lativa storks

Photo Essay: Latvians Love Storks

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Nesting storks; Latvia

We’ve all heard the legend about storks — that they bring babies.  In fact, I think that’s what I was told when my younger brother was born.  I was 3 at the time and the explanation seemed plausible.

In Latvia, though, storks mean much more than babies and fertility.  In this northern European country, storks are considered sacred and a good-luck symbol.  You’ll even find them on Latvian coins.  Souvenir shops carry “I Love Latvia” tee-shirts and other items engraved with stork emblems.

Many Latvians go out of their way to attract the big white birds.  When I would take trips into the countryside, it seemed as if there was a pair of storks nesting in a pole next to practically every other house.  The storks are often enticed by locals who hoist a wheel on top of a pole to supply the foundation for a nest.  Some Latvians believe the birds protect their homes from fire and also bring prosperity and happiness.

Storks seem to like Latvia as much as Latvia likes storks.  I’ve seen one report that estimates 10,000 pairs of white storks nest in Latvia each year, making it one of Europe’s most popular destinations for the birds that typically spend their winters in Africa.

I took this photo on the road between Riga and Daugavpils, Latvia’s two largest cities.  Whether the people who live in the adjacent farmhouse are any better off because of the storks’ presence, I have no idea.  But I do know that they are majestic birds that offered a nice diversion — and maybe even a little luck — during long drives through the Latvian countryside.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

Riga Latvia view

Latvian city once again may be ‘Paris of the Baltics’

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Tourism growing in historic Riga

East Valley Tribune – Feb. 24, 2002

RIGA, Latvia – It’s a warm, sunny weekend morning in Riga, Latvia, and I climb aboard one of those red, double-decker sightseeing buses that are ubiquitous throughout Europe.  My tour is scheduled to begin in just a few minutes, so I claim a prime seat in the open-air section in the upper deck.

View of Riga, Latvia

  View of Riga’s Old Town and Daugava River 

I wait for other tourists to join me, but after a 30-minute wait, it becomes apparent that I’ve got the whole bus to myself, along with the driver and guide.  “I’m sorry,” the guide tells me.  “Tour is canceled.  We need at least six people.  You are the only one.”

Undeterred, I venture off to enjoy Riga’s sights on my own, guidebook in hand.  I find a charming city with fascinating architecture, flower-filled parks, wide boulevards, eclectic museums, a bustling central market, and a medieval “Old Town” that is a labyrinth of winding, cobblestone streets.

It would be more than enough to please most tourists, yet Riga is hardly a European vacation hotspot.  Don’t be surprised, though, if that changes in the next few years, as word spreads that this former Soviet outpost is once again becoming worthy of its pre-World War II nickname – “Paris of the Baltics.”

In the meantime, visitors will find lots of empty seats on tour buses, inexpensive hotel rooms and restaurants, and plenty of elbowroom to enjoy all that Riga has to offer.

Latvia is located in northeastern Europe, across the Baltic Sea from Scandinavia. After 50 years of Soviet occupation, it gained its independence in 1991, along with the other Baltic Republics, Estonia and Lithuania.

Today, there are nearly as many ethnic Russians as Latvians in the country, which is why you’re just as likely to hear Russian spoken on the streets of Riga as native Latvian.  Most people speak at least a little English, especially those who work in shops and restaurants frequented by tourists.

During its 11 years of independence, Latvia has embraced democracy and a free-market economy. As a result, it is well positioned to join both the European Union and NATO in the next few years.

Riga is locatedon the Daugava River about 10 miles inland from the Gulf of Riga, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. It is Latvia’s capital and largest city, with a population of about 850,000. The city is still dusting off some of the cobwebs from its years under Soviet rule, but underwent major renovations last summer in honor of its 800-year anniversary. It’s difficult to find a European city that is cleaner and safer.

The heart of the city and logical starting point for visitors is known as Vecriga, or Old Town,a maze of narrow, crooked streets flanked by historic buildings, towering church steeples, cafes and art galleries. Some streets look just as they did in the Middle Ages.

Strolling through Old Town, most of which is closed to cars, is delightful. Street musicians perform Latvian folksongs, a nice backdrop for the interesting mixture of Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Constructivism and Art Nouveau architecture.

