Dipping my feet in Americana waters

“What is the purpose of your visit? And how long are you staying?” are the routine questions I hear from US Customs and Border control upon arrival. I have quite the collection of memories from these annual interviews. Waiting in line for my turn, trying to decide which customs guy looks the friendliest, preparing my answers… I even have a list of my preferred airports to arrive in (Minneapolis, Portland) and my least favorite (Los Angeles, New York)

This time I traveled through Chicago and it was a late night arrival. I think the officer was ready to go home and not interested in long chats. “Where are you going?” was all he asked and stamped my passport. Surely he saw how many US stamps there are already. I hesitated when the customs guy asked if I have any food items to declare but decided that Latvian chocolate bars I was bringing as gifts did not count. Chocolate is not food, right?

I have never stayed longer than three months and have never lived in the United States. Besides visiting family and friends and speaking engagements, there are many reasons to enjoy it. America (even the US part of it) is just so big. I have lost count of the places visited but the wish list keeps getting longer and longer. I have yet to see the wilderness of Alaska, the mountains of Colorado, the museums of Washington D.C., the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Statue of Liberty (if I don’t count seeing it from the airplane) and the list goes on.

It is no secret that Europeans and Americans often differ in their views. I would describe our relationship as mutual ‘I really like you but you frustrate me. And at times annoy’. It is sometimes complicated but, no doubt, we care about each other’s opinion. How can we possibly avoid it when so much of American gene is of European descent?! My American friends ask me what Europeans think about their international image, policies and politics. My European friends ask me what is going on in America. Especially after this summer trip I am expecting a lot of questions.

When there are things that frustrate me about the US culture, I start countering it with the things I like. Frustrating ones first? This is a big nation and very self-sufficient. It annoys me how many Americans still do not realize how interconnected and interdependent the world is. For better or worse. Americans can be individualistic to the extreme. It annoys me when so many who have the means and money to travel, have no desire to visit other countries and learn about other cultures. It annoys me when people here complain about first-world problems and many think they are poor. I challenge their definition of ‘poverty’.

It annoys me when Americans talk about their government (as dysfunctional as it often seems) as tyrannical and authoritarian. Again I want to challenge this definition of ‘tyranny’ and ‘authoritative regime’. I was born in a tyrannical and authoritative system (the USSR) and I know the difference. Of course, there is abuse of power and corruption and deep rooted injustices but which embassies people line up to? Where do they expect to find liberty and opportunity and choice and free expression of themselves? For sure, the US is still at the top of the list where people want to immigrate.

And my list of positives? The number one is the acceptance and welcome of the immigrant and foreigner. Yes, it is not perfect but human beings are not perfect. Still, this land is beautiful because of its diversity of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, political opinion and ancestors. Few weeks ago there was an International Festival in Burnsville, Minnesota and it was great. Music, dances, cultural performances, food, kids activities. Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Pakistani, Somalian, Nigerian, Brazilian, Mexican… you name it. The last performers was a Latino band which got the whole crown dancing. And Latinos can dance! Just like Africans, their bodies just know how to sway with the rhythm.

Besides the beauty of the land, the diversity of its landscapes and its interesting history, I like the energy of this place. There are so many interesting ideas floating  in the air and people like to dream. I like the entrepreneur spirit and the innovations. I like the arts, music, books… I even like the optimism of Americans and the attitude of “why not?”, instead of “why?”

And going back to the freedom issue… I remember the first time I landed in the US and walked outside the airport in Seattle, Washington. I breathed in the air and it felt very different from what I had experienced growing up. It was not just a physical feeling of freedom, it was something deeper. I felt like I am appreciated just the way I am and I can express myself any way I want. And the policeman walking outside was actually a public servant and on my side.

One day I would like to read this poem on the Statue of Liberty with my own eyes:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Dear Latvia, I love you

This is my dear grandmother Margaret who is only 5 years younger than the Republic of Latvia. Born in 1923, she has seen and experienced many things, lost much but also gained much. She teaches me how not to take things for granted. She also teaches me about courage, sacrifice, creativity, gratitude and hope.

Today on Latvia’s Independence Day we will walk around Riga and celebrate together with the crowds of people. My grandmother loves people, but she can get lost in the crowd. She is so small and frail and half-deaf. I will take her to see the Freedom Monument which is a very special place for her and for many people. In the days and months and years when Latvia was re-gaining its independence, I knew that I could find her there, standing proudly with placards and posters. Demanding justice and freedom.

We are very close but we also have our differences. She has annoyed, upset and patronized me, but I have always felt that she has my back, that she is on my side. Even if she disagrees with me, she wants the best for me and she will give everything for it. She wants me to flourish and have a good life. Now I want to be on her side and by her side.

I am also on Latvia’s side and I believe it is on mine. Do we have our differences? For sure. Has my country annoyed and upset and patronized me? For sure. Have I rebelled and criticized and said that “I will never become like you”? For sure. Still, I love Latvia and I believe that Latvia loves me. Very imperfectly but nonetheless.

When I think about the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself”, I try to apply it on a national and international level as well. It is hard to love your (national and international) neighbors if you don’t love yourself. It is hard to respect your (national and international) neighbors if you don’t respect yourself. It is hard to cheer for your (national and international) neighbors if you don’t cheer for yourself. 

Also, I know that these are challenging days. There are trends in the world that question the idea of self-sacrifice, self-control, common good, justice, rule of law, vision beyond ourselves and truth. And more than ever we are reminded that we cannot take these values and understanding of good life for granted. Peace and justice and freedom is not something that just happens. It is very hard work and it takes long time but it can be destroyed and lost if we don’t cultivate and nourish  and guard it with all our will.

