Monday, November 26, 2018

TTT: Parents and Teens

With the delightful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish moving on to other things, TTT is now hosted by just one of their contingent, That Artsy Reader Girl .  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check it out!

The topic this week is platonic relationships--friends, siblings, etc. And while I love a good friendship novel, I find that as a middle-aged mom reading MG and YA novels about characters who are my kids' ages or just slightly older, I focus a lot on those parent-child relationships. The following books contain some of my favorite and some of my least favorite parents (and parent figures) in MG/YA literature! Favorites get their covers included. Bad parents don't.

The Good
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Sáenz writes great parents, and Sal's dad takes the cake. He is kind, honest, and wise. No wonder he becomes a de facto dad to Sal's friends. He even comments on it himself: 
"Some people collect stamps. Me? I collect seventeen-year-old kids." (p. 283)

The Bad
The Dinner by Herman Koch
This book is about two families whose sons have committed a terrible, brutal crime. One of the moms ends up totally making excuses and lying for her son. I get family loyalty, but I don't think it trumps human decency. I hated the mom in Mystic River for much the same reason. Don't justify your loved ones committing senseless murders, okay? Just don't.

The Good
House Arrest by K. A. Holt
This is very much Timothy's book, but boy do I admire his mom. Deadbeat ex, medically fragile infant, and tween who's in trouble with the law. She works her ass off, loves her kids, and does not give up. 

The Bad
A Thousand Perfect Notes by C. G. Drews
Have I told you about the time my 10th graders were supposed to be preparing persuasive essay theses, and when one group said "Child abuse is wrong," I told them, "Guys, you can't use that in a persuasive essay, because there's not two sides. Only assholes would disagree with that." Whoops! But I was right, and they knew it, and at least it wasn't a seventh grade classroom. Beck's mom is pure evil.

The Good
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
Crow is an orphan, which almost made me disqualify her, since "dead parents" are such an overdone trope. BUT not only are her "found" parent figures wonderful, but her dead parents really DID love her enough to give her up, quite literally. 

The Bad
Chime by Franny Billingsley
If I can count Crow's parental figures, then I can count Briony's stepmother, who gaslit her into assuming guilt for things she didn't do. What a bitch.

The Good
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
A nonfiction mom who rocks! I was so surprised when I read his memoir to discover that it's really about his childhood, not about his ascent to stardom, and that his mom is the actual hero of the story. 

The Bad

I Hunt Killers (series) by Barry Lyga
Jazz's dad is the world's most "successful" serial killer. Jazz's biggest fear is that he will follow in his footsteps. After all, once his mom disappeared under mysterious circumstances, little Jazz started a sort of apprenticeship to his dad. Now that his dad is finally caught and in jail, Jazz is trying to overcome the brainwashing and training he received. 

The Good/The Bad
The War that Saved My Life / The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
This one is special, because it has the worst possible mother, as well as a reluctant mother figure who grows fully into her role. Ada's mother is physically abusive, but that's the least of it. She's emotionally cruel, intensely neglectful, and entirely self centered. Susan is prickly, not particularly warm or maternal, and prone to depression, yet by virtue of actually having a f*cking heart, actually demonstrates unconditional love to Ada and her brother. 

I know there are other great parents in novels, as well as terrible ones. Who comes to your mind? 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Oregon Battle of the Books

After many years of being vaguely aware of OBOB (Oh, Bob), as our state's battle of the books event is called, I decided to actually get my school involved this year. I called an organizational meeting, and we have 3-4 teams. The kids get into groups of 3-5 and between the entire group read 16 books by February. Then in February there's a quiz-show type competition. These "battles" are sponsored by the state library associations, and one reason I decided to go for it this year is that the town I teach in has a new youth services librarian, and he offered to come help run the competitions.

The selection committee tries to choose books from a variety of genres. They're all backlist books, so they are easier to get ahold of, and local libraries stock up with multiple copies of each. There is a conscious effort to include local authors, although the majority of the books are not Oregon books.

I've started trying to read all the books myself, and have run into a few issues, namely:

  • because we're competing in the 6-8th grade level, the books are all middle grade, which I don't like as much as I like YA novels
  • because they tried to include a range, there are a few that are in genres I'm not a big fan of
  • there's some diversity, but it's still a pretty white list
  • at least two of the books by Oregon authors are just not as good as other books that could have been included
Still, there are some good and even great books, and at least middle grade novels are pretty quick reads.

