The Grandma Choir

A 80 years old Latvian woman might have never moved in her entire life but lived in six different countries.

Let’s say she was born on the 23th June 1933 in Riga. And like most of the girls born at the saint’s day of Līga, her parents called her Līga, too. Līga took her first breaths in a independent Latvia with a parliamentary democracy and modern rules of minority protection.
Following a European trend, the Latvian democracy changed into a nationalistic dictatorship after a coup of the prime minister Karlis Ulmanis in 1934. While Līga didn’t notice the first change for sure, she might have heard her parents talking about the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact by the age of six.
The pact split Europe between the Soviets and the Nazis. Latvia fell to the Soviets. Due to the pact the Soviet army invaded Latvia in 1940. From now on Līga didn’t live in Latvia anymore but in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Pictures can be found in which Latvian women throw flowers at the Nazis when they, despite the nonaggression pact, invaded Riga in 1941. The Latvians suffered a lot under the Soviet Regime and hoped the Germans might treat them better. Maybe Līga and mother joined the other women on the streets waving at the Germans.

Anyhow, from 1941 her hometown Riga was known as the capital of the Reichskommisariat Ostland. A from Nazis occupied and administered federation of the Baltic states, parts of Poland, and Belarus. This, however, didn’t last long either. If Līga wasn’t lucky enough the escape Riga, she might have witnessed heavy fighting between the Soviets and the Nazis in her hometown by the age of 11. A little later the heavily destroyed Riga was handed over to the winning Soviet troops. From this moment on the girl lived again in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. In this state she grew up. Maybe she worked in one of the Soviet factories around Riga or in the port. Maybe she raised children, too. However, by the age of 56 she witnessed how the Soviet Empire begun to to fall apart. Perhaps she has been one of the thousands of people who formed a human chain through the Baltic countries to protest for their independence.

Raw footage of the Baltic humanchain. Best to be started at 2:50

After the peaceful revolution she lived in the sixth, and probably last, country of her live: the independent Republic of Latvia.

The Grandma Choir

The biography of my Līga is fictive, but could be the live story of almost every women at the choir “Noktrine” for elderly women.

When I’ve been in Latvia in 2009, the country was badly hit by the world economy crisis. “Krize” was one of the first words I understood and also heard most often in Latvian. Officially, the crisis is over. In 2012 Latvia had the second fastest growing economy in Europe. But does that really change the peoples live? Is the crisis over for them, too?
When I tried to come up with somebody who could answer these questions for me I thought about the elderly people. They were hit hard by the crisis – and did their life change to the better since it’s officially over?
Furthermore, the Latvian currency “Lats” will be changed to Euro on January first. And I really want to know if people with a biography like the one above care about such a change at all.

The choir meets in the ballroom of the town hall in a suburb of Riga. On this Tuesday morning the winter sun-rays beam through the big windows and reflect in the parquet floor. About 40 chairs are arranged to rows in the middle of the room. One by one the old ladies enter, find a chair and start chatting with each other while they take off their coats. Every now and then, one of them looks at me curiously and I smile shyly back. Finally, all Vecmaminas [Grandmothers] arrived and Ilga Bērziņa asks me to come in front and introduce me and my project. Ilga Bērziņa is the choir leader, I already talked to her yesterday on the phone.

The women listen carefully. And when I ask them to tell me about the crisis and if something changed since them, they all start to talk about with their neighbor immediately. I don’t understand a word. „Calm down girls!“, calls Ilga Bērziņa firmly, „one by one and slowly please!“.

Trailer for a Latvian documentary about the Choir

One of the ladies rises and tells me about her husband, who used to have a building company. 2008 he has been one of the first to feel the crisis. As soon as it started every building project was canceled. But today they are building again, says the woman, already in her street three building-ruins are currently changed into beautiful houses. This is how you can see that Latvia is doing better, she finishes. „This wasn’t really about you and your experiences thought“, adds another woman critically. Thereupon she tells that she is living from about 160 Lats (226€) every month. This has been the same in the crisis and hasn’t changed ever since. During the crisis she lived off a minimum and now she does so, too. „And I was working for decades, just as long as the woman who start retirement nowadays!“, she says, sounding frustrated. Her statement causes a short discussion about the retirement of those, who have been retired already before the revolution 1991. Because the currency rate between the Soviet Rubel and the Lat was so bad, the already small pensions shrunk even more. They all agree that it’s hard to live with the injustice.

