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.