The books on our list this year are:

Avenging the Owl
Absolutely Almost
The Luck Uglies
I Will Always Write Back
The Body in the Woods
Cryptid Hunters
Doll Bones
The Gauntlet
My Seventh Grade Life in Tights
Small as an Elephant
The Last Apprentice
The Sword of Summer
Wolf Hollow
The Wishing Spell

The highlighted books are ones I'd already read.  Since we've started I also read Absolutely Almost (cute) and The Luck Uglies (terrific!), and tried to read Avenging the Owl (argh). I'm kind of nervous about Cryptid Hunters. Take a look at the cover:

It doesn't scream "Wendy, read me!" does it?

After years of working with young readers who were still working at connecting to books, it really is fun to have a group that LOVES reading. One girl asked me, "Is it okay if I read all the books on this list?"  Well, yes. I guess you can do that. 

I also told them I'd give prizes for team names, and my top choice is the Dumbledorks. And I asked them to rate their enthusiasm on a scale of 1-5, and one girl wrote "9 3/4!" These are my people.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Latvia's Centennial Week Post 6: Grand Finale

Thanks for putting up with me this week as I indulged in some top quality nostalgia. Today was the ACTUAL centennial of the original declaration of Latvian independence, and I spent much of the day at the local Latvian center as part of that celebration.

I couldn't fit into anyone's tautas terpas, or folk clothing, so I was going to just go with a long black skirt/cream blouse combo, but there was a last minute save when a friend of a friend of a friend brought me her mom's outfit, which was easy to layer on over what I had on. It is based on 12th century Livonian clothing, along the northern tip of the Kolka Cape. Given that I no longer look sweet and charming in the girls' costume, I was pretty pleased to look imposing and regal in this.

I'm pretty sure that's a wimple. Can only nuns have wimples? 

The kids' choir sang, and we sang. There were speeches. Lots of speeches. There was a really long speech by a sitting member of Latvia's parliament, but I used giving back the folk costume as my excuse to slip out of the room for that part. Then there was a ton of great food, which helped my 12 year old to forgive me for forcing her to come.

And, just for the heck of it, I'm leaving you with some photos of the Latvian mitten display. Latvian mittens are a thing.

In case you're curious, the other posts I shared this week were:

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Latvia's Centennial Week Post #5: Muzika


It's such an important part of Baltic culture. When the three countries broke free of the USSR in the early 1990s, it was called the Singing Revolution, in large part because dissidence was often expressed through singing national songs. The song festivals of the 19th century led in a pretty straight line to the independence movements of the early 20th.

Every village and hamlet has a choir. When I lived in Roja, a fishing village of about 1,000 people, there were easily fifty of us in the choir. When I lived in the larger town of Talsi (about 12,000 people), I sang in the woman's choir on Thursdays and the youth choir (30 and under) on Tuesdays. Again, these were no mere dozen singers, but large groups. Much of the time is spent preparing for various song festivals, from local events to the national song festival held every two or three years. Twenty to fifty THOUSAND singers gather, spending several days sleeping on gymnasium floors, attending rehearsals, and putting on huge concerts. It feels like the rest of the country is there too, either to participate in the concurrent folk dance festival, as audience members, or at the very least, sitting at home glued to their TV watching the coverage.

The first song festival after the re-establishment of independence was in 1992, and it was so overwhelmingly emotional, with so many expats coming home for the first time since childhood, that they went ahead and had another one the very next year. That was the one I got to participate in, and it was the experience of a lifetime. Parading through the streets of Riga in a folk costume, clutching a bouquet of  ferns and wildflowers, singing the whole way to the Freedom Monument was unforgettable. Singing in the huge outdoor concert hall, songs that had been forbidden for so long, with hundreds of choirs mixed together--amazing. I've lived a lot of life since then, and it remains one of the best experiences I've ever had.

Here is one of my favorite songs that we learned for this event. Gaismas Pils, or Castle of Light. This video is from the 2008 song festival, so you can also get a sense of what it's like at one of these things.

