December in Latvia

Come with me on my new adventure – a year volunteering in Latvia! It all began mid-October ‘21 when I decided to apply through the European Solidarity Corps platform to a few year-long projects. I was looking for something to learn, that involved the arts and youth, possibly something to do with entrepreneurship as I wanted to work on Kisane, my idea to create an international catalog of opportunities for artists in every medium and a networking event calendar for professionals in the cultural and arts fields. Maybe a week after I sent my application, Ance and Diana from Youth House Liepaja reached out and scheduled an interview with me. We liked each other, even though I got the time zones confused and was a little late to our first call, oops. I was to be flying in November.

Then, life knocked on my forehead and I had to postpone my flight a couple of times – instead of flying in the first two weeks of November, I flew at 6 am on the 30th. That was an adventure on its own as that was when the first snow fell in Sofia, Bulgaria… Cue a 2-hour flight delay and me missing my connecting flight to Riga for 5 MINUTES!! Lufthansa rebooked me on a flight at 9 pm on the 1st of December… Come on and let’s wait in line for an hour to change my booking and be able to arrive in Riga on the same day, which was, thankfully, successful. I flew to Tallinn, where I waited and watched a series at the airport for 4 hours, met a nice French girl, and had a great chat. Finally, landed in Riga at 10.30 pm and headed straight into the hotel room I booked for myself that day.

First days (01 – 05.12)

After such a strong beginning, my first day in Liepaja seemed so bland. I met two of the girls from the Youth House, i.e., my new colleagues Ance and Diana, and my housemate and fellow volunteer Olena. They picked me up from the bus station and we went to run some errands before leaving me and Olena at our apartment. I was brutally sore from dragging my 24-kilo suitcase through snow for 2 days, so thank God, Ance works out and managed to bring it to the second floor! Then Olena brought me to the closest grocery store, we shopped, cooked and chatted before me falling dead asleep in my new home.

The following days, however, were very far from bland. I met my mentor, Elina, and my ESC buddy, Lotta – we hit it off with both, and I have a decade difference with both of them 😀 One thing we all have in common though is our love for walks, so after exploring a little on my own, the girls expanded my mental map of Liepaja with each walk. First impressions: Liepaja looks like a mix between Varna, Bulgaria from 50-70 years ago and modern Leiden or The Hague, Netherlands. The two architectural styles are very clearly visible and interestingly mixed together. Maybe because Latvia is a middle ground between east and west. The sea is deafeningly loud when it wants to be and can be heard from a 5-minute walking distance.

This was also the start of the most intense week in terms of weather. I came here and brought snow! And -10 degrees temperature! Thankfully, I left my wind in Bulgaria, where the wind made it into the orange category of dangerous weather. Good thing I listened to my mom and packed thermo tights.

On the weekend, Ance and Diana took me and Olena to the Northern Forts – a bunker complex built between the 19th and 20th century, meant to protect the city from naval attacks. However, it’s been long abandoned and the sea has embraced its new plaything, gradually taking it over for itself. Here are some snowy pictures from that trip:

The next day, filled with enthusiasm, I and Olena attended an event, organized by the Youth Guard and National Guard of Latvia, where we learned how many perks come with being an army person in this Baltic nation. Everything was said in Latvian, of course, and hooray for Diana’s excellent translations! When our feet were sufficiently benumbed, we went home and hugged the radiators, leaving the Latvian youth to practice shooting and play sporty team games.

First full week (06 – 12.12)

The first week in Liepaja started with a colleague’s birthday, so I got to try a Latvian layered salad and some typical snacks, that I couldn’t get the names of. One thing I noticed is how persistent cheese is at the Latvian table – it was in everything, from snacks to dessert. 

Throughout the week I worked with Elina, my mentor, on what do I want to achieve here, which later pivoted. We got to know each other a bit more, and she gifted me a great notebook! I’m a sucker for things like that.

