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.


  1. I love your stories! You’re brave. I don’t think I could handle living with a person who hates me in a country where I don’t know the language. I’d probably lock myself in my bedroom and never come out.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I am hanging on every word of your adventures. What an amazing way to learn about how people live in other countries. I know I would not have survived. I have problems with change.


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