Riga's Old Town

  Riga’s Old Town

Few cities can match Riga’s large crop of well-preserved Art Nouveau buildings. You can easily spot an Art Nouveau building, as some sort of ornate carving in the structure – often times a grotesque monster — is peering right back at you. This distinctive German architectural style, which dates back about 100 years, has survived better in Riga than in many German cities and now comprises about 40 percent of the buildings in the central part of the city.

While Old Town makes up only a small portion of Riga, it can easily take the better part of a day to explore all of its treasures. But be prepared to have a stiff neck the following day, as you’re constantly looking up to admire the architecture. You also need to look down at your feet, as the cobblestone streets can be treacherous in places.

For a magnificent view from above, visit the 13th century St. Peter’s Church. There’s an elevator that goes to the top of the spire, which at one time was the highest tower in Europe. Wars and lightning strikes have destroyed the tower several times. It was most recently rebuilt in 1973.

Another impressive church in Old Town is the redbrick Dome Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics. It also dates back to the 13th century and now houses a 6,768-pipe organ, the fourth-largest organ in the world. Like St. Peter’s, the Dome Cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt several times. Both churches are Lutheran, the leading faith among Latvians.

Like most countries in this part of the world, Latvia has had a troubled history of war and occupation. The city’s most important museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, does an impressive job of chronicling the 50 years of Nazi and Soviet control. Exhibits include a replica of a barracks in a Soviet prison camp in Siberia, where thousands of Latvians were deported.

Given the country’s history, it’s not hard to understand why Riga’s Freedom Monument

Riga's Freedom Monument

  Riga’s Freedom Monument

is such an important symbol to Latvians. Located just outside Old Town, the monument is topped by a bronze female statue affectionately called “Milda” by the locals and bears the inscription Tevzemei un Brivibai (For Fatherland and Freedom).

Two soldiers guard the Freedom Monument and there’s an hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony. Latvians regularly lay flowers at the base of the monument to honor the victims of totalitarianism. It’s said that those who dared to do so during Soviet times ended up with an extended, all-expenses paid vacation to Siberia.

Just a block away is the lovely National Opera House, which hosts world-class opera and ballet performances. In fact, famed ballet dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Aleksander Godunov made their names here. Tickets cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for a similar production in the U.S.

For shoppers, the place to visit is the centraltirgus, or central market, one of Europe’s largest and most colorful markets. It is housed in and around five huge buildings that were used as Zeppelin hangers during World War I. There are more than 1,000 vendors here, selling everything from fresh meat and produce to bootleg CDs and fake Rolex watches. Unlike similar markets found in many other countries, haggling over prices is not customary in Latvia.

Amber jewelry is the most pervasive item sold in souvenir shops. Known as “Baltic gold,” amber is fossilized pine resin. It is found on beaches and is brought up in fishing nets in the Baltic Sea. Amber so dominates the souvenir market, stores that don’t sell it proudly proclaim themselves as “amber free.”

Latvia's Turaida Castle

  Turaida Castle near Sigulda

Another popular souvenir is Riga Black Balsam, Latvia’s most famous liqueur. Black Balsam is made with herbs, flowers, juices and medicinal roots. It tastes a bit like cough syrup gone bad, but Latvians swear by its healing powers. You may not want to drink the stuff, but the attractive brown ceramic bottle makes a nice conversation piece.

It’s definitely worth escaping Riga for a day or two to explore the Latvian countryside. Sigulda, a small town 90 minutes away by train, is known as the “Switzerland of Latvia.” With hills instead of mountains, Sigulda may not entirely deserve such a moniker. But it is a great place for hikers to explore, with sandstone caves, lakes, and a picturesque wooded valley dissected by the Gauja River.

Sigulda also boasts several medieval castles, all within walking distance of each other. The best known is the Turaida Castle,which dates back to 1214. Inside is a museum that documents the history of the area and visitors can climb the castle’s central tower for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

Jurmala, a beach resort area on the Gulf of Riga about 15 miles west of Riga, is another popular daytrip. Jurmala used to be a popular hangout for rich Soviet retirees and military officers. Today, Rigans enjoy its sandy beaches, health spas and seafood restaurants. The swimming and sunbathing season is short, though, due to Latvia’s cool climate.

© 2009 Dan Fellner

riga jewish memorial

The Jewish Traveler: Riga

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A tumultuous past maybe, but the Jews are now on solid ground and Latvia’s repentant capital is one of Europe’s cleanest, safest and most inexpensive destinations.