Once the temperature went up to -2 degrees, I went exploring – it was so amusing to me how barely below-zero meant ‘warm enough for a walk’! How quickly people adapt to their environments! I walked to the lake and took a few pictured with numb fingers before heading back to my beloved heater.

We also had our first Latvian class with Olena on Zoom, which neither of us liked. We waited for our in-person lesson to see if we didn’t like the teacher or the online experience. At the Youth House, we joined a Christmas card making workshop and I hung out with Lotta, chatting about random stuff and failing at making pretty cards.

Our co-workers at the Youth House invited themselves for a housewarming/welcome to Latvia party at our place on Friday. Not all of them could make it but I had fun with Olena, Diana, Ance, and Jekabs. We played Never have I ever, which got me drunker than I wanted to be, and I learned of a good takeout place.

The final touch of the week was our trip with Olena to Kuldīga, a town almost 2 hours away from Liepaja, about which I heard talk whole week long. We visited the Venta Rumba, the widest waterfall in Europe (I wonder why is it considered a waterfall?) and the amazing free historical museum of the region. Our walk through the town led us to a few churches in different styles, some cool street art, and a very tasty Italian restaurant. Perfect day trip!

Second week (13 – 19.12)

This is where the work began – on Tuesday, I led a year-end reflection discussion with the Liepaja Youth Council. Due to time constraints, however, we turned it into a reflection of our last 7 days. On Thursday, Olena had a creative workshop, in which we painted mugs! So much fun to express yourself on a household item!

I struggled with having to go out of the house every day to go to work, which could be done at home as well. For the past few years, most of my work was online, so I got accustomed to working in my home clothes and not having to deal with bad weather. Ugh, I don’t know how and why do people choose to live their lives, going to work every workday. I do like the social aspect but we’ll see what my opinion is a year in.

This same week, we met our Latvian teacher in person and had our first live lesson. She is such a sweetheart – upon entering the classroom, we noticed wrapped gifts and envelopes on the tables. One for each, a handwritten Christmas card and a wrapped box with honey from city bees! As I learned then, the city green spots are cleaner and more bio than the Latvian countryside, so the honey collected by city bees is healthier. Our lesson went smoothly and was fun, much better than the previous online class!

On the weekend, I joined a ‘hike’, organized by the Youth House. I’m putting hike in quotes because we did not climb any hills nor go into any mountains (Latvia’s a pretty flat country), but we walked in the nearby forest. So many pretty trees! On our way back, we walked through a cemetery – everyone seemed so unbothered about us crossing people’s last resting place, which weirded me out a bit. In my head, cemeteries are not places where you go if you don’t have a relative in them. Even then you barely go, as their spirits come to our houses on the days, where it’s believed that ghosts roam the earth freely. Apparently, Latvians visit their cemeteries and passed-away relatives once every few months, and it’s almost like a social family gathering when they do.

After the hike, I met up with Olena and two French volunteers, who are doing their ESC in Tukums. They stayed at our place, made us a delicious dinner and mouth-watering lunch – the ideal guests! We took them around Liepaja, played Would you rather in the evening, and had an all-around great time.

Third week (20 – 26.12)

You’d think that by now things would have calmed down and I wouldn’t have so many new experiences this week, right? Wroong!

Only on Monday there was a work get-together for a colleague’s birthday, another’s name day, and over all a festive celebration. I and Olena brought fruits, that nobody touched, but I enjoyed the varied cheese dishes, salads and raw vegetables with an unknown to me pink mayonnaise/garlic sauce. Most of the time the conversation was in Latvian, so I was either nodding off or trying to guess what are my coworkers talking about. At some point we played hangman in English, which was super fun and everyone came up with a very specific to their interests word.

In the evening, I and Olena went to a Christmas concert – our mentors gifted us tickets the previous week. Both of us were so excited! When we got to the theater, we saw how underdressed we were: apparently it is still the norm here to go to the theater in suits and cocktail dresses. Despite our slight discomfort, we found our seats on the balcony and observed everyone’s classy outfits.

