The Blog Police: A Conversation.

Mom: Don’t you have to close your Latvia blog?
Me: Close it?
Mom: Yes, don’t you have to shut it down?
Me: Why would I have to do that?
Mom: Well, you're home - you're not an American in Latvia anymore.
Me: So the blog police will come to my house and demand I close my blog?
Mom: I don’t know how the blog police work. Maybe.

(Note: Conversation reconstructed from actual dialogue. There will be no shutting down of this blog, unless there is an unexpected raid by the blog police.)

Viss Labi, Kas Labi Beidzas - All's Well That Ends Well

4:29 AM Posted by Allie 2 comments
Most of you already know this, but I shall repeat it for those of you who don’t: After six months in Latvia, I was sent home as insurance no longer will provide coverage. I've been putting off this post for a long time under the notion that if I wrote an official “final post”, it would make everything that’s happened real. I gave myself time; it's been nearly a month since I've been home. Has it really been that long? I suppose it has. I've not done much of significance - lots of writing and catching up with friends and the DVR. Come April I will be taking Russian at a community college to earn credits and ensure that I enter at the highest level next year. I'm also searching for an internship in a field like arts administration, although my search has been a tad stalled and I probably should expedite that process. Soon I'll be getting my driving permit renewed (the thing expired while I was abroad), and getting my tonsils out. (Those were listed in predicted chronological order, for those of you who care.) All those interesting tidbits are beside the point. The purpose of this post is to set the record straight on why I had to leave Latvia.

It was my fourth and final stay in the hospital (see "Where is Your Baby".)  Frankly, I was over it. I was over the "medical rules" that had no foundation in science. (The newest "rule" I learned: if you have a fever, it is horribly dangerous - therefore forbidden - to take a shower. There was some explanation about viruses and wetness, but by that point I had been running a temperature for over a week and in my opinion the sweaty feverish ill are the ones in most need of showers. So yes, I rebelled and took a shower and I felt much better for it.)

The call came in at some ungodly hour of early morning. It was my mother, calling on my Latvian phone. “You’re coming home,” she told me. AFS-USA had just told her that their insurance would no longer cover me, and that I would be home within a few weeks. Needless to say I was devastated. I kept throwing out reasons I should stay: I was supposed to have five more months in Latvia; I wasn’t even that sick; I’d only had a short time at my new school and with my new family; I got first place in the Latvian language test at mid-stay camp, didn’t that count for anything? When I stopped to think about it, a 17-year-old asthmatic exchange student with a faulty thyroid who had been hospitalized four times within 5 months was a walking liability. But it still wasn’t fair. (Well, neither is life.)

I was in the hospital for four days. The weekend I was released my host family and I went on a surprisingly fun excursion to Sigulda, which mostly consisted of driving around and pointing out snow-covered patches of land and monuments that are “beautiful in the summer!” On Valentine’s Day I went into Riga to have a final Double Coffee and say goodbye to a bunch of friends. The next few days I spent packing. I spent my last day in Latvia with my host mom, wandering into the funky shops of Riga and enjoying my first Latvian salad that wasn’t made with mayonnaise (it was a rather cruel trick of fate that I discovered the only mayonnaise-less salad in Latvia so late.) That evening my host mom told me we were going to visit our my friend Elina, whose family wanted to say goodbye. The lights were out at Elina’s, and it took me a good minute of fumbling in the dark mudroom to remove the three layers of winter clothes. I finally entered the living room to a burst of light and a chorus of “Surprise!” in adorably accented English. Half of my class was  crammed into the room, beaming.

I was floored. I'd never been thrown a surprise party before. These  kids had only been my classmates for two months, and yet they had gone out of their way to throw this surprise party for me to “demonstrate just how much” they would miss me. Elina’s mom prepared my favorite snacks from the previous time I’d been over - cheesy bread and coffee with condensed milk - and at one point even the class teacher came by to say some lovely words and give me a box of chocolates and an Adazi calendar.  It the perfect ending to my exchange. Going to bed that night I cried as I expected I would, but I wasn’t crying because I was leaving. I was crying because I was just so happy that I had met so many incredible people.

