18 November 2018. Independence Day
The air in Riga is cold this time, I wear winter boots and my breath fogs. But the atmosphere is still warm and celebratory. Just like in July, when I was last here, the small city is busy with people who have come home, back or away to celebrate an important national event. This time it isn’t cultural, like the Song and Dance Celebration, but political and historical. My sister is with me, unlike this summer when the rest of our family were here, and unlike two and a half years ago when I came here for the first time alone. We wait at Freedom Square to watch the President of the Republic and other chosen dignitaries and representatives lay flowers at the feet of the Freedom Monument. Today Latvia celebrates its 100th birthday as an independent nation, and around us people shiver, with thrill and anticipation as we all as chill and restlessness.
The President of the Republic arrives and is handed the burgundy and white wreath he is to place at the foot of the monument. Then the national anthem is played by a military band and broadcast through speakers across the square. Men remove their hats and hold them to their hearts, as nearly everyone joins to sing Dievs, svētī Latviju!, God Bless Latvia! This is a singing nation, as we experienced in the summer’s Song Festival, and learnt at the National Library of Latvia where the Dainu Skapis, the Cabinet of Folksongs, a collection of 218,000 folksongs that are on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, are kept. During the near half its life which was under Soviet occupation, Dievs, svētī Latviju! was forbidden to sing, and an alternative national anthem was chosen. After independence was restored after the Singing Revolution, a peaceful protest that culminated in the Baltic Way, a 600 km unbroken human chain from Tallinn via Riga to Vilnius, the original anthem was restored. And now the President and his people sing it, whisper it, maybe shed a little tear to it.
With freedom comes responsibility. It can be an exhilarating and terrifying thing, and requires a counterweight of calm and level-headedness. I know this because every time I begin to write, the white empty page of opportunities both excites and frightens me. When I was in Riga in 2016, I had just quit my job to write a book about this country, and my family’s relation to it. I was as scared and euphoric as if I was on drugs ever single day.
I had hoped it would be finished in time for this great occasion, but, although the first draft is complete, I’m still about as far away from the finished product as I was back then. The terror and anxiety is still there before each time I write, when the words and the meanings and the stories are still possibilities, before they become realities. But so is the intoxicating joy of being free to create absolutely anything.
After the song and the ceremonial placing of flowers, there is a military parade and later in the evening a train of thousands of torch-bearing people walk through the streets, before a magnificent firework display over the river. Economic growth, EU and NATO memberships, and freedom to move and work and express displeasure, are realities of freedom. It is worth celebrating.
Because freedom is a terrifying thing. Standing on the brink of opportunity induces vertigo; living your dreams is not the same as dreaming them. To understand your freedom and to realise it requires grounding and persistence. Having it is not easy, and using it is even harder. Nations like Latvia are still learning, and people like me are still trying. But we fight on, into the centuries.