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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
|Z and Janis|
(To be continued…)