Riga, Latvia: A Long Fight for Independence

Imagine this:

Imagine everything that gives us a national pride of our country. Our flag. Our national anthem. Our currency. Our values. Our passtimes and hobbies. Our joys.

Now, imagine every single aspect of our national identity completely taken away.

That is what happened to the people of Latvia. Not once. Not twice. But three times.


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In 2018, Latvians will celebrate the 100th anniversary of their independence. Following the Latvian War of Independence, this nation of just under two million emerged as an internationally recognized country.

However, during those 100 years, Latvia has been illegally occupied by another country for 51 years.

From 1940 to 1941, it was the Soviet Union. Latvians lost their sense of national identity as their entire society adhered to the strict guidelines on propaganda and censorship created by the Soviet Union.

Then from 1941 to 1944, it was Nazi Germany. Suddenly Soviet propaganda and forced cultural symbols were replaced by Nazi propaganda and cultural symbols.

And then, in the longest occupation of Latvia, the Soviet Union illegally occupied the country from the end of World War II in 1944 to the fall of the Union in 1991.

One of the sites we visited during our seven-hour visit to the unknown capital city of Riga (where one-third of the Latvian population lives) was the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

The museum shared the horrific situations Latvia (along with their Baltic neighbors – Estonia and Lithuania) underwent during the occupation. During the 1949 Operation Priboi, 90,000 citizens of these three countries were forcibly deported from their homes and sent to work camps in Siberia, outlying Soviet towns, or killed.

The museum then shared the remarkable bravery of several Latvians. These resistance movements fought against the Soviet oppression and shared ideas, art, and symbols of Latvian nationalism.

However, for me, the most moving stories came in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This is the time of the Singing Revolution.

This revolution was non-violent. No drop of blood fell on Latvian soil. Rather, Latvian culture served as fuel in this fire towards independence, and song was the weapon of choice.

During the strict Soviet control in the late 1980s, traditional Latvian songs sung at the Latvian Song Festival (one of the largest choral events in the world) were banned and replaced by Soviet propaganda. Despite this, Estonians collectively and without any direction began singing their nationalist songs with great pride.

Singing, a major part of Latvian culture, continued to serve as ongoing inspiration for citizens to rise up against the Soviet Union and declare their love for Latvia. An example of these peaceful demonstrations includes The Baltic Way, a 675km human chain that connected two million people across the three Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

For me, our visit to Riga, Latvia was an incredible opportunity to learn about the immense bravery from this small country that is so often overlooked on the world stage.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan

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Brussels, Belgium: Home of the Bravest of the Brave

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Napoléon Bonaparte, the first Emperor of France, wrote about Belgium – while he was trying to invade the country – “It is home of the bravest of the brave.”

The Kingdom of Belgium, the tiny nation of 11 million (160,000 of whom live in the capital city of Brussels) has continuously stood for their own independence.

After years of French and Dutch rule, the Belgian Revolution in 1830 Belges come together to demand independence from the United Kingdon of the Netherlands. This revolution climaxed on the night of August 25, 1930. Many upper-class Belges were attending the opera, the audience’s night was concluded with a performance of the patriotic song “Amour sacré de la patrie” (Sacred love of Fatherland). Following the performance, the audience joined the riots taking place in the street and demanded Belgian Independence.

The riots continued for several months. In December 1830, five major European powers (Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia) recognized Belgium as an independent country. The Belgian Constitution of 1831 confirmed this.

Flash forward to World War I – the conflict that nearly destroyed Europe. The German forces demanded passage through Belgium to invade France. The Belgian King at the time, the beloved Albert I, famously replied to Germany:

We are a country, not a road.

The King took control of the German forces and, in preparation for the German invasion, escorted his Queen and children across the Royal Garden on horseback to the Belgian Parliament. It was there that he gave his most renown address. It was there he proclaimed:

One single vision fills all minds: that of our independence endangered.  One single duty imposes itself upon our wills: the duty of stubborn resistance.

