ETA Cohort Spotlight: Latvia

Each month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Lisa Gagnon, a 2017-2018 ETA in Latvia, invited the 2018-2019 cohort to participate in a collaborative post. Five of the six Latvia ETAs contributed photos and stories about interactions that required them to examine some piece of their identity in a new way, writing about everything from food, to music, to language study, to coats!

A little background information: Latvia is a small Baltic country of less than 2 million people in Northeastern Europe, situated between Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, and Russia to the east. Latvia became an independent nation in 1918, yet the Latvian language and ethnic groups have been around for centuries (The first record of Latvia’s capital city, Riga, was in 1207.) Latvia was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941-1944, and by the Soviet Union from 1944-1991. After regaining independence, Latvia went on to join the European Union and NATO. While the nation has come a long way in the last 28 years, tensions remain between the Latvian-speaking majority and the 40% Russian-speaking minority. ETAs in Latvia have the opportunity to explore the unique linguistic, political, and cultural history of the country through working with students at universities and secondary schools.

The 2018-2019 ETAs visit Kemeri Bog! From front to back: Khalid, Kristen, Patty, Leslie, Aja, and Megan

1. Hidden Connections Through Music – by Kristen Carlson

City: Riga (population ~600,000)

Schools: Riga Teika Secondary School (grades 10-12) and Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music (undergraduate BA students)
Other Activities: Research Assistant for the Baltic Security Strategy Project; correspondent for the news site, Latvia Weekly; Co-coordinator for a U.S. Embassy sponsored English Conversation Club in Riga; section leader in B-Sharp Academic Orchestra
Blog: Instagram: @k10mcarlson

Kristen playing with the B Sharp Academic Orchestra in Riga

When I found out that I had received a Fulbright grant to be an ETA in Riga, I wanted to involve myself in the community by finding a way to play violin in an orchestra. An avid musician since I was little and a music major in college, being a member of various orchestras has been something I have done for over a decade. Throughout the years, I have played in both small and large ensembles with people of all ages. These experiences have given me some of my best friends, travels around the U.S.A., and have cultivated boundless growth musically and personally. I was hoping to generate similar experiences by joining an orchestra in Latvia. Little did I know that my interest in getting involved in an ensemble would pave the way for some of my most meaningful connections and funny coincidences during my grant!

Fast forward to last September when I was auditioning for Riga’s B-Sharp Academic Orchestra, which I had heard about through a former Fulbrighter. Before I started playing my scales, etudes, and excerpts, the orchestra’s conductor asked who I had studied violin with most recently. I laughed to myself as I figured that no one would know the music program at my small liberal arts school in Decorah, Iowa. I listed off my teachers, finishing with Dr. Igor Kalnin who was my college instructor the past three years. To my shock, the director told me that my professor must be Latvian — the name Kalnin is derived from Kalniņš, a Latvian surname. I was shocked. Could someone I had spent so many instructional hours with have a primary connection to my placement? Sure enough, when I brought this information back to my former professor I found out that he was indeed part Latvian!

Though this was a small and minute moment of connection, it would be the first of many realizations of how many ties to Latvia I truly had before coming here. Moments like these would provide countless laughs with colleagues and conversation starters when meeting someone new. Moments like these would remind me of my mentors and from where I have come. And, most importantly, moments like these have proved to be comforting reminders that even while being far away from home, my identity and experiences have already connected me to many parts of the world.

Kristen M. Carlson is a recent graduate in Communication Studies, Philosophy, and Music from Luther College. She will be attending a Ph.D. program in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota, starting Fall 2019, where her research focuses on rhetoric, public engagement, law and security.

