Sunday, July 22, 2007

Latvia’s Favorite Knitter: Jette Užane (1924-2007)

When she died in March, Jette Užāne received obituaries befitting a revered author or musician in Riga’s largest newspapers. Instead she was a severely handicapped farmwoman with no formal education. Several years ago, when I asked Latvian friends in Riga about their traditional folk mittens, they repeatedly said, “The best ones are made by Cimdu Jettiņa.” This is an affectionate name (using the diminutive form). “Little Jette of the mittens” might be a literal translation.

Jette Užāne rarely left the farmstead her parents built in the 1920s in the Dzerbene district of the Vidzeme countryside (northeastern Latvia). Like all good Latvian farmsteads, it had a name: Lejnieki (place down in the valley). Jette was born in 1924 during the first independence period for Latvia (1920-40). She was the second of six children.

Her grandmother noticed that the 4-year-old was bending over holding her arms stiffly at her side. She was eventually taken to a specialist in Riga who diagnosed tuberculosis of the spine (I believe it's called Pott’s disease). Jette spent two years at the sanitarium at Krimulda. After returning home, she fell ill again after having been to school only twice. Within a few days she couldn’t move anything but her fingers and was taken back to Krimulda. This time she stayed at the sanitarium until she was 12 years old. She was taught reading, writing, and basic sewing skills.

Back home, confined to a wheelchair, Jette was given yarn and knitting needles and shown how to cast on and turn a heel by her mother, who said, “Why are you sitting here without working? Knit something; the other children have bare feet.” After many pairs of socks, Jette turned out her first pair of mitten at age 13. Soon it only took her a day to knit a pair and she began knitting for everyone in the family as well as mending their clothes.

Jette tells this story about the colorful pair of mitten she made for her grandmother, expecting her praise: "I asked, 'Well, aren't they beautiful?' Grandmother answered, 'They are not yet beautiful, daughter. They are colorful.' With a trembling voice through my tears, I asked, 'Lukstinmate, what do the mittens need to make them beautiful?' Grandmother answered, 'Beautiful, daughter, is only black, white, and gray.'"

But Jette kept her passion for colors and her talent was soon recognized. She was quite expert at replicating ethnographic designs, sometimes varying colors. At the end of the 1940s, Jette’s mittens appeared at shows in Riga and Moscow. She knit a series of dolls in folk costumes, and in 1960 she was awards the Soviet honor Master of People’s Handicrafts.

Jette’s siblings moved away—her sister Velta went to Canada and her brothers married and had their own families. After her parents died, Jette remained on the farm living by herself. It was only in the 1980s that she began experimenting with her own designs. Because of radio, television, books and other reading material, she still felt a part of the outside world.

In the 1970s she created her first mitten cycle. It was called Gadalaiki (Seasons of the Year) and she created a pair of mittens for each month, which had a tone and ornamentation that was coordinated with the other months in that season [July and September are shown right]. Although the surface designs on the mittens look embroidered, she knit everything—limited by the yarn that was available to her.

Other mitten cycles followed: trees [see here frost on the poplars above), flowers, Latvian folk symbols, characters from the national epic, Lačplēšis, the bear-slayer [see here Spidola at right, which Jette claims to have unraveled 5 times before she got it right], family members (father is below) , fairy tales [blue is at the end of the posting]—and even copies of paintings by her favorite Latvian artists (such as the spring thaw scene by Purvitis, painting and mittens can be compared here).

In 1988, on the eve of Latvia’s second independence, Jette knit mittens called “perestroika,” “Popular Front,” and “Three Stars”. In fact, she was to receive the Three Stars medal herself from President Guntis Ulmanis in 1995.

During the 1990s, many excursion groups came to Jette’s home to see her mittens and bring her yarn, books, and flowers. In later life, Jette was no longer able to sit up and knitting became nearly impossible. Before her death at age 83, several of the museums in Riga have exhibited some of her mittens .