I think of my friends from Syria (who want peace in Syria) living in Latvia now. I think of my friends from China (who want democracy and freedom of religion in China) living in Latvia now. Or friends from Ukraine (who want justice and rule of law in Ukraine) living in Latvia now. If I start whining about Latvia too much, I think of them and most complaints stop. My mom used to tell me her life was not so bad and difficult as millions of people around the world who would love to trade places in a second (yes, my mom was amazing).

Latvia is not perfect but it is my country. Every person who lives here is not perfect but every one is my people. So, I will continue to learn what it means to love them in words and actions.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (Paul the Apostle)

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Someone in Latvia loves you very much (photos from personal archive)

Latvian:

Te es esmu kopā ar savu mīļo vecmammu Margietu, kura ir tikai 5 gadus jaunāka par Latvijas Republiku. Dzimusi 1923. gadā, viņa ir redzējusi un piedzīvojusi daudz, zaudējusi un arī ieguvusi daudz. No vecmammas es varu mācīties, ka neko nevar pieņemt kā pašsaprotamu. Mācos arī drosmi, radošumu, pateicību un cerību.

Šodien mēs iesim pastaigāties pa Rīgu un svinēsim Latvijas valsts 98. gadadienu kopā ar tūkstošiem cilvēku. Mana vecmamma ir ļoti sabiedriska, bet pēdējā laikā viņai ir grūti atrasties pūlī. Viņa ir tik maza, trausla un puskurla. Mēs aiziesim līdz Brīvības piemineklim, kas ir ļoti īpaša vieta. Dienās, mēnešos un gados, kad Latvija atguva savu neatkarību, zināju, ka varu atrast vecmammu pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Stāvam ar plakātiem un zīmējumiem.

Mēs esam ļoti tuvas, bet mums ir bijušas arī daudzas domstarpības. Viņa ir reizēm mani aizkaitinājusi, apbēdinājusi un centusies mācīt “kā dzīvot pareizāk”, bet es vienmēr esmu zinājusi, ka vecmamma ir manā pusē, ka viņa vēl man to labāko, un gatava upurēties savu bērnu un mazbērnu dēļ. Tagad es vēlos būt viņas pusē un viņai blakus.

Es esmu arī Latvijas pusē. Vai mums ir bijušas domstarpības? Protams. Vai Latvija ir mani aizkaitinājusi, apbēdinājusi un centusies mācīt “kā dzīvot pareizāk”? Protams. Vai es esmu dumpojusies un kritizējusi un teikusi, ka “iešu savu ceļu”? Protams. Taču es mīlu Latviju, un ticu ka Latvijā mīl mani. Nepilnīgi, bet tomēr.

Domājot par bausli “Mīli savu tuvāko kā sevi paši”, es cenšos to piemērot gan nacionālā, gan starptautiskā līmenī. Ir grūti mīlēt savus tuvākos un tālākos (gan nacionāli, gan starptautiski), ja tu nemīli pats sevi. Ir grūti  cienīt savus tuvākos un tālākos (gan nacionāli, gan starptautiski), ja tu necieni pats sevi. Ir grūti atbalstīt citus un priecāties par viņu panākumiem, ja tu nepriecājies par savējiem. Un otrādāk.

Skaidrs, ka ir ļoti daudz izaicinājumu. Šobrīd pasaulē ir spēcīgas tendencies, kas apšauba tādas lietas kā pašuzpurēšanās, paškontrole, kopīgais labums, taisnīgums, likumība, vīzija lielāka par tevi vai tavu valsti, cieņa pret visiem cilvēkiem un patiesība. Un mums tieši acīs tiek atgādināts, ka šīs vērtības un labas dzīves izpratne nav pašsaprotami. Miers, taisnīgums un brīvība neiekrīt klēpī paši no sevis. Tas ir grūts un apzināts darbs, un tas prasa ilgu laiku. Taču to var ātri iznīcināt un pazaudēt, ja mēs to nekopjam un nekultivējam, vai vairs negribam no visas sirds.

Domāju par saviem draugiem no Sīrijas, kuri dzīvo Latvijā (un ilgojas pēc miera Sīrijā). Domāju par draugiem no Ķīnas, kuri dzīvo Latvijā (un ilgojas pēc demokrātijas un reliģijas brīvības Ķīnā). Vai arī par cilvēkiem no Ukrainas, kuri dzīvo Latvijā (un ilgojas pēc taisnīguma un likumības Ukrainā). Kad sāku pārāk sūdzēties par Latviju, iedomājos par viņiem, un vairs negribas sūdzēties. Mana mamma parasti teica, ka viņai nemaz neesot tik grūti, salīdzinot ar miljoniem cilvēku visa pasaulē, kuri būtu gatavi mainīties vietām nedomājot.

Latvija nav perfekta valsts, bet tā ir manējā. Cilvēki, kuri dzīvo Latvijā, nav perfekti, bet tie ir manējie. Un es neesmu perfekta, bet esmu savējā. Tāpēc turpināšu mācīties, kā mīlēt šo valsti un šos cilvēkus.

“Mīlestība ir lēnprātīga, mīlestība ir laipna, tā neskauž, mīlestība nelielās, tā nav uzpūtīga. Tā neizturas piedauzīgi, tā nemeklē savu labumu, tā neskaistas, tā nepiemin ļaunu. Tā nepriecājas par netaisnību, bet priecājas par patiesību. Tā apklāj visu, tā tic visu, tā cer visu, tā panes visu.” (Sv. Pāvils)

 

 


 

Shape of my heart

September 21 is the International Day of Peace. So, what? The world does not seem very peaceful; many relationships strained or broken; armed conflicts and rumors of wars in too many places; resources and environment being fought over; refugees in millions; fundamentalists clashing with libertarians; anxiety and fear in the headlines; elections becoming so divisive for societies… should I go on?

