Monday, October 25, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 13 (Tattered But Enduring Souls)

by Zinta Aistars

My head bumped a bit against the glass pane of the bus window. Still early morning, the sun just starting to melt yellow across the green countryside, trees just touched with autumn color, and it might have been a pleasant two hours of viewing the scenery, but my eyes kept closing. Tired, yes, but maybe not just my body yearning for a bit more sleep. I was a little in denial about leaving Ventspils. If indeed I never return, that was my final visit …

… but I’m not quite ready to think about that.

Close my eyes. Let my head thump the glass a bit as we travel east to Rīga. The bus wasn’t overly full, people were quiet at this early hour, and the seats were comfortable enough. To lose myself in sleep…

The night before had turned into a little impromptu party at Anita and Imants’ house. Solvita and Jurjānis had joined us, the wine bottle, the big one, was uncorked, poured out for the women, while a bottle of šnabis, vodka, did for the men. Somewhere in the midst of all those cheery toasts and laughter and family reminiscences, my phone had chirped up again … Andris called to ask if I’d gotten home safely from Laima’s house, and to let me know that he would arrive in Rīga on Saturday, by the same bus that I was taking this morning. One farewell delayed.

Anita and Imants had walked me to the bus station in the morning, stood outside the bus looking up at me as the bus pulled out. I stared at their faces, their beautiful faces, for as long as possible, before they were but spots in the distance, and the bus turned onto another street. More of those admonitions: you will return, you will, we refuse to say goodbye …

There was power in such words. I felt those words sink into me, thread themselves through the fibers of my being, resonate inside the caverns of my mind. If it is meant to be, I thought …

I woke when we pulled into Rīga. The bus station was beside the Central Market, and I watched the bustle of people and food vendors. Duffel bag in hand, I got off the bus and headed on foot across town and into Old Town, Vecrīga, and wound my way through the narrow, cobblestone streets and alleyways, back across Doma Square and onto Pils Iela, to the rented apartment. All familiar enough by now that I could walk in something of a trance, feet carrying me where I needed to go.

I turned the key in the door of the apartment and fully had the sense of coming home, of belonging here, of being a part of this country and these people who spoke my own language.

I called Alda, the Latvian woman from Michigan who had flown to Latvia with me and shared this apartment with me for our stay. “Esmu atpakaļ Rīgā,” I announced. I’m back in Rīga.

“Oh, I can’t wait to hear about your time in Ventspils!” Alda cheerily answered. “And to tell you about Liepāja!”

Alda returned to the apartment from her own excursions around Rīga, and we headed out to look for a good place for lunch, a good place to sit and eat and rest and talk about our respective experiences. Taverna Uz Senā Dzintara Ceļa (Tavern on the Old Amber Road) on Torŋu Iela was just the place. A door leading with stone steps into one of those typical centuries-old Rīga basements with arched ceilings, we settled at a table and ordered our favorite Latvian cuisine, aromas and flavors that brought us back to our childhood kitchens—pelēkie zirŋi ar speķi (gray peas with bacon), gurķīšu un tomātu salāti (cucumber and tomato salad), rupjmaize ar šķiŋķi un kaŋepu sviestu (dark bread with ham and hemp seed butter), with kumelīšu tēju (chamomile tea), and for dessert, my all-time favorite, rupjmaizes zupa, a kind of Latvian bread pudding, or soup, of dark rye with fruits in cream. Just like Mama makes…


As my family roots are in Ventspils, so Alda’s are in Liepāja, another coastal city near the Lithuanian border. We shared stories over our lunch, licking fingertips, resisting licking the plates, oh heck, no one’s looking … until Jānis called on my cell phone.

“Forgotten me, have you? Or have you gotten lost?”

“Neither!” I dipped my spoon back into the cool cream of the bread soup and plucked a ripe cranberry to pop it into my mouth.

“Places to see, things to do!” Jānis offered, ever the enthused tour guide.

No rest for the traveler—we were off again. Jānis picked us up by the Latvian University, and we headed toward Brāļu Kapi, the Latvian equivalent of Arlington Cemetery in the States.

I’d been here many times. For Alda, first time in Latvia, it was a first. And still, for all my previous visits, the beauty of this old cemetery, the sacred stillness, instilled respect if not awe. The once white stone had visibly deteriorated, and my heart ached that the Latvian national treasury apparently lacked funds to keep up this national treasure, but the power of the place was no less.