In a book about her (Preses Nams, 1997), the interviewer asked her to explain her approach to knitting as a creative art. She said, “I soon lost interest in following the strict geometrical patterns of traditional Latvian ethnographic designs and wanted to make something more complicated and original. When knitting those designs I was only moving my fingers. I couldn’t knot myself into the designs. Some knitters are satisfied with repeating these patterns correctly, and they are numerous. But I took on my own designs as a responsibility. It gave me satisfaction to first find the right colors, go to sleep with incomplete thoughts and wake up (usually around 4 am) with solutions, It was a way to escape my troubles.”

The Ethnographic Museum, which we will be visiting, next weekend, has a number of Jette’s mittens in its collection. I've asked that we be given a special showing of them.

Last posting--see you Saturday!

Riga Featured in Sunday Travel Section

In case you didn't realize what an "in" place you are going to, check out the front page of the Washington Post travel section for today (Sunday, July 22). It is summarized at the Post website along with 4 rather strange photos of 1) a street in Vecriga, 2) the Russian Orthodox church, 3) a woman wearing a strange hood and lighting a candle (huh?), and 4) the Baltic sea coast (possibly somewhere in Jurmala, which we will be visiting next Monday).

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ideas for Gifts to Buy In Latvia

Since I wrote that posting about money several months ago, the U.S. dollar has gotten a little weaker. Today it is worth 0.508 of a Latvian lat. One lat is worth nearly 2 US dollars is an easy way to figure prices. Still, there are many nice and reasonably priced gifts to pick up in Riga and an abundance of shops and outdoor vendors to purchase them from. Some are closed on Sunday, but not all. The Ethnographic Museum, which we will visit Sunday morning, has a gift shop with reasonable prices, as does Lido Atpūtas Centrs, where we will have dinner. And everything will be open Monday. I’m preparing a list of some of the nicest shops to bring in case you’d like to refer to it (as well as some restaurants and museums).

What are some possible gifts?

Amber jewelry is a special favorite. It comes in various qualities (polished or rough) and colors (from almost white to dark brown, but most commonly it’s honey-colored). Amberison, an online jewelry shop, proved some ideas about how to tell the difference between genuine and artificial (plastic). In the Art Nouveau district, check out Ambra at 7 Alberta iela.

Linen from Latvian flax has been produced for centuries. It is much cheaper here than elsewhere in Europe. Shops carry tablecloths, placemats, napkins, pillow covers, bed linen, women’s clothing, and more. (Garage in Berga Bazārs even has a special linen room.)

Wooden objects and toys – Local craftsmen turn out all sorts of appealing items. My favorite shop that has gifts made in the Latvian countryside is Koka Varde (Wooden Frog) at 31 Lāčplēša, a few blocks above our hotel.

Leather goods – Wallets, address books, boxes, book cover, etc.

Colorful knitted items – Sweaters, mittens, gloves, hats, headbands. My favorite source for Latvian mittens is Tīne, an outdoor stand in the courtyard of the Small Guildhall in Vecriga, which has some of the nicest at better prices than the shops. (There is also another shop called Tīne at 2 Valņu, which has a huge selection of many kinds of gifts on two floors, but it is not as inexpensive as the outdoor version. (Incidentally, in Latvian tīne is a box where you keep your needlework.

Art Nouveau souvenirs – Silk scarves, ceramics, books, copies of some of the faces on the building façades (see earlier posting about Art Nouveau buildings). A shop at 9 Strēlnieku specializes in these souvenirs.

Riga Black Balsam – Since the late 18th century, this dark beverage has been considered an elixir by the Latvians. It’s made from a secret recipe and contains 24 different infusions of roots, foliage, blossoms, and buds. A website created for last fall’s NATO Summit provides more details.

Silver jewelry – Some really nicely designed rings, necklaces, and bracelets—both Latvian folk designs and modern—are available in many shops.

Collectibles – Antique shops carry icons, coins, books and Soviet memorabilia, such as military medals and busts of Lenin.

Christmas tree ornaments – I forgot to tell you that Riga claims to have had the very first Christmas tree (eglitis) in 1510. A number of craftspeople make charming little tree ornaments from natural materials (such as acorns, birch bark, and reeds). Two of them should be at the Ethnographic Museum on Sunday—I can show you where to find them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What Should I Bring?

