Reflections on my Trip to Latvia



I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Latvia, the country where I was born.  I went with my mom, and it was a beautiful trip.  I used to spend my summers in Latvia until I was 7 years old, and I had only been there once before as an adult, so this was a very special trip.

One of the things I love about travel is that it fosters perspective, appreciation and understanding.  So I wanted to write a little about the insights and reminders this trip offered me.  Also, as a counselor, I naturally see things from a psychological perspective, so I will make note when what I’m discussing relates to useful psychological principles or to my work as a counselor.

Culture and Beauty

Architectural Detail in Riga

I wanted to see Latvia more clearly than ever before.  I wanted to have my eyes and ears, and heart open to a deeper understanding of my place of origin.  I was especially interested in getting to know my birth-city, Riga, the capital of Latvia.  And I also longed to refresh my sweet childhood memories of Latvia’s pine forests and seashore.

I couldn’t have done this near as well without assistance from my mom and her friend Valda, with whom we spent many days and who kindly drove us to places outside Riga.  My mom grew up in Riga, and was able to tell me about the meaning, history, legends and traditions that related to what we saw.  We explored the historic district, the parks and monuments, and museums.  We attended performances at theaters, the opera and ballet.  We paused to look at the art nouveau architecture and cathedrals… and we traveled outside of Riga, to castle ruins, forests, villages, historic sites and (my favorite) the seashore.  I took so many pictures, I still haven’t sorted through them all!

Creating Positive and Meaningful Experiences

River Scape

As a counselor, these activities remind me of the importance of creating positive and meaningful experiences for oneself.  Such things don’t just happen automatically.  You have to seek them out.

For example, in Chicago, near where I live, there are countless opportunities to learn about history, see performances and culture, and go to museums.  And being on a budget is no excuse for opting out.  If you plan ahead, there are free activities in the city, and free days at museums.  It’s just a matter of deciding what you’re interested in, and making it a point to seek that out.  It is especially important for people struggling with depression to engage in such life-enriching activities.  We in Chicagoland are lucky that we don’t have to travel far for the perks of city life.

Also in rural areas there are positive and meaningful things to do, historic places to visit, natural beauty to enjoy, and ways to be involved in the community or in the arts.  But you’ve got to make it happen.  It usually requires a deliberate decision.

The Sun and the Song

Speaking of being positive… On my trip, I was reminded that Latvians uphold the sun as their cultural symbol (since ancient times), and that they assert the identity of their nation through song.  What wonderfully bright and positive symbols they have!  Very uplifting.  This is a great example of affirmation, not just on an individual level, but on a national level.

Here’s a lovely example of Latvian folk music about the sun (with beautiful photos to boot.)

Latvia’s annual song festival is an expression of one small nation’s uncrushable perseverance, endurance and optimism.  The beauty of the human spirit has prevailed there against all odds.

Occupation, Oppression and Trauma

Historic Fortification Wall in Riga

Against all odds?  This brings me to the ever-present undercurrent in almost any news event you hear about while in Latvia, in almost any political debate, and in the lives of almost anyone you meet.  The occupation.  Actually, there have been many occupations in Latvia over the last 800 years… by Germans, Swedes, Poles… but most recently and most significantly, by the Russians.

As a therapist I sometimes work with posttraumatic stress disorder, so I’m familiar with the impact trauma can have on individuals and families.  But this is trauma on a much larger scale.  The whole country (and more) was traumatized, and the scars are still there.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

I learned about mass killings, mass deportations, horrifically cruel mistreatment and torture, tyrannical rule, and cultural oppression.  The thing that struck me while at the Museum of Occupation, was hearing a couple people around me whispering about their own families’ stories.  One even pointed to a photograph in the display, saying that was her father.  The stories were horrible.

Former KGB Headquarters in Riga

Many Americans don’t know much about the conditions in countries that were occupied by the Soviets after WWII.  Latvia was behind the iron curtain, inaccessible to Western journalists.  I have much appreciation for the resistance and the revolutionaries, many of whom suffered greatly and lost their lives, in an effort to regain Latvia’s freedom from tyrannical communist rule.

Many thousands were deported by railroad.

Understanding Oppression

As a counselor, I feel that Latvia’s oppression helps me to understand a little more about what oppressed people anywhere must suffer.  Luckily, I was too young to understand the political situation while living in Communist Poland and Latvia.  Also, I know that each situation is unique.  But I think I can say that I understand the gravity of oppression more than I would have if my family had not experienced it.  Therefore, I am more mindful of the oppression suffered, for example, by minority groups and the indigenous people of America.  This sometimes proves relevant in my work.

Personal Accounts

The Museum of Occupation included many personal accounts of how things were during WWII and the occupation.  I also heard stories about my mom’s family, and the bags they kept packed and ready by the back door, in case the Soviets suddenly came to deport them, as they did to meet their quotas, often randomly.  I also heard some stories from my mom’s friends, and saw artistic representations of oppression.

