otrdiena, 2014. gada 14. oktobris

Ten interesting, surprising and strange things about Latvia and Latvians (Part two)

6. A perfect language doesn't need to change

     Latvians are, justifiably, very proud of their language, which is not, as many assume, a dialect of Russian, or even a Slavic tongue, but one of only two surviving members of the Baltic family – the other being Lithuanian. These languages are of great interest to linguists because of their conservatism; compared to most Indo-European languages, they have changed very little over the last few thousand years, and are thought to be the closest living relatives to Sanskrit. A famous French linguist even declared, in the early 20th century, that "anyone wishing to hear how Indo-Europeans spoke should come and listen to a Lithuanian peasant."
 It’s not the easiest language to pick up, what with seven cases, some terribly knotty consonant  clusters – try šaursliežudzelzceļš (narrow gauge railroad) if you want to give your mouth a workout – and a whole grammatical form for, essentially, making things sound cute. Luckily, most people in Riga speak English (or Russian) as well, so all you should really need to get by on your first trip is “paldies” (thank you) and “priekā” (cheers!).  

7. Fruit-picking, flower-crown-wearing, bonfire-making pagans

         While most Latvians have roots in the country, most are townies these days – indeed, almost half of the country’s entire population lives in Riga. But the deep connection of the people with nature is one of the most appealing things about Latvia, and sometimes extends to outright worship: the Baltic countries were the last part of Europe to be Christianised, in the 15th century, and even now boast probably the world’s most popular pagan religions. Visit the country on 23rd June, the night of the festival of  Jāņi, essentially the most important celebration of the year, to experience a pre-Christian festival in action, with all the bonfires, dancing and flower crowns you can handle.
Latvians are rather obsessed with outdoor hobbies (hunting, fruit-picking, gardening) – and it is an obsession; seriously, my Latvian textbook considered it necessary to teach me the word for “to pick berries” at the same point as I was learning “sit”, “stand” and “walk”. But this is understandable when they have such a beautiful and unspoiled country on their doorstep: Latvia is one of Europe’s most sparsely populated nations, and almost half is covered by forest. Home-grown apples will be left on the table for customers to take in many restaurants and bars in early autumn, and friends and acquaintances – and strangers – will tend to push home-grown or home-cooked products on you at a moment’s notice.

8. By the sea without Brezhnev

     Much as we love it, we have to admit that it’s pretty rare for “Latvia” and “break in the sun” to appear in the same sentence. But the Soviet Union was a very strange place in many ways, and one of these was the intensive development of the Baltic coast as a summer tourism destination. For those who didn’t fancy the Black Sea resorts of Ukraine and Georgia, the Baltic countries provided a cooler, but more developed alternative. They were really a taste of the West for Soviet citizens: a place where fashions, architecture, even alphabets were different. Estonia and Lithuania had their flagship resorts, at Pärnu and Palanga respectively, but the biggest-and-brightest was Latvia’s own Jūrmala, just 25 km from Riga. Latvians are not people to waste words, and “jūrmala” means, literally, seaside. And for generations of people, Jūrmala has been the definition of seaside; at its peak in the Soviet periodhundreds of thousands were coming here every summer. Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet Secretary-General and walking eyebrow, even built a dacha here (although apparently he never visited it). It still has a more Russian vibe than most of the country, and is still a compellingly weird mix: prettily painted wooden houses, a collection of unusually off-the-wall Soviet structures – check out the wrecked cruise-liner imitations that is the Baltic Beach Hotel – and the weirdcastle-like seaside residences of the country’s nouveau riche. Find out what Brezhnev was missing out 

