Sunday, October 31, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 19 (Opera, Dobele, Seeking Spriditis but Finding Witch's Brew)

by Zinta Aistars

The lights dimmed in the Nacionala Opera. Alda and I sat in the fifth row, close enough to the stage to see the sheen of sweat, but we had no idea it would be the sweat of intense dance more of the jungle variety than Swan Lake. We had an inkling ... our tickets had printed across them: Baltic International Dance Festival ... but, well, we apparently got too stuck on the Baltic part.

I'd been here once, long ago, in the mid 1970s. The opera house was as beautiful as I remembered it, even more, with the gleam of gold trim all around us, and a chandelier that could sink a ship. Seats filled quickly, and audience members talked in a respectful hush, so that it seemed a breeze had found its way in and was whisking through the red velvet seats. I sat waiting, watching, remembering my mother's stories of her youth and the thrill of gaining a ticket to come here, even if to sit in the nose-bleed balconies. Whatever the show, the opera, the ballet, the play, the dance, the surroundings were stunning. Recently, a new wing had been added, too, on the side to the Riga Canal.

At last, the heavy red velvet curtain parted. An older woman stepped out to address the audience, and it was apparent she had been a ballerina from her graceful stance and flowing movements. Once a dancer, always a dancer. She introduced the ambassador from France, and another woman stepped out, with a translator alongside her, translating her French to Latvian. The Baltic International Dance Festival had been a long time in coming, they told us. Shows had had to be cancelled, but at last, at long last, this dance troupe from France was here, to perform for this audience in Riga ...

Alda and I glanced at each other, but that was only one glance. From the moment the French-African dancers entered stage right, we were unable to look away. Baltic? Not exactly. They were nearly naked, their gleaming dark skin oiled and shining with the perspiration of their efforts that seemed no effort at all. For the next hour and a half, without intermission, they moved at lightning speed to bongo drums and strings, their feet pounding the stage, their hips swinging, their bodies gyrating and snaking with movements that seemed impossible for the human body, yet ripped through muscles like living water. And never stopped.

Until they stopped, and the audience roared with approval, rose in standing ovation, demanded more, hands clapping over heads, and once more the French-African dance troupe thumped and gyrated and swirled and rippled and amazed.

"Not quite what I expected," Alda said as we followed the milling crowd back out in the cool Riga night. "But oh!"

I nodded enthusiastically. Oh. Three cheers for the unexpected. And viva la difference.

"What a beautiful night," I said in a hushed tone. We stood for a moment to take it all in. The fountain in front of the lit up opera house, splashing over light, surrounded by flowers, Old Town to our left, the newer section of Riga to our right, and the Riga Canal flowing just down the hill, a silken black river leading to the Daugava. One more night to remember, among so very many.


This would be yet another day to remember, I knew it already. Janis was waiting for me outside, on Pils Iela, ready to take me on a day-long tour of Zemgale, the southern province of Latvia. My father, Viestarts Aistars, had grown up in Ventspils, lived also in Jelgava, in the Zemgale province, where my grandfather was director of the Jelgava Teacher's Institute until World War II drove them from the country, and he lived in other Latvian cities, too, as my grandparents moved through their careers for teaching jobs, school to school--but he was born in Dobele. I wanted to see Dobele.

"You surely must not have sinned, at least not much," Janis said as we headed out of Riga and traveled southwest into another brilliant autumn day. "A blessing of a day, yet again."

"Surely," I said, crooking my head at him.

He was a blessing himself, taking work off just to taxi me around at my near every beck and call. I was prepared for another day of argument about this being my last trip to Latvia, and Janis did not disappoint. As we drove down roads that soon outside of Riga narrowed to two-lane country lanes, surrounded by forest and field and only the occasional miestins, village, we had plenty of time to cover all kinds of conversational territory. Politics, environment, religion, economics, and retirement. Retirement age in Latvia was 62. He was nearing it.

"It's also the average lifespan for a man in Latvia," he said. "Coincidence?"

"Look at you, picture of health," I poo-pooed him. "That is, if you can quit that infernal smoking ..."

"Ach, you and Rudite!" he groaned, referring to his wife. "Yes, yes, I know ... " He lit up another, not bothering to crack the car window, so I did.