Hadassah magazine – October, 2003

After a half century of Soviet occupation that dulled its luster and broke its spirit, Riga is on the mend. The city has undergone a stirring revitalization since Latvia regained its independence a dozen years ago. Now, with large, flower-filled parks, an eclectic mix of fascinating architecture and a medieval Old Town that is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestoned streets, Riga is once again becoming worthy of its pre-World War II sobriquet—Paris of the Baltics.

Riga's Art Nouveau architecture

Riga’s famous Art Nouveau architecture

The city also features several sites that chronicle the tumultuous and tragic history of its Jews. Recent years have brought long-awaited government recognition of Latvian culpability in the Holocaust, the construction of Jewish memorials and a modest revival of Riga’s once strong Jewish community.

Perched on the Daugava River about 10 miles inland from the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe, Riga is Latvia’s capital and largest city, with a population of about 850,000. The city underwent major renovations in 2001 to celebrate its 800-year anniversary and is one of the cleanest, safest and most inexpensive destinations in Europe.

About half of Riga’s residents and a majority of the city’s Jews speak Russian as their first language, a legacy of Soviet times when they came to Latvia from other parts of the Soviet Union. Since breaking free in 1991, Latvia has embraced democracy and a free-market economy. As a result, it has been invited to join both the European Union and NATO in 2004. But westernization has not brought the crowds that flock to other East European cities like Prague and Budapest. Visitors will find plenty of elbowroom to enjoy all that Riga has to offer.

The heart of the city is known as Vecriga, or Old Town, a maze of crooked streets flanked by historic buildings, towering church steeples, cafés and art galleries. Strolling through Old Town is perhaps Riga’s greatest pleasure. Street musicians perform Latvian folksongs, a nice backdrop for the interesting mishmash of Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque and Art Nouveau architecture.

Indeed, Riga boasts one of the largest and best-preserved collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. This distinctive German architectural style, also called Jugendstil, dates back about 100 years and features ornately crafted sculptures of flowers, animals, angels, monsters and other odd creatures. Some of Riga’s most stunning Art Nouveau buildings, clustered on Alberta Street in an area just northeast of Old Town, were designed by Jewish architect Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the famous filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Art Nouveau architecture comprises about 40 percent of the buildings in central Riga.

Jews came relatively late to what is now Latvia; in the early fourteenth century they had been banned from settling in the region by an official decree of the ruling Master of the German Order. Some began to settle in the eastern part of the country in 1561 when that area fell under Polish rule, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries only the most successful were given permission to reside in Riga. Even so, they were forced to live in special inns called Judenherberge and were not allowed to be buried in the city.

Memorial at Riga's Big Choral Synagogue

Memorial at Riga’s Big Choral Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941

Consequently, Jews had to shuttle their dead to graveyards in Poland until 1725, when they were finally given permission to build a cemetery. Still, by the mideighteenth century, Riga had just a few hundred Jewish residents. (In contrast, neighboring Lithuania was much more hospitable at the time and its largest city, Vilnius, became one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in all of Europe.)

Despite a number of restrictions on buying land, choice of profession and education, by the eighteenth century Jews began to have an economic and cultural impact. They became expert craftsmen and prominent in such fields as timber, finance and medicine. Most of the city’s Jews lived in a ghetto in an area called Maskavas, less than a mile southeast of Old Town (due to Nazi destruction, there are few remnants today of the ghetto). In the nineteenth century, restrictions on Jews were eased and many began to move out of Maskavas into other parts of the city. By 1897, there were more than 20,000 Jews living in Riga, about 8 percent of the city’s population.

Jews played a prominent role in the formation of an independent Latvian state between the two world wars. During this period, Jewish schools, theaters and newspapers thrived. From 1920 to 1935, the number of Jews in Riga grew from 24,000 to an all-time high of 44,000, more than 11 percent of the city’s inhabitants. At one time, there were as many as 14 synagogues. Riga even briefly became a focal point of the global Lubavitch movement in the late 1920’s when the Latvian government gave shelter and citizenship to its leader, Joseph I. Schneersohn, who had been exiled from the Soviet Union. From Latvia, the rebbe went to Poland before emigrating to the United States.

