Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna Coates

Anna Coates and I met on social media through one of the many FB groups I belong to, We Love Memoirs. It could as easily have been Women Writers, Women’s Books.  Both are great if you are a woman memoirist.  And Anna is that.

While her memoir is not out yet, I’ve had the privilege of reading sections of it and was drawn to her story of her life in Latvia under Soviet control and through their fight for independence.   Though she now lives in France, when I heard she had stories to tell of a past visit to the US when she was 39–just the other day!–I knew I wanted her for this series. And she graciously agreed.

Anna gives us two stories of her visit, which I’ve place here in chronological order.  “Toilets and Racism” takes places upon her landing and “Symbols and Smiles” is … well, you’ll see.  I was supposed to choose between them but felt each one offers us something special and each will, I know, spur on some good conversation.

I’ll intersperse her stories with her photos of her home town, Riga, Latvia, like these …

Dom Church


Dom church garden


Welcome, Anna.


Anna Coates

Toilets and Racism

My first trip to discover America started on a nice, calm flight to JFK. My only problem was the plane’s toilet. I hate these minute, high tech cubicles as much as I love coffee -– not the best combination for a long flight — so when the plane finally landed, my first and only thought was to find a toilet.

And so I did. Usual bedlam and queues of a big airport, and then finally -– my coveted cubicle! I rushed, opened the door and put on brakes. It was broken! The damned throne was halfway filled with water! Clear water, but Ugghh!

I stepped back in the queue and waited for the next cubicle to open. Sprint and stop. Again -– half way full of water!  I was truly desperate by then but I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t relieve myself in that mess!

When I finally entered the third cubicle and found exactly the same setup, I was beyond could and couldn’t. I carefully tried to avoid splash-backs (with not much success) which made me cringe in horror. A few moments later, when my brain was able to accommodate another thought,  I started to consider the possibility that all three couldn’t be broken (customer service at JFK couldn’t be THAT bad!) so maybe, just MAYBE this was the way of American toilets.

Deep sight -– I got the feeling that discovering America would not be as easy as my prior shenanigans across Europe had been.

Now it was time for the next step. The border crossing. I wasn’t worried.  I had a fresh ten-year visa in my passport, and my conscience was clean. In 20 days I’d be back in my office in Riga.  So, light-hearted, I stepped into the line.

As a former Soviet citizen I was used to long lines and the doom and gloom of Soviet offices, but the atmosphere at the border crossing slowly started to creep on my nerves. Due to some construction work, the line led into a long and narrow corridor; it’s low ceiling, dim lights, and bare concrete walls were best suited for some horror movie. The scary looking guards, armed with machine guns, accented the feel, but I still kept my cheerful mode.

And then it happened.

Suddenly I felt scared. It took me a few seconds to register the change and it made me blush. Due to my toilet run I entered the border crossing line as the last from my Scandinavian flight. And now the next flight had landed and the corridor behind me was filling fast with predominantly black people.

I had never before considered myself a racist of any kind and this sudden discovery that black people scared me made me blush in shame. Was I racist? The idea itself scared me.

While standing in the line, I searched for the answers. I’m from as white a country as possible. I grew up in a country with about five mixed race people — who were all born at the beginning of 1958 as a result of the World Festival of Youth and Students, held in Moscow in 1957. I had never before seen more than one black face at a time.

My fear was an instinctive reaction to the otherness, the unfamiliar, not the race. I was able to live with that as something easy to overcome; I just needed to work on it. Now.

So, I turned around and started a conversation with the black man behind me. He was a New Yorker, returning from some conference.  In the next ten minutes my “otherness fear” was sorted out and I approached the border guard with an easy smile. I felt ready. Ready for America, it’s otherness, and even its toilets.


One of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga
Public garden

Symbols and Smiles

‘I like history,’ I said, when my American host asked what I would like to see in Kansas.

A big mistake, it turned out.

He was full of optimism to show me the best. So we drove, and drove, and drove through the Great Plains to see… a statue of liberty. No, no, not the one in NY — we were still in Kansas — but a much smaller replica installed in some small town square.

It felt… wrong. Out of place. Weird. I politely nodded and took some pictures. Then we drove again and stopped to look at another one -– exactly the same -– followed by another. It started to feel like a scene from Alice in the Wonderland. After the third statue, I suggested that it was time for a coffee break.

