Thursday, October 14, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 3 (Old Town, Vecriga)

by Zinta Aistars

Day of wandering, in and out of streets like alleys, so narrow, built long, long before automobiles, and I can’t stop marveling at the history on this Baltic shore. In the United States, where I live, at least in part, we consider a building old at half a century. My own house is a bit past 50 years, and the recent renovation work I’d had done on it revealed what contractors called “age.” In Europe, 50 years is the age of a toddler. Just a few first knicks earned, a scratch or two.

Walking the streets of Old Town in Riga, my gaze varies at levels—low, midlevel, high. I stare first down at the cobblestones, wondering at the traffic they’ve seen. There are streets here paved with stone from 1201, when Riga was first declared a city. I half close my eyes, hold my breath, stand still for a moment in a narrow turn between ancient buildings, and I can almost, almost hear them… the click, click of hooves tapping over stone, the turn of wooden wheel, the call of voices one to another in old dialect.

All my life I have pondered this, and ponder it still: what is this need in human nature to have history? To know our roots? Why is genealogy such a popular pursuit? Why do adopted children, grown up in loving homes, still long to look into the eyes of a biological parent or sibling? Why do so many of us long to know our family trees and from where we’ve come? What difference does it make?

Knowing our own history, would we change our ways? Make different decisions about our future? Perhaps we would. Perhaps we wouldn’t. Still, we want to know. I know my roots better than most. My paternal grandparents were thoughtful enough to write up a detailed “cilts koks,” or family tree, complete with memories, and left it to the rest of us. I’d always loved listening to my maternal grandfather’s stories of his childhood in Latvia, and when he died, I realized I stood uncomfortably close to losing a rich history with each passed soul in my family. I invited my maternal grandmother to visit me for a week, and almost desperately scribbled notes from her stories, realizing the need to record with some permanence and not rely on memory alone.

Who does not love to be listened to? For that week, my grandmother and I sat outside on the white wooden bench my grandfather, her husband, had built for me. A tape recorder made her too nervous. She was wounded by war, scarred for life by the fear of an occupying army in her homeland that executed people without reason. Yet she could not resist a granddaughter eager to hear her memories. I held the tiny notebook in the palm of my hand, as unobtrusive as I could make it, and leaned forward to hear her every word, writing down her stories. She was born during the time of the Russian czar. She had suffered through one deportation, working in the snowy woods without a coat. My grandmother’s blue eyes looked off into the distance as she spoke, lost to this world, entering another, and I listened, I listened, I wrote, I absorbed.

Family history. The history of a people. The history of a nation, of a country, of spirits that yearn in a common direction. We all seem to need to belong… somewhere, to someone. A family bonded by biology, a family bound by cause, a family of men and women looking up to the same colors of a flag. We know comfort in seeing ourselves in the eyes and gestures and mannerisms and features of others around us. We are unnerved when among others who speak a different language, and eased into comfort when surrounded by words we’ve heard and known since birth.

I understand and embrace the concept of being a global citizen. We all share one earth. Technology and the Internet have made us aware of just how small is this globe, and how much the actions of one affect the living standards of another. Today’s economic hardships in Latvia are no doubt closely connected to the economic struggles of America, and the rest of Europe, and elsewhere. We are all connected.

And yet. This need. This need to belong—to something more distinct, closer to ourselves, with commonalities to bind us and keep us supported if we should falter or fall.

I walk and weave in and out of Riga streets, picking up bits and pieces of passing conversation, letting my eyes wander from cobblestone at feet to soaring spire overhead. Most of what I hear around me is in Latvian. Now and then, I hear Russian. Quite often, I hear a smattering of a wide variety of European languages. I spot a group of Koreans obviously traveling in a tour group, snapping photos of Riga, eyes wide with wonder. What do they see? How does Riga appear to them? I know beyond doubt that what they see is worlds apart from what I see.

We see through the eyes of our own experience. I arrived in Riga with a travel companion, another Latvian woman who had grown up very differently than I had, and she was here for the first time. Our eyes saw two different worlds. Our hearts responded each with its own rhythm. What I saw was layered with memories. What she saw was fresh with the vibrancy of a first impression and at times overwhelming to her for the same reason. Most of our time here would be on separate paths, only occasionally intertwining. But now and then meeting to share our personal stories and experiences reminded me that any two people can see the very same place and experience it in completely different ways.