In 1940, the Red Army entered Riga and leading Jewish political and religious leaders were arrested. About 5,000 Jews were among the thousands of Latvians deported to Siberia. Riga fell to the Germans on July 1, 1941, and Nazi atrocities against the Jews began that day when hundreds were executed as “retribution” for the Germans who were killed during the taking of Old Town. One of the most horrific crimes during the Nazi occupation of Latvia took place just three days later. On July 4, 1941, more than 300 Jews—many of whom were refugees from Lithuania—were herded into the basement of the Big Choral Synagogue. German soldiers threw grenades into the windows and the building was burned down. There were no survivors.

Some 77,000 Jews from Latvia, and 30,000 to 40,000 more who were transported from other countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, were killed on Latvian soil. Many were marched from the Riga ghetto in the winter of 1941-1942 to the Rumbula and Bikernieku forests, a few miles from the city center. There they were shot at a rate of up to 1,000 per hour, falling on top of those who had died before. Many of the killers were members of the local Latvian police force. Jews also perished at the Kaiserwald prison camp in the suburb of Mezaparks and at the Salaspils concentration camp 12 miles southeast of Riga. Only about 150 of Riga’s Jews survived the war. Some were saved by local residents; others managed to survive until the Red Army recaptured the city in the summer of 1944.

The end of the war brought the return of thousands of Latvian Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis. Other Jews from throughout the Soviet Union also settled in Riga. In the 1970’s, Riga became a major center of Jewish dissident activity. By 1989, just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Riga’s Jewish population had climbed to about 23,000, a number that has steadily dwindled in recent years, as many Jews have emigrated to Israel, Great Britain and the United States. Of those who remain, more than a third do not hold Latvian citizenship due to restrictive naturalization laws enacted after independence that were aimed at the country’s large Russian minority. Such laws have been eased in the past few years, although applicants for citizenship still must pass a Latvian language test.

Riga’s Jewish community is well organized in a model resembling Jewish federations in American cities. Religious life is headed by Rabbi Nathan Barkan, chief rabbi of Riga and Latvia. There are a number of Jewish schools in Riga that educate several hundred students at all age levels, a Jewish hospital and numerous organizations representing Jewish interests.

Under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Glazman, Chabad has had an active presence in Riga for more than 10 years. The organization runs Jewish schools and summer camps, helps feed the poor, holds a community Seder each Passover, erects a sukka in one of Riga’s main parks and otherwise attempts to rekindle Jewish traditions that were largely dormant during Soviet times.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

  Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga

One of the more visible components of Riga’s Jewish community is the Center for Judaic Studies, created in 1998 and housed in the University of Latvia’s main building at Rainis Boulevard 19 (e-mail: Headed by Professor Ruvin Ferber, the center offers courses in Jewish history, tradition and philosophy. It has a small library and every two years organizes an international conference called “Jews in a Changing World.” Notably, the opening ceremony to the 2001 conference drew the Latvian government’s president, past president, prime minister and several cabinet ministers.

Relations between the Latvian government and the Jewish community have been on solid footing in recent years. Latvia’s popular president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, one of the few women heads of state in the world, has been vocal in her support of the Jewish community and has initiated a Holocaust education program in the schools. Sadly, though, the government has not successfully prosecuted any Latvian war criminals, and until recently failed to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Latvian collaborators during the Holocaust.

Riga’s sole surviving synagogue, the Peitav Shul, celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2005.

Riga's Peitav Shul

The Peitav Shul, Riga’s sole surviving synagogue

Located at Peitavas 6/8 (telephone: 011-371-722-4549), this tall, narrow Orthodox prayer house is tightly wedged between other buildings in Old Town, a fact that likely saved it from Nazi destruction. It is believed that the Nazis would have burned it down as they did the other synagogues, but its proximity to neighboring buildings made them afraid to set it afire. Instead, they converted it into a warehouse and horse stall. The synagogue features a traditional two-story interior—women pray upstairs—and there is a small display in the lobby with items about Latvia’s Jewish community.

About a 15-minute walk from the Peitav Shul, at the busy intersection of Gogola and Dzirnavu Streets, stands the remains of the Big Choral Synagogue. In 1988, a large gray memorial stone was placed a few feet from the synagogue’s surviving brick foundation. It is not uncommon to see flowers and candles at the base of the memorial.