I sipped my McDonald’s coffee and tried to understand why little statues of liberty felt so weird. And then it hit me – déjà vu! I was ready to jump up and sing “Back in the USSR.”

It seemed that The Statue of Liberty -– the real one — was a very similar symbol to Americans as the statue of Lenin is for Soviets. In the old Soviet Union, almost every little town had its own statue of Lenin, a cheap replica of the much bigger statue in Lenin Square back in Moscow. I was seeing the same little patriotic replicas.

From that day the similarities started to grow on me. 

Americans, like Soviets, believe they have the best country in the world.  And while the Cold War seemed to be over, both sides were absolutely sure who was their main enemy.

The people in the rural areas of the Soviet Union were not very advanced in the geography of the West. To my surprise, I found out that world geography wasn’t the forte of Americans either.

At the beginning of my visit, I tried to name my country, Latvia, but soon realized it just caused confusion. It was much easier to use Europe.

“Oh, you are from Europe? Wow! Can I take a selfie? I never met anyone from Europe!”

Later, I saw the 6th grade geography book which belonged to one of my host’s children. The picture at the front of the book showed the globe, but with only one side: the side with North and South America. I turned the book over, looking for the another side of the globe, but it wasn’t there.

Another surprise was the news. Growing up in the Soviet Union, there was always very little news from abroad, and it was always bad (except if they came from countries with pro-Soviet regimes). The channel my American hosts were watching offered a half hour of news which had only one, very short slot with news from abroad like a fire in London or a similar visually entertaining nothing. A longer slot was devoted to the federal news, and the rest was the local news.

Don’t get me wrong, the news was professionally made. And I never felt so excited watching a ten minute news slot about two snow ploughs heroically removing one inch of snow from the local Interstate. But it felt so similar to my childhood’s Soviet TV news about random harvesters heroically battling through the wheat fields.

The next day after my return home I went to the post office to collect a package that had arrived while I was away.  The line was slow moving and soon I leaned against the long counter dividing clients and staff.

“Don’t lean against the counter!” The sharp voice cut me out of my daydreaming. “And stop grinning!”

I sighed. Finally, I felt back at home. And found the biggest difference between us and Americans: we do not smile in public.

National library, most recent of big new buildings in Riga


Anna writes under her pen name, Zenta Brice, and posts her articles to her website at


Thank you, Anna, for sharing your stories here.  There’s so much I want to ask you, comment on, and say.  But I shall hold off for a bit and let our readers get us started.

How about you?  What stood out for you in Anna’s stories?  Did one of the stories resonate with you more than the other?  How? 

42 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Thank you for your thoughtful perspective (and charming voice) on your visit to the US. I think the differences in toilets (and etiquette) is something all travelers encounter. I remember a trip to Italy where it was a bit of a game to discover how each toilet flushed, and also the need to carry change to tip attendants. Your acknowledgment that you could be racist–fear of the known–and your ready solution was a delight.

    As far as your hosts in Kansas–well, the U.S. has many subcultures. I suspect I would not feel so at home there either. I had no idea that there were places that had mini Statues of Liberty. The actual statue though really is a symbol with its own history, and it is nothing like a statue of Lenin. Yes, American TV news is much like you say, and I seldom watch it. I listen to NPR and BBC reports to get a broader perspective. I also thought about an American TV show called “The Americans.” It’s set in the 1980s, and it’s about a couple who pose as typical Americans, but they are really Soviet spies. While watching the show, you root for them, but also for their FBI neighbor and friend, and the Russian characters who are now back in the USSR. They are all trying to do their best, and you see good and bad in both countries. Thank you for sharing your stories!
    Merril Smith recently posted…Time TumblesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril,

      I’m fascinated by the TV show you mentioned, The Americans. I looked it up and found I could only buy it via iTunes. I’ll have to keep my eye out for it on Amazon or Netflix. It sounds right up my alley.

      Anna has rather sporadic Internet, she was telling me last night. And her best time turns out to be while we sleep, so I don’t expect to see her pop in until morning.

      My favorite travel-toilet story has to do with the little shelves one gets in the toilets in Holland. Took more getting used to the Kazakhstan’s squat toilets.

      Thanks for starting us off.