9. The Latvians who guarded Lenin 

      Most Latvians don’t remember the fifty-year Soviet occupation with much fondness: after the country was invaded in 1939, thousands of Latvians were executed, many more deported, the previously successful economy was gradually run down, and the beautiful country was despoiled by tactlessly placed industry – but, despite all this, one group of Latvians does have a prominent place in Soviet history: the Latvian riflemen. This was a crack squad of local boys first createdby the Russian Empire 1915 to defend Riga from German attacks. They were alienated by the incompetent approach of the Tsar, and so many joined the Bolsheviks after the Russian revolution in 1917, being posted all over the former Empire in the battle against the royalist forces (the Whites); one particularly fear some band even served as Lenin’s personal bodyguards for a time. As many as 70,000 Latvians served in the riflemen at some point. An imposing and suitably red statue of three riflemen stands in Strēlnieku laukums (Rifleman Square) between the House of the Blackheads and the River Daugava. Other reminders of Latvia’s dark recent history include the1970s bunker-like slab of concrete that now houses the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia; the peach-coloured building at the corner of Brīvības and Stabu, once KGB headquarters; and the needle-like monolith in Uzvaras Parks (Victory Park), built to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, and still the scene for huge celebrations by one part of Riga’s Russian-speaking population every May 9th.

10. All a hero needs is bear ears

      National awakenings swept Europe in the 19th century, as the many stateless ethnic groups of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires suddenly decided they wanted self-governance, and the Baltic states (which at that time, was usually considered to include Finland) were no exception: newspapers started to be published in the native languages, and people set to work compiling folk tales into national epics. Latvia’s national epic, Lāčplēsis, written by Andrejs Pumpurs, must be one of the odder ones out there, featuring a protagonist whose mother was a bear, something rather given away by his furry, sticking-up ears, from which he derives incredible strength. With little regard for his heritage, he first proves his strength by killing a bear with his bare hands (his name literally means “bear-slayer”). Mostly though, he spends his time beating up Germans, including his nemesis, the Black Knight, sent by Bishop Albert to convert the happy pagans of Latvia to Christianity. This was perhaps a slightly passive-aggressive way of taking out their anger on the German aristocracy, but it did seem to inspire a sense of nationhood, and is still an important part of the country’s identity today. The battle for Riga against German troops in 1919 that secured Latvian independence is still celebrated every year as Lāčplēsis Day – and the character gave his name to Latvia’s highest military honour, as well as a city centre street and a (pretty mediocre) beer.

Will Mawhood has lived in the Baltics on and off for three years. When he is not learning Latvian and writing amazing blog posts, he helps Latvians improve their English with his proofreading company, Sussex English Solutions. He has learnt to love dill and the letter "s"

pirmdiena, 2014. gada 6. oktobris

Ten interesting, surprising and strange things about Latvia and Latvians (Part one) 

1. Unusuals names

       Latvians have an interesting relationship with the letter “s,” which is rather like their relationship with the herb dill: namely that they love it more than can really be explained think that it should be used at every possible opportunity. In most countries, going up to someone and saying something like “Hello, my name is Will” in the native language presents few problems. A Latvian, faced with this, is likely to react something along the following lines: “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, a man whose named doesn’t end in “s”. How can this be?” *Head explodes* As a result, when in Latvia, I am stuck with the frankly silly name of “Viljams Mauhuds.” Foreign names in Latvia are changed to fit with Latvian grammatical and spelling conventions – that means “s” endings for the men, and “a” or “e” for the ladies. Even if your name is something seemingly Latvian-friendly like Thomas, they will look at you very suspiciously, as though you are trying to get away with something, and stick on an extra “s,” just for good measure. This does at least make reading Latvian newspapers rather like attempting some kind of strange word puzzle: Vladimirs Putins isn’t too hard, but who’s Džordžs Klūnijs?

2. Crazy cake buildings

           What do you think the world’s number one Art Nouveau city is? Go on, have a guess. Paris? Barcelona? St Petersburg? Well, you’re wrong. All of them, frankly, wish they were Riga, which is blessed with more Art Nouveau buildings than any other city on the planet. These are a result of a burst of prosperity and energy in the first decade of the 20th century, during which Riga became the fourth-largest city of the Russian Empire, after only Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. The suddenly-rich merchant class decided, luckily for us, to spend a lot of their new-found money on candy-coloured constructions decorated by mythological figures and screaming women. It says a lot about the over-the-top style favoured at that time that Mihail Eisenstein, the architect of numerous Art Nouveau buildings, was known as the “Crazy Cake Baker”. Even many of the less extravagant buildings are adorned with faces in surprising places, contributing to a general feeling that you are being watched. If you suffer from even very mild paranoia, it’s probably best to give Riga a miss. If you like nice buildings, though, put it right at the top of your “to do” list.

