Vitauts Take 32: Language Lessons

Vitauts Take 32: Language Lessons

Learning Latvian

Janis and Vitauts talking Latvian
Janis and Vitauts talking Latvian

Last night, my cousin John Grinberg came over to offer me a lesson in the Latvian language. John is a retired high school German teacher, and I think he relished the opportunity to teach again because he showed up in full Latvian Language Mode! All I could say was “I don’t speak Latvian” in Latvian (Es nerunāju latviski)… and I had to look that up in my phrase book.

Vitauts was a bit surprised to see John, and he started walking to his room as John and I sat at the dining room table for our lesson. I told dad to stay, and at first he didn’t want to, but he eventually sat down as long as he could have a beer with us, “viens alus?” (one beer).

After convincing dad to stay, I saw a side of him that I haven’t seen in awhile. He went from the dementia rattled 88-year old retiree who had just lost his dentures that morning, to the old teacher that I remember so well from confirmation classes. John would explain what I was trying to learn, and dad would correct him using phrases like “nominative case” and using Latin words to explain gendered word endings. He spoke Latvian so gracefully and was so engaged in the process despite his overly negative attitude about me learning anything.

“It is too hard, you will not learn,” he kept pointing out as I was taking notes and adding words to my vocabulary. We went through the phrase book together looking for words and talking about the nuances of long vowel sounds and accents. Dad was making jokes about stretching out the vowel sounds, and he and John were  laughing together about my ineptness. It was a beautiful moment.

John told me the story about meeting his own father in Latvia who was left behind when the Grinbergs left Riga in 1944. Arnolds was in his 80s when John met him, but he said there was a certain familiarity despite the fact that they had not known each other. His father was a mix of his grandfather Karl’s and his Uncle Ilgonis (also my grandfather and uncle). He told me about our extended family in Latvia and some of the tragedies that had befallen them. It was an eye-opening and heart-expanding conversation.

We shared some baltmaize (white bread) and after it was all said and done, I told dad to speak to me in Latvian. I pointed to the floor and said, “What is this, in Latvian?” He looked and thought, and said, “I know this, but I cannot think of it!” He was frustrated, but I opened my phrase book, pointed and said, “stāvs?” He laughed and repeated it. We threw out some Latvian numbers, and he corrected my pronunciation. Then I said Ar labunakti (good night), and we went our separate ways.

John said he would come every Wednesday to continue our lessons, and I hope to keep all of you updated. Perhaps adding some Latvian phrases each day as practice.

Labdien! Labvakar! Paldies!

(Good day!) (Good Evening!) (Thank you!)


Dad and I were at Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln and he translated the gravestone epitaphs for me… very touching sentiments.

Love never dies...
Love never dies…
We will see each other again...
We will see each other again…

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