Vitauts in Latvia 18: The Departure

The Departure

Saturday morning came quickly. It was hard to get dad up, and he was a bit disoriented, but Bruno woke us all up at 4 a.m. and made sure we got to the taxi.

Tiny Cab
Tiny Cab

He said he called for a van the night before, but the guy showed up in a station wagon. We were able to fit all of our luggage and four bodies, but it was very tight. Again, Sue and I laughed all the way to the airport, and Vitauts kept pointing out signs in Latvian.

Vitauts and I had our Black Balsam taken away as we tried to get through Security. Both Glen and dad got the pat down. Dad never empties his pockets like he is supposed to, and I don’t know what Glen’s problem is. Maybe he looks just a little too clean cut to be believable? I should have put the bottles of Balsam in the checked baggage, but I was worried about the weight. I watched as the nice, polite man dropped the perfect bottles into the disposal bin for liquids. What a waste, I thought. At least they could have had a drink after work!

Where are Glen and Susan?
Where are Glen and Susan?

I bought a 4 Euro cup of coffee and enjoyed my final Latvian torte as I read about the Turkish queue and disaster in France. The world seemed so remote and far away, but now we were going to join it again.

I could stay in Latvia just for that feeling of isolation. In the United States, every event that happens seems so personal and directed toward us, even if it isn’t. We are at the heart of the world circulatory system. If China wants to claim an island, we are somehow involved. But in Latvia, all those stories seem remote. Their headlines read like the headlines of a small-town newspaper struggling for “real” news. At first, I thought that was quaint, but now I realize that it’s just sane. Part of America’s problem is probably that we are constantly living in a state of fear and paranoia. I didn’t feel that at all in Latvia, except for whether or not the waiters hated us because we were loud and obnoxious. It felt good to shed that self-absorbed skin for a week. We’ll see what happens when I get back.

Goodbye Latvia!
Goodbye Latvia!

So we’re on our way home, and I think dad will be happy to be home with his comfortable chair, working television, and daily paper. This adventure was wonderful, but it has also been exhausting.

Some final reflections about our trip…

When we arrived in American, one of the first things we saw at the airport was a pile of french fries littering the floor. I can’t imagine that happening in Riga or Frankfurt.

Sue pointed out how she saw almost no yoga pants in Latvia. It may sound old-fashioned, and even a bit sexist, but it was so nice to see how women dressed in Latvia. Now I know why dad always wears pants and a button-up shirt. It’s just how they dress over there.

Europeans are in better shape than Americans, but we knew that one already, didn’t we. I will miss the fresh fruit and the low prices of produce.

Public wifi is more accessible there than it is here. At the Chicago airport, I’m paying $6.95 for internet access. At the Riga airport and all over Riga, it was free.

Our roads are better, and everything is a bit more organized and developed. I can’t decide if I like the grid system of Omaha better or the curving winding system of a city like Riga or our own New Orleans. It’s certainly more practical to have a grid, but I really like roundabouts and winding streets.

We kill our poor trees for no reason. In Latvia, there is a law that you can’t cut down trees even on your own property without a proper permit. Here, we rip up entire forests to widen a road or build a few cheap houses. Glen liked to point out how everything feels temporary in the United States, while in Latvia, it felt like everything was build for the long run with the future in mind. I like that.

You had to pay for bags at the supermarket. Imagine if we implemented that system here! How many fewer wasteful plastic bags would we use if they cost us money each time?

There are a lot of things that aren’t great about living in Latvia, but I like to focus on the positive while the memories are still warm and fuzzy. Feel free to comment and argue if you’d like! I would love to read counterpoints.

Final Day Gallery:

Vitauts in Latvia 17: Friday

Vitauts in Latvia 17: Friday (piektdiena) 

I sort of woke up on Friday morning, but I was in a lot of pain. I promised myself that I would never drink enough to get sick again, but hey, it was Latvia. It was a bar crawl. There was absinthe. I had a slims gulva (sick head), and just lay on the couch as I watched the rest of them wake up, have coffee and conversation.

Finally, at about noon, Glen asked me if I was getting up. I said that I had planned to go get my passport at 1 p.m. He and Sue left with dad. They went to the park to renew their wedding vows after 22 years. What a wonderful gesture, I thought. Sue even brought the original wedding bulletin and they had matching Latvian rings to use as second wedding bands. I felt a bit guilty for not attending as a witness and photographer, but I needed to lie there for a bit longer.

I finally got up and had some coffee, which was a mistake. I won’t go into details, but absinthe is not better the second time around.

After getting cleaned up and resting a bit more, I finally walked to the passport office, and this time I did not forget my papers. I was also able to navigate the numers system myself without any help. However, the line was much, much longer. Apparently, Latvians like to do their business on Friday. I patiently waited at the office enjoying observing the people and doing some writing. One woman had a shirt that said “Husker” on it in a cool, artful script. I think it was a Husker Dü shirt, but I couldn’t be sure, and I was afraid to ask.

Friday - 1
Latvian Serial Killer
Friday - 2
USA Terror Watchlist

After over an hour, my number, 318, came up, and I went to get my passport. I asked for it in Latvian after practicing, “Es gribetu pase, ludzu.”  There were no problems. I signed a paper, and the man handed me my maroon colored passport with my black and white photograph all ready to go. Glen thinks I look a bit like a serial killer, but it’s decidedly much more appealing than the terrorist photo on my American passport.

Friday - 14I am not sure what having a Latvian passport will do for me. I understand that because Latvia is a member of the European Union, I can freely travel, work and live in any of the EU countries as a citizen. That’s pretty cool, and it opens up lots of opportunities. I have always wanted to get out and live somewhere else, so maybe this is the push I need. Ansis, Gita and Bruno are all helping me look for work in Latvia. I think I’ll stay in Omaha for one more year, and then we’ll see what happens from there.