3. Not only Baltic

     Latvia is to the rest of the world, when it is noticed at all, usually referred to as one of the “Baltic countries”, suggesting perhaps that the three countries are more or less the same – or at least very similar. This is not quite the case, although there are longstanding connections between the two countries: Latvia is linked to Lithuania by its language (related, but not mutually intelligible), and to Estonia by its predominant religion (Lutheranism) and an almost identical recent history. The people of the three countriesdid co-operate closely to bring about their independence from the Soviet Union, leading to inspiring historical events like the Baltic Way, when millions of Balts joined hands, forming a line from Tallinn to Vilnius, through Riga. And yet despite all this, when you cross borders in the Baltics, you often have the weird sense that the country you have just come from has completely disappeared – few people know more than a couple of words of the others’ language, and often not the names of their leaders or major cities. The average Estonian, for example, only knows one word of Latvian: which is, weirdly, saldējums (ice cream). Affectionate jokes are frequent, however:  Estonians are convinced, for reasons I am still not completely sure of, that Latvians have six toes; Lithuanians, meanwhile, refer to Latvians as “horse heads,” for the not entirely logical reason that they feel the country is shaped like the head of the aforementioned animal  – whether they refer to the Italians as “boots,” or themselves as “potatoes” is not made clear. 

4. Latvia 2, Rest of the World 0

    Latvia has a knack of topping online polls: in a 2012 poll by the British travel company First Choice, conducted by Twitter and Pinterest, to find the most beautiful country in the world, Latvia came first with 36% of the vote, a result that you sense the commissioners of the survey were not totally prepared for, judging by their somewhat panicked response: “Latvia is a beautiful destination, although unfortunately it’s not somewhere we send our customers.” In another victory for Latvia over the rest of the world, just-outside-the-city-centre street Miera iela was named by Skyscanner in a poll this year as “the most hipster neighbourhood in the world,” beating off rather better-known districts in London, New York, Berlin and Barcelona. Whatever the case, it’s certainly a pretty cool area: packed with cutesy cafes, vintage trams rattling up and down every five minutes and one of Latvia’s hippest clubs in Piens. Plus there is an actual real chocolate factory bang in the middle, the headquarters of marvellous confectioners Laima. The inhabitants of Kreuzberg or Williamsburg may (may) have cooler clothes or better music, but do they wake up to the sweet aroma of chocolate wafting down their streets on summer days? I think not. Whether the country’s global dominance is because of a handful of mischievous internet-savvy Latvians or a simple reflection of reality, TravelJam gives you the chance to make your own decision. 

 5. Everyone wants a piece of Latvia

    Latvians are generally, if you go far back enough, country folk. Apart from a twenty year spell of independence between the world wars, and another one lasting from 1991 indefinitely (fingers crossed) the region has always been occupied by foreign powers: Russia, Sweden, Germany, Poland. The Baltic German aristocracy tended to be caretakers for whatever group were controlling the country at the time, and also dominated the skilled professions, while most Latvians worked on the land, or at best as teachers, doctors or merchants; a state of affairs that continued until independence in 1918. One of the results of this is that almost every city and village in Latvia has a parallel German name, and often another Russian one – everyone seemed happy enough with Riga, but cities like Liepāja were also known as “Libau” (German) or “Libava” (Russian); Cēsis is “Wenden” to the Germans and “Vonnu” to the Estonians, whereas the eastern city of Daugavpils has no less than eleven names. With this history, it’s perhaps not surprising that modern Riga is a patchwork of different cultural influence: much of the red-brick Old Town could come straight from Hamburg or Lübeck; while Russia is represented by the bulbous, multi-coloured domes of numerous Orthodox churches, as well as the severe grey boxes of the Communist period. Early 20th century National Romantic structures adorned with folk motifs remind us of Latvia’s brief interwar period of freedom – only the 200-year Swedish rule left few traces, represented only by one 17th century gate in the Old Town.

to be continued...

Will Mawhood has lived in the Baltics on and off for three years. When he is not learning Latvian and writing amazing blog posts, he helps Latvians improve their English with his proofreading company, Sussex English Solutions. He has learnt to love dill and the letter "s"