As promised, I wanted to give some observations and thoughts on our trip to Latvia for Robert and Laura’s wedding. Giving a day by day account is not my thing, so for that, look at my previous entry which has links to Tiffany’s journal of our adventure. I tried to make some notes of things that struck me as unique and interesting as I was jostled around in the mini-bus (very, very mini) as we left Liepaja back to Riga.
As is probably logical when visiting a former Soviet block country, I really wondered what evidence of the former U.S.S.R would still be visible. Latvia gained independence in 1991, so there have been many years for the country to remove the traces. While traveling through Latvia, it is clear that the economy is still very agriculturally based. I think to me a perfect example of the difference in the economy and how the society operates was the food market in Liepaja.
In the US, “Farmer’s Markets” are places that generally get set up on weekends as destinations for the upper middle class to show up and shop with their little dogs in tow. It is a specialty type of place and it is considered socially responsible and earth friendly to shop locally grown foods. It is viewed as “progressive” to participate. There is a certain irony in this view when you look at a country like Latvia. In reality, there is nothing “progressive” about those kinds of markets (except maybe the extra costs in the US). They have existed for centuries. And until you see one in a country like Latvia, where it runs every day and is used as a primary source of food, that you can truly understand and appreciate what a market can be. The quality and variety of locally grown food was amazing; from great vegetables to more variety in meats and fish than you see in most any store or market in the US.
Another food observation. Fruit trees were everywhere! Mostly apple, you would see them in almost everyone’s yards, along the sides of roads, in the city. And as far as I could tell, these were not the nasty, inedible crab apple varieties you see used as ornamentation in the US; no, these were regular, pick off the tree and eat varieties. At one point I wondered where Gunta (one of Laura’s bridesmaids) kept getting an apple to eat until I realized she was just pulling them off a tress above us.
The cuisine was also unbelievable. Before we left, Tiffany and I did some quick research into Latvian cuisine. Unsurprisingly given the climate, we found that it was heavily based on root vegetables. We were a little concerned given the US mentality of how these are cooked; often resulting in relatively tasteless piles of mush. We could not have been more wrong; what these people could do with potatoes? oh my god. I think it is a lesson to learn for anyone traveling: No one likes to eat nasty food. If a country has a particular ingredient that dominates its cuisine, they will find the best, most tasty ways to cook it. The item that the articles we read failed to mention, was the wonders that the Latvian cooks can do with sauces. Yes, many of the meals that we had were pork and potato based, but, oh, the sauces. Rich, flavorful, mouthwatering; they added such variety to what would in the US be considered simple, not particularly sexy ingredients. Dill seems to be a favorite herb, one I was not overly used to cooking with, but they used it so expertly to add to the fresh ingredients they had at hand. I will never again scoff at the native ingredients when I travel.
It felt to me like Latvia was a country that was still firmly rooted in the 19th century but was either running or being pushed headlong into the 21st century. Wonderful, local food could be had for a fraction of the cost that we pay, however a piece of electronics that is cheap in the US would be exorbitantly expensive. This dichotomy showed itself when we visited Laura’s family at their farm; They had reasonably reliable internet access provided by what appeared to be a mesh network, but still had an outhouse.
It appears I meandered a bit from my topic of lookouts for Soviet influences. The simple observation is that I did not see many. From what little I understand of Latvian history, the local population was not overly fond of their place in the Soviet Union, so it is unsurprising that in 18 years they removed the overt signs of their dominion. However I did notice some things that I think are probably hints. While riding the train from Riga to Liepaja, we went past many train stations for small towns. After about 2 or 3 of them I realized that for the small towns, they were all identical in architecture and decoration; the only way to distinguish them from each other were the signs. I picture for myself a book given to architects that when a new train station was needed, they looked it up, indexed it by town size and built the appropriate one. I was also surprised that even given the abundance of forests, all of the power and communication poles were made of concrete, not wood. I have no idea why this may be; there are certainly durability reasons, but maybe there was also an imperative to use more concrete.
One last cultural note for anyone else traveling to Latvia. Prepare to give lots of flowers. Going to a wedding? Bring Flowers! Meeting someone for dinner? Bring Flowers! Going to a party? Bring Flowers! This we learned before we went on the trip, but there is another secret; how many? For positive, happy events (weddings, party, etc.) you should bring an odd number of flowers. For solemn events, bring an even number of flowers. There; now you know.
It was an amazing trip, I would love to go back and have more time to wander and visit the country (and eat more of their wonderful food).