In these solemn circumstances two virtues are indispensable: a calm but unshaken courage, and the close union of all Belgians.

For me, this incredible story taught me so much about this tiny European nation. How Belgium, which I only knew for their chocolate, beer and waffles (all of which was delicious) serves as a country of great influence. How Belgium, home of the bravest of the brave, stood up against one of the greatest European powers.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan

Paris, France: Where Love is the Answer

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November 13, 2015. I remember leaving the grocery store on my weekly visit when I received a CBC News notification. Explosions were heard near the Stade de France in northern Paris. More notifications followed.

I remember leaving the grocery store on my weekly visit when I received a CBC News notification. Explosions were heard near the Stade de France in northern Paris. More notifications followed. Gunshots heard at the Bataclan theatre and surrounding area. Stade de France is on lockdown. Paris public transit system is in shutdown. ISIL has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

In the end, it was utterly heartbreaking.

130 people killed. Many of whom were young adults, not unlike any of us. They were enjoying a late fall Friday evening. Attending a soccer match, going to a concert, sitting at a café with friends.

Prior to my trip to Paris last week, I was understandably nervous. France remains in a state of emergency. The European Union reported that ISIL is planning large-scale attacks in Europe. But in the end, I knew I wanted to see this beautiful city.

The major attractions – Notre Dame de ParisThe LouvreArc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower – were, as expected, absolutely stunning. But the most moving moment of the journey came on our last day.

Place de la République (pictured above) became a memorial following the Charlie Hebdo Shootings in January 2015 and November 2015 Attacks. And despite the fact it has now been four months since those horrific events, the powerful messages still remained in the Place.

Pictures and posters bearing the name of the victims surrounded the central monument. Posters bearing the words of John Lennon’s Imagine sat side by side with paintings of a peace sign, using the Eiffel Tower. They were accompanied by other messages – the protection of abused women, aboriginal representation in government, LGBTQ+ rights to name a few.

But above all, the overwhelming feeling in that entire square was love and hope. And perhaps the following picture best describes that feeling:

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“Love is the answer.”

During our tour of the city, the tour guide concluded with a speech that brought tears to my eyes and chills to my spine. He told us:

I want to thank you for coming and visiting our city. Because you have shown those who committed this attacks that they will not win. That hate and fear will not win. You have shown then that in the City of Love, love will always win.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan

Sweden: A Neutral Nation

Earlier this month, it was announced that a number of state museums in Stockholm will have free admission. Upon hearing this, it became my mission to visit as many as possible. Knowing each museum would offer a unique opportunity to learn something new about Stockholm and Sweden, my friend Lily and I created our “Museum Bucket List.”

Our journey began yesterday at The Army Museum. The museum explains Sweden’s history of war and peace, from 1500 to today.

Due to class lectures, I understood that Sweden (along with many other Nordic countries) had a policy of neutrality. While Sweden is a member of the European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN), it turned down membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and takes a humanitarian and peacekeeping instead of combat role in international conflicts.

However, this policy isn’t without its challenges.

During World War II, Sweden was the only Nordic nation to remain a neutral player in the conflict. Norway and Denmark were occupied by Nazi Germany, Finland was an ally of Germany and Iceland was a member of the Allies.

However, Sweden aided both sides during the course of the war. During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Swedish authorities allowed Germany to use their railways to transport soldiers, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons from Norway to Finland. Meanwhile, Sweden shared intelligence with the Allies that helped train refugees in Denmark and Norway that eventually lead to the liberation of both countries.

On a humanitarian level, many Swedes abroad played an active role in saving Jews, including diplomat stationed in Nazi-Hungary Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg is credited

Wallenberg is credited for saving tens of thousands of Jews by granting them protective passports and shelter in buildings designated as Swedish territory in Hungary, such as the Swedish Embassy. Wallenberg mysteriously disappeared in 1945 while in the Soviet Union. Since then, he has been granted numerous international honours, including receiving the first Honorary Canadian Citizenship.

