Sunday, July 04, 2004

TRAVEL LOG: Celebrating the Summer Solstice the Latvian Way

South of Kalamazoo, near the town of Three Rivers lies, nestled in the woods and lakes of southern Michigan, is a very interesting place. A summer encampment called Garezers, the decades-old cultural center where the Latvian language and culture was preserved during the Cold War.

John's Day, as in many European cultures, is tied to ancient pre-Christian solar celebrations. In the Latvian tradition, the men, dressed in highly-decorated gray overcoats, wear crowns of oak leaves (with one man, the "John," wearing the largest crown). The women, dressed in white shirts and colorful vests, wear floral crowns (here's a historical photo of some Latvian women in traditional costumes).

After a lot of dancing, a large bonfire is lit toward sundown and more singing, dancing and revelry follows late into the night.

Entering Another Country. The John's Day festivities last week Saturday were held at Garezers' outdoor amphitheatre, at the end of a dirt road that winds its way through thick woods. Putting on the John's Day festival is not a cheap undertaking; entrance was $12 per person.

As I drove in with my family, we saw a man sitting in a white plastic chair drinking a beer. It was 6 p.m. and the man, who must of been in his 60s, was already drunk. (The celebrations weren't scheduled to begin until 8 p.m.) After trying to ask him whether we were supposed to pay him or whether we could go on through, he mumbled something that he repeated and then verbally stumbled over again.

While the translation doesn't do the moment justice, he said something to the effect of: "I have no idea. I don't care if you go in."

After quickly trying to interpret his declaration, we decided to drive in. We took a position near the top of the amphitheatre's terraced steps. There were already two elderly women seated toward the top. At one point, they were discussing whether their grandchildren would show up. They had their doubts.

Where Old-Timers Meet Second-Generation and Newcomers. I never learned the Latvian language, though in some circumstances, I can generally understand words and phrases. But through ceremonies and events like John's Day, I have gotten to understand the Latvians' beautiful and artistic culture, reinforced with many rich traditions.

A place like Garezers brings together the varied elements of Latvian society in North America. It's where the older generation who remember the old country gathers with the second and third generations of Latvian-Americans, many who, like myself, only understand the culture in bits and pieces. Garezers is also a place that draws newcomers -- read "Russian-Latvians" -- those who grew up under Soviet control and bring to the North America a hybrid native culture. (The Latvian people hold only a slim majority to the Russians who were resettled in the Baltic states under Stalin's push to Russify the population.)

The fractures in the overall Latvian community can become strained. At recent John's Day festivals, the local sheriff has been called to break up drunken scuffles between newcomers and the established Latvians. This year, we left well before the time when the bulk of the newcomers, so I'm not sure if there was any drunken rough-housing.

Up in the corner were the summer campers, who looked like they might have stepped out of the nearest mall. Garezers hosts a camp where children can be introduced to the Latvian language and culture. Besides a few of the girls wearing floral crowns, there was no trace of their Latvian roots besides their fair skin.

The generation gap between the young and the old can often be the most difficult to adjust to. Last year, my grandfather was taken aback when a teenage girl in front of him sat down in a way where her stomach was showing and a jeweled thong was peeking out from her shorts. Certainly there weren't any young maidens fleeing the Red Army in 1940 with jeweled thongs.

There are only a few million Latvians in the world and the culture has been diluted after 50 years of Soviet occupation. Larger ethnic groups have easier time preserving the traditions. But for the Latvians, it is more difficult. Garezers is one of a handful of places in North America that provides a gathering point for the major traditions to be explored and revisited. But as the older Latvian generation continues to gray, it is inevitable that many of these traditions will be lost.

The Bunker. In February 2001, one of my cousins from Riga came to visit me in Ann Arbor. As his English wasn't all that great and my Latvian skills are piss-poor at best, I sought out Latvians our age who spoke the language. I came across a history classmate who happened to not only speak Latvian, but was also hosting a Latvian party at his house on campus that was to draw college-age Latvian speakers from across the Midwest.

My cousin's eyes bugged out when he stepped into the house's basement and found that it had been transformed into a World War II bunker, with battle maps, anti-Soviet slogans, and images of armed struggle scrawled onto the foundation. There was a drinking bench and a roll call of Latvian fraternity brothers and their nicknames (our names were added to the list).

Drinking is fundamentally important to the culture. Doing a round of cheers (pronounced "pree-air-ka") can take an eternity to complete because, as in many other cultures, failing to establish proper eye contact with everyone at the table is a key misstep.

World War II and Soviet occupation is still very much in the minds of the older generation. To the second and third generations, understanding the Cold War Latvian experience can get a little hazy, where war remembrance can be somewhat misunderstood or even become a novelty. This is probably why my cousin found it crazy that Latvian fraternity brothers were re-enacting a time period the Latvian nation has been trying to move past.

The Goats Are Shredding the Cabbage. Song and dance are very important to the continuation of Latvian traditions. At John's Day there were many circle dances performed by what I was told was a troupe from Chicago. The men and the women were divided and took their turns singing and dancing. The mug dance, for instance, is a highly interpretive sequence of men drinking with mugs and the women scolding them, all in a circle dance format.

We did a rough translation of one of the songs for which we were handed a song sheet. You can see that some of the lyrics make little sense. But as these are centuries-old tunes, their meanings, context and impact have been lost over time. Here is a quick sampling:

Men: Come to me young maiden
You will never experience hunger
In winter, I will let you crunch on ice
In summer, I will let you crunch on stones

Women: Boy, boy, I'm telling you
Go and wash your mouth
You will not get a wife
Until you wash your mouth


Men: Sleep, sleep young maiden
Your work is finished
The pig weeded your garden
And the goat was shredding the cabbage

And then for the conclusion, something a little more universal from the chorus:

Let's have peace, let's have peace
We are not enemies
We are all from the same country
Let's all live together in peace

For more information of Latvia, I encourage you to take a peek at the All About Latvia blog, which is probably the best English-language blog on current Latvian-related matters.

Also, for those who frequent the Pharmacy Bar on 18th Street, you may notice the Latvian newspapers on the wall. The bar is indeed a Latvian establishment.


At 11:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, thank you for the kind words about All About Latvia. I would like to learn more about your Latvian heritage, so don't hesitate to drop me a note. Also, I am a product of the Russo-Latvian marriage, so I'm a bit apprehensive to join in with old Latvians because of a potential brawl. But I do live close to Garezers and plan to send my son there where he's old enough.

Nice blog. A shame you've not updated it in a while.


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