A Viking looks at Latvia today

(Based on a speech delivered to a regional Scandinavian Rotary Club meeting in Riga, Latvia)

Serious historians will tell you that the word ‘viking’ is not a  noun and does not describe a person or people. It was instead an activity that was undertaken by certain people – Danes, Swedes and others – who lived in this region over a thousand years ago.

You could say that ‘going viking’ was an early form of tourism in the Baltic Sea region. A large group of people got into boats and visited their neighbors. After some negotiation, they brought home a lot of souvenirs.

However, modern marketing has turned the word ‘viking’ into a noun, and thus we refer to these early Scandinavian tourists as ‘vikings’. If Hollywood can make a large bearded Scotsman like William Wallace look like a short Australian actor named Mel Gibson, than I can call the ancestors of today’s Scandinavians ‘vikings’.

We all know that the Vikings of the 9th century used to visit here a lot. Some came to visit the Liv settlement that was located along the banks of the river Daugava. But most sailed on further south thru Russia, all the way down to the great  ancient city of Byzantium. Thus, even before Easy Jet and Ryanair, Riga was a popular transit point for travelers.

What would happen if one of those Vikings from the 9th century sailed into Riga in the 21st century?  Well, if he were to start from the island of Gotland and sail along the northern Kurzeme coastline, he would probably think he was still in the 9th century. Looking at it from the sea, that coast has not changed a bit. He would  see an endless wall of green Latvian pine trees backing up an equally endless stretch of white sandy beach. His first shock might come when he encountered a wind surfer sailing out from the fishing village of Mazirbe. To a Viking, one man on a small board with a sail, without a shield or sword, would probably seem rather odd.

Odd as he might be, a wind surfer was no threat. The threat would come when he rounded the Kolka horn and found himself confronted by a dozen crazed summer vacationers buzzing around him on high-powered Jet Skis. As a seasoned pirate, I’m sure he’d admire their speed and mobility, but he’d probably wonder  where their stored all their loot. Jet Skis are loud and powerful but they have no storage space whatsoever.

He’d get his answer as he traveled deeper into the Bay of Riga and confronted a fleet of huge metal ships carrying enormous heaps of cargo. If these were modern day Vikings, they had obviously collected an awful lot of souvenirs from the locals –  forests of tree trunks, mountains of grain, stacks of  Honda Civics and boatloads of Finnish tourists. He’d probably assume these Finns were slaves that had been collected by other Vikings from the mainland, although he would wonder why they all looked and sounded so happy.

By the time he entered the mouth of the River Daugava, he would realize that the old Liv settlement had turned into a teeming metropolis of nearly a million inhabitants. After sailing past huge docks, large cranes and hundreds of cargo ships, he would finally approach the gates of the city itself.

The Riga Castle on the right bank would look familiar. It’s been there since the 14th century and looks no different than the old castles that guarded other cities on the Dauagava River on the way south to Byzantium. The 29-story steel and glass castle on right, however, would be intimidating. Vikings were never good at siege warfare and this one would be a tall order, to say the least.

And yet, the building would tempt him.  Once he learned that the wealth of modern cities was stored in banks, this impressively large building had to be much more valuable than the old castle across the river. After all it was called the Hansa Bank, and our Viking knew that Riga was once one of the most important cities in the Hanseatic League. If it had 29 floors, it had to be storing an awful lot of gold and silver.

But as he went from floor to floor, he’d find nothing but desks and chairs and computers. After asking around he’d realize that in the 21st century, gold and silver had been replaced by paper money. Well, if paper money was valuable today, he might as well fill his pockets with that. When he asked one of the guards where he could find a vault where all this valuable paper money was stored, he’d be directed to an ATM machine.

Soon enough he would discover that his trusty two-handed sword was no match for an ATM machine – especially a sword without a microchip and a pin code.

So he’d head across the river into the heart of the city where the tradesmen sold their goods. There had to be lots of money there. Once he got over the first shock of all the new buildings in Riga, his next shock would come when he learned that even paper money had become old fashioned in this town.

So what does a Viking do? What else but go over to the Nordic Council offices in the Berg Bazaar and ask for help. He was familiar with Viking councils in his Nordic homeland, so this one had to have information.

Being discrete, he’d tell them that he wanted to do some ‘business’ in Riga. They’d say no problem. If he wants to acquire things in this city, he needs a laptop, wireless access to the Internet and an e-account at one of Latvia’s 23 banks. And while he might feel more comfortable at an old-fashioned market located near the train station near Old Town, if he really wanted to stock his ship with treasures from around the world, he’d have to visit some cyber markets called Amazon.com and E-bay.