Well, this hasn’t really been about the crisis either, observes a woman in the first row. „The hardest part was that they cut 10% from the anyways low pensions overnight. Just like this, you wake up one morning and you have less money than on the day before!“, she remembers.
The women laugh when I ask them, whether they got their 10% back by now. „I’ve got five more Lats a month but that doesn’t help me a thing! Everything got so much more expensive lately.“, says one. „Be happy about this five Lats more. Imagine, how hard it would be without them.“, answers Ilga Bērziņa friendly.

Ta es varu, ta es dzivoju.

Ilga Berzina is a petite woman with snow-white hair. When she walks her back bends a little and today she is wearing a blue sweater with white embroidery. If I would meet her on the street, I might think of her as a little helpless and dreamy. The cliche lovely grandma . To see her in front of her choir makes the cliches in my head collapse. Not that she isn’t nice, but she is witty, funny and certain, too. If one of the women talks or sings not clear enough she tells them to stop the stammering because they are certainly old, but not old enough to stammer like this. When ever one of the women gets sad or angry while talking, Ilga advices her calmly to remember that there are people with a much worse life in Latvia. Thereupon the other women nod in agreement.

These Latvian elderly are the prototype for something I have seen often in Latvia already. Latvia isn’t really a country for loud fights. If the pensions are cut to a minimum, everyone is happy to have a little something at least. When the wages are shrinking to a almost non-existent level, the people are encouraged to be happy to not be without work. It seems very likely to me that this silent adapting of the given circumstances is at least one of the reason why the Latvian government was so successful with their extreme neoliberal politics during the crisis. I’ve heard heretical Latvians saying that this subservience is a heritage from Soviet-times and means that Latvia still has a long way to go until the democracy reaches the heads, too. They say the Latvians should be louder, more critical, shouldn’t put up with everything and maybe even strike sometimes.

That is a crass contrast to what the choir ladies are telling me right now. The problem is, says one of them, that the people nowadays seek more and more all the time. Sometimes it would be better to be just satisfied with what you have, she says. „Ta es varu ta es dzivoju“. The approximate translation of this sentence would be that one just have to learn to live off what is given to you.

Shortly before the coffee break a lady approaches me and asks me to turn off my microphone for what she has to say me.
She tells me she has been raised on the countryside. Her parents lived off the land. Of course, it was a lot of work and by no meanings a easy life. But it was a steady life, she says. Latvia, for her is „Zeme“, the land. But in her opinion young people don’t see it like this anymore. Today everything has to be fast. „You have to have a house and a car. And if you can’t have those things in Latvia fast enough, they tell you to leave the country and go somewhere where you can have those things faster“, she adds. In her opinion this development isn’t the fault of the EU, but the EU tricks the young people into believing that it’s normal to always rush behind your work. They make everybody think, its their mistake if they stay here and don’t earn a thousand Euros every month, she says.

In her believe, the tragedy in the Maxima-Supermarket on the 21. November happened due to this manic believe in a fast and always successful live. Latvia isn’t ready yet for this world were everything has to be built overnight. And if you want to force it, deadly mistakes like botched-up construction work happen, she says.

Ostrubel, Latvian Rubel, Reichsmark, Lats and Euro

After the coffee break I ask the women to sing a song for me so I could record it and show to my reader. They sing a song traditionally sung on the summer solstice celebration.

They all know the words by heart. Some close the eyes while singing and most smile brightly. „Among the biggest joys of life are two choirs I sing in. You can’t imagine how important singing is to me.“, told me a woman a few minutes ago.

At last, we talk a little about the coming of the Euro in January. I ask them, whether they think the currency change will have any impact on their life. „I couldn’t care less“, says a woman, „the Euro is the eighth or ninth currency of my life. On the bottom line always other things were more important.” “The eighth or ninth currency?” I ask in astonishment. The women start to count through the different coins and complete one another if one name is missing. “Somebody born before 1918 witnessed Ostrubel, Ostmark, deutsche Papiermark and all the local currency of that time. But I think non of us is this old, am I right?” says one of the women and looks around. But some experienced the Latvian Rubel from 1919 onwards and slightly after the Lats for the first time. Followed by the Soviet Rubel. With the German occupation came the Deutsche Reichsmark and with the Soviets the Soviet Rubel again. It was replaced two times in 1941 and 1967 which makes it seven currencies for far. In 1991 the Latvian Rubel came back as a temporary currency, followed by the Lats and now by the Euro.
My head is spinning from all these names and the women smile about my effort to write down the many currencies correctly.

Finally, when I sit down and quietly want to listen to the remaining part of the rehearsal, a woman rises and says:
„I just want to say that life is beautiful. In summertime, when everything grows in my garden even without me guarding it, I can travel. Wherever I want to go to. This is something I would have never thought I’d be one day able to do.“

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