“Peace” has become such a cheap word. “Peace” sign can be such a cliche. “Peace agreements” look like a joke. “Peace building” often feels impossible and futile. It reminds me of the ancient prophet Jeremiah who said, “They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace.

There comes a moment when you become still and start to think  – where does peace start? It seems that we are good at “ceasefires” but where is the source of true peace? Where does the will and the choice and the ability to be peaceful come from?

Few years ago in a group of friends we wrote a song, “Where does peace start? With God enlarging my heart!” I want to quote one of my favorite authors on spirituality and relationships, Henri J.M. Nouwen. He wrote that “We tend to run around trying to solve the problems of our world while anxiously avoiding confrontation with the reality wherein our problems find their deepest roots: our own selves. … To build a better world, the beginnings of that world must be visible in daily life. … We cannot speak about ways to bring about peace and freedom if we cannot draw from our own experiences of peace and freedom here and now.” (“Creative Ministry”)

I realized this early in own my journey. One friend from Thailand-Burma border sent me an-mail some years ago. “I like this subject of peace very much but I feel that a trainer of the course should have a clear mind. I am good at solving other one’s conflict (I think) but I myself am violent.” His honesty made me look at my own heart and my daily interactions. There are many stories to tell of what I have experienced.

We would like to think of ourselves as open-minded, friendly, inclusive, welcoming, accepting, non-judgmental, reaching out, respectful, humble but these ideas get tested daily and how often we fail the test. Like H. Nouwen said, it is the “here and now “that matters the most.

I realize that I started a subject that is too deep and too wide for this blog but I wanted to remind myself that peace starts with me. Peace with God, with myself, with others and with the created order. How to have this peace in all these relationships? Well, that’s the real art!

And just because it rhymes and I love this song by British artist Sting:

I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier
I know that the clubs are weapons of war
I know that diamonds mean money for this art
But that’s not the shape of my heart

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Peaceful place in Latvia (photos from personal archive)

Latvian:

21. septembrī tika atzīmēta Pasaules jeb Starptautiskā miera diena. Nu, un kas par to? Pasaule galīgi neliekas mierīga; visāda veida attiecības sabojātas un salauztas; bruņoti konflikti un kari daudzviet; cīņa par resursiem un strīdi par vides aizsardzību; miljoniem bēgļu; sadursme starp fundametālistiem un libertiāņiem; bailes un satraukums ziņu virsrakstos; vēlēšanas, kas sašķel nācijas… vai vēl turpināt?

“Miers” daudziem ir kļuvis tukšs vārds. “Miera simboli” kļuvuši par klišejām. “Miera sarunas” bieži vien izrādās nenopietnas. “Miera celšana” sāk likties neiespējama un veltīga. Man prātā nāk senā pravieša Jeremijas vārdi: “Tie grib pavirši dziedināt Manas tautas meitas dziļo brūci un saka: miers, miers! – kur taču miera nav.”

Un pienāk brīdis, kad tu apstājies un sāc domāt – no kurienes nāk miers? Mums tik labi padodas “pamieri”, bet kas ir īsta un paliekoša miera avots? Kur rodas griba, vēlēšanās un spēja būt mieru mīlošam un mieru nesošam?

Pirms dažiem gadiem mēs kopā ar draugiem uzrakstījām dziesmu, kuras galvenais jautājums bija, kur sākas miers? Un mēs atbildējām, ka “manā sirdī, kuru maina Dievs.” Gribu citēt vienu no saviem mīļākajiem rakstniekiem un teologiem. Henrijs Nouvens rakstīja, ka “Mēs skrienam apkārt, mēģinot atrisināt pasaules problēmas, bet tajā pašā laikā drudžaini cenšamies izvairīties no konfrontācijas ar mūsu problēmu visdziļāko sakni: sevi pašiem. … Lai veidotu labāku pasauli, šīs pasaules pamatiem ir jābūt mūsu ikdienas dzīvē. … Mēs nevaram runāt par mieru un brīvību, ja mēs nevaram smelties šo mieru un brīvību no savas pieredzes šeit un tagad.” (no grāmatas “Radoša kalpošana”)

Šī vienkāršā patiesība man atklājās pamazām. Pirms dažiem gadiem kāds draugs no Taizemes – Birmas pierobežas atsūtīja e-pastu. “Man ļoti patīk miera tēma, bet man liekas, ka šīs tēmas pasniedzējam jābūt ar skaidru prātu. Man pašam izdodas risināt citu cilvēku konfliktus (vismaz tā šķiet), bet pats esmu diezgan vardarbīgs.” Viņa atklātība lika man padomāt pašai par sevi, ielūkoties savās sirdī un savās ikdienas lietās. Te būtu daudz ko stāstīt par pieredzēto.

Mums gribētos domāt, ka esam ļoti atvērti, ar plašu domāšanu, iekļaujoši, laipni, viesmīlīgi, nenosodoši, cieņpilni, pazemīgi, utt, bet šie pieņēmumi tiek pārbaudīti katru dienu, un tik bieži mēs neizturam šos pārbaudījumus. Kā jau Henrijs Nouvens teica, vissvarīgākā ir mana pieredze “šeit un tagad”.