Rather than trying to convey the full weight of what I learned, I will let this poem sum it up for you.  This is a poem, on display at the Museum of Occupation, that conveys the thoughts of a Latvian coming back from Siberian exile, still during the years of the occupation.

My feet no longer know how to walk free.
How many years have yet to pass
for signs of shame to be erased from soul and face?
How many years have yet to pass
until the fear will disappear
in breezes through the fields of rye
and in the tristar light of native night?
How to approach you, Latvia, who’s still in chains?
As yet my heart does not suspect its fall
into the thistles and the nettle fields
around my father’s farm.
Free from banishment, my heart is rejoicing –
Not yet suspecting coming harm.

(translated from the Latvian by Valters Nollendorfs)

But the story did not end there.

Freedom Monument

In 1991, Latvia finally regained its independence, and the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga stands once again in a free country.

The country showed its resilience through enormous economic growth for almost two decades after regaining its sovereignty.  It joined the European Union.  And then it suffered in the economic collapse of 2008, along with much of the rest of the world.

The current economic pressures are immense.  One fifth of the country’s population has left Latvia in the last couple years, to seek jobs elsewhere.  I wondered whether I would see extreme poverty in Riga on my trip, but somehow the city endures, beautiful and full of life.  It is as vibrant with its many shops, galleries and cafes as my neighbor, Chicago.  However, I knew that Riga’s poverty was just under the surface (as it is in many cities today).

Self Reliance and Direct Living

One of my mom’s friends, and her family, who live on very limited income, impressed me with their resourcefulness.  Not only do they eat almost entirely the yields of their own garden, and the meat their nephew hunts, but they had built their own beautiful house out in the country… by hand!  Amazing.

I believe many of us have lost such skills (or even such ambitions) through the luxury of being able to pay others to grow our food and build our houses for us.  I, for one, am far removed from such direct living.  This has its advantages, because it gives me plenty of time to focus on my work, and it gives me leisure time.  But there is certainly something I admire about self-reliance and living in direct contact with the earth, the seasons, and nature.

Direct Living and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you might think that a family such as the one I just described is stuck at the fundamental level of providing for their biological needs.  However, it appeared to me that knowing where their food would come from freed them up to attend to their higher order needs.  Working together in this way enriched their relationships with each other, added to their self-esteem and self-confidence, was a continual learning experience and a way to actively engage in life, still allowed time to socialize, read or play music, and allowed more money toward travel and cultural experiences (rather than just food).  Gardening also provides them the aesthetic of nature and good food.  So all the needs on Maslow’s hierarchy are addressed in this way.

Country Scene

Just imagine sitting on the steps of the home you built after a productive day of gardening… sipping your own blend of tea, looking over your garden and the country landscape beyond.  Perhaps someday I can have a similar scene in my life.

I believe that this sort of direct living (despite the financial stress that sometimes makes it necessary), is very much in line with Maslow’s concept of self-actualization.  Self-actualization is the motivation and effort toward realizing one’s potentials.  I talk about the importance of moving toward your personal potential on my homepage.  Not only is this a source of purpose and meaning in life, but a great source of joy and satisfaction.

Self-actualization includes what Maslow called “peak experiences… peak experiences are sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, possibly the awareness of an ‘ultimate truth’ and the unity of all things… the experience fills the individual with wonder and awe… he  feels at one with the world, and is pleased with it… They are moments when you feel more at one with yourself and the world, more integrated.  You feel happy, even ecstatic, interconnected and in harmony.”

You may want to ask yourself, “What in my life has triggered such feelings?”  Or, what could?  I encourage you to pursue the image that comes to mind.

City-gardens in the US

Along the theme of how gardening can enrich one’s life, I have heard of some economically devastated cities in the US, which are starting city-gardens for people to grow their own vegetables and fruit.  I think this is a wonderful idea.  Not only would it enrich the nutrition of the people who participate in it, but it would be a way for families to spend time together, it would make the cities more beautiful, it would be a learning experience in self-reliance, and it would bring participants a sense of self-esteem and achievement.

The Value of Loving-Kindness

“A Gift” Architectural Detail

Coming back to my trip to Latvia… taking such a trip with my mom also reminded me of the value of loving-kindness.  I can’t remember where I read this, but I recently read that the love between family members is not there automatically, as a guaranteed by-product of being related; but rather, it is the outcome of the quality of the experiences that they have shared.  This immediately made sense to me.

If you have had primarily negative experiences with certain family members, then you would be less likely to feel love, despite years spent together.  If, on the other hand, you feel cared for, encouraged, appreciated, supported, respected, important, and loved; and have replied in kind, then you would be more likely to feel love for the family members with whom you share these feelings and experiences.

In other words, love is something that needs to be nurtured, actively cultivated, and communicated through interactions.  And both people in any relationship play a role (except young children or individuals who are too disabled to be mindful of others or to love deliberately).  Here again (as with creating positive experiences) we see the power of intention and deliberate action.