      • Merril Smith
        | Reply

        The Americans is really well-done. Next year will be the final season, so I imagine it will show up on Netflix at some point. I experienced some squat toilets in Italy, too. 🙂
        Merril Smith recently posted…Time TumblesMy Profile

      • Anna
        | Reply

        Thank you for the suggestion on show “The Americans.” My current probably is The West Wing – about how America should be. Now there are things which probably go way beyond the ideas of any scriptwriter. Sometimes I wonder what Sorkin is thinking about this or that… This is great time of news editors and journalists, but not so much for writers as daily news are overpowering imagination. Something epic like 1984 comes to mind.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          I loved West Wing. When we came home from Kazakhstan, we binged watch all 7 seasons on Netflix. Bill Clinton’s press secretary was listed n the credits of the early seasons as an advisor. FYI.

    • Anna
      | Reply

      Symbols are symbols, even if they carry different meanings to different people. Like statues of Lenin – for me it was a symbol of opression, occupation while for many Russians it’s still the symbol of all the best things in life. I suspect there are plenty of people who might look at the Statue of Liberty with different eyes as well.
      Propaganda works the same in every country, turning physical things in emotions for majority. America had been as sucessful as Soviets were in creating emotional symbols, thus my comparison. When I was creating cover for my book, I tried to find something which may tell to the majority of Western readers what the book is about, and was surprised that Soviet symbols are still alive for new generations.

  2. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    Thank you for these graciously funny stories about our country. Toilets abroad are a classic humor topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Asian squat holes. Now I’m wildly curious about Latvian toilets. I’m vaguely remembering toilets, probably somewhere in Europe, that had about a cupful of water in a hole at the very bottom, similar to those loathsome airplane ones, but not blue ─ great for water conservation.

    Turning to people, history and cultural differences, last summer my husband and I floated down the Danube on a river cruise spending time in Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, and Romania. Stories we heard about time in the Soviet domain and the transition out again fascinated us and demonstrated the grit and resiliency of ordinary people the world over. I find that reassuring right now, right here in the USA and hope we don’t have to go through as much collective trauma as people in the Baltic and Balkans did.

    Thank you both for sharing these stories with the world.
    Sharon Lippincott recently posted…Ten Years of Lessons about Lifestory Writing, Part 1My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Sharon, Thanks for adding your very welcome thoughts. I too am now eager to hear Anna’s comparison of Latvian toilets. Do they have those shelves I saw in Holland?

      I also appreciated your comments about the dramatic changes that would have come about following the demise of the Soviet system. I’m comparing that to the trauma we are experiencing now, as the core structures of our government are being threatened daily — even though for me (a white, middle class, retiree) daily life goes on the same — compared to the drama of one’s life being turned inside out almost overnight. I remember the stories of that time that Gulzhahan told me. I think we are suffering something different — an apprehension/anticipation of doom. Must stay in the moment. And stay active.

      I didn’t know you’d gone down the Danube. Sounds delightful (and romantic). Of course, I get terrible motion sickness, so not so romantic for Woody or me.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna CoatesMy Profile

    • Anna
      | Reply

      Funny is the only safe way for me to talk about serious issues of this World. I can write a long story about how American politics affects my country – it would be a sourly post about how easily big nations forget about the small ones they trod over so easily. But laughing about little , quirky things are so much better, I think.

  3. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Anna — It was delightful to get to know you a bit through your delightful story. From the jaunty angle of the cap atop your fiery red hair I can tell your sassy. I think you’re just grand!
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…And the Envelope PleaseMy Profile

    • Anna
      | Reply

      Thank you! To be honest, I’ m mad as Hatter, and sadly, not even ashamed of it LOL

  4. Isabelle Winkler
    | Reply

    Anna, you touch on so many wonderful aspects! I had a similar thing happen with a toilet in the house of an American friend in Britain. So weird! I can’t wait to learn how to use these buckets without uncomfortable splashing. Is there a trick? I do believe that the German equivalent (the shelf-style toilet) must be equally irritating to Americans. (That’s the one others have referred to, right?) Oh gosh, I could go on and on about toilets…

    Also, Racism. I think it’s part of experiencing new things. I had the same happen when I stepped out of the carriage bringing me to St. Petersburg. I believe that it’s predominantly fear of the unknown. This feeling is where Racism stems from; the problem is not that we have these feelings, it’s how we cope with them. I find this difference crucial because the word Racism stops conversations more often than it starts them. I love what you did!

    To the news, I think that problem is universal. The News is a highly edited version of the national narrative wherever you go, especially tv news. Do you know the tv series “The Newsroom”? It is my all-time favourite show and worth a watch for more than one reason.