Sue and Glen met me at the apartment with dad who made his final trip up those awful stairs. This time, he was breathless and checking his heart rate in his room when I checked on him. Sue said he had a really nice day in the park doing the service and eating lunch, but he was clearly tired out. I think it was good that we only spent a week in Latvia.

Friday - 16After we got dad settled in, we walked to Old Town for our final shopping experience. It was awesome. Sue had a checklist of people she needed to buy things for, and we were militaristic in our conquering of the souvenir shops. I found a wonderful bakery and bought some items for us and some gifts for Bruno and Maruta for their hospitality.

Friday - 7We walked home and met Bruno for the final leg of our journey. We wanted to see the land that Liesma grew up on, and the land that my Uncle’s family sold several years ago. When I came in 2005, the original house was still standing. It was in sad shape, but it was there. Now it’s completely gone. Vitauts said he had seen the place and he wasn’t interested in going again, and I didn’t blame him, but I thought Sue and Glen should see it, so we went. Bruno was very accommodating.

Grinbergs' Old Land
Grinbergs’ Old Land

The land was, as promised, completely barren and undeveloped. A fence had been erected in front of it, and it was surrounded by big, beautiful new homes. So whoever brought the property apparently made the mistake of overpaying in 2008 just before the bubble burst. We saw several unfinished buildings and empty properties. Bruno and Ansis said that people just got a little ahead of themselves in building during the boom of the mid 2000s. Now the economy was catching up, so hopefully, eventually, there will be something built on the property. It’s kind of sad to see that empty lot.

As we were driving back, Bruno drove over a speed bump and asked me if we had these in the United States, and I said, “Of course.” “What do you call them?” “Speed bumps,” I replied. “In Latvia,” he said, “they are ‘sleeping policemen.” We all had a good laugh at that.

The last mistake I made was buying smoked mackerel from Remi on our way home. I thought that my final Latvian meal would be a nice smoked fish that I couldn’t get in the United States, but instead it was this mostly raw, greasy, oily tasting thing that had a texture like an old sponge, and the flavor was even worse. I spit out the bite I took and looked for anything else to eat to erase the taste, but the mackerel got the best of me. Sue bought some candy that looked like teeth and eggs. It was… edible. 

Bruno called a taxi company and set up our departure for 4:30 a.m. so we could get to the airport an hour and a half before our 6:30 a.m. flight to Frankfurt.

Vitauts Typical Friday Night
Vitauts Typical Friday Night

When we got home, dad was playing solitaire as he is prone to do. He was ready to pack up and head on back home. I think he’s the only one who got a good night’s sleep.

Note: If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I didn’t really sleep at all. I’m writing this on the plane right now.

Photos From Friday:

Vitauts in Latvia: Postscript

UPDATE: Okay, you smug, self-satisfied TSA agent… show me where in this description it says that my liquor has to be in a clear bottle. I am no lawyer, but I can read.

balsam - 1
United Packing the Balsam

UPDATE #2: I took the rules below to the TSA agents and said there is nothing about clear bottles. His excuse? The TSA doesn’t publish ALL the rules because they don’t want the terrorists to win. Hilarious?! But luckily the United guy came and said he could put it in a box for me… so after lots of walking and arguing, the Black Balsam is coming home!! Go United!

Inbound International Flights

You may carry duty free liquids in secure, tamper–evident bags, more than 3.4 oz or 100 ml in your carry-on bag if:

  • The duty free liquids were purchased internationally and you are traveling to the United States with a connecting flight.
  • The liquids are packed in a transparent, secure, tamper-evident bag by the retailer and do not show signs of tampering when presented to TSA for screening.
  • The original receipt for the liquids is present and the purchase was made within 48 hours.

Liquids more than 3.4 oz or 100 ml not in a secure, tamper-evident bag must be packed in checked baggage.

Being in Latvia was wonderful, but traveling anywhere by air in the United States just sucks.

I had three bottles of Black Balsam taken away from me. Two at the Riga airport which was my fault, and one in the United States for which I blame our ridiculous and paranoid security system.

While going through the Latvian airport, I had a gift bag with me with a big bottle of Black Balsam. I hadn’t even really thought about it being a problem, but sure enough, it was confiscated, as was the little bottle. Then they say, “Well you could put it in your checked baggage…” but that baggage is clear across the airport and already checked in. I wish they had a clear sign that said something about it before I tried to get on the plane. But I should have known. Maybe I thought since it was Latvia, Balsam would be acceptable.

So then I decided to buy a bottle of Black Balsam at the duty free shop in Riga. They put it in a sealed bag and said it would be fine to take with me to the United States in my carry on. I asked specifically after my experience, and so I thought I was fine.

We went through Frankfurt just fine. One quick passport check and onto our nightmare 9-hour box of torture to Chicago. I don’t know why riding on an airplane has to feel so horrible, but 9 hours cramped in a seat next to so many people is just too much. I want there to be a better way.

Prior to landing in Chicago, they gave us little slips of paper to fill out declaring what we have in our baggage. None of this was needed because when we landed in Chicago, we had to go through this passport machine scanner, then a lady checked that scan, then another guy checked the passport scan again.

Then, you wait for your luggage, and they grab it right away to throw it on another plane. Both Glen and I thought about maybe putting stuff in the checked bag, but we figured that we made it this far…

For some reason, we left security and had to go to another terminal at the airport and go through security again. Why? Why not have a direct internal connection from terminal to terminal? It made no sense at all to me.

So we get in the security line again, and we had to get Vitauts to