When you get off the plane at the Riga International Airport, you are met with a transportation facility of modest size. While this is Latvia’s largest airport, it pales in comparison to most American airports centered in cities of the same size. But this speaks volumes about Latvia; modest, restrained, yet beautiful. Once you enter the terminal you are greeted by a clean, modern space, with architecturally appealing, sleek lines and brushed stainless steel, and friendly workers. A beautiful warm breeze blows off the tarmac, bringing with it the beautiful smells of Latvia–given you are there during spring or summer.
Latvia has a lot to offer. Its countryside is just that, the country. I truthfully cannot think of a place in America that comes close to the verdant landscapes, the rolling green, lush, carpeted hills that one experiences there. Storks populate the fields, like seagulls do the Eastern seaboard here in the United States, and residents build nests atop poles, encouraging these long-legged birds to nest at their homes, a sign of good luck and prosperity.
Within the city borders of Riga, you find the medieval old town contrasted against the late 19th century architecture of the art nouveau movement; a treasure of Europe. The modern downtown is set against beautiful esplanades, and a reminder of western expansion, with a perpetually busy McDonald’s set in a cobblestone square. Just a few hundred feet from this area, sits a symbol of Latvian independence, the Freedom Monument of Latvia, a beautiful reminder of Latvia’s tenuous independence.
This monument breaths life every May 1st, as the ceremony for Latvian Independence Day consumes this location. As a military marching band plays beautiful national pieces, there is a warmth to the air, and a solemnity from the crowd. Birds flit from one tree to another, and against the tall monolithic sculpture rests a flower and grass representation of the nation of Latvia. This piece is so representative of the geographic landscape of this country, you would think they just went out into a field and carved it out of the landscape. The lush green grass of this duplicate nation blows in the breeze, while at attention, two honor guard soldiers keep watch, a symbolic vigilant protection of its borders and every citizen’s freedom.
The history of Latvia has been tumultuous to say the least, and its independence has always been dubious. On that first day of May, Latvian’s celebrate and honor their nation in a touching moment. The Minister for Culture, Dace Melbārde, spoke that day to quite a large crowd. Speaking in her native Latvian–and although I could not understand what she spoke of–the crowd was roused with cheers and applause for her speech. The band played on with parade music, and I was reminded of how the fourth of July once was in America, a day more for celebration than barbecues and a free day off.
As the day progressed, that grassy representation of Latvia grew in size as thousands of people poured out from their homes, laying flowers at the base of the monument. It was a touching moment, with a sentiment of honor, yet celebration, the air electric, yet somber. Although, this day celebrates the nation’s independence from Germany and Russia after World War I, there is still a large segment of the population which remembers their complete independence from the USSR on August 21st, 1991. The restoration of the Republic of Latvia from the Soviet Union began May 4, 1990, and this date is recognized as Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia holiday. Latvian’s have a lot of independence to celebrate in the month of May, and their enthusiasm shows.
Whatever the reason for Latvian’s attachment to memorial and strong sentiment for nationalism, I think we can all take a page from the citizens of the this middle Baltic Nation. For the United States, Memorial Day is right around the corner, and maybe on that day, we can party like a Latvian. Take the initiative, clean up a burial plot, place an American flag at the grave of a soldier, or tidy up any monument within your community. Maybe you can find an obscure monument or plaque in your community and just visit–I know in my community of Brunswick the Spanish-American War memorial is often overlooked. That is what monuments are for. They are not just reminders of nationalism, but instead places to reflect, to honor, and to learn about our history.
So maybe take a page from Latvia. Buy some flowers, and place them at a memorial of your choosing. And, if you are so inclined, take a moment to learn a little something about Latvia, a beautiful nation, with an over swelling of national pride. It is no wonder the United States shares an ironclad relationship with this little Baltic nation.