Sunday, October 17, 2010

Journey to Latvia - Part 5 (Return to Ventspils)

by Zinta Aistars

Katolu Iela in Ventspils
Early morning, and Janis is already waiting outside the Pils Ielas apartment, with wife Rudite in the backseat of their car so that I can ride shotgun and have a better view of the road. We are on our way to Ventspils. It is my second morning in Latvia, and I am eager for more, many more. I am wonderfully unplugged from my life across the ocean; no cell phone but the international one I've been loaned to arrange meetings here in Latvia, no e-mail, no television, no radio, no newspapers. I hardly know what time it is, only that the sun rises and makes a bright arc across the Baltic sky, and sets again. It is a good way to travel. I am fully immersed in the moment.

Ventspils is the heart of my visit here. Members of my family still live in Ventspils, so does my good friend, Andris, and his sister, author Laimdota Sele, whom I've come to think of as my own Ventspils masina, or sister. My family history and roots grow deep in the soil of this port city on the Baltic Sea. My cousin Guntra's summer home is about 45 kilometers south of Ventspils, in a village called Jurkalne, and Guntra has been kind enough to allow me to stay in her home for the few days I will be visiting the coast. I very nearly tremble with anticipation.

I am eager to get on our way. I am eager to see all those beloved faces, those faces I haven't looked upon in nearly 17 years ...

It isn't long before we are out of Riga city limits. The first stretch of highway is modern and comfortable to travel, but soon the road narrows to two-way traffic and stretches through country. The population of Latvia numbers around 2 million, one million of which is in Riga. Driving through country west toward the Baltic Sea, the landscape is dotted with a few houses, mostly old ones, and an occasional village or town. Mostly, it's green and open land. When we drive through forest, I recall what my mother told me as a child: nowhere are forests more beautiful than in Latvia. We all think of our childhood homes as the best and most beautiful.... but Mama was right. I have rarely come across such clean forest in the States. With little to no undergrowth, the forests often consist of sky-high slender pines, or groves of tall, white birches.One can walk through these forests on mossy ground enjoying the sound of a breeze softly shushing through the trees, picking mushrooms from the mossy hillocks, or simply gazing on a slant of light breaking through the foliage, as if in divine blessing.

We stop midway at a quaint little pub called Apsu Krogs, enjoy piragi and cakes with coffee, then head on again. Good thing I'm not wearing a watch, because I would be watching it.

Oddly, as we near Ventspils after a little more than a two-hour drive, fatigue begins to roll over me. Jet lag? Perhaps. This is only my second full day here. But more, it is a wave of memory. There was a moment in time that I considered staying in Ventspils, moving my family here. I brought my children and let them loose into the streets of Ventspils, accompanied only by Laimdota's slightly older son Ansis as companion and guide. I wanted to know... could they adapt? It was then the very beginning of the renewed years of independence, and the country was struggling to understand a democratic government, what shape that might take and how to express it and safeguard it. What was known as the "mafija" was rampantly moving across the country with its tentacles of corruption, and there was too much chaos for my comfort. I could do it, if I had been alone ... but I couldn't move my children into this world, not yet. By the time I felt I might have, they were grown, and my own life circumstances had changed, too.  

Yet I recalled with what ease my children gained street smarts. Not a day before they figured out where to buy "cipsi" or potato chips, and where the best place was for play, in an old castle soon to undergo renovation. They zipped in and out of narrow Ventspils alleyways like they were in their own backyard. They were as boisterous as children anywhere, curious and eager to take it all in, even as I quietly assessed medical care, educational standards, and the predominance yet in those years of the Russian language in Latvian institutions.

The road not taken. What might our lives have been like? I would never know, but I was confident I had made the right decision at that time. Right or not, Ventspils was dear and close to my heart. If I had painful memories there, I also had sweet ones, and the latter prevailed.

A train pulled slowly across tracks just outside of Ventspils and I watched for the caboose, watched the woman waiting at the small yellow booth with flowers planted around it, giving a signal to the conductor. Almost there ...

My grandmother
I had family there, still. My father had spent many years in his youth in this city, and on my first trip here, I had met my grandfather's sister Anna and my grandmother's sister Milda, the two living together and across the street from the home where several more members of my father's family lived. The two elderly women had long ago passed on, but the rest of the family was still there, and I considered how differently people live here than in the States, where most of us change addresses every few years. I myself have lived at more than 30 addresses in my life. Here, generations passed houses on to each other, living where their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had been born, lived their lives, and died. Mothers birthed their children in the same beds, cooked their meals in the same kitchens. Fathers sat reading in the same living rooms, bouncing their children on their knees as they had been bounced. Walls resonated with the echoes of long ago lives, each one contributing to form the families living there now.

I was confident that one factor in the endurance of the Latvian nation was this stability of the family structure. I saw no generation gap here. Certainly not in outlying areas, outside of Riga. The elderly lived with the young, children interacted with grandparents and even great-grandparents daily. War-tossed as this nation was, surely having such strong family ties had contributed to its survival and eventual thriving again.

Anita was leaning out the window on Katolu Iela as we turned onto the cobblestone street. How long had she been leaning out like that, face gleaming with a wide smile, waving, waving and even jumping a step as our car appeared. I saw her bright face, waved back, and any remaining qualms I might have had about returning to this country faded away. I was welcome. No one would question me about why it had taken me so long this time to come back. No accusations, no guilt trips, no interrogations. I stepped out of the car, and I was instantly wrapped into the warmth of family love, just one of their own, coming back.

Ah, the laughter, the kisses, the warm embraces, the healing of decades done in but a moment. Surely I'd never left at all. The emotional upheaval of this total acceptance and heart-warming welcome was almost too much for me. I nearly collapsed in the chair in Anita's and Imants' living room, the same chair and in exactly the same spot where it had been the last time I was here, and I wanted to curl up and sleep like a child, like a child who has come home after a long, long wander in the dark wood, now safe and warm and watched over, able to rest in security. An oasis in the sea, a haven, and I in it at last.

Coffee cups appeared out of nowhere, with coffee so strong it was almost espresso, Latvian-style, and a homemade apple cake (with apples from the tree out back) with real whipped cream, just whipped, and I almost moaned in pleasure at the rich taste of home. I wasn't to rest for long, however. In a group of gathered family and friends, the air around me thick with chatter and laughter, we trotted through Ventspils at what seemed to me top speed...

...wait, wait, I can't keep up.... I lagged behind, or to one side, overwhelmed, caught between laughter and tears. I needed a moment alone, a moment of silence, a moment to take it all in.... that I was back in Ventspils, that I was back, here in this place where suddenly every corner was familiar, every building, every park, every little house, every bridge... it was overmuch and my mind whirled and hummed, I swirled in a whirlwind of memory and flashback. My lovely family.... this uproarious crowd that so obviously knew no greater joy than to be all together... even blessings, when we have too much of them at once ... like one starved being suddenly seated at a grand buffet... as we made fast tracks through the city as a group, through parks, to the seashore, down the pier, to the family cemetery, to the market ... I found myself falling further and further behind.

I looked for a moment of solitude and quiet.

Then, too, there was a call I needed to make. A call I had promised to make the first day I arrived in this country.

(To be continued...)

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