Fresh Ideas: Keeping up appearances the Latvian way
For the Nevada Appeal
My only surviving aunt turns 91 this April. No fuddy duddy, she grooms herself carefully: creams her face with linden flower lotion, flosses her teeth every day, and wears earrings when going out in public.
Lately, the weather in Michigan has been too cold for daily walks, so she goes down in the basement with her CD player and pedals her stationary bicycle. This attention to body and appearance is not an aberration, nor a reflection of gender, for Latvian men are equally fussy and fastidious about how they look.
For instance, in a memoir by Latvia’s most illustrious publisher, I read that his first memory was noting that he wore an anchukins (a little suit) when his parents took him to visit friends “in the country.”
The suit was evidence of elegance and style, especially since his parents were not wealthy. This suit became even more memorable once he fell into a ditch and got it muddy. You might well ask why in the dickens he was wearing a suit to begin with, or why a boy would be upset by a little mud.
Clearly, you would not be thinking like a Latvian.
Now imagine that you are a Latvian immigrant woman. You speak little English but have finally landed a job at a local factory. What is the first thing on your mind? You guessed it: What to wear. At the Salvation Army store you buy what you need for work: several tasteful silk blouses, good quality wool skirts, high heels. Your first day on the job (on the production line) you are astounded to discover that you are the only one appropriately dressed.
You would never say it in public, but you think your co-workers look like slobs.
Decades later you feel like an American, but your Latvian conditioning is not so easily dismissed. You attend a Latvian church and are nervous because it has been announced that Sunday will include communion. What is the primary question on your mind? You guessed it: What to wear.
Not only do you have to wear something fine enough to pass scrutiny of the congregation, all critical eyes will be assessing your recent weight gain, or loss, your posture and your hairstyle. Since communion is not a casual thing – one has to sign up for it well in advance – you have bought yourself a new pair of shoes to make certain when you kneel at the altar the soles of your shoes will be presentable.
I had company from Latvia last weekend. At one point my young guest said, “Do you have any idea how important ‘looking good’ is to Latvians?”
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.