Would something like that happen to an exchange student in the US? Maybe some schools would be the exception, but our high school culture just isn’t like that. An exchange student could appear and disappear at Lincoln without anyone noticing. And even if they were noticed, it would take much more than two months to form a bond considered strong enough to withstand a surprise party. Things are just different in Latvia. Everything is smaller: cities, malls, grocery stores, schools, houses, classes, groups of friends. It’s almost as if because there is less to notice they pay closer attention to the details - “details” including people.

When Americans befriend someone we tend to enthusiastically usher them into our lives. At a certain point, however, they will hit a wall of defense that is difficult to break through. When a Latvian wants to be friends, they will over time crack open the gates, while watching to see if you do the same. But once both gates are open, you’re probably not going to hit a wall.

On the plane back home, I sat next to a Norwegian woman on her way to visit her daughter at Stanford, where she is a Fullbright scholar studying human rights and government in Russia. It turns out her daughter had been an AFS exchange student in Indonesia when she was in high school and had to be evacuated due to revolution, and after college she worked for the Norwegian embassy in Azerbaijan. Fascinating, no? I’ve never been the kind to befriend people on airplanes, so this was a pleasant surprise. The flight from Munich to San Francisco was much better than Riga to Munich, as on that flight my ink pen burst all over my jeans and possibly my neighbor’s laptop case (he didn’t notice and I was too scared to check.)

I suppose this marks the end of regular posting on this blog. I will probably be updating sporadically with related anecdotes, rambles, reflections and such (I have one post lined up, but I think I will allow this post to simmer for a few days before I publish the next.) Over the past month I’ve written a lot about my experiences in Latvia. Much of it I plan on keeping to myself right now, either to develop it further or simply because I’m not ready to publish such personal thoughts yet. My time in Latvia was amazing, but I still am licking some wounds. Uprooting my life in Latvia with only five days' notice wasn't exactly the easiest thing I've had to do. I'm still trying to put together a cohesive picture of what my exchange was and wasn't, and, of course, figuring out what's coming next.

I’ll continue to check this blog regularly so if you have any questions about exchange, Latvia, or the upcoming alien invasion, go ahead and leave a comment here and I’ll try to be as helpful as possible. Thanks everyone for all your support during the most unbelievable six months of my life!

Viss mierīgi un bez steigas;
Viss labi, kas labi beidzas
Un ja jau beigas visiem ir vienādas,
Tad jau laikam dzīvē.

Everything's calm, without haste;
All’s well that ends well.
And if in the end everything is equal,
Then we have time in life.

"Where is your baby?"

Yes, I am back in the hospital - the same one with the beautiful entryway you saw before. Last week I came down with the B-group flu (how that differs from A, I have no idea). Either way, apparently in Latvia requires hospitalization. My host mom brought me a trashy magazine to distract me. On the front cover: "33-year-old Latvian Pop Star Dies of B-Flu." Enjoy the irony. Anyway, I was in the hospital from Wednesday until Friday with the flu, I began improving over the weekend, and then around Monday I started feeling horrible again and had a 102.9 fever. On Tuesday we went back to the hospital, which would make the fourth time. It turns out I have strep throat and tonsillitis again, which is what put me in the hospital the first two times.

The good thing about me being back in the hospital is that I have a treat for everyone - an exclusive look inside a Latvian hospital room! While my young roommate and his mother were out of the room, I took a photo. Yes, it is as small as it seems, but I'm lucky - instead of three sick roommates, I just have one. (On some wards there are actually orphanage-like rooms for around 15 kids. Although I did see one with an air hockey table.) The cage-like contraptions on the right are the beds for young children, and the non-caged beds are for us big kids, as well as the little ones' parents. One of the new nurses on the ward was convinced I was one of the parents and kept asking me where my baby was... Needless to say, I was confused. On the bottom left you can also see the cups of yellow liquid I have to gargle, as well as a few "Nutricia Nutridrink Yoghurt Style" drinks which are currently the only things I can eat and/or drink. Times like this make me wish I was in a country with a Jamba Juice.