Right now I'm in a tiny, mostly elderly choir of local Latvian Americans, getting ready to sing so half dozen songs at the 100th anniversary event this Sunday. Gaismas Pils was originally on our list, but it proved a bit too challenging for our group. But we're singing another personal (and national) favorite: Pūt Vējiņi (Blow Little Wind.) The first verse, which repeats at the end, goes like this:

Blow little wind
Blow my little boat
Waft me to Kurzeme 
(the western coast of Latvia)

It is sung with longing and affection, and creates wild nostalgia even if you're singing it while already in Kurzeme. When I was in Peace Corps, the doorbell on the PC office in Riga chimed out the first few bars of the song. But when I learned the rest of the song, I was a bit surprised. It's all about a guy who's girlfriend's parents won't let her marry him because they say he's a drunk and gambles on horses. He insists that he drinks on his own money and races his own horses, so he plans to just sail off to Kurzeme and grab the girl for himself without her parents knowing.


It's not all choir music, of course.  Here are some of my favorite songs that were popular in Latvia in the early 1990s 

Kad Mēness Jūrā Krīt  by Jauns Mēness (New Moon)

One of my favorite Latvian bands, whose sound was obviously influenced by U2.

Man ir Gandrīz Viss Another one of my favorites by them, which I especially liked because I understood all the lyrics without having to spend hours with my dictionary. 

Man Vienalga Viss (It's All the Same to Me) by Bet Bet is a lighter, folksier (cornier?) type of music. The bit at the end of this video where he pauses and talk-sings something is a line that goes "women are beautiful naked," but when the crowd supplies the word naked, he tells them that is the old-fashioned version, that nowadays women are beautiful when they are wearing their traditional Latvian folk costumes--which given the 1992 setting, was an excitingly radical thing to be able to say.

Then there's the gloriously silly Kur ir Mana Lidmašīna (Where is my airplane?) by Prata Vetra, including the banter between verses where they pretend to check in about which verse they're supposed to be on.

Finally, a few haunting songs from Kaspars Dimiters,  Glāze ūdens (A Glass of Water) and Pasaule ir Tāda Skola (The World is Such a School). What can I say? I'm a sucker for singer-songwriters.

This isn't music related, but I love this photo of my friend's husband lighting the candles on their Christmas tree. Tiny tree, only up for a few days, just a couple of presents--so lovely and non-commercial. 


Thursday, November 15, 2018

Latvia's Centennial Week Post #4: In Which Wendy Shows her Ignorance

Welcome back to this special series of posts celebrating all things Latvian! In honor of Latvia's upcoming centennial celebration this Sunday, I'm running a series of daily posts sharing some stories, photos, and memories of this lovely little country. 

(Post one was about my personal connection to Latvia, post two covered the history of Latvia, and post three was about Latvian books I treasure.)

I was going to write a post about the capital city of Riga, but it was becoming too dry, so instead I'm going to share some stories of the "silly American, how did you not know that?" variety. Interspersed with photos of Riga, because why not?

The Dome Cathedral. My first night in Latvia, I was following my group down a cobblestone street, and we suddenly emerged into the Dome Square, snow falling gently al around. It was, obviously, unforgettable.

It was my second day in Latvia. My friend Carla and I, dazed and overwhelmed, had been in a training all morning. Education for Democracy, a small nonprofit organized by a Czech-American woman in Alabama, had sent three volunteers and a coordinator over the previous September, and now Carla and I and an older couple were joining their group. (And when I say volunteers, I mean we paid our own airfare and drew a local salary of about $30/month.) We would get a grand total of three days of training before heading out to our assignments on opposite ends of the country. But for now, we'd been given a short break.

We'd been pointed toward Cafe Luna, on the second floor of the corner shop on the street where we were training at a ministry of education office. The windows looked out toward the freedom monument, and within a few years that prime piece of real estate would become a McDonald's. But for now it was still a post-Soviet cafe. Carla had tea, and I'd ordered coffee (and, I assume knowing us, cake). I wasn't used to the local coffee, which more often than not was instant, so I heaped some sugar into it from the sugar bowl sitting on the table. I sipped as we chatted, but it was really awful coffee. I was fighting jet lag though, and wanted my caffeine, so I added some more sugar. Finally I blurted out, "This coffee is terrible! It tastes...salty!"

Our eyes fell on the sugar bowl.

Which was, of course, a salt bowl. 

When I returned to Latvia for a visit in 2000, I was surprised to see this statue and apparent 14th century building in what had been a bus parking lot in the 1990s. The Latvians had rebuilt this historic square, torn down by the Soviets after WWII.