    • Anna
      | Reply

      News are right up my alley, so I can respond to that. Observation one – smaller the country, wider goes the news. Latvia is a small country so our news are mostly not affected by any agenda, especially on World news. At a time of my trip I was still working as a news editor, so I was tuned to news structure, and comparison was really surprising.

      Regarding racism – eactly. I call it not so much unknown as otherness. Otherness is what scares us away, it sits deep in our biology, much deeper than our developed brain. Nature, not nurture.
      First I realised that on the street in Germany, when I stepped aside because of a Turkish family. Well off parents with 2 smallish children – nothing scary, nothing even mildly ringing bell of danger. It made me think why and I found another answer – personal space. As a Northener I need more personal, private space around me than people in the South. So they might threaten me without even realising that. Just because they speak louder and their gestures are wider. I confirmed it to myself in UK, where I tried to find out why Muslims irritate me daily. And again – my answer is personal space. Even here, in France, I feel uncomfortable, when I’ m expected to hug and kiss basically strangers – the form of common greeting here. handshake would feel sufficient for me. LOL

      Toilets… Latvian toilets are normal. Standard. LOL
      You can prepare for big things for every trip in the world, but there are small things, completely unepected things which sweep you off your feet. For me it was different type of toilets.

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        Hi Anna,

        I’m smitten by your words “normal and Standard.” Are they “normal American” or “normal Dutch” or “normal Kazakhstan?” There ought to be a listing somewhere of what toilets look like in different parts of the world. Something for Lonely Planet to take up, I imagine. During our first weeks in Kazakhstan, ALL that the many Peace Corps volunteers could talk about were the toilets.
        Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna CoatesMy Profile

        • Anna
          | Reply

          “Normal” for me, of course. LOL That’ s the thing – there are so many different “normal” around us, things we do without a second thought until we realize that they can be different, that your “normal” can be way differnt than my “normal”. When I’m in UK, the not “normal” traffic flow drives me nuts as I just can’ t get the feel of it so crossing the streetfeels like a madness. Of course, I knew about it beforehand, but my inability to adapt to it was irritating for me. Right now we have one French car and one UK car and 90% of times I try to open the door on the wrong side. LOL But at least French toilets are the same as back in home so I feel “normal” there

    • Anna
      | Reply

      Well, regarding The Newsroom – as I lived in on for 20+years I would say it fits the reality the same way as The West Wing fits the current administration LOL

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        The West Wing told the story of a Democratic (big D) administration. And, actually, at least in the early seasons, showed it fairly well. Less chaotic and hectic than I believe them to actually be, but well.

        I’m eager to check out The Newsroom, Isabelle. Thanks for that. I hadn’t heard of it.

        • Anna
          | Reply

          Oh, def watch The Newsroom. We have our fav shows on CD, to watch when we feel like it, and The Newsroom is on my bed shelf. But I personally like WW better.

      • Isabelle Winkler
        | Reply

        Oh yes! Not reality. But it’s not about reality. It’s about ideals. That’s why I like it so much. It references reality just enough to make us buy it. (But you know, people don’t tend to give these elaborate speeches and tend not to have ideals or bet their life on them…)

        I find your comment about the news being broader in small countries interesting. And to a point, I understand. I wondered do you see France, Britain and Germany as “small”? (Sadly, although I have visited Latvia, I didn’t understand the news…)

        There is one thing I don’t agree with and that is that in small countries there are “no agendas” propagated in the news. I have a huge problem with the so called “unbiased” newscasts in these countries (I can speak for France, Italy, Britain and Germany, as I am following those on a semi-regular basis) propagating impartial reports filled with ignorant reporting and weak research. The spectrum of news might be broader but the quality is just as bad. From within these countries, I was never able to put a finger on what bothered me, but seeing the reporting about Russia is really painful and unveils the ignorance and the prejudice that is a result of over 50 years of propaganda. The problems mostly arise out of the angle with which they look at a story. It’s not the facts they report, but the way they report them.
        It lives on in the head of my grandparents and parents, as a result, they didn’t visit eastern European countries and never have been anywhere near Russia. And although I grew up in East Germany, these prejudices are in my head as well. They are so deeply ingrained that I have problems seeing this country clearly although I have been in it for almost 5 months now.