The Swastika in Latvia

This post has been coming for a long time, but I never really knew exactly how to approach it. I don't know when I first noticed the swastika; it probably was in some sort of pattern on mittens or socks or a restaurant menu or something of the kind. In Latvia the swastika is called the Ugunskrusts or Pērkonkrusts (Fire Cross and Thunder Cross, depending on if it is rotating clockwise or counterclockwise.)

Today in "Culture History" class we spent an hour copying down Latvian folk symbols and what they meant. Despite the fact that I knew the swastika was an ancient folk symbol, when it appeared on the board and remained there for the entire period I literally felt sick.

Yes, it's just a folk symbol. Yes, it's part of pagan Latvian culture. Yes, it originally had nothing to do with Nazi Germany, antisemitism, etc. But the fact is that Latvia has a pretty sketchy record when it comes to do with both of those things. The majority of the country welcomed the Nazis with open arms, as they seemed to be the better alternative to the Soviets; Latvia was home to approximately 85,000 Jews before World War II, and over 70,000 were killed during the Holocaust. According to these figures, which are on the lower end of the reliable estimates, that means that 82% of Latvian Jews were massacred. And yet, the Holocaust isn't something that is discussed here. It's not exactly ignored, but the general opinion seems to be "We suffered too," i.e., Soviet deportations, the Gulag, etc. Surely, Latvia and Latvians suffered. Yes, their population was also heavily depleted. But the majority survived, even if they were forced to leave. There is honestly no comparison.

As I sat in class today and copied the swastika into my notebook as I was supposed to, I asked a classmate why nobody found it offensive. The response? "It's no big deal. It just isn't bad." When I pressed, the response was, "Maybe if I were Jewish." I have not met a single Jewish person in Latvia; I have not met a Latvian who knows a Jewish person. When you are in a country that has a problem with skinheads and neo-Nazism, when each year former members of the Latvian Legion - a formation of the Waffen SS - march through Riga, when things like this happen in the middle of the capital city... There really is no way this is an entirely harmless symbol. I'm not saying people mean to do harm, but denying what the swastika symbolizes is dangerously close to denying the Holocaust, particularly in a country like Latvia.

A screencap of a live TV broadcast of a folk dance event:
the dancers form a swastika in the middle.

Pattern on a placemat
The swastika over Māra's cross, another national symbol.
A pattern common on souvenir mittens
The Jewish cemetery defaced:
Riga, December 8, 2010.

Latvian Pop Music & Prāta Vētra Concert

This post was supposed to be about my weekend, but it turned into a post about Latvian pop music. On Friday I went to the Prāta Vētra concert in Arena Riga (where the hockey team plays) with Jānis (my host dad) and Jordan (there was an extra ticket, so we invited him.) I have no pictures from it, nor can I really describe it, but it was amazing. Here's the two main cultural observations I made: 

1) Only in Latvia is there a mourning period in the middle of a concert. One of the founding members of the band (the bassis Gundars Mauševics) died in a car crash in 2004, and they played an instrumental song and had a slideshow of him for about 5 minutes in the middle of the show. It was quite moving, but Jordan and I found it a bit strange. In the US, that would only happen if the band played on the anniversary, or if it were the first couple shows after his death, etc. But 6 years later, they're still publicly remembering. A typical arena concert in the US is not going to be bittersweet, but everything in Latvia is like this. There is always a hint of sadness beneath the surface, but it is embraced instead of avoided.

2) Around two thirds of Prāta Vētra songs have to end in "lalala" or "dadida" or a short phrase repeated multiple times for maximum sing-a-long capacity.