I stayed for the next year and a half with a family in the tiny fishing village of Roja. They'd been asked to host me because the father was one of the few people in town who spoke English, and they had their own home. It turns out that middle aged women aren't always super enthusiastic about their husbands spending hours chatting with their 22 year old guest in a language that shuts her out, so before I knew it, I had a tense and resentful relationship with my hostess. But it was a point of pride to have me in their home, so she also shut down my few tentative attempts to find a different living situation. It's really a testament to how great the rest of the experience was that I loved Latvia as much as I did, because it SUCKS to live with someone who dislikes you. 

ANYWAY, the house itself had a downstairs where the family lived. On one side of the house was the bedroom of the tween and teen brothers, the room I was borrowing from their daughter who'd left for college, and the bath room. (Two words because it was literally a room with a bathtub in it.) In the center of the house was a sort of storage area/entry way and the toilet, which was not a flush toilet. It had a wooden shelf seat with a round wooden lid you'd remove to use the facilities. Stacked next to the hole was a tidy set of rectangles cut from the local newspaper, or occasionally the stretchy local TP. And on the other side of the house was the kitchen, which contained a coal burning furnace that provided us with heat and hot water (another reason they were asked to house me, as many apartments had little heat and no hot water), and the living room, with a couch the parents slept on. There was also an upstairs where the grandpa lived, but I never went up there, and he rarely came down. 

The house was surrounded by flower and vegetable gardens. Across the yard they had a pirts, a wood-heated Finnish-style sauna. (That pirts and their cat, Pukite, are the things I miss most.) There was also a sort of wooden wagon, like an early Tiny House. The wagon was where the bees were kept.

I was dimly aware of these bees, and I enjoyed the honey and honeycomb treats we often had. Come spring, there were an exciting few days in which Viesturs was constantly waiting for the bees to swarm, so he could recapture the queen and re-establish his hives. The boys were to call him at work so he could rush home if it happened while he wasn't around. 

"You must really like honey!" I exclaimed.

He gave me that look--the one that said, "Oh you poor little ignorant westerner!" 

"We don't keep bees for the honey," he explained. "That's just a bonus."

I still didn't get it. "Then why are you working so hard to keep them here?"

He gestured around the yard, already in full bloom. "This. This is why we keep bees. We need the garden to grow lots of food so we can eat all winter."

Oh. Right. 

Riga has an amazing collection of art nouveau buildings. This little guy was my favorite detail.

During my second stay in Latvia, this time with Peace Corps (getting my way paid, a full summer of training, and enough pay to travel around Europe as I pleased), I really was able to capitalize on the work I'd done learning Latvian, and work on building my vocabulary and improving my grammar. I had two short term host families: one during the summer training, and another while I settled into my new assignment. I loved both of these families and was treated with great kindness by them, and Aija, whom I lived with the first few months I was in Talsi, remains one of my dearest friends. Even after I'd moved into my own apartment, I visited often, and we'd curl up on the couch and chat for hours. One evening I was amazed to realize we'd been discussing our views on religion and the soul, and I hadn't even really noticed I was speaking Latvian the whole time.

The next day I went to buy a train ticket to Riga.

"One ticket for Riga at 3:00," I said.

"For WHERE?"




"Oh, do you mean Riga?"


"What time?"



So while I could discuss metaphysics with my best friend, I apparently couldn't master the simple art of buying a ticket. 

Of course, it still went better than the time Carla and I tried to buy a train ticket. In those days, the bus station people spoke Latvian and Russian, but the train station people only spoke Russian, which we weren't learning. So a friend of ours wrote a note explaining what we needed in Russian so we could just hand it to the clerk. She took it from us, then started gesturing broadly in return. It took a few seconds to realize she had assumed we were deaf and mute.

Another art nouveau gem. It's either the French embassy or the Swedish School of Economics--they were both blue and white, but I don't remember which this one is.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Latvia's Centennial week post #3: Books

Welcome back to this special series of posts celebrating all things Latvian! In honor of Latvia's upcoming centennial celebration this Sunday, I'm abandoning my usual focus on books, but for today, we'll combine the two.

(Post one was about my personal connection to Latvia, and post two covered the history of Latvia.)

Here are ten books that have meant a lot to me in my life as an honorary Latvian and 1/4 Lithuanian.