Just as at Arlington in Washington D.C., an eternal flame burned here as well. In the summer, the long aisles leading up to the sculpture of Mother Latvia at head of the cemetery were filled with flowers—today, on this cool but sunny autumn day, flowers were few and faded. But the stone spoke. When I had first come here as a teen, the Christian cross had been scraped from the rock and replaced with the communist star. The cross was back again. When I first came here, the Red Army had buried its “heroes,” the military who had occupied Latvia and the other Baltic States by such violent force, enforcing a genocide that took the lives of about 150,000 Latvians over one night's time in a country that had a population of 2 million. Today, those graves had been exhumed, and those military persons were buried in their own Russian earth. But for a few, here and there, this cemetery was once again for Latvian veterans who had died in battle, defending their homes on the Baltic Sea. A surprising number of them were women, who had taken arms alongside their brothers, sons, and husbands.

Standing still, I almost thought I could hear the white rock heaving sighs. Thousands of Latvian soldiers lay here, killed between 1915 and 1920 in World War I and the Latvian War of Independence. The sculptor Kārlis Zāle, along with other sculptors—Cīrulis, Valdmanis and others—had created figures in rock that seemed so filled with grief that one was struck with their ability to create emotion in stone.

I had always admired Latvian cemeteries. Whereas in the States we had a culture-wide fear of death, here, death was embraced as a vital part of the life cycle. Families visited family graves frequently, bringing flowers and shrubbery to plant, bringing rakes and trowels to keep grave site gardens immaculate. Funeral homes had recently begun to appear in Rīga, but the old traditions of caring for one’s own dead were still widespread. Family members washed, dressed their dead, held wakes in their own homes, sat for three nights by the deceased in flickering candlelight. There was grief, but no fear. In the country, even more ancient traditions held, with men folk making their own coffins from a tree on the property, and storing their future “home” in the attic until it was needed.

I had attended a Latvian funeral the last time I had been in Latvia, and I was deeply touched by the ceremony. Friends and family and neighbors gathered around the grave that they themselves had dug, and lowered the coffin in with long linen towels woven for such an occasion—gently, gently, lowering the coffin slowly into the earth, singing mournful songs, and finally tossing in handfuls of dirt, everyone a handful, even the children, and letting the men folk finish with their shovels. At the wake following the burial, a place for the deceased was set at the head of the table, so that her departing spirit might sit with the rest of us a while longer.

Rather than rows of tombstones, cemeteries tended to be more like family gardens, with a headstone marking the family name. Often, a small bench gave a mourner a place to sit, and contemplate, and perhaps commune in his or her own way with the loved one. The cemeteries had more a feel of a solemn park, where one came to meditate, rather than a place of burying and forgetting.

Jānis told us the stories of many of the more prominent graves of the Brāļu Kapi, as well as the two cemeteries bordering either side—Raiŋu Kapi and Meža Kapi. In these bordering cemeteries lay more current war veterans, political figures, nationally prominent figures, artists, and also Latvian families. We walked slowly, listening. He pointed out the section where Latvians that had been executed en masse had been buried; he walked us to the monument for Jānis Čakste, the first president of an independent Latvia. In front of the Čakste monument was the newer, larger one for literary figure, Vilis Lācis, who had been asked to write his novels with messages of Soviet propaganda, had refused, but, after his son had mysteriously fallen down an open elevator shaft and been killed, had finally complied. He had been transformed into a Soviet literary hero, and his monument was strategically placed to cover Čakste’s monument from view.

When I first came here as a teen, in Soviet years, I spitefully found my way to Čakste’s grave and placed flowers before it, in the colors of the free Latvian flag. I had done the same at the Freedom Monument. Both actions were forbidden then to the residents of Soviet Latvia. What I had done, however, took no courage, only youthful spite and resistance and bravado. I could return to the United States, unscathed and unquestioned. When I heard later that friends and family in Latvia could be interrogated for my actions, I stopped. I would stand in front of these places and pay my respects on subsequent visits, but I would not make anyone else pay for my actions.

Silent suffering, I could feel it here, but I could feel also the peace. To walk among these aisles, among the stone sculptures and graves, beneath the green canopy of ancient oaks and slender white birches, I could hardly imagine the courage of those who had turned to dust here. I could only listen to these stories. I could keep them in my heart. But I could never know, born and raised in a free country so far away, what it had required of these, my people, to endure, to survive, to once again call their country free.

Jānis dropped the two of us off at the edge of Vecrīga at the end of the day. On our walk back to the apartment, Alda and I went through the market, Rimi, the one we saw pop up in every city and town in the country. How things had changed, I thought, how completely changed … as we pushed our carts through the store aisles, bursting with goods and colorful with advertisement. I remembered too well the long lines of people standing at store doors where the shelves were bare but for a few goods. People stood in lines not knowing what they were in line to receive—whatever it was, they surely needed it.

Rīga was a new city. She was the city she should have been many years ago. Her rebirth, rising from dust and ash and rubble of war, from occupation and deprivation, was testimony to the human spirit. The human spirit would demand its own, to live, the stretch, to thrive and grow, no matter how many times it was beaten down. There was no grave that could hold it. One generation wiped out, another would rise.

(To be continued...)


No comments:

Post a Comment