A Full Spectrum Week in Latvia: White Beaches and Beyond
Updated: Mar 3
Labas, everyone! If we're being real here, I've needed a bit of time to reflect on my experiences in Latvia just about three weeks ago now. Most of it was refreshing and nourishing, but there were bits of it that shook and disrupted me - and that's what I've needed to reflect on. You know I'm not going to be dishonest with you about my life experiences here in the Baltics: you've seen my dissertation on the dark side of Užgavėnės at the end of February and its redemption story the following week. It's not all Baltic paganism and challah baking, as you're well aware. So, three weeks later, here we are.
You should know I've been endlessly curious about the other two Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, since moving to Lithuania last July. How are they different? How are they similar? Entering Latvia immediately felt like being immersed in a parallel universe. It looked like Lithuania, it felt like Lithuania, even the words were similar enough that I could understand some of them. And yet, I was in a completely different country. How is this possible?
After moving to Lithuania, so many people continue to ask us what Americans think about Lithuania, and I have to be the cold bearer of bad news that, um, most Americans think nothing of Lithuania. They barely even know where it is - hence the creation of this entire blog! And it's the exact same with Latvia. If you would have asked me to point out Latvia or Lithuania on a map two years ago, I would've bit my lip and blindly pointed towards Eastern Europe, wherever that was. (Little did I know I had ancestors from here - joke's on me!)
But circling back to Latvia, it didn't initially feel that different to Lithuania except for one thing: a larger coast line. As someone who spent the first half of their life intimately connected to the ocean, Latvia automatically won me over. The Scientist and I were actually there on a work-cation in Liepāja: working during the day and heading down to the beach at night. And y'all, we made the most of that beach time, running around with Audrey, watching the sunset, visiting the nude beach, meeting incredibly sweet Latvians. Yes, this post is a love letter to the warm, white sand, the tide pools, the sweet Swedish woman who ran up to pet Audrey from far away.
But Liepāja had its dark side, too, and having just visited the Paneriai Holocaust Memorial right near Vilnius, I was a bit Holocausted out. But you know what? This was my chance to show my respects for a ridiculous number of Jewish people who were executed on the dunes of a nearby beach. (Please only read if you have a strong stomach. It ain't pretty.) Honestly, I'm not even here to talk about that site today - just know it was clearly on my heart and in my nervous system by the time I made it to Riga, Latvia's capital city.
Riga! I was so excited to finally visit Riga - and I actually liked it quite a bit, especially their - and I can't even believe I'm saying this - brewery, Labietis. (I'm not a huge beer or alcohol fan, so the fact that they had sour beers was a huge perk!) We met up with a sweet friend of ours who we'd initially met in Druskininkai, one of my favorite Lithuanian towns, and kept in touch for months, opting to visit each others' respective cities. So now, it was our turn to see what Riga was all about. We met really friendly people at a party, drank some tea, and I was reminded that there are good people everywhere, some heading out to sea for months on end, some into canning food, some whose eyes lit up when they saw we had a greyhound.
But it was also at this party that I experienced some uncomfortable, borderline painful moments. First, the conversation turned to Jewish people, and while I won't get into the specifics, just know I worked to assuredly share my experiences of life around the Jewish culture - orthodox and beyond - without defense. We had already moved on from this discussion when someone then brought out an innocuous-looking white coffee cup that they then proudly showed me the bottom of: very clear Nazi symbols. My brain felt like it was short-circuiting and sputtering, as I've only seen these objects in museums, but here they were, being deliberately shown to the one Jewish girl as heirlooms, artifacts, family treasures. There was joking about always offering to let their friends use it and its accompanying plate for coffee in the morning, and I wasn't sure how to respond so I played along, despite the Holocaust memorials still seared in my brain. I can say with about 98.7% certainty that the people who shared this with me weren't trying to be antisemitic. They were flagrantly obtuse and insensitive, but I actually don't believe they meant to upset me.
Regardless, I was upset, and so were my many Jewish friends once I told them. In the moment, I'm glad I played it cool - this time - because I'd already used up so much bandwidth in the previous conversation. But more than anything, it really got me thinking about the differences between American Jews and European Jews. From my perspective, European Jews had to adjust quickly out of sheer survival mode, a different kind of assimilation than the one experienced by Americans. Maybe they adjusted because they heard so much of this: "Life goes on. Europe moves on. Why should we look back to the past?" An unhealed wound.
American Jews, on the other hand? Many of their ancestors came to my home country to escape centuries-long persecution, changing their names right along with it, probably playing a larger role in the "American dream" trope than I originally realized. I speak sometimes on generational trauma: I feel like American Jews can often be stuck in this trauma loop, namely because that's the last core cellular memory their ancestors have of Europe: pain, flight, escape, survival. It's this exact trauma that led some members of my immediate and extended family to show extreme concern when I told them I was considering a move to Eastern Europe. Nothing good happens there, Eva. An unhealed wound, another broken bone.
Meanwhile, here I am, an American Jew living in Europe, having little choice but to do the real work to set these bones enough to heal - to not live out my ancestors' trauma and pain. Was this Nazi cup experience upsetting for me? Yes, but I do also feel like it came into my life to teach me this lesson, to remind me that I'm in an incredibly unique experience here in Eastern Europe. It truly is part of my path to heal, in my own small, personal way. To visit my ancestors' potential graves in Anykščiai and say, "HINENI! Here I am! I've returned." It's actually incredibly powerful and transformative to be in my shoes, and I don't take it for granted a single day that I'm here.
Will I be back to Latvia? Yes, absolutely. Will I see my friend again? Sure. This event isn't isolated to Latvia, nor to Eastern Europe, and especially not to America, where antisemitism is on the rise. So, it's taken me a while to get these raw words out, to explain my healing process... but I feel good about placing them here in perpetuity on Into the Forests I Go. Pain is best witnessed before it's healed, and I feel witnessed just writing these words. So, thank you for reading today, and I hope my return to Latvia will have zero Nazi cups (ha!), and plenty more soft, white sand.
And with that, I have a question: are you an American Jew who has lived in Europe? (I know I'm not the only one!) Or, a European Jew? Feel free to comment or subscribe to my biweekly email below - it's always a surprise to even me to see what flows out of my mouth in those! - as well as checking out my Instagram @intotheforestsigo. See y'all soon - viso gero! Xo