#8   Is Latvia old?

Now that Latvia has reached its 90th birthday, one wonders…is that a lot or not? Believe it or not, by global standards, we are respectable senior citizens. If you go by the official founding dates of the 200 or so sovereign states in the world, the Republic of Latvia is older than 130 of them!

Granted, we have to make a distinction here between nations and states. Nations are a self-defined cultural or social communities that may not always be states. Or the states that represent a nation may change. The United Kingdom is the third oldest state in the world (goes back to ther 10th century) but it consists of 4 nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Japanese nation goes back thousands of years but its present state was established in 1947. The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949. The Russian Federation showed up on the world scene in 1991.

Seven countries are the same age as Latvia – Estonia, Lithuania, Armenia, Georgia, Iceland, Poland and Ukraine – all established in 1918. But only 52 countries are older.

Who’s the oldest in the world? Ethiopia. It was established 2,000 years ago. And San Marino ranks second, born in AD 301.

So are we old or not? It all depends on how you look at it.

#9   That old song and dance

We tend to divide time up into the past, present and future, but sometimes they all come together. That’s what makes living traditions so special. They take the best of the past, make it relevant to the present and make you want to do them again in the future.

That’s precisely the reason why the 135-year old Latvian Song and Dance Celebration is still so much alive today. When Latvians talk about their world-famous songfest they tend to stress just how old everything is – the thousand-year old folk songs, the traditional dances and the authentic regional folk costumes. But at the kick-off concert for the XXIV Song and XIV Dance Celebration at the Arena Riga in March this year, everything was new. New musical compositions, new dance choreographies, and new singers, dancers and musicians.

Even older performers, composers, conductors and musicians were doing new things, alongside a new generation of Latvian song and dance enthusiasts. The new choreographies were based on traditional dances, just as the new choir compositions were based on an ancient musical legacy. To a Latvian it all looked and sounded so familiar, and yet it sparkled with dynamism, creativity and freshness of the best contemporary music.

If you want to experience why UNESCO has named the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’, try to be in Rīga from July 5-12 this year. This is one living tradition you will never forget.

#10   A place of our own

The planet Earth is home to over 200 countries, more than 6 billion people, thousands of nationalities, and a remarkably diverse melange of over 6,900 languages.

Latvia is among them. Just 1 out of the 200, and just 2.3 out of the 6 billion. Looking at the numbers helps put it into some kind of perspective, but doesn’t explain why it’s so important to a Latvian that he can speak his language in a country called Latvia.

Latvians today travel all over the world. Low airfares and a wide choice of routes from Riga let Latvians go anywhere on the globe and listen to how the other 6 billion speak their languages in their countries. It’s an enriching experience. Latvians themselves speak many languages, from the ubiquitous English and Russian, to the neighbouring languages of the Germans, French, and Scandinavians.  More and more are learning Japanese and Chinese.

Moving about the world and speaking a lot of languages makes you appreciate what you have at home. Each part of the world we visit has an essence all its own, created by the land, the people and the language they speak. Each can exist and survive independently. A piece of land will remain after its people have gone. A people can be driven from their land and still survive, somewhere else, maintaining their traditions and culture. And the language will travel with them.

But a certain kind of magic occurs when the land, the people and the language are one.  Regardless of who we are, where we live or who our ancestors were, we feel that magic when we are in a country where the three are physically and spiritually united. We breathe it in the air and drink it in the water. We take energy from it, and take memories with us when we return home.

And there is no place like home. That’s why so many of us Latvians like to visit those 200 countries and see some of those 6 and 1/2 billion people, because we know that we have a place of our own we can always come home to.

#11   How Latvians rest

Like a lot of Latvians, I live in the city but spend my free days in the country. My wife and I have a house in the forest near the northern Baltic Sea coast. On a clear day you can see the coast of Estonia’s Saarema Island, just 30 kilometres away. The locals tell us that in the old days when the channel between Mazirbe and Saarema Island froze up, young Estonians would walk across the ice to find work in the Latvian fishing villages that line the coast.

My wife and I now drive a 180 kilometres to this same place get away from work. Or so I thought. Most urban Latvians either have a house in the country, have relatives with a house in the country, or know someone else with a house in the country. We go there to get away from the city, the traffic, the hustle and bustle and the daily drudge of work. We like to be near the sea, a river or lake, and always feel more comfortable when there are a lot of trees around. Since 40% of Latvia is covered by forests, this is not a problem.

Except that once we get away from all the work in the city, we throw ourselves into working around the homestead. We grow grass and then mow it. We create gardens and then weed them, seed them and constantly cultivate them. We clear dead trees, chop wood and then stoke up the fireplace and sauna so that we can relax from all the hard work we did all day.

Sometimes after an invigorating weekend in the country, I find myself returning to the city to get some rest. And I look forward to the next weekend back in the country. For Latvians. working around the house is often the best form of rest.

#12   The Amber (Latvian) Way

Latvia, like the 200 or so other countries in the world today, is seeking to develop a competitive identity that will help it promote tourism, investment, international cooperation and general good will. Recent research has suggested that for Latvia, there are three aspects of our national identity that are distinctive: our achievements in science, our well preserved environment and our rich and multi-faceted culture.

We can find plenty examples of each but is there something that unites them all? Believe it or not, it could be amber.

Thanks to the Baltic Sea, amber has always been plentiful on the shores of Latvia and is one of our most beautiful and coveted natural resources. A thousand years ago traders from as far away as Greece followed the Amber Way north to the River Daugava to acquire precious amber from the Baltic Sea coast.

Naturally, amber plays a prominent role in Latvian culture. It is part of our jewelry, art, folklore and traditions. It is in our songs, our symbols, and our souls.

Now it is at the leading edge of global biomaterials research as well  A major scientific breakthrough in the use of amber has been achieved in Latvia by Dr. Inga Lasenko of Rīga Technical University She has discovered how to make hi tech thread from amber!

That’s right, she’s taken this familiar fossilized resin and turned it into a fine textile for in vitro medical applications in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. She’s discovered that natural amber protects organisms from viruses and bacteria, and in a textile form this unique ‘amber yarn’ has a wide range of potential technical and industrial uses. Top fashion designers have something else in mind and are already contacting Dr. Lasenko to learn more about this new way to adorn yourself with ‘Latvian gold’. Amber scarves, blouses, skirts and pantyhose? Why not?

For Latvians, amber has always been a valued natural resource and a treasured national symbol. We’ve been unlocking its secrets for a thousand years. Now it’s a hi tech textile and a possible a high fashion accessory. Latvians really do know their amber, no matter how you look at it.