Thursday, October 28, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 16 (But This Day was Mine)

by Zinta Aistars

Z in Convent Courtyard
Dressed. Ready. Watching the clock. The Ventspils bus should be rolling in about now … and yes, there it was, my phone chirping to announce that awaited arrival. While the rest of Rīga was rushing to the ballot booth in what turned out to be record numbers, I cast my vote for a memorable day in the city with Andris. I would not, I would not, I swore I would not allow myself to bog down in thoughts about this being our last day together.

Last day … forever?

Would not. Stop that. I had the apartment to myself this weekend, with Alda gone to Sigulda and Mazsalaca on her own adventure—there would be plenty of time alone to contemplate … to contemplate whatever might require contemplating.

I answered my phone.

“And I’m here, and I am coming toward you …“ His voice sounded a little breathless. With that long stride, he’d be walking fast, I knew that, and the bus station wasn’t far.

“Shall I go out to the bus station to meet you?”

“No, no! What if we somehow walk past each other in the crowd?”

“I’ll be standing out on Doma Square, waiting for you.”

“I’ll find you.”

“I’ll watch for you.”

I grabbed my coat, threw it on, and trotted downstairs and toward the street. I admit … it was a fast trot. A skip. An almost sprint. One more day. No matter what, one more day.

I stood near the Doma cathedral, in plain view, the cobblestone square spread out before me, the blue sky overhead, the tourists milling along the edges of the square—and I knew myself not one of them.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Just at the moment that I spotted him, that gait I knew so well, the by now recognizable gray hair, tan corduroy jacket flapping behind him, backpack hanging loose on one shoulder, in a beeline right toward me, and I was sure that was a widening grin I saw across his face … just then, I was surrounded by a group of tourists.

“Could you tell us, please?”

“Excuse us, could you … where can we find … “

“If you could help us. We are looking for the Lido restaurant.”

I craned my neck to look past them all. Yup, that was a grin, ear to ear. I sighed in undisguised irritation at the interruption and the obstacle in my view, and turned back toward the circle of befuddled faces. By the time I had explained to them where to find Lido, Andris stood at their perimeter, suppressing laughter.

Oh, at last they dispersed. Or was it just that I had shoved my way through them.

“Took you for a local again, eh?” He wrapped me in his arms and held tight, chuckling into my hair.

I stood on tiptoe and hugged back, tight. “Is that a good thing?”

He looked at me. “Well. You are.”

“Saw you coming. I still know that walk.”

“Figured you would. Spotted you across the square.”

Would know you painted green and middle of a rave, I thought, would spot you in a crowd of gazillions, would detect that step, that grin, that tip of the chin, in someone else’s dream, I would, in heaven or hell or somewhere in between. I bit my lip. A thousand years ago, this man had been mine, we had stood at an altar and taken our vows, until death do us part, or an ocean with crashing waves and a curving horizon, end of the world, and so it was, until death if parted, even if he would now go home to someone else and I alone. I wasn’t going to mess with that. Somewhere in Ventspils were two little girls who pressed their little noses to the window pane and watched for that familiar gait, too. No, never, wouldn’t mess with that, and nor was he so inclined. I had no doubt his heart was also tightly knit to the heart of their mother. He was who he was because he was a man of honor. Part of why my heart thrilled at the prospect of the day. Honor was all too rare …

It was the ocean between. It was those little faces at those windows, one window on this shore, one window on that shore. There was no greater power, no greater hold on anyone’s heart.

I let go. Some seventeen years ago, I sliced my heart in half, and I let go. But today, for just today, I would take this day as mine, and share it with no one.

“Drīkst?” I asked, tucking my arm into his, asking if I might.

He squeezed my arm against his side. “Bet protams.” But of course.

The day, and Rīga within it, unfolded before us. A white canvas. A blank sheet. An open invitation to adventure.

As before, back in Ventspils, we started to play that game of “do you remember.” This place, that place, this corner, that corner, a meal shared here, and a long pause taken there. We were flipping through an old photo album, walking inside of it, and it was all wonderful, even when it came with the occasional pang. Our very last evening together near 17 years ago, as I recall, was spent here, in Vecrīga, Old Town, and Andris took me by the hand and pulled me into a skip. We skipped down the alleys and narrow streets of cobblestone, like boisterous children, only it was all a sham. If anyone could make me laugh, even through tears, he could, but that night, even he failed. By early morning, my heart was completely broken. Even as I knew, getting on that plane back to the United States, that I was doing the right thing.

I still knew that. But my borrowed joy, even as the clock ticked without mercy, was pure.

