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Storytelling in Latvia 2

04/05/2013 - blog

Second part of my trip in Latvia.

b20130504_227th April
It’s a rainy day, but after breakfast, as by magic arts, the rain stops and we go to the festival area, near the river, of course. In the park there is a big stage surrounded by stands of handicrafts.

Closer to the bank and sheltered from the wind by a big house, the storytelling will take place, around the bonfire while the fish soup will be prepared. Liesma introduces us to her husband Kārlis Zaķis, who is lighting the fire. He wears the traditional outfit and carries a noisy stick with metal pieces. «It is a stick for scaring the devil». Good to know. Jaak tells me that they have it in Estonia, too.

Everybody is helping there: carrying banks, tables or wood, opening a little tent, just in case the rain appears again… But it seems that clouds are really going away.


b20130504_3Ina Celitāne, director of the Kūrava Cultural Centre, is also there, she is really busy helping everyone, but as she sees us, she offers to show us Jaak and me the big old building. Women come here to weave their skirts: looms, sewing boxes… She leads us to a big hall with an excellent acoustic, perfect for concerts and dances, but the ceiling needs to be repaired urgently. «We want to recover this space for the people», she comments to us.

b20130504_24And people seem to take it seriously: the house needs reparations, of course, but the fire is lightened, in the kitchen the ingredients for the soup are ready, and in one of the rooms we find a group of young people rehearsing a song. Tonight they will meet all here, near the fire, to play in a jam session with different local groups. «If you want to come, you are welcome! »


b20130504_4We go out and we see a group of fishermen surrounding a man with a scale: he has to weight the fishes and decide who the winner is. I wonder if they have also sayings about fishermen that say they fished a big fish that no one has ever seen. Jaak smiles and says that in Estonia they have not only a saying, but a song, too.


Guntis gives us half an hour to visit the fair before going to tell on the main stage. We walk with Jaak among the stands: cheese, butter, jam, honey, soap, medicine herbs, smoked fish… Jaak tells me about Estonian food, about the differences and similarities with Latvian food, about how delicious smoked eel is… «You should taste it», he says. I am not persuaded: my grandfather used to fish eels, but I remember I didn’t like the appearance of these fresh fished eels, like little snakes looking at me with angry teeth and bulging eyes. We check the time and it is time to go: eel tasting would have to wait.


b20130504_5In the centre of the park they have installed a big stage where people will enjoy music, dance… and storytelling. The fair is full of people in spite of the cold, and I feel really grateful of having the splendid shawl Mara borrowed me. And still no rain! When my turn comes, I tell the Stone Soup story, but instead of meat I add fresh fish from Venta River, as in the local dish. It is funny to see people repeating hypnotically the sounds clong-shhh-chikchikchik-chaschas-plof…


b20130504_28After the stories people are encouraged to come with us to the river bank, behind the Kūrava Cultural Center. It is a good place, far away from the fair’s hubbub and sheltered from the wind, two important details from my point of view. I am glad to see how organizers took into account these details that sometimes big cultural managers don’t even consider. And then… Yes! Here comes the sun and the temperature is quite agreeable.


b20130504_6We go back to the river bank and the soup pot is already steaming. Līga Reitere, storyteller from Amatu māja Museumin Ventspils is at work, she explains us every step of the local recipe, seasoning it with little stories. Her way of speaking attracts my attention, and while she speaks, very spontaneously, she stirs the soup, adds salt, checks the fire, and brings the fish… Agata comments me that she speaks a particular dialect with a strong accent, and I am glad to see that this dialect variation is an added value as a storyteller.

b20130504_8Here in Kurzeme, dialect is much more forgotten than in Latgale region, from where Līga comes. Kurzeme people use dialect mostly with jokes. This makes me think about the storytelling project Mercat de Veus (Voices Market) that we run at Barcelona Libraries, where each storyteller tells in his/her own dialect, so that children can enjoy to hear the different dialects from Catalan; it is interesting to see this phenomenon from a different perspective.


