From Think Tanks to Harvesting Potatoes – a Student Trip to Latvia

The Latvia trip was a five-day journey organised by our MA-program in the very beginning of the year. Aside from the variety of events that were educative in so many different ways (especially as an introduction to the Baltic States in general, and Latvia in particular), the trip also made our class of students gain a closer bond. When we arrived in Riga on Wednesday we were free to explore the city on our own, in the day and night time, and we were invited for a dinner in a medieval-style restaurant where we met professors and students from a similar EU-Russia Masters of Riga University.

Students got to experience harvesting and cooking potatoes. Photo credit: Chun Sing Iverson Ng

In the two days followed thereafter, we were privileged to enjoy a number of different lectures by hosts of several think tanks, embassies, and ministries located in the Latvian capital. These hosts offered us a taste of the political climate in Latvia, notably in relation to the Baltics, the Nordics and Russia, and they gave us the opportunity to look closer at some crucial political and cultural differences between Estonia and its southern neighbour. We learned about the international relations between Latvia and the Nordic governments from people who are active in that field on a daily basis. We gained more insight on how think tanks work in general, and more specifically the challenges that Latvian institutions face (e.g. corruption and the external and internal tensions with Russia). Especially the lecture by Andis Kudors, who hosted us at the Centre for Eastern European Policy Studies, was very interesting. He gave us an insight on how Latvian institutions, along with media and research centres, try to counteract an information war conducted by Russian and pro-Russian media. In short, the different visits we made in Riga, as well as the wonderful events and free time we enjoyed that astonishing city, made this journey a truly unique, informative trip in which we were able to combine cultural interaction (also between our classmates, as we only started to learn about each other during these days), political debate, and personal development.

Everyone helped out. Photo credit: Chun Sing Iverson Ng

But one hasn’t visit Latvia without visiting its countryside. And so we ended our journey in provincial Vidzeme, where we found ourselves harvesting potatoes at a young couple’s farm. Many of us were initially reluctant towards the idea, but when we had begun collecting the potatoes, every one of us caught the community spirit. Of course, we did not merely collect the potatoes. We also cooked and ate them. Additionally, we had the opportunity to visit the sauna twice, we drank, we swam, and we even rowed the boats on the astonishing lake at which the dacha was located. On top of that, the husband and wife offered us a series of lectures, about Latvian history, culture and cuisine, and even law. The husband shared his experience working with victims and criminals in different crime cases, in which he aims to make the two reconcile with each other. Serious topics were combined with light-hearted themes. For instance, the husband and wife taught us how to dance a traditional Baltic folklore dance.

The last days in the countryside were a perfect blend of labour and pleasure, and it truly made our class more of a community than it was before. Our stay in rural Latvia was a perfect visit to follow-up the quite intense but exciting days in Riga, where we had mostly visited academic and political institutions.

Jules Ortjens (left) enjoyed the various lectures but also hanging out with other students. Photo credit: Chun Sing Iverson Ng

In short, the Riga journey offered us to learn more about the Baltic States in general, and Latvia in particular, by examining the country throughout many points of view: academically, politically and personally. Additionally, the trip gave us the opportunity to grow as a class, and I believe I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that the class became a true community by discovering Latvia together. I do hope that we will have such an opportunity again, or create the opportunity ourselves, to visit another place in Europe or Russia and discover it in such an interdisciplinary way.

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