Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 1

by Zinta Aistars

What have I done? Doors were meant to close, I meant to close them, if gently. Instead, I have opened them wide again, doors flying open on hinges, windows open and curtains billowing in the wind. The journey is over. That is, the getting into a plane, lifting off, landing, time spent overseas in Latvia, nearly three weeks, plane lifting off again, plane landing again, is over. Another journey has begun now, and I have no idea, none, where this one will lead.

I sought a kind of closure. I sought a sweet farewell. Oh, those many loved faces and places … but I love them all still. And more, I love myself in them, in those places, reflected in the eyes of those many faces, and many of them mirroring my own features, my own sensibilities.

It happened again. The very same thing that happened all those many times before when I traveled over the ocean, plane circling over the blue of the Baltic Sea, landing on that forested northern land of Latvia, land of my mothers and fathers of uncounted generations before. It happened: I felt myself transform from one person into another. Yet still the same. Some parts unfolding into light, other parts folding in to sleep. My American self went to sleep; my Latvian self stretched sleepy muscle and limb and blossomed open and bright into light. Just like that, and I can see it in the photos now that the trip is done… the light falls differently on my face. I felt it on my tongue. Words turning to another language, softer, rich with meaning, the layers of many hundreds of years, a nation that has walked the earth far longer than most. History trembled inside me. Even my Latvian language changed … from the firm intonation of Latvians in America, to the soft, flowing and musical intonation of Latvians in Latvia.

I was home.

I knew it the moment we landed. A jet airliner over the ocean, a small plane from Warsaw, Poland, took me to Riga. For weeks, I carried a clenched fist inside me, hard with fear, and a body memory of the pain endured the last time I was here, nearly 17 years ago. It was autumn then, too. Lush with color. Raw with reds, dipped in gold. My every nerve simmered with fire at the farewell. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to come back, to feel that way again.

I needed to get past that. I had waited long enough.

The clenched fist opened slowly into a soft, pink palm, held open. The plane landed, rolled down the tarmac, and my eyes misted over with tears. What was I afraid of? Of this? Of coming home? Of all these open arms waiting to greet me?

There, the first set, at the airport. My old friend Janis, his wavy chestnut hair now turned a brilliant white, enfolded me in a warm embrace and handed me a beautiful bouquet of Latvian samtenites, marigolds. It is our tradition to always greet each other with flowers at most any and every occasion. It had always been that way. It always, surely, would be.

We are driving into Riga, and my head bounces on its rubber neck, this way, that, taking it all in, my eyes not nearly big enough to draw it all in, all of it, every bit of it, all these places I know, I know these places, that building there, the arch of that bridge, the sheen of the Daugava flowing between her wide banks, the cobblestone streets of Old Town in Riga, I know this place, I am this place, this place is in me, I am home, at last!

Too many homes, I think, too many. Is a person bereft who has so many homes? Or is this wealth? Pieces and shards and chunks of my heart planted and rooted in a myriad of places, scattered like seed to the wind. Chicago, where I was born; Kalamazoo, where I was raised; Cincinnati, where my children were born; Alaska, where I fell in love with the earth in all its glory; the Keweenaw, where I knew love, to be loved and to love with all in me—life, man, wilderness, art. And here, Latvia, land of my ancestors, land where my first language is spoken on every street corner, land that my parents taught me to love, but then learned to love on my own. So many homes, and so much of my life, feeling oddly homeless, nonetheless.

Yet all other homes are forgotten the moment my foot hits the cobblestone. These streets know my step. Mine, along with so many centuries of steps so like mine. Riga is steeped in history, a city established in 1201, hammered by wars and violence, yet rising again and again and yet again. Her last rise was in 1991, when she threw off the shackles of Soviet occupation, 51 years of torment, and declared herself free again.

I had seen her for the first time when I was 15 years old. Latvia had been forced into Soviet rule after World War II, and my parents had fled to Germany, then the United States, to avoid deportation to Siberia. I came that first time with my parents, my parents younger then than I am today. I can only imagine the fists and knots of fear in their stomachs as the plane landed in Riga. But I recall the joy of seeing home again on their faces, too. Even as the face of Riga was worn then, and gray.

She blazes with color now. I take it all in as we drive up to Old Town, park the car at its perimeter, because cars are not allowed to drive into its center. New Riga, yes, there cars race and intertwine on busy lanes. Here, only footsteps ring on the old cobblestones. My suitcase rattles on its little wheels as I pull it along Miesnieku Iela to Pils Iela, where the rented apartment awaits.

To either side of me, the ancient buildings rise proud and with bright, renewed faces. Brightly painted, polished windows, flowers blooming in window boxes. Latvian flags wave where once I only saw communist red. The thick burgundy stripes, the color of so much spilled blood, is centered with a pure white stripe. Legend has it that the Latvian flag came from a white linen table cloth, spread on a table where a Latvian woman lay a soldier, wounded in battle, so that she might care for him. His blood spilled to either side, but beneath him, the linen remained white.

If that soldier died, and so many with him, so many Latvians thrive today. Such a tiny country, nestled in the center of the three Baltic nations—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—about the size of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. Yet the culture remains rich with art, music, literature, even as the country now struggles with a barren economy, much as the rest of the globe but without the same reserves as the superpowers.

I feel a thousand upon thousand of those before me seep into the fibers of my being as my steps resound on those cobblestones. We are here still. We are here. We still live.

Only a short time will I be here, but, standing at the tall, brown door of Pils Iela 18, old keys rattling in my hand, I will open myself to all that comes to me, and I will offer myself whole in return. Those 17 years, they were long, they were unbelievably short, they are mere memory behind me, misty wisps of vapor, a coolness passing over my cheek and gone, and now, time stands still.

Riga, I’m back.

(To be continued, see next installment…)


  1. I've been looking forward to reading your story, how the trip went, what you saw, how you felt. This post is wonderful.


  2. Yes, amazing post... it is obvious you are a talented writer!

    Wow, 17 years... I feel it is "too long" when I have not been there in 17 months... would not mind being on a 17 week cycle.

  3. How lovely to find this post...sharing so many similar feelings. You capture it so well.