b20130504_7Storytellers tell stories in turns before the steaming pot, and all kind of stories begin to circulate: funny stories, custom tales, events, historical facts, jokes, anecdotes… Inese Šmukste, our hotel’s manager, joins the storytelling crew, as well as a local journalist, a fisherman who brought his catch for the soup

b20130504_9Then Liesma, Inita, Ārija, Guntis and Aldis Pūtelis, a storyteller I didn’t had the opportunity to hear until now, who has a very witty repertoire. My laugh comes always delayed, as somebody translates me the meaning of the joke, a hard job, as humour is not easy to translate.
b20130504_10I see that some ingredients of the fish soup are the same in my tale: onions, carrots, potatoes… In Latvia they also have a variant of this folktale, but instead of a stone, they use an axe. I also want to eat soup, so I tell the black chicken, a gypsy story, and as Latvians also celebrate Saint John’s night, Jāņi, on the next round I tell the story of the fameliar, a little goblin that has to be chased on Saint John’s night and who always asks for work or food. «Darba-ēst-darba-ēst», repeats Agata, and me too: suddenly the goblin from Ibiza seems to speak a bit of Latvian!
b20130504_12People come and go, tell a story, eat a bowl of soup… And like in the story, there is soup for everyone. Liesma and Ārija take care of me as mums do and they bring me another bowl of soup. Guntis gives us time to visit the fair again, at four we will have to leave for Kandava. 

b20130504_23I go to say goodbye to the bridge and I eat a candy that Davis, Agata’s son, gave to me yesterday: the wrapper has the image of this bridge. The sun is shining and clouds go away. Jaak comes also to say goodbye to the bridge. But instead of visiting the fair, we go back to our people around the bonfire: now the last stories are being told, for the little group remaining, at the table, and they translate me in turns the meaning: little local stories that pass from one to another. We end singing an improvised song, of course, and they dedicate me some verses. «What are you saying? ». «Susana walks along the Venta River, waiting for a handsome guy», says Ina, amused.


b20130504_43Before leaving, Ina embraces us and puts around each of us an apron saying: «You are part of the family now». Hugs, farewell words… We take the car and go to Kandava, crossing forests and fields, sometimes a wooden house here and there… The country is really plain, like the Empordà, my homeland, but we do not have such beautiful forests there. Spring is coming late, but green colour begins to show up.


b20130504_13We have time and Guntis stops to show us the Renda waterfall, and also a curious exhibition of dolls, a very curious initiative of a family from Sabile. We can see objects from the past, as an ancient ‘Riga’ washing maschine. «Everyone had one of these at home!», says Jaak.


We arrive at Kandava Museum, which houses not only art exhibitions, but also several social groups and a handicrafts centre. After a delicious acorn coffe with biscuits, there come the stories. It seems the most suited place to tell the story ‘The boy who loved to draw cats’, a Japanese story about the artist’s soul, a bit scary, I think it can please Latvian’s taste. In fact, that story could happen somewhere in Latvia.  Then Ārija manages to make us grind coffee beans with gestures: I love her easy going style; she always manages to shake up everyone. And Ausma tells a beautiful story where she mimics a bird, as my dear storytelling colleague Ignasi Potrony uses to do in Barcelona; he would be delighted to know that. More points in common.


b20130504_14After the stories, we visit the painting exhibition, and also a part of the museum devoted to cinema (in this region some famous films were shot during the soviet period), and then we dance traditional dances with life music. We go upstairs, to the handicrafts centre, and they offer us a sort of porridge with bacon, very tasty. «The Fairy Tale Witch is not coming?», I ask, as I would like to talk a bit with her; I was impressed by her passionate style of storytelling, and by how she managed to keep all kids fascinated with her stories. «No, she won’t come; we are going to visit her at home». The perspective of visiting a witch home is even more fascinating.



