Why can’t being Latvian be part of our ‘real world?’

I’m in a mood to quibble, but let me first set the stage. It was a fast and furious summer for many students at the Gaŗezers summer high school near Three Rivers, Mich. Between the usual classes and other activities, there was the 11th Latvian Song Festival to attend in Chicago. And as usual, there were any number of “student life” experiences: learning once again how to live with four or five other people in one small room, falling in or out of love, not getting caught with a cigarette or a beer in hand.

But it was all good, or so it seemed based on what I saw during this past weekend’s commencement ceremony. Judging by the tears streaming down the faces of graduates and continuing students alike, there is no worse punishment in life than to be ripped from the ethnic wonder that is Gaŗezers to be replanted into the “real world.”

Symbolizing this best was Artūrs Bērziņš, the graduating student chosen to deliver the commencement speech. Listening to his emotional and tearful farewell, many of his classmates were soon crying as well. Heck, I tried to hold back tears, too, and I don’t even know the kid nor did I ever attend the summer high school.

To be sure, there’s something special about the Gaŗezers high school. My daughter tells me her Latvian friendships often run deeper and truer than those she has developed outside of Gaŗezers. Next year she’ll face the emotional roller-coaster of a Gaŗezers graduation, but she’s already vowing to return the year after as a camp counselor.

For many, Gaŗezers is a world apart.

“Zinu, ka es pēc dažām dienām atgriezīšos īstajā pasaulē,” young Bērziņš said during his commencement speech. He knows that in a few days he’ll return to the real world.

The notion that Gaŗezers is a sanctuary, a dream or a little Latvia was hinted at by other speakers as well. Out there, the real world awaits, but here, in Gaŗezers, we’re free to be ourselves.

So let me quibble: Why must we who live outside Latvia separate our “Latvian world” from the “real world”?

What are we afraid of? That people won’t understand us? That we’ll be laughed at because we have funny, non-Anglo names, eat yucky foods like smoked eel and head cheese, and go prancing around a bonfire in the middle of summer?

Or are we afraid that if we allow any linkage between our “Latvian world” and the “real world,” the creeping power of assimilation will eventually erode what sets us apart?

How many of us, once in the “real world,” avoid speaking Latvian to each other so as not to stick out in a crowd of Americans or Canadians or Australians or whatevers? How many of us have modified the pronunciation—or even the spelling—of our names, just to “make it easier” for non-Latvians? How many of us have allowed our Latvian heritage to become an interesting appendix to our life story, rather than the theme that runs throughout?

Our organizations and institutions, such as Gaŗezers, provide us a safe haven, a space in which we can recharge our Latvian batteries. But if we see them only as refuge, rather than part of our “real world,” how long will we be able to maintain them?

The majority of Latvians Online readers don’t live in Latvia. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to speak Latvian on a daily basis outside of our immediate families. The language of commerce, of education, of government and of culture, for many of us, is rarely Latvian. It seems pretty clear that the “real world” has little use for us as Latvians.

And how could it, if we keep separating it from our Latvian world?

In her fiery address to the graduating class at Gaŗezers, long-time teacher Mirdza Paudrupe summoned students to the good fight, the fight for Latvia’s future. Perhaps some of the 34 graduates will eventually live and work in Latvia, finally combining their “Latvian world” with their “real world.”

But what about the rest of us? What about our “real world?”

Sign at Gaŗezers

Gaŗezers is a refuge where Latvians can be Latvians. But why can’t it be part of the real world, too? (Photo by Andris Straumanis)

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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