by Zinta Aistars
Every journey now, even the one around the block, makes me think of the journey ahead of me—my return to Latvia after a many year absence at the end of this summer. I am the child of travelers; my parents were, in fact, refugees from World War II, forced to travel from their homes as Soviet armies marched in, beginning a journey that would change their lives entirely… and make mine possible. They met here, in the United States, and married soon after.
That wartime travel was forced, hardly pleasant. Homes were lost, belongings destroyed, many lives ending in tragedy, and at the end of that line everything about them was strange and new, even the language incomprehensible ... and still, they both have always maintained their love for travel. At least, once my sister and I were born, trips were regular fare in our lives, more necessity than luxury, and greatly anticipated.
When the two of us girls were little, my grandmother would come to watch over us while my parents took off in their then new Rambler, crossing the country to see what they could see. When my sister Daina and I were older, we were taken along on these family vacations. Ah, road trips! I don’t recall calling out “Are we there yet?” because everything along the way was utterly fascinating to me. “There” didn’t matter. The journey did. Everything was new. Everything was strange and wonderful. The world opened in invitation before us, brimming with adventure.
I remember my sister and me sitting among pillows in the back seat of the car, our feet dangling over the edge of the seat. The pillows were for occasional naps, soothed by the humming of tires on the highway, stretching out endlessly before and behind us. Mostly, we were noses pressed to the glass of the car window, peering out at the world. The flat land of North Dakota, uninterrupted by even a single tree. The moonscapes of the South Dakota Badlands, rising rock and pale horizons. The soaring angles of the Rocky Mountains, jutting into the sky, stealing our breath away. Mama and my sister pressing their faces into the pillows and squealing as my father drove the rising and narrowing roads through the great mountain ranges, the land dropping away to either side. I still had my nose pressed to the glass, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, unable to look away. There were nights in little pup tents in Wyoming, and my father calming Mama, assuring her that the black bear would soon walk away …
Coastline to coastline, we traveled, we saw, we breathed in, we smelled and heard and felt and tasted and touched and observed and immersed and wondered and gaped and forever took away the memories. Memories I still cherish so many decades later, and now with my father leaning against his cane as he takes slow and cautious steps, resting often, I still remember his chuckle at squealing Mama on that high ridge through the mountains. And that quick wink to me in the rear view mirror.
I became addicted to travel for life. I have visited all but one of our 50 states and lived in several. I have crossed the ocean many, many times. And still, so, so many places await. So many yet unlived adventures invite. So much to see and make some small sliver of a new place, new culture, new sense of life, in some slight way my own.
For every journey I have ever taken, I have never come back home the same person. For all the physical geography I have traversed, my inner geography has always seen its own simultaneous and coinciding exploration. No place that I have experienced in person has ever had even a remote resemblance to what I had previously seen on some televised screen or even in the most beautiful book of photography, well crafted travel essay, or through another’s account. No place is the same to any two people. We all travel with all that we are, all our previous experience coming along with us, coloring our perspective. Call it baggage if you must, but to me, it is added nuance, a lens created for my eye alone, and for only my heart.
Traveling to a place where one’s roots go deep comes with its own particular sensibilities. Everyone should. I cannot describe it for you. There is something that happens, beyond words, when one stands on ground where one’s ancestors stood. Stood, lived, loved, birthed, danced, fell, rose again, died. My family history on both sides goes back many, many generations, and the long roots twine deep into Baltic soil. As far back as we can see, there stand the men on the Baltic shore, some of them sailing over that sea, and the women waited for them, keeping their homes, raising the children from whom I would someday be born.
I cannot describe that moment when I stood in a cemetery outside of Ventspils, kneeling to touch my fingertips to the mossy stone where my great-grandfather’s name was carved: Ernests Ansevics. I was 15 years old.
My grandfather was named Ernests after his father, their two faces nearly identical over the passing years except for my great-grandfather’s thick white moustache—my grandfather’s face was always clean shaven, though his hair was a glowing snow white from age 40. The younger Ernests would reject the surname of Ansevics, forced onto the family during a German occupation, when land barons “owned” those who lived on their stolen property, as if a human being was but another tree or rock on that land. Serfs had to carry the name of the baron and deny their own. A literary man, director of the Jelgava Teachers’ Institute, my grandfather chose instead the name of Aistars. “Stars” in Latvian means a ray of light. He would reclaim for his family our Latvian heritage.
So I stood at that grave, tracing that old name, forced upon my ancestors for generations of serfdom. Felt something pulse from the granite into my fingers, up my arm, flow into my blood, as if the long ago past had touched the future.
All my life, I have traveled. All my life, I have looked for Home, that place where I can put down roots and truly know myself exactly where I belong. At some point, not so long ago, I realized, for all my journeys, I would never find it. I could only claim it. Call some place Home while my roots would remain shallow. Call some temporary abode home, my eye always on the next one, my roots easily pulled up again.
When I once read at an author’s reading an essay dedicated to my grandfather and my own lifelong search for Home, I was approached after the reading by grown men in tears. They thought they were the only ones, and I had thought so, too. Lifelong travelers. My words had touched some raw and lonely place inside them. Perhaps those born of refugees will always feel this way—a wanderlust that is never sated. A longing for the road, for the climb up and beyond that mountain, the bend in the road, nurtured by the journey even as the journey never ends, driven by a hope for the impossible become possible.
Another journey will soon begin. They say there is no going home again, and I’m sure that is true. We change, constantly, and the world around us does, too. I will not find the same place I last left so many years ago. I do not know if I will have the chance to visit that stone again, where the letters carved into granite are surely eroding away. Yet I will, I know, stand on the Baltic shores, and in the sea breezes, listen, listen with my ears and with my heart, to the many voices whispering to me from across that sea and across countless generations. For a moment in time, finding myself to be Home, embraced by those who came before and those yet to come.
Photo: Ernests Aistars, my grandfather, in Augsburg, Germany, 1946.