# 17   The land that sings (and dances)

Latvia’s Song and Dance Celebration is upon us, and everyone in Latvia who isn’t singing and dancing on a stage somewhere, is singing along and tapping their feet in the audience.  Over 35,000 people will be performing in a wide variety of events, and hundreds of thousands will be watching.

It’s obvious that Latvians like to sing and dance and will do so on any occasion. Even our national anthem refers to a place where “daughters bloom, sons sing,”  and they all get together to “dance in happiness”.

Our former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who has studied Latvia’s ancient dainas, has even released an album where she sings her favourite Latvian folk songs. President Valdis Zatlers and Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis both are former drummers, and two members of Latvia’s parliament, Raimonds Pauls and Imants Kalnins are highly regarded composers and songwriters.

A few years ago the Latvian Tourism Development Agency adopted the slogan ‘The Land That Sings’ for their tourism promotional campaigns. The key word here is ‘land’. You see, in Latvia it isn’t just people who sing and dance. Take a walk in one of our forests and you’ll hear birds chirping, frogs croaking, and elk bellowing, while trees and grasses sway along with the winds that come in from the Baltic Sea.

In Latvia we don’t just hug trees, we sing and dance along with them.

#18   A place where fish learned to walk.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog which asked whether Latvia was old. I discovered that at 90, the Republic of Latvia was older than about 150 other countries in the world. Of course, before there was a Latvian Republic, there was a land inhabited by Latvians, as well as their ancestral tribes known as the Latgallians, Couronians, Semigallians and Selonians. Although the Germans and Vikings started arriving well over 800 years ago, these early Latvians go back even further. Their ancestors, known as the proto-Balts started arriving here about 4,000 years ago. As far as scientists can tell, the first human inhabitants of Latvia – whoever they were – showed up 11,000 years ago, about a thousand years after the end of the last glacial period.

But who was here 365 million years ago? Well, it turns out that the Ventastega made Latvia his home. Who is the Ventastega? A four-legged creature that looked a little like an alligator. Some Swedish scientists recently found the fossilized skull of one on the banks of the river Venta in Western Latvia. What makes it so special? The scientists claim it’s the most primitive four-legged creature in the Earth’s history. Basically it was a fish with legs, perhaps one of the first to crawl up out of the sea and start walking on land.

Could it be that Latvia was a key link in the evolutionary chain? The place where fish grew legs and started to walk? Makes sense to me. You have to learn how to walk before you can dance, and Latvia is as good a place as any to take those first happy steps.

#19   Coming full circle

Geography and politics may change our national identity, but it doesn’t change the essence of who we are.

My parents, Eižens and Matilde Kalninš were Latvians from Latvia. They were also citizens of Latvia. They both left Latvia in 1945 after the war and met in a refugee camp where they married. I was born in 1949, also in a Latvian refugee camp in Munich, which at that time, was West Germany. My birth certificate is written in German, but identifies me as a Latvian. Although I’m not a legal expert, I assume I was born a Latvian citizen, even though Latvia at that time was under Soviet occupation and there was probably no record of my existence there.

When my parents and I moved to the United States in 1951, I received a green card and became a ‘registered alien’. I was a Latvian émigré living in the U.S. When I turned 18, I became a naturalized U.S. citizen. As a result I became what was known as a Latvian-American. My nationality was Latvian, but my citizenship was U.S., and thus I joined the millions of other hyphenated Americans (German-Americans, Polish-Americans, African-Americans). The city of Chicago, where I grew up, was full of ‘hyphenated’ Americans.

In 1985 I moved to Washington D.C. to work for the American Latvian Association, which lifted my ‘Latvian-American’ identity onto a political plane. I wrote, spoke and lobbied the U.S. Government and Congress on behalf of the Latvian-American community.

In 1991 I joined the Latvian Legation in Washington, D.C. as a public affairs liaison. I still had U.S. citizenship but now represented the Republic of Latvia, which was embodied in the Legation. In December of 1991, 3 months after Latvia restored its independence, I gave up my U.S. citizenship and became a fully accredited Latvian diplomat. I was no longer a Latvian-American, and not really an émigré. I was a Latvian citizen working in the U.S. with a diplomatic visa. I served as Latvia’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1993 until 2000.

In December 1999 I moved to Latvia permanently, to begin work as the Director of the Latvian Institute. I was simply a Latvian again. A Latvian who was born in Germany, once lived in the U.S. but was now back in the land my parents were forced to leave. They died in the U.S. and thus never had a chance to come back to an independent Latvia. It means a lot to me that I could do it in their place.

#20   The Next 90

Traditionally when we celebrate a nation’s birthday we look back at all the people who helped create it, protect it and preserve it. For Latvia, that’s a lot of people in the last 90 years.

This anniversary year we will be looking back as we always do, but we’ll be looking ahead as well. We know what the last 90 years were like. What do the next 90 hold in store? Even more important – who will be the people shaping it in the coming years?

One thing I know for sure, they are all younger than I am. The kids who are in high school today could be running companies and managing ministries 10 years from now when Latvia celebrates its 100th anniversary. Time moves on and the kids of today are tomorrow’s leaders.

That’s why President Zatlers and the State Youth Initiative Centre have joined the Latvian Institute in search of “The Next 90.”  We are asking people around Latvia to nominate the brightest, most outstanding young people they know – kids and young adults from 1st to 12th grades, who are already demonstrating leadership qualities in their daily lives. They don’t have to be top students or star athletes, just the kind of kids that naturally give out positive energy. We all know many kids like that.

We expect to get hundreds of nominations and from them will choose a symbolic 90. On November 17th of this year they will take the stage of the National Theatre in Rīga and re-enact the famous Vilis Ridznieks November 18, 1918 photograph of the founding of our republic. These 90 kids will re-proclaim their commitment to Latvia’s future and the democratic values it holds dear. They will also start looking at the next ten years of their lives in a very different way.

‘The Next 90’ are just the tip of the iceberg. Latvia is full of great young people, and as I celebrate Latvia’s 90th this year, I’ll be thinking about them.