Additionally, the Swedish Red Cross worked with the government in Nazi-occupied Denmark to execute an operation known as “White Busses”. Upon learning about this operation in the National Museum of Denmark, I couldn’t believe I was so unaware of this incredible humanitarian effort during World War II.

During the spring of 1945, the White Busses rescued over 15,000 concentration camp prisoners. While the operation originally sought to save Scandinavian prisoners, the mission expanded to save prisoners from non-Scandinavian countries, such as Poland and France. In total, 7,700 Scandinavian and 7,500 non-Scandinavian prisoners were saved.

Each White Bus (literally a white bus) was equipped with a driver, nurses, doctors and soldiers. Upon their rescue, concentration camp prisoners were treated and nourished back to health and warmly welcomed to Denmark and Sweden.

British diplomat Peter Tennant, who was stationed in Stockholm throughout the war, wrote:

The Swedish humanitarian efforts during and after the war did much to remove the dishonour the country had got during its acrobatic exercises in neutrality policy.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan

Copenhagen, Denmark: The City of Bikes

Dear Mom,

I fell in love. With the city of Copenhagen. I think it’s the start of something really special.

Love, Ryan


 

I don’t know if it was the excitement of travelling to a new country, or if it was the cultural beauty that surrounds the entire city. But I am in love with Copenhagen.

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Our story begins at 1:30 a.m. and, after two buses, a plane, and a subway – a Canadian and two Turks arrive in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. This stunning city of 1,250,000 people (22% of Denmark’s 5,700,000 citizens) can best be described as the perfect mix.

Copenhagen is the perfect mix of the values I have noticed in Nordic countries (among them compassion, trustworthiness and politeness) and the excitement and beauty I imagined of continental European cities.

It is the perfect mix of a city where you feel comfortable to  grab a Danish hotdog (10/10 recommend) and sit on the patio with a glass of wine (11/10 recommend), while it also is sparking with innovation and brought the world Tivoli Gardens (the inspiration behind Disneyland), Lego and Hans Christian Andersen (author of The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling.)

It is the perfect mix of a historic city that has undergone two devastating fires that nearly destroyed the city yet still has stunning towers from the 17th century, while at the same time screams cosmopolitan with neon H&M signs hang from architecturally stunning buildings.

Perhaps the entire essence I have observed in Copenhagen is best described in the following story:

After eight hours of travelling on one hour of sleep, our contingent was exhausted. As we aimlessly tried to find our hostel while squinting at a tiny map found on a parking meter, a Dane on a bicycle (one of about 1 million we observed, as 35% of residents bike to work daily) came right up to us and asked if we were lost. His kindness helped us find our home for the next three nights.

We then embarked on a free city tour (yes free, because the tour guides believed visitors deserved to see the best of Copenhagen at no cost), hearing many fascinating stories on this fascinating city. The highlights for me included Christiansborg Palace, the house of all Danish power, and Amalienborg Palace, the residence of the Danish Royal Family.

A ride on the Metro showed me what an incredible moral compass Denmark has. There was no check in or gate to present our pre-purchased Metro ticket prior to entering the train – the system trusts that Danes won’t sneak on the bus. (Unless there actually was a checkpoint and I just missed it, in which case I sincerely apologize to Denmark.)

After supper in a trendy pub, and a walk along the populous streets of central Copenhagen, I could see just how urban and modern this city is while still retaining the historic roots.

However, don’t get me wrong. Denmark has faced their fair amount of criticism, most recently for their management of incoming refugees. I’ll offer my observations on this in a future blog post.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan


 

Ryan’s Rankings:

For every trip, I’ll share my thoughts on hostels, restaurants and places to visit.

Sleep in Heaven: 5/5

This was the first ever hostel I stayed in, and it was a fantastic experience. The atmosphere was beautiful, the staff was welcoming and I felt secure at all times. All in all, simply wonderful.

Copenhagen Free Walking Tours: 5/5

I cannot properly describe how great this service has been. The guides were informative and funny, and showed us Copenhagen from a completely different perspective. Well worth the two hours.