Atceries? Remember? Mēs gājām te, pa Konventa sētu … “ And Andris pulled me in to the Convent Courtyard, a hidden cove in Old Town, where we had gone before in another time, and the sun played light and shadow across the red bricks. These ancient buildings, their brick and stone crumbling, what stories could they tell? Ours added in now, a silent remembrance, a crumbling pebble.

It was beautiful. So beautiful. I was struck, again and again, by the beauty of this old city. The old buildings with their little windows, window boxes spilling flowers, church spires rising beyond, shops gleaming with golden amber …

We strolled in and out of those narrow streets, retracing old paths and carving out new ones. We visited Rīga Pils, the Rīga Palace where the president traditionally was resident. We traced old routes past an apartment where Andris had once lived when a student at the University of Latvia, working on his degrees at the Music Conservatory.

Latvian flags outside Riga Pils

Guard outside Riga Pils
Lived up there...

And there, Hotel Rīga, for that very first and fateful meeting. The flags hanging over the door were now our own, but back then, ah back then … and even though Andris was but a boy, and I a girl, I recognized and understood the tension in him when he walked into the lobby under a red flag with sickle and hammer in its corner. He hated the place then, he seemed to seethe in it now, and I remembered that he had come to Ventspils, on a train that time, and offered to take me to the Rīga Art Museum. There, we could talk in relative safety, two kids with their heads together, discussing Latvian painters and art movements. I knew that I knew my stuff … my father, after all, was a painter, and there was a time when his work, too, appeared on these walls. But I was impressed with the boy who knew so much about Latvian art and artistic style. A hard life could beat knowledge into a young mind. His pride in his nation’s achievements in the arts was obvious.

So had many survived, knowledge quietly honed, spirits preserved in stubborn pride, however hidden behind a mask. Those gray faces I remember from that time, they were all wearing masks. I could see that now. They had taken them off, and beneath was the pink of life, as in any human face wanting to survive, and more.


If we had gone without food on our previous Sunday spent together, I was determined that we be fed on this one. I had forewarned Andris, and he had solemnly promised not to eat for three days prior to coming to Rīga. Liar. But when I steered him to Rozengrāls Medieval Restaurant in Vecrīga, Old Town, he was as intrigued as I. The restaurant recreated medieval Rīga in its staff and their apparel, in its furnishings, in food choices. We climbed down winding stairs into a dark basement with arched ceiling, lit only by candlelight. It was like entering another time period. Even if it was a bit difficult to read the menu by the flickering light of a candle.

I needn’t worry. Andris knew my tastes and fancies all too well. He ordered a bowl made out of dark rye bread for me, filled with wild forest mushrooms in a cream sauce. He ordered fish, an avid fisherman himself who never tired of anything that came with fins and gills, and we shared a bowl of lēces, lentils stewed with ham chunks. We talked in near whispers over our tasty meal, as if fearing to disturb the medieval trance.

Bellies full, we ventured into the newer section of Rīga. New here was far older than anything back in my other country. This newer part of Rīga, where my mother had passed her childhood and youthful years, was lined with the embassies of many countries, flags of each flying over their doors, and more great, green parks, and large windows of fashions and goods, anything for anyone, department stores with many floors, and smaller boutiques.

A church rose up before us—Rīga’s orthodox church. It was as good an example as any of what renovation could do. In Soviet years, when religion of any kind was discouraged, if not hounded into nonexistence, the many churches and cathedrals of Rīga had very nearly turned to rubble. With no active congregations, there was no income for maintenance. The few one would find in the pews were the elderly, stooped, without any political power, the ones over whom no government needlessly worried itself. Church was for the old babushkas. Religion was for those with no future, none but the entering through those pearly gates they imagined existed somewhere beyond the Russian tundra. Silly old souls.

Today, religion thrived again. All kinds of denominations had returned. The old cathedrals rang their bells on Sunday mornings, the churches swung open their doors to welcome those who wished to pray or looked for enlightenment, or blessing. All were welcome.

Andris asked if I might mind going into the orthodox church. Why not? My mother had told me about this very one, this church that was a short walk from the Freedom Monument, from Bastejkalns, where she ran through the park and across the bridge to school every day. She would stop here, at this church, she told me, to ask for help with her exams. You just never know. She was a Lutheran, as most Latvians were, but a church was a church, and wasn’t God the same for all of us …

Andris purchased several long, thin beeswax candles at a window just inside the church door. He handed me two.

“Perhaps there is some prayer … “ he said. “I will say a prayer for you.”

He led me around the church as he had done so long ago in the art museum, explaining the icons, the many saints, their purpose and the church traditions. I watched him place his candles on tall tables, where others already burned, a thousand prayers twinkling their tiny flames, in hopes of being seen from somewhere far away yet ever near. One more tiny flame. A silent prayer, between him and a higher power.

I kept my two candles in my pocket, careful not to snap them. I would take them across the ocean.

Stepping back outside the church, Andris dropped coins inside three cups of three beggars who stood on the church steps. I tucked my arm back in his, and we crossed the street to Vērmanes Park. Along the park’s edge, as far as one could see, flower vendors sold flowers. Every conceivable kind, in all kinds of arrangements. Flowers stood in buckets, flowers lined shelves, flowers hung from rafters, and vendors stood at their stands with flowers in hand.

Andris paused, seeming to forget me in some silent reverie, his eye roaming the flowers. I slipped my arm out from his, and I walked the line of flowers, breathing deep, taking it all in, so much color, the air perfumed, the roses, the carnations, the chrysanthemums, the dahlias, the daisies, the gladiolas, I couldn’t possibly name them all. It was another prayer said, a prayer of the earth, an offering, a show of worship. Rīga was blooming.

When I returned to Andris’ side, he was standing on the sidewalk, gray-haired man suddenly looking like a boy. He held three red roses, wrapped in white paper, in his hands.

“I’m not even sure I know how to do this … “ he shrugged, and I burst out laughing, stood on tiptoe, took the roses he held out to me, and held my old friend, my friend for life, close, close. Held my palm for a moment against his cheek, smooth now, bearded then, but it was all the same, younger, older, we had come a long and twisted path, one I could never quite explain, but felt no need to explain.

He nursed a finger, pricked by a thorn. Roses that drew blood. “I suppose I deserve this,” he said, sucking the drop from his finger.


“Where would you like to go? Wherever you want to go…”

I held the roses to me, and thought. There, I pointed. A mere block further. I had read about it somewhere, the Skyline Bar, at the top of another hotel, a place on the 26th floor with a view over the city. I wanted to sit in the sky for a while, with roses in my hand and candles in my pocket, and share a drink with my old friend.

We ordered hot balzāms—the famous, or infamous, Rīgas Melnais Balzāms for which Latvians were known. A bitter and thick, dark brew, the kind that makes you squinch your face when you drink it, twitch when it goes down. My grandmother had taken a teaspoon every evening as medicine. Some drank it straight, some mixed it with vodka, others poured it in layers with apricot or pineapple juice to cut the bitter taste. Still others added it to coffee, or even poured it over ice cream. A thousand ways to down it, yet I had never heard anyone say—“I like it.” Created in the 1200s, it almost neared a rite of passage when entering this country, by anyone wishing to be taken seriously … or not minding the barely suppressed grin of the Latvian across the table, watching for the familiar squinch and twitch.

“Not bad,” I sipped. Hot with cardamom and cinnamon sprinkled on top, a slice of orange speared on a red stick, and a maraschino cherry. Nor was it especially good. But we sipped, and talked, and laughed, and sat and looked out over Rīga, ancient city made new again in our eyes. One more story added to her cobblestones and crumbling stone. One more memory.

“You’ll need a restroom before we go,” Andris started to look around when we were ready to go down to street level again. I chortled. I felt so known. Me and my twitchy bladder, some things never change, not even over decades.

On and on into the newer section of Rīga, we walked arm in arm again, turning in and out of streets, and I was knocking my head back again to stare at the buildings rising over me. Rīga was Europe’s number one city for art deco architecture.

Elizabetes Iela*, Alberta Iela, we stood and stared up at the many odd faces looking back down at us –devilish imps, gallant knights, screaming gargoyles, pensive damsels, wailing trolls, chanting cherubs, odd rascals. These buildings were a showcase of architectural humor. Each building had its own personality, no, a thousand personalities, busting through its walls, faces on every corner, lions walking across rooftops, vines of stone wrapping around balcony railings. It was a wonderland behind which people lived their everyday lives.

Looping through the city, we came back around to Bastejkalns park. It was my favorite. How many times had we already walked here? One more time, once more. Who knew when again, or even if … no, I had promised myself that morning that I would not brood on farewells, for once or for forever. But I could see the first twinge of lavender in the sky. The sun was dropping.

We followed the winding Rīga Canal into the center of the park. Trees leaned over the water. Other couples strolled, arm in arm. It was Saturday evening, after all, already evening, and parks were created for such slow, easy strolls, and whispered conversations about nothing.

A small, graceful wooden boat with brass trimmings bobbed gently in the canal. On its side in brass letters: DARLING.

We looked at each other. Shall we?

(To be continued…)

* Iela means street or avenue.

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