Apzinos, ka esmu pieskārusies tēmai, kas ir pārāk dziļa un pārāk plaša šim blogam, bet gribējās atgādināt pašai sev, ka miers sākas ar mani. Miers ar Dievu, miers ar sevi, miers ar citiem un miers ar pārējo radīto pasauli. Kā šo mieru iegūt un paturēt? Tas jau ir tas lielais jautājums un dzīves māksla!

Un vienkārši tāpēc, ka man patīk Stinga mūzika, viens neliels citāts no dziesmas “Manas sirds veidols”

Es zinu, ka pīķi ir kareivja iesmi
Es zinu, ka kreici ir ieroči karam
Es zinu, ka kāravi apmaksā to
Bet manas sirds veidols tas nav

Hello, Ukraine… finally

I keep a diary. Yesterday I read some of the things written down in last two years and countless times it mentions Ukraine.

Ukraine has been and still is on my heart. I have friends from Ukraine, I like Ukrainian food, I visited Ukraine as a teenager with my family, I love Ukrainian sunshine and for me it is more than just another world headline. It is a place which is not far from Latvia. It is a place which inspires and challenges and worries us. It is a place which I was finally able to visit again.

The stops were Kyiv – Lutsk – Kyiv. I cannot speak Ukrainian but it helps to know Russian. Especially when you have to catch an express bus in a very busy Kyiv station where an average foreign visitor could get very confused and stressed. There is this strange feeling that I have done this before – familiar vibe and familiar behaviour of bus drivers. Something that is hard to explain to those who did not grow up in the Soviet Union. For example, the feeling that buying food from some places is like asking for a favour. These two guys were just standing and playing on their phones and almost nothing on the menu was available.

The kind of small things which annoy but also help me to feel like an “insider”. A foreigner who does not have a culture shock. In a strange way I find it endearing. One thing that my American husband noticed right away was how serious and tired many people looked. Again this frown on people’s faces and hurried walk – so familiar.

Then the beautiful countryside of Ukraine and surprisingly nice, new highway from Kyiv to Lutsk. And the sunflower fields!!! The camera cannot capture the feeling. You get reminded of how huge this country is – the biggest one in Europe.

Understandably some people wonder – was it safe? This question is always interesting. Where is it safe? Some of my most uncomfortable moments have been in Latvia and the USA. But I know what they mean. They mean the war. Isn’t it dangerous to go to Ukraine now? Yes, it is but only if you go the southeastern part where the fighting continues. In comparison it is a very small area of the country and for most people the life is absolutely safe.

It does not mean that life is easy. Even though I went to a music festival where people relaxed and enjoyed themselves as much as any other festival in Latvia, Germany, Thailand or elsewhere, there are constant reminders that all is not well. In fact, it is very very difficult and people are struggling with discouragement and disappointment.

More on this topic later but I want to finish with one little story. In Lutsk I met a taxi driver who said some wise words (from my experience taxi drivers tend to do that). He did not speak English, we did not speak Ukrainian, so again he was glad that we had one language in common – Russian. His comment was like this: “During the USSR days, we all had to speak Russian. Now many people say that I should speak only Ukrainian. I don’t care – Ukrainian, Russian, English, Spanish… as long as we talk to each other kindly as human beings.”

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This is how Lutsk rolls… Walking street named after a famous Ukrainian poet, Lesya Ukrainka

Latvian:

Es rakstu dienasgrāmatu. Jau kopš pusaudzes gadiem. Šonedēļ sāku pārlasīt pēdējo divu gadu ierakstus, un neskaitāmas reizes pieminēta Ukraina.

Ukraina man jau sen ir prātā. Tur ir draugi; man garšo ukraiņu ēdiens; esmu bijusi bērnībā Krimā kopā ar ģimeni; man patīk Ukrainas saule. Ukraina nav tikai ziņu virsraksts. Turklāt tā ir tuvu Latvijai. Biju priecīga par iespēju aizbraukt uz turieni augustā.

Brauciena maršruts Kijeva – Lucka – Kijeva. Kaut gan ukraiņu valodu neprotu, labi, ka noder krievu. It īpaši Kijevas centrālajā stacijā, kur meklēju eksprešus, kas brauc uz Lucku. Vidusmēra tūrists tur apjuktu un būtu lielā stresā. Man bija tāda sajūta, it kā es šeit jau būtu bijusi. Pazīstama atmosfēra, pazīstama šoferu izturēšanās. Viss notiek ātri, mazliet agresīvi, bez lielas laipnības. Gribi, brauc; negribi, nebrauc.

Tiem, kas nav dzimuši un dzīvojuši bijušajā PSRS, šīs lietas galīgi nav saprotamas un pieņemamas. Piemēram, sajūta, ka pērkot ēdienu tev gandrīz jālūdz, lai apkalpo. Divi džeki bija tik aizņemti ar saviem telefoniem,  un pacēla acis vienīgi, lai pateiktu, ka gandrīz viss, kas tiek reklamēts, jau ir izpirkts.

Šīs mazās nianses, kas var kaitināt, man palīdz justies kā “savējai”. Ārzemniecei, kurai nav kultūršoks. Savā ziņā tas pat palīdz nodibināt ātru saikni ar šo valsti. Viens, ko mans vīrs, amerikānis būdams, uzreiz ievēroja, cik nopietni, pat drūmi, un steidzīgi bija vietējie. Un man atkal ir šī pazīstamā sajūta, jo Rīgā jau nav daudz savādāk.

