This past weekend (in-between weeks PowerSchooling and PowerScheduling with the International School of Brussels) I took a little side trip to Riga, Latvia. I opened up a little contest of sorts on Facebook with my friends, asking for suggestions where I should go that was within a 3 hour plane trip from Brussels – Jon Altbergs was the clear winner! I’ve always wanted to go to Riga, my wife’s mother and her family are from Latvia, and I was a Soviet/East European Studies major in university, so I figured it was time to look up some family sites and practice my Russian!
Riga is a beautiful city on the Daugava river in Latvia, an independent country on the Baltic Sea which regained it’s independence from the Soviet Union circa 1990. Latvia was caught between the Germans and Soviets 70 years ago during World War 2, which was also the time my mother-in-law as a youngster fled west with her family to escape certain tragedy. Over the last 20 years there has occasionally been talk in the family about going back, but understandably, there have been mixed feelings about it. I’m hoping my little visit to Latvia might break the ice and we can get everyone on board for a trip back next summer.
Riga first entered my consciousness as a little kid. Although I am not too much of a nerd (no comments!), I have always had a fascination with maps and history (I used to read the World Atlas and collect maps as young as 4-5 years old) and Riga to me was the city with ties to the Crusades, and located on the northeastern frontier (according to the maps) of the Hanseatic League trade routes (read about it) in the 14-15th centuries. I know, right now you’re thinking I must have been a freak of a kid, but I turned out to be a semi-normal, productive member of society. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoy going to all of the places I daydreamed about and I wasn’t disappointed in Riga at all.
Whenever I visit an older city (especially in Europe) my first inclination is to check out the sites of historical importance; old churches and cathedrals, castles and fortifications, and sites important to politics and commerce (like aforementioned Hanseatic League) that shaped the evolution of what these places are today. Riga was packed with cathedrals, churches, houses of commerce, castles, military barracks and fortifications going back to the middle ages. The city also has a bevy of interesting but dwindling soviet-era monuments and architecture which gave me a good fix of the era I studied at GWU back in the days of the Cold War.
The other interesting aspect of Riga is of a city geographically close to several other countries and cultures. Riga, although mostly inhabited by Latvians, also had a festive mix of Russians, Finns, Germans, Poles, Estonians and Lithuanians. It is funny sometimes how you can tell where people are from just by mannerisms and behaviors. As I was wandering around Riga taking photos of some of the sites, I could recognize the Latvians traveling around mostly as family units and really “soaking up” being in the city. I could tell they took a lot of pride in their city and wanted to make sure I would love it as much as they did.
The Russians really cracked me up. One story – You know how most people will snap a quick photo, or stand and smile for a photo next to a statue or some famous place? All over the place I was running into Russians (especially couples) where they would have to take 15-20 different photos in different model-like poses at every site like it was a photo shoot for Vanity Fair. Seriously, for them the location was secondary to the style and pose of person in the photo. I had to laugh, but I wasted a lot of time waiting for them to finish their lengthy sessions so I could click my one quick photo. And, as far as the Finns, I think it was their version of Vegas – what they did in Riga (and could still remember) stays in Riga!
My one minor failure on this particular trip was not being able to get to my mother-in-law’s childhood hometown of Jaunjelgava about 60 miles upriver from Riga. There was no train service and there was only one bus per day that arrived there at 4:00 in the afternoon and went right back to Riga – just not logistically possible. However, Jon Altbergs, the friend who suggested Riga in my little contest and whose family also came from Latvia sent me some tips of things to do and see in Riga from a cousin of his, and in the list of things to do she mentioned his grandfather’s house (and address) in Riga. It was fun to actually find his grandfather’s house and take a few photographs for him since he’s never been to Riga himself! That was definitely a win to do for him what I wasn’t able to do for myself on my mother-in-law’s behalf – We’ll have to do it as a family next year!
OK, back to work in Brussels now!