2. The “Trifecta of Doom” and Building Consensus – by Patty Corey

City: Liepāja (population ~70,000)

Schools: Liepāja University, Liepāja’s Secondary School no. 5 grades 7-12.
Other Activities: Organizer and Facilitator of an English Conversation Club each week at the University, takes Russian and Latvian private languages classes, plans and helps organize International Nights on Tuesdays, as well as writes blogs for the Liepāja University International Office.
Instagram: @patriciacorey_

Throughout my time as a Fulbrighter, I have been attempting to answer this question: What does it mean for me as a Latvian-American to study both Russian and Latvian? Before I started this journey, I always thought that my three identities were in conflict: my heritage, nationality, and interests all created a “trifecta of doom.” I explained this conflict early on to my native Latvian and international students, but now I find my three intersecting identities are not complicated. Rather, they have defined who I am: an educator with a unique perspective, and an open-minded and compassionate person that attempts to understand, integrate, and appreciate cultures on the basis of cultivating meaningful relationships.

My goal in the classroom this year has been to create lessons that cover controversial topics that I believe we all should be talking about, such as immigration, climate change, affirmative action, and media literacy. Recently, my students gave presentations about governmental and non-governmental media in different countries, attempting to find a common theme between the places that they chose. One group discussed Russian-influenced media in France, as well as Pro-Latvian and Pro-Russian media in Latvia. During this presentation, two students argued back and forth about the Russian minority’s responsibility to learn Latvian in order to integrate themselves into Latvian life and listen to Latvian media. Meanwhile, another student discussed and argued for Latvia’s exclusive responsibility to provide media sources in Russian that will cater to the 40 percent Russian minority in Latvia.

Patty stands at the Sabile Wine Hill, about 80km outside of her placement city, Liepāja.

During the presentation and question period, I realized that I see both sides of the issue clearly. My background as a Latvian-American who studies Russian allowed me to objectively look at both sides and see the valid merits in each. My Latvian students continued to argue, finding no common ground, until I spoke about the reasons why the conflict on both sides are equally valid and important to recognize. In this moment, I built consensus between my students. We can, “agree to disagree,” but within the complexity, we can continue to build relationships and consensus with one another. I realized my Russian and Latvian backgrounds have given me a unique perspective and have made me a more compassionate and open person when attempting to resolve conflict.

As for myself, in the classroom and in life, the most interesting discoveries seem to be made at the borders of identity. Being unapologetically and uniquely a Latvian-American and a Russian enthusiast means that I can attempt to mediate conflict within my classroom in a compassionate and objective way that sees the conflicts from all sides and perspectives, while listening equally to all stakeholders and players. I am able to help my students find common ground by finding where my own identities intersect, which is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to do within the Fulbright Program.

A 2018-2019 Fulbright ETA to Latvia, Patricia works at Liepāja University, teaching within the European Language and Culture Studies department, Practical English courses, Written and Oral Communication, and American cultural studies. Prior to her Fulbright grant, Patricia graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA in May 2018 with a Bachelor’s of Arts Cum Laude in Russian and Studies in World Literature, with a concentration in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.

3. “Why do you always keep your coat with you?” – by Khalid Sheikh

City: Riga

Schools: Riga Classical Gymnasium (10th form), Riga Stradinš University (medical and public health students)
Other Activities: Besides teaching at two schools, Khalid coaches a debate club at his Gymnasium and co-leads an English conversation club in the Latvian National Library every week. Additionally, Khalid has remained active while in Latvia by taking part in the SEB (a Latvian bank) Bike Marathon and will be running a half-marathon in the Riga Marathon in May.
Instagram: @kns1444

One of the biggest cultural differences I’ve noticed between Latvians and Americans is something fairly mundane: where we put our coats. Coatchecks are everywhere in Latvia – in schools, in malls, and even in bowling alleys. In my school in Riga, no one walks around with their coat. That is, no one except for me.

Every day I teach at Riga Classical Gymnasium, I carry my oversized, built-for-Eastern-European winters wool coat through the halls and, once I enter my classroom, I drape it over my chair and get straight to teaching. It’s not a part of my daily routine I gave much thought to until one of my students asked me about it. We had a conversation that went something like this:

“Why do you always keep your coat with you?”

