What being Latvian means to me

Being Latvian is an experience unlike any other during the song and dance celebrations. Photo by Dainis Matisons.

There are more than six and a half billion people in the world, and most of them have some kind of national identity.

Our planet is full of people who call themselves Chinese, French, Venezuelan, South African or Norwegian. All of us have some national identity, although by the 21st century most of us have inherited multiple national ancestries.

We tend to pick and choose which countries and nationalities we want to identify with. Some with the country they live in, others with the place they were born, others simply grow to like a certain part of the world and become a part of it.

For me, being Latvian gives me a special vantage point for understanding and functioning in the world.

First of all, I didn’t choose it, I was born into it. My parents both were Latvian, and as far as I know, most of their parents and grandparents were also Latvian.

Although I was born in Munich, Latvian was the first language I heard around me as an infant. I later went to school and started a career in an American-speaking country called the United States, where I was reminded every day that I was a Latvian. (With a name like Ojārs Kalniņš, you always get questions.)

Language, ancestry and other people’s curiosity have made me very aware of the fact that I am a Latvian. Having worked for Latvia in some capacity for the last 25 years has also made me a bit more national-identity conscious than your average person. Being a Latvian among Swedes, Russians, Danes and Germans at an international conference on the Baltic Sea region, gives me a totally different perspective on any issue that is raised. The Swedes are watching it all from Stockholm, the Russians from St. Petersburg, the Danes from their end of the sea, and I see it all from the banks of the Daugava River in Riga’s Old Town. We are all looking at the same sea, but we are seeing it through our national filters. We each take from that sea, and give to it, and together, we are responsible for its future.

Being Latvian is fun at ice hockey games, and being Latvian is an experience unlike any other during the song and dance celebrations. As a Latvian I am always surrounded by flowers, and I never feel more Latvian than on June 23rd, when the grass is thick, the sun is high and the bonfires of Jāņi light up the cosmos. As a Latvian I know that that if I don’t light a bonfire on Jāņi, the sun will not rise tomorrow. The world has Latvians to thank for making sure that the midsummer sun always rises to start another day.

When the economy dips and inflation rises it doesn’t much matter what nationality you are, tough times are tough on everyone. But as a Latvian, I can escape into the forests of Slitere, find peace in the meadows of Vidzeme, and regenerate my spiritually batteries along the white sands of the Kurzeme coastline.

My parents taught me the same thing their parents taught them: that being Latvian means treasuring your values, overcoming obstacles, and appreciating the goodness of life every moment that you can. When I look at the tall, straight pines of along Latvia’s Liv coast I remember that they have weathered forests fires and Baltic Sea storms, and look as beautiful now as they did a thousand years ago. That’s when I realize how lucky I’ve been to be a Latvian all my life, and will no doubt be one forever.

Ojārs Kalniņš is the director of the Latvian Institute and a parliamentary candidate for Unity party. The Latvian Institute (Latvijas institūts) was established by the Latvian state to provide a wide range of information about Latvia, its society, culture and history. For more information visit www.li.lv.


Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.

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