Wikipedia has a fairly informative page on Prāta Vētra here, but basically, they're the biggest band in Latvia. I haven't met a single Latvian who doesn't like them. They've been around since 1989, but the lead singer (Rēnars Kaupers) looks like he's 19 and it's kind of frightening that he's nearly 40. And his vocal range is intense. They sing mostly in Latvian, but often release albums with the same songs translated into English and Russian. They play catchy "rock" songs (I guess the closest comparison for Americans would be piano rock or pop rock) of a quality much higher than most other modern Latvian pop artists. (See my comparison below.) Although on occasion Prāta Vētra wanders into Euro-cheese territory, they are known for their great lyrics. Their songs in English, well... they have titles such as "Lonely Feeling (to be Lonely)", and lyrics like, "It's like a thunder without rain / It's like a week without Sunday." Maybe in Latvia there's never dry thunder... Anyway, when they write their songs in English, they seem to be pressed for rhymes, hence the strange lyrics. In a language with endings (like Latvian), it's much easier to rhyme. That's my theory, at least.

So, here we will start with a horrible Latvian pop song, and then your ears will be cleansed by some refreshing Prāta Vētra. Note: In Latvian (and Russian, for that matter) only the first letter of a title is capitalized. I know, it bugs me too.

Also, I apologize for the way the embedding shows up on the blog; it messes up the layout and fonts, but as I am not a technical genius and I am tired, I will leave it for now.

Aisha: What For? (Only Mr. God Knows Why) Latvia's 2010 Eurovision Entry
Latvia's 2010 Eurovision Entry: "What For? (Only Mr. God Knows Why)" I don't see why Latvia can't just enter Prāta Vētra every year... (Latvia got 3rd in 2000 with Prāta Vētra; they got last in the semifinals in 2010 with this girl.)

Prāta Vētra: Rudens (Fall)

Yevgeny Grishkovets & Rēnars Kaupers: На заре (Na zarye - At dawn)
A collaboration between Russian singer Yevgeni Grishkovetz and Prāta Vētra. Actually, it's just written as a collaboration between him and Rēnars, but they played it at the concert.  Rēnars sang both parts, wearing a yellow scarf when he was pretending to be "Zhenya" and removing it when he was Rēnars again.

Plaukstas lieluma pavasaris (Palm-sized spring)
I couldn't find a good video of this, so enjoy this music video made by the class 10C at Bauskas 1. Vidusskola. At one point in the chorus, it goes, "Aha! Un kā tev iet un ko to dari?" That literally means "And how are you, and what are you doing?" It's kind of the standard text you get from Latvians, although usually there's not so many ands in there. Anyway, it was exciting when I first heard this song, because at that point I didn't speak any Latvian except for being able to ask/answer the questions "Kā tev iet?" and "Ko tu dari?" Also, if someone could explain to me what a palm-sized spring is, I'd really appreciate it.

Lauris Reiniks: Es Skrienu (I Run)
Better than Aisha, but still... The title means "I run", and the chorus is "I run and run some more / I have yet to manage / Before you leave, wait more / So I dance and dance some more / I have yet to manage / Already so late / I should be present as an image / A strange image." (That's just my attempts at translation, feel free to correct me.) The music video for the song is kind of great. The images are very... Latvian. The best parts? 

-When the weird guys tries to get the girls in the car at 2:21, and they enjoy it (and don't get irritated and/or scared of being trafficked like American girls do, and I am totally not talking about myself and my personal experiences with weird Latvian guys.)

-Also, the girl's outfit with the black leggings and hairbow.

-When he is on the horse, starting at 3:45

-The dance routine at 4:40

Prāta Vētra: Mana Dziesma (My Song)
A very patriotic song about Latvia and Latvians; this video is from their performance at the Song Festival.

Moving to Ādaži

I'm moving to my new family this afternoon, and I decided it was time for a brief update. Since leaving the hospital I've been in Riga (first at my adopted aunt's apartment, and then at a hotel). On Friday I finally got confirmation that I have a host family! They live in Ādaži (see red dot on map), a small town of 9000 people that is 30 minutes away from Riga. (Interestingly, although functions as a sort of suburb/bedroom community for Riga, there is literally forest between the two.) The family consists of my host parents Jānis and Gunita, two younger brothers, Dāvis (7) and Henrijs (4), and two pets (a cat and a dog). According to the family packet, which was in Latvian and written in handwriting that was very difficult to decipher, they enjoy traveling and skiing as a family, Dāvis likes Legos, and Henrijs really likes to draw.