The Jewish Community Center, known locally as Aleph, is located in the central part of the city at Skolas 6 (371-728-9580). The building dates back to before World War I and once housed a Jewish theater. It assumed its current function in 2000 with financial support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The building’s third floor houses a small but informative museum called The Jews in Latvia (371-728-3484; open Sunday through Thursday 12 to 5), which chronicles the history of Jewish life in Latvia going back to the eighteenth century. Exhibits show the many contributions of Jews in Latvian society, as well as the suffering experienced at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. An uplifting section called “The Jewish People Survived” showcases the rebirth of Jewish life in Latvia since independence. At the entrance to the museum, visitors can purchase maps that identify the locations of former Jewish sites in Riga, including the Old Jewish Cemetery on Liksnas Street, which was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted by the Soviets into the Park of the Communist Brigades.

Jewish memorial in Latvia's Bikernieku Forest

Jewish memorial in Bikernieku Forest outside of Riga

Two memorials, recently erected in forests just outside Riga, have brought renewed attention to the Holocaust in Latvia. In 2001, one was dedicated in the Bikernieku forest, where about 30,000 Jews perished in 1942. Funded in part by a German charitable fund, the memorial consists of a white altar surrounded by jagged rocks. Each section of rocks represents a liquidated Jewish community from where the victims originated.

In November 2002, another memorial was unveiled at the Rumbula forest, where about 25,000 Jews were murdered in 1941. Significantly, the Rumbula monument acknowledges the involvement of the local population in the massacre. President Vike-Freiberga, who attended the dedication ceremony, called it “a day of mourning for all of Latvia because this crime happened on our soil and our people took part in it.” The memorial, funded by donations from Germany, Israel, Latvia and the United States, includes a large menora surrounded by miniature obelisks bearing victims’ names.

Riga’s most impressive museum, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Streinieku laukums 1; 371-721-2715; closed Mondays), thoroughly documents the destruction of Latvian sovereignty by the Soviets and Nazis. Located near the Daugava River in Old Town in a building that looks like a big black box, the museum includes historical documents, artifacts, pictures and a replica of a barracks in a Siberian Soviet prison camp where thousands of Latvians were deported. There is also a small section devoted to the Holocaust, including a display of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.

Other Sights
Given the country’s history, it’s not hard to understand why Riga’s Freedom Monument is such an important symbol to Latvians. Erected in 1935 and located at the intersection of Brivibas and Raina Streets just east of Old Town, the monument is topped by a bronze female statue affectionately called Milda by the locals and bears the Latvian inscription Tevzemei un Brivibai (For Fatherland and Freedom). Two soldiers guard the monument and there’s an hourly changing-of-the-guard ceremony. Latvians regularly lay flowers at the base of the monument to honor the victims of totalitarianism. It is said that those who dared to do so during Soviet times ended up with an extended, all-expenses paid vacation to Siberia.

For a magnificent view of Old Town from above, visit the thirteenth-century St. Peter’s Church (Skarnu 19). There’s an elevator that goes to the top of the spire, which at one time was the highest tower in Europe. Another impressive church in Old Town is the red-brick Dome Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics. It also dates back to the thirteenth century and now houses a 6,768-pipe organ, the fourth largest in the world.

The best place for shoppers to spend a lat (as the local money is called) or two is the centraltirgus, or central market, one of Europe’s largest and most colorful markets. It is housed in and around five huge buildings that were used as zeppelin hangars during World War I. There are more than 1,000 vendors, selling everything from fresh meat and produce to bootleg CD’s and fake Rolex watches. Amber jewelry is the most pervasive item sold in Riga’s souvenir shops.

Latvia's Salaspils concentration camp

  Salaspils concentration camp

Side Trips
In the Salaspils concentration camp where tens of thousands of people were murdered, visitors aregreeted by a huge concrete wall bearing the words: “Beyond these gates the earth groans.”

On the grounds inside stand several large sculptures that evoke the suffering and defiance of the camp’s victims. A metronome inside a long block of polished stone ticks endlessly, a haunting echo of the hearts that once beat at the camp. Salaspils is a half-hour drive from Riga, or you can take a train to the Darzini station and then walk on a path through the woods for about 20 minutes to the memorial.

Known as the “Switzerland of Latvia,” Sigulda, a small town 90 minutes east by train, is one of the most popular day-trip destinations from Riga. With hills instead of mountains, Sigulda may not entirely deserve such a nickname. But it is a great place for hikers to explore, with sandstone caves, lakes and a picturesque wooded valley dissected by the Gauja River. Sigulda also features the impressive red-brick Turaida Castle, which dates back to 1214.

