Author Archives: Garrett in Latvia

About Garrett in Latvia

Hi, my name is Garrett Burgess, and I am a current Senior at West Virginia University where I study International Relations and Russian Studies. This summer I will be in Riga, Latvia conducting an internship made possible by the Gilman International Scholarship.

A Complete Transformation

I have roughly one week left in Riga, Latvia, and I am feeling quite unsettled about my departure. The friends and colleagues that I have gained from my time interning in Riga will not be forgotten. As I sit here today, partially wondering how I am going to fit all of my newly acquired souvenirs in my suitcase, I can’t help but feel like time has gone by so quickly. I understand that this is a cliché of sorts, but I am dumbfounded; It seems like I just arrived. But, I can tell that time has passed because my personality has changed dramatically since I first touched down in May.

I had been to Riga, Latvia before during my freshman year, and I had thought that the second time around would be more relaxed and straightforward. I found this to be an outrageous distortion of the truth. I have been challenged far more than I was when I came here at the age of 18. Undertaking an internship shocked my current way of living and thinking. I was tasked daily with assignments that were placed outside of my comfort zone where I was accustomed to classrooms and theory rather than the practical application of my education. Further, this was my first experience living alone. My previous times abroad and even back home in West Virginia, I am always accompanied by a roommate, a host family, or my own loving family. Solo living was more of an adjustment than I thought, and while it is nice to relax and find solace in being alone, it deprived me of a comfortable social setting that I had grown accustomed to maintaining.



As I was walking back to my apartment I noticed a student painting the scenery over the Daugava River. After asking her permission for a picture, she proceeded to ask if she could add me to her painting, displaying me walking along the boulevard.


While there were inherent challenges, there were even more rewards. I feel for the first time in my life that I am an adult. In Riga this time around, I have greater responsibility and more expected of me. At my internship, projects were assigned to me with deadlines, which could not be avoided or pushed off like any other homework assignment, yet I tackled them head on. Furthermore, I discovered that some of your greatest friends can come from the office. Every day I looked forward to eating lunch with my colleagues, learning about their pasts, laughing at their daily blunders, and making plans together for the weekend. I also gained the capability to be flexible. As an intern, I was required to assist in the day to day operations of the office, and in my work at the Embassy, I was expected to change what I was working on at the drop of a hat to complete another assignment within a given time frame. While this was at first frustrating, it taught me the value of time management and planning to account for such shifts in operations when they occur.

Lastly, I developed a deep rooted understanding and connection to the culture that I have spent years studying. I interacted daily with my neighbors, friends, co-workers, pedestrians, etc. that added to my knowledge and passion for Eastern Europe. I have learned of the past through my host mother’s conversations with me about her grandparents. I discovered the hope for a brighter future from my friends looking to build on their education and start a lasting career in the Baltics. Most importantly, I learned the value of listening, attempting to understand and grasp the language, struggles, and stories of a population that has endured so much for their freedom and well-being.

Overall, I am lucky to have been able to return to Riga, and I am already counting down the days until I can come back.


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Summer Solstice Holiday

Well, it was a fascinating long weekend, to say the least. The two-day holiday festivities began on Friday for what is known as Ligo, and the following day, Jani. Both days are filled with many celebrations in Latvia, celebrating the mid-summer holiday, which has deep-rooted connections to their pagan cultural pasts. Riga held various events throughout the city, filled with concerts and a festival-like atmosphere for the public to purchase food and beverages while singing both classical and contemporary Latvian music.

On Friday I decided to do some people watching, taking root on a park bench by the market off of the Daugava river trail. I found the people to be very energetic and full of life. The streets were packed full of pedestrians laughing in colorful attire. Some sported traditional garb in honor of the occasion. I gathered that a staple of the holiday weekend attire is the flower crown. My only experience with such strange headgear stems from pictures of Coachella or any other sort of music festival that you see a Kardashian at every other weekend. These crowns were delicately crafted; each blossom fastened tightly into place to form a vibrant floral ring. I also noticed the men sported a similar piece made of oak leaves. After seeing numerous people with the crown, I approached a street vendor to question its significance and history. The woman, who’s arms were layered with the crowns like a human abacus, informed me that the crowns were not for show but tradition. The wreaths prevent disasters and diseases for the women, and the men’s wreaths signify strength from the oak tree.



The view from the Daugava River looking into Old Town.


An alley way lined with holiday lights for the mid-summer holiday.


A man seen in Old Town sporting a crown made entirely of oak leaves. Such a crown symbolizes strength and perseverance.


The celebrations continued into the late night. Given that it was one of the longest days of the year (it is a solstice holiday after all) the sun managed to stay in the deep sky until close to midnight. The sunset was truly captivating, seemingly dancing on the Daugava river while the people continued to feast, laugh, and sing along with the local entertainment. Once the light got dim, I noticed a small man carrying a torch clutched above his head. He ran down the boulevard, beyond the food tents to a pyre located behind the concert stage that managed to elude me throughout the celebration. The flames climbed to the top of the hay strung pyre. One of my friends accompanying me informed me that it is tradition to attempt to jump over the fires if they are ground level, and doing so will bring you a year of good luck. While I cherish good fortune, I do believe I admire my skin to a greater extent.