        I have to catch a flight now! Ahh! 🙂 Can’t wait to hear what your position is on this!
        Isabelle Winkler recently posted…CULTURAL HINDRANCES #1My Profile

        • Anna
          | Reply

          France and Germany are major players in Europe so no way I would call them small with unbiased news. They do play important roles in international politics and thus, of course, the news is biased. UK is the world’s 6th biggest economy and in a big way into the world politics so again, def biased. With small countries I mean something like my Baltic countries, with, for example, population of whole of Estonia way smaller than Houston, Tex. LOL
          In Baltic states, for example, due to recent history the news radar is on Russia, and it’s biased both ways. But other than that news will be rather objective because we do not have agenda there. Smaller and less important international player the country is, less bias they can afford to be. There is a reason why Scandinavian countries top the media freedom ranks. And small Estonia ranks 12th while France ranks 39th, and UK 40th, and USA ranking 43rd. Can you see a pattern there?
          Regarding your observations their biased opinions towards Russia – well, I wish it would be more biased. Putin’s Russia has been an aggressor in Ukraine for several years now, and keeps Baltic states to their tiptoes as well, but while Russian forces had seized territories of Crimea and East Ukraine, Western lefties still play “Russia is not that bad” game. And Russia is no fool – now it pays its way through the far right groups in the West as well to increase its influece.
          The harsh reality is that today’s Russia is more dangerous than Soviet Union was as it has no moral ties Soviets had. Today’s Russia is a country who seeks for the lost power and territories, with bleak economy and no democracy – it’s a dangerous combination.

          • Isabelle Winkler

            Yes, I see that pattern.

            I understand that Russia is dangerous and the combination of power and cold capitalism frightens me, as well. (America and Russia have some frightening things in common.) But I also see that the western world is partly to blame and that we need to take a good look at ourselfs before pointing the finger. I find it extremely hard to look at the situation in Ukraine without looking at the way Europe has expanded to the east over the past years, swallowing most of Russia’s former “allies”.

            It also gives me pause that nobody, nobody I talked to in Russia, finds any fault with the Annexion. Now, to be honest, I still have a good amount of reading to do about the Ukraine conflict. My travels will bring me close to that in a couple of weeks and I hope to get some clarity. But talking about Russia in fear plays into the Russian view of the world. I am against “making an enemy” no matter who that enemy is. For me, as a European citizen, it’s vitally important to understand were the real conflict lies. Fear turns into respect when we see every angle.

            How can I be an informed voter, when the news create my enemies? For me, that is one of the reasons I made travelling the focus of my current life. Once you have lived in the country, it is really difficult to take reporting serious, that tells you a head of state is stupid or ridiculous for posing on a horse without a shirt on. The decision that this person made can still be as wrong, but I want to know why I am supposed to take offence and why it’s citizens won’t.

            Thank you for taking the time to reply.

          • Anna

            Yes, def do some reading on Ukraine. More you will know, better you will understand. Start with Holodomor in Ukraine. In a nutshell – at the beginning of 30’s Ukraine was moving towards West and Soviets felt that they might lose Ukraine. So Stalin created a cunning plan – all the food was taken out of Ukraine and people banned from leaving Ukraine. It is estimated that about 7-10 million died in this cleverly created famine. When lands were emptied from Western oriented Ukrainians, Soviets “imported” Russian settlers to fill the empty spaces. So when Ukraine finally declared independence, it already had several generations of Russian settlers, Putin’s 5th column to deal with.
            Crimea historically is the area of Crimean Tatars. As Soviets coveted the beautiful peninsula, right after the liberation of Crimea, in May 1944, Stalin ordered the removal of ALL of the Tatar population from Crimea. Most of them died in Soviet Gulags. Trust me, the untold story of Crimean Tatars is way worse than the story of Jews and Holocaust. Now, when Russia took back the Crimea, the story is starting to repeat again while the world is turning a blind eye.
            I’ m not bias here as I have no Ukrainian, nor Tatar links. Try to read as much as you can to find out facts for yourself. If you will talk to ordinary Russian people, they will tell you the story of bad Ukrainians, for sure. Russians have way less chances to avoid propaganda. But! Brainwashed doesn’t mean right.

  5. Patricia Steele
    | Reply

    Thank you, Janet, for sharing these articles by Anna. It was so refreshing to read about how others see our country and the oddities we find all over the world. I shared it with others and I’m sure they will also enjoy it like I did.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia and welcome.

      Indeed. How often do we even think about how our toilets work?