Pa ceļam vērojot Ukrainas ainavu, atliek vien izbaudīt. Pat šoseja no Kijevas uz Lucku bija pārsteidzoši jauna un laba ar vairākām joslām. Un tad skaistie saulespuķu lauki. Fotokamera nevar noķert to mirkli un sajūtu. Arī apziņu, ka esi vienā ļoti lielā valstī. Visplašākā valsts Eiropā.

Bija draugi, kas vaicāja – vai tad tur bija droši? Tas vienmēr ir neviennozīmīgs jautājums. Kur tad ir droši? Mani paši nepatīkamākie atgadījumi ir bijuši Latvijā un ASV. Taču es saprotu draugu rūpes. Viņi runā par karu. Vai Ukrainā ir droši? Lielākajā valsts daļā ir.

Bet tas nenozīmē, ka ir viegli. Kaut arī vairākas dienas biju mūzikas festivālā, kur cilvēki atpūšas un bauda brīvo laiku un izklaidi, uz katra stūra ir atgādinājumi, ka valstī neiet labi. Ir ļoti grūti, un cilvēkus ir pārņēmis diezgan liels pesimisms un vilšanās sajūta.

Par šo tēmu es vēl uzrakstīšu, bet šoreiz beigšu ar vienu brīnišķīgu epizodi. Luckā mēs satikām taksometra šoferi, kurš teica viedus vārdus (man ļoti bieži gadās tādi gudri un filozofiski taksometristi). Viņš neprata angļu valodu, mēs ne vārda pa ukrainiski, tāpēc atkal noderēja kopīgi zināmā krievu valoda. Viņa komentārs bija šāds: “Agrāk padomju laikā mūs visus spieda runāt krieviski. Tagad man saka, lai runāju tikai ukrainiski. Man vienalga, kādā valodā – ukrainiski, krieviski, angliski, spāniski, bet galvenais, lai runājam cilvēciski (по-человечески).”

“Ich bin ein Berliner…”

There are words and there are famous words. Phrases that people quote. I don’t know how long we will remember these words “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a citizen of Berlin) by U.S. President John F Kennedy but to lots of people they still mean something. It came to my mind on a recent trip to Germany. I even got a fridge magnet as a reminder 🙂

Berlin is a city of symbols… Everywhere you turn there are historic markers and museums. City that has changed and transformed so many times but tries to remember and learn and teach something to the future generations. It was my first time to visit and I realized that two days is much too short to explore these symbols. But I had a good start.

Today I want to stop at the Checkpoint Charlie that used to be infamous border crossing between East and West Berlin. It is still there. Of course, a tourist attraction where you can take photos with guys in American uniforms (not real soldiers), buy Soviet era trinkets and gas masks but behind the kitsch there are some powerful symbols.

There is a big museum dedicated to the Wall and its history. What caught my attention was a huge flag on the side of the museum. It would be very hard to miss unless you were completely ignorant of these colours. Blue and yellow is the flag of Ukraine. The time, the location, the size – obviously it was there to communicate and to symbolize because this whole section of Berlin is highly symbolic.

It has a text in English and Russian and it is addressed to general public but also to one particular Russian. Someone who is very familiar with Berlin; someone who speaks fluent German; someone who used to serve as a Soviet KGB officer and was stationed in East Berlin. Someone who has, I am sure, been on this street many many times and has crossed Checkpoint Charlie many times.

When John F Kennedy visited West Berlin in 1963, he spoke there not so long after the Berlin Wall had been erected by East Germany to stop mass emigration to the West. Long before I was even born but somehow I can imagine what these words meant for the people who heard it. Words of encouragement that they are not alone in their difficult time. Surely the message was aimed at the Soviets as much as Berliners. To say that Berlin Wall is wrong; that dividing people is wrong; that using force to enforce Soviet ideas is wrong… and you can fill in anything else you would like to say about that.

So, this flag of Ukraine and the message on it is a strong symbol. It also has various aims. It aims to encourage the people of Ukraine that they are not alone in their difficult time. It aims to communicate something to the current leadership in Russia. And it speaks to us, passersby, if we are not too busy to lift our eyes.

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The Wall Museum in Berlin

Latvian:

Ir vienkārši vārdi, un ir vārdi, ko atceras un turpina atgādināt. Nezinu, cik ilgi mēs citēsim bijušo ASV prezidentu Džonu F. Kenediju, kurš teica slavenos vārdus “Es esmu berlīnietis…”, bet nesenajā braucienā uz Vāciju man tie atkal ienāca prātā. Man pat ir suvenīrs magnēts ar šo frāzi 🙂

Berlīne ir simbolu pilsēta… Kur vien griezies, nozīmīgas vietas, vēsturiskas zīmes un muzeji. Pilsēta, kura mainījusies, grimusi un atjaunojusies tik daudzas reizes, un cenšas neaizmirst, cenšas mācīties no pagātnes un kaut ko iemācīt nākamām paaudzēm. Berlīnē biju pirmo reizi, un, cerams, ne pēdējo. Ar divām dienām galīgi nepietiek, lai pētītu šos simbolus.

Šoreiz manas pārdomas par to, ko redzēju vietā, ko sauc par Robežpunktu Čārliju. Bēdīgi slavena bijusī robeža starp Austrumberlīni un Rietumberlīni. Postenis ir atstāts kā vēl viens nozīmīgs simbols. Protams, tūristiem patīk fotografēties ar ASV formās ģērbtiem džekiem (tie nav īstie karavīri), pirkt PSRS medaļas un Austrumvācijas suvenīrus un gāzmaskas, bet aiz visa šī kiča ir kāda svarīga vēsts, ko nedrīkst aizmirst.

