I have been travelling to Latvia every year for the last nine years.
I call it my second home.
When your friends over there leave a key under the milk bottles when you are coming over because they are in another city and ask you to look after their pets until they get home, I think you can safely say you have found a place and a people who trust and welcome you.
I have found Latvia to be the most welcoming of places.
There is a deep found respect in the people’s lives. A respect for life and, after living through the various things they have, there is a respect and appreciation for second chances. It is a country experiencing rebirth and there is an excitement in the air. But it isn’t without issues. An ageing population and the rise of ‘ghost towns’ due to the missing generations (anyone under 40), a lot of whom have moved West in search of better economic conditions.
Wages for professionals - teachers, social workers, police etc - are in the hundreds not thousands and a lot of people eek out a living from the land. Google tells us the nations GDP is around $16k - (having risen from $2k in 1994) with the UK’s currently around $42k. Yes when you go to Riga there are sports cars and a few lovely shopping centres (one of which puts the Shabbycentre to shame), but the majority of the residents of the country live frugally, with the main money generators being wood, the service industry, an increasing and awesome tourist industry, food (honey = the bees knees) and an ingenuity towards life.
While most of us are thinking about France next June, we need to turn our heads turn towards Latvia this Friday.
The boys should knock them out of the park. It will be a tough, physical battle but the GAWA have the skills to ‘do them over’. The majority of their squad play in Latvia, which is Irish league standard. As a former Carrick Rangers U 15 & 16 captain I feel I could have got a kick in their league. One summer I trained with the current league champions which was a cool couple of nights. Some of their other players play in mid to lower leagues across Europe and one fella plays for BATE. So their squad is one, if not two steps behind ours.
Their national stadium in Riga has a 9500 capacity and I nearly got kicked out of another stadium one time for starting the bouncy. Their security guards don’t do the bouncy, or banter as it happens. At a footballing level Marian Pahars, the wee man who scored some wonderful goals in The Prem, including this gem against The Scum, has brought a fantastic professional ethic to the national setup - not dissimilar to what King Michael has done for the GAWA. We should beat them, but shouldn’t take them lightly.
In my next book I am addressing the undercurrent of racism in our country through the diary of a young football loving Polish lad called Artur (Arthur). And yes I know it’s sometimes more of an in your face blatant racism when we entertain sentences such as, ‘Oh Eastern Europeans. The ones who wash your car, take our jobs, run the sun-beds and cut you up in traffic.’
Some people would say, ‘take race out of it. People are people.’ And while this is true I say keep race in. Where you are from shapes who you are and who you are becoming. To be a truly inclusive society we need to celebrate our differences. I want to eat the different types of food and take part in the celebrations the various cultures (many that have been here for generations) hold dear. I love when I travel to Latvia and hear stories of how one of the Babushkas grandkids lives in Ballymoney or Dublin and how they love living in Ireland!
As a writer I have been deeply inspired by the country of Latvia and I am currently writing a war book set in the city of Liepaja. It follows the life of a man called Janis (John) who has the misfortune to live through WW1 and WW2. You might say he was lucky to survive the wars but when you research the brutality faced by those who have survived a war you quickly realise that life was something lived, endured and not always enjoyed. But despite that life had to go on, people fell in love, babies were born and folk tales were sung in bars and cellars. The book focuses on the horrible fact that the city of Liepaja used to have a thriving Jewish population, but at the end of WW2 only 3% of those who proudly called themselves Jews, remained. 97% of the Jewish population of Liepaja were, well, you know what happened to them. It has been very difficult to research, you couldn’t make up some of the things I have read. Things that are in the history books.
I would encourage you to pop over to Riga for a weekend, and if you are feeling brave to go for a week and explore beyond Riga. There is a wonderful Old Town - with, yes tourist prices, but plenty of culture. I have loads of stories to share from the last 9 years of travelling to Latvia but I will leave you with these two:
I remember sitting in an old Soviet apartment block - of a former KGB spy. The older generation hold this life bringing, bone shaking depth in their minds and hearts. But for me it’s their eyes. Eyes that swell as they remember stories of their youth. Eyes that drown in tears as they recall stories that those of us from the West only hear about in blockbuster movies. Life in the secretive state was hard and some of their stories are stomach churning.
I was sitting on a bus, inspecting my mosquito bites when a man in his late 50’s got up from his seat, walked up the bus and gave me a closed fisted punch on the side of the head. It’s not cool to put your feet up on the seats when you are on a bus.
So travel to Riga, a fantastic place for a stag or hen party or a city break weekend and walk over the streets that only 24 years ago were occupied by Soviet forces.