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.


  1. This is so cool! I don’t know very much about the Baltics. I like your photos. I wish I had more photos of my great grandparents. I know that they were part of a minority group in Russia, and they spoke Russian and German. That minority group barely exists now because Stalin killed almost all of them. I think I’ve only seen 1 photo of my great grandpa. It was taken in the bakery he started after he came to the US.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. This is so interesting. I am endlessly curious (we will go with that. It sounds better than nosy) about people and their stories. What amazing experiences you have had in your life. I'm looking forward to the rest of the week's posts.

  3. Wonderful stories! What amazing journeys life takes us on.

  4. Wow! You have really done some amazing things. What a wonderful way to get in touch with your roots too.

  5. Love this post and hearing more about your background! Can't wait to read more this week!

  6. WENDY, this post is all kinds of awesome! You have basically the coolest stories ever, first of all. Second, I just LOVE all the history you have with the whole region! The pictures are INCREDIBLE too- I just am at a loss for words, looking at more than 100 years of family history, wow. Just wow. (I might also be cackling at the prime minister's kid bwhahah.) Thank you SO much for sharing this with us, I have to go read the other posts now!

  7. I love this! Thanks for telling us about your connection to this place that so few of us in the US know anything about!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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