Tur atrodas arī liels Berlīnes mūrim un tā vēsturei veltīts muzejs. Manu uzmanību piesaistīja milzīgs karogs uz muzeja ārsienas. Būtu grūti to neievērot, ja vien galīgi neko nezin par šīm karoga krāsām. Zils un dzeltens ir Ukrainas krāsas. Vieta, izmēri, konteksts – skaidrs, ka šis karogs kaut ko komunicē un kaut ko simbolizē, jo šis Berlīnes rajons ir viens liels simbols.

Uz karoga bija teksts gan angļu, gan krievu valodā. Domāts gan plašākai publikai, gan vienam konkrētam cilvēkam Krievijā. Cilvēkam, kurš ļoti labi pazīst Berlīni; kurš perfekti pārvalda vācu valodu; kurš dzīvoja un strādāja Austrumberlīnē kā padomju VDK aģents un spiegs. Kurš drošvien daudzreiz šķērsoja robežpunktu Čārlijs un staigāja pa šīm ielām.

Džons F. Kenedijs viesojās Rietumberlīnē 1963.gadā un teica savu slaveno runu neilgi pēc Berlīnes mūra uzcelšanas. Austrumvācija bija nolēmusi apstādināt cilvēku emigrāciju uz Rietumiem. Esmu dzimusi daudz vēlāk, taču varu saprast, ko šie Kenedija teiktie vārdi nozīmēja klausītājiem. Liels iedrošinājums grūtā laikā. Un vēsts bija domāta ne tikai berlīniešiem, bet arī Padomju varai. Lai pateiktu, ka Berlīnes mūris nedrīkst pastāvēt; ka sašķelt tautu un cilvēkus ir liels ļaunums; ka uzspiest padomju idejas ar varu ir galīgi garām… un tā tālāk.

Tāpēc šis Ukrainas karogs un uz tā rakstītā vēsts ir spēcīgs simbols patreizējā situācijā. Arī šai vēstij ir vairāki mērķi. Viens mērķis ir iedrošināt cilvēkus Ukrainā, ka viņi nav aizmirsti šajā Ukrainai grūtajā laikā, kad valstī ir karš. Otrs mērķis ir pateikt Krievijas vadītājiem to, ko domā lielākā daļa pasaules. Trešais mērķis ir uzrunāt mūs, garāmgājējus, lai ikdienas steigā paceļam acis uz augšu un nepaejam garām vienaldzīgi.

My friends from Syria help me to be a better Latvian

Aleppo, gold, Riga, silver, amber – what do these have in common?

My husband and I have dear friends who came to Latvia under most difficult circumstances. They are a wonderful family of four and their home used to be in Aleppo, Syria. It used to be a beautiful city before the war. Rich cultural and historical heritage, ancient buildings, vibrant communities and long list of other attractions.

Now all we see in the photos or the news is destruction, ruins, devastation… Truly an apocalyptic sight. I wish it was just a horror movie or a bad dream. Tragically it is reality and I cannot imagine what it is like for my friends to see their beloved home like this.

Few years ago like ‘welcoming’ Latvians, we decided to introduce our friends to Latvian food. We went to the big LIDO restaurant, but first we had a tour of Central market. I don’t know how it compares to the markets in Aleppo, but in Riga we are quite proud of our big market pavilions.

So, we bought some smoked fish Latvian style. Our friends liked it and then told us a funny story. Some guys at the asylum center in Mucenieki (the official Accommodation Centre for Asylum Seekers near Riga where people stay while their status is being processed) wanted to cook a fish soup but did not realize that they bought a smoked fish. The smell and the taste had been horrific and nobody wanted to eat it. Someone ate it after all because they were hungry.

I think how many times I have been “saved” by my local friends when living and working in another country. Many times friends in Thailand or Burma or Cambodia have told me: “You may not want to eat that… Stay away from that soup… This may be too spicy for you…” I am so thankful for their guidance and advice because I feel bad about leaving food on the plate.

My Syrian friend is an amazing cook. If she was not so busy with the family business making jewelry (check out Habibi Jewelry if you want some nice gifts for yourself or others), I wish she could open a Syrian restaurant. I know many Latvians who would be regular customers. The food from Middle East is so delicious. The salads, the rice, the meat, the vegetables, the sweets…

There is something that we, Latvians, need to learn from other cultures, especially the Middle East. It is hospitality and generosity. Yes, we are welcoming and generally friendly but our understanding of “sharing” is very different. My friends had very little when they first started living in Latvia and, yes, they received lots of help and generosity from local people, but they were giving back so much right away. I felt blessed just to be around them and to see how positive and grateful they are. Also, their strong Christian faith shines through everything! (In Aleppo, they belonged to the Syrian orthodox church community)

I am very sad they had to leave their home and families and friends and livelihood as goldsmith in Aleppo but I am glad that they chose Riga as their new home. I am glad to know that they like it here. We in Latvia are blessed to have them. And may their generous and hospitable spirit become contagious among us, northern individualistic Europeans!

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Aleppo, Syria right now (photo from the internet)

Latvian:

Alepo, Sīrija, zelts, Rīga, Latvija, sudrabs, dzintars – kas tam visam ir kopīgs?

Mums ar vīru ir draugi, kuri nonākuši Latvijā smagu dzīves apstākļu spiesti. Šī jaukā ģimene ar diviem bērniem ir no Sīrijas pilsētas Alepo. Pirms kara tā bija ļoti skaista pilsēta ar bagātu vēstures un kultūras mantojumu, senām celtnēm, dažādām cilvēku, tautību, reliģiju kopienām un daudzām citām pievilcīgām lietām.

