When I was little, my Grandmother used to say to me, “you’re not Australian, you’re Latvian”. This confused me to no end, because I was born in Australia, brought up here, my accent is “occa” (strong Aussie – some say “bogan”!); and yet she was denying something I held close as truth.
My grandparents came to Australia from Latvia, a small country in Eastern Europe, during the mass emigration of World War Two. They brought with them traditions, strength, language and love of their culture, and integrated into Australian society at a time where to be different was noticeable (although, that’s much the same for any time in history…). My last name means “of the lowland or swamp”, which, while not the most exciting, I take to mean “grounded”, which suits my family well. Also, the Greek version means “full of fire”, which suits me perfectly!
I grew up admiring traditional arts like tapestries and long stitch, and when I in turn began to knit, it was something that brought me closer to my cultural roots. However, I didn’t understand how I could be Latvian – it’s as if my Australian-ness overrode my Latvian-ness, contrary to my Grandmother’s insistence.
On the other side, my maternal line is British. My grandparents met on a ship and came to Australia, my Grandad working his way up over time from a naval mechanic on Her Majesty’s Navy to a lecturer at the university I would one day attend. My Mum is possibly the strongest woman I have ever met, and she instilled in me a love for crafts – sewing for us as children, creating cross stitches to decorate our rooms and homes, and eventually teaching me to knit.
It has always been easy for me to connect with my British side – for one, I speak English! Australia is, in my view, very Western-Europe centred, and I have found it easy to find and connect with other fellow British or part-British people. Conversely to my “I knit to connect with Latvian culture but don’t feel it in my daily life”, I felt British connections regularly, but felt a disconnect in my craft.
This all changed, this year.
In December, I travelled to Manchester to meet my family there. Whilst there, I found several things I never connected with (mushy peas, overcooked vegetables at carveries, and rude servers), but I found others that I did – including my great aunt, who knit! Finally, my craft made sense on both sides of my family tree.
In England, I found strength and connection – a country that has been influenced by so much, and has spread its influence so far.
In July, I travelled to Latvia for 2 weeks on a sort of pilgrimage with my Dad, grandmother and sisters to meet family, and watch the Song and Dance Festival (oh my god, if you ever get a chance – it’s a must-see!). There, I connected with my Latvian culture on a level that I could never have predicted. The kindness and generosity of extended family members (or in one case, my cousin much removed’s husbands’ parents) has astounded me, and shaped a part of my identity that I never imagined.
Here, I found a different sort of strength and connection, plus beauty and fragility in a country rebuilding from decades under foreign rule, the generosity and smiles of tall, beautiful people who have a hard past and a magnificent future.
I’ve always known my identity was Australian. But all Australians are Australian-and-something. Australian-and-Indigenous, Australian-and-Malaysian, Australian-and-whatever. I found out I am Australian-and-British-and-Latvian – all three components make up me, and they each have weight within my soul.