Clearly, this kind of information would drive a Viking to drink. And what better place to find a drink than in the pubs and bars of Riga’s Old Town? But here he would encounter another surprise. Back in the 9th century the Danish Vikings spent a lot of time trying to chase the Brits out of England. Where did all those Brits go? Apparently they all came to Riga, because the city pubs are full of them. So many, that their Queen, Elizabeth the II, came here recently to shoo them all back home to their wives and mothers.

Had the Viking come to Riga in the middle of the summer on June 23, he would notice something else rather strange about this Latvian capital. He would see very few Latvians. Where did they all go? He could go into an Internet Café and log onto the Latvian News Agency LETA to find out what’s going on. He’d  read about something called the free movement of labor and might conclude that most of the Latvians had gone over to England and Ireland, to replace all the Brits that had come to Riga. But that isn’t the full story.

The fact is, most Riga Latvians would be out in the countryside, celebrating the summer solstice, which we call Jāņi. A Viking always loves a good celebration, so our friend would probably rent himself a Volvo and go look for a roaring bonfire. He’d find thousands of them all over the countryside. Now here, he might start feeling at home again. There would be plenty of song, buckets of beer, wild dancing and people leaping about madly with oak leaves on their heads.  To our Viking, this would be the first real sign of civilization as he knew it.

Strengthened by beer and cheese and emboldened by all this nostalgia, he might start thinking about what any self-respecting warrior does best. He’d want to make war on these Latvians. After all, with all the flowers in their hair, they all looked like a bunch of peace-loving hippies.

But a good Viking usually checks out his adversary before he launches an attack. These dancing and singing Latvians did seem like a lively bunch, but did they have a real army hidden away somewhere in the woods?

So our Viking would go under cover and do a little spying. Over the next few months he would find out that Latvia did have an army, but no more than about 5,000 active duty soldiers. No problem. If he went back and got a few boatloads of his Viking friends, he could easily overwhelm the locals.

From the Nordic Council he had learned that there were many Scandinavians in Latvia and they were represented by embassies. Perhaps he could recruit some Viking warriors from these embassies. It would save him a trip back home. So he paid a visit to the Norwegian embassy in Riga.

But here he was confronted with another shocking revelation. It turns out that these Latvians had joined some kind of organization called NATO, and that his fellow Norwegians were also a part of this military alliance. Not only wouldn’t the Norwegians help him, they were all too busy opening hypermarkets and hotels in Riga.

No luck there. So he tried the Danish embassy. The Danes were always good Vikings and never passed up an opportunity for a little fun. There the news was even worse. The Danish ambassador told him that not only were the Danes a part of this NATO, but so were over 20 other tribes from Europe and the New World. These Latvians now had friends and allies in Germany, Poland, England, Italy, Spain and a dozen other places that he had never heard of. Byzantium, the city he used to visit by way of the Daugava River, was now in a country called Turkey and they too were a part of this NATO. Even Vinland, that large land across the ocean discovered  by his countryman Leif Ericsson,  had joined this  NATO. Worse yet, all of these NATO armies were gathering in Riga at the end of November for something called a Summit.

This was outrageous. His last ray of hope was Sweden. He was delighted to learn that at least the Swedes hadn’t joined this enormous alliance. When he asked the Swedish ambassador where he could find some friends who could help him with a special project, he was told to go to the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Riga. ‘Commerce’? Well, that made sense. Going Viking was a form of commerce, so he tried it.

Not wanting to reveal his invasion plans right away, he told the Chamber of Commerce that he was looking to start a ‘joint venture’ with other Swedes in Latvia, one which would help all of them get rich.  The Swedish Chamber was very helpful.

They told him that he should to get a room at the Reval Hotel, open a bank account at UNIBANKA, and get a job with TeliaSonera. Then they lent him an Ericsson mobile phone and gave him a list of numbers to call.

Clearly, this was not what he had in mind. So he went back to the Swedish embassy and looked up the Swedish military attaché. If anyone could help him raise an army, he would be the person to do it. Soon enough he discovered that even if the Swedes were not a part of this NATO, they might as well be.  You see, much of the military equipment used by the Latvian army that he had hoped to defeat with his fellow Vikings, had been donated to the Latvians by, of all people,  the Swedes.

The world had really changed. Danish and Norwegian Vikings were now allies with these Latvians, and Swedish Vikings were supplying them with weapons. And that’s when he realized, he had already missed the boat. The ancestors of this fellow Vikings were already here. He could fly here on Air Baltic, buy Carlsberg beer and Danish tobacco at Narvesson, get into his Saab or Volvo and fill up with gas at Statoil before doing his shopping at Rimi. And if he wanted to learn how his fellow countrymen did it all, he could sign up for some courses at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. If you can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em.


October 21, 2006