I know I said I was taking a little break, but well, then this happened:
‘This’ is a blog post by a British guy called Kevin Carr who’s attempting to claim the Guinness World Record for ‘The fastest circumnavigation of the world on foot’. Recently, he ran through Latvia and when you’re running around the world, you’re bound to get a bit peckish from time to time. Anyway, he stopped off at a place called Malpils Museum for some grub. His review was glowing – the food was excellent, the waiter was friendly and welcoming with great English, and the whole thing only set him back about £7. He ended the post by saying “It’s one of the first places I’ve stayed at along my route where I know I’ll definitely plan to return to one day on a mini break.”
WOW, right? I’ll admit to raising an eyebrow when I read the title, but after reading the post, I instantly put Malpils on my list of places to go. Then, since I haven’t been feeling much love from the Latvians myself lately, I decided to get some vicarious love through Mr Carr’s blog and scrolled down to the comments.
Instead of the “Thanks Kev, glad you had a great time in Latvia! Come back soon and bring all your friends!” I was expecting, this was the first comment:
Please respect countries where you’re traveling, when you write about them.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are Northern European countries.
And it got worse. Much worse. You see, Mr Carr had made the fatal error of referring to Latvia as part of Eastern Europe*. They don’t like that. Not at all. The comment thread quickly turned into a patronising ‘bash the Brit’ rant. Having made my mouth water with his post, I found that after reading the comments, I was left with a distinctly sour taste in my mouth. Why couldn’t they just accept the compliment?
Of course, they’re not alone. After the recent Maxima tragedy which killed 54 people, the Defence Minister took time out of his busy schedule to tweet this:
“@BBCBreaking it so unpolite and disrespectful to call Latvia former Soviet rep.We are EU and NATO member and you are not remain British Emp.”
Seriously? 54 people died and you think it’s more important to condescend to the BBC?
It’s easy to see why Latvia doesn’t like being called Eastern European. Just saying the words conjures up grim blocks of flats looming menacingly out of the ice and snow; old men shuffling around in furry hats drinking bootleg vodka; blue-tinged beauties draped over the bonnets of clapped-out Ladas… oh, and there’s this:
Throw in just about every -ism and phobia you can imagine and you’ve pretty much summed it up.
Northern Europeans on the other hand – well, they’re just lovely people. They’re open-minded and tolerant; they have a good standard of living; their economies are thriving; they have great roads and infrastructure. Northern European countries consistently top the polls when it comes to happiness, transparency, and taking care of their old. Who wouldn’t want to be Northern European?
Due to the geographic location of Latvia, Latvians have the luxury of being able to call themselves ‘Northern Europeans’. But is it really that simple? I mean, a toad can wake up one morning and decide that he’d rather be a deer as they’re a bit easier on the eye. Some people might even humour him and call him ‘Bambi’ but at the end of the day, he’s still a toad.
The problem with Latvia, if it is a problem, is that it doesn’t have a strong national identity abroad. If you say to someone ‘I live in Latvia’, they generally just look a bit confused. However, when you think of other European countries, you immediately start making mental connections – be it the food, the music, the people, the landscape. Sure, they’re not always positive connections, but you do think of something – and you take the good with the bad.
People don’t really do that with Latvia, so yes, they tend to ‘lump it in’ with countries they perceive as similar. And they’re far more likely to say ‘Eastern Europe’ than to put say, Sweden, Denmark and Latvia in the same category. That’s just the way it is. Latvians are more than happy to lump ‘The West’ together when it suits them, or vaguely refer to ‘Africans’, as if there’s no difference between an Algerian, a Somalian and a South African.
So perhaps, instead of bickering about what you’re not, why not show the world who you are? Eastern, Northern, North Eastern? Nobody gives a crap. You say you’re smart, loyal, warm-hearted, welcoming people, nature-lovers and culturally-rich? Prove it. Because, quite frankly, things like this just make you look like a bunch of narrow-minded, nitpicking pedants.
As for Kevin Carr, I hope he’s now running through a country that knows how take a compliment.
* Kevin Carr has since changed the ‘offending’ sentence to ‘in certain parts of Europe’, and apologised in the comments for any offence he may have caused. Personally, I feel this was unnecessary but he seems like a nice guy so I’ll let it go.