Latvia, Jewel of the Baltic
One of the best things about working as a nuclear engineer for 38 years is the interaction with people all over the world. I have great friends in dozens of countries who I can visit whenever I come by, and who know they always have a place to come to if they ever get to Pittsburgh. During the 1990s, I worked on a project that involved people from the UK, France, Belgium, Indonesia, especially Eastern Europe. Some of my best friends during this time were from the small country of Latvia on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Located between Lithuania and Belarus to the south, Russia to the east, and Estonia to the north, Latvia is one of the three former Soviet republics (along with Lithuania and Estonia), who became independent after the fall of communism. During these tumultuous times, some Latvians came to Pittsburgh to work with us on a new nuclear power plant design, and became some of my closest friends. Since then, I’ve been twice to visit them at their home just outside Riga, the capital, and several times after their three-year assignment here, they have come back to the US. During our stay in the UK, we hosted their daughters at our place, and visited their daughter, Lauma, at the university in Brighton. With social media, we can keep up with them a lot better now. But we’ve never missed an opportunity to see them when we get the chance. They are also wonderful hosts, and Latvia is a wonderful place to visit, especially if you have friends to show you around.
Alvis, Inese, and their three beautiful daughters, Ilza, Lauma, and Maija live in the suburb of Babite, just south of Riga. Ilza is married and Alvis and Inese are grandparents just like us! Like lots of small countries (Latvia is about the size of Pennsylvania), a large percentage (one-third) of the Latvians live in the capital, Riga. Most of the rest of the country is very rural and tree-covered with nice beaches along the Baltic. I came there during a trip around the world in the late 1990s. We also spent three days there in 2009, and got to see quite a lot, thanks to our friends. Max was only 4, and the girls just ate him up. They tried to teach him Latvian words like “Sveiks” which is hello, and “Ata” which is goodbye. More about that later.
The Zarina castle in beautiful suburban Babite
I’ll take you to three places we really liked. Probably a couple of day trips.
Everything in Latvia starts and ends in Riga. This is the capital and chief city, and most of the Latvians live and work here. The city is also very, very old. It was on the main trade routes between Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and with access to the Baltic Sea, was an important port. For this reason, armies were continually marching through and conquering Riga. The most notable sight in the city are the high church steeples. Perched on the top of each is a large bronze cock, some weathered black. I asked my friends, why there were chickens on the spires and they told me that they used to use cocks to “warn of approach of enemies”. As Riga is the most conquered city in Europe, I think I would’ve used something a bit more formidable than a chicken, but hey, to each their own. The city is on the banks of the Daugava River and the shores of the Gulf of Riga which a large bay off the Baltic. The city just oozes old world charm. There are lots of old buildings and you can climb up into the steeples to get a good look at the town.
The heart of the city is a large market that is housed in four huge zeppelin hangers from the 1930s. Inside are a huge variety of fresh foods. Alvis got us fresh salmon fillets that he cured overnight with sugar. The salmon on black bread with butter, onions and lemon was one of the best things I ever ate.
An interesting note. Although Latvia now uses the Euro, back when we visited, they still used the Lat which was equal to about $2.00. To park at the lots near the market required a one-Lat coin for the meter, which was kind of pricey. Lauma (middle daughter) was attending school in the UK, and the ten pence coin (about $0.20 back then), was exactly the same size and weight as the one-Lat coin. Just sayin’.
The Ethnographical Open-Air Museum – Juglas Lake
Our hosts drove us out of town to an open-air museum where we could walk through historical buildings from Latvia in the Middle Ages. All the buildings were made of pine logs which make up almost all the trees in Latvia. There were arts and crafts and cool stuff for sale. There were games that kids used to play, and Max had a blast there.
The last place we went was to the Baltic seashore town of Jurmala. I actually went here the first time I visited when it was still winter. It’s not far from Riga, and the place was crowded with people strolling along the frozen sand with temperatures hovering around zero. When we were there in March, it was much nicer.
We bought Inese’s dad a bottle of Armenian brandy in Jurmala, and I made a friend for life.
I hope you enjoyed our (couple of) day trip to Latvia. It is a wonderful place to visit. Full of history and a Riga is a beautiful Old World kind of city.
Well worth a visit.
Bonus – Why You Want to Learn to Speak Latvian (and bring along a 4-year old)
As I said, my friends’ daughters took a great interest in 4-year old Max and taught him some Latvian words. When we got back to the UK, I had a business meeting in London. We stayed at a rather nice hotel there, and I took my wife Denise and Max along with me. As we were checking in, the girl at reception had a name tag that caught my eye. Her name was Zanda. I asked her if she might be Latvian, and she said that she had moved there from Riga. Max took an interest, and said, “Hi Zanda, I’m Max. I know how to say ‘Hi’ in Latvian.” She said, “Hi Max. How do you say ‘Hi’ in Latvian?” Max says, “Svieks! Svieks Zanda!” And she replies, “Sviekes Max. How would you like to stay in the nicest room in the whole hotel?” Max says, “I would like that Zanda.”
Now I mentioned to Zanda that I was there for work and couldn’t afford the nicest room in the hotel. She replied that they kept a suite open for anybody royal or otherwise important that may happen along, but that it was now late, and that she would let us have it for the regular room price. Thus, we were installed in a four-room suite with two bedrooms and two sitting rooms. I met up with my colleagues in the lobby where they were complaining about their broom closet-sized rooms, and debating where we might hold a pre-meeting before we met with the customer. I offered to let them use one of my sitting rooms. The two VPs that were with us were not all that pleased with me.
It pays to have a cute 4-year old with a gift for language.
Day-tripping with Rick