These two reference books were my lifeline during my first two stays in Latvia. Remember, this is all pre-internet, so it wasn't like I could hop on Google Translate. The Teach Yourself Latvian was a loan from an acquaintance of my dad's. (She says nearly 30 years after "borrowing" it without returning it. In my defense, I have a vague memory of trying to give it back to him at one point and being told to keep it.) It is stunningly dry and quaint, with an emphasis on agrarian terms that I found odd. It was actually pretty useless until I started to get some skills, then I could turn to it to work out how to handle new forms I was trying to master.  I found a 2009 edition on Goodreads, but mine was published in 1966.

The English-Latvian dictionary was a Powell's find. I had a two-way bilingual dictionary as well, and both books got heavy use. I'd look up the word in English, see a few possible translations, then look those up in Latvian to see which English translation matched what I was trying to say. I worked really hard at learning Latvian, and I am not sure where all that energy and focus went.  

There were not many travel guides to the Baltics in 1992. A Guide to the Baltic States was another Powell's treasure, and provides plenty of historical background. I guess there was more of that than of actual tourist information at that point! Again, the only edition on Goodreads is from 1998, but mine is dated 1990 and has the inscription, "For Dagmara, so that her free spirit may one day roam a free Latvia."

I picked Linguistics and Poetics of Latvian Folk Songs up just because it was so rare to find a book about Latvia in English. It turned out to be full of interesting (to me) essays. It was published in 1989 by McGill University in Canada by a Latvian emigrant who'd earned a PhD, and the author went on to become President of Latvia from 1999-2007, remaining one of the most popular and well respected politicians of their modern history. And I was all, "Wait, I read a book by her!"

Latvian knitwear is lovely, and yes, mittens are a big cultural thing. It's cold there, okay? Latvian Mittens is a great English language book that teaches all the fancy techniques. I learned to knit in college, and when I first went to Latvia I would pull out my knitting in the teachers' lounge to make myself seem approachable. It worked a charm, as the home ec teacher could not stop herself from coming over and showing me the "right way" (European way) to knit. 

The Exiled Heart by Kelly Cherry is an American poet's memoir of her 25 year affair with a prominent Latvian composer. There's an annual festival in his honor, and in addition to symphonies and the like, he wrote several pop songs that were wildly popular when I was in Latvia. Her book was pretty controversial there, given that he was still married to his wife when she published it. It was so interesting for me to read about her impressions visiting Soviet Latvia in the 70s. I had this book in English too, but I think I loaned it to someone at some point. 

 Song has always played a huge part in Latvian culture, so I would be remiss to not include one of my songbooks. Not to sound like an old lady, but I feel like internet culture has created a sense in many people that if you're not great at something, you suck at it. Case in point: many people won't sing in public because they don't think they're good enough. But in Latvia we sang all the time. Birthday party? Sing. Bonfire? Sing. There were choirs in every town and village, but even people who didn't join the choirs sang at the drop of a hat. Many of my fondest memories of Latvia involve singing along with my friends. Song collections such as the one pictured above made it possible for even foreigners who'd neither knew the tune nor understood the words to pick it up after a verse or two.

And yes, if you haven't read Between Shades of Gray yet, please do so. Ruta Sepetys's historical fiction takes a national tragedy that is barely known outside of the region and makes us all care deeply.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Latvia's Centennial Week Post #2: History of Latvia

In honor of Latvia's upcoming 100th anniversary, I'm running a series of posts all week to share with you everything you never knew you wanted to know about the small Baltic country. My first post was about my personal connection to it (long story short: I lived there for about five years total in my 20s).

Today I'm going to give you a crash course in Latvian history. Like, the super short version, because I don't want to be boring. But not TOO short, because that's just like a Wiki article, and those are kind of boring too. Bear in mind that learning about one Baltic country means you're going to learn about all three of them. (Also bear in mind that the Baltic countries are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and that they are a thousand miles away from the Balkan countries that had a civil war in the early 1990s.) All photos in this post are from Wikimedia Commons. The information is presented as I understand it, but I make no claims to scholarship or infallibility.

Europe with Latvia in red. Estonia is north, and Lithuania is south.

