Sunday, October 31, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 19 (Opera, Dobele, Seeking Spriditis but Finding Witch's Brew)

by Zinta Aistars

The lights dimmed in the Nacionala Opera. Alda and I sat in the fifth row, close enough to the stage to see the sheen of sweat, but we had no idea it would be the sweat of intense dance more of the jungle variety than Swan Lake. We had an inkling ... our tickets had printed across them: Baltic International Dance Festival ... but, well, we apparently got too stuck on the Baltic part.

I'd been here once, long ago, in the mid 1970s. The opera house was as beautiful as I remembered it, even more, with the gleam of gold trim all around us, and a chandelier that could sink a ship. Seats filled quickly, and audience members talked in a respectful hush, so that it seemed a breeze had found its way in and was whisking through the red velvet seats. I sat waiting, watching, remembering my mother's stories of her youth and the thrill of gaining a ticket to come here, even if to sit in the nose-bleed balconies. Whatever the show, the opera, the ballet, the play, the dance, the surroundings were stunning. Recently, a new wing had been added, too, on the side to the Riga Canal.

At last, the heavy red velvet curtain parted. An older woman stepped out to address the audience, and it was apparent she had been a ballerina from her graceful stance and flowing movements. Once a dancer, always a dancer. She introduced the ambassador from France, and another woman stepped out, with a translator alongside her, translating her French to Latvian. The Baltic International Dance Festival had been a long time in coming, they told us. Shows had had to be cancelled, but at last, at long last, this dance troupe from France was here, to perform for this audience in Riga ...

Alda and I glanced at each other, but that was only one glance. From the moment the French-African dancers entered stage right, we were unable to look away. Baltic? Not exactly. They were nearly naked, their gleaming dark skin oiled and shining with the perspiration of their efforts that seemed no effort at all. For the next hour and a half, without intermission, they moved at lightning speed to bongo drums and strings, their feet pounding the stage, their hips swinging, their bodies gyrating and snaking with movements that seemed impossible for the human body, yet ripped through muscles like living water. And never stopped.

Until they stopped, and the audience roared with approval, rose in standing ovation, demanded more, hands clapping over heads, and once more the French-African dance troupe thumped and gyrated and swirled and rippled and amazed.

"Not quite what I expected," Alda said as we followed the milling crowd back out in the cool Riga night. "But oh!"

I nodded enthusiastically. Oh. Three cheers for the unexpected. And viva la difference.

"What a beautiful night," I said in a hushed tone. We stood for a moment to take it all in. The fountain in front of the lit up opera house, splashing over light, surrounded by flowers, Old Town to our left, the newer section of Riga to our right, and the Riga Canal flowing just down the hill, a silken black river leading to the Daugava. One more night to remember, among so very many.


This would be yet another day to remember, I knew it already. Janis was waiting for me outside, on Pils Iela, ready to take me on a day-long tour of Zemgale, the southern province of Latvia. My father, Viestarts Aistars, had grown up in Ventspils, lived also in Jelgava, in the Zemgale province, where my grandfather was director of the Jelgava Teacher's Institute until World War II drove them from the country, and he lived in other Latvian cities, too, as my grandparents moved through their careers for teaching jobs, school to school--but he was born in Dobele. I wanted to see Dobele.

"You surely must not have sinned, at least not much," Janis said as we headed out of Riga and traveled southwest into another brilliant autumn day. "A blessing of a day, yet again."

"Surely," I said, crooking my head at him.

He was a blessing himself, taking work off just to taxi me around at my near every beck and call. I was prepared for another day of argument about this being my last trip to Latvia, and Janis did not disappoint. As we drove down roads that soon outside of Riga narrowed to two-lane country lanes, surrounded by forest and field and only the occasional miestins, village, we had plenty of time to cover all kinds of conversational territory. Politics, environment, religion, economics, and retirement. Retirement age in Latvia was 62. He was nearing it.

"It's also the average lifespan for a man in Latvia," he said. "Coincidence?"

"Look at you, picture of health," I poo-pooed him. "That is, if you can quit that infernal smoking ..."

"Ach, you and Rudite!" he groaned, referring to his wife. "Yes, yes, I know ... " He lit up another, not bothering to crack the car window, so I did.

It was more than a little depressing, to think of such a young age as the end of the line, I thought, watching the green landscape, occasionally dotted with Latvia's famed brunalas, brown cows known for their high quality milk production, slide by. If I did make a return trip to Latvia ever again, I thought glumly, it couldn't wait 17 years. We were running out of decades.

"To think that we are at that age now where there is such a thing as 'the last time,'" Andris had written back when I had first sent note of my impending trip.