Bertel Skager: 4/5

Passion fruit. Cookie. Double chocolate. The best cheesecakes imaginable can be found here. A little expensive, but a fun way to treat yourself.

National Museum of Denmark: 5/5

I easily spent two hours wondering around here. This free museum offers many fascinating exhibits from prehistoric Europe to Life in Denmark from 1600-Present.

Tallinn, Estonia: A City of Contrast

A stormy crossing across the Baltic Sea served as the opening act for my first European adventure: a weekend trip to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.

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Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, is bordered by Latvia to the south and Russia to the east. The Baltic Sea connects the country to Sweden and Finland, with just over 500km between Tallinn and Stockholm, and 80km separating Helsinki and Tallinn.

Now a republic, control over Estonia switched between Denmark and Sweden until 1710, when the country became a part of the Russian Empire. Estonia first became an independent country in 1918, prior to becoming a member state of the Soviet Union and remained so until it’s collapse in 1991.

Tallinn is the capital city of Estonia and with a population of just under 500,000 hosts about 30% of the Estonian population.

During my brief, six-hour whirlwind tour of this foreign land, one unique aspect of Tallin stood out. It was a city of contrast.

Old Town Tallinn is called one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, and its historic buildings include Toompea Castle, which currently houses Estonia’s Parliament, and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th-century Russian orthodox cathedral. Yet within walking distance of this historic area lies the urbanized part of the city, which is among the top ten most digital cities in the world. The software used in Skype was created by Estonians. The contrast between the two areas of this one city can be seen

The contrast between the two areas of this one city can be seen in the above photo, with skyscrapers towering over historical Estonian buildings.

One of the most remarkable lessons taken away from this trip is just how easy it is to travel from one European country to another. In just 800km and a 16-hour ferry ride, you were in a completely different country. For comparison, the distance from Yarmouth to Sydney, Nova Scotia, is 700km.

Our weekend trip kicks off a string of adventures planned in the coming weeks including Denmark, France and Belgium. I can’t wait to share the lessons that are to come.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan

Finding Your Happiness

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Everyone has been in a situation in which they’re in completely new surroundings at one time in their life.

It could be starting at a new school, beginning a new job, entering into a new relationship or ending an old one, rediscovering yourself, moving to a new city or travelling to the other side to another continent.

When the going gets tough in these situations, it may feel it’s easier to give up. Settle in your bed with a good series on Netflix, and all of those difficulties will disappear.

But, is that really living?

These past 16 days in Stockholm have been a process of discovering myself. It has been a process of establishing what I need to feel comfortable, secure, and happy.

Imagine it like this:

You have just been parachuted into a completely foreign environment with only the bag on your back. You need to set up your new life in these brand new surroundings.

How the hell do you do that?

First, you find some incredible sources of support. These past 16 days, I have met some incredible people from every corner of this planet who are kind, welcoming, intelligent and insightful. Any point I have felt lonely, homesick or overall just feeling down, they have lifted me up.

Second, you establish what makes YOU happy. YES YOU. One night shortly after my arrival, my friend and mentor Morgan Atwater suggested I create my travelling feel-good list. What is that? A list of things that make me happy which could be done regardless of where I’m located. For me, this included doing yoga and stretching, going for a walk in the woods, writing and dancing. By having this list, I know what tools are necessary to make myself happy.

Third and finally, you make mistakes. Because that’s how you’ll learn. Bought a horrendously overpriced carton of milk? Next time you know what not to get. Took the wrong bus? Next time, remember to grab a map. Can’t understand a restaurant menu because you don’t speak a lick of Swedish? Learn a few common phrases (or do as I do and download Google Translate).

And voilà! Through these three steps, this cold, confusing land I found myself in two weeks ago is starting to feel like home. So remember, if you ever feel completely lost in a new situation: find some incredible sources of support, establish what makes you happy, and make mistakes.

Tills nästa gång, (Until next time)

Ryan