During its fifty year history of Soviet occupation, three percent of Latvia’s population was deported, imprisoned or worse. It’s a history today’s Russia denies, but Latvia wants you to know and viscerally experience what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. When in Riga, you can go inside the nearly untouched, terrifying KGB building and prison, tour its occupation history and visit the building that housed the culmination of the fifty-year Latvian resistance movement that contributed to the county’s freedom. See the story here.
In my last post I wrote about Estonian spa/sauna culture. When in the Baltic countries in March, I also spent time in neighboring Latvia who has its own version of a sauna experience. It involves old pagan rituals, sauna masters and, in one case, a full immersion into the curative properties of beer. Beer + sweat = health and a better state of mind. Read about it here.
It’s intimidating enough to cross the threshold of a spa and sauna with its various treatments that include ingredients sounding more like they belong in a dessert and the vulnerability of being naked. Imagine doing it in another country where you don’t speak the language and there’s a spa menu of 149 possibilities. And it involves flailing yourself with a whisk of tree branches. The spa and sauna culture in the northern Baltic country of Estonia is a combination of Finnish and Russian spa tradition with a twist that’s uniquely Estonian. A twist so rare and embedded in culture that UNESCO designated it a global treasure. I was intrigued enough that I overcame intimidation and walked across the threshold of two historic spas in the country’s capitol of Tallinn. You can read about it here.
It was the power of choral singing that sustained the Estonian people during their fifty years behind The Iron Curtain. There are over 700 choirs in the tiny country of Estonia and from 1987 to 1991, the power of unified choir voices singing forbidden songs became a resistance tool in the country’s effort to gain independence. Check out my latest article in Global Comment.
Dateline: Saga Museum. Reykjavik, Iceland. December 25, 2016
The weather outside was a howling blizzard. To escape I ducked into the Saga Museum, one of the only tourist attractions open Christmas Day in all of Iceland. Apologizing to the two young women working the counter who assured me they were getting twice their normal wage for working the holiday, I took the proffered English interpretive headphones and stepped inside the darkened museum to the first stop on the tour.
Vinland the display’s sign said. Vinland?? That’s a road, church, school and housing development where I live in Poulsbo, Washington, USA. What’s the name doing in an obscure museum in Reykjavik? And thus began a lesson about the intersection of my community and Icelandic sagas. I should have known it was connected to Vikings whose ongoing presence in my life has been described in a past post.
The pleasant English voice on my headset explained that Vinland was the subject of ancient Norse sagas, oral stories that captured the family history and feuds, migrations and voyages and feats of Norse men and women. Many of the sagas can be found on the Icelandic Saga Database. The oral stories were transcribed into written form some 250 years later. The journey, to Vinland is told in the great Icelandic sagas Ericthe Red and Saga of Greenland.
Those two sagas detail the heroism of Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red who sailed an expeditionary force in 1000 AD to what is now North America. One of the men in his party, Tykir the Southerner, a German slave captured by the Vikings, became separated from the group. When he returned he was clearly drunk and was clutching bunches of grapes. The newly discovered land was named Vinland; vin meaning wine or vine.
In 1960 archaeological evidence was found in Newfoundland that proved the Icelandic saga about the voyage of Leif the Lucky. A recreated Norse longhouse has been built on the site commemorating the landing of Vikings in North America. Additional evidence suggests the explorers also spent some time in New Brunswick and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Still, how did the name migrate its way to my community? There’s scant information at the local historical society where I went upon my return. Vinland was first settled in 1888 by L. Halvorson. That’s it.
I went to Iceland, stumbled upon a familiar geographic name from home and discovered its connection to an Icelandic saga but have no idea how Leif the Lucky’s expedition, a Canadian landing and wine became the namesake for a settlement cum church/school/housing development/road in my community. A saga in and of itself.
You’ve likely seen them in your travels. Those warning signs literally translated from the country’s native language into awkward English. I’m always glad to see them (particularly when it involves my safety). I discovered these travelling in Sri Lanka:
“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” ― Ansel Adams