by Zinta Aistars
The bartender at Conor O’Neil’s on Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, leans across the bar, damp towel thrown over his shoulder. His thick eyebrows scrunch.
“Sorry, but I can’t resist,” he says, looking from my cousin Guntra to me. “But what’s that you’re speaking? Russian?”
Guntra and I look at each other. Look at him. We let the silence sit, brooding and dark.
“No,” I say after another moment. “Latvian. No similarity.”
He mutters apologies and withdraws, realizing his tip had just decreased by at least a buck. Perhaps not quite realizing why.
Guntra had contacted me about a week earlier to ask if I might be in town and meet her for a quick farewell. She was leaving in a few days for a year in Latvia, and since she knew I spent many of my weekends in Ann Arbor, had hoped this was one. It was. I had a second life in this town, cross state from my own, a long distance romance now in its fifth year of biweekly commute. Yes. Madness. Perhaps all loves are, whether for person or place.
“Sadzeram,” I said, raising my Guinness, “to that we drink.” For Guntra’s own six-year romance would remain, at least for now, in Ann Arbor, while she traversed the ocean to spend the next year in Latvia. “To tested and enduring hearts. Prozit.”
Our menfolk at home, neither of whom is of Latvian blood, we naturally fell into our native language. For the next few hours, we spoke in the language we had learned to speak first in childhood, English the foreign language we had learned at public school in later years.
We spoke of recent events in our lives—Guntra of her studies at the University of Michigan for her doctoral degree, and I of my work at Kalamazoo College, writing, editing, and media relations. We talked of our travels. Laughed at the family affliction: wanderlust. Guntra had crossed Europe back and forth too many times to count, and most recently had been in Guatemala and Costa Rica. My travels in the last few years had been all domestic, a couple cross-country trips by car and rail, many shorter travels in all four directions of the sky. But I envied her trip coming up next week…. back home to Latvia.
“How long has it been?” she asked in a quiet, sympathetic voice.
I thought for a moment. How long… how many years, how many lifetimes ago… and it was, I surmised and not without the longing bleeding into my voice, about ten years. Yes, a lifetime ago. I was hardly the same person today. We both knew how travel changes a person, the journey not only an external one of traversing physical geography, but each new place adding some new feature to the mind, some new facet to the spirit, and each old place reawakening ancient wisdom. As first generation Latvians, born in the United States of refugee parents escaping Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, we were entitled to automatic citizenship. We crossed the ocean like we cross the street, going from home to… home.
“Parak ilgi,” I said softly. “Too long.”
Only two years for Guntra. But she already spoke of restlessness. She keeps an apartment in Riga, the capital city, and subleases it to a young woman during her absences. Since 1991, the tiny country on the Baltic has flourished and is recovering with amazing speed since its 50 years of occupation by neighboring Russia. The bartender’s question had struck a raw nerve. There are times when an enslaved man has nothing remaining of his own identity, no memory evident of his freedom, but the language of his ancestors. We spoke Latvian, one of the oldest languages still spoken in the world. The taste was sweet on the tongue, golden in the ear.
“You could visit me during the coming year,” Guntra offered. “You have a place to stay in Riga. Come home… brauc majas.”
There had been a time when I traveled to Latvia on a yearly basis. A few months overseas, then return to the United States to start anew, saving money for the next trip. If I had amassed no material wealth to speak of in my adult years, it was in great part due to my constant travel, my constant new beginnings, new jobs, new addresses, new homes, and boxes of belongings with never enough time in one place to unpack.
I dipped my head, speaking into my Guinness, mentioning debts that now kept me tied to one home, denying me the other. While cost of living in Latvia is still very affordable, something I could even manage as a freelance writer submitting work electronically back to the States, I had bills to pay that had come along with the roots I had let grow into Michigan soil. I could feel it now, how things tied us to place, how they rooted us like a ball and chain. Do we own things? Or do things own us?
“Look at me,” Guntra raised a hand up in a flourish towards herself. “I travel for my studies. I write grants and they make the travel possible.”
“Grants,” I repeat. “Ah…” as the thought soaked in. “I’ve never written one.”
Guntra smiled. Tipped her head to one side and watched me think.
“Vajag tikai gribet,” she said. “You must only want.”
And similar words come back to me, from a man I had known a long time ago, who had accomplished great things: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” As long as he believed those words, and in himself, he could accomplish anything. How could I have forgotten?
We paid the Guinness tab with a small tip. Emerged in the sun outside the pub, embraced and wished each other well in the coming year of new adventure and challenging decisions. I wished her a good journey. Guntra went to the right, where her bicycle awaited her, and I turned left to walk back to my car.
I walked, my mind tumbling with thoughts, wanderlust woken fierce in my heart. Might it be somehow possible… travel, new adventures, challenges met. What was that saying I once so favored by a favorite Latvian author, Zenta Maurina… “Skaisti ir uzdriksteties.” It is a beautiful thing to risk.
A voice shouted out my name from behind me. I turned to see Guntra pedaling fast down the street on her bike, hair flapping loose around her laughing face. She waved at me, then took the next turn right to disappear behind the next building, but not before I heard her call:
“Vajag gribet! Write that grant!”
(Last of a 7-day series.)