Gottman’s Fondness and Admiration

I agree with Dr. John Gottman that this culture of fondness and admiration is mostly cultivated in the little moments of life… through paying attention to each other, staying connected about what’s going on in each other’s lives, being interested and curious, and also through being mindful and supportive in little day-to-day ways.  Even when living hundreds of miles apart, like me and my mom, this is possible through regular contact by phone, e-mail, Skype, mail, and occasional visits.  (By the way, if you have family or friends who live far away, and you still haven’t tried Skype, why not click this link and give it a try?  It’s not hard, the basic software is free, and even if you don’t have a camera, you could connect for free by voice and possibly see the other person if they have a camera.)

If fondness is not present, then taking a vacation together might not be especially enjoyable (though you could use the time to work through whatever is keeping you apart).  But if fondness is present, then taking a vacation can be a wonderful way to add even more meaningful, positive, and loving memories to the relationship.  I realize that Gottman primarily talks about these dynamics in the context of marital therapy, but I believe the same dynamics apply to other relationships as well.

Thank you, mom.

With mom at Jurmala seashore

I want to thank my mom for inviting me on this beautiful trip to the country we both came from.  I also want to thank her for her loving heart, for always trying to do what is best for her kids, for continually reaching out to me (even through the difficult times), for her patience and forgiveness, and for the fun times we’ve shared.  I love you!

Encouragement for Strained Relationships

I hope that this part of my story can serve as encouragement to those who are currently working through difficulties in their relationships.  Relationships aren’t always easy, but if you both honestly keep working at it, you could uncover a precious gem that lights up your life.

Perspective on my Roots

Our old neighborhood

Taking this trip with my mom gave me the opportunity not only to connect with my past, but also with her past.  Seeing the neighborhood where she grew up, the schools she went to, the parks where she played as a kid, meeting some of her friends, and talking about my ancestors; all gave me more perspective on our lives, an understanding of the forces that shaped her life (and thus mine), and an ability to relate on a deeper level.

I believe it is important and meaningful to try to understand the forces that shape our own lives, the lives of our loved ones, or the lives of others whom we want to understand.  Thus, it is also important and meaningful to pass along your stories (and your family’s stories) to younger generations, along with the wisdom that was acquired along the way.

For me, this was especially helpful because it also provided me a sense of continuity… much needed in a life of repeatedly moving; from one country to another, one state to another, and one city to another.

Fun, Pastries and the Seashore

Historic District in Riga

One very important 😉 thing I got some perspective on is the quality of pastries and cakes.  What a joy to sample the great variety of delicacies in Riga!  It is one of life’s mysteries why Americans, in our world of plenty, would chose to limit ourselves to such a small variety of sweet concoctions.  The combinations of subtle and intense flavors, the unique textures, the natural ingredients, the variations on classical themes, and our appreciation of the not-always-overly-sweet kept me and my mom busy popping into one café or bakery after another.  This, of course, was in addition to the old-fashioned Latvian cuisine we sought out every day, and the amazingly abundant farmers’ markets, with fresh food not just from Latvia, but from all over the

Farmers’ Market

world.  By the way, I wasn’t too worried about the calories since we walked many miles each day, and since I’m back to my normal routines now that I’m home.

We had fun checking out tourist shops, amber jewelry stores, book stores, antique stores, and the wonderful scenery in Riga’s historic district.  We enjoyed spending time with my mom’s friends, and I had lots of fun taking pictures everywhere we went.

Some of mom’s friends

And true to my memories, I enjoyed taking a nice long walk at the seashore.  It was too cold to swim in October, but there’s something special about the sea.  It is the place I remember best from my childhood, and it is one of the simple pleasures in my life to look out over a vast expanse of water, and at the clouds above.  It brought back memories of playing in the sand as a kid, and reminded me of funny stories from long ago.  The image of the tall pine trees and cute cottages at Latvia’s beaches will always be one that makes me smile.

Coming Home

After a couple weeks in Latvia, I was ready to come home to Tinley Park, IL.  If I had stayed any longer I would have shifted into simple living mode (rather than tourist mode)… something I was looking forward to doing back home.

Getting back into my usual routines, reconnecting with my husband, feeling productive at work, and reflecting on my experiences in Latvia has been a joy.  Here is my place in the world now, and it is a comfortable and satisfying one.  Latvia is a part of my past that I was glad to see again.  It puts my present in perspective, and it helps me appreciate what I have, while also clarifying some dreams that I have for my future (a garden perhaps?).

Why Did I Share This?

I decided to share this experience with my readers because it was meaningful to me, because it helps my readers to get to know me a little better, and because it illustrates how psychology applies and relates to real life situations.

I hope that through this article, as through all my other posts, I might encourage you to reflect on your own life, and to think about your relationships, about psychology, and about ways to enrich your life and seek your own potentials and dreams.

I will leave you with one of my favorite photos from the seashore:

Categories : Mental Health

Comments are closed.

Subscribe by RSS feed reader