Saturday, October 30, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 18 (Bells and Bars)

by Zinta Aistars



Sunday morning, and all the church bells, all the great iron and brass bells of Riga were ringing. The clanging resounded through all of Old Town, Vecriga, and echoed from the walls of centuries-old buildings as it had for so long ... with the exception of the Soviet years. I could hear joy in those bells ... a solemn joy, earning their right to ring again.

My morning was quiet but for the church bells. I rose after sleeping in, the apartment to myself, and stretched like a lazy cat. I was wearing an oversize tee-shirt I'd bought on my last trip to Michigan's Keweenaw, mossy green with a moose on my chest, a row of evergreens, "UP North where nowhere is someplace" ... and I smiled, thinking of it, thinking of that last trip north, and how my heart rang, like church bells, looking for home and knowing, someday, I would find it.

As much as I ever could. Some part of it ... As much as any one place could ever hold me.

Home here, too. I sat in the chair in the living room and slouched back, letting my gaze swing upward through the window, where I could see the courtyard, the neighboring old buildings with their clay red rooftops, and a patch of sky. What would it be like to live here? What would it be like to have one home? I suspected I would never know. A casualty of the war, one that happened before I was ever born, the offspring of refugee parents with always the thought of going home, someday going back home, until it was too late to uproot again, and home was a place divided across two shores.

Home was my forever longing, never quite attained. I touched a palm to my tee and rubbed the cloth. For focus. I had to choose. And even as I let my imagination wander, imagined that such a place as this could be permanently mine, I had to use head over heart. Choose wisely ...

Both Janis and Andris had sat me down and had a firm talk with me. I tried not to smile, seeing their seriousness. Ah, men. To be the protector was as much in their biology as to silently be my own trailblazer was in mine. We women learned to listen, nod, and then do as we pleased. Not that I didn't see the good sense of what they were saying ... a woman alone in the northern woods was like hanging out a sign above the door: Trouble Me.


Ilga at the Lido Alus Seta
Then again, maybe not. I had recently worked on a book review for a true crime story based on domestic abuse. The sobering truth was that women were never more in danger than in their own homes, at the hands of their intimate partners, husbands and boyfriends or other family menfolk. Heartbreaking. A tragic truth of our times, perhaps all time, that unspoken war between genders. But those same men who were so drawn to protect us could be the same men who could raise their hand against us.

I had experienced an abusive relationship myself. Jekyll and Hyde, the public charmer, sweet-tongued, but a dark presence in private, driven to manipulate and control. Too many like this. It was one of the reasons I'd chosen my future path as solitary. Being alone in the woods was not the unsafest place I could be.

"What is this quandary over finding home?" Janis asked me in open confusion. "You are a Latvian, this is home. Why question? When it is time, retire here. Where you belong."

"Maybe not so deep in those snowy woods," Andris said. "Perhaps a neighbor near by ... or two. Somewhere you can go for help ... if you should ever need help..." Worry creased his forehead, and I smiled, nodded, said I would think it over.

Risks lay in every direction. A woman was forever looking over her shoulder, always aware of what lurked in the shadows, never entering a room without quickly scanning it for potential danger. It was reflex, passed on by generations, suckled with mother's milk.

But I had been moved by their concern -- these two good men in my life. I trusted them both, and had reason to; they had earned it. I heard the wisdom in their words. I was warmed by the time they had given to run this thought through their minds, considering, weighing, worrying. It was why I called them friends. They were good men and good friends, and I promised myself to think through carefully their advice, too.

No solution was perfect. Didn't I prefer the choices Aspazija had made? My favorite Latvian writer, a woman of good words and hardy spirit, and she had lived in her own house in Jurmala, while her husband Rainis maintained his own ... and a third one together, to share. Yeah, okay, a tad idealistic and more than a tad beyond my thin purse. My financial advisor had chastised me for dreaming overmuch. Pick a dream and pursue it. Pick one.

I had come to Latvia to say hello again, after so long, but also to say goodbye.

Bells clanging, I wasn't sure that was how it was all turning out. Life could be a twisted surprise. A fork in the path at every turn. Constant choices and revisions.

Never say never. For now. I refuse to say anything else but ... for now.

I didn't have to solve all this now. But I was fully aware some of the game pieces were changing position, new factors had come to play, and my heart was bouncing around from dream to dream, and trying others on for size.

Breakfast. I made breakfast in the neat little kitchen, glancing on occasion at the three red roses in the vase on the table. Beautiful buds, beginning to open, wine red petals softly unfolding. I would never see them at full bloom. The days remaining for my trip were numbered, and they didn't even take up one hand.

This afternoon, I would be meeting Ilga. Like most everyone here, she was a friend since near forever, from that first trip here. On my second trip, with my fiance beside me, the man who would become the father of my children, we bounded around town as three couples. The two of us, Ilga and her husband, and another couple. Giddy youth. We literally danced through the streets of Old Town. Soviet years, but we accepted no rules, made our own, and we walked, danced, three couples across, arm in arm, beautiful and young and silly and free no matter what our surroundings...

