Wednesday, August 27, 2014

GVV Golden Anniversary (or: How I Partied in Michigan)

This year GVV (if you're asking "What's GVV?" - see here) celebrated its 50th academic summer with a weekend full of events and festivities.

I flew to Michigan on Friday, and spent that day visiting with family, which meant we weren't able to make it to the Friday evening campfire. However, on Saturday sis and I drove to Garezers, and immediately jumped into the events. We did hear that the campfire had been fun, with several well-prepared skits, particularly one by the current GVV principal and her two predecessors. The premise was that they had retired, and now all lived in the same retirement home, but just could not leave their time at the school in the past.

Garezers is a shareholder organization; it is owned by many different Latvian organizations - congregations, clubs, fraternities and sororities. However, part of its operating budget and financing for special projects comes from individual donations. One wonderful tradition that exists within the Latvian-American community is memorial donations. When a person passes away, family members select an organization to which donations can be made in their memory (often said to be in lieu of flowers, and usually listed in the obituary). In some cases it might be the person's congregation, in other cases it might be a scholarship fund in Latvia, in yet other cases it might be Garezers.

Earlier this year, some unexpected and rather severe environmental damage had ruined the patio area (which often serves as a gathering point) of GVV's largest building. Donations made in memory of  an individual who had recently passed away were used to rebuild the patio, and on Saturday afternoon the area was officially unveiled and blessed. I had known the individual, so I'd donated in his memory, thus it was nice to be present at the unveiling and see the good that these donations had brought.

Afterward we attended an art exhibit opening, something most people wouldn't picture when thinking of a camp in the middle of the woods. However, Garezers has an impressive art collection, which is actually the largest Latvian art collection outside of Latvia. There is also a nice gallery space where two different exhibits are held each summer. For this occasion, GVV graduates and employees were asked to participate in an exhibit. Twenty-one artists - both professional and amateur - were represented, with a wide variety of works. Some of them were for sale, and a couple certainly spoke to me, but I didn't break out the checkbook due to transport issues.
A selection of the artwork
Couple of prints by my old friend Laima
The painting is by Janis Kalmite, famous Latvian-American painter and longtime GVV teacher
My sister and I also had the interesting experience of being interviewed by our friend, filmmaker Māra Pelēcis. She is making a film about Garezers to be shown next summer when the entire center celebrates its fiftieth birthday. Māra already has two documentaries to her credit, one called "Starp Latvijam" (Between Latvias) and another called "Souvenirs: Healing After War." Because sis and I have spent so much time at Garezers, it was difficult to recall specific favorite memories, given that we have hundreds. I was also reminded that my talents tend to lie in writing more than in extemporaneous speaking.

We visited with some friends before meeting up with mom for the big anniversary event. The dinner, concert, and dance were all held in an outdoor area called "Dziesmu leja," which literally translated means valley of song. Basically it's an amphitheater slash basketball court. Well, this basketball court had never looked as lovely as it did that night! 450 people people were attending the dinner, and we were all seated at beautiful tables with white tablecloths and neat centerpieces. At times it seemed that rain might threaten our fancy outdoor dinner, but luckily the weather held out. We were treated to passed appetizers, and then a buffet featuring pulled pork and a multitude of delicious side dishes.
Just some of the 450 dinner attendees
Cute centerpiece - but a tad disappointing that sign is in English!
After dinner, the  high school and middle school students presented a concert; these concerts at the end of the fourth week have become a tradition, and it never ceases to amaze me how talented some of the teenagers are, nor how much they learn in four short weeks. One particularly impressive performance was a duet of "Manai Dzimtenei," an immensely beloved choral piece that I'd never heard sung by only two singers. Considering the singers are only 17 years old, they did a fantastic job.
Joint GVV and middle school choir
Once the concert was over, a swarm of volunteers descended to remove the tables and chairs. Voila - dance floor! It was time to get the party started!! Earlier in the summer, two GVV graduates had asked the others to nominate favorite songs from the Saturday night dances. Nominations poured in, and from that long list, we voted on our fifty absolute favorites. The music played at these dances seems to have been eclectic for years already; I showed the poll to a couple of American friends, and they commented that it was a strange mix.  The top 50 list can be viewed here. The DJ started with 50, and counted them down one by one. At the beginning only a few people danced, but as the night wore on and the songs became more popular, the number of dancers grew. It was awesome to see graduates of all ages out partying - those who graduated last year and are only 18 years old, and some who graduated decades ago and are in their 50s. At times the dance floor held 200 or so happy dancing Latvian-Americans.

Many of the top 50 songs will be familiar to most of my readers, but the number 1 song, "Rasputin" by Boney M, might leave you scratching your head. Therefore, I invite you to check out this video on YouTube, and imagine several large circles of people, standing shoulder-to-shoulder/arm-in-arm, kicking their legs like Russian dancers. That is an old GVV tradition, which apparently originated in the late 1970s when that particular song was actually well known, but the song and dancing have been passed down through the years.

It was late when Rasputin was played, but plenty of people were interested in continuing to dance and party, so the DJ obliged, and provided more music by playing songs that had been nominated but hadn't made it into to the top fifty. By 2.30am, my spirits were flagging a bit, however. I hadn't danced like that in very long time, and it was enormously fun, but also quite tiring (particularly seeing as I'm a morning person nowadays, meaning staying up past midnight is pretty late for me!). Two friends and I were staying in a rental cabin near the lake, and one of them agreed it was time to call it quits. We chatted and visited while washing up in the communal restrooms (always fun to run into old acquaintances at 3am!), then fell into our respective beds. Although I was exhausted, I was also wound up from the busy and intense day, which included meeting and chatting with scores of friends and acquaintances. So very wound up that I couldn't fall asleep....and so accustomed to waking up early in the morning (downside of having gotten into generally healthy habit of waking up at 5.45am many mornings in order to be at the gym by 6am) that I ended up sleeping very little. However, the next morning, while much of Garezers was still sleeping, I enjoyed the peace and quiet for a while by relaxing at the lake shore.

After a breakfast of champions (beef jerky, blueberries, some kind of energy type of drink sis had bought and left behind, gluten-free cookies) and more chatting and visiting with a couple of friends, mom swung by, and she and I headed to the church service. I am not much of a church-goer in my daily life, however, I almost always enjoy services at Garezers. Every Sunday a different person leads the service - typically out of the six or seven-week season, four or five services are led by Lutheran ministers from different congregations, one by a Baptist minister, and one by a Catholic priest. Services are almost always enhanced by musical performances - sometimes by the younger camp kids, other times by the GVV students. Plus, you are sitting in the lovely outdoor church which overlooks the lake!
A GVV choir adding music to the service
The rest of the day was spent in true Latvian fashion - hanging out, talking to people, and eating Michigan blueberries. (Although I will also mention that mom and I drove into the nearest town, Three Rivers, for lunch and I do not recommend eating at Brewster's - my meal was incredibly underwhelming. However, if you are in Three Rivers and are a bibliophile or reader in any shape or form, I highly recommend checking out Lowry's Books on Main Street, as it has a good selection of new books and an amazing assortment of used books.) 

It was a truly fantastic weekend to celebrate a wonderful institution, and I am grateful I could be a part of it.
Five pounds of Michigan blueberries - the best berries available!


  1. Was ir Kronvalda zāle that got the new patio? This is the area that looks down over sporta laukums? I'm so sad that I missed this weekend... especially as the little Kukainis has not yet made his/her appearance. I'm holding my thumbs that next summer and G50! works out! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, the big area outside Kronvalda overling sporta laukums. I didn't quite catch the entire story, but apparently some of the birch tree roots had destroyed some pipes, and so on... The entire thing had to be completely redone. Naturally, it looks fancier now than the concrete slabs we were used to. :) G50 piedalities ir tacu obligati! ;-)


I love having visitors, so let me know you stopped by!