Tagad aculiecinieku stāstos un attēlos redzu tikai iznīcību, drupas, graustus… gluži kā filmās par pasaules galu. Tikai diemžēl tā nav šausmene vai naktsmurgs. Tā ir traģiska realitāte. Nevaru iedomāties, ko maniem draugiem nozīmē skatīties uz savu mīļoto, bet sagrauto pilsētu.

Pirms pāris gadiem, kā jau ‘viesmīlīgi’ latvieši, mēs nolēmām aizvest šo ģimeni uz latvisku restorānu. Tādām reizēm der LIDO Krasta ielā. Bet vispirms bija neliela ekskursija pa Centrāltirgu. Zinu, ka Sīrijā un līdzīgās vietās ir brīnišķīgi tirgi, bet tomēr ar mūsu lielajiem pavijoniem lepojamies.

Ejot cauri zivju paviljonam, bija jānogaršo kūpinātas zivis. Draugiem garšoja, bet viņi sāka smieties. Tad tā tās garšojot! Izrādās, ka kādi džeki patvēruma meklētāju centrā Muceniekos bija vārījuši zivju zupu, bet nezinādami nopirkuši kūpinātās zivis. Smaka un arī garša bijusi briesmīga, katls izvārīts pilns, bet visi atteikušies. Vienīgi daži visizsalkušākie esot ēduši.

Iedomājos, cik daudzas reizes es esmu tikusi “glābta” no neērtām situācijām, kurās vietējie draugi mani “izručī”. Gan Taizemē, gan Birmā, gan citur. “To varbūt labāk nepērc… to zupu labāk need… tas varētu būt tev pārāk piparots” Man kauns atstāt ēdienu šķīvī, tāpēc esmu pateicīga par šādiem brīdinājumiem.

Mana draudzene no Sīrijas brīnišķīgi gatavo ēdienu. Ja viņa nebūtu tik aizņemta ar ģimenes biznesu palīdzot vīram izgatavot rotaslietas (ja gribi jaukas dāvanas sev vai draugiem, paskaties  Habibi Jewelry ), tad varētu domāt par kādu sīriešu restorānu. Domāju, ka Latvijā būtu liela priekrišana, jo Tuvo Austrumu ēdieni ir tik garšīgi. Salāti, gaļa, aromātiski rīsi, piedevas, saldumi…

Ir kāda vērtība, ko mums, latviešiem, vajadzētu aizgūt no citām, it sevišķi austrumu un dienvidu  kultūrām. Tā ir viesmīlība un dāsnums. Jā, mēs protam uzņemt ielūgtus ciemiņus un kopumā esam laipni un draudzīgi, bet mūsu izpratnē “dalīšanās ar savām lietām, māju, utt” ir savādāka. Sākot dzīvi Latvijā, maniem draugiem nebija gandrīz nekā, un viņiem tika daudz palīdzēts un arī iedots. Taču viņi uzreiz deva “atpakaļ” visdažādākajos veidos. Viņu klātbūtnē es jutos vairāk “saņēmusi” nekā palīdzējusi.

Arī viņu pozitīvā un pateicīgā attieksme pret visu ir acīs krītoša. Liela nozīme ir viņu kristīgajai ticībai un pārliecībai (Alepo viņi piederēja Sīrijas ortodokso kristiešu kopienai).

Man ļoti žēl, ka šai ģimenei bija jāatstāj savas mājas, radi, draugi un juveliera darbs Sīrijā, bet es priecājos, ka par savām jaunajām mājām viņi izvēlējās Latviju. Man prieks, ka viņiem šeit patīk. Kaut viņu īpašā viesmīlība un dāsnums pieliptu mums, ‘noslēgtajiem’ individuālistiem ziemeļeiropiešiem!

Inspired by the World’s Most Liberal City

Arriving at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam can be exciting and also overwhelming for it is three-in-one. Airport, shopping mall and train station. Leaving the customs area, you enter a very busy arrival hall. Straight from the airplane to the shopping plaza and straight to the trains located underneath.

I speak English and have traveled a lot but even I get overwhelmed with all the choices to make. Self-serve kiosks and other conveniences somehow make it more stressful. I always think, “what if I was an old lady from India who does not speak English?” Forget India… even my mom would have felt lost in this high efficiency world.

I spent two days in Amsterdam but did not see much of the city. “Next time”, I comforted myself since I came to attend the State of Europe Forum which is held annually in the  EU presiding country. Last year it was Latvia; this year Netherlands. (The rotating EU presidency goes for 6 months. Yes, my American friends, EU is visionary but complicated with 28 nations.) The forum is held on Europe Day, May 9, and you can see my post from last year talking about the story of Europe Day.

State of Europe Forum promotes a dialogue on Europe today in the light of the vision of Robert Schuman for a community of peoples deeply rooted in Christian values.  Lots of great professional and academic content, lots of great discussions and opportunity to network. I was inspired, challenged and motivated.

The venue of the Forum was so cool. Zuiderkerk was the city’s first church built specifically for Protestant services. Constructed between 1603 and 1611, the church played an important part in the life of Rembrandt and was the subject of a painting by Claude Monet.

This year’s theme was The Paradox of Freedom. Key topics included Refugees in Europe, Security and Terrorism and Reframing the EU.  Yes, this is the age old question how freedom works because it certainly needs boundaries. Your freedom should not hurt my freedom and vice versa. For example, we live in a free market society but how free is this market? One of the devotions reminded us that “freedom to buy and sell without restrictions leads to buying and selling human beings.”