Window shopping with Ilga for Latvian gifts

Another lifetime ago.

Ilga had come to America several times. I had visited her here, in Riga, several times. Once at the Riga Pils, where she worked as assistant to the President of Latvia, through two terms with Latvia's first woman president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, and then for Zatlers. On occasion, she would send me a fax to my workplace in the States, and more than once, someone had come rushing to my desk, breathless, "Oh! This must be important ... the letterhead, it says ... from the Office of the President of Latvia!"

Ach, it is just my friend Ilga, I would grin and shrug. But I appreciated the private tours and inside pointers. She knew the best places in Riga. I would meet her this afternoon, and we would waste some pleasant time together.

Just like her, exactly like her, unchanged by time: Ilga spotted me across Doma laukums, Doma Square, and I saw her dancing and skipping toward me, white coat swirling, her arms full of white daisies, and another box of chocolates. The daisies tickled my cheek as we hugged. We went back up to the apartment to deposit blooms and sweets, then went back out into the street again, arm in arm, giggling like old girls.

With Ilga, I didn't have to work. For her, conversation was a rapid river, and I pulled back and let her catch me up on news of Riga, of the election results from the day before--the party Vienotiba had taken most votes--and on her own news. She chattered cheerily and happily and openly and with sparks flying. I sat back and let her talk, relieved to just take it all in for a day, and not be questioned, much.

We had lunch at Lido's Alus Seta, just off the Square, and I dipped my finger, naughtily, into mashed potatoes swimming in gailenu merce, a creamy sauce of mushrooms, can never have enough, and licked it. For all that I had been unplugged from news until now, now I caught up on much of it, Ilga my antennae to the world.


Restaurant advertising its fresh fish
 The day was as pleasant as any here, cool autumn, if a little overcast. We walked around and through Old Town, weaving through narrow streets and alleys, and I admitted to being delighted when Ilga called out, "Oh! but I've never been here! How is it that you come here from over the ocean and can show me places I've never yet seen...!"

Oh, just give me time. If I lived here, I thought, I'd know every nook and every cranny. I would be on first name basis with every Riga cat and mouse.

Just a few more days, I thought, as we walked, and I let my gaze swing high and low again. Take it all in. Couldn't get enough. These rooftops, these cobblestones, these shop windows, these winding alleys between pastel-painted buildings ...

Undeniably, much of my heart would remain here.

Not the least of my pleasures during my time here was to be able to speak, think, dream in Latvian, without interruption, except for those times when my travel companion Alda would ask for something to be translated into English, but otherwise I was fully immersed in the world of my native culture. How much I had missed this...

Ilga chattered on, and she tugged me into a pub now and then, doing a little bit of Sunday bar-hopping, to check out the ambiance. No, not this one. Nor this one, she said, deeming it too noisy. Where shall we go? To toast this re-meeting, this reunion, this promise for future meetings... and at last she found the place: Kiploku Krogs, the Garlic Pub.

Hmm? Garlic Pub?

Ilga explained it was a favorite, surely something unique (no argument from me), in that everything but everything in this quaint little place was infused, flavored, dipped, rolled, smothered, slathered, roasted, flavored, sprinkled, toasted, sauced with garlic. Even the vodka.

Ilga ordered for us, and I watched the tabletop fill with dishes of garlic in so many permutations that it was dazzling. And not one bit of scent to any of it ...

We toasted -- Prieka! -- with our shot glasses of vodka, a clove of garlic speared and swimming in it. Ilga ordered another, while I opted for a bit of tomato juice. Then we dipped in. Admittedly, the stuff was good. All of it. Pickled and marinated cloves, chips with garlic salt sprinkled on them, cheese with garlic in it, toast triangles with garlic butter spread on them, roasted garlic hot from the oven ... but after an hour or so of this, I was rolling my eyes and begging for mercy. Mercy came in the form of a bowl filled with fresh petersili ... parsley, and we chomped on it by the mouthful to kill the flavor and scent, to emerge back into the Riga streets smelling like ladies.


By the time I was home again, home, temporarily, in my apartment, evening darkened my windows and the silence of my rooms was welcome. I threw off my clothes and slipped back into my Keweenaw tee. I slipped a CD by Sting, On a Winter's Night ... into the stereo, this medieval music fitting the night, and I danced across the room, this time alone, this time with no one arm in arm with me, and the Daugava River just beyond, still flowing to the sea, and I danced, and I danced, in bare feet on the cool wood of the floor, my eyes closed, turning and swirling into my Riga night.

Another lifetime.

(To be continued...}

1 comment:

  1. I am enjoy to read this blog. Nice

    ReplyDelete