Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 7 (Ventspils Reunion)

by Zinta Aistars

We embraced, laughing, pulled back to look at each other, embraced again. Walked a few steps down the sidewalk, then stopped to stand and look at each other again. The passage of time—it was all things: sad and joyous, time apart and time shared. It was what gave strength to our bond, this common history, this path that intertwined again and again over the many decades, yet simultaneously what drove us relentlessly apart, facing in two opposite directions.

For much of that last decade of my life, due to various circumstances and none of them kind, I had felt increasingly invisible. At this moment, the eyes of my lifelong friend upon me in close but tender scrutiny, I felt—visible.

We do not need to be changed, only accepted and supported, so that we may pursue our own desired changes to achieve our fullest potential. We do not want to be compared, for there will always, always be those who come in better, at this or that, in this or that way. All of us, every one of us—we only want to be seen. As we are. In this moment and always. The light and the shadow in us, the weak and the strong, what we once were, are now, and can be tomorrow. To be seen. As we were young and as we age. Perfect in our imperfection.

I stood on the sidewalk of many centuries, where my ancestors had stood, where my father had stood, where my grandfather and grandmother had stood, and I felt present. I am here. Now, here, in this moment in time and for all time, standing for all of us, here.

I am a woman of two worlds, and in those worlds a whirlwind of many others, complex and wonderful, but I am also a woman alone, standing in for no one but myself, unique, blessed, rich with history but creating my own history even in this very moment. This is but a moment in time, and it will pass, has passed already, and I will go my own way and not turn back, I will be here now and leave tomorrow, I will choose my path and travel it … but for now, I walk beside my dear friend, and our steps fall instantly into a synchronized rhythm, as they always have.

Now, I can take Ventspils in a little at a time. The evening has grown quiet, and we meet few others as we walk through Ventspils. Do you remember? Andris asks, and points to some building, some café, some park, some cornerstone, some window, some street in passing, and I do. Do you remember? I ask, pointing out some long ago memory, and we both smile, and do.

“Does Ventspils look different to you?” he asks.

“You know, everyone told me, again and again, how much things have changed … and in some ways, yes, of course, a brighter face on the city, more life behind store windows, but … no, she hasn’t changed. Not really, not at all. She is just as I remember her.”

I snap a photo of the city at dusk as we walk, and Andris laughs, pointing out that I have just documented our first shared crime—crossing against the light. But no one is breathing down anyone’s neck here, not anymore. This, then, is the change—that Ventspils is a quiet town at peace, at least tonight, and the city is quiet, with little traffic of any kind. A small black dog sits alone on the city sidewalk, watching birds alight around him, and the birds don’t fear him, and he doesn’t bark.

We walk down to the river Venta, where we have walked together many times over many years. The river joins the Baltic Sea here, and the port never freezes in winter, and here is this tiny country’s value. For this, Latvia has been invaded and overpowered so many times over so many centuries. For a port to the ocean that is always open, regardless of season, open to trade across the world at all times.

Z at the red brick house some 17 years ago...
“Remember that red brick house by the river?”

My eyes follow in the direction Andris is pointing, and I smile. I stand looking at that red brick house on the river, and I don’t know what is inside it anymore today than I ever have, nor have I cared to know, but time sweeps aside, and I see myself crouched there against the bricks, my long dark hair over my shoulders, wearing the jean jacket I’d borrowed from Andris with the red-lined hood, as he snapped a photo, then another, and another. What were we then? 35? Young and strong and ready for life. Trying to do impossible things, breaking rules, daring to dream, and about to learn about harsh boundaries.

Andris reached for my camera and motioned for me to go up to the red brick house, as I was then, as I am now, so that he might take a photo of this overlapping in time. She crouched by the red brick, leaning back against that wall. She, then, and I, now. And the man with the dark hair pulled back in a ponytail snapped a photo, laughing, his eyes bright, and the man with gray hair snapped a photo, his smile warm and his eyes bright, and then snapped another.