This is my future school, Ādažu Brīvā Valdorfa Skola (Ādaži Free Waldorf School.) I don't know what the "Free" is supposed to mean, since there's tuition (which, as an exchange student, I don't have to pay.) Apparently the Waldorf school has a reputation across Latvia for being full of stupid kids who can't make it in public schools, as to in the US where it's known for the "creative" and/or "alternative" types. There are 14 kids in the entire 12th grade. 14. My first day of school will be on Thursday. I can't believe that with the exception of 1.5 days, I haven't been to school since before October break.

Speaking of October break and the Liepaja trip, I finally bought a new camera cable and was able to upload all my pictures. Here's a few... if you're Facebook friends with me you probably already saw them, my apology.

Rainy street. Note how there were still leaves. (Liepaja)
Fontaine Hotel from the back (Liepaja)
The canal and still-functioning docks (Liepaja)
The beach (Liepaja)
Sunset on the beach (Liepaja)
Beach (Liepaja)

Trees and puddles (Liepaja)

Hospital in Riga

 And again.

View from Auntie's apartment (Riga)

Coffee break @ Cafe Sienna (Riga)

Outside the ward (Riga)

Ferris wheel in the middle of Old Town.
Jordan and I rode it around midnight. (Riga)

We left a message in the snow for Niks. (Riga)

Jordan and I on the ferris wheel. (Riga)

People actually live on this street. (Riga)

Old Town. It's kind of like a gingerbread city. (Riga)

Eggs and Pastries and Uni

Just a brief update...

I was released from the hospital last night, and am now recuperating at the apartment of a family friend who lives in Riga. This apartment contains an incredible selection of books and an adorable asthmatic cat, which makes it a wonderful place for recuperation. It is near the center of Riga and faces a park, and behind that the canal where the ferries dock, which, when combined with the dusting of snow that has been on the ground for two days in Riga, makes for a view straight out of a fairytale. I love being in Riga; I am tempted to call everyone I know here and go to museums and dine in the only Indian restaurant in Latvia and take in as much "culture" as I can before heading away from the city to wherever my next placement may be --- but I am still sickly, unfortunately. Not so much sickly as depleted of all energy whatsoever by the mono. Luckily, the pain is gone and there are only remnants of the swelling on my jawline, although I have what appear to be bruises under my eyes (the right eye is particularly bad-ass looking) as a result of being so stretched from the facial swelling. I probably won't be able to leave the house without coverup for weeks.

In other news, I woke up this morning to a treat of not only a cooked breakfast of eggs and pastries (I can't remember the last time someone made breakfast for me!) but 4 emails from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, each offering me admission into a program! I was accepted into International Relations and Russian (Joint Honors), Honors Modern Languages (Spanish and Russian) with International Relations, Russian and Modern History (Joint Honors), and Russian and Middle Eastern Studies (Joint Honors). Right now I'm leaning towards International Relations and Russian, but I have a long while to decide. Ironically, I haven't submitted any of my US applications yet - they're in the final stages, I'm still applying to 6 colleges in the US (Rice, Kenyon, Grinnell, Wooster, Lawrence, and the University of Montana), but it seems a bit weird to be submitting the applications when I already have a place (4 places, actually) waiting for me at St. Andrews. The British university system offers less flexibility than the American system, however, which is something to consider... Who knows where I will be. Suddenly the idea of studying in Scotland for 4 years is actually real. Imagine - I come home from a year in Latvia, two months later I move to Scotland, who knows where I'll go for graduate school... I feel rather stateless, but in a good way (and not a "stateless refugee" way.) And I'm already planning my hypothetical trips to Latvia over school breaks, as it's not feasible to fly across the Atlantic that often, but cheap plane tickets from the UK abound (thanks in part to the thriving obnoxious-British-bachelor-party-in-the-Baltics tradition.)

Trivia, Because I'm Just That Excited: St. Andrews is the third oldest university in the English speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge, and is the meeting place (and alma mater) of Prince Williams and Kate Middleton. My grandpa once went on a golf trip there.