The Baltic shore was settled over ten thousand years ago by nomads from the south. In fact, Lithuanian is the oldest living language with ties to Sanskrit, and Latvian is essentially a slightly more modern development of Lithuanian. (Estonian, like Finnish and a dying language from one coastal region of Latvia, is related to Hungarian. Go figure.) People settled in, fished in the Baltic, farmed the flatlands, and traded the amber that washes ashore on the Baltic coast in greater amounts than anywhere else in the world. Centuries went by, and the Duchy of Lithuania consolidated power until at one point in the 13-15th centuries it (nominally) controlled land from the Baltic sea to the Black Sea.

As Christianity swept the continent, the Baltic states held firmly to their multi-theistic, nature-based religion. It wasn't until the Teutonic knights finally conquered them (after trying for a really long time, mind you) in the 15th century that the area converted to Christianity, and even then, it was mostly a political move, with the peasantry largely continuing in their old beliefs. Later, Catholicism took firm hold in Lithuania, which means that Lithuania is a more Polish influenced country than the other two. Estonia and Latvia were less enthusiastically Lutheran, which means they have a Scandinavian flair. 

The 15th-18th centuries were an era of small duchies and kingdoms throughout mainland Europe. The larger nation states we know today didn't really start consolidating until the 1800s. The Baltic states had been taken over by Russia as Peter the Great tried to turn Russia into a western country and to acquire an ice-free port for shipping purposes. But the waves of nationalism washing over the continent started to buoy the people of the Baltic states. They continued to speak their own languages, celebrate their own customs, and identify as their own specific people. An Swedish university had opened up in Tartu in the 1600s, but in the 1800s they added courses in and about the Estonian language. The first national song festivals were held in Estonia and Latvia in the late 1800s. More and more, the three Baltic regions were feeling they deserved to have their own independent countries.

World War I, like WWII, was tough on the Baltics, sandwiched as they are between Germany and Russia. But with both countries weakened by the bloody war, they saw their chance to strike for independence. By the end of 1918, all three countries had declared themselves independent of both German and Russian rule, and while it took a few more years for the international community to accept them fully, all are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year.

Riga, 1919

Riga now

The era of independence is remembered fondly, although all countries were possibly slipping from democracies to strong man dictatorships by the beginning of WWII.  That war was a nightmare, of course. About 90% of the Jewish population was murdered, an especially significant figure in Lithuania, whose capital of Vilnius was known as "Jerusalem of the north" for its high Jewish population.  Germany invaded, Russia invaded, Germany invaded, Russia invaded and then stayed. On June 14, 1941, a wave of deportations to Siberia reached their height, with tens of thousands (about 50,000 total during that time period) picked up in the middle of the night, put on cattle cars (sound familiar?) and sent to Siberia.

Nearly every single person I met in Latvia in the 1990s had a family member who had been deported. Many never came home, though many did under the mild reforms of the Khrushchev era. I also talked to many people whose fathers and uncles had hidden in the forest or under a false floor in the family barn in order to avoid conscription by both armies. As the war ran down, thousands more fled to the west, setting down roots in Germany, Australia, Canada, Argentina, and the U.S.

If I went fully into the Soviet occupation, we'd be here all day. I'll give you a few images to paint the picture: community housing where several families shared a kitchen and bathroom. Mandatory Russian language for all. My friends in the fishing village I first lived in could only have out of town visitors (like, their mom from inland) if the visitor filled out an official request and got approved--because it was conceivable to get to Sweden by boat from their coastline. For the same reason, the shoreline was raked smooth every evening, spotlit all night, and inspected every morning. In the English language textbook used nation-wide, there were gems like "Everyone knows there is no racism in the Soviet Union," and "The most interesting fact about London is that Karl Marx studied in the British Library there." Soviets didn't smile at each other on the street, because your personal space began and ended at your own skin.

The Soviets maintained the fiction that they were there by invitation. Indications that the populace wasn't buying it were quickly and firmly squashed. There's a lovely statue in Riga, a monument to freedom that was paid for partly by donations from school children in the 1930s. Newlyweds laid flowers at its base, as did graduating college students. The Soviets re-routed a street to run on either side of it, and a few blocks away built a hotel that loomed higher than it. Some students still tried to sneak out in cover of darkness to lay flowers at it on graduation night--and those that were caught were jailed. The song festivals continued, only now the choirs were given lists of songs celebrating the Soviet people, the leadership of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin, and the worldwide Communist movement. Still, when you gather some twenty thousand singers together, with two or three times that many audience members, when the concert is over and the conductor ostensibly turns his back, what can you do if all fifty thousand present start spontaneously singing well loved Latvian folk songs?