My father as a young man
I thought of my father as we neared Dobele. He had already experienced his last time. He would not see Dobele again, except through my photos that I would bring back to him. His back problems, a series of ever more complex back surgeries, had left him in chronic pain, able to walk but a few steps before tiring. Travel over such long distances, crossing oceans, was beyond him. While my parents had always spoken of Latvia as their one and only home, the truth was, after 51 years in what they still termed as exile, the United States had become their second home, and now, their only one. By the time Latvia had regained her independence, my parents were elderly and unwilling to leave the medical care they had grown to rely upon. Change was too difficult, too riddled with complications. Latvia had become a place of dreams. The home one could never reach. And, suddenly, I thought of my grandfather, too, and how with all the many languages in which he was fluent, he reverted fully and only to Latvian on his deathbed, and in his mind's eye, he no longer saw his surroundings in the States. In his mind's eye, he was back here again, back in Latvia, and my grandmother was alive again, and young, and beautiful, and standing beside him. He never saw home again. Only behind his closed eyes.

"Here we are!" Janis called out, and we crossed the stone bridge over the Berze River and into Dobele.

I was suddenly sorry I hadn't questioned my father in more detail before coming here. Where exactly? What street, what house? We parked the car in a central place, I wrapped my woolen scarf around my neck against the autumn bite in the air, and we headed out to explore.

I tried to imagine my father as a boy. As an infant, my grandmother pushing him along in a stroller on these streets. Her first child, first son of four. Dobele was small, but it was centered by a tall white church built in the 1400s; my father would have seen this, seen what I was seeing now, most any day of his boy's life. These shops lining streets around the church, they dated back centuries, if only their activities and signs hung out for business would have changed. I stood, erasing the modern in my mind's eye, and seeing only that which would have been here some eighty years ago. It wasn't hard to do.

Had he sat here, in the green park surrounding the church, pencil in hand and notebook on his knee, scribbling his first drawings? He had told me often that drawing for him was like words for me... neither one of us had ever contemplated a range of possible futures and careers ... we'd always known. Had he scrambled along the banks of the Berze, tossed stones into her waters, skipped them across to the opposite shore? He'd shown me how to skip stones when I was a girl, only I'd never quite gotten it, not like him, that easy sideways toss, the stone plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunking an impossible number of times before sinking.

Back in the car, we crossed the Berze again and parked on the other side. The crumbling remains of an old castle threw its mirrored image into the river below. Janis and I roamed through the open walls for a good hour, in and out of rooms that now had ceilings open to blue sky. A wonderful place for a boy to play ...

I suddenly ached to read history. Our lives were blinks of an eye, a quick spark flaming up and then rising up into the sky, fading away, disappearing. How to keep any of it? How to keep something of that time of joy and sorrow, love and loss, birth and death, so closely one after another?

I wandered between the castle walls, pressing my hand to rock, where perhaps my father's small fingers, the hand of a boy, had clutched at rock, pulled one loose, stuffed it in his pocket, treasure, to take home with him ... home, that place he would never see again except behind closed eyes.

I stood on the rising bank over Berze and looked out over Dobele, a peaceful town, no hint of all the war she had seen, the tears, death, tragedy. Families torn loose from their roots and tossed into the sea, to float to whatever foreign shore would take them.

The passage of time, erasing nothing, only storing away, layer upon layer upon layer, and if anything survives, it is that something, that unnamed and unnameable something, that we carry in our blood and in our bones and in our cells and in our hearts, generation to generation, ancestral memory. That deep whisper inside ... that drives us to go to places where we have, it seems, never been, but seeking to follow back in time along the steps of those before us. Perhaps to guide us forward on our own paths.

If my father would never come back here, to Dobele, I stood here now, for him.

Anna Brigadere
Time, yes. Best keep moving. Onward, then, toward Tervete, and the house called Spridisi, this time my personal quest, to take a peek into the life of another Latvian author I'd adored in my own childhood, and rediscovered a few years ago, as an adult--Anna Brigadere.

A few years ago, I'd been invited to teach a seminar on Latvian literature in the Catskill Mountains, in New York, at a camp owned by New York Latvians. That summer's camp was called 3x3, and I agreed. The exact topic of my seminar was up to me, and I considered various authors that had shaped me, not only as a writer, but as a person. I had read Latvian with ease by age 3, a phonetic language that was easy to deciper on the written page. Unlike English, once you mastered a sound, it was always the same sound. Books were my favorite playmate. My parents had stocked our home with many, many books, shelves lining most every room, even the dining room. My mother had even shelved the books in two layers, running out of room, and one of my favorite treasure hunts as a child was to pull out the books on the shelf to see what I could find among the row of books hidden behind the first row. There they all were, the old Latvian classics: Karlis Skalbe, Edvarts Virza, Zenta Maurina, Janis Rainis, Aspazija ... and Anna Brigadere.

