Latvia 2018 –– One

Riga, 06 July 2018.

On the familiar cobbled streets of Old Riga I follow my father’s footsteps. My mother walks next to him, and my sister and I are behind them. When I come out of the spell of conversation and look up from the cobbles I realise I have no idea where I am. It’s something I am unused to here, where I’ve spent plenty of time in charge of orientation, entertainment and comfort all alone.

We head to the LIDO on Elizabetes iela, where two of my uncles and and their wives wait. Suddenly I’m in a Swedish-speaking family reunion in the heart of Riga. My father and uncles speak Latvian to the waiters and other guests but not to each other. It’s a joy to hear them speak their first language, which through decades of underuse is rusty, and as old-fashioned as the 1940’s Latvian their parents brought to Sweden and raised them on. We eat sauerkraut and sausages, beans with pork, grilled fish, and stroganoff. I drink Kvass, they drink Medalus and Mežpils. We laugh and catch up, and the adults who have been in Riga for the past week tell me and my sister, who arrived today, about the Song and Dance Celebration we’ve gathered to watch.

Every five years since 1873, Latvians have celebrated traditional folksong and -dance. That is before the country became independent, as well as during the 52 years under occupation in the 20th century. Concerts and dance performances, together with art and craft exhibitions, take place across Riga, with choirs, players and dancers from the whole country, and from the Latvian diaspora abroad. The festival five years ago was the largest ever, both in terms of participants and audiences, but with the Latvian centenary this year, and the Mežaparks open air stage newly renovated, the 2018 festival is expected to break all previous records.

My uncle Juris is one of the diaspora singers, here together with the Stockholm Latvian Choir. He is not with us at lunch, as he is at Mežaparks rehearsing. I ask the others how he’s doing, and uncle Janis says he’s like a fish in water. More than a fish in the water, actually, speaking and singing in Latvian and being back in the city where he was born just a few months before his parents took him in a small boat in the dead of night to Sweden.

‘But he says he’s very tired,’ uncle Janis continues. ‘Which is very unlike him to admit.’

I agree. For my 74 year old uncle Juris to say that he’s tired he must be pushed to limits that no amount of work, gardening, singing, driving, fishing, sailing, renovating, writing or sleep deprivation will bring him to at home. I hope he’s happy.

After dinner we walk to the bus stop that will take us to Daugava Stadium, the football stadium in north Riga where tonight’s dance performance takes place. The city is full of people in a way I’ve never experienced before. A popular destination for European weekends away, and stag and hen dos, Riga and its cheap yet extensive nightlife benefits from plenty of tourists. But this is something else. The several different languages on the bus to the stadium, and different accents of English denoting global nationalities, indicate something stronger than tourism, something more like pilgrimage.

At Daugava Stadium we walk around some of the souvenir stalls before sitting down in the beer tent. It’s thousands of busy, with bags and coats and beers and folk dress. We compare the colours and fabrics and designs, the wreaths and crowns and scarves. They are all spectacular, and it’s impossible to chose a favourite. They are worn by men and women of all ages, from across the country. Headscarves on women as opposed to a wreath or crown signifies she’s married, and plenty of the older women wear this.

Some also wear sunglasses and leather jackets in the cool setting sun prior to the performance. I see one young man with a tattoo of traditional Latvian symbols behind his ear. A girl in her twenties sits in a tent weaving traditional ribbons for the folk dresses, but pauses to answer her smartphone. Another girl in long colourful woollen skirt and white linnen blouse, her long braid tied with red ribbon on her back, and a crown on her head, speeds past on a vespa on her way to the performance. Tradition and technology meet here, with old and young and history and modernity blending like the weaved patterns of the fabrics.

Pappa tells us how nice it is to be back in Riga with his brothers and his family. ‘They recognise us at our favourite bar now; the Swedish brothers who play cards and speak strange Latvian.’ He is proud and happy, as am I for him, but find the experience at odds with my own. I always tried to not stand out. The performance about to begin, we make our way to our seats.

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