It was more than a little depressing, to think of such a young age as the end of the line, I thought, watching the green landscape, occasionally dotted with Latvia's famed brunalas, brown cows known for their high quality milk production, slide by. If I did make a return trip to Latvia ever again, I thought glumly, it couldn't wait 17 years. We were running out of decades.

"To think that we are at that age now where there is such a thing as 'the last time,'" Andris had written back when I had first sent note of my impending trip.

My father as a young man
I thought of my father as we neared Dobele. He had already experienced his last time. He would not see Dobele again, except through my photos that I would bring back to him. His back problems, a series of ever more complex back surgeries, had left him in chronic pain, able to walk but a few steps before tiring. Travel over such long distances, crossing oceans, was beyond him. While my parents had always spoken of Latvia as their one and only home, the truth was, after 51 years in what they still termed as exile, the United States had become their second home, and now, their only one. By the time Latvia had regained her independence, my parents were elderly and unwilling to leave the medical care they had grown to rely upon. Change was too difficult, too riddled with complications. Latvia had become a place of dreams. The home one could never reach. And, suddenly, I thought of my grandfather, too, and how with all the many languages in which he was fluent, he reverted fully and only to Latvian on his deathbed, and in his mind's eye, he no longer saw his surroundings in the States. In his mind's eye, he was back here again, back in Latvia, and my grandmother was alive again, and young, and beautiful, and standing beside him. He never saw home again. Only behind his closed eyes.

"Here we are!" Janis called out, and we crossed the stone bridge over the Berze River and into Dobele.

I was suddenly sorry I hadn't questioned my father in more detail before coming here. Where exactly? What street, what house? We parked the car in a central place, I wrapped my woolen scarf around my neck against the autumn bite in the air, and we headed out to explore.

I tried to imagine my father as a boy. As an infant, my grandmother pushing him along in a stroller on these streets. Her first child, first son of four. Dobele was small, but it was centered by a tall white church built in the 1400s; my father would have seen this, seen what I was seeing now, most any day of his boy's life. These shops lining streets around the church, they dated back centuries, if only their activities and signs hung out for business would have changed. I stood, erasing the modern in my mind's eye, and seeing only that which would have been here some eighty years ago. It wasn't hard to do.

Had he sat here, in the green park surrounding the church, pencil in hand and notebook on his knee, scribbling his first drawings? He had told me often that drawing for him was like words for me... neither one of us had ever contemplated a range of possible futures and careers ... we'd always known. Had he scrambled along the banks of the Berze, tossed stones into her waters, skipped them across to the opposite shore? He'd shown me how to skip stones when I was a girl, only I'd never quite gotten it, not like him, that easy sideways toss, the stone plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunking an impossible number of times before sinking.

Back in the car, we crossed the Berze again and parked on the other side. The crumbling remains of an old castle threw its mirrored image into the river below. Janis and I roamed through the open walls for a good hour, in and out of rooms that now had ceilings open to blue sky. A wonderful place for a boy to play ...

I suddenly ached to read history. Our lives were blinks of an eye, a quick spark flaming up and then rising up into the sky, fading away, disappearing. How to keep any of it? How to keep something of that time of joy and sorrow, love and loss, birth and death, so closely one after another?

I wandered between the castle walls, pressing my hand to rock, where perhaps my father's small fingers, the hand of a boy, had clutched at rock, pulled one loose, stuffed it in his pocket, treasure, to take home with him ... home, that place he would never see again except behind closed eyes.

I stood on the rising bank over Berze and looked out over Dobele, a peaceful town, no hint of all the war she had seen, the tears, death, tragedy. Families torn loose from their roots and tossed into the sea, to float to whatever foreign shore would take them.

The passage of time, erasing nothing, only storing away, layer upon layer upon layer, and if anything survives, it is that something, that unnamed and unnameable something, that we carry in our blood and in our bones and in our cells and in our hearts, generation to generation, ancestral memory. That deep whisper inside ... that drives us to go to places where we have, it seems, never been, but seeking to follow back in time along the steps of those before us. Perhaps to guide us forward on our own paths.

If my father would never come back here, to Dobele, I stood here now, for him.

