“What a woman!” my wife said. Judging by the reaction in Wednesday’s press, most of Latvia seemed to agree with her.
May 4 may have been a day for Latvia but it was Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite who stole the show. Addressing a meeting of parliamentarians and other assorted biggish wigs at the opera house to mark 20 years since Latvia regained its independence, she provided proof that It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it and It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it.
Her speech didn’t contain anything particularly unexpected – lots of the usual stuff about Baltic brotherhood and neighbourliness – but the fact that she delivered the whole thing in Latvian had them swooning in the aisles and the opinion columns alike.
Footage of Grybauskaite declaiming in her usual clipped tones but in an altogether new language (to add to her English, German, French, Russian and for all I know, Xhosa) were what elicited the admiration of my missus and I suspect thousands of other missuses across the country.
From the little grin she flashed as she walked past me outside the opera house in company of President Zatlers, I think Grybauskaite knew full well she had pulled off a PR masterstroke.
In contrast, Dr Z looked a little nervous walking through the park towards the Freedom Monument to deliver his big speech of the day. He actually gave a really excellent speech the day before – which no-one took much notice of.
I felt a little sorry for him – no-one was saying a word – so as he walked past I said “Priecigus svetkus” which roughly translates as something between “happy holidays” and “congratulations.”
He looked a little startled that someone had actually spoken to him (maybe it was my poor pronunciation) but in a very nice response he replied with his own “Priecugus svetkus” not to me but to my son perched on my shoulders.
We even managed to get in a photo of journalists hanging around outside the opera house though not being as media-savvy as Grybauskaite we were unfortunately looking in precisely the wrong direction at the time.
Unseasonably cold weather kept the number of people attending the celebrations fairly low, but it helped create a more pleasant atmosphere. The hangers-on who might show up just to get paralytic and annoying didn’t bother to crawl out of bed, leaving an interesting assortment of people to watch a concert of traditional songs between Riga Caste and the Daugava while the caterers looked on mournfully (though they continued to charge some exorbitant prices for food as if the place was packed out).
It was fun and yet again I had the feeling that Latvia’s dance traditions are even stronger and more admirable than its songs, though the two are necessarily linked. The sight of men women and children all executing remarkably accomplished moves both on stage and among the watching crowd filled me – an appallingly poor dancer – with a thoroughly enjoyable form of envy.
Congratulations Latvia on your twenty years. I hope I am still living here in another twenty and – if I lay off the piradzini in time – maybe even the twenty after that. By then I will be able to speak to presidents without a confusing accent and I will know how to execute those dances – just as I become incapable of performing them.