[TRADING PLACES] In the forests of Latvia, midsummer casts a spell

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[TRADING PLACES] In the forests of Latvia, midsummer casts a spell


From left, Ambassador Peteris Vaivars, his wife Rina Okumura-Vaivara, Anastasija Laha, who is holding the ambassador’s cat, Leo Murmurs, and Cho Mun-hwan are gathered around a table covered in Latvian goods, including different types of honey, jam, herb tea, hand-knit mittens with classic Latvian patterns, and soy candles made with dry flowers, at the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on April 12. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Given four days to choose between taking Demetrius as her suitor, living her life in a nunnery, or receiving a death sentence, the character Hermia in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” chooses a different option: escaping to the woods with her lover Lysander.

Latvians also pull a Hermia or a Lysander at least once a year on a midsummer’s night, if not one every weekend.

“Wearing oak leaf wreaths we made ourselves, we jumped over the fire we made in the woods, danced all night, and kept the fire going until the sun rose the next morning,” said Cho Mun-hwan, a recent graduate of the Riga Graduate School of Law, who spent a year living in the Baltic state.

“In older times, our ancestors believed in gods and goddesses of nature,” said Anastasija Laha, a graduate of fashion design school in Latvia who is now a six-year resident of Seoul. “During the midsummer festival held on the shortest night, people make a fireplace and they keep the fire going from June 23 to the morning of 24 to bring the sun of that day into the next day.”

Ancient Latvians believed in Perkons, the god of thunder, forests, and the sea, the goddesses of mothers, destiny and earth Laima and Mara, who all were under the rule of a heavenly father called Dievs. The Latvians believed there was something magical to the way nature could cast a spell over the midsummer night.

“The winter is cold and long in Latvia, and the summer solstice was meant to be the best time for young couples to be together,” said Ambassador Peteris Vaivars. “The saying at the time was couples should go into the forest to look for blooming fern flowers.


Left: From right, Cho Mun-hwan’s second brother, Cho and their friends Madara and Agate, who invited the Cho brothers to their family’s summer house in 2015 to celebrate the Latvian midsummer festival of Jani. They are picking flowers to make garlands to wear during the festival. Right: Anastasija Laha, clad in traditional hanbok, poses at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul last summer. Laha also has her own hanbok that her grandfather-in-law gave her as a wedding gift. [CHO MUN-HWAN, ANASTASIJA LAHA]

“And of course ferns don’t bloom,” he added. “They don’t have any flowers. But it was a kind of an excuse for couples to disappear from the rest on the Ligo night.”

The tradition lives on, evidenced by the annual Latvian baby boom in March.

Let there be light


Having lived a year in Riga, Cho said he can understand the festivities centered on the shortest night of the year in the middle of summer.

“Winter in Korea is harsh,” Cho said. “But Latvian winter is too long.”

Having left home when he was 14, Cho has experienced his own share of winter in his life.

“I went to the United States to study in 2004, while my brothers, a twin and three years younger than I, stayed back in Korea with my parents,” he said. “Every summer I returned home and my brothers and I would talk about our future together, how we will live in a big house with our parents and raise our kids to be athletes and create a soccer team of our own.”

His father’s company went bankrupt in 2008 during the global financial crisis. Cho’s brothers left school and started working. One of them returned to his high school studies eventually, while another never did.

“I would have never finished college without their sacrifice,” Cho said.

He wanted to do something for them.

“Nearing the end of my studies, I came up with a plan. Three of us would go to a country and live there for a period of time,” Cho said. “We had to find universities that would sponsor our education and offer classes in English. Also taking into account the cost of living, we narrowed our search down to three countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.”

Three universities in Riga - Riga Graduate School of Law for Cho, the University of Latvia for his second brother and Riga Technical University for his third brother - were the fastest to offer them scholarships.

Cho Mun-hwan: Another reason why we chose Riga, though it’s embarrassing to say it out loud, was that when we were little, we played a soccer game on our PlayStation, and one of the teams we played for was Latvia. So it felt like fate.

Peteris Vaivars: It was also a coincidence that you and Rina met there.

Rina Okumura-Vaivara: We were on the Latvian language program for the foreigner students at the University of Latvia.

Cho: Yes, we were. Actually, when I participated in the Ligo festival at my friend Madara’s house in Skaistkalne, Anastasija was also there.

Anastasija Laha: Because I’m also friends with Madara.

Vaivars: It’s not specially arranged, it’s just that Latvia is so small and people who have the same interests usually can meet much easily. As far as I know, there are some 70 Latvians here and some 30 to 40 Koreans in Latvia - many of them employees of Samsung and LG there.

Cho: Latvia in many ways was a new beginning for us. I remember the candlelight service my brothers and I attended on the Christmas eve in Riga at an Anglican church. The congregation lighted candles to signify the hope of birth of Jesus and we sang together. When the service was over, we were told to take the candle home and light it whenever we have a hard time. I still have that candle.

Mr. Oak and Mrs. Leaf

Celebrating Christmas and its pine trees have long been a tradition for Ambassador Peteris Vaivars.

Born in a country where a former president’s surname is derived from the birch tree - in Andris Berzins, Berzins is derived from Berzs, or birch - and in fact where many people are named after trees - the Ozols and Ozolins after the oak tree, Krumins after bush, Lapins after leaf and Liepins after linden - the smell of pine trees on Christmas has etched itself as part of what it means to be home for the ambassador.