Let’s see, what to pack? Have you been wondering if the weather will be hot, cold, sunny or rainy in northern Europe at the end of July? The answer is “Yes.” It could be all of the above. You’d better prepare for layers to add and remove. When I was in Riga at the end of May, it was practically tropical. It was sunny in the morning, rained in the mid-afternoon, and then got up into the 80s and humid by evening.

My sources in Riga tell me that most of July has not been nearly as warm as May was. Last week the average high was 68 and it rained on three days and was cloudy the rest of the time. Today (Tuesday, July 17), however, the high was 84, but it felt like 88 because of the humidity. Some sunny days are in the forecast for most of the week with average highs around 70. There is hope.

Norway hasn’t been faring any better. Both Oslo and Bergen have been rainy and a bit cooler than Riga. I’ve heard from Arnhild, who has been up in Tromsø (500 miles north of the Arctic Circle). She’s been having 24 hours of sunshine every day and says it’s been the best weather in Norway. This evening (Tuesday) she returns to Oslo, and I guess we’ll have to watch and see if she brought some rays with her. In case you’d like to check on Riga, Bergen, Oslo—any other international cities in Fahrenheit as well as Celsius, I’ve linked this posting to the Weather Network.

The Seven Sleepers: Latvia’s Ground Hog Day

To predict the weather for our stay in Riga, we may have to rely on the special rain prognostication date of Friday, July 27 (the day before our tour begins). It is called Septiņu Gulētāju Diena (Feast Day of the Seven Sleepers). According to legend, if it rains then, it will rain for the next 7 days and/or the next 7 weeks. (Although, like all good legends, there are variations in the forecast. That rare Latvian, the optimist A. Zālīte, claims if the sun shines on July 27, then it will shine for 7 days.)

After a Latvian told me about this folk belief, I had to go online in search of an explanation (since my husband the historian was clueless): Who were these 7 Sleepers? The web did not disappoint. It took me to Wikipedia, Wilson’s Almanac, and even The Catholic Encyclopedia where I learned about the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Yes, the legend concerns seven young Christian men (once saints but downgraded to martyrs in recent times), Ephesians from Asia Minor (modern Turkey), who were walled up in a cave by the Roman Emperor Decius (249-251) because of their faith. A mason found them in 479, still asleep. In fact, Rip van Winkle-ishly they thought they had been asleep for only one night, instead of 229 years. Various adventures ensue—amazement that Christians are no longer persecuted; that when they try to buy bread with their pocket change, the coins are so ancient that the baker suspects them of having found a buried treasure, etc. Eventually a church was built over the cave and every year the feast of the 7 Sleepers is observed on July 27.

A similar story is included in the Koran—where the men sleep for 309 years and are accompanied by their dog, Kratim (who became a great philosopher once he woke up).

The legend circulated in Greek, Latin, Anglo-Norman poetry--and has even been found in an Old Norse fragment. Maybe Arnhild, whose Ph.D. thesis was on medieval Norse ballads, can enlighten us when we see her.

How this relates to the weather in Latvia is beyond me. The Germans also have a proverb about Seven Sleepers Day (Siebenschlafer) related to rain. Since I plan to arrive in Latvia on Thursday and will be implanted in Riga on July 27, I’ll be able to give you an eye-witness report when we finally meet on Saturday.

Note: There should be two more postings before I leave. Please keep watching.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Art Nouveau (Jugenstil) in Riga

Around the turn of the 20th century, Riga was booming. Between 1897 and 1913, the population grew 88%, reaching 530,000 in 1914. It was the 5th largest city in the Russian Empire and 3rd largest in the Baltic region (after St. Petersburg and Warsaw). The walls and fortifications around Vecriga (the old city) had been torn down, and the city was expanding and modernizing.

A ring of boulevards arcing around Vecriga was developing, and stone buildings were replacing the wooden ones. When we stay at Hotel Latvija this month, we will be located near the heart of all this development between Brivības Boulevard and Elizabetes Street.