Anna Brigadere
Time, yes. Best keep moving. Onward, then, toward Tervete, and the house called Spridisi, this time my personal quest, to take a peek into the life of another Latvian author I'd adored in my own childhood, and rediscovered a few years ago, as an adult--Anna Brigadere.

A few years ago, I'd been invited to teach a seminar on Latvian literature in the Catskill Mountains, in New York, at a camp owned by New York Latvians. That summer's camp was called 3x3, and I agreed. The exact topic of my seminar was up to me, and I considered various authors that had shaped me, not only as a writer, but as a person. I had read Latvian with ease by age 3, a phonetic language that was easy to deciper on the written page. Unlike English, once you mastered a sound, it was always the same sound. Books were my favorite playmate. My parents had stocked our home with many, many books, shelves lining most every room, even the dining room. My mother had even shelved the books in two layers, running out of room, and one of my favorite treasure hunts as a child was to pull out the books on the shelf to see what I could find among the row of books hidden behind the first row. There they all were, the old Latvian classics: Karlis Skalbe, Edvarts Virza, Zenta Maurina, Janis Rainis, Aspazija ... and Anna Brigadere.

Spridisi, Brigadere's home
Brigadere wrote for children, but then she wrote also a series for young adults, that many adults found equally fascinating. My first visions of Latvia came from Brigadere's books. I imagined the lives she described, in country as well as city, the insides of houses, the fashions, the conversations, the then-current events ... and it all came alive for me, perhaps more alive than my actual surroundings. My mother would chide me for never putting down my books and going out to play. I would go outside, as told to do, but the books would come with me.

I taught the seminar that week in the Catskill Mountains about Brigadere and Skalbe and Virza, reading portions with other Latvian adults, discussing whether their content was still relevant to us today. Child psychology, environmentalism, dynamics of intimate relationships, birth and death and what came between ... by end of week, we were all in agreement: the old classics were as relevant for us today as they had been the day they were written. They were classics because they addressed the constants of life.

Crossing Zemgale, rolling green plains, I spotted a group of horses, and I asked Janis to pull over. Most of the horses I saw in Latvia were work horses, but these beauties ... they spoke of elegance, and speed. Standing as still as they were, the speed expressed itself in the smooth ripple of muscle. They were the run frozen in the moment. A tail flicked, a mane moved in the breeze, a nostril flared, and I could sense the dream of racing the wind.

"Tervetes zirgi," Janis said, "the horses of Tervete. They are Latvia's best. Raised to be champions."

Spridisi, Brigadere's home, was not far from here. We passed Tervetes Dabas Parks, the immense forested park, crisscrossed with trails, constructed in Brigadere's honor over an expanse of 1,200 hektari, and made a point of coming back after lunch. Stomachs were rumbling.

A cafe was open in the basement of Spridisi, Brigadere's living quarters overhead. I stopped to read a sign just before going downstairs. What? Closed? No! I stomped a foot like an angry Spriditis, a character in Brigadere's books that was one "spriditis" high, a meter, a tiny little firecracker of a guy, willing to take on giants. Can't be!

Janis pursed his lips, let his eyes trail to treetops, wagging his head back and forth. "Well. So. Closed on Tuesdays, who would have thought. It appears you'll have to come back again."

I made a face at my friend, rolled my eyes, wasn't ever going to give that one up, was he? And I cherished him for it.

Lunch, then. We could at least eat below those left-in-mystery rooms overhead, where magical stories unfolded, and afer lunch, I could prowl around her doors and windows, peeking in, hand shading from glare, squinting to see beds, tables, desks, the ordinary furnishings of an extraordinary life.

In Tervetes Dabas Parks, we could walk long trails to enter storybook lands. Nothing plastic here, nothing motorized, nothing that wasn't out of stone and wood. A section of the forest was created to resemble the land of elves that Brigadere had created. Another section of forest was filled with giant mushrooms, waist-high, or at our knees, mushrooms with smiling faces, round cheeked under their delicious brimmed heads. Another section of forest was filled with characters from her stories, the odd little creatures and wood nymphs and devilish imps and, of course, a witch.

The witch was very much alive. She noticed us approaching immediately, stirring her witch's brew in a big black pot over a simmering fire. A green lizard crawled through her long, straggly gray hair. Her grin at us was more mischief than evil.