After the fires had dampened, the night full of lights continued with a mighty display of fireworks along the river. They were launched into the air from the shoreline across from old town. Each firework burst at the peak of its climb and reflected all of its colors in the surf of the river. It was a mesmerizing scene, with people’s heads fixed on the sky anticipating the bursts of the artful display.

Sadly, my weekend did not conclude as great as it started. The holiday was full of wonder, but the Sunday following proved to be quite the test. I woke up the next day to find that my bike (or should I say my borrowed bike) was stolen from my apartment building. Knowing that things happen outside of my realm of my control was somewhat assuring. The setback truly had its consequences. On my way to work the following day my bus card had glitched out and deactivated, leaving me stranded on my connecting bus stop without means of getting to my internship. Again, I brushed off the accident and continued walking to work, enjoying the views and the smiling faces of the pedestrians I passed. Unfortunately, I had failed to look up the weather for the day. Latvia is known for its occasional thunderstorms that approach rather quickly. Like a scene from a cliché romantic comedy, I trudged my way to work using my backpack as a Spartan shield to block the rain from ruining my suit. I have since recovered quickly and gracefully from my late weekend mishaps, but I enjoyed the festivities nonetheless. Just goes to show you that you have your good days and your bad days in a new environment, and they can turn on the flip of a dime.

Maybe I should have jumped over the pyre after all for good luck?

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Coming Full Circle: My Host Family

It had been exactly 2 years since I had boarded my bus to Vilnius, Lithuania and left my host family behind in Riga, filled with the memories of my adventures and time spent with them. Before arriving in Latvia for the first time in 2015 I was honestly not looking forward to having a host family. I had grown accustomed to a tenacious independence in my first year at West Virginia University. My schedule was fixed, my stubborn perception of adulthood was cemented, and I had convinced myself to gather as much emotional distance away from my host family as possible. This lasted less than 2 days. Gita, Odriya, and Orist welcomed me to Latvia with such compassion and support that I attempted to avoid. My first night, my host Mother, Gita, was working late and was not able to greet me right away. The kids, Odriya and Orist, did their best to entertain me as most kids of age 11 and 14 do by showing me their favorite YouTube videos. I found comfort in their simplicity and approachability.

The next morning, I woke to the smell of fresh eggs and blini (pancakes) lingering in the air and calling me to the kitchen. It was here where I realized that Gita, my host mother who always remained with a vibrant smile on her face, did not speak English. While you might think that it is quite problematic, I embraced the circumstances pretty well if you ask me. Relying on my, at the time juvenile, Russian Language skills accompanied with my above average charades capabilities, we had a pleasant first interaction for which I will never forget. As the weeks went on, every day I felt eager to come home from class and experience the love and compassion that I had never expected. I taught Odriya and Orest how to throw a football and they taught me the value of being a positive exemplar of culture in the lives of others. Gita and I often had tea together, as she assisted me with my homework and spoke with such candor about the history of Latvia and life in the Soviet Union. I gained so much from these intuitive discussions, which arguably solidified my interests in the region, and served as my reason to return. On my last day, they escorted me to the bus stop even though I had persisted that it wasn’t needed. They looked at me as if I had gone crazy. Over the weeks I had experienced life with them, and it had been quite the life indeed. I felt as if I had been there my whole life in my short 4 weeks staying there.



The last time I saw my host family in person at the travel center before taking a bus to Vilnius Lithuania. (June 2015)


Once I arrived in Riga roughly 3 weeks ago, I immediately sent Odriya a message from the airport, it wasn’t 20 minutes before I received a reply of “When will we meet?” My hectic work schedule and the office’s location away from the city center prevented me from immediately going for a visit. Finally, one evening I had my chance and informed them of my free evening in Old Town. We had decided to get ice cream somewhere in the city. I instructed Odriya to choose her favorite ice cream place in the city for our gathering, and she replied: “McDonald’s it is”. She had not changed much after all. We met and Gita ran into my arms like a horse charging into battle, giving me the warmest and most tender of hugs. The children, well I guess “teenagers” now, followed suit. Gita then pulled from her purse a black sleeping mask, for which I had been searching for since I had left in order to evade the long sun-filled nights in the Baltic. After all this time she had kept it for me. “I knew you would come back, and it would be here for you,” she said laughing.