He’d never seen the Venta so still, so quiet, he said. We leaned against the railing and watched the setting sun spill across the river, shadow playing with light, pools of gold rippling over the black mirror surface of the water. The sun painted everything in a golden light, touching here, there, with its Midas touch. The quiet I had sought all day had arrived, and I rested inside it.

At Don Basil, a favorite new café on the ratslaukums, or town square, we sat in the corner and drank tea, and talked. Talked, talked. Talked. Words spilling over to wash away the years, we built bridges and jumped moats and found common paths. I’d forgotten time, but time went on its way, and an acquaintance Andris had talked to earlier in the day called to say our car was ready.

“We have a car for tomorrow,” Andris announced, his face lighting up. “I can take you wherever you want to go.”

Ah! My chariot awaits! Like many in Latvia, Andris did not own a car, had for years driven a company vehicle, but was without one now. I had hoped to get to Kolkas Rags, some 75 kilometers north of Ventspils on the northernmost tip of Kurzeme, the western province of Latvia where the Baltic Sea joins the Gulf of Riga. I couldn’t be more pleased at the news that Andris had found “wheels” and would be able to take me there on Sunday. Indeed, the red Passat wagon was delivered to the Don Basil door, and Andris invited me for a Saturday evening ride.

First stop—the Baltic Sea. I had wanted to pay my respects to the sea on first arrival, but felt overwhelmed by bustle and activity. I wanted to touch the sea now. I didn’t need to explain. Andris withdrew quietly to one side as I stood at the edge of the sea, the waves washing over the tips of my shoes, and I gazed out at the black water in the night, the only light now coming from the full moon overhead.

No one else anywhere. We were two souls wandering the shoreline at night, and the world seemed empty and clean around us.

We wound through the streets of Ventspils and its outskirts late into the night. We drove by his house, where the windows were lit in waiting and promised warmth for his eventual homecoming. We drove by Ganibu Iela, where we met at age 15. We drove by his school, where his musical education began. We drove by the guitar shop where he spent four hours skimming the strings of every single guitar before choosing one last summer. We drove the same streets more than once. We parked the car, and walked along the Venta again. We walked, we stopped, we stood, and I let him talk, carried away by the ease of the moment, listening to his stories and the weaving of his thoughts as I had so many times before, until that damnable fatigue demanded its own… and I silently cursed the international dateline, which still had its hold on me and would not let me skip another night.

I suddenly remembered something we had once promised each other to do … with our seven hours time difference, I would stop whatever I was doing at noon in the States, so that he could stop whatever he was doing at 7 p.m. in Latvia, and send good thoughts across the ocean. I imagined those golden little puddles, bobbing over the great waves of the sea, and felt how they had all gathered now, in one place.

Full moon over the Baltic Sea
“Time is short,” Andris said. “At what time can I pick you up in the morning? North to Kolkas Rags, then we can drive back down to Jurkalne, to your cousin’s summer house … the day will go quickly.”

The day, this trip, the years, this life.

“8 a.m.,” I said, and thought perhaps he was disappointed at the late hour for a start, but I needed some rest, and the hours were ticking away already.

“All right. 8 a.m., sharp. I’ll be at your door, waiting.”

And here we were again, at my borrowed door for the night, on Katolu Iela, the keys rattling too loud in my hand, the night too dark to see the lock, and the key turned and didn’t unlock, this way and that, as I fumbled and made, I’m sure, far too much noise. Finally, unlocked, and I slipped inside on tip toe, then skipped back out again, and threw my arms around my friend and drew him close, pressing my cheek to his.

“Nu re, cik mili,” he said.

See, how sweet… and it was, sweet, tender, warm, the one thing sure and true in my world. I tiptoed back inside again, and heard him burst into laughter and glanced back. Standing there, gray-haired man, laughing at me, acting like an old school girl, trying not to get grounded for staying out too late on a Saturday night.

I tried to keep my own laughter to a quiet roar, and failed.

(To be continued...)

Then and Now

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