, but for the most part, they are judged on their merits with the minor crimes of marrying their teenage cousin (Poe) or hooking up with slaves (Jefferson) go.

However, because of the folding of time, this collapse of judgements and values, our understanding of what is right, moral, correct, etc. is shifting faster than we can be expected to keep up with it. As with many people my age, I think we feel exhaustion just trying to keep up with what is right, cool, trendy, expected, and just plain normal. People in Latvia ask me if it is okay to say “Indian” when talking about “Native Americans” who, I think might now be something like “indigenous people of the Americas.” And I am aware, constantly, that I probably just offended someone. One of my students called me a “native American” because that is where I am from, and I pondered as to whether this was an okay thing for him to say? I do not know.

So like technology, where a new iPhone is introduced every 6 days, my operating system is on permanent update mode, and nobody knows what the next hot app is, morals and ethics are in crisis mode. Roy Moore did something awful. He was in his 30s trying to date girls in high school. Back when we were in school, there were guys like this in Yutan. We thought they were creepy losers, not necessarily immoral molesters. Does the fact that he was a creepy loser mean he shouldn’t be a Senator? Maybe. But it means he probably shouldn’t have been a D.A. or a judge, too. Right? Why is it so different now?

When Kevin Spacey did his horrible things, it was probably almost normalized behavior in his peer group. I am not excusing it or saying he is fine… but just that he has been caught in this time trap of “Oh shit, I didn’t die before my sins caught up to me!” And Al Franken? He didn’t seem to really do anything. One woman says he gave her a creepy kiss during a stage show, and in the photo he is just pretending to grab her boobs. It isn’t cool or smart, but again, something we might have dismissed as loser behavior that has now become uncondonable.

I do not think this whole post is about Political Correctness, although that whole movement certainly plays a part in this. I keep thinking back to the movies I grew up on. How many of them are unwatchable or will be soon? I keep thinking of this quote (and watch the whole clip if you like that sort of thing), and relating it to the Roy Moore scandal.

The other problem is the leveling out of all of this behavior like so much peanut butter on bread. Weinstein gets lumped in with Cosby and then Louis C. K., Kevin Spacey, and Al Franken?! Are they all equally sinful? We keep dredging up Bill Clinton, and even “old grabby”, George Bush has gotten into the game. When I was growing up, I heard my dad say a lot of flirtatious things to a lot of grateful women. I still remember the old lady at the Wahoo courthouse telling me how charming he was when he was dropping her lines. Now he would probably be arrested and given some shock therapy to make sure his thoughts were pure and clean.

I cannot remember all the words to use and how to make sure I do not offend anyone. I have to say that I am glad I am here in Latvia where people do not seem to give nearly as many shits about these things. I have to tell my students that they probably shouldn’t say certain words and such. I warn them that if they were in America (the home of free speech and bearer of the Freedom torch) they would get in trouble for even thinking that. I wonder why this is?

Thanks for reading. I have more to say, but there is a word limit to my expressions and I have to go back to work!

Peace.

 

Vitauts Turns 90

Have Good Living

It seems like there should be something written here about my dad who turned 90 years old on November 1, 2017. I have done some interviews and recordings with him over the years, and I used one line in the video I made for his party that stands out for me. “My father hugged me and say, ‘Have good living.'”

Dad left his farm just outside of the small town of Smiltene, Latvia when he was sixteen years, and he didn’t return for about 60 years when when he had known was already gone. But I do not think one could argue that he did not have “good living.”

I was just looking at his old photos and tears welled up in my eyes when I thought about all that he has seen and done in his lifetime. At age 45, I am half his age, and it really is hard to imagine doing this for another 45 years. Vitauts worked until he was 87. Who does that? He worked full-time at 4 different parishes across Nebraska and worked part-time at a couple more in Omaha and Des Moines, Iowa. Who can even fathom how many people he has served in his years as a pastor?

It was great to see people show up from different congregations for his party at the Yutan Country Club this Sunday. He was smiling in almost every photo, posing with people from his past who all have fond memories of Pastor Grinvalds.

I am not sure if I have unearthed any special connection to my father since I have moved to Latvia, seeking my heritage, but I have begun to understand his and my mother’s ways a little bit more. So many of the little quirks and habits of theirs seem very familiar now that I am surrounded by Latvians.

