Life or Life Style: A Sustainable Trip to Latvia

 

How to live a pleasurable life: 5 things we can learn from the Latvian way of living.

  1. One does not have to recycle, up cycle, and throw away as much if one does not use and own lots stuff.

  2. However, making and repairing things is a good way to “meditate.”

  3. A sustainable “lifestyle” is a pleasurable life.

  4. Learning to live sustainably is a learning process.

  5. Sustainability is inherently social.

My parents were born in Latvia, a small, Eastern European country. Most people don’t know exactly where Latvia is, or they mix it up with Lithuania, our neighbors to the south. I grew up in a tightly knit Latvian diaspora, loving a place I hadn't ever been. This year I returned to Latvia for the third time, this time with a goal besides the usual visit, vacation, and reconnect. 

I went to find out if what I was seeing and feeling from articles and posts, on Facebook, Instagram, and from friends, was true. Is Latvia a place where living a more sustainable life is simply more everyday life and not just a "lifestyle?" 

 
thrift shop
 

What I discovered was an entire nation of people readily living a life centered around thrift and "eco" stores, green and maker's markets, quality over quantity, recycling and repairing, and DIY and craftsmanship. So yes, I was right. 

I wasn't completely surprised, because even though I was raised in the diaspora, I knew that we Latvians were wholesome and "outdoorsy" people, who also liked to make things. But the extent, to which things had changed in ten years, the last time I was there, was more than I expected or could have wished for. 

 

It's not just the hipsters, with their chic restaurants, hair "emporiums," and organic coffee cafés, lining the clean and very peaceful streets. Behind the veil of gentrification and mainstream "respectability," there's a deeper creativity going on, a kind of wonderful "wilding." People are capturing or recapturing the pleasure of a slower, less complicated, and healthier way of life.

 

My new friend, Ilze, is just one example. (Ilze’s etsy shop here & insta here.) The woman fairly oozes with creativity and the skills to turn ideas into beautiful things. I could call her an artist, a stylist, a model, or any number of the things she actually is, but none of these words truly suffice. Force of nature? No, too pretentious. Beautiful soul? Too New Age. She's Ilze. She makes crowns, and earrings with faces, and silk kimonos dyed with rust. She wraps turbans with aplomb, she designs magical wedding dresses, and she can really cook!

ilzestudio.png

As unique as Ilze is, she is not one of a kind. I visited countless, small maker's shops, artist's studios, co-working locations, and apartments where people were doing their own thing but in a community marked by collaboration and support. "I'll silk screen these t-shirts and you style my next shoot," that kind of thing.

And what struck me was, there was never any feeling of "staging" or pretension there, it was always people just pursuing what they wanted to, and believed in. 

I don't want to give you the impression that there isn't any fast fashion, or junk food, or plastic stuff to "indulge" in, in Latvia, there is. Even 10 years ago there was a McDonald's prominently "ensconced" near the Old Town. 

There are now international brands like H&M in the shopping centers. But these things look more like the kinds of curiosities one would see in an amusement park, real life, and the good food and clothing and coffee are found in small, independent places and run by staunchly independent people.

Berries in Centra Market, Latvia
 

The huge Central Market is as full of everything as simple or exotic as you might ever care to eat. Smoked eels and jam made from pinecones, and medicinal teas, and at the time I was there, loads and loads of cucumbers, and berries, and flowers, and mushrooms. And did I mention the berries? If you haven't had a European strawberry, by the way, you have not had a strawberry. 

Today, back in New York, the microbreweries, cheese shops, recycling enthusiasts, and vintage clothing stores look more "lifestyle" to me, than real life. But here's why that's ok too. A more sustainable lifestyle takes a little practice.

Just like when we all started turning away from fast food towards slow food, and from fast fashion towards slow fashion, two cornerstones of a more sustainable life, we had to learn about chemicals, pesticides, factory farms, polyester, slave labor, and the toxicity of the dyeing process.

Sustainability calls for a digging into doing things a different way. But at this time, we know it's a necessary thing for the environment of which we are an integral part. The outcome of that process though, that meditative, communal, and creative life is so obviously worth it. Living minimalist lives does not minimize our lives. 

And more quickly than we might think, what we once looked at as doing something "extra," becomes a new set of rituals and ways to lead a more pleasurable life. That's the thing, it's pleasurable. We feel safer, healthier, and more comfortable in our community, and more comfortable about the future. 

 

When you know the woman who designed your sweater, and the farmer who grew your carrots, when you're working to extend the life of the things you own to sustain your environment, it's hard to feel lonely, afraid, or bored. 

Maybe this is a post about the importance of travel? But we don’t have to go far to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle. We can just take pleasure in owning less, in the meditative quality of making and repairing, in learning new ways of doing things, and in the social nature of sustainability.

The people in Latvia are not Luddites, who go around in rough linen clothes, swilling homebrew, nibbling on organic kale, and sans pedicures, and you don't have to be either. They are actually highly educated, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan. 

Latvians understand the fundamental pleasures of life, the ones that are more than "self-care," the things that sustain us. It makes you wonder why there are so many people still willing to give that up for an uncertain future.

—Anita Irlen

I currently live in, and love, New York City. I blog at Look For The Woman, and sometimes I write for other blogs, slow fashion sites, and anti-ageism advocates. I consult with brands on engaging with diverse groups and generations. You can follow me on Instagram at @lookforthewoman.

Anita Irlen
 
 

 
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