Spridisi, Brigadere's home
Brigadere wrote for children, but then she wrote also a series for young adults, that many adults found equally fascinating. My first visions of Latvia came from Brigadere's books. I imagined the lives she described, in country as well as city, the insides of houses, the fashions, the conversations, the then-current events ... and it all came alive for me, perhaps more alive than my actual surroundings. My mother would chide me for never putting down my books and going out to play. I would go outside, as told to do, but the books would come with me.

I taught the seminar that week in the Catskill Mountains about Brigadere and Skalbe and Virza, reading portions with other Latvian adults, discussing whether their content was still relevant to us today. Child psychology, environmentalism, dynamics of intimate relationships, birth and death and what came between ... by end of week, we were all in agreement: the old classics were as relevant for us today as they had been the day they were written. They were classics because they addressed the constants of life.

Crossing Zemgale, rolling green plains, I spotted a group of horses, and I asked Janis to pull over. Most of the horses I saw in Latvia were work horses, but these beauties ... they spoke of elegance, and speed. Standing as still as they were, the speed expressed itself in the smooth ripple of muscle. They were the run frozen in the moment. A tail flicked, a mane moved in the breeze, a nostril flared, and I could sense the dream of racing the wind.

"Tervetes zirgi," Janis said, "the horses of Tervete. They are Latvia's best. Raised to be champions."

Spridisi, Brigadere's home, was not far from here. We passed Tervetes Dabas Parks, the immense forested park, crisscrossed with trails, constructed in Brigadere's honor over an expanse of 1,200 hektari, and made a point of coming back after lunch. Stomachs were rumbling.

A cafe was open in the basement of Spridisi, Brigadere's living quarters overhead. I stopped to read a sign just before going downstairs. What? Closed? No! I stomped a foot like an angry Spriditis, a character in Brigadere's books that was one "spriditis" high, a meter, a tiny little firecracker of a guy, willing to take on giants. Can't be!

Janis pursed his lips, let his eyes trail to treetops, wagging his head back and forth. "Well. So. Closed on Tuesdays, who would have thought. It appears you'll have to come back again."

I made a face at my friend, rolled my eyes, wasn't ever going to give that one up, was he? And I cherished him for it.

Lunch, then. We could at least eat below those left-in-mystery rooms overhead, where magical stories unfolded, and afer lunch, I could prowl around her doors and windows, peeking in, hand shading from glare, squinting to see beds, tables, desks, the ordinary furnishings of an extraordinary life.

In Tervetes Dabas Parks, we could walk long trails to enter storybook lands. Nothing plastic here, nothing motorized, nothing that wasn't out of stone and wood. A section of the forest was created to resemble the land of elves that Brigadere had created. Another section of forest was filled with giant mushrooms, waist-high, or at our knees, mushrooms with smiling faces, round cheeked under their delicious brimmed heads. Another section of forest was filled with characters from her stories, the odd little creatures and wood nymphs and devilish imps and, of course, a witch.

The witch was very much alive. She noticed us approaching immediately, stirring her witch's brew in a big black pot over a simmering fire. A green lizard crawled through her long, straggly gray hair. Her grin at us was more mischief than evil.

"Ah, come closer! A drink from my brew, perhaps? Magical powers ... " and we drew near. "And who is this man with you," she leaned closer to me and whispered in conspiratorial tones.

"Oh. Not mine." I shrugged.

"Ah! I seeeeeeeee...."

"Oh goodness, no!" I corrected. "A friend!"

The witch tittered. "A friend," she waggled a finger at me. "But what kind of friend is this man not yours?"

Janis was not helping me at all, pretending to study the floating somethings in her brew, lips pinched shut, enjoying his own brand of mischief.

"No, no," I tried to back pedal and failed miserably. "A family friend ... "

"AHHHhhh!" The witch cackled deliciously. "A family friend!" She leaned in again to whisper to me, her whisper loud enough for Janis to hear. "The worst kind ... " She dipped a long-fingernailed hand into an invisible pocket among the folds of her skirt to fish out a tiny folded up orange paper, tied with a string, and handed it to me. "Here, you must take this, and do not open it until you truly need it. And with such family friends, you will surely need it ... "

I held the tiny packet in my palm.

"It's for krenki," the witch explained. For grief and worries and stress. Ah yes, I thought, no doubt I can use such a spell at some point ...

Then she was onto Janis, filling a cup for him of her brew, with toad stools and lizard blood and goodness knows what potions, and we were soon laughing and cackling along with our witch, who said she actually lived in Dobele when not brewing potions, had left the country after WWII but felt compelled to return and lived here for years now, practicing her charming witching arts for those who wandered into this enchanted forest.

Time to fly off on her broomstick, she said, and invited me to fly off to the moon with her. Oh, that I could ... I hopped onto the broomstick behind her and was ever so ready, my tiny spell against "krenki" held tightly in my hand as we took flight...


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