“I’m not sure, to be honest. I just prefer to have it with me than give it away at the coat check.”

“But coats can be dirty.”

Eyeing the smooth and spotless grey wool of my coat, I responded cheekily, “It looks pretty clean to me.”

“Does everyone in America keep their coat with them at school?”

Thinking back to my childhood in Chicago, I replied, “If they want. A lot of people will put them in their lockers, but a good number of people will just drape it over the back of their chairs, too. Sometimes people will walk around in them if it’s cold.”

My student’s eyes bugged out.

“Wow, American schools must be pretty dirty then.”

I was taken aback by her belief that coats would make a school dirty. “They’re not dirty. We just keep our coats with us so we have them when we want them. Plus, this way we don’t have to wait in line to get our coats back at the end of the day.”

It was true. One of the most annoying parts of checking in your coat is waiting in line to get it back. To me, it seemed unnecessary to wait in line to get my coat back when I could just keep it with me and skip the whole process. I never realized that that was a particularly American way of thinking before that conversation with my student. In Latvia, checking in your coat is a way to keep buildings clean and clutter free. In America, coat checks are largely unnecessary since we don’t consider our coats to be particularly dirty.

That interaction with my student helped me uncover an American custom I hadn’t even realized existed before.  If someone had asked me before my Fulbright year if Americans had particular customs regarding their coats, I would have said no. It’s true that Americans have certain customs – we tend to watch football and drive our cars a lot – but our coats? I would have thought that what we do with our coats couldn’t be that different from what anyone else does. Now, however, I realize that what we do is different.

And different I remain – I still don’t use the coat check at my school.

Khalid graduated with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in History from the University of Houston in 2018. His interest in European history and desire to explore a new culture led him to pursue a Fulbright in Latvia. Once his Fulbright grant ends, Khalid will be returning to Texas to attend medical school.

4. Es sapratu: “I understand” – by Megan Gleason

City: Riga

Schools: University of Latvia (Faculty of Education), Rigas 94. Vidusskola
Other Activities: Organizing a pen-pal project between my 2nd graders in Riga and an American preschool class, leading conversation clubs, guest speaking at Latvijas Mazpulki (Latvian 4H) events, blogging for “Expatvians” (a company that helps people relocate to Latvia), taking classes with “Improv Comedy Riga” (local improv group), attending Communitas International Church

Megan at Kolka Beach, the northwest tip of Latvia

I have a knack for learning languages – well, at least a knack for learning French. I started in 7th grade, continued through high school, and ended up majoring in French Language and Literature in college. So when I found out I was accepted to the ETA program in Latvia, I immediately began scouring the Internet for language resources. Unfortunately, the number of Latvian language resources for beginners is pretty sparse. I had a hard time figuring out how to say much of anything other than Sveiki! (“Hello!”) I’d have to start once I arrived.

The moment I stepped off the plane, I knew I was in for a linguistic adventure. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t pick out anything that anyone was saying around me. When I studied in France, my French was strong enough that I could understand most things, and even in countries where I didn’t know the language (Spain, Germany), I’d heard the language before and could pick up a few words. Here, I understood nothing. In fact, I couldn’t even distinguish Latvian from Russian! I’d been warned about this, but even so, I felt the weight of my ignorance. The solution, I told myself, was to hit the books.

One week into my Latvian I class, I realized this was going to be harder than I thought. I could keep up in class, but finding the time/energy/motivation (let’s be real here) to do my homework was surprisingly difficult, now that I was juggling my new teaching job and isolated from the peer-pressured craze of college-level academia. I wasn’t good at setting aside the time to study, or even finish my homework. My whole life, I’d been defined by my role as a hardworking student. Now, who was I?

