We enter Snorre’s apartment, on the top floor of an old building in central Riga. We are not the first to arrive. From inside the apartment we can already hear voices and laughter. Snorre greets us at the door and we go into the living room. Five of his friends are already there and chatting together. Snorre has moved most of his furniture aside for the occasion and instead placed as many chairs as possible along the walls of the room. Above the piano, you could read the words of a classic Latvian Jāņi song projected on the wall. Tonight is one of Snorre’s popular singing events and we are among a large number of his friends and friends’ friends who are all ready for a long evening of singing songs, talking and eating the food that people have brought with them.
More guests arrive and we all sit in a circle and introduce ourselves to each other. The languages spoken in the room are many. We hear Norwegian, Latvian, Estonian and Russian. The multiplicity of languages is by no means accidental. Snorre and many of his friends have a strong interest in languages. Snorre has a Ph.D. in linguistics and works as a translator. He worked as a professor at the Latvian Academy of Culture for many years and many of the people in the room are his former students.
We all introduce ourselves to each other and pretty soon we start singing. Many people here have never met before, others meet about once a year at Snorre’s singing events. After a couple of traditional Latvian Jāņi songs we all sing Historien om de tre små fisk (the story of the three fish) in Norwegian. We then continue with an Estonian song and through the evening we sing songs in a number of languages, including dead languages like Prussian and Norrøn.
Snorre’s interest in languages goes way back and he started reading Latvian classic literature when very young. “These stories all take place in the Latvian countryside. I therefore learned the Latvian names of a number of farm implement years before I knew what they were called in Norwegian.” He lived for a period of his childhood in Estonia and has therefore always had a relationship with the Baltic countries. But it was almost by accident that he ended up moving to Riga on an exchange programme in his youth. He first applied to go to Chile, but all the places had gone so he had to go to his second choice, Latvia. After the decision was taken, he received a phone call telling him that a place in Chile was available and if he wanted he could still go there. He turned down the offer, a decision that in retrospect seems to have been extremely important for how his life has turned out. Snorre told us that during his first days living in Latvia, he noticed how different things were in Latvia from Norway, but that changed very quickly and he soon started noticing all the similarities instead.
The day after the singing, we meet up with Snorre again. He is to show us the route from his old apartment to where he used to work for ten years. The Latvian Academy of Culture is located on the other side of the railway line. “The area is known to be a bit underprivileged, but I have never experienced any unpleasant situations here”. As we walk through an underpass, Snorre tells us jokingly that it is called ‘the wardrobe’, because people come out of it without their jackets, wallets and other valuables. When we arrive at the Academy of Culture and go through the gate, something catches Snorre’s attention. Piled up against the wall are a number of old books. He goes through all of them carefully and when we leave he carries a pile of books for the rest of our expedition. He tells us that he loves books and that he bought a friend’s personal library of 3 000 books a couple of years ago. Languages, whether they are spoken, written or sung are embedded in Snorre’s personality. When I first met Snorre, he told me he didn’t have any particular hobbies. It seems that his passion for languages is already more than enough of a hobby and that he is one of the lucky people who is able to work with what he really loves.