One quality that Vitauts has that is deeply rooted is his work ethic and drive. In all of his years working to raise his seven children, did I ever hear him complain? Did he ever call in sick? Was he ever not ready for his job? Even on the day I was born, the weekend his oldest son passed away, and even when Liesma died, he was dressed on Sunday doing his job. What a forgotten quality this is as we find ourselves pampered by first world problems and the constant whining of the modern world.

To look at Vitauts’ life of overcoming one obstacle after another, is to realize that human potential is about effort. Drive and perseverance are two qualities that dad exemplifies like no other person that I have ever met. To hear his stories about almost dying when he was young from a tooth infection, or diseases in displaced persons camps, or his travels across America in search of a better life is to be inspired.

So this is just a little happy birthday message from Jeff, Vitauts’ youngest son, who can only wish to be half the man at 45 that he was an is.

daudz laimes dzimšanas dienā


Latvian Halloween

1.11.17

Prologue: I have not written in awhile. I could blame this on many things—time, laziness, disinterest—but I have just been contemplating the reason that I am writing. I watched an episode of Bill Maher’s show and he was questioning why we share everything on social media. I decided to examine my posts to ask myself, “Why am I writing this? What is the point?” So I stopped writing blogs as well.

Today, I got an email from an old friend who said that my blog posts are not “oversharing” but rather historical documents that will stand the test of time to tell future generations of where we were as a people at this time and in this place. How could I not write after that?

Halloween

Just for the record, Latvians do not typically or traditionally celebrate Halloween. Many older Latvians see it as an invasion of American culture and actually shun it. Kids here, however, are beginning to catch on and at least dress up for the event.

Not halloween?

Have I told you how lucky I am to be living with a real-life folklorist who knows and studies Latvian traditions? It is just incredible, and this year, one of her main topics of study has been Halloween. She gave a lecture on Latvian Halloween traditions, and so she considered trick-or-treating a part of her research. How cool is that?

Prior to Halloween, we had seen a few signs of the subtle invasion of American traditions on the Latvian psyche. There are pumpkins and skeleton decorations on display at the Tiger store. I even ran into one scary masked person on the street the other day. At one of the many schools I teach in, students had decorated the entire floor, all the hallways, stairways and windows, with black crepe paper, effigies hung from the ceilings, bowls full of eyeballs, and plenty of spider webs. Later, they explained that this was not for Halloween, but for a 10th grade initiation ceremony. It sure looked and felt like Halloween to me!

Feeding the Souls

Latvians do have some other interesting traditions around the same time as our American Halloween. For example, I witness the feeding of our ancestor’s souls… and I have been planning to write a blog about that, so I won’t spoil it here.

They also have some tradition where they wear masks and go to people’s houses, knocking on the door asking for food, but my students insisted that it isn’t Halloween, but no one really seemed to be able to explain what it was.

 

They also have St. Martin’s day in the middle of November which involves dressing up and deceased ancestors, so it is kind of Halloweenish, right?

But unlike America, where Halloween is the 2nd biggest cash cow behind Christmas, here the stores are not covered in piles of candy, people do not buy plastic pumpkins for collecting their bounty, and nobody puts up garish lawn displays showing off their ability to inflate giant pieces of plastic. I completely forgot about the Halloween lawn decorations until I went out on Halloween night and couldn’t figure out what was missing.

In Latvia, they do not need lawn decorations because they have the real deal.

The spirits are nearer to the living here in the Old Country. I truly believe that. Weird shit keeps happening that I cannot explain, and there is just a sense of being more grounded here, more in tune to the workings of the natural world. And the buildings are scary. I swear that if you could import people to come here for haunted houses, you wouldn’t even need to do much decorating. Just have people sign a waiver, and walk around. They will be frightened.

Latvian Pumpkins

As Halloween night approached, I bought some pumpkins so that Rita and Anna could experience the traditional carving of the Jack-O’-Lanterns. Even the pumpkins I bought are different from American-style pumpkins. They are thicker, and the seeds are more full and a part of the story. Rita found one smaller, American-style pumpkin with the thin seeds and guts. But the ones I bought were strange.