The concert itself was… disappointing. Olena liked it, but for me the singers were harping on one melody, while the musicians – another. Most of the time that is. The performers seemed uncomfortable on stage. I did like some of the songs, which were entirely sung in Latvian (which was to be expected). I picked up on a few words I recognized or that made me laugh such as melez (which is slang for mixed breed dogs in Bulgarian, but apparently in Latvian it means tongues?!). After 40 minutes, there was a 30-minute break. People grabbed a glass of wine and socialized, which for the two of us was out of the question considering the language and appearance barrier. The second part of the concert was to last another 45 minutes, so I bailed. Would like to see a play though once I get more comfortable with the language.

This is also the week we were supposed to have our first Intercultural evening, for which we prepared and were excited, but due to the lack of interest, the event didn’t take place. However, Ance surprised us with a live Christmas tree and one of our coworkers brought us some toys for it!! Here’s our cute little tree:

On Christmas Eve, I attempted to knead a Bulgarian Christmas bread, which you can watch over here:

I and Olena stayed inside, cooked together, Olena successfully wrestled with a wine bottle as we had no bottle opener, but wanted Gluhwein. We watched the Grinch movie, called our parents/friends, and had a nice time.

On Sunday, our Latvian teacher invited us to go visit her in Grobiņa. She picked us up, we helped make lunch – milk, potatoes, and pumpkin soup, followed by gray peas and mushrooms. We met her daughters and some of her friends, with whom we had a great chat. At some point, her older daughters lent me and Olena plastic sledges. Our teacher also gifted us homemade jars of northern lemon jam and wild garlic pesto. Armed with the jars and sledges, we, our teacher and her 5-year-old daughter, and her friends went to the Grobiņa Castle ruins, where I geeked out and we sled! I managed to fall badly on almost all of my slides as I was trying to protect the jars in my backpack (and let’s face it, I don’t have the balance to sled safely). Here’s an example:

 Frozen but hyped, we took some pictures in front of a light tiger:

In the evening, we hitched a ride back to Liepaja with our new friends.

Fourth week (27.12 – 02.01.2022)

Ending the year with a date invite made me realize I’m not ready to get romantically involved, and that I’m over the blitz attraction and sudden love fire that started my previous relationships. I’d prefer to get to know people before I think of dating them, so no more impulse jumps into the deep end. The same goes for friendships as well – learning how to slowly build up connections over time instead of trying to fit years of friendship into a few weeks or months. #Personalgrowth

This week I was lucky enough to go out to a Mystery game and a bar, on two separate evenings! The Mystery game was a role-playing game night, organized by the Youth Council – each participant got a role in a murder investigation. Everything in Latvian, of course, as I was the only foreigner there, so I had to remember my whole character sheet, who is who, all of the clues and information given by the NPCs. Given that we were 15 people playing, that was A LOT of information… yet I was the only one that figured out the killer! 😂

The next day, my mom called to tell me that the wife of my step-dad’s cousin is from Latvia and she has a brother, who is coming to Liepaja that same day, so she wanted us to meet. Alrighty, we exchanged numbers with this distant step-relative, and I head out to hang out with my mentor Elina. I had plans with my colleague Jekabs to go to a bar in the evening, but time is unpredictable so I and Jekabs met my distant relative in the evening before we went for a drink. 😀 The bar was more crowded than I thought and it had some board games! I miss backgammon; however, Uno was a decent replacement. Jekabs recommended Aronia beer, which was super tasty.

On New Year’s Eve, I and Olena spent some time chatting, ordered food for ourselves, then I went to sleep until 11.40 while she joined her friends in Ukraine on an online partay. At midnight, we drew lucks from a bowl to see what 2022 will bring us – in Bulgaria, we have a savory pastry with lucks, written on pieces of paper, that we eat on the 1st of January. I got luck and travels, while Olena got health and abundance. 🥰

Mentally, emotionally, spiritually throughout the month

As you can see by the sheer amount of text, December was a very intense month for me. Until now I only shared the physical experiences and activities I went through, which is only half of the story – the other half is the emotional, mental, and spiritual side of things. As they occupy periods of time, this part of my retelling won’t be too long.

This isn’t my first move abroad but it is the first one where I’m met with so much support. I genuinely love the people I met, the place, the host organization, and the town. Feeling so well taken care of has led me to free up loads of mental space, where creativity settled in. I wrote poems, articles, short stories, free-flow wrote almost every day and even tried my hand at erotica (wrote a one-shot blowjob scene, which I’m thinking of posting on Wattpad) – a lot of these texts you can find on this website.

On a personal level, I was dealing with the emotional consequences of two events. In September, my partner and I separated, so the Dutch vibes that Latvia gave me made me miss him a bit more than I wanted to admit. However, the time alone and the new experiences showed me what a hollow shell of myself I was throughout most of our relationship and confirmed that our break-up was for the best. As difficult as it was, I let myself experience all the grief over him, over the version of myself I was with him, all the guilt of not choosing myself and making myself miserable for a while. That was haaard. I feel lighter and untethered after that, and as if I’ve learned my lessons. The second event was that at the beginning of December, I refused contact with a person, with whom I felt a very intense connection and whom I wanted to get to know better. Thanks to the month-long reflection, I now realize that the place from which I approached the connection was an unhealthy one for both of us. I tend to jump into emotional intimacy with people because I crave the attention, validation and love, that comes from it – that’s a sign of insecure attachment. It’s okay though, I am learning how to connect with others in a slow and healthy way, without hiding or denying myself: being in Latvia is a great place for this, as people tend to be more closed-off than what I’m used to but open enough to make friends (unlike my impression of Dutchies, where people stick with their connections from high school and don’t care for new friendships). I am thankful for this difficult time and am glad that, for the most part, I have let these people go. I am very glad that being in a new space on my own helps me figure out who I am when I’m not getting lost in love/needing someone.

I rediscovered my passion for reading and read a few books by Pavel Vezhinov, my favorite Bulgarian fantasy/magical realism author. A couple of times per week, I’d also chat or call friends and my family – at the beginning, distance makes my heart grown fonder. This month I was incredibly grateful and appreciative of the friends that stayed close throughout my travels and moves abroad. If you’re reading this, guys: I love ya. <3 I know that when people can’t hang out with someone, they tend to forget them or feel disconnected from them, but having you in my life shows me that I’m not the only one who doesn’t care about temporary physical distance.

A disclaimer if you want to go from a sunny country to a not so sunny one – get yourself a night lamp! I’m struggling with the length of the night as the sun goes up around 9 am and goes down a bit before 5 pm, which confuses my body. Whenever it’s been dark for more than 2 hours, I feel like I should sleep even when I’m not tired and in the mornings thanks to the darkness, I feel like it’s still the middle of the night, so I should sleep more… Regardless if I feel fully awake and refreshed. A bed lamp can help trick your brain, that yes, it is already morning, so it’s easier to wake up, and just avoid looking outside when you’re home in the evening. It’ll be easier to go to bed when you’re actually tired.

Lastly, a bit of a controversial sharing – Liepaja brought out my psychic and spiritual growth to a whole new level. In December, I got so much information from thin air and my spiritual guides, quite a few visions, and a bunch of energy upgrades, that let me manage my emotions and heal so much of myself. I’m not sure if it’s the place, the period, or both, but woah. Intense energies.

If you got all the way here,

Daamn, thank you for letting me share!! Now you know how much can happen in a single month!

Next month I’ll be writing about my January in Latvia, so check this blog around the 15 of February if you’d like to read about it. 😉

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