Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 2 (Return to Riga)

 by Zinta Aistars

Suitcases are up in the apartment, my international phone is charged and ready, and I am running on pure adrenalin, eager to get back out on Riga cobblestone. One night missed as the jet crossed the international dateline, but I push through fatigue and feel surprisingly clear-headed.

Clear-headed enough that I remember a promise I made while still back in the states. I am to call Andris in Ventspils—port city on the Baltic City, city where my father spent his youth, city filled to brimming with my own memories—as soon as I land. I am back out in the fresh, cool autumn air of Riga at dusk. I lean up against a building that has stood many more lifetimes than mine alone, and I call.


1993 in Ventspils

I know that voice. I have known that voice since I, and the owner of that voice, were 15 years old. For a tall man, it is surprisingly soft, almost whispery. But then, I think, he would know it is me. That voice encircles me like a spell I’ve never quite shaken. After 17 years, I’m back in Latvia, as if I’d never quite left.

“Esmu seit,” I say. I am here.

There’s a pause, a stillness. Time shifts its shoulder, moves its weight from one foot to the other, stretches its lazy muscle, and stands still again. Perfectly still.

Like that, 17 years vanish. We pick up the conversation where we left it. But we don’t talk for long … my stomach rumbles for a meal, my feet itch to dance on cobblestone, and just in front of where I stand, the Daugava flows smooth and silky toward the Gulf of Riga. I hold the phone to my ear, leaning against the stone wall, listening to that voice, watching the lights come up on the bridges over the river, blue, white, glimmering and winking.

I promise to call again later.

There are so many to call. Even as I walk, messages start to come in on my phone. I had given the number out to family and friends along with my itinerary, and now greetings roll in. Welcome home, says one message. Are you here yet? Call as soon as you can, can’t wait to see you! Welcome, again. Welcome. Welcome home, they all sing.

I find dinner at Cetras Istabas (Four Rooms) on Livu Laukums (Livu Square). It is a change I can’t help but notice: since I was last here, at the very beginning of Latvia’s renewed independence, entrepreneurship has burst up from the streets into seemingly hundreds of cafes and pubs, stores and boutiques, business establishments and offices. I know well that Latvia is suffering economic hardship—unemployment is at an all-time high of 20 percent and the country is bleeding its population into surrounding countries, as heads of households look for work elsewhere—but one would hardly know it by walking the streets of Riga. A steady stream of people walk to either side of me, in front and behind me. Music swirls into the air, coming from various open doors and windows and from street after street of outdoor cafes. Kiosks line the square, and stooped old women and a few men sell their wares—strings and ropes of amber, ceramic souvenirs, magnets and keyrings, mittens and socks knit with the elaborate and brightly-colored patterns of Latvian folk design.

Every block sports several “Valutas Izmaina” offices, places where one can change money from any country’s currency into Latvia’s lati and santimi. I compare exchange rates at a few, and make my trade for a little at a time. The US dollar is weak, and my one dollar exchanges for about 50 santimi, tiny copper coins and a few silver ones.

I recognize Riga like an old friend, and details flood back to me as I look around. But at the same time, she has flowered much brighter and prettier, truly the pearl of the Baltic as Europeans have dubbed her, than she ever was before to my eyes. I have seen her in many phases, none darker than the first. During Soviet years, these same buildings were gray and peeling, showing their age and lack of care and loving ownership. It wasn’t just the buildings, however, that I recall as gray. People were gray, too. Their faces. Their eyes. Gone glazed and unseeing. No one on the street would make eye contact. No one spoke. Riga was a silent and washed-out old woman, having lost her spark. Now, she was in love with life again, flashing her vibrant smile, an almost gaudy flirt, and her eyes shone and reflected in every face I passed in the narrow streets.

The laughter and chatter of a thousand voices echoed off the buildings. Couples walked arm in arm, steps synchronized. Young women skipped over the cobblestones in stiletto heels, never missing a step, never tripping, so I could only shake my head in amazement—one learns to walk one’s own territory with light step. Anyone else on such spikes would twist an ankle on these rounded old stones.

Watching the clock, I aimed for bed at a logical hour, even if my body was seven hours behind me, in Michigan. I called Ventspils one more time, as I said I would, tucked into my Riga bed and blankets around me. Like a dam opened up, conversation flooded the lines this time, a rolling rapids. Ventspils was still a little more than two hours west of me in Riga, and the plan was to drive there day after next. Andris and I had arranged to meet on Sunday, but he asked now that I slip out from family bustle on Saturday already, after I had met with everyone and had time for greeting.

“Tu celies no tiem desmit galdiem!” he said, urging me to rise from those “ten tables” of endless hospitality. We both had known the routine more than once. Me, on my visits here, and he, on his visits to the states, traveling from house to house, host to host, each insisting on another elaborate meal with extra helpings. I will, I laughed. I’ll slip out. It would be good to meet just a little earlier…

Our personal history was a little wild and varied, a little hairy and slightly insane. There was a time for friendship, a time for crazed romance, a time for forks in roads that would lead us each our own way again, if unwillingly. Yet with all those chutes and ladders, our bond held firm. All that mattered to me now was that my lifelong friend be happy, be well, know a sweet moment now and then and laugh that laugh I adored. As we talked, I could hear the lively chatter of his two little girls in the background, a new family, and he chuckled as he said he was often mistaken for their granddaddy. Those little girls were his second chance. We had both lost, and lost much along our paths. If I had fought for and won achievement in my art, in literature, but lost at finding trustworthy companionship, he had fought for and won a good home, but lost at developing a lasting career with his music. We had each had to pay our dues.

No matter. I hadn’t come here to solve any world problems, in my world, or his, or any other. I had come here to rediscover my fatherland, ease away the shadows of bleaker times, and reestablish contact with family and friends living here—Andris among them. If I had feared that my arrival would not be welcome, my fears had all vanished by now. I curled into my Riga bed for a first night’s rest, knowing I had many here waiting to see me, with what by now I knew, beyond doubt, was sincere joy of reunion. I would sit and rise from ten tables, with extra helpings of love from family and friends I suddenly realized I had missed with a terrible ache, left unacknowledged. Until now, when I could at last open that clenched fist, held so tightly and so long closed, and release what was, leaving my hand open for what was yet to come.

(To be continued…)

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful photos and great stories Zinta! Paldies.

    Here are some of my Latvian photos from this summer...