The Latvians: A Short History (Hoover Institution Press) by Andrejs Plakans gives a good overview of Latvian history from medieval times to the mid-1990’s, with an emphasis on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Max Michelson’s City of Life, City of Death: Memories of Riga (University Press of Colorado) chronicles his experiences and ultimate survival in Riga’s Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Latvia: The Bradt Travel Guide is one of the few guidebooks devoted specifically to Latvia. Riga in Your Pocket, a small booklet sold in Riga hotels and souvenir shops (it can also be viewed on the Internet: www.inyourpocket. com/latvia/riga/en), provides up-to-date information about sightseeing, hotels and restaurants.

One of Old Riga’s most comfortable and reasonably priced hotels is the Radi un Draugi (Friends and Relatives). Owned and run by British Latvians, the hotel is just a block away from the Pietav Shul and offers clean and quiet rooms (371-722-0372; fax: 371-724-2239; e-mail: radi@drau More upscale and located in the city center not far from the Jewish Community Center is the Reval Hotel Latvija, one of Riga’s largest and poshest hotels (371-777-2222; fax: 371-777-2221; e-mail: The bar on the twenty-sixth floor offers a wonderful panoramic view of the city.

For kosher food, Café Lechaim (371-728-0235; entrance on Dzirnavu Street) is a small restaurant located in a corner basement of the Jewish Community Center. The food is simple and cheap. Shalom (371-736-4911), a five-minute taxi ride away at A. Briana 10, offers nonkosher Jewish dishes. Look for blue neon Stars of David in the front window.

Riga isn’t the easiest place to get to. There are no direct flights from the United States and its fairly remote location in northeastern Europe makes it a long bus or train ride from other major European cities. But it’s well worth taking a side trip from places like London, Moscow, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Warsaw or Prague, all of which offer nonstop flights into Riga. It’s a rare chance to see an alluring, vibrant and historic city that is yet untarnished by hordes of tourists.

© 2008 Dan Fellner

Riga Latvia changing of the guard

An educator’s enriching experience in Latvia

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Fulbright Scholar Program offers opportunity to teach overseas

Public Relations Tactics – August 2003

It was the first day of the semester at the University of Latvia and I arrived promptly for my opening lecture in a class called “Public Relations Principles.” I had been rehearsing my introductory comments for days and was pleased that a large group of students was in the room as I arrived.

PR class at University of Latvia

Fellner’s PR class at the University of Latvia. Wearing the cap is Aiva Rozenberga, the Latvian president’s press secretary

Labrit, I began, wishing the class a “good morning” in their Latvian language. Then I introduced myself and began explaining why an American had come all the way to a small country in northeastern Europe to teach.

“I’m here through the U.S. government’s Fulbright Scholar Program,” I told the class. “The Fulbright program is all about building bridges between America and other peoples around the world. While I may be the teacher, I expect to learn as much or more from you as you learn from me.”

As I looked around the room, I saw several students nodding and smiling. I imagined Sen. J. William Fulbright, who created the program immediately after World War II to improve America’s relations abroad, smiling down from the heavens above. I was on a roll.

Just then a hand went up from a student in the back of the room. “That’s nice,” she said. “But this is a class in German literature.”

It was not the auspicious start I had wanted. As it turned out, two classes had been assigned to the same classroom at the same time. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in Latvia, as course schedules and student registration are not computerized. It took three weeks – and moves to two other classrooms — before it all got straightened out.

Administrative snafus aside, teaching abroad proved to be one of the most fascinating and fulfilling experiences of my professional life. My opening remarks may have been delivered to the wrong class, but what I said turned out to be true. I did learn so much from my three-semester stint in Latvia and believe I became a better teacher and PR practitioner in the process.

Riga PR firm Consensus PR

Fellner (center) with the staff of Riga public relations firm Consensus PR

After 50 years of Soviet occupation, Latvia regained its independence just a dozen years ago and the field of public relations there is still very much in its infancy. I found the students and working professionals to be welcoming, eager to learn and dedicated to elevating the status of their field.

As in America, a majority of PR practitioners in Latvia are women. In fact, one of my PR classes had 42 students, all of whom were women. Many of the top PR practitioners in the country are women, including Aiva Rozenberga, the Latvian president’s press secretary, who visited my class as a guest speaker.

Because the field of PR is so new in Latvia, most of its practitioners are quite young. Rozenberga is a good example. At just 26, she holds the country’s most visible PR position and has been in the job for four years. And it’s much easier for students to get working experience in the field than it is back home. This added much to class discussions, as students could share their real-life experiences.

Salaries, though, are extremely low. Most journalists and PR practitioners earn just a few hundred dollars a month. And while the cost-of-living is lower in Latvia than in the United States, it’s not that much lower. Not surprisingly, students told me of instances they had heard about in which journalists accepted bribes offered by PR firms to write positive stories about their clients.

I taught courses in PR and broadcast journalism at two different universities in Riga – Latvia’s capital and largest city — and conducted guest lectures at two other colleges, including one in neighboring Lithuania.

Despite being warned that the students sit in class stone-faced and silent – a common stereotype of Eastern Europeans — I found them to be responsive and participative. My courses were conducted in English, which made it a bit of a struggle for a few students, but everyone was able to speak the language well enough to get by.

I especially enjoyed working with members of the professional community. I had the opportunity to conduct seminars for reporters and producers at six television stations throughout Latvia and for the staff of the second-largest PR firm in the country.

At the request of the U.S. Embassy in Riga, I also consulted with the PR staff at the Latvian Ministry of Defense. It was faced with a difficult communications challenge concerning the building of a controversial military radar installation in the eastern part of the country, an area with a large Russian-speaking population.

The issue was indicative of Latvia’s most deep-rooted problem and was all-too-familiar for government PR practitioners. Latvia is a peaceful, but divided country. About 40 percent of the country’s 2.4 million people are ethnic Russians. In general, Latvians and Russians speak different languages, attend different schools, read different newspapers, observe different religions, and vote for different political parties.

In the case of the radar unit, the Russian population felt it was going to be used by the Latvian military to spy on Russia, and furthermore, would help Latvia gain admittance into NATO, a move many Russians in Latvia oppose. (Latvia was subsequently invited to join NATO and became a member in 2004). Russian-language media in the region helped intensify opposition to the radar installation.

To circumvent the hostile media, the Ministry of Defense made its case directly to the people in the region with a direct-mail piece printed in both Russian and Latvian that explained the economic benefits the military unit would have in the impoverished area. Ultimately, opposition waned.

My wife and I enjoyed living in Riga, a charming city of about 800,000 residents with interesting architecture, lots of parks, museums and a medieval “Old Town” that is a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and buildings that are several centuries old.

I had traveled extensively before, but had never been anywhere outside the U.S. for more than two weeks at a time. As a result, I’ve had largely superficial snapshots of places I’ve been. The Fulbright grant gave me the chance to become engrossed in another culture and thoroughly learn about a part of the world that has had a rich but turbulent history.

Riga changing of the guard

 Changing of the guard at Riga’s Freedom Monoument

I had been vaguely familiar with the Fulbright program for years, but always assumed it was only for full-time academics with PhDs and a slew of scholarly publications. But there are opportunities in some countries for working professionals in public relations and journalism who want to take a mid-career break to live abroad and teach.

Fulbright grants are awarded to about 140 countries. Foreign language skills are needed in some places, but most lecturing assignments are in English. Grantees receive a monthly stipend, travel and living expenses and an allowance to buy textbooks for students who, in many cases, wouldn’t be able to afford them.

The Fulbright Scholar Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Grants are available from two months to an academic year or longer. There’s even a short-term program called the Fulbright Senior Specialists Program, which offers grants for two-to-six-weeks.

Whatever the duration, be prepared for a personally enriching and career-broadening experience – even if you do occasionally end up in the wrong classroom.

© 2009 Dan Fellner

latvia ice hockey

Latvian Hockey Madness

By | Latvia, Sports Abroad | No Comments

The Baltic Times – May 16, 2002

As a patriotic American sports fan, I still get goose bumps when I see an old film clip of the USA hockey team’s unforgettable upset victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. I remember the announcer’s words as the last few seconds ticked off the clock. “Do you believe in miracles?” he asked rhetorically, responding with a resounding “yes!” when the clock ran out.