Amsterdam, the so called ‘world’s most liberal city’, has an amazing story of freedom. Especially the 16th and 17th century, the Golden Age. From William of Orange to Modern Devotion Movement to Erasmus (whose translation of the Bible prepared the way for Reformation) to Baruch Spinoza. Amsterdam was a haven and destination for people fleeing religious persecution – Jews from Iberia, Huguenots from France, Flemish, Wallonians, English dissenters… the city attracted many groups searching for economic, political and religious freedom.

Of course, we all know that unrestrained freedom has its evil side. Including slave trade which was also a part of Amsterdam’s economic boom during the Golden Age.

Nothing could capture these reflections better then listening to a local African choir inside Zuiderkerk, singing the famous Gospel tune:

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last

 

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Opening celebration at Zuiderkerk (photo by Cedric Placentino)

Latvian:

Ielidošana Amsterdamas lidostā ir gan patīkama, gan uztraucoša, jo te nav tikai lidosta. Te ir gan lidosta, gan iepirkumu centrs, gan vilcienu stacija. Iznākot no muitas, nokļūstu lielā burzmā un troksnī.  Liekas, ka pa taisno no lidmašīnas esmu ienākusi Centrālajā stacijā.

Pat ar angļu valodas prasmēm un ceļotājas pieredzi te var apjukt. Pašapkalpošanās kioski un citas ‘ērtības’ reizēm dzīvi tikai sarežģī, un rada lieku stresu. Iedomājos, ja būtu veca tantiņa no Indijas, kura nerunā angliski. Kāda tur Indija… pat mana mamma apmaldītos šajā ātrajā un ērtajā pasaulē.

Amsterdamā pavadīju divas dienas, bet nesanāca apskatīt pilsētu, jo šoreiz bija cits brauciena mērķis. Mierināju sevi ar domu, ka gan jau šeit vēl atgriezīšos. Biju atbraukusi piedalīties forumā “Stāvoklis Eiropā”, kas katru gadu notiek ES Padomes prezidentūras valstī. Pagājšgad forums bija Latvijā, šogad Nīderlandē. Datums gan katru gadu viens un tas pats. 9. maijs jeb Eiropas diena, par kuru rakstīju agrāk.

Forums “Stāvoklis Eiropā” piedāvā dialogu starp kristīgiem dažādu profesiju pārstāvjiem un vadītājiem. Sarunas galvenā tēma ir patreizējais stāvoklis Eiropā, ņemot vērā Roberta Šūmana redzējumu par ‘tautu kopienu, kas ir dziļi sakņota kristīgās vērtībās’. Daudz profesionāļu un akadēmiķu, daudz labu paneļdiskusiju un daudz iespēju sadarboties. Mani šis forums gan iedvesmoja, gan izaicināja vairākus manus pieņēmumus, gan motivēja tālakai darbībai.

Pati norises vieta arī bija iedvesmojoša. ‘Zuiderkerk’ bija pilsētas pirmais dievnams, celts konkrēti protestantu draudzei. Celtniecība ilga no 1603. līdz 1611. gadam, un dievnams ir ap stūri no Rembranta mājas. Tāpēc Rembrantam šī bija svarīga vieta, un arī Klods Monē to ir iemūžinājis gleznā.

Šogad foruma tēma bija Brīvības Paradoks, un īpaša uzmanība tika veltīta bēgļu krīzei Eiropā, terorisma un drošības jautājumiem and Eiropas Savienības pārvērtēšanai. Kopš cilvēces iesākumiem svarīgais jautājums par brīvību un tās robežām. Jo tava brīvība nedrīkst darīt pāri manai brīvībai un otrādāk. Kaut vai fakts, ka dzīvojot brīvā tirgus sabiedrībā, redzam, ka šis tirgus nav nemaz tik brīvs. Vienā no svētbrīžiem tika atgādināta patiesība, ka “brīvība pirkt un pārdot bez ierobežojumiem noved līdz cilvēku pirkšanai un pārdošanai.”

Amsterdama tiek dēvēta par pasaules visliberālāko pilsētu, taču tai ir apbrīnojama vēsture, kas palīdz saprast daudzus brīvības pamatus. It sevišķi 16. un 17. gadsimts, tā sauktais Zelta Laikmets. Gan Orānijas Vilhelms; gan Jaunā Pielūgsmes Kustība; gan teologs un domātājs Erasms, kura Bībeles tulkojums sagatavoja ceļu Reformācijai; gan filozofs Baruhs Spinoza. Amsterdama bija patvēruma vieta, uz kuru pārcēlās savas pārliecības un reliģijas dēļ vajātie – jūdi no Ibērijas pussalas, hugenoti no Francijas, flāmi, valoņi, angļu protestanti… pilsēta pievilka ar savu toleranci un ekonomisko, politisko un reliģisko brīvību.

Protams, mes zinām, ka šai brīvībai bija ļaunā ēnas puse. Ieskaitot verdzību un cilvēku tirdzniecību, kas veicināja ekonomisko izaugsmi tajā pašā Zelta laikmetā.

Tāpēc mani ļoti iespaidoja atklāšanas vakars un vietējais koris, kurā dziedāja āfrikāņu izcelsmes holandietes. Vecajā un skaistajā Zuiderkerk dievnamā skanēja senais un pazīstamais gospelis:

Beidzot brīvs, beidzot brīvs
Paldies Dievam, beidzot brīvs
Beidzot brīvs, beidzot brīvs
Paldies Dievam, beidzot brīvs