"Ah, come closer! A drink from my brew, perhaps? Magical powers ... " and we drew near. "And who is this man with you," she leaned closer to me and whispered in conspiratorial tones.

"Oh. Not mine." I shrugged.

"Ah! I seeeeeeeee...."

"Oh goodness, no!" I corrected. "A friend!"

The witch tittered. "A friend," she waggled a finger at me. "But what kind of friend is this man not yours?"

Janis was not helping me at all, pretending to study the floating somethings in her brew, lips pinched shut, enjoying his own brand of mischief.

"No, no," I tried to back pedal and failed miserably. "A family friend ... "

"AHHHhhh!" The witch cackled deliciously. "A family friend!" She leaned in again to whisper to me, her whisper loud enough for Janis to hear. "The worst kind ... " She dipped a long-fingernailed hand into an invisible pocket among the folds of her skirt to fish out a tiny folded up orange paper, tied with a string, and handed it to me. "Here, you must take this, and do not open it until you truly need it. And with such family friends, you will surely need it ... "

I held the tiny packet in my palm.

"It's for krenki," the witch explained. For grief and worries and stress. Ah yes, I thought, no doubt I can use such a spell at some point ...

Then she was onto Janis, filling a cup for him of her brew, with toad stools and lizard blood and goodness knows what potions, and we were soon laughing and cackling along with our witch, who said she actually lived in Dobele when not brewing potions, had left the country after WWII but felt compelled to return and lived here for years now, practicing her charming witching arts for those who wandered into this enchanted forest.

Time to fly off on her broomstick, she said, and invited me to fly off to the moon with her. Oh, that I could ... I hopped onto the broomstick behind her and was ever so ready, my tiny spell against "krenki" held tightly in my hand as we took flight...


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 18 (Bells and Bars)

by Zinta Aistars

Sunday morning, and all the church bells, all the great iron and brass bells of Riga were ringing. The clanging resounded through all of Old Town, Vecriga, and echoed from the walls of centuries-old buildings as it had for so long ... with the exception of the Soviet years. I could hear joy in those bells ... a solemn joy, earning their right to ring again.

My morning was quiet but for the church bells. I rose after sleeping in, the apartment to myself, and stretched like a lazy cat. I was wearing an oversize tee-shirt I'd bought on my last trip to Michigan's Keweenaw, mossy green with a moose on my chest, a row of evergreens, "UP North where nowhere is someplace" ... and I smiled, thinking of it, thinking of that last trip north, and how my heart rang, like church bells, looking for home and knowing, someday, I would find it.

As much as I ever could. Some part of it ... As much as any one place could ever hold me.

Home here, too. I sat in the chair in the living room and slouched back, letting my gaze swing upward through the window, where I could see the courtyard, the neighboring old buildings with their clay red rooftops, and a patch of sky. What would it be like to live here? What would it be like to have one home? I suspected I would never know. A casualty of the war, one that happened before I was ever born, the offspring of refugee parents with always the thought of going home, someday going back home, until it was too late to uproot again, and home was a place divided across two shores.

Home was my forever longing, never quite attained. I touched a palm to my tee and rubbed the cloth. For focus. I had to choose. And even as I let my imagination wander, imagined that such a place as this could be permanently mine, I had to use head over heart. Choose wisely ...

Both Janis and Andris had sat me down and had a firm talk with me. I tried not to smile, seeing their seriousness. Ah, men. To be the protector was as much in their biology as to silently be my own trailblazer was in mine. We women learned to listen, nod, and then do as we pleased. Not that I didn't see the good sense of what they were saying ... a woman alone in the northern woods was like hanging out a sign above the door: Trouble Me.

Ilga at the Lido Alus Seta
Then again, maybe not. I had recently worked on a book review for a true crime story based on domestic abuse. The sobering truth was that women were never more in danger than in their own homes, at the hands of their intimate partners, husbands and boyfriends or other family menfolk. Heartbreaking. A tragic truth of our times, perhaps all time, that unspoken war between genders. But those same men who were so drawn to protect us could be the same men who could raise their hand against us.

