My emotions this trip did not partake of the usual joys. I lost two of my three cousins earlier in the year—the last, my cousin Vija, passed away only a week before our arrival. The flowers were still fresh on her grave. But life goes on even as we remember those dear to us, and, through our actions, hold dear those people and those ideals which they did.
Yet, it was not a trip of unbridled sadness. I met online acquaintances, long-unseen relatives, moreover, through it all, it was as if the universe itself had guided the circumstances and purpose of this trip. What had been anticipated to see and do remained unseen and undone–but replaced with unanticipated surprises and serendipities.
My cousin Janis had passed away in the spring, and Vija, only a week before our arrival. The flowers were still fresh on her grave. My mom bids our sad farewell, still, happy that Vija had survived her difficult bout with cancer long enough for us to have been reunited at all.
Not far away, in fact you could see them, were crosses re-erected to the memory of those taken away to the Siberian camps, most to their deaths, at the hands of the Soviets. Was it coincidence, or a reminder–a lesson–that Vija's first, and only, memory of her father was her mother, Erna, pointing him out in the railway yard, led away to the trains for the men, even as he tried to join his family. "There's your father." We joined in the annual memorial service. Was it mere chance it happened to be that day? I think not.
Like some stately, inscrutable Egyptian godess of old, Pice awaits us into her domain, my cousin Gaida's house. Indeed, at that moment, Pice was the sole inhabitant.
Every visit, usually sooner rather than later, I head into town to see what's new in Riga. In an era where people still need to reserve 24 hours in advance to make an international phone call, here, not far from the Presidential palace (it's not grandiose, just really, really old!), was the "Internet Cafe!" I've come to expect both these signs of the changing times as well as the dichotomy of the new openly contradicting the old ways.
Until the years between the two World Wars, Latvia had not been independent since subjugation by German nobility in the late 1100's. Latvian culture survived through obstinacy, pride, and sacrifice. Now, the West rushes in, Christian churches leading the new Crusades. The sour taste of eight hundred years of foreign incursion and domination–started by a religious Crusade–lingers on. The sign on this church in Vecriga reads,
SERVICES IN ENGLISH
SUNDAY 10 AM
ALL ARE WELCOME
Painted over it, the Latvian words "Latvia for the Pagans"
Here was a new experience, going out to a night club! Drinking, dancing, and yes, as the brass pole implies, a periodic "exotic" exhibition for the mixed audience, which takes it in stride, barely noticing complete lack of clothing. Speaking of pagan ritual.
My next stop was at the spiritual center of town. Where old city, Vecriga, meets the new, stands the Freedom Monument. Too often, we see only the traditional picture of its sleek profile against the blue sky, its figure of Milda holding three stars aloft. Lost are the heroic figures struggling for freedom, "TEVZEMEI UN BRIVIBAI" meaning, "For Fatherland and For Freedom."
As you head in from the Daugava river towards the center of Riga's old Town, St. Peter's Church is one of the first sights you encounter. Originally built of wood in 1209, it was rebuilt in 1408 in stone. Steeped in history, it is said that Peter the Great himself helped fight the fire the first time its steeple burned down in 1721, and that he issued the edict for its reconstruction. It then stood for two more centuries before being burnt down again by the retreating Soviet army in 1941. The current steeple is a steel replica. After a reign of five and a half centuries as the tallest building in Riga, the (then Intourist) Hotel Latvija usurped the crown, its builders insuring they erected it one meter taller. Nevertheless, the ride to the observation platform still affords the best, if not highest, view of Riga.
We also spent some time out in the country. The old mill, "dzirnavas,"" was not doing well. Every year, a few more cracks appear, a bit more of the stucco where my grandfather painted the watermill's name falls off. The foundation is being washed out slowly by water leaking through a bad runoff pipe running under the road, from the lake. This led to some serious ditch digging, however, that's another story. I thought–well, actually, fantasized–that it might be possible to sell a few "artistic" pictures of the old mill as a way to help raise some money towards its repair. Here, the road winding past the front reflects off the front door's window panes.
The back door to the mill house has been left open to air out the hot summer's heat. It's not difficult to imagine the flower garden that lies beyond.
A little window lets the bright daylight stream into the lower part of the mill house. When my grandfather bought it, he added a second story to it. But no one remembers quite how old this original part is.
I had never appreciated the solitary cabinet floating in isolation on the kitchen wall. Its austere beauty seemed suddenly self-evident. Nor had I noticed the organic, almost living–like moss–color that my cousin Janis had accidentally mixed (then cursed at while painting). He hadn't taken good care of himself, so it was no surprise that he had passed away. Still, it was no less sad that when the four cousins finally met at one place, one and only one time, it was at Janis' hospital bed last fall. With both Janis and Vija gone, and their love of the land, I can't help but feel there's something in that green...
Turning right, bright sunshine streams in the window, yet the mirror still reflects that somber moment.
My mother still recalls passing time sitting on the porch, perhaps reading. Badly weathered, roof sagging, it still tenuously holds on a shadow of its former charm. The first thing my mother did was hang curtains as a reminder of what it once was, and could be again.
Ever hopeful, it's no surprise that beyond the millhouse, beyond the porch, sunflowers bloom in the flower garden. Tall, strong, beautiful, surviving the vicious rainstorms and blistering heat waves of summer, it reflects the Latvian character in the face of adversity.
Alsviki, outside Aluksne, home to Peters' mom's cousin Arturs and his wife Lena, was also one of our country destinations. Here's a busy bee we ran across.
Off the plaza behind St. Peter's Church, the street vendors have already packed up for the "night." In the background is the entrance to Konvent Seta.
In a light-hearted moment a mother and daughter frolic through Riga's Kronvalda Park.
The Daugavas Gatve passes into Old Riga from the boulevard along the Daugava, past one of the massive towers of the Presidential Palace (to the left).