This past weekend (Aug. 1-3, 2014) I attended 4-2 Weekend at the Latvian center Gaŗezers in Three Rivers, Michigan. This volleyball-centered celebration is one of the largest and most popular annual Latvian events in North America. But explaining it to those who have not attended is often difficult. “It’s a volleyball tournament, but it’s, like, a really big-deal crazy tournament with a huge party and tons of spectators” just doesn’t seem to capture the weekend’s nuance and vibrancy. Below is a checklist of activities you are likely to experience if you make your way to Gaŗezers in early August:
1. Meet at least a dozen Latvians before even reaching Gaŗezers
With Latvians across the continent streaming to the same location at the same time using the same main routes, it’s only natural that you will spot several SVEIKS stickers along the Ohio Turnpike, or find yourself in line for the rest-area bathroom behind old camp friends. But if a chance meeting hasn’t yet happened by the time you roll into Three Rivers, don’t fret. When you make the mandatory stop at local superstore Meijer for supplies, half the people in the beer aisle or checkout line will be speaking Latvian.
2. Attend Strādnieku Balle
The employees of Gaŗezers usually get together every Thursday night to let off steam and wear hilarious costumes based on weekly themes. On 4-2 Weekend, the party is moved to Friday to accommodate the surge of early-arriving volleyball enthusiasts. This year’s theme, “Bringing it Back,” was vague enough to accommodate any absurd outfit, while allowing less adventurous attendees to make up a reason why their normal attire still followed the rules. Among the jeans and sundress-wearing normals were various Mario Kart characters, a suspiciously muscular Marilyn Monroe, and the Mad Hatter. Even the bare-bones, dome-shaped venue itself, Jautrais Ods (“The Merry Mosquito,” also affectionately nicknamed Club O.D.S.), had been transformed to resemble a giant TARDIS. The most exuberant of the weekend’s parties, Strādnieku Balle is an effective introduction to the strange world of 4-2.
3. Camp in a lakefront tent shantytown
While many Latvians are lucky enough to own lake houses, trailers, or other property in the area, many of us find ourselves slumming it in a tent. Dzintari, the recreational area of Gaŗezers, features a beautiful stretch of shady sand along Long Lake to accommodate every camping need. On 4-2 Weekend, the space is packed stake-to-stake with colorful domes; natural alleyways form between them and wind into an elaborate maze. One friend asked me, “How do any of you find your way back into your own tent late at night?” The answer is: I have no idea.
4. Hand your empties to a roaming band of children
Scurrying through these shantytown passageways and up the dusty lanes, moving from picnic table to picnic table, are small, elusive creatures carrying bulky objects twice their size. The creatures are children of families attending 4-2, and the bulky objects are trash bags filled with empty bottles and cans, which they return to recycling centers for serious cash. This sight can be a little jarring to the first-time visitor, but returnees don’t even blink an eye, knowing full well that these kids are having fun and just trying to earn some extra pocket money. After all, they’re doing their part to help the environment and to keep Gaŗezers clean, and the containers are empty.
5. Enjoy the luxuries of trailer life
Tent Shantytown is great and all, but lakefront life in Gaŗezers mainly revolves around the dozens of trailers, big and small, scattered throughout its hills and shorelines. One of the longest-running jokes about Dzintari is that it is literally a trailer park, but a “vacation” trailer park. Each trailer is owned by a Latvian family and has its own charms, from the two-story-high wood-paneled cabin on the edge of “town” to the simple one-bedroom, half-bath in the center of everything, to the posh, newly renovated condo on the hill.
6. Play golf
I admit I did not participate in this one, nor do I have any clue where people play, why, or who organizes it. But roughly a fifth of all 4-2 attendees disappear somewhere on Saturday morning, claiming that they are going golfing.
7. Wade out to Burka World
If there’s anything more relaxing than sitting by the lake with good friends, it’s sitting IN the lake with good friends. On a beach at the edge of Tent Shantytown stands an extra-long picnic table engraved with Latvian symbols and surrounded by various pool noodles and flotation devices. At the beginning of the day, the first visitors to Burka World (“burka” being the Latvian word for “jar” or “container” and referencing a shared cocktail, not to be confused with “burqa”) move the table about 20 feet into the lake, sit down, and stay there, sometimes for several hours at a time, while overflow visitors float around in pool toys. Merriment ensues.
