A New WorldOctober 1992 — Peters’ First Trip

My first tickets to Latvia!

My first trip, my mom reunites with family after more than half a century

I wasn't sure what to expect, on this, my first trip to Latvia. Certainly, it wasn't a good sign, when as we were landing in Riga, my mother clutched her head in her hands and exclaimed, "What kind of dismal place are we descending into?" It was a year since independence from the Soviet Union. My mother had been packing for this trip for an entire year! But at this moment, she had her doubts.

I had never been to Latvia, nor had I ever expected to set foot in the birthplace of my parents. I had grown up speaking Latvian at home, felt passionately about the subjugation of Latvia under Soviet domination, and never failed to point out the duplicity with which Roosevelt and Churchill had ceded the Baltics to the Soviet sphere of influence. That the United States subsequently refused to recognize the illegal annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania only underscored the emptiness and ultimate hypocrisy of that gesture, when they had denied arms to Latvian partisans attempting to defend their homeland, sealing its fate for the next two generations.

My head had been filled with visions of post-Soviet Eastern Europe: dark, dank, dreary, black with soot, despoiled with industrial waste. I imagined endless smokestacks pouring out their black torrents. I expected the worst. Seeing my mother's reaction only confirmed my worst fears.

Yet, all is relative. The Latvia my mother knew-verdant countryside, clean and well kept sidewalks and gardens in Riga-those were a distant memory. My mother had not seen her family in 53 years. She was lucky to see them again at all. But even that joy was bittersweet, for seeing what Latvia had become wounded her soul. For my relatives, however, more than half a century had passed during which they had endured hardship, survived repression. Now they saw in independence a chance to live life without fear. The euphoria of freedom was still alive and well.

What mattered most was that a family had been reunited. That the past had been so dark only made the future appear even brighter. Our idealism was undimmed-the more practical aspects of rebuilding our family-or Latvia-were not ones which concerned us.

They say that, "Blood is thicker than water. " I learned that was true. I felt an immediate bond, especially with my cousin Gaida. I also felt an intimate bond to Latvia, even having never been there. After years of speaking Latvian only with my mother, it was strange to see Latvian on TV, unexpected to hear Latvian in the street, a bit awkward to find the words to express myself and my emotions fully at a momentous and ultimately life changing moment like this. Yet it all felt as it should. Only by its filling was I made aware of the void.

My mother stayed on for another month, but my trip drew to a close in week that proved to be much too short. The evening before leaving for home, my curiosity prompted me to ask my relatives what they thought of my Latvian. I was acutely aware of talking around words I didn't know. They told me they were surprised, they did not expect me to speak Latvian so well. They had met a number of Americans of my age previously, of Latvian parents, who hardly remembered any Latvian at all. But, they confided, I spoke with an American accent! It was funny, I had arrived in Latvia speaking the Latvian of my parents and their generation from before the war. I would never admit to them that it sounded to me as if a bit of a Russian accent-heavier, the words no longer quite as light or lilting-had crept into their rendition of our common mother tongue. My mother offered a compromise: I spoke the Latvian of the countryside, of the gently rolling hills of Vidzeme, the land of her roots. And, I knew already, of my roots as well.

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