The freedom monument in winter

The 2008 song festival in Riga

So they hung on. They whispered the truth to their children. They survived.

And then came Gorbachev, and perestroika. More communication with the west. Less sense of terror. On August 23, 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrof pact that had divided the countries of Europe between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, some two million people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania held hands to form a human chain from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius. This wasn't the first popular demonstration, but it was the largest by far. The Berlin Wall came down in 1990, and the Baltic countries started the process of breaking away from the USSR. In early spring, first Estonia, then Latvia, then Lithuania declared their reinstatement as independent nations.

The USSR said that was illegal. In January of 1991, Soviet tanks rolled into all three Baltic capitals in a show of force. The people responded by building barricades around communication centers and places of government, and manning them mostly unarmed. There were a handful of civilian deaths in Riga and Vilnius, but all-out warfare was avoided, in large part because the resistance was ready to sacrifice themselves in order for the world to see what was really going on.

Lithuanian memorial to the Baltic Way protest

There's haunting footage from a cameraman who was filming the scene in downtown Riga and got hit by a stray bullet. The camera drops into the snow, and you hear the man's dying words--"keep filming."

The failed coup in August of 1991 was the final push towards the USSR, and then Russia, recognizing the independence of the Baltic countries. Their armed presence lingered for years, and their influence continues to be an issue. With Putin's power and disdain for international and humanitarian law, there's no guarantees for the future. There have been ups and downs. The government struggles with ongoing corruption, and there's a brain drain as the best and brightest young people leave for other countries. On the other hand, membership in the E.U. and NATO created both a sense of pride and of greater security.

Riga, beautiful Riga

What comes next for Latvia and her sister nations of Estonia and Lithuania? They have the same troubles as always--the combination of a small size and an attractive location make them targets for stronger countries. Fifty years of Soviet rule left a culture of mistrust and corruption. But they've survived for centuries with flourishing customs and culture. I'm optimistic.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Latvia's Centennial Week post #1: Wendy's Baltic Connections

I'm doing something out of the ordinary here on Falconer's Library this week. Instead of the usual bookish delights and nonsense, we're spending the week on a deep dive into the small Baltic nation of Latvia. Why? Well, the short answer is that next Sunday, November 18, is their 100th anniversary (sort of*). The long answer, in which I explain why this matters to me so much, will occupy the rest of this post. Tomorrow I'll treat you to a whirlwind crash course in Latvian history, Wednesday will be a list of related books, Thursday will be Riga day, Friday will be song day, and Saturday we'll cover food.

That's the plan, anyway. It's also possible I'll just tell a bunch of stories.

My grandpa on my mom's side was born in Lithuania in 1903. His father and uncles had already left for America, and shortly after his birth, his mother brought her two children to join their father in a logging town in Oregon. They were economic migrants, seeking a better life for themselves and their children, and they worked to assimilate. The boys learned English as quickly as they could, and their American born sister never really learned much Lithuanian. No Lithuanian traditions were passed on to the next generation.

My Lithuanian great-great grandparents in a photo they send my great grandma in 1922. We are peasant stock for sure.
My great grandmother holding my great aunt Julia, my great uncle Sam, my grandfather, and my great grandfather. Oregon City, OR ca. 1910.

All the same, I grew up knowing that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had been independent countries, that the Soviet Union had overrun them in the 1940s, and that the US had offered no help. At college I wrote my senior thesis on the Lithuanian independence movement that led to the 1918 declaration of independence from Russia. I then graduated with a degree in history and no idea of what to do next. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and my friend Carla and I both started looking into teaching in Eastern Europe. She called me one day to say she'd found a program sending volunteer teachers to Latvia, and wasn't that next to Lithuania? I agreed that it was close enough to be interesting. We both applied and got in, and in January, 1992, I flew into the Riga airport for the first time.

Visas were issued at the point of entry. There was a school group in front of us, some dance team touring the Baltic States, and they got a visa for a week. Then it was our turn. "How long will you be staying?" asked the customs official. 

"Um...a year?" I told her. I wasn't entirely sure if I'd be there for six months or one year (spoiler: it turned into a year and a half that time).

She looked up from the paperwork, astonishment wiping all professionalism from her face. "A year?" she exclaimed. "HERE?!?"

