Why Latvia?

When I told people that I was going to Latvia, I got two responses: "Where?" and "Why?" Most of my peers were unaware of Latvia's existence. I ended up reciting a little blurb on Latvian geography - "It's in Eastern Europe, one of the Baltic states - those are the ones below Sweden - and it was formerly part of the Soviet Union." After establishing Latvia's existence come the whys. Why Latvia? Why not Italy, France? Why not somewhere known for good weather and good food? Why go to a "communist borscht-eating vodka-drinking country"? (I'll post more about these stereotypes later.)

Honestly, this is one of the hardest questions for me to answer. I'm still not really sure why I chose Latvia. I can, however, tell you about the process that led me to Latvia.

How I Chose Latvia
I. Language
I wanted to go to either a Spanish- or Russian-speaking country. As time progressed and I became fluent in Spanish, I decided I would get the most out of my experience if I worked on the language with which I had the most difficulties. In eighth grade I decided that I wanted to go to an Eastern European country that had been a part of the Soviet Union. At first I only wanted to go to Eastern Europe because of my interest in Russia. As time progressed I realized that I had held an almost imperialistic view of Eastern Europe. I was thinking of every country as "ex-Soviet" rather than as a country with a unique language and culture of its own. Researching the area extensively, I became more aware of the differences between the Balkans and the Baltics; South versus East Slavic, etc. With a better understanding of the attitudes and cultures of different Eastern European countries, I made a list of my top choices for an exchange: Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Russia, and Ukraine. It turns out AFS doesn't have programs in Serbia or Ukraine (for safety reasons I assume - land mines and health care?) and because I only wanted to go with AFS, I was left with three choices.

II. Vegetarianism
Back in eighth grade, I emailed AFS and asked about vegetarian placements around the world, mentioning Eastern Europe and South America (I was still unsure of whether I wanted to study in Chile/Argentina or Eastern Europe). She recommended Latvia, not because vegetarianism is common, but because AFS Latvia welcomes vegetarian placements. Some countries refuse to take vegetarians at all. While it can be difficult to place a vegetarian, it was reassuring to hear that a country was willing to be open-minded and accommodating about different cultural practices. This wasn't the most important factor in making my decision, but it was the first thing that really put Latvia in the spotlight for me.

III. History, Culture, and the Latvian Spirit
After extensive research and debate, my top two choices were Latvia and Russia. Ultimately, I chose Latvia. It was a difficult decision - I had been learning Russian since the end of seventh grade. I always thought I would be going to Russia. I didn't want to disappoint Tatyana, my Russian teacher, by choosing Latvia over her country. But when it came down to deciding, I felt that Latvia was the better opportunity for me. When I told Tatyana that I had chosen Latvia, she was supportive. "I think you will like Latvia," she told me. "Russia is not for you now. Later, you will like to live in Russia, when you are older, on your own. But for now Latvia will be good to you." (After talking to a friend from Riga, Tatyana's opinion would drastically change - I'll post details later.)

My final answer to "Why Latvia"? Latvia is the underdog success. She achieved independence not with weapons but with a cultural revival. I have fallen in love with her forests, her fields, her seaside, her cities. Latvia is not paradise; she still bears the scars of being beaten and conquered. She gained independence only to have it tragically taken away as the world turned a blind eye. Now she is back, but she is wary. She fears that her very existence will be extinguished at any moment. She is cautious, sometimes overly so. She is proud and protective of her culture, a culture so many have unsuccessfully attempted to silence. Latvia has her flaws, but she remains poised and dignified, beautiful and brave. The short answer? I admire Latvia's character. I think we all can learn a lot from her.