The style of the new buildings (1898-1905) reflected the latest in European architecture of the time—in Paris and Brussels it was known as Art Nouveau, while in Munich it was called Jugendstil. Characteristics of this movement were the asymmetry and vertical, curvilinear lines. On Riga buildings plants, animals, shells, human masks with grotesque expressions, fantastic creatures, and Greek gods are some of the decorations on the facades, over the portals, encircling windows--and surprising passersby.

One of the most famous buildings in Vecriga is called the cat house because of the two wrought iron cats balancing atop two of the small towers. Wrought iron was a popular material as well as stain glass, enamels—interior decorations that resemble the Pre-Raphaelites' (Beardsley or Morris) art. In the US the closest counterpart, arriving a little later would be the Arts and Crafts movement.

This week the weekly English language newspaper, The Baltic Times carried a story about the Retro Tram now shuttling tourists around city center. Of course, for those who like to walk, we’ll be planning some strolls to look at some of the amazing buildings—not only from the Art Nouveau era but also the medieval city and the later National Romantic style the followed Art Nouveau beginning in 1906.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What Do They Speak in Riga?

Quite a variety of languages, actually. The official language of the country is Latvian, believed to be one of the oldest Indo-European languages--along with its only living relative, Lithuanian. The two are not close enough for be mutually intelligible though. Beginning in 1908, Latvian adopted the Roman alphabet; its nicest quality is that it is usually pronounced (with first syllable accented) the same way it is spelled. The letters q, w, x, and y are missing but some diacritical marks are added to some letters that contribute additional lengthening and palatalizing sounds (for example ā, ģ, ķ, š and 6 more) making 33 letters in the Latvian alphabet.

If you enjoy linguistics, this link to The Latvian Institute provides more details about the language. At the end of this post, I’ll provide some useful phrases that you could put on a crib sheet and bring on the trip, if you are so inclined.

In the country as a whole, there are about 1.4 million native speakers of Latvian, but more of them are in the countryside and not in Riga. During its days as a major Soviet city, Riga developed a non-Latvian speaking population because of the large influx of workers from elsewhere in the USSR. In fact, in 1989, shortly before the re-emergence of independent Latvia, nearly 65% of the population of Riga had Russian (or another Slavic language) as their first language. Through emigration that percentage has dropped to about 54% Russian and 46% Latvian speakers today.

Since our hotel, Reval Hotel Latvija, is now Estonian owned and seems to be a favorite with Estonians, Finns, Swedes, and Norwegians, we’ll be hearing a lot of the other guests speaking those languages, too. And since we are arriving in the middle of summer, we can expect lots of vacationing Europeans. Many Germans trace their roots to the Baltic Germans who arrived in the city in the 13th century and didn’t leave until forced out after the First World War. Since Ryanair has daily flights from London to Riga starting at £35, we can also expect to hear lots of British English spoken as well.

And English is definitely coming on fast as the favored lingua franca. Knowing English is a prerequisite for employment at Hotel Latvija and for working in the many shops and services catering to tourists. Still, it’s nice to be able to utter a few pleasantries, count to ten, and ask some basic questions in Latvian. Incidentally, the stress goes on the first syllable unless indicated otherwise and a line over a vowel means it’s long:

Yes / No Jā / Nē

Hi! Sveiks (it can also be used when parting)

Goodbye Uz redzēšanos

Good morning Labrīt (stress on 2nd syllable)

Good day Labdien (stress on 2nd syllable)

Good evening Labvakar (stress on 2nd syllable)

Good night Ar labu nakti

Please /You’re Welcome Lūdzu

Thank you Paldies (stress on 2nd syllable)

OK Labi (literally “good”)

Excuse me/Sorry Atvainojiet

Do you speak English? Vai jūs runājat angliski?

How much does it cost? Cik tas maksā?

Please write it down. Lūdzu uzrakstiet.

I don’t understand. Es nesaprotu.

Help! Palīgā!

Go away! Ejiet prom!