8. Support youth volleyball
Up the hill and across the street from Dzintari is Gaŗezera Vasaras Vidusskola (GVV), a residential summer school for Latvian teenagers. In addition to its primary duty of passing on knowledge and culture to the next generation of Latvians, it is also the unofficial training ground of future volleyball superstars, with three different levels of instruction available in the afternoons. The culmination of this effort is the youth tournament held on the Saturday of 4-2 Weekend. While it doesn’t draw the crowds that Sunday’s adult tourney does, the youth tournament is no joke, and supporters sit all day cheering on their favorite players. Particularly impressive this year was the Sagskola boys’ team, a collection of younger teens who were half the height of their post-pubescent opponents but had better fundamentals and basic skills than most adult players. Someday, these kids will kick all our butts.
9. Attend a GVV class reunion
GVV classes reunite on 4-2 Weekend every five years after graduation. For people like me, who attended GVV but do not get to return often, meeting up with old classmates serves as a decent impetus to make the trip. This year the 5- and 10-year reunions (class of ’09 and ’04, respectively) were both well attended, with the younger class challenging the older to drinking games at a family’s lake house. It was by all accounts a vibrant and rowdy affair, with dozens of alumni having a grand old time catching up. Across the lake on the patio of another lake house, we old-timers of the 15-year reunion sat peacefully sipping cognac and discussing babies and real-estate investments, and the 20-year reunion folks enjoyed wine and memories at a trailer in Dzintari.
10. Eat at Applebee’s and/or Happy Landing. Twice.
Perhaps you need a meal that does not consist entirely of chips and beer. Or perhaps you need to carbo-load before your big game. A trip into town for Applebee’s is the answer. Your alternate meal destination is Happy Landing, a local establishment on the other side of the lake that serves breakfast and lunch and is accustomed to being overrun with bleary-eyed Latvians in need of stomach-coating.
11. Take a boat ride
Pontoon racing, kayaking, booze cruising, waterskiing–take your pick. But at some point, you are required to get out on the water.
12. Accumulate countless wristbands, stickers, and pins
Prepare to wear some flair. First, you need a green wristband to enter Gaŗezers territory during 4-2 Weekend. Your car needs a parking sticker. Your tent needs a tag. You need more wristbands if you want to attend any of the evening parties. And you need a pin to get food on the final night. You also need to pay an entrance fee to play in the tournament, though thankfully no additional accessories are (currently) needed for that one.
13. Attend Sirds Līksmo
Located in Dziesmu Leja, an outdoor amphitheater about five minutes’ walk from the rest of Gaŗezers, Sirds Līksmo is an annual concert put on by the American Latvian Youth Association (ALJA) on the Saturday night of every 4-2. This year’s show, featuring Toronto band Penzionāri and DJ Velkro, was a smash success, with a later-than-usual start time that allowed for a respectable crowd to gather before the opening song. Throw in a state-of-the-art sound system and light display and a sizable open-air dance floor, and you have a legit party. More serious volleyball players often take it easy on this evening, either leaving once the band stops playing at 1 am or not bothering to show up at all, but those more focused on dancing stick around for the DJ, who this year was scheduled to end at 3 am but continued playing for eager crowds until 5.
14. Stake out your space for volleyball spectating
As the last of the Sirds Līksmo night owls make their way back to Dzintari in the wee hours of the morning, they may encounter birds of a different feather: volleyball enthusiasts setting up their lawn chairs around the main court to claim a decent viewing spot. They get up extra early, set up their chairs, leave, and return several hours later once the action is under way. By 9 am, more than 100 empty chairs are lined up two-deep around the edge of the court, hinting toward the event to come.