I had experienced an abusive relationship myself. Jekyll and Hyde, the public charmer, sweet-tongued, but a dark presence in private, driven to manipulate and control. Too many like this. It was one of the reasons I'd chosen my future path as solitary. Being alone in the woods was not the unsafest place I could be.

"What is this quandary over finding home?" Janis asked me in open confusion. "You are a Latvian, this is home. Why question? When it is time, retire here. Where you belong."

"Maybe not so deep in those snowy woods," Andris said. "Perhaps a neighbor near by ... or two. Somewhere you can go for help ... if you should ever need help..." Worry creased his forehead, and I smiled, nodded, said I would think it over.

Risks lay in every direction. A woman was forever looking over her shoulder, always aware of what lurked in the shadows, never entering a room without quickly scanning it for potential danger. It was reflex, passed on by generations, suckled with mother's milk.

But I had been moved by their concern -- these two good men in my life. I trusted them both, and had reason to; they had earned it. I heard the wisdom in their words. I was warmed by the time they had given to run this thought through their minds, considering, weighing, worrying. It was why I called them friends. They were good men and good friends, and I promised myself to think through carefully their advice, too.

No solution was perfect. Didn't I prefer the choices Aspazija had made? My favorite Latvian writer, a woman of good words and hardy spirit, and she had lived in her own house in Jurmala, while her husband Rainis maintained his own ... and a third one together, to share. Yeah, okay, a tad idealistic and more than a tad beyond my thin purse. My financial advisor had chastised me for dreaming overmuch. Pick a dream and pursue it. Pick one.

I had come to Latvia to say hello again, after so long, but also to say goodbye.

Bells clanging, I wasn't sure that was how it was all turning out. Life could be a twisted surprise. A fork in the path at every turn. Constant choices and revisions.

Never say never. For now. I refuse to say anything else but ... for now.

I didn't have to solve all this now. But I was fully aware some of the game pieces were changing position, new factors had come to play, and my heart was bouncing around from dream to dream, and trying others on for size.

Breakfast. I made breakfast in the neat little kitchen, glancing on occasion at the three red roses in the vase on the table. Beautiful buds, beginning to open, wine red petals softly unfolding. I would never see them at full bloom. The days remaining for my trip were numbered, and they didn't even take up one hand.

This afternoon, I would be meeting Ilga. Like most everyone here, she was a friend since near forever, from that first trip here. On my second trip, with my fiance beside me, the man who would become the father of my children, we bounded around town as three couples. The two of us, Ilga and her husband, and another couple. Giddy youth. We literally danced through the streets of Old Town. Soviet years, but we accepted no rules, made our own, and we walked, danced, three couples across, arm in arm, beautiful and young and silly and free no matter what our surroundings...

Window shopping with Ilga for Latvian gifts

Another lifetime ago.

Ilga had come to America several times. I had visited her here, in Riga, several times. Once at the Riga Pils, where she worked as assistant to the President of Latvia, through two terms with Latvia's first woman president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, and then for Zatlers. On occasion, she would send me a fax to my workplace in the States, and more than once, someone had come rushing to my desk, breathless, "Oh! This must be important ... the letterhead, it says ... from the Office of the President of Latvia!"

Ach, it is just my friend Ilga, I would grin and shrug. But I appreciated the private tours and inside pointers. She knew the best places in Riga. I would meet her this afternoon, and we would waste some pleasant time together.

Just like her, exactly like her, unchanged by time: Ilga spotted me across Doma laukums, Doma Square, and I saw her dancing and skipping toward me, white coat swirling, her arms full of white daisies, and another box of chocolates. The daisies tickled my cheek as we hugged. We went back up to the apartment to deposit blooms and sweets, then went back out into the street again, arm in arm, giggling like old girls.

With Ilga, I didn't have to work. For her, conversation was a rapid river, and I pulled back and let her catch me up on news of Riga, of the election results from the day before--the party Vienotiba had taken most votes--and on her own news. She chattered cheerily and happily and openly and with sparks flying. I sat back and let her talk, relieved to just take it all in for a day, and not be questioned, much.

We had lunch at Lido's Alus Seta, just off the Square, and I dipped my finger, naughtily, into mashed potatoes swimming in gailenu merce, a creamy sauce of mushrooms, can never have enough, and licked it. For all that I had been unplugged from news until now, now I caught up on much of it, Ilga my antennae to the world.