      Thank you so much for sharing the post. Sharing is caring, as they say. 🙂

  6. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Hi Anna,

    My thoughts on your “racism” story have stayed with me since I first read it, weeks ago. I’ve been struggling with how to ask my questions without getting too academic. I’ll take a stab:

    I’m curious if your response then was culture based or an individualistic one. I mean, would this response (to take responsibility for your feelings, your reactions, and strive to change them) be fairly typical for a Latvian? Or was it more something unique to you?

    Americans, historically, have been seen as being very “individualistic,” very much focused on their own power and efficacy. This is usually contrasted with cultures with a “community-oriented” focus. I’m not using it in that sense here; I guess I’m using a more psychological prism: seeing less and less focus on “what is my part in this; what can I do, as an individual” to resolve it, and more of an “other, or external” focus (the finger pointing blame, for example) here at home. (the calls for certain groups to “go home” come most readily to mind). This concerns me greatly.

    Rather than responding with, “I’m afraid of them/him; there must be something wrong with them/him,” you focused on what YOU could do to change how you were feeling. You didn’t focus on or blame the “other,” a response I find too often here in my country. So, again, I’m wondering if this idea of looking at yourself (the only thing we can change, after all) is something you’ve learned as an adult, a choice you’ve decided to make, personally, or is it common among Latvians in general?

    • Anna
      | Reply

      I’ll try to reply but that’ s not an easy question.

      Latvians, like any other nations, are made out of individuals, but historically I think we are big individualists, but with a sense of collective responsibility.
      If you will read Eagle, I tried to put it into it – under the Soviet rule it was easy divide – “us” and “them”. After we got back our independence, there were no more “them” to blame for everything, so we gradually realised that now it’s “us” and ” us” only, and it was a big eye opener as gosh, we didn’ t like what we saw.
      I think in general as a nation we are a bit on the nerdy side when it comes to recycling, no-littering, nature preservation as we are settlers – if I will break a bottle today, most likely my grandchildren will be cutting their feet on the same broken glass bits 100 years later so it’s better not to break that bottle and instead plant a tree. Because we were living under various “them” for 800 years, preserving what we have, celebrating our difference is part of our being. For example, we do have many paganic traditions still alive, organic part of our culture, our folksongs, national costumes – we cherish our difference as something that unites us. At the same, pragmatic attitude when dealing with “them” is also part of our being, genetic survival kit of a small nation. We never had been isolationists, and find it rather easy to stay ourselves when surrounded by “others”. Our nationalism never had been agressive – we enjoy being “us” and fully respect others being “them”.
      Politically I think we are a very silly bunch as we are able to unite only “against”, not “for”. We have saying that 2 Latvians mean at least 3 political parties. LOL

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        You wrote, “we cherish our difference as something that unites us.” What a wonderful way to put it. Would that that was the universal attitude.

        The Latvian approach to the land and the future reminds me of our Native Americans. They consider how their decisions will affect the future out seven generations before they move forward. Not nerdy at all, I think.

        I didn’t know about the pagan traditions in your country. And now I shall read up on it. I know this is a futile exercise, but do you even wonder what your country would have been like had Eastern Europe not been swallowed by the Soviets following WWII? What a grand, whole, Europe we might now be seeing.

        And I loved how you added, “2 Latvians mean 3 political parties.” Sounds like a people I’d love to debate. When next I get an energy boost.
        Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna CoatesMy Profile

        • Anna
          | Reply

          Janet, that’s a crazy things to guess, but okay, here goes my IF.

          Before the WWII and Soviet occupation, Latvia was small, provincial and thriving country, exporting butter and bacon to Denmark LOL
          Generally agricultural country with few technical advances for the world – the old Minox camera (1937 – 1943) comes to mind as one of our bestsellers at the time. So, considering “IFs”, I assume, Latvia would be somewhere among happy Scandinavian countries, let’s say on par with Finland.

          Regarding our pagan traditions, the biggest now is Midsummer. Celebration of Summer equinox (Nowdays for common good, it’s set on 24th June which is public holiday). Germans tried to eradicate it for Christianity, Soviets tried to eradicate it for political reasons, but it’ s still alive and going big. It includes 3 major elements – bonfire through the nigh, folksongs and beer.

          But if you look beyond that, we do keep a lot of old knowledge alive in families. While today herbs are the “thing” in the West, rediscovering the benefits, I grew up, learning use of hundreds of herbs from my grandmother.
          I had a chance to compare, and our knowledge of plant use – while slightly different – is no less than one of the knowledgeable Native Americans (and if we look, there are similarities of ornaments in our traditional clothing as well).