15. Watch volejs
By the time Sunday rolls around, it’s time to get to the heart of the matter: volejs (the shortened/slang version of the Latvian word for “volleyball”). Though Saturday’s youth tournament draws its fair share of spectators, the real numbers turn out for Sunday’s adult co-ed tournament, named 4-2 because each team must consist of four men and two women. Spectators who have not put out their camping chairs early in the morning find spots wherever they can: on bleachers, logs, rocks, and trailer balconies. Past tournaments have featured unmissable heckling sections, but that negativity seemed to be absent this year. Instead, the most enthusiasm came from the bleachers, where GVV students cheered, “Kur ir Markus?” (“Where is Markus?”) whenever their classmate Markus Melbārdis sat on the bench for his top-level team; whenever he appeared on the court or touched the ball, they erupted into crazy applause.
16. Eat wings
A full day of spectating in the hot sun will leave one feeling peckish, and that’s where wings come in. For years the 4-2 concession stand was ruled by “Lielais Volejs” and “Mazais Volejs,” two delicious sausage dishes, but these have been joined in recent years by platters of yummy, addictive chicken wings. Volunteers work tirelessly all Saturday and Sunday, providing ravished customers with more meat than an Upton Sinclair novel.
17. Play volejs in Vecais Sporta Laukums
Oddly enough, the majority of the volleyball action on 4-2 Weekend doesn’t happen anywhere near the central party area in Dzintari. The twenty-three participating teams (consisting of somewhere between 150 and 200 total players) are divided into four brackets based on level, with each bracket playing on its own court, and only teams in the top level, or power bracket, play in Dzintari. The remaining three brackets trek up a dusty road to Vecais Sporta Laukums, a grassy field with no bleachers, stadium lights, or chicken wings. While plenty of people wander over to watch the games and support friends on various teams, the crowds still seem scarce compared to the big draw of the central Dzintari court. Play in Vecais Sporta Laukums varies greatly, with the C bracket (affectionately nicknamed the “beer bracket”) consisting of beginners and just-for-fun teams, the A bracket consisting largely of top GVV players and former power-bracket players, and the B bracket catching everyone in the middle. Yet every single one of these teams has the opportunity to win the entire tournament, since the top teams from each of these brackets advance to the quarterfinal to face off against the top four power-bracket teams.
18. Play volejs in Dzintari
This is where the people are. It’s where the food is. It’s where the bathrooms are. And, in recent years, it’s where the stadium lighting has been, which allows the finals to be played after nightfall. A sizable crowd watches this court all day Sunday, but the numbers grow even larger as the playoffs begin in the evening. At the end of pool play, the quarterfinals begin, giving two lucky lower-bracket teams the opportunity to play center stage. As the playoffs progress and more teams are eliminated, transforming their players into spectators, and as Burka World closes up shop and excitement builds, more and more attention is focused on this court, until it seems that every single person in Gaŗezers has squeezed in to watch the final match and marvel at the best that Latvian volleyball has to offer. To give an idea of the caliber of play on display at 4-2, this year’s first place team, Banķieri, consists of four players who have recently won NCAA championships (three as players and one as a coach). Eyeing a group of excited young children who had wormed their way into (potentially dangerous) front-row seats, a longtime power-bracket player awaiting his next game said to me, “How could any kid see all of this and NOT want to play volleyball?” I tend to agree with him.
19. Attend Cūku Bēres
Once the excitement of volleyball settles down and the players get cleaned up, yet another party begins. Cūku Bēres (which, like Sirds Līksmo, is organized by ALJA) is especially enticing because it features a large amount of food, and exhausted players need a lot of calories. Volunteers begin serving vittles during the tail end of the tournament, allowing the crowd to munch on delicious pig meat while watching the games. Once play is over and the food runs out, the party moves to Jautrais Ods to spark yet another evening of dancing and celebrating.
20. Reminisce with friends
In the end, 4-2 Weekend is really about meeting friends – new and old. Whether the highlight was the big game, eating an ungodly amount of Applebee’s mozzarella sticks, or staying up all night to greet the sunrise with a platter of Cūku Bēres leftovers, the memories formed this weekend will last a lifetime, or at least until next year’s 4-2.
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