Restaurant advertising its fresh fish
 The day was as pleasant as any here, cool autumn, if a little overcast. We walked around and through Old Town, weaving through narrow streets and alleys, and I admitted to being delighted when Ilga called out, "Oh! but I've never been here! How is it that you come here from over the ocean and can show me places I've never yet seen...!"

Oh, just give me time. If I lived here, I thought, I'd know every nook and every cranny. I would be on first name basis with every Riga cat and mouse.

Just a few more days, I thought, as we walked, and I let my gaze swing high and low again. Take it all in. Couldn't get enough. These rooftops, these cobblestones, these shop windows, these winding alleys between pastel-painted buildings ...

Undeniably, much of my heart would remain here.

Not the least of my pleasures during my time here was to be able to speak, think, dream in Latvian, without interruption, except for those times when my travel companion Alda would ask for something to be translated into English, but otherwise I was fully immersed in the world of my native culture. How much I had missed this...

Ilga chattered on, and she tugged me into a pub now and then, doing a little bit of Sunday bar-hopping, to check out the ambiance. No, not this one. Nor this one, she said, deeming it too noisy. Where shall we go? To toast this re-meeting, this reunion, this promise for future meetings... and at last she found the place: Kiploku Krogs, the Garlic Pub.

Hmm? Garlic Pub?

Ilga explained it was a favorite, surely something unique (no argument from me), in that everything but everything in this quaint little place was infused, flavored, dipped, rolled, smothered, slathered, roasted, flavored, sprinkled, toasted, sauced with garlic. Even the vodka.

Ilga ordered for us, and I watched the tabletop fill with dishes of garlic in so many permutations that it was dazzling. And not one bit of scent to any of it ...

We toasted -- Prieka! -- with our shot glasses of vodka, a clove of garlic speared and swimming in it. Ilga ordered another, while I opted for a bit of tomato juice. Then we dipped in. Admittedly, the stuff was good. All of it. Pickled and marinated cloves, chips with garlic salt sprinkled on them, cheese with garlic in it, toast triangles with garlic butter spread on them, roasted garlic hot from the oven ... but after an hour or so of this, I was rolling my eyes and begging for mercy. Mercy came in the form of a bowl filled with fresh petersili ... parsley, and we chomped on it by the mouthful to kill the flavor and scent, to emerge back into the Riga streets smelling like ladies.

By the time I was home again, home, temporarily, in my apartment, evening darkened my windows and the silence of my rooms was welcome. I threw off my clothes and slipped back into my Keweenaw tee. I slipped a CD by Sting, On a Winter's Night ... into the stereo, this medieval music fitting the night, and I danced across the room, this time alone, this time with no one arm in arm with me, and the Daugava River just beyond, still flowing to the sea, and I danced, and I danced, in bare feet on the cool wood of the floor, my eyes closed, turning and swirling into my Riga night.

Another lifetime.

(To be continued...}

Friday, October 29, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 17 (The Darling)

by Zinta Aistars

Oh yes, that, which I had dutifully ignored all day long, but now had to ask: “Have we enough time?”

The boat cruise on the Rīga Canal, circling around the city and out into the Daugava River and back into the canal again, took 35 minutes. Andris glanced at his watch. I refused to wear one. His bus back to Ventspils was departing at a little after 8 p.m.

“Still enough time. Shall we?”

The captain of the sweet little boat, Darling, offered us the interior cabin. It might be a bit cool on the water, he said. Nice, sure, with its cushioned seats and brass trimmings on cherry-stained wood … but Andris and I only glanced at each other to know we were both in agreement. We wanted to be outside, in the fresh evening air coming off the water, there to witness the approaching night, wind whipping about us. I had never seen Rīga from this perspective. As it turned out, neither had Andris. We were both bubbling over with excitement, a couple of kids again.

And yet we weren’t. We were not children. We were not 15 years old anymore. We were no longer bonded by our vows, but by something else neither of us named.