Belonging, not belonging, at home or abroad, among one’s own or immersing self into another culture … I am a strong believer in the value of travel. No book, no television program, no story heard from another friend or relative can replace a personal experience of being there. Even to fully know and understand one’s own home, travel is necessary. Stand too close, and we do not clearly see ourselves. Only when we step away and look back at a distance do we see the complete shape and shift of a thing.

Had I forgotten how much I needed this place? I couldn’t say. I only knew that I was often mistaken for a “local” and asked directions, assumed to know, and often did know. I only knew that I would always undergo some kind of metamorphosis each and every time I came to Latvia. Those who know me only in the United States do not know me wholly. Those who know me only in Latvia do not know me wholly. It is this fragmented self that sometimes enchants me, giving me the ability to see the world in more than one way, yet other times torments me. Wherever I am, I am taken for one who belongs. Wherever I am, I know, deep inside, I am not fully at home. Always, that other place … that other self … that one toe over the line…

Janis meets me at Laimas pulkstenis, the Laima clock, center of town and facing Brivibas Piemineklis, the Freedom Monument. We walk from Old Town to the newer section of Riga, where he lives with wife, Rudite. As we walk, he points out buildings of interest—Riga is known as Europe’s top city for viewing art nouveau architecture—and we walk along Elizabetes Iela and Alberta Iela as I snap photos left and right, up and down. It is impossible to capture it all, this incredible beauty, this meticulous detail. “New” Riga is also centuries old, far older than any section of the United States, and I am in awe of what I see, and can’t see it enough.

“Es nesaprotu,” Janis confesses as we walk. “I don’t understand. This quandary. You are a Latvian. You are home here, Zinta. Your home is here.”

I nod, slowly, considering his words, considering an answer, but decide not to make one. We have been friends for a long, long time, and Janis has been to the United States three times. He has enjoyed his visits to the States greatly, but each time confessed to longing to return to Riga, to go back home. Travel is a fine adventure, but home is home is home. I could understand that. I didn’t think Janis could understand my divided heart. I have roots in many places. Roots come from family and national history, yes, but they are also born of experience and personal memory. I was born in the United States of refugee parents, and even though my first language is Latvian—and Janis is forever marveling at my fluency and diction—yet still my childhood and youthful memories are set against an American background. Most important of all, my children and future grandchildren live in the States. I can’t just get up and leave.

In 1991, when Riga was divided by barricades, the Soviet government reeling and about to fall and retreat, Janis was among those who stood on those barricades, adding human flesh to that immoveable line. He knew the risk was real. He tells me now, as we walk Riga, that he recorded a tape that night before leaving his home, saying his farewell to his wife and daughter. Just in case.

I nod again, take a deep breath. In the States, we reeled on 9/11, when terrorists struck the two towers in New York City. Yet here, in tiny Latvia, dealing with war, with violence, with a terrorist government, was an everyday matter. The reason these wonderful buildings had survived so many wars… was because they were built to withstand war. The walls were thick. The cobblestones endured—tanks and military machinery, time after time. The Latvian spirit had nothing if not endurance and resilience stamped onto it.
On Stabu Iela, where Janis and Rudite live, we stop for a moment at a dark brown, rusty plaque. I would almost have missed it, except that Janis’ step faltered at the spot. It reads: “During the Soviet occupation, the State Security Agency, KGB, imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building.” The building is commonly known as “Sturu Maja,” or Corner House. The years in which these atrocities occurred were 1940 to 1941, then again 1944 to 1991. Until the very last.

Z and Janis
 My friend and I walked down the street and I knew myself safe. We had no family ties, we shared no blood but the blood of the Latvian nation. Yet Janis has been a steadfast friend ever since I could remember, to me, to all of my family, whenever any of us came back home. He was the first face I saw at the airport, and, I knew, would be the last. On that last day, his eyes would redden with tears. And I’m sure he still couldn’t grasp why I was leaving at all.

(To be continued…)

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