The Conclusion of a Journey to Latvia
Rundāles Pils exhibited, rich as they were with silk draperies and elaborately framed paintings, porcelain vases and gold-trimmed furnishings, frescoes of pink-cheeked cherubs on their ceilings and Persian rugs underfoot.
Jānis and I stopped to tour Rundāles Pils, or the Rundāle Palace, near Bauska in the central region of Latvia, after our day in the enchanted forests of Tērvete. The palace had been the summer residence of the Duke of Courland, Ernst Johann Biron, was built in 1736, designed by the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli in baroque and rococo style. We toured the staterooms—The White Hall, Gold Hall and Grand Gallery—the Duke’s living quarters and staterooms, the Duchess’ apartments, and the exhibition of 19th century fashion in Latvia, and then headed out to wander the lush gardens.
I’d been here once before, many years ago when restoration was just beginning. The palace was still undergoing restoration, but most of the rooms were back to what they were in their day, and the gardens, too, had been greatly expanded. It was quite breathtaking, and yet, I walked from one room to the next and thought …. cabin in the northern woods. All I want is a cabin in the woods.
“Uncomfortable, really,” I spoke my thoughts aloud as Jānis and I stood in one of the bedrooms—I’d by then lost count of how many rooms we’d been through. A bed stood inside an alcove in the wall, draped in an emerald bedspread, every corner neatly tucked in, looking as hard as a block of cement. I tried to imagine the Duchess tossing a slipper across the room, just for fun, and showing a pale pink shoulder to the Duke when he peeked in. Come hither, my Duke …
Nah, I couldn’t see it. These rooms were beautiful, but too strict and proper. One dare not touch anything, for everything seemed to cost incalculable wealth. Did these rooms ever resound with laughter? Did anyone ever go skidding across these polished floors? Did anyone lie down in the center of The White Room, shoes tracking in black mud, and make angels in the dust, spinning in circles?
I’d never been a duchess, but I’d lived a life of relative ease a long time ago, a thousand years ago, when I’d behaved myself long enough to be married to the father of my children, living in a fine home with a cleaning service coming by weekly, and four vehicles parked along both sides of our Kentucky driveway. Spoiled and I knew it. Yet the pull I felt was for something else, and when I left that life, taking nothing but a few personal belongings and my children by hand, I never looked back.
I’d experienced comfort and luxury, and I’d experienced being homeless for a summer, pitching a tent night after night and hauling my cat inside our canvas home for another night beneath the stars. No job, no address, no savings, but I was happy as a clam in a sleeping bag. It was the latter life I dreamed about on occasion, while the former had faded into pale oblivion.
When my financial advisor looked over my plans prior to this trip and admonished me for having my head in the clouds, there was much she didn’t understand about me. One should be careful making judgments about different cultures, but also across social and economic classes. We did not all seek comfort in the same ways, and thank goodness for that.
Granted, although I had lived that way, too, and in Latvia, in a house with no running water and no flushing toilets, heated by wood, I did not aim for such primitive surroundings in my eventual retirement. I rather liked my toilet to flush. And not having to heat my bath water first on the stove was, well, pretty dang nice.
Yet on the following morning, my last full day in Latvia, when Jānis took Alda and me to the Brīvdabas Muzejs, the Open Air Museum in Rīga, for a look at how our ancestors had lived centuries ago, and in some areas of the country, still did… I felt myself more drawn to those simple, clean rooms, swept with a broom, windows open to the breezes of forest and the passing chirp of a bird. Wooden houses built with logs, rooftops of sticks and moss, and inside furnishings that were basic and purposeful—a long table for family and laborers, beds alongside the walls, under windows so one could watch the moon come up, or fall immediately asleep after a long day of hard work.
Closer to the core of things, closer to the truth, closer to where all things began and would someday return, closer to that place without distraction, closer to that one note that hung high in the air and would never fall, closer to that which stood naked and proud when all veils were parted and all masks removed and all hides drawn away, to reveal, to reveal that place where we were all the same and yet each one breathlessly unique.
I had some flags of my own to fly. Some declarations to make. All in good time. But my journey back to Latvia had given me renewed courage and strength, and deepened my understanding of my people and my own nature.
All journeys change us. This one had changed me, as I knew it would. I had come to close doors, and I had closed a few, but not the doors I had expected to close. I had closed doors on a painful past, finding healing in old friendship. I had opened new doors, or found my way back to them, realizing I had unfinished business with voices that still called out to me.
On our final evening in Rīga, our friends and relatives that lived nearby, gathered at a tiny restaurant just across the street from the Rīga Pils—Vecmeita ar Kaķi (Spinster with Cat, who, legend has it, at long last found love in Rīga and is a spinster no more). Alda and I sat in the middle of two tables, surrounded by the laughter and warmth of dear friends, some older and some newer, even while we missed many beloved faces among our circle. We toasted our time in Latvia. We looked for the right words to thank this place, these people, and found none. None that could contain the love and gratitude we felt for both.
When we returned to our apartment on Pils Iela for one last night, setting our alarms for 3 a.m. to make our predawn flight, I found a comfortable spot on the couch and pressed a few now familiar numbers into my borrowed phone.
We talked for some time, about nothing important, as if this were any day or every day, weather and current events and sights seen during the day. We talked about things that were important—about our children, and about our hopes for their futures. Finally, time being the beast with bottomless appetite that it is, we talked about saying goodbye.
Andris’ voice seemed to grow quieter and quieter. I pressed the phone hard to my ear.
He wouldn’t say it. “Pagaidām,” he said again. “For now.”
I nodded in the dark of the unlit room, the night drawing a black cloak around me and tucking it in. As if he could see, and somehow, I knew he could.
“Tu brauc atkal,” he said. You come back …
“Tu gaidīsi?” Will you wait for me?
He would wait, eagerly. And I would wait, eagerly, for the right path, my path, to open itself before me, reveal that fork in the road, and know that I am being called Home to that place where I belong.