0 nulle

1 viens

2 divi

3 trīs

4 četri

5 pieci

6 seši

7 septiņi

8 astoņi

9 deviņi

10 desmit

Wednesday: A Preview of Riga's famed Art Nouveau architecture (see example above)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Can you buy yarn in Riga?

Finally someone asked me a question!

In a later posting, I’ll offer some suggestions about shopping in Riga and ideas for gifts to bring home. You will see lots and lots of hand-knit mittens and socks for sale throughout Vecriga, but I believe I’ve walked every cobblestoned street in that section of the city and can state categorically: there is not a single yarn store.

I turned up two mildly interesting stores (not far from our hotel), a tiny shop that carries a limited stock of local Latvian yarn as a sideline amid suvenīri, and I saw on the bus but not did not visit one other on the highway heading out of town. That’s it—other than a couple stalls at Central Market on Saturday mornings (too early for most of us to have arrived).

Bottom line: You will probably be disappointed if you decide to wait to buy the yarn for any of the trip projects in Riga.

Both Lia and I have hunted for yarn shops during several extended visits to the city. The following shops are the only ones the two of us found—or even heard about. We suspect a conspiracy: those knitters who turn out the mittens and socks for the souvenir vendors don’t want to share their wool!

  1. Dzija (this means “yarn” in Latvian and that is the only name I saw on the sign outside this shop). Located at 11 Merkeļa (middle of the block between Barona and Marijas across the street from the Russian circus), about 3 blocks from our hotel. The yarn shop is downstairs in the basement. Most of the yarn is Italian, but they have good prices and a large inventory. Several bins are filled with bags of 10 or more skeins at bargain prices. I also got small steel double point needles here (size 0, 00, and 000). The staff is Russian and so are all of the knitting magazines and patterns. If you have been looking for a quantity of yarn to make a sweater, bring along your pattern because this might be a good place for you.
  2. Adele. Located at 30 Gertrudes (middle of the block between Terbatas and Barona, 5 blocks from the hotel). The shop is street level and sells both yarn and yard goods. Some interesting yarns, but all of them are imported mostly from Italy. Patterns are in Russian and German. I didn’t see many bargains. It’s a smallish shop and not nearly as well stocked as what true yarn lovers consider “a find”.
  3. Dāvanu dizains (“Gift design”). Located at 1 Inženieru, a 1-block long side street between Merkeļa and Raina next to the main building of the University of Latvia. This is a teeny souvenir shop that only carries Latvian yarn as a sideline. You can see in the window from the street, but you have to go into the building to reach it. I bought some of the yarn. It comes in 100-gram (unwound) skeins, 100% Latvian wool, light sports weight, just right for mittens, bags, and socks and costs LT 1.10 (about $2) per skein. BUT there were only a few colors and a grand total of only 20 skeins in one pigeon hole. I got the card and e-mail address, and I plan to write to the manager, telling her some serious knitters will be in town on Monday, July 30, and encouraging her to stock up on that yarn from Limbaži. It was well spun.
  4. Illustives. I haven’t visited this one, only saw it from the bus window on the way out to the Ethnographic Museum (which we will be visiting Sunday morning). The address is 390 Brīvības (definitely not walking distance). If possible, I’ll try to check up on it before you all arrive and see if it’s worthy of us.

That’s it. Arnhild asked me to make a full report since she says knitters will always go looking for yarn even when you warn them there are no great yarn stores in the town. I’ll be happy to show you where these few are. They all should be open all day Monday (from 10 am until we leave for the ferry) but not Sunday.

Here are a few terms to help you read yarn labels:

dzija = yarn

adīšana= knitting

vilna = wool

kokvilna = cotton

lins = linen

zids = silk

sintētika = synthetic

adāmadatas = knitting needles

zeķu adāmadatas = double-point needles

sastāvs = yarn content

svars = weight (50 gr, 100, gr)

garums = length (in meters)

Fragments of mittens unearthed during archaeological digs prove that mittens have existed in the Latvian region since the 15th century. Knitting needles have been discovered even in the 14th century layer of excavations. The artist’s rendering shows the oldest remains of a 15th century mitten and glove found in excavations in Riga and restored by the archaeologist Anna Zariņa.