“Best Enjoyed Slowly” – so runs the new tourism slogan for Latvia, a country not well known for tourism, but which is the out of the way place I’m currently lucky enough to be visiting. While I would venture to say that most of life is best enjoyed slowly, I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to follow this advice particularly well in a country that, while it may lack the well known attractions of a France, has plenty of its own to offer those with the patience to enjoy it.
Among the many things I’ve found to enjoy here have been the Baltic Sea with miles upon miles of sandy beach, the immense forests filled with Birch trees and the beautifully preserved capital city of Riga. Still, more than all these things – each of which is worthy of attention – I have enjoyed getting to know the distinct culture of this small nation, a culture which has survived against the odds over the centuries.
Nestled between the other Baltic States in the Northeast corner of Europe, Latvia, like its neighbors, really has a culture all its own. It is only that in
Latvia’s case its cultural isolation may have been even more extreme without a friendly neighboring country to pull closer to. In fact, Latvia’s strongest influences have come from nations that sought to dominate it: Germany – whose influence is still visible in architecture and culture – and Russia – whose occupation has left a very large Russian minority living in the country.
Perhaps as a reaction to these outside pressures, Latvians have clung to their own culture all the more fiercely, although perhaps fiercely is the wrong word for a people who are so peaceful and quiet, in which case perhaps steadfastly is the more appropriate word. Choice of word aside, this distinct culture – the proud possession of a just over a million people, has preserved a unique language, a great body of literature and a strong musical tradition, all despite eight centuries of invasions and a scant 50 years as an independent nation.
Attempting to define a culture in words is a business best left to literary masterpieces, since lesser efforts almost inevitably come out sounding like cliches or trite stereotypes. Even so, the slow time I’ve spent here has been time well spent and yet another reminder that its not in the checking off of lists of monuments seen and museums visited but through the experiencing of new peoples and cultures that travel gains its value.“Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.” ― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays