Monday, November 01, 2010

Journey to Latvia - Part 20 (That Place Where We Belong: Conclusion)

by Zinta Aistars

The Conclusion of a Journey to Latvia

Of queens and paupers, I knew something of both. In the end, I’d rather be a pauper and enjoy a life of wealth, nonetheless. There was greater wealth than the rooms of 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.

Now that much of the palace was restored, it was often used by the president of Latvia to greet dignitaries, or by wealthy locals who sought exquisite and unusual surroundings for weddings and banquets and special occasions.

“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?

The duchy in the portraits looked very clean and not given to giggles. The Duchess peed in a delicate porcelain bowl decorated with giant goldfish. No, wait, that was for bathing her pink toes, and the pee landed in the pretty bowl, flowered and trimmed along its edges with a thin line of gold.

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.

If I ever looked back with any measure of longing, it was for those days when empty cans and bottles picked up along the roadside were traded in for food at the local market, and when I sat on the park bench a block from Jim’s greasy spoon at the end of the night, counting tips stuffed into my apron pocket from waitressing. I didn’t have much, but I had no debt, and I felt free as a bird untethered.

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.

Maybe I was a bit of an odd bird that way, I wouldn’t argue it. I had no interest in fashion, blow-drying or curling my hair was too much of a bother, and although I’d danced across more than a few ballrooms in long gowns and high heels when very young, my preference now was very much for a softly worn flannel shirt and loose jeans, my hair pulled back into a ponytail.

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.

Closer to where time stands still. Where I could stand on the ground where my ancestors stood, and know myself connected, all one and each one moving all forward. I leaned into the doorway of a house built by my people many centuries ago, as perhaps they had leaned in some long ago moment of contemplation, and felt their voices singing in my bones. What made us who we were, what we were, a people who existed still today and still spoke the same language, one of the oldest languages still spoken on earth, was our ability to survive. To endure the unendurable. To withstand the unbearable. To pick up again, no matter how many times knocked down, and start all over again. And build. Build again. One home set aflame in war, another home raised to greet the future in peace. Even when it didn’t come.

I was proud to belong to these people. I wasn’t always. Like all human beings, we have our weaknesses and our failings. I could be hard on my own family, expected much of them. But in the end, what mattered most, is that we kept on trying. We kept on, and we kept on, and we just kept on rising up no matter how many times we’d been pushed to our knees. After so many centuries of oppression, we kept rising up to declare ourselves free.

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.


  1. It's been wonderful sharing this beautiful and important journey with you. Thank you.

  2. I loved going to Rundāles Pils! You're making me so nostalgic for my childhood! :)