Riga, Latvia: the best place you’ve never been

A lot has changed since the Cold War ended. If this is news to you, please stop reading immediately. You don’t want to drink water from a fire hose. But, if you are in fact aware that the Berlin Wall fell (and that David Hasselhoff provided the soundtrack, to the joy of Germans and the chagrin of Americans), then keep going. You’re about to find out why you need to get out to Riga, Latvia.

The days of bugged hotel room phones may be in the past, but you can still see the equipment used to defend the Eastern Bloc against the evils of capitalism at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia – a name that makes clear how welcome the Russian’s were in this corner of the world. However, these devices are notably absent from the , now a primo site in what is sometimes called the Paris of the Baltics.

Cruise along Albert Street to enjoy the city’s architectural high-points, including facades adorned with serpents, birds, flowers and female faces. German, Austrian and Finnish influences converge on this small nation to create a unique blend that is hard to find anywhere else. With cobblestone under foot, you will soak in the history of this city, and this country, through the faces of its buildings.

Stop by the Central Market while you’re in Riga. It occupies five old Zeppelin hangars, with each representing a different food group: meat, fish, dairy, bread and produce. Also, stop by Laima, the country’s top local chocolate-maker, and make sure you leave room in your bags to bring some home.

When the Iron Curtain was pulled back, we celebrated, and we moved on. Many of the countries once obstructed from view were merely forgotten. Remember them, and add them to our itinerary. As time passes, relics of the communist era will be supplanted by the latest iteration of modernity. The clock is ticking.

Oh, and don’t speak Russian!

OK, in Latvia, do not speak Russian

Language is a funny thing: When you say something wrong, even in a foreign tongue, you don’t have to be told you made a mistake. The reaction says it all.

It comes in the form of a stony face, a pause, and an answer that in itself is a correction.

At least that’s what I was thinking about today. I’m writing this from Latvia, a country that has its own language – Latvian – and a de facto language, Russian, that was the lingua franca here throughout decades of communism.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a word of Latvian. Instead, approaching a shopkeeper a little while ago, I spoke to her in Russian. Zd`rravstvuite, I said, using the basic hello in Russian, and proceeded to ask her how much a scarf cost (it’s **bleeping** cold here!). I speak enough Russian to ask the very basics: how much, where to, what is good.

But I awakened her ire with my Russian greeting. She returned it with something I didn’t understand, and proceeded to answer all my questions decidedly not in Russian.It was a reminder that this is one of the fiercest battling grounds in the former Soviet Bloc for the sustainability of the Russian language.

Sure, you’ve got the countries that were members of the Warsaw Pact, places like the Czech Republic and Poland, who maintained their own language traditions. But the countries that were actually part of greater Russia during communist times spoke their own language merely as dialect, which bowed to the hegemony of Mother Russia’s tongue.

Now, Russia is complaining that its language is under fire in countries like Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Russia is making it a human right’s case: There is a sizable ethnic Russian majority spread throughout the Baltics, particularly in Latvia.

When Latvia achieved independence in the 1990s it quickly began to marginalize the ethnic Russian population that had settled here, giving citizenship to anyone who would claim purely Latvia ethnicity. Yet scores of Russians settled here during the Cold War era and gave birth to children here. Latvia’s position has eased in recent years, but it still will not grant citizenship (not an insignificant thing, given its EU membership) to you unless you can demonstrate a mastery of Latvian history and the Latvian language.

This has incensed Latvia’s ethnic Russian population, which stands at around 30 percent of the population. Latvians haven’t helped things: the government has moved to close ethnic Russian schools and for those that remain open the government has made it mandatory that classes are taught more than half of the time in Latvian.

Is there much of a difference between the two languages? Most Latvians, certainly of a specific age, understand Russians fluently, and a lot of ethnic-Russians living here understand Latvian, if only generally. I have a good background in Slavic languages and I can pick out understanding in both. [Update: Many readers have kindly corrected the erroneous assertion implied in this sentence, specifically that Latvian is a Slavic language. It is not. Still, despite it belonging to another linguistic family, I can still pull out the occasional word (especially spoken numbers) because they sound similar to the Slavic languages I am more familiar with.]

But it’s an illustration of what language means, even in today’s European Union, where you sometimes have to lay claim to a certain background or experience if it means your national identity.

Thinking about this, it certainly explains the cold reception I received, and serves as a reminder that in today’s Latvia, there might be a better way to say hello (Sveiki).

Travel sans visa coming for European, Caribbean, Mauritius, and Seychelles nationals

A mutual agreement allowing Europeans, nationals from four Caribbean countries, and citizens of two island nations in the Indian Ocean is expected to be passed and approved by the end of March, which will allow for hassle-free and smoother travel.

If you hold a passport from any of the following countries, it means you’re that much more free to travel between those listed sans visa:
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, the Bahamas, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Mauritius, and Seychelles. The maximum continuous stay in any one country will be three months (90 days).

I have a feeling this means we’ll be seeing more speedos and nude women on the beaches of the Caribbean very, very soon.

[via South Florida Caribbean News]