People have asked me a lot in the past month what my first impressions of Latvia are. I’ve found that a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand I have learnt to my cost in the past what happens when I have ignored first impressions. On the other hand my internal dialogue tells me that it is unfair and sometimes unrealistic to make first impressions lasting impressions, and that sometimes they can be deceptive.
I suppose too I am long enough in the tooth now not to get carried away by initial enthusiasms about new things, experience having taught me that eventually reality kicks in and the early enthusiasms can turn to cyncism if early expectations are not met.
There is, of course, the other side of the coin. Whilst I am processing first impressions of Latvia there are any number of people assessing their first impressions of me. If the first impressions are positive, I pray that I won’t let them down; if they are not so positive, then I pray that they might be open to adapting their first impressions as they get to know me, and hopefully, trust me.
So then, with considerable trepidation I will attempt some of my first impressions of life in Latvia.
Everyone’s first question is about the climate, and I discover that Latvians have a preoccupation with the temperature. I have not found the cold too daunting, I have moved here from Scotland after all, but I have found walking on ice and snow particularly challenging and I admit to that making me a bit fearful about going walking at times. A surprise has been to find that my flat at least, is much warmer than my home in the UK. Early on I also realised what a laughing stock the UK must be in this part of the world. The kind of weather that would have everything grinding to a halt in the UK is just part of normal life in Latvia.
As I am beginning to discover Riga, I find that it is true what the guidebooks say that there is some beautiful architecture here. Some, especially in the Art Nouveau section of the City, have been restored to their former glory, but some of the other buildings have the look of an elderly lady slightly past her best but still beautiful in her own way. Juxtaposed with these faded beauties are smart new shopping malls of which there seem to be any number. They are warm, inviting places with some great shops to browse around, and, at the opposite end of the scale the legacy of functional, utilitarian Soviet blocks of flats, not built for their beauty, but part of the landscape.
A first impression for me at least is how much history impacts the present and has left a really tangible legacy. It does not take long for one to feel an enormous respect and admiration for all that the Latvians have managed to achieve in the past twenty or so years since independence. The evidence of it is all around you. I’ve also felt quite humbled as I have begun to hear what occupation does to a peoples and a country, and have had to admit as a person from England where the last invasion was in 1066, that I will never be able to fully understand or empathise with what it means to a country, culture and people to be under occupation for so long. A visit to the Museum of Occupation was a moving – almost spiritual experience.
My first impressions of Latvians? Always dangerous to make generalisations, but those I have met have a quiet dignity and intelligence. They seem to be organised and efficient. I would imagine that they will take their time in getting to know you, not rush to judgement, but my early impression is that once a Latvian does discover they can trust you, you would have a very loyal friend. Time will prove whether I am right in that assessment.
…and my early impressions of the Salvation Army; In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah talks about ‘beauty for ashes’. What has struck me in the centres I have visited is that they are places of warmth, sometimes quite literally, and welcome, good food and refuge. A place where people, some of whom have very little, find the beauty and love which characterises the God who motivates the leaders who serve them. These leaders, officers for the most part, are real evangelists and servants. Most of them have a personal story of the way the Gospel of Christ has transformed their lives from atheism or addiction, so they feel an urgency and impatience to share it. With limited resources they produce the most amazing results. They are Salvationists of whom William Booth, the Founder of the Salvation Army, would have been proud.