I struggled with this nagging question throughout the entire semester, and when it came time to take the final exam (oral and written), I braced myself for failure. But to my surprise, the exam was easier than I thought. And when it came time for the oral portion, while my Latvian wasn’t pretty or grammatically correct, it was understandable – and I only used a few French words by mistake. In fact, my Latvian teacher (Evelīna, one of the kindest people I have ever met) told me that my diligence and progress inspired her. I smiled, still uncomfortable knowing how much homework I’d never done, but with a glimmer of something new – pride.

Now, 3 months later, I felt the same glimmer when, hearing one of my Latvian students ask a question, I replied in English.

“You understand Latvian?!” my 12th grade student exclaimed, staring at me.

Now I was the one who was confused. When she spoke, I hadn’t realized she was speaking in Latvian – and yet I had understood, and replied! “Yes,” I said, and smiled. “Yes, I do.” I still can’t understand most things people say to me, but in this moment, I understood. Es sapratu. And for once, that was enough.

Though originally from the Pacific Northwest, Megan has had the privilege of calling many places home, including Walla Walla (WA), Nantes (France), and now Riga, Latvia. A proud alumna of Whitman College, Megan spends most of her time writing, improvising, and making people laugh. Her current plan is to pursue a career in journalism, teaching, or professional dog-walking.

5. Potatoes and Perseverance – by Aja Procita

City: Valmiera (population 18,000)

Schools: Valmieras 5. Viddusskola (secondary school), Valmieras Tehnikums (technical university)
Instagram: @justadoorajar

A snowy road in Aja’s placement town of Valmiera

Having been raised in the pasta-filled cacophony of a large Italian-American family, I had learned from an early age that you eat what you take and you always empty your plate. Who knew that this particular trait would serve me well during my nine-month journey to the small Baltic country of Latvia?

If cafeteria trays make you think of middle school lunch lines and inedible green beans, then the bistros of Latvia are a refreshing change. Ubiquitous throughout the country, the kafejnīcas (pronounced “café-nee-tsas”) are, in many ways, the physical embodiment of the Latvian culture: filling, wholesome, and widely shared. As the trays slide along many a plate is graced by the non-negotiable presence of potatoes – a staple food, whether they are boiled, baked, fried, mashed, or boiled and then roasted. Meat cutlets, mushroom sauces, and a medley of colorful root vegetable salads accompany the central starch. The bistro line moves with a no-nonsense-get-in-get-food-get-out mentality, the urgency of which is all but unheard of in other parts of daily life in Latvia (I once waited three hours to be served food in a traditional restaurant setting.)

However, if Latvian is not among your language repertoire, be ready for some hastily made mistakes. To master the bistro, one cannot be of the faint of heart. Initially, my vocabulary restricted me to the choice of kartupeļi (potatoes), vista (chicken), and whatever was within pointing distance. I spent a month eating sour cream thinking it was yoghurt, tried to order fish and got French fries on top of my mashed potatoes, mixed up the words for buckwheat and cucumber, and discovered the mystery ingredient that kept popping up in my salad was, in fact, “lobes of liver.”

By trial-and-error, I proceeded. There are few, if any Americans (I know of none), living in my small town, which is imbued with a rich historical, and quintessentially Latvian, air. So, I tend to attract attention and confusion as soon as I open my mouth, leading on more than several occasions to the servers asking the entire lunch-time patronage of the establishment for help with English translation when I failed to comprehend. As abashed as I was by this situation and the direct approach Latvians will take to address things, it was helpful both in the moment and long-term. The first time I finally had a complete conversation and ordered my food without assistance, the server came out from behind the counter and gave me a hug. Much like their food, Latvians may be a mystery at first, but once you grow to understand them, you will find them to be varied, deep, and culturally vibrant.

Aja grew up in rural New Hampshire, and then attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She graduated in May of 2018 with a B.A. in Physics and Mathematics before moving to Valmiera, Latvia. She plans to return to the US to teach math and hopefully, pursue a PhD.

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