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November is not just doom and gloom

  • 2009-11-12
  • By Philip Birzulis

SINGING REVOLUTION: Some of the best things in Latvia are the pretty girls singing traditional folk songs.

RIGA - All nations of the world complain, but few do it with as much relish as the British. In fact, the residents of those isles have an entire television show devoted to whining.
"Room 101" was originally the place in Orwell's 1984 where those who offended Big Brother were sent to experience the thing they feared the most. In contrast, the TV series Room 101 offers guest celebrities the chance to rid the world of five aspects of modern life they hate. Over the last decade and a half, items ranging from televangelists to airports have been thus disposed of.

While watching the program recently, I began dreaming up things that could go into a Latvian Room 101. Potholed roads, tax office employees, English stag parties 's the only problem would be whittling the list down. But this would not be a particularly original exercise, given that grumbling is a daily routine for all 2.3 million of the crisis-ridden country's inhabitants (and some foreigners to boot.) It would be more interesting to identify five terrific things about Latvia that should be preserved during this epoch of pervasive pessimism. So without further ado, here are some things to applaud, rather than slash your wrists about as Latvia celebrates Independence Day on November 18.

1. Choir singing

A nation which wins its freedom through a singing revolution rather than a blood-soaked uprising does things a bit differently. And Latvians' reaction to the present economic crisis is a little off-beat too, with membership in choirs up and choral competitions on TV drawing huge ratings. The local choir is a vital part of every village and town, providing inexpensive fun and a social network no matter how long you have been jobless. And given the resources, this grass-roots harmonizing makes a sound like nothing else on Earth 's the Song Festivals are on the UNESCO world heritage list, while the youth ensemble Kamer has been judged the best choir in the world at many international events. If music is the food of love, Latvia has a very big heart.

2. Grandma's pickles

Tending allotments and buying local produce have become all the rage in the West of late. This is old hat to the average Latvian, who has retained valuable gardening, jam making and mushroom collecting skills through wars, communism and a torrent of consumerism over the last 20 years. A study by Yale University ranks Latvia as the world's 8th greenest country, and if you listen to Latvian folk songs or hear the average person speaking with reverence about forests and animals, you realize that caring for the planet is part of the culture. National litter collection days attract tens of thousands of volunteers. Over the centuries, macho neighboring states have stomped on the Latvians countless times. But perhaps the global zeitgeist is shifting, and reverence towards Mother Earth (worshipped by the local Pagans for millennia) is beginning to matter more than what kind of tank you drive.

3. Skiing

It's not that Sigulda will ever rival Chamonix or St. Moritz for downhill excitement. What is remarkable is how enterprising Latvians create a ski slope with lifts, rental gear and restaurants on every incline of a pretty flat piece of real estate.
This spirit is everywhere. The most depressed towns have cafes, hairdressers and sawmills. The countryside is dotted with farm stay cottages (book your romantic rural getaway at www.celotajs.lv) The web is crowded with Latvian shopping portals and dating sites. The country exports everything from electronics to bio fuels.
The Economy Minister has been babbling recently about how helping people set up small businesses could solve unemployment. Mr. Kampars, open your eyes and see the stream of entrepreneurial energy already out there which could be best helped if the state got out of the way. But this is veering dangerously close to complaining…

4. The coastline

You can (and many people have) walk the full 498 km of the Latvian seashore. Try going around the headland in Italy before you are told to get off someone's private beach. Despite some oligarchs trying to extend their villas into the dunes, this immensely sensible right of public access is one of the jewels of Latvia. From the bling of Jurmala to the glorious desertedness of the Livonian Coast, there's a place on the sand for everybody, and with wise management it could earn a living for thousands of people. Not by packing every square inch with timeshares, heaven forbid, but through sustainable development for bird watching, fishing or checking out old Soviet bunkers. Or dancing on the tables at Majori, if that's your thing.

5. Diversity

A lot of nonsense gets written about ethnic relations in Latvia. But the fact is, for such a mixed place with a tumultuous past, everyone gets on remarkably well. Besides Latvians and Russians, this Ireland-sized land is also home to Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Roma, Jews and growing numbers of more recent arrivals. Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and Pagans light their candles without bringing the wrath of the Almighty down on each other. Many youngsters are not content with being trilingual and are learning even more languages. The national football and ice hockey squads are miniature melting pots. Cross words are inevitably spoken on occasion, but overall people have developed ways of getting along which reflect a maturity and tolerance that less economically challenged societies could learn from. And this November 18, Latvia's residents could stop moaning for a second and reflect on how much is right about their country.