Latvia's national hockey team

  Latvia’s national hockey team before its game against Germany

Yet when the USA recently played Latvia in the World Hockey Championships in Sweden, I sat riveted in front of my TV set and rooted as strongly for the Latvian team as any of the 4,000 flag-waving, horn-blowing Latvian fans who crossed the Baltic Sea to view the game in person.

No, my face wasn’t painted with maroon and white stripes and I can’t even pronounce “Sarauj,” the battle cry of Latvian fans. But living in Riga during the past few months, I have developed a huge appreciation for Latvian hockey and its fans.

My apartment is just a ten-minute walk from the Sporta Pils, Riga’s main hockey arena. With limited sports options on television, I found myself spending many a cold winter’s-night walking down Barona iela to watch teams from Riga, Liepaja, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine compete in the Eastern European Hockey League.

For two lats ($3.10), you can’t beat the price. Even prices at the snack bar are reasonable. You’ll pay the same price for a soft drink or candy bar as you would at any store outside the arena. Apparently, Latvians haven’t yet learned the art of price-gouging.

As for the quality of play, even though I was told that Latvia’s best players were performing for teams abroad, I was impressed with the overall caliber of hockey.

Latvians play much more of a finesse game than I’m used to seeing in the USA. The emphasis is more on skating and passing, less on checking and fighting. Latvian players seem to look to pass first, shoot second. Sometimes, they even give up a good shot on goal in an attempt to get a teammate an even better shot. With my American mindset, I often found myself yelling “shoot the puck!” when these passes would go awry.

When they do score a goal, you don’t see the histrionics you see at an American game. No dancing and taunting the other team. It’s not uncommon to see a player in the National Hockey League (NHL) jump up and down after scoring a goal like he just won the Stanley Cup, even though his team is hopelessly behind.

A lot of fans – although many won’t admit it — go to games in the USA to see the fights. Indeed, I remember the first NHL game I saw in person. It got loud when the home team scored a goal, but the decibel level was nothing compared to when the first fight broke out. Then it REALLY got loud.

Latvian hockey fans

  Rabid fans

I don’t think I saw a fight in Latvia until my fourth or fifth game. And even then, it was just a couple of slaps and that was the end of it. The two players dutifully skated off to the penalty box with apologetic looks on their faces.

Arguing with referees in Latvia is as rare as fighting. In the NHL, it’s almost obligatory for a player to whine at the referee before serving their two-minute sentence in the penalty box. Coaches scream and throw temper tantrums. In Latvia, you may see a player briefly shake his head disagreeing with a call, but that’s about as vehement as it gets.

In some ways, Latvian hockey seems to reflect its society at large. People work hard, don’t complain, and generally don’t try to call much attention to themselves.

Before I came to Latvia, I had heard about the fervor of the country’s hockey fans. So, when I heard that the Latvian national team would be playing a “friendly” hockey game in Riga against Germany, I was determined to get a ticket to witness this enthusiasm firsthand.

Two weeks before the game, I waited in line 90 minutes to get tickets for me and my parents, who recently spent a month in Riga. From the minute we arrived at the packed arena for the game, the noise was incessant.

The only time it quieted down was for a few seconds when Germany scored its lone goal of the game. Latvia ended up winning, 3-1, and even though it was just an exhibition game, the fans reacted with as much intensity as you’ll see in the USA at a Stanley Cup playoff game. Maybe more.

Latvia plays Germany in hockey

  Latvia (white) vs. Germany

By the time the game had ended, I felt as if I had been at a rock concert, my ears ached so badly from the noise. I thought it would be more sedate once we got outside the arena, but the celebration continued as excited fans sang, cheered and blew their horns as we walked home.

I was hooked on Latvian hockey, and couldn’t wait to see how the team would do in the World Championships in Sweden, when the games really counted.

So, when Latvia came up just a bit short and lost to the USA, 3-2, despite having outplayed the Americans for the last two periods of the game, I was so frustrated and disappointed, I couldn’t fall asleep.

Yes, I’m a proud American. For that one night, though, I desperately wanted my country to lose. The World Hockey Championships garner barely a footnote on American sports pages. There, sports fans are much more focused on the NHL playoffs. Here, it’s front-page news and a Latvian victory would have meant so much to the country’s loyal fans.

When I return to the USA, I’ll probably lose track of the exploits of Ozolins, Naumovs, Zoltoks and the rest. But I won’t forget about the fun I had watching Latvian hockey and the devotion of its fans.

© 2009 Dan Fellner