Flower people

(Article published in the AirBaltic in-flight magazine, ‘Baltic Outlook’.

Latvians are obsessed with flowers. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that anyone with at least one ounce of Latvian blood in his family tree is genetically programmed to give and receive flowers all his life.

It doesn’t matter why, where or to whom. If you are Latvian and you haven’t had a bunch of real flowers in your hands for one reason or another in the last 72 hours, you begin to feel tribal withdrawal pains deep down in the roots of your genetic code. Latvians need a constant flower fix and will use any excuse to satisfy it.

A Latvian gives flowers on birthdays, names days, holidays and anniversaries; openings, and closings, weddings and funerals, concerts and sporting events. Put yourself in the centre of any Latvian occasion and prepare to be beflowered. Ice hockey player get them, them, opera singers get them, poets get them and politicians get them. Latvians give flowers to men, women, children, cows, even rocks – they don’t discriminate. An event cannot be an event if it is not bedecked in flowers.

After a careful unscientific analysis I have concluded  that in Latvia, someone is giving some kind of flower to someone else, for some very Latvian reason, every 15 minutes. I can’t prove that, but it’s obviously true. Cut that estimate in half on weekends.

In Latvia, flowers seem to grow out of a sense of obligation, only so that Latvians can give them to one another. With thousands of big and small bouquets changing hands every day, the land seems to be working overtime to keep up with the feverish demand.  What can’t be grown in Latvia is imported from elsewhere, just so long as the city flower markets are always in full fragrant supply. In Latvia, a shortage of dark bread – the staple of national consumption – would cause substantial civil rumblings, but a flower shortage would no doubt bring riots in the streets.

Latvians have such a constant, unquenchable, incessant need for flowers that the 24-hour flower market across from the Latvian Foreign Ministry on Terbates street in Riga buzzes  with buyers, day or night. Some guys buy bouquets for girls before an evening date on their way to the discos; others buy them at 5am after the discos have closed for the girls they were lucky enough to pick up. The Terbates street flower market catches them coming and going from the theatres, bars and clubs of Riga’s Old Town. Some need flowers to go out. Others (tardy husbands) need them to come home. On a festive night, the river of flowers that flows through Riga could rival the mighty Daugava river nearby.

Everyone gets into the act. Secretaries buy arrangements for their bosses to give at a colleague’s book presentation, wives buy them for dinner parties, shopkeepers buy them to decorate their store windows, and pensioners buy them for the cemetery. (In Latvia, you get even more flowers after you are dead.)

And everyone buys flowers for their teachers. What the State can’t provide in terms of a living wage, present and former students make up for with generous floral gifts. On the first day of school each September, Latvia’s schools are awash with flower-toting kids, students, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all participating in a ritualistic frenzy of flower exchange that leaves the teachers and schools buried in a buzzing mound of petals, pistils and pollen.

On the summer solstice, a very pagan Latvian holiday called ‘Jāņi’, you not only give flowers, you wear them in your hair. You also wear leaves, vines, grasses or anything else that can be cut and formed into a primeval fashion accessory. In rural areas people decorate their cows and horses. In Riga, they decorate their BMWs and Land Rovers.

I think it’s the law. It is most definitely a tradition. But increasingly I’m beginning to believe it’s a deeply imbedded national mission.

In regard to flowers, Latvians seem to have reached a very simple understanding with Mother Nature: as long as she keeps growing them, Latvians will keep giving them. Latvians present flowers, place flowers,  paint flowers, decorate with flowers, celebrate with flowers, mourn with flowers, sing with flowers, dance with flowers, are born with flowers and die with flowers. They wouldn’t know how to begin or end anything without them.

If the goddess of flowers wanted to hire an ad agency to promote her latest product line to mankind, she would probably ask the Latvians to manage the campaign. They’d do it pro bono, I’m sure.

September 6, 2001