The back of the boat was a tight spot, two small seats facing each other, and the Latvian flag flying from the stern. A life ring hung on both sides, a white circle and the word DARLING on it, and Andris snapped a photo of me beneath it, and I of him beneath his, both of us beaming. What fun! Everywhere we looked, in whatever direction, Rīga astounded with her beauty, and the evening sky, slowly turning pink and lavender and yellow and orange and streaked with threads of gold and red, made us breathless.

We were off! Darling did a little shimmy, bobbed a bit this way and that, and pulled out into the canal. Her engine hummed, and the water parted to either side of us. A breeze picked up and teased the flag, then whipped it about. We went under the graceful arc of a bridge, then another, and another, and there was the National Opera House to one side, up on the hill, white and lit from beneath, and there, the University of Latvia on the other side, and there, a tea house, and there …

… we were snapping photos in every direction. It was impossible not to. Every moment brought a new and perfect scene to our eyes. Occasionally, we caught each other in the camera’s eye, and the changing light painted our faces.


“Oh! Look! Over this way! How beautiful…”

I thought for a moment of my birth city, Chicago, where I had spent many of my childhood summers and special occasions and holidays, even long after my family had moved to Michigan, and how I had never quite seen it, never for what it was, until I had taken a river ride on a boat through its interior and then out onto Lake Michigan, to look at it from a bit of a distance. I was awestruck. I’d never realized what a stunning skyline Chicago had, how diverse her architecture, how the light could paint skyscrapers and catch in their windows and bring the city to life.

Now, I saw Rīga with new eyes. The one city had no resemblance to the other whatsoever. Skyscrapers were rare here. The few that rose above the red-roofed buildings almost stuck out like sore thumbs. I didn’t like them. Their hard lines were jarring against the solid old buildings of this centuries-old city. Their architecture looked failed here, amateurish, unfinished. But most of Rīga consisted of those old art nouveau buildings, like nowhere else, and tall church spires, some sharp, like Gertrude’s church, others rounded and with shoulders, like the Dom cathedral, or a combination of both, like St. Peter’s. She was old grace, a grand old dame, her age that which gave her such personality. She didn’t have to aspire to look like anyone else but herself—the pearl of the Baltic Sea.

Our little Darling puttered around the curves of the canal, under bridges and through tunnels and out into the lavender light again. Green banks rose up to either side, beautifully landscaped, and trees dipped limbs into the water and leaned to watch their own reflections in its mirror. Darling picked up speed and a cool evening breeze felt silken over our faces.

A turn, and we purred past the Central Market, the Autoosta, or bus station which I did not in particular wish to see … and out onto the Daugava River. So many Latvian folk songs put this great river to poetry, sang about her wide banks, her clear water pouring out into the sea, and how she carried in her the souls of the Latvian nation living alongside her.

The sinking sun was lavish with her gold. Surely I’d never witnessed such magical light. I was speechless. Nor did Andris say a word. We only looked at each other from time to time, our eyes wide, lips parted in awe, skin glowing with golden light and sheer joy. This I would remember. This ride, always. This little boat moving out into the river, the water in smooth waves parting into a rippling wake behind us, the silken breeze, the fresh cool air whipping my hair about, the little Latvian flag slapping about its pole on the stern, and the panorama of Rīga, that incomparable ages-old skyline, rising to our side. I felt under a spell. I never wanted to wake.

I imagined, for just one short instant, that boat pulling out into the Gulf, then out to sea, and steering for the unreachable horizon.

The Darling pulled east, turned just past the harbor pier, and back into the Rīga Canal.

We slowed, and our wake bobbed the boats and the gleaming white yachts in the marina. Autumn colors had inflamed the trees on the banks, and they dipped golden branches toward the water. A couple of fisherman watched us pass and waved. We smiled and waved back. The canal narrowed, turned south, and we were heading toward the city center again.

Time. There it was again, that hungry beast.

Andris held out his hand for me to take as I climbed out of the Darling and back onto shore at Bastejkalns park. I held my three red roses in my other hand, my camera slipped back into my pocket.

We walked in silence.

We walked south, toward the bus station.

“I’ll buy my ticket now,” Andris said quietly, his voice dropped to near whisper. “We can go sit somewhere then for a little while. Until…”

I nodded.

