Latvia

Eight weeks, eight countries. This is the third week. So it must be Latvia.

For most outsiders the three Baltic states -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- are completely fungible, if they are distinguished at all. In the same vein one might say that all 50 US states are the same. Though there is a vast common denominator, there are also differences. For Europe, in general, I think the common denominator is less. There is no single language, defining culture or shared history, and dissimilarities are greater. The Baltics do form a nicely describable unit -- separate and distinguishable from the various powers (Russia to the east, Germany to the west and south, and Scandinavia to the north) who have invaded, occupied or influenced them for centuries. The Republic of Latvia, for example, has been a free republic for less time than it has been occupied, most recently by the USSR (say Soviets, think Russians). The three Baltics seem to me about as similar or dissimilar as any of the 50 US states.

That said, I still don't like nation-states. I don't like the concept; I really don't like the results. I much prefer multi-culturalism -- that's my American and European bias. I especially liked the "idea" of the Soviet Union; the flaws, immense flaws at that, were in the implementation. Nationalities, usually with a strong, single religious influence, are either aggressors or, in the case of the Baltics, aggressees. Maybe China will prove the exception -- 95% one nation, Han China, not a state-supported religious polity, has not evidenced the evangelistic attitude of other powers: "We're right; the rest of the planet should be like us." To China, the rest of the world just isn't very important -- not worth fighting over.

That I don't like nation-states, the concept, doesn't preclude my liking those that exist. Estonia and Latvia, the two Baltics I have visited so far are quite nice places. The type of places that provide good values for raising kids -- a social consciences, little propensity towards conspicuous consumption, rising living standards, a future almost guaranteed to better the present. But as nation-states, these countries face two serious issues: the Russians and the European Community.

Each of these countries has an ethnic majority, but they also have a high proportion (over 40%) of ethnic Russians, the result of Soviet era nationality relocation policy. For economic and political reasons, these "local" Russians prefer not to return to Russia. Each of these countries seems to view itself not as multi-cultural (the reality) but as single, one ethnicity nations. Local Russians are encouraged to learn Estonian or Latvian, but to a large extent assimilation does not seem to be occurring at a rapid pace. At present, everyone over 30 in these counties has learned Russian (before the Soviet collapse). Men, especially, speak Russian, given their two years' Red Army service which provided a de facto language lab. The new generations of Estonians and Latvians are not learning Russian; if local Russians are not assimilating, linguistically at least, then the divisions will widen. Unfortunately, these two countries are far too nationalistic to accept themselves as multi-cultural. To some degree they discriminate against Russian locals. As they get ready to enter the EC, they will probably be carefully monitored. To better use the local Russians, as conduits and ties to Mother Russia, a future possible resource seems in the nations' best economic interests; so does the acceptance of multi-culturalism. Time will tell.

Next year these countries will likely join the EC with other former "Soviet Socialist Republics." Estonians go to the polls in September to ratify EC entry; if they reject the EC, I suspect their politicians will give them another vote "to get it right."

The EC offers participation in a world economic force -- one that counteracts the Americas and China/Asia -- that these little countries themselves don't possess. It also offers various supports to maintain their individual national identities. The EC funds conservation and preservation programs, for example. I heard anecdotal evidence that the EC was the devil incarnate. Rather than viewing the EC as the successor in kind of the Soviet Union, I prefer to see it as a means of safegua4rding these nations' identities. Again, time will tell.

Cycling in Latvia is not like cycling in Estonia. There is a 2001 Cycle Map of Latvia, of similar design to Estonia's and also co-funded by the European Community. But the routes themselves -- suggested by cycling clubs -- lack signs. From what I can tell there is not a single cycle route signpost in the entire country. Following the cycle map requires local knowledge or more patience and luck and better guesswork than I possess.

Riga is suburb, not just a stop-over, but a destination in its own right. Some buildings, destroyed by wars over the centuries, have been reconstructed; others are being rehabilitated, but many stand, well-worn but dignified like a grandparent, a catalogue of architectural styles. The Jugendstil or art nouveau style has facades with monsters, human heads or other figures. It surprises me that Riga has not acquired UNESCO World Heritage status.

The most common question I'm asked as a touring cyclist is whether cycling solo isn't lonely. More often I'm pointedly told it must be lonely and I am expected to defend myself. Yes, it can be lonely at times, if there's no one to meet and talk with. I've gone days, even weeks without a conversation of substance. That's one of the reasons SERVAS is so valuable as a way to meet locals. But on the road, loneliness when not desirable (and being alone is desirable much of the time and being singularly in control of one's schedule and mistakes is desirable all the time) can be avoided if one takes the initiative.

At Sigulda LV I took the initiative and befriended a group of 4 young men from eastern Germany. The quartet -- two had just graduated high school and two were in their final year -- were on a 2 week cycle trip around Latvia and Lithuania. We camped in the Segulda site for 2 nights. While they relaxed and wrote post cards and went around town, I spent my layover biking 80 kms to and from Cesis (the most medieval of Latvia towns - Latvians say the most Latvian). While the German youth cooked their daily dose of noodles, I went to sample the local cuisine and libation. I introduced them to Karums, a bite-sized chunk of dairy mass (maybe a mix of creamcheese, whipped cream, butter and sugar) that at 153 calories a swallow is a cyclist's delight.

We agreed to meet the following day in Riga. I left at my usual 8 am and visited the Motor Museum (life-sized Stalin and Khrushchev with their vehicles) en route; they left several hours later, still several hours in advance of their usual wake-up. Together we visited old town Riga, the Latvian Occupation [by Nazis and Soviets] Museum 1940-91, the recently reconstructed, from scratch, House of Blackheads, an elaborate replica of the 1344 guildhall of unmarried merchants. My young friends felt it was a bit extravagant (their tax euros at work) and too filled with kitsch. And we visited the Jugendstil. Then we biked on to Jurmala - delayed an hour by thunder, lightening and a near flash flood.

I spent the next few evenings with them - camping once in the Zemaitija national Park among 1500 jamboreeing scouts, in an organization alive and well after having been banned for so long by the Soviets. I named the Germans Mr. Ortlieb - he had borrowed a complete biking Ortlieb set-up, 6 red bags - from his brother; Mr. Mekanik - there must be one in every group (he oiled the chain with left-over margarine); Mr. Kulture, who attempted to give their trip an educational aspect; and Mr. England, who was spending his next year as a volunteer in the UK. These four worked well together and combined into a complete whole. Take a look at their high-tech homepage).

I have no idea what the 4 youth (any three of them add up to my age) made of me, but at least they appreciated my introducing them to two local liqueurs: Riga's black 90 proof Balzams and Vana Tallinn, with which we flambeed bananas. Quickly in and out of my life. I wish them well. For me it was an interesting five days. I was not a bit lonely.

Nina, LT

25 July 2003