          Folksongs were part of passing our knowledge from generation to generation, so they are major source of understanding our deities and gods. Thankfully about 1,5 million of our folksongs have had survived up to today. Of course, “normal” Latvian knows only several hundred of them for daily use. If you want to look at, try Latvian Song and Dance Festival on youtube – it will give you some idea about how big and important part of our culture it is. There is a reason why in Baltic countries the battle for independence is called the Singing Revolution.

          • Janet Givens

            Ah, the midsummer bonfire. I celebrated my first one outside of Copenhagen in 2005. It was lovely. They even launched a flaming witch into the sky. We all still talk about it.

            I recall you posted here a link to that choral festival where your revolution began. I love the idea of seeing just how much power music has. Enough to unite us in our most troubling times.

            We had that in the 60s, certainly. And I miss it. Music of that era is still played today and while we have a strong singer-songwriter subculture, the anti-establishment songs of the 60s are still being sung. I wonder if they will become our version of an oral culture being passed down.
            Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna CoatesMy Profile

  7. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Wonderful little stories. One thing we all have in common is culture shock when visiting places and people foreign to us. Traveling is the best way to get over it and learn to accept all of the big and little differences!
    Joan Z. Rough recently posted…What? Me Retired?My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Wouldn’t that be grand, Joan. And would that everyone could afford such travel. Not that travel comes down in price, but that average workers would get paid sufficiently to be able to travel and experience the world. For too long (and the few exceptions, like young folks in the ’60s) travel has been the purview of the wealthy.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna CoatesMy Profile

  8. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Time and travel have taught me to think before I judge when visiting another country. In Britain, I thought at first, “They are driving on the wrong side of the road.” Now I think – “Not wrong, just different.”

    I was prepared for different toileting in Ukraine before we left the USA. My squat muscle got quite a workout. I’ll say this, “Squatting certainly conserves water!”

    Thank you, Anna and Janet, for an enlightening post with entertaining comments.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Smooth Sale-ing? the Sad and the GladMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Marian.

      That ability to see a difference and not judge it is the mark of the mature (and well-educated) mind. And it’s not always easy.

      As lack of water will be the next world-wide catastrophe, I imagine we might well start adopting those squat toilets here. You go first; I’ll follow.


  9. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
    My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
    Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
    My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

    I thought of this verse from the Robert Burns’ poem of the same name as I read the discussion between Anna and Isabelle (who’s post is coming up next week!). I remember the lesson on Robert Burns’ in one of the fourth year classes while teaching in Kazakhstan. They’d read this poem, but they hadn’t gotten it; they’d discounted its beauty because they were taking it literally. Their heart was not in the Highlands (where that was). When we talked about the emotion the poem conveyed and compared it to the emotion they felt for their own “highlands” — the steppe. Then they understood and the great discussion that followed stays with me still.

    What a privilege to be able to look back to the land you grew up in and feel longing for it. And have that longing follow you wherever you may live. I find that totally human, universally so. I imagine Russians feel that way about Russia, Poles about Poland, and Ukrainians about Ukraine. And so forth. The problem comes, I think, when we forget that we’re not the only ones doing this.

    Thank you both of you for adding much of the background story. As I read through your comments what also struck me was the word “history” — his story. And how history (even, someday, her story) is written by the victors. The vanquished don’t get to write about it. At least not as much.

    It’s been a lively conversation and I’ve learned much. I thank you.

  10. Pamela
    | Reply

    I enjoyed your well-written piece about your initial reactions to visiting America, Anna. I smiled and grimaced at the same time. Yes, Americans are patriotic and feel that we have the best country. And despite the mini-Statues you saw, and the half-filled-water toilets, I think most of us who live here still feel that way. But America is a big country, and each region has its own idiosyncrasies. Which makes it so much fun to travel all over this country. I’ve been fortunate to drive cross country several times, and each time I’m amazed at how different the geography and culture is, and yet how similar we all are . All of us, including those in Russia and America and France and Africa, etc. We’re all the same, and yet different. I agree with Merril; I seldomly watch local news. That seems to be the same no matter what state I’m in! Fires and theft and one happy story. 🙂
    Pamela recently posted…That’s So Cheesy!My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Pam, welcome.