After saying goodbye to everyone, Guntis, Jaak, Ausma and I, we take the way to Tukums. Near this town, in a remote place, it is the house of Itiva, known as Pasaku Ragana, ‘The Fairytale Witch’. Ivita has created an original and wonderful place where people can come to listen to stories, children and adults as well. The walls are full of healing herbs, old books, puppets and any kind of charms and talismans. In one wall is written the different kind of stories you can choose, and the witch proposes little games made of wood and strings, and welcomes people in a beautiful room full of cushions, very comfortable. In such a place you feel in the mood of sitting down and listen to stories.

b20130504_37She is a good witch: at the entrance, after inviting us to smile at her mirror in order to leave evil spirits outside, she offers us a cup of tea. Her husband Kārlis helps with the translation from Latvian to English, and we begin a beautiful conversation. She talks me about her way of preparing people for hearing stories, her approach to folktales… She has developed a very creative way to work with children and I like the universe she has created in order to make easier people to enter in the world of wonder, something that is usually more difficult for adults than for kids. I am unable to sum up all the things we talked about, from the importance of creating a space that favours the act of listening, to the power and potential from folktales, our feelings about storytelling, the impossible task of classifying the unclassifiable that folklorists do… We talk and talk until dark, discovering that we share a common language: the language shared by the people who love stories. Ivita gives to everyone of us a talisman of juniper wood; it helps to discharge negative energy. «Keep it during a year, then burn it», she recommends.


b20130504_36It is time to go, but before that, we look around the house, full of mysterious details. We see the witch’s wardrobe, with her creative and fancy designs. It is a pity that she lives at more than 3.000 km of distance from my place; I would love to visit the Fairy Tale Witch’s home from time to time, to have a tea with her, to hear stories, to let the church gossip about us… Fortunately, she is a modern witch: she is translating her blog to English, and I would be able to chat with her from Spain.


b20130504_19We take again the road, heading for Riga. It is already dark, and pretty late, but Guntis says: «Now to the Fairy Tale Museum!». «It is after ten, the museum will be already closed», I say.  But Ausma smiles amused and shows me a key: «Well, I can open it.» And then she tells me that she works at the Fairy Tale Museum, so they open the museum for Jaak and for me!! Amazing. This thinks only happen in folktales, don’t they? I feel fortunate, and blessed, and special, too.

The museum is the building of the former Lancenieku Rural School, in the parish of Džūkste, where Anss Lerhis-Puškaitis, Gunti’s ancestor, worked a long time ago and gathered an important collection of folktales – more then 6000 texts in 7 volumes (1891-1903).
b20130504_40At the entrance, behind the screen that presents Lerhis-Puškaitis biography… ta-dahh! A puppet theatre appears, and in the old children’s bedroom they have put a magic tree in the middle. It is a little museum full of surprises, the perfect place to tell stories at night. I imagine the children on their beds, telling ghost stories in the dark, hiding their heads under the blankets. Many of these kids helped to collect stories from their families, although in that time children were not really regarded as a serious informants. This point of view has changed now: in many places of Africa kids are really talented informants.
b20130504_21I discover also an exhibition of powerful illustrations of Kurbads, the hero of a Latvian longest folktale who confronted ten-headed devils, dragons and other fantastic beasts. I would love to tell the adventures of Kurbads when I am back, I am sure Spanish kids would be delighted. I will write it on my wishlist.
b20130504_22And now it is time to go to Riga. We arrive at midnight, I say goodbye to Jaak, my dear jutumees, who has to catch the bus, in a couple of hours he will be home. I promise to visit him if I go to Estonia and to taste smoked eel. Hope to meet again in the wonderful world of stories. Tonight I have the impression that everything is possible. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.
To be continued…
I would like to thank Aldis Pūtelis, Kārlis Kalseris and Guntis Pakalns for their fantastic pictures. Liels paldies!

4 responses to “Storytelling in Latvia 2”

  1. Gracias por compartir este fantástico viaje, con tu narración nos has trasladado un poco allá.

    Mmmm hasta me parece que probé un poco de sopa…

  2. Susana says:

    Gracias, me alegro que el aroma de la sopa llegara hasta aquí. ¡Hasta pronto! Abrazos