We purchased our ice cream and went to the neighboring park for a stroll. We relived the memories of my visit two years ago as we walked through the tumultuous crowds feeding the birds along the canal. My Russian had drastically improved since Gita and I had first met. We held a pleasant conversation (no charades this time), with Odriya and Orest (who don’t speak Russian) chiming in to translate Latvian occasionally or add in their thoughts on a particular memory. I had informed them of my bike escapades in the city, and they had reflected on the time I had nearly lost my eyebrows to the flames of a charcoal grill I had claimed to know how to light. In this way, we also spoke about our current dreams, and the dreams we once had sought. I felt like I had never left them, speaking to them as I had spoken two years ago. They walked me back to the bus stop before making plans to travel to the countryside in the beginning of July for a relaxing hiatus. I assured them that this time I would not be responsible for the charcoal grill. We chuckled. And like all conclusions to our conversations, Gita told me she loved me, as a mother would tell her own child.



Our barbecue grill out in the countryside, 10 minutes later I would partially lose my eyebrow.


Looking back at my experiences with my host family, I was wrong for first forming a stubborn divide. Going to Latvia in 2015 I put up a barrier to shade me from experiencing what I missed the most: the love of my family. I learned that a host family can reciprocate just as much love as your own can show. My tip: a host family is your way of truly assimilating into a culture. You must embrace your caretakers and learn from them as you are learning in your own classrooms. They are valuable resources for your education abroad and who knows, they may change the scope of your life through their kindness. Gita, Odriya, and Orest showed me that love and compassion reach beyond borders and beyond culture. I am glad to have them present in my life still today. Another update is due for our further visits. Who knew coming full circle could be this thrilling?



Our ice cream reunion in the park adjacent from the Freedom Monument last week!

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Same Place, But a New Adventure

I have been to the Baltic nation of Latvia before, but this time feels different. Before leaving I didn’t know if this feeling was of adventure or of fear. Two summers prior I had done a language study in Riga, Latvia where I studied Russian language and culture. I fell in love with its vibrancy. The city is so rich with its historic landmarks and nouveau architecture. The river, which cuts through the heart of the city, always appears so calm as the local steamboat captains offer discounted rides and sometimes even meals aboard their ships. Riga was calling me back since I had left, so once I found that I had been accepted as an intern at the U.S. Embassy, I jumped on my chance. Yet, as the days approached I realized that I was going to Riga under different circumstances with new responsibilities and new challenges. Pushing these thoughts aside, I packed my things (which happened to be, of course, 10lbs over the airline weight limit) and headed on to my new journey.

Arriving at the airport, I was not greeted by my host family as I had been two summers ago. Instead, I was there as an adult, no longer dependent on others to guide me through my first stumbles. Getting to my apartment was no easy task. Having hailed a taxi, I was unable to thoroughly communicate with the driver. Knowing only English and Russian (Latvia speaks both Russian and Latvian, yet many know English) I feel prepared to tackle most all social interactions. Yet I may have gotten in the car with the only taxi driver in the city that didn’t speak either Russian or English. I am familiar with language barriers and respect the circumstances, yet trying to find an apartment in an area that I had never been before by pointing and waving only goes so far. But, eventually, I made it.



The “House of Black Heads” was a guild for merchant and craftsmen who shared in a brotherhood. Destroyed during a bombing raid in WWII, it was rebuilt in 1999.


My first few days at my internship were marvelous, I assimilated rather quickly and they continue to teach me things that both interest me and confuse me. Yet there is value in this confusion. After my supervisor overheard me talking about the crowded bus I ride to work that often violently throws its passengers across the platform, he surprised me in the parking lot with his old bicycle. The transportation roadway system has proven to be the biggest challenge for me to date in Latvia. In my home state of West Virginia, the mountains often prevent us from riding bikes outside of recreational activities. To be frank: I am not very great at riding a bike, often issuing brake checks that result in me slinging myself above the handle bars. Bikes are normal vessels of transportation here, and this was my new challenge that I was going to win. So far, I can proudly say that I am taking on this new challenge, and fitting in with the other morning commuters with only a few scrapes and bruises.



Freedom Monument. The monument guarded by the Latvian military servicemen honors those who perished during their fight for independence in 1918-1920.


I have found that the second time around in a country, you are more apt to notice the smaller things. I pass average street vendors and notice the differences in the produce they sell compared to the average markets back home. I have noticed the difference in style, music taste, and social interactions between the people that I previously did not catch. I have also noticed more and more similarities between the United States and Latvia. Specifically, I have noticed the similarities in politeness that I have only seen in my small town that I call home in West Virginia. Strangers giving up seats, holding doors, and smiling as they walk past you on the street, all of which are no guarantee in any city. Sometimes these faint gestures remind me of what awaits back home and pull my mind elsewhere. But one glance around at my surroundings and the opportunities that I have been afforded anchors me back into this new adventure.



The gardens outside of the Opera House offer great views when walking through the central city.


I am looking forward to learning about the history of Riga in greater depth (I believe I have exhausted the food circles for me to try). This weekend is the free museum weekend in Old Town Riga. While wandering the city, and exploring the various museums, I also aim to find what makes the people of Riga tick. My goal is to interact, in some fashion, with a new person every day. Whether that be a smile, a quick conversation, or scheduled luncheon, I want to explore this place through the conversations and memories of its people.

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