I haven’t changed at all? I made a face at my goddaughter, ah flattery, then hugged her and we were quickly on our way, dodging Rīga traffic at rush hour. But she had changed. A young girl last time I saw her, when she had come out for a visit to the States, now she was a dynamic young woman, an attorney, a wife, a mother of two children. I was looking forward to catching up with her and meeting the rest of her family.
Dynamic business people in every country operate the same way—quick stop at the grocery store, a six-pack of Tērvete, a Latvian beer for me to sample, and all the makings for a pizza. We picked up Māris, Zane’s husband, at his office on the way, scooped up Juta, Zane’s niece who was a college student in Riga at the University of Latvia, dodged traffic out of town, zipped through a yellow light (there are yellow lights before and after red lights in Rīga), parked the car outside of their apartment building, and, heavy grocery bags in hand, ran so fast up the five flights of stairs that I didn’t have time to remember to get out of breath.
Another look at another way of living in Latvia. I settled into the contemporary sectional in Zane’s apartment and chattered with her family as Māris slipped out of his shoes to become a barefoot cook, rolling out pizza dough, chopping and dicing toppings. Zane’s little boy, Tomass, and little girl, Līva, crawled and crept all over her as children do everywhere all over their mamas.
Their apartment was in some ways what I’d come to expect here—a battered old building from the outside, lobbies and stairways that could be downright frightening, only to open onto an apartment that was airy, sunny, clean and bright. Most apartments, or flats, were not rented, but owned. Once purchased, “remonti” or renovations began. Most everyone seemed to have a renovation of one kind or another going on most all the time—perhaps a necessity in a place where buildings dated back centuries. Zane and Māris had recently renovated their kitchen and bedrooms, now the bathroom was underway. Furnishings had simple, clean Scandinavian lines, and were sparse. A piano was the central point of the living room.
Zane laughed deliciously. “One must pay the bills!”
Creative arts were a tough way of making a living anywhere. Zane had been a serious and gifted pianist, disciplined in her daily hours of practice. We talked about work, our varied economies, and the election that was coming up in the morning, on Saturday. Māris brought out the pizza, steaming hot, cut into squares, uncorked bottles of Tērvete, and we pounced on our meal.
Politics make for a lively conversation anywhere. In the States, there are two major parties. In tiny Latvia, there are currently 13. We may be a lovely nation, but oh, are we independent in our thinking, rarely coming to a consensus on much of anything. It could be our weakness as well as our strength.
|Zane and her son|
|Liva and Juta|
|Viola, Ritvaldis and pup|
There was no time to contemplate. Ritvaldis called from his cell phone, waiting below at the Pils Iela curb, chariot awaiting our next adventure. Alda and I trooped down the stairs and busted back out into another brilliant autumn day, ready. Today was to take us to Jūrmala, the resort town on the Rīga’s Jūras Līcis, or Gulf of Rīga, about 20 minutes or so outside of Rīga. Ritvaldis lived there with Viola, who awaited our arrival. Ritvaldis was the son of my father’s cousin, and we had not seen each other since both of us were teens. His father’s name had been Valdis, his mother’s, Rita. I was always amused at the ingenious combination of the two in their only son—Ritvaldis.
Draugiem.lv, a site similar to Facebook, only in Latvian. The glories of the Internet … Ritvaldis had sent me one of my first text messages upon my arrival in Rīga a week before, welcoming me back home.
“Laimas šokolādes,” he said, slipping me a box of Laima’s chocolates, blueberry truffles covered in milk chocolate.
I burst out laughing. “Laimas šokolādes,” I said, slipping my box of Laima’s chocolates, an assortment of nuts and cremes, to him. Latvian traditions held firm: flowers and Laima’s chocolates in greeting, never empty handed.
|Ritvaldis and Viola's home in Jurmala|
Jūrmala is small but pretty. Houses are a mix of the old dachas used as summer homes by the rich, smaller places owned by families who simply want time out of the city, and grand new places that astound with their innovative architecture, or renovations of the older homes, giving them new life. The current president of Latvia has one of those grand new places, as Ritvaldis pointed out in passing, just a few blocks from him. I was struck by the absence of security guards of any kind, at least none visible.
In early October, the town was quiet. On its main street of boutiques and shops and rows of kiosks, only the stragglers were left—a few kiosks of souvenirs, and businesses with open doors but few visitors. Summer had ended. The tourists were gone, and the town settled into its own resident rhythm.
We trolled the town, feeling a little like stragglers after everyone else had gone and left it to us to turn out the lights. Random cats strolled across the street at a lazy pace, plopped down in the middle of the walk in patches of sun, and lolled. An old woman with a blue and white scarf tied under her chin waited for someone to buy one of her few boxes of raspberries, arranged in neat rows on a table. Ritvaldis paid a few lati for us to go into a wax museum, where we were greeted by a row of waxy villains: Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Putin … and Schwarzenegger? Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin sat on a couch, ready for another celebratory shot of vodka. The Beatles stood on stage in the next room, caught between notes.
“Maybe you’d like to see Aspāzija’s house?” Ritvaldis asked. “Being a writer. It’s near here…”
My eyes grew several sizes. Aspāzija .. yes, please. Yes! One of my favorite writers since youth, Aspāzija was still a role model to me. Not only a great writer, one of the most popular in Latvian literature, she had also earned my respect as Latvia’s first true feminist, fighting for women’s rights. She had also managed to create what to looked to me like the perfect marriage … she had her house in Jūrmala, and her husband Rainis, an equally popular Latvian writer, had his. They also had one together. Nice.
Aspāzija (1868-1943) was also a member of the Parliament of Latvia from 1920 to 1934 as a representative of the Latvian Social Democratic Worker’s Party. Her contribution in Latvian government was her continued strong voice for women’s rights.
Her house, the one in which she lived alone, was almost directly on the railroad tracks, but it was said she didn’t mind the occasional rattle of rails. On the other side of the rails, after all, was the Jugla Lake. Cross the street, and she was just a few blocks away from the Gulf of Rīga. And Rainis, her writer husband. Here, she lived in bright, sunny rooms, producing novel after novel, stories, plays, essays, poetry, gaining acclaim.
I sat down at her desk, and imagined …
I settled into her sun room, allowing a slant of sun to fall across my lap, and imagined …
Across time, I imagined, for a moment, our spirits touched. I liked to think so. She wrote in a time when Latvian literature was just taking shape as a cultural expression of its own. I wrote in a time when Latvian literature was reshaping itself, the nation finding its way again in renewed independence.
And tomorrow, back in Rīga, I would await Andris' arrival from Ventspils for our final day together. Sipping Kahlua and coffee at The Cotton Club, I was beginning to hear a clock tick, somewhere in the distance, yet growing ever nearer.
(To be continued...)