It says something about a country when the passengers on its national airline burst into spontaneous applause as the aircraft touches down on home soil. Either they’re all thrilled at the prospect of being there or the airline doesn’t have a very good flight safety record. I entered the modern, recently refurbished Riga airport believing the former and, when it came to flying home, I was pleased to know my intuition had been well-founded.

Since Latvia became a member of the EU in April last year, immigration formalities have been simplified and, within 15 minutes of disembarking, I was savouring a cold pint of Zelta, one of the local Latvian beers. Around me, tourists and businessmen arriving from destinations across Europe were about to enter a country that had been strictly out of bounds prior to the chain of events in the late ’80s that culminated in Latvia expelling its former Soviet puppeteers and reclaiming independent status on August 21, 1991.

Despite this momentous date, Latvians still celebrate Independence Day on November 18, the day their country was originally declared a republic back in 1918. Doing otherwise would be tantamount to suggesting some semblance of legality to the period of Soviet occupation.

In a country so steeped in a history of political turmoil and religious controls, it’s impossible not to break the cardinal rule of conversation that states ‘thou shalt not discuss religion or politics unless you are desirous of an argument’. Deciding to risk it allows an insight into how a people so long deprived of basic human freedoms have adapted to their new-found autonomy. Not everyone has rejected communism and, although it’s generally agreed that the system was flawed, it’s seen as having some merits.

At least during the Soviet era you knew you had a job,” explains Eva Staltmane, head of the Latvian Tourist Board in London. “Now, coupled with the freedoms we have gained, come uncertainties like unemployment.”

Armands, a driver with a rental car firm in Latvia, is somewhat ambivalent too. “In Soviet times, we had no goods to buy. Now we have goods, but many have no money to buy them.” In spite of these imperialistic consequences, Latvia has embraced capitalism and its economy has grown rapidly in the past decade. An optimistic mood appears to prevail and across the country Latvians are proud to show visitors around. New developments are ubiquitous and tourism is playing a major role in rejuvenating the landscape. In the coastal town of Ventspils, polluted industrial areas have been transformed into riverfront establishments. In the popular beach resort of Jurmala, dilapidated buildings have been replaced with modern hotels and everywhere, sombre, empty streets now thrive with lively crowds.

Considering so many Latvians were brought up without exposure to ‘repulsive’ Western concepts such as capitalism and the ‘decadent’ influences of rock music and modern fashion, one might expect the present generation gap to be called a chasm. And yet the elderly can be seen out and about, comfortably mixing with a new generation of Latvians, many of whom have little idea what it may have been like to live under a communist state. Though the actual memories will eventually die out, the legacy will be conserved thanks to memorials and depositories like the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in Riga.

In the interim, an elucidation can still be gleaned directly from those who experienced communism first-hand. During a half-century of illegal occupation by the Soviets, food rationing and coupons were the order of the day. Queuing at supermarkets was commonplace and certain produce, such as fresh fruit, which would have been taken for granted elsewhere in the world, was considered precious in Latvia.

“I remember as a child getting given an orange as a very special treat at Christmas time,” recalls Artis Gustovskis fondly between mouthfuls of rupjmaizes kartojums (bread pudding topped with fresh cream and cherries), a dessert that would have been decidedly absent from his childhood diet. Today, Artis and his fellow Latvians have only to stroll into the nearest supermarket to buy fresh foodstuffs that are sold alongside all manner of international products.

Happily, in a country where food was so strictly rationed for so long, the sudden absence of controls has not engendered a society of gluttons feasting on luxuries previously denied. Latvians are a healthy looking people who carry themselves with a pride that is readily evident in the way they dress. The women seem to take particular care in their appearance. “That’s because women outnumber men in Latvia,” explains Veronica, a guide with the tourist office in Riga, “and they don’t want the potential perceived embarrassment of being spinsters later in life so they often try to get married at quite a young age.”

Sadly, the combination of attractive women, inexpensive beer and cheap charter flights is a powerful magnet for stag party groups and their close cousin the lager lout. This is an unfortunate eventuality that has not escaped those in the hospitality industry and has already been debated in both the English- and Latvian-language press. For the time being though, long live a (stag party-) free Latvia.”