“I was born very close to the Estonian border, in Rujiena, a town with around 4,000 people,” Vaivars said. “Usually I would spend about eight to nine months in Riga where my parents were working, and every summer and holidays I would spend in the countryside with my grandma.”

One of his favorite memories is hiking through the woods with his father every year to choose a Christmas tree.

“Crunching through the snowy forest, I remember it was chilly but beautiful all around,” he said. “We would find a nice tree, not so tall, maybe 2 to 3 meters (6 to 9 feet) high and in excellent shape. We would cut it and bring it home, and decorate it together.”

The first Christmas tree is said to have been decorated in Riga in early 16th century.

“So this whole procedure of finding the tree and bringing it home had long been part of my tradition during Christmas,” Vaivars said. “And I did the same in Finland, Ukraine and Japan, where I was posted.”

The tradition, unfortunately, stopped short in Korea.

Vaivars: I came to Korea and to my surprise, I could not find a Christmas tree! I’m talking about Christmas trees and Christmas trees are not plastic. They are alive, beautiful and green.

Vaivars: I thought maybe I can buy a tree from a big garden or tree market, but then there was this whole procedure and additional costs to get it delivered by a crane and such. I went to Costco, flower market, and some gardening places and at the end of the day I found out that there are no Christmas trees in Korea.

Okumura-Vaivara: Which are not plastic.

Vaivars: But it’s not to blame anybody. These are just differences among different countries but this was the biggest kind of culture shock for me in some sense. I mean, having a plastic tree for Christmas was like having plastic cake for a birthday.

Beauty redefined

A Latvian born and raised in Riga, Anastasija Laha found herself drawn to the visual aspect of Korea from age 12.

“I thought they were very beautiful,” she said, recalling the first time she saw Koreans on TV. “I had never met anyone from another race in my life at that time. To me, the language, hangul and the traditional costume hanbok looked so different and beautiful.”

But the definition of beauty, Laha found, was different for everyone.

Laha: Once, I was invited to a dinner with my husband’s friends and I remember one girl shoved her fist in front of my face, saying, “Your head is this much big.”

Laha: I couldn’t decide if she meant it as a compliment. My Korean wasn’t very good at the time, and my husband had to explain. He said, “In Korea, having a small head or a small face is considered beautiful.”

Laha: Honestly, I never heard anything like this before. Back in Latvia no one cares about the size of your head or other physical appearance. It was some kind of culture shock for me at the time.

Vaivars: There is also something that is quite confusing, not in terms of cultural difference, but in the language, too. The word in Korean that means yes, ne, in Latvian sounds the same as no.

Laha: Actually when my husband proposed to me, I answered in Korean, ne, and he had to check if I answered in Korean or Latvian (laughs).

Laha is married to a longtime friend, a Korean she first met through pen pal letters. According to her, a couple, international or not, must always be a team.

Laha: My husband used to live in other countries so he has quite a global perspective on things. But since he came back to Korea, he’s become again a bit more Korean (laughs), but still we have a kind of fusion-style relationship. Sometimes I follow the Korean ways, sometimes he follows the Latvian ways.

Laha: For example, during the Lunar New Year, women usually prepare the food and men are sitting and waiting. Then I saw the men beginning to eat before the women had sat down. Usually I start to eat when everyone has sat down together at the table.

Laha: I thought maybe in Korea people don’t wait for each other. Later I learned that this has been part of the traditions here.

Vaivars: Also being an international couple, I’m always trying not to enforce anything because the cultures are different. Yet many things can be discovered in this fusion of cultures. For example, Rina makes wonderful fusion dishes, combining some Korean, Japanese and Latvian style of cooking. I am a very, very happy husband.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Latvian Ambassador Peteris Vaivars and Rina Okumura-Vaivara

Peteris Vaivars was appointed as Latvian ambassador to Korea in January of 2016. The top envoy was previously posted in Finland and Ukraine before starting the first Latvian Embassy in Japan in 2006, where he was posted until 2013. He is now serving at the first Latvian Embassy in Korea, an experience he describes as exciting. His wife, Rina Okumura-Vaivara, studied German literature in Tokyo and Berlin and worked at the Goethe-Institute Japan in Tokyo. She speaks Japanese, German, Latvian, English and Korean. The ambassador and his wife have run marathons together in Tokyo, Riga and Seoul.

Anastasija Laha

Born and raised in Riga all her life until she came to Korea in 2011, Anastasija Laha graduated from a fashion design school in Riga and has been modeling for international and Korean agencies since she arrived here at age 21. She has appeared in a Sprite commercial with actor Song Joong-ki, ads for LG products and for Sandra Meynier Kang’s spring and summer collection in 2015. Laha is married to her first Korean friend, who she met as a pen pal, and kept in touch when he came to study in Europe and she moved in Korea.

Cho Mun-hwan

The eldest of the three brothers who went to study in Latvia together in 2014, Cho Mun-hwan says his life cannot be explained without his two twin younger brothers. His second brother is serving in the military here, while his youngest brother is finishing up his second year at Riga Technical University. Cho, an English teacher at the Korea Armed Forces Nursing Academy in Daejeon, is looking forward to visiting Latvia again for his youngest brother’s graduation.

Our latest series about the diplomatic community in Seoul, “Trading Places,” focuses on the experience of living in a foreign land. In each installment, an ambassador invites to his or her home a compatriot living in Korea and a Korean who lived in the ambassador’s country. They swap memories - good, bad and amusing - and describe how a distant country that was once an abstraction, a colored patch on a map, became a part of their lives. - Ed.
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