Costumes

 

 

However, before we could carve them, we decided to get into costume and do a little trick-or-treating. It was totally impromptu. Rita wasn’t home from work yet, so Anna and I decided to put on some costumes. She did this really cool Charlie Chaplin, and I just put on a weird hat and my lumberjack shirt. Rita came home and joined in the fun becoming some kind of ghoulish spirit. Then things got really weird.

Rita really wanted to go trick-or-treating and had a plan to go through some of the nearby buildings to see how Latvians would respond to us.  So we went! Anna carried the bag for our treats, and the three of us were off. Like I said, Halloween is not a Latvian tradition, so there were not any revelers outside, just us. We went to the building adjacent to ours. The main door was unlocked, which seemed strange (someone had propped ours open with a rock), and then we climbed to the top of the stairs and started knocking on doors. I was impressed by the aggression and vigor of my Latvian companions. We all spoke in English to let them know that this was a Halloween thing.

When someone opened the door, we surprised them with a big, rousing, “Trick or treat!” and then spent some time explaining what we were doing. A few people were ready for us, but most of them had no idea. The basic rule was that the older the person was, the lower the chances that they would actually give us anything.

The Doctor is In!

The real fun started when we went to the big gray building that stares at us from across the street all day and all night. I have kind of fantasized about going inside. We had a running joke for awhile when someone left a light on in the top floor apartment (which I am pretty sure is abandoned). We said, “The doctor is studying again.” So here we were, at the door to the building. It was so dark that we had to kind of feel our way inside. There were no lights in the corridor or on the staircase. I had never seen anything like it. Cobwebs filled the corners, paint was peeling from the walls. The narrow stairs spiraled up and up and up. We climbed to the top and started banging on doors, but no one seemed to be home. We descended until we came to the 2nd floor where a nice man pleaded with us telling us he didn’t have anything. But we persuaded him that anything would do, so he gave us a mostly empty bag of cat food.

The biggest disappointment was on the ground floor of this building when we ran into an older woman who just shunned us and slammed the door in our face without any sense of joy or humanity. I can’t judge her. Had I seen us three in her building after a long day of work, I might have felt the same way.

Then we went to the next building, which was also disheveled beyond my comprehension. Not only was paint peeling on the inside, but the walls of the staircase had been graffitied. If you showed me photos, I would not believe that anyone lived there, but they did. I don’t think anyone gave us candy, but there were people at home. I got the sense that many of them were staring through peep holes thinking… “No way am I opening this door!” (but in Latvian of course).

Finally, we came back to our own building, and we were excited and pumped up from all of our experiences. We again climbed the stairs and started knocking on doors. On the floor below us, both of the doors were opened, and the people were young and courteous, but they had no candy. By some strange coincidence, or may a sign, they gave us onions. One of our neighbors had just come home from taking her kids trick-or-treating, so she had a bowl of candy just like in America!

The Bounty

However, It was in our own building where we got the worst shunning. My biggest disappointment was not the cookie crumbs we got from the guys on the top floor nor the browning bananas, but the double rejection on the floor just above our own. One of the doors was decorated with a lovely religious symbol like Confucianism or something like that, and we thought for sure the person living there must be chill. But both doors opened simultaneously, and the two women on either side of us took one look, and then slammed the doors in our faces. How rude!

All told, we came home with a pretty full bag of goodies. Not bad for just four buildings and under an hour. We fed the stray cat our bounty of cat food, and I used one of the onions to make nachos tonight! So it was indeed a happy Latvian Halloween! And Rita had  some good data for her research project.

Prologue: The Pumpkins

With a bit of coaxing and a large butcher knife, I was able to cut the top off of the big pumpkin I bought, and then we cleaned it out, and went to carving. I showed them how to do the basic triangular eyes and nose with some teeth. They were a bit more creative and, frankly, their pumpkins turned out much better than mine!

Happy Halloween!

We found some candles and put them in the window facing the street. I think we had the only Jack-O’-Lanterns as far as they eyes can see, and who knows, maybe in all of Riga! All of Latvia?

Sidenote: Rita just pointed out that the doctor is back! The light on the fourth floor is on. Someday, I will figure out that mystery, but it will have to wait. Maybe next Halloween!