Today’s installment of my “Baltic Journal” consists mainly of a conversation with Ojars Kalnins, who is a very interesting person. He is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Latvian parliament. In the ’90s, he was Latvia’s ambassador to the U.S. He himself grew up in Chicago — he is a White Sox fan, although this is a Cub year.
In yesterday’s installment, I quoted him on his first encounter with Latvia. His parents, like so many, were refugees. He first encountered their native land when he was in his late twenties.
When he saw Riga, and heard his home language on the street, he thought, “Okay, this country is for real.” Earlier in his life, he had begun to suspect that his parents had made up a place called “Latvia.”
“My classmates had never heard of it. I didn’t read about it. Teachers made no mention of it in school.”
When Kalnins saw that Latvia was real, he embraced the country as his own — “my homeland, if not my birthplace” — and devoted himself to the cause of Latvian independence and democracy.
I have received a note from our Andrew Stuttaford, which you’ll enjoy, as I did:
I met a (very pretty) Latvian-American girl once in New York not so long after independence. Latvian was spoken at home by her exile parents, but like Mr. Kalnins she was never quite sure that Latvia actually existed as no one else seemed to have heard of it in 1970s Massachusetts. She told me that when she was a very small child she thought that every family had a secret language, but could not understand why only her parents spoke it in front of other people.
Many, many children of immigrants or refugees from out-of-the-way places can relate to this.