We walked in silence again, and then he started to talk, of some nonsense, and it was as if suddenly I couldn’t understand this language anymore, that beast out there, it was slinking into me, and I felt a wall come down, a mask, and the windows of my house went dark, the doors slammed shut, the welcome mat was pulled in. Andris stopped in the road, turned to look at me.

I stood there, a stranger.

I had learned how to protect myself. Not all of that was good. But it was still a means of survival.

“Forget all that,” he said, erasing whatever he had been saying, and came back to the instant, shoved time aside, as brutally as it inflicted itself on us here, on this sidewalk, on this lavender evening, if only for one moment before it would win again. He pulled me up to him, held me, hard, almost too hard, and I stood inside that circle of his arms, unmoving.

Time. Time won again. Andris grabbed for my hand and we walked quickly to the bus station. I studied the patterns on the wall while he bought his ticket. My three red roses hung in my hand, blooms to floor. Seventeen years ago. Seventeen years ago this moment shattered me. I would not be shattered again. I. Would. Not. And I would not cry.

He was standing in front of me again. “We still have some time. Let’s go… let’s just go.”

His hand searched for mine, found it, held it hard again, like a naughty child in danger of running away… but where would I run? Where was home? Instead, Andris steered us into the first pub he could find, surely Rīga’s rattiest, a hole in the wall with holes in the wall where electric sockets showed an array of loose wires at shoulder height when we sat at a table, the only two in the place.

“Careful!” he reached across the table as my shoulder sagged toward the wall.

Then he did that thing he does. Had always done so well. Even as I was thinking, must pull myself out of this, must pull free, can’t waste this moment, when it may be the last … the last, and who knows, ever. I shook myself like a dog shaking off rain while he went to the bar to order me a beer. If anyone could make me laugh … but not even Andris could. Yet there it was, a weak and watery grin.

“Bar’s out of beer.”

“Hm?” I raised an eyebrow.

“Yup. This bar has no beer. No Guinness for you.”

“Out of beer. The bar has no beer.”

“I ordered a couple mugs of coffee, yes?”

“Sure.” And the waitress, looking bored, brought us two bright red mugs.

I pulled a small wooden heart from my bag and slid it across the table at him. Just like that, his face went to stone. I could see he recognized it. A Keweenaw heart. He had carved it himself. A thousand years ago, in a previous lifetime, when vows were made that floated out on the waters of Lake Superior. Our window sills were littered with wooden hearts and smooth Superior stones.

He took the wooden heart in his hand and turned it in his fingers, frowning at it. “You’re giving me your heart back?”

I dropped my eyes to my coffee mug, smiled, shook my head. “So what do I want with it?” I teased. He didn’t answer. “No. I have dozens of your hearts back home. Just thought you might want one.”

He breathed. Turned the heart again in his fingers and studied it. “Yes. I remember. And I used to carve little animals for you, too. A squirrel…”

“And a turtle…” I sipped my coffee, melting. “And fish. Still have them on my shelf.”

He took one of the River Canal boat tickets and placed the heart on its back, tracing it with a pen from his pocket. Started to scribble something. A note. I reached for the heart, took it back for a moment, scribbled something on its back and slid it back to him. He slid the ticket to me. We both read. He slid the heart into his shirt pocket, over his heart.

“Heart to heart,” he said, tapping his pocket.

I slid the ticket with his message into my bag. Were those tears in his eyes? I bit back mine.

It was time.

He reached for my hand again and we trotted back toward the bus station, having waited nearly too long. He would be late. We stopped at the tunnel entrance that crossed over to the station. Time was now. Now. Held on, held on, held on hard and rocked, held each other to break bones, but held on.

“So grateful you came … thank you…”

I nodded into his shoulder.

“Pagaidām,” he said. “Mīlulīt. Lidz nākošai reizei.” For now. Darling. Until next time.

I pulled back a moment to look at him. To memorize that face, alongside the faces of a young boy, a young man, an older one now.

“I can’t say otherwise,” he said. “But... pagaidām. One never knows in life, does one?”

I smiled, touched his cheek. Kissed him lightly and let him go. Once again, I let him go. And I refused to look back as I heard his steps on the stairs descending into the tunnel, my own echoing on the cobblestones of Vecrīga.

(To be continued…)