      Murder, mayhem, and mischief. That’s what I have called local news and you are right, it is the same across the land. I hadn’t thought of that. Fires, theft, maybe an accident or two, and that happy ending story. In a way, though, isn’t it like visiting one’s old “Uncle Ned” — he has his stories and we patiently listen to them even though nothing in them is new, but we listen and we smile and we nod because it’s what we do. Because it’s familiar and we like the familiar. And we can silently feel superior to it? Hmmm, that just came to me. I must sit with that one a bit.

      Isn’t this a grand conversation? Similar to the one over at your site. I hadn’t given “cheesy” much thought until today. So, thanks for that. I hope you’ll do one on “cheeky” sometime.

  11. Ella
    | Reply

    As a Ukrainian, I cannot disagree with Anna about Ukraine and the Tatars’ history and recent outrageously unfair (in my opinion) occupation of Crimea.

    Did you hear the joke?
    Putin crosses the border in USA and the custom asks him:
    Putin: Vladimir Putin
    Putin: Kremlin
    Putin: No, just visiting.

    I hear that the Baltic countries live in constant fear of Russia. Do you agree?

    I remember hitchhiking to Latvia in my youth with other friends – hippies. This country, though Soviet, had so much more aroma of freedom than Ukraine. I perceived a silent resistance and inscrutable waiting for change. And this waiting by itself felt like power We always felt almost like we were crossing some invincible borders and entering little beautiful and neat countries that maintained their culture and their inner dignity.

    We often joked – let’s go to breathe some air of freedom in “Pribaltika.” The very first rock concert I attended was in Riga.

    I also really appreciate your honesty about racism. We all have a lot of feelings of fear, inadequacy and insecurity – and it is okay to feel what we feel and take responsibility rather than blame others for our discomfort. But then we also appreciate other people’s feeling and learn to live with differences.

    It is amazing how delightfully and beautifully unique we all are! My first experience in USA airport was a quiet bliss on the background of impeccably clean and shinny toilets and smiling people. When I was crossing customs, one handsome officer looked at my passport and said: Welcome to a free country, Miss. That made me tear. …I maintain my critical intelligence but I am still grateful.

  12. Anna
    | Reply

    Hello, Ella!

    Glad you added your voice here. Your country is directly suffering, people die in this silent war because of “good” Putin, and it really drives me nuts when so many Westerners blindly try to be “fair” and protect him. I remember my grandfather’s stories about his reaction in 30’s when our newspapers were telling the stories about Holodomor. He said that he didn’ t believe, that he assumed it’ s all stupid anti Soviet propaganda as it was unimaginable how the Ukraine with it’s rich soil suddenly can be starving to death. Now there is a silent war, and again people repeat that story – ‘ it must be propaganda only, Russia can’ t be that bad’.
    It’s another difference between people meeting on this thread. For some one piece of international politics is just a news slot, for others -daily life. And these experiences are harder to skip over, much harder than different toilets.

    BTW, do you remember the name of the band (the rock concert in Riga)?

  13. Ella
    | Reply

    Hah! I don’t remember but it was a good one! It was in 1980 in the Palace of Pioneers! So ironic.

  14. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet and Anna – sorry I’m late to the party, but in this case, certainly, it was “better late than never.” Anna, I very much enjoyed reading your perspectives. Indeed, I imagine we (the U.S. and Russia) are much more alike than different, and certainly more alike than most folks on either side would care to believe. Your post brought to mind a quote I once read by Aleksander Pushkin, which rings with a certain universal truth, I think: “better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths.” Thanks :).
    Tim Fearnside recently posted…70 from the ’70’sMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Tim. Always glad to get your thoughts on our posts. I’ve been struck of late by how the US has begun to remind me of the Soviets in the 50s and 60s in the way we strut our militarism. Then, there’s the classic resistance to learning a foreign language. I’ve long believed that has more to do with our geographical size. Small countries, those with many neighbors, understand and appreciate the value in speaking other languages. I first noticed how resistant the Russians were to learned no Kazakh while living in Kazakhstan. And I likened it then to American resistance to learning Spanish. I imagined there are many other similarities.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Other’s Eyes: Anna CoatesMy Profile

  15. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Anna, it’s been a pleasure hosting you this week. Thank you for joining us and for being so responsive as the Comments and questions came in. I would enjoy continuing this conversation and know you have much more to say. I trust you’ll return later in the week when Isabelle Winkler joins us from Russia. I’m eager to see where her theme of “privilege” takes us.

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