Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 15 (Jūrmala)

by Zinta Aistars

“Bet tu nemaz neesi mainījusies!” Zane called out as I climbed into her zippy little car at our meeting spot, the meeting spot for most everyone in Rīga … Laimas clock at its central placement, near the Freedom Monument.

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.

“Your degree was in music, as I recall?” I pointed at the piano. “And now you are an attorney?”

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
From politics, conversation switched to higher education as Juta accompanied me back into the city on a trolley … I always had to think, which was which, the trolleys ran on electric wires overhead, but the tramvaji, or trams, ran on rails, or was it the other way around? She talked of her deadly schedule, studying at all hours and all days of the week, trying to fit in a job to pay bills … these things, too, were the same most everywhere.

Liva and Juta
The trolley dropped us off at the Freedom Monument, and from there, it was a pleasant walk past Bastejkalns park, through Old Town, across Doma Square, and back onto Pils Iela for a good night’s sleep before the next day’s adventure—a day in Jūrmala, resort town by the sea.


Viola, Ritvaldis and pup
 If this is what it is like to be a celebrity—pass! I checked my itinerary, a folded and by now badly crumpled paper in my pocket, to see who was next in line. Every day was a list of meetings with friends and relatives, and I was swimming in the warmth of it, ah the love, but could hardly keep track. The part of me that longs for solitude nudged shoulders with the part of me that enjoys meaningful connection. Why must the best parts of life pass so quickly? I wanted enough time for both.

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.

We greeted each other like old pals. As with everyone here, and I tried not to take that for granted, I was welcomed like an old friend, or a relative one had longed to see and now, finally, would again. Yet we hadn’t talked since that first and only meeting so long ago … until we had reconnected on, 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
 And we’re off.

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.

 After a quick drink at Ritvaldis’ and Viola’s Jūrmala house (but it’s only 10 a.m.! yeah, so?) and a taste of those Laima’s šokolādes, I reluctantly lifted their old, white cat out of my lap. It was the first time I thought about my critters back home, cat and dog … and what a pleasure it was to nuzzle something soft and cuddly in my lap. The household dog, however, gave me a grouchy grumble as I neared. One master and one master only, thank you.

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.

Better to gaze at the sea … and we walked the shoreline for a long way. The sand was damp and hard, like Daytona in Florida. Mothers pushed baby strollers along the edge of the waves, or sat on benches sunning in the last cool rays of autumn while their children baked sand cakes. Majori, Dubulti… I read the signs for seashore neighborhoods as we walked, remembering the names from my mother’s stories. She had spent many summer days on these beaches, a Riga child whose mother often brought her to the sea for fresh air and a swim.

For lunch, we stopped at Tupeŋu Krogs, where everything but everything began and ended with potatoes. My soup, with sautéed gailenes, a type of delicate and lacy mushroom, floating on top, was made from potatoes and cream. Our dinners were sauces over potatoes, and all were scrumptious. I had to think as I cut into my golden, just browned potato, that for all the carbs in Latvia’s cuisine, I hadn’t seen a single obese person anywhere since my arrival. People ate hearty and rich food, but soda was almost nonexistent, and physical movement was the norm. People walked. People walked everywhere. People walked long distances without giving it a thought.

We walked, too. All day. Up and down Jūrmala streets, then to the Undīne Pasaku Māja, a storybook house with wooden sculptures all around it, and an orange cat following our every step with a loud and boisterous yowl, begging attention. Dragons, owls, horses, turtles, and nameless creatures stared woodenly at us.

“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.

What else? Ritvaldis enthusiasm in showing us everything he possibly could was boundless. Kemeri? The old sanatorium now under renovation? Slokas ezers? We saw both. The grand white sanatorium awaiting new residents, surrounded by peaceful, wooded pathways and sulphur springs. At Slokas ezers, a small but pretty lake, we were followed everywhere by more cats—two tabby siblings, sweet as sugar, curling around our ankles and purring, pleased to have company. I tried not to worry about all these strays I was seeing … how would they survive when the fishermen stopped coming, tossing aside bits of tasty fish? How would they get through the cold northern winter? If I lived in Latvia, I thought, I would be in grave danger of becoming that infamous “cat woman.”


One last hurrah, and Ritvaldis and Viola took us to The Cotton Club on the edge of town. It was a bit jarring to see something in English across a business. I wasn’t sure I liked that feeling. I enjoyed being immersed again in my native culture. But I couldn’t fault their choice. It was late, it was off season, and we were the only ones in the place. Dimly lit but rich with dark wood, and leather, we sank into leather sofas and ordered drinks, more drinks, and sumptuous desserts. The evening blossomed into laughter, the joy of camaraderie, the discovery of lost old friends and family made new again.

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...)

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