Carla and I in our friend's Riga apartment. I'm holding a can of cocoa. I don't know why.

Westerners were not exactly common in the Baltics in those days. I was assigned to teach English at the K-12 school is a small fishing village, and people literally gaped at me when I walked down the street. Children tugged on their mothers' coats and pointed. My own host brothers spent several weeks bursting into giggles and running from the room when I came in, then peeking at me from around corners. I couldn't really communicate with anyone very well in Latvian yet, so it was like being a very stupid celebrity. Still, when I did manage a "Paldies" (thank you) when offered a cup of instant coffee, I was met with enthusiasm. "The Russians have been here for fifty years without learning a single word, but you've only been here two weeks and already you're learning!" My friend Carla, assigned to a more industrial town in the opposite corner of the country, joked with me about how often we heard variations of this, although she lived in a more Russian dominated region. The other line we kept running into was "Two years ago we all would have been arrested for this!" with "this" ranging from singing a patriotic song, to flying a tattered flag (hidden in the attic these past fifty years), to placing flowers at the freedom monument, to walking along the beach after sundown.

In many ways life hadn't yet changed much--consumer goods were hard to obtain, a system of bribery and favors, called "blatt," still remained, and the most common languages in my village were Latvian, Russian, and then German, with only a handful of people knowing more than a few words of English.  The blockades were still up in Riga from the last show of power from the USSR in January of 1991. Children were excused from school during potato harvest, and my host family was astonished and entertained to find I'd never actually dug potatoes before. While I'm not dumb enough to think milk is made in a factory, I have to admit I'd never realized there is a potato harvesting season (late September/early October, in case you were wondering). And the day I spent picking potatoes from the ground with my host family at their elderly aunt's country home was the single most grueling day of my life, including the times I've climbed glaciated peaks.

I stayed there all that spring, learning Latvian and learning how to teach. I traveled in the summer, but also spent more time on the shores of the Baltic, and the next fall I added to my teaching load. When my open-ended ticket expired that winter, I applied for a grant to come back and finish out the school year. When I finally got home in the summer of 1993, I immediately applied for Peace Corps, and returned the following summer for a two year stint in the county seat of the village I'd first lived in. Another decade went by, and I came back to Latvia one more time, this time with my husband in tow. We spent a year in Riga, the capital city, on a teaching exchange. 

And a few years after that, we flew to Vilnius Lithuania to meet and bring home our children. While adopting from Latvia would have made one kind of sense (like, I know the language), my Lithuanian heritage actually made it easier to adopt from there instead. It also felt right, somehow, to bring home children who share my background to some extent.

Remember how I said no Lithuanian language or traditions were passed down? In the 1990s my parents came to visit me, and we spent several days in Vilnius, the city mom's dad had left from so many years before. One day she pointed at a sign across the street. "That's a bread shop," she confidently informed me. The sign said, "Duona." I knew that in Latvian that means crust, so I figured she was on to something. "Dad used to say 'Dod man duona' for 'Pass the bread.'" she explained. We checked a dictionary, and she was exactly right. Across some fifty-plus years that memory had just popped into her head. She died before our kids came home, but shortly before her death I was able to show her that sending in the birth certificates of me, her, and her father had successfully proven my ancestry to the Lithuanian government, which then approved our petition to adopt.

Lithuania, then, is the country of my ancestry and of my children. Latvia, though, is the country where I became an adult. I mastered a new language with little but a very dry grammar book and a willingness to sound stupid. I discovered my career. I earned my own money and bought my own groceries. I adjusted to washing clothes in the bathtub and only having hot water on Wednesday evenings and Sundays. I lived 18 months with a woman who disliked me, and learned how much better it is to be alone.  I scrubbed floors, rode buses and trains, and organized a Hungarian-Latvian exchange camp for English learners. I celebrated Christmas with the daughter of a man who later became president of Latvia, and I confiscated the mobile phone of a boy who wouldn't stop using it in class, only finding out later that his dad was the prime minster. I visited fortresses and drank birch sap, skinny dipped in the Daugava River, cross country skied through a birch and pine forest, and sang in three different choirs. My years in Latvia made me who I am as much as my childhood did.

*It's the 100th anniversary of the modern Latvian state, which was declared on November 18, 1918. Latvia existed long before then as a culture and people, and then they were occupied by the USSR for nearly fifty of those one hundred years.