Feeling at home in Latvian folklore

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Choir festival in Riga

A stopover in Riga on the flight home from Uzbekistan. “Straight on for transit; turn left for the passport control.” Our flight back to Berlin only leaves in five hours’ time, so we head left and enter the Schengen area. Strange how a country like Latvia that not so long ago we didn’t really realise existed (well it certainly didn’t exist in our school curriculum) can feel like home. And they don’t even have the Euro (yet)!

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This is Europe!

But coming from Central Asia (or many other places, for that matter), this is clearly Europe. There is a tourist information office that actually offers advice and information materials, getting money and a bus ticket is no hassle at all, the bus into town is clearly marked and you don’t have to argue with the conductor about how much tourists are to pay. On the busy market, price tags stick in every gleaming pile of berries or vegetables. Most stalls use old-fashioned
metal spring scales that must be Soviet-issue standard – the only visible parallel with Uzbekistan where that particular past seems so much more alive.

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Festival of the Latvian folk songs

In central Riga, groups of people in traditional folk costumes are prowling the streets. hey are everywhere, walking in all directions, and the children are wearing striped dresses and flower diadems, too. Most of the other people seem to be tourists. Do Latvians wear their traditional folk dresses for a Saturday afternoon outing? Even in the capital? As we continue into the old town we see them standing in the squares and courtyards, intoning Latvian folk songs. It turns out there is a huge song and dance festival in town, and UNESCO intangible heritage, no less. Tourists mingle, take photos and hum the refrains, and we enjoy the festive atmosphere as well as the relaxed normalcy of all this: There is practically no visible security, no military, nobody wants to see our passports…

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“You are lucky,” a young woman in a colourful striped skirt and green waistcoat congratulates us: “This song and dance festival is held only every five years, and there are about 40,000 participants in town!” Back at the airport we learn that in fact, the German president has also just arrived for the final contest.

Visiting Riga at the time of such a local festival was definitely rewarding. Indeed, it is always when you can time your visit with some special event, such as the Chienbäse carnival event in Liestal or the Alpine Krampus Rallies, but also exotic festivals like a Hamer wedding ceremony in Southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley.

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