Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rusty Gates and Open Roads

by Zinta Aistars

There is much power in symbols and symbolic acts. It has been more than 16 years since I last crossed the ocean to return to Latvia. By the time I return again, it will be 17. I had watched the expiration date on my passport come and go. I had thought, and thought again, about renewing it.

It expired in 2002. Another eight years have gone by.

How many times have I thought about a return trip home? How many times begun the plans, allowed the dream to unfold, only to shut it down again? Too many to count. It was almost an annual tradition by now. Think about it, consider it, turn the thought around and around in my fingers like an old coin, feeling its edges, biting down on it to test its metal ... then socked it away in the drawer again.

It wasn't time yet.

Much has transpired in these past 16, near 17 years. Too much. Half of that qualified as the stuff of silent nightmare, when one calls out in the dark and no sound comes from a thickened throat, when one aches to run free and finds one's body heavy and immobile, a frozen hunk rooted to the ground. In the last couple years or so, I had slowly been in the process of regaining movement, finding my voice, becoming visible again. A threshold had been crossed.

This new life, or this new phase of a very old life, is filled with many doors to close, others to open, more thresholds to cross. With every closure, new doors beckon to be opened. And a great deal of forward movement requires taking a few steps back, if only to find solid ground from which to leap.

It's time.

Gathering courage, I picked up old threads to see where they might lead. Perhaps I would find them broken forever, cut and with ends dangling into thin air. Indeed, some threads, tugged upon, came loose in my hand. Others, however, I found firmly tied to old treasure, and once I gave that first pull, the old and familiar and much loved came tumbling happily into my lap. Conversations that were begun many, many decades ago, when I was 15 years old and on my first journey to then Soviet Latvia, resumed with ease. These have now become a near daily pleasure. Ka klajas tava puse? Vai atminies, ka mes toreiz gajam lidz juras malai, ka tu sedeji baltas smiltis, veji purinaja tavus matus ...

My heart warms, swells, beats stronger as I receive news from overseas, updates, joyous greetings and encouragement to take wing and come be, sit, walk, laugh with us, here, and you there, and now here, all of us here, in one place, in an ancient city that has seen the passage of many centuries, among great buildings that withstood many wars, in the green fields where ancestors rooted their lives and from those roots sprang ... me... my life. Here. There. My homeless self, or self with two homes and dual citizenships.

I finger the old passport, open it, stare for a moment at the young woman with long hair and burning eyes. On the very last page is a stamp in red of numbers, indicating "Personas Kods" ... a number that designates that I belong there, too. I have the right to vote in elections in both countries. I may serve in the military in both countries. I would joke sometimes: it's a little schizo, and here, I am seen as the Latvian, and there, I have an American scent about me. Yet when I had been there, weeks, months, people would forget, even I would forget, and for a moment in time, I was actually a person who was at home.

It can be a difficult thing to explain to those who have an allegiance to only one country. I have always had two loves. Two places that call to me, each siren with its own song.

I hand the old passport to the city clerk in downtown Grand Rapids during my work lunch break. Heck, more divided homes. I don't live here, I only work here. I have an address elsewhere. Somedays, it all becomes a swirl, hard to keep track. Where am I?

She smiles. That bright, friendly American smile, open and trusting. When I traveled to the Soviet Union years ago, there were no smiles. Faces were gray, eyes downcast, hearts empty. I would return and want to kiss these smiles, these bright faces in their nearly unbearable innocence.

She chatters with me as I fill out the application. Her laughter is free and easy. It all goes very quickly. I hand her my application, my old passport, which she clips to the paperwork, and I pay her with a check. There. It is done. In four to six weeks, she says cheerfully, you will have your new passport and you will be free to travel.

Yes. I will.

My step is light as I leave the city building. Suddenly, all things are possible. An old rusty gate has fallen open, creaking on its rusted hinge, and all roads are open to me. An apartment in Vecriga, the Old Town section of Riga, Latvia, has already been rented. I can almost feel the key to the door in the palm of my hand.

I am almost there, already.

Photos: Vecriga, or Old Town Riga, Latvia


  1. Lucky you! You are a woman of two countries. I often feel I am a woman with no country.