Last November, I took a trip with my close friends to northern Europe, into the countries of Latvia, Sweden, and Denmark; the trip was a focus on each country’s capital cities (Riga, Stockholm, and Copenhagen), but the trip particularly revolved around Latvia.
I’ve been grateful to have made quite a few Latvian friends before my first visit to the small Baltic country – with about a dozen individuals from there that I consider such, I with poor taste and no further material make the claim that I feel that I know about half of the population (I also, with similar lack of judgment and taste, use the same joke about my plethora of friends from Belarus).
But the thing that I feel even more grateful for on my first trip to Latvia was that I was one of the last people that were able to use their national currency, the Lat (LVL). The Lat was replaced by the ubiquitous euro on January 1st of this year, a mere two months after I traveled there.
Somehow, the knowledge that I was one of the last few people to get to trade this currency was humbling, and it weighed somewhat heavily on me throughout my week there. To me, a country’s currency seemed to be a large chunk of its national identity, along with the local language and cuisine. It was a bit sad to see it go, to say the least. But was my doleful outlook justified, or was it rather misguided?
It’s not hard for a foreigner (such as us travelers) to equate a currency with national identity. I admit that my sorrow at the fact that the Lat would soon disappear was mainly due to the novelty I invoked in it. Behavioral scientists have studied the correlation between a national currency and a national identity, and have several reasons why people, such as myself, often despair when events like this happen. Chief among them is this:
A national currency provides a perfect vehicle to promote a nationalistic sense of pride and duty wherever it is used; though its neverending supply may not seem effective as this kind of tool, its ubiquitous presence provides almost a subliminal reinforcement and reminder of community, of culture, of shared history, of shared goals, of shared future.
However, at the other end of the argument, the people that utilize the currency every day may not feel the same way. To them, their currency is not a novel experience; they are not seeing it for the first time and thus are jaded to its novelty. For the everyday users of a currency, it is simply a tool. And for a nation of only a few million people, if they deem it in their national interest to join a economic partnership such as the euro, who am I to argue? Sure, it seems like a treat for us to be there during a people’s wealth of self-identity. We might love to get to try a local cuisine when we travel, but what if a local culinary treat was harmful to their health or painful to animals? Should we still enjoy the novelty of being able to experience it, though we would frown upon it or fight against it back home?
The reason that I am thinking about this topic lately is due to the recent news that Lithuania, Latvia’s neighboring Baltic country to its south, has met all the requirements of eurozone membership; if all goes as planned, in a few months (Jan. 1, 2015) the Lithuanians will no longer be exchanging their litas for goods and services. Contemplating this, I initially felt that same sense of “oh no, the world is falling apart” that I had with the then impending discontinuation of the Latvian Lat. I am even thinking of heading there in the next few months for this one reason.
But we travelers need to remember that we need to be human. The world is a museum, in a sense, but it mustn’t play by the same rules. A brick and mortar museum is full of objects of antiquity and history, but the world in which we travel through is still alive, still growing, still evolving. For us to despair at the fact that a country is moving forward, progressing, and enriching their lives now seems a bit selfish, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that Latvia and Lithuania joining the eurozone is the best option for them economically; it may actually be against their national interest with the rise in anti-European sentiment and poor economic outlook of the member states – but that’s another argument altogether. All I’m saying – and I’m saying this just as much for me, to reinforce this ideal in my own mind – is to question the source of our sadness when something like this happens; are the people’s interest and well being at the forefront of our thoughts, or is it merely saying goodbye to a novelty for us?
Let’s visit Lithuania soon, shall we? But if we miss the chance to buy a drink with litas, let’s not be heartbroken for “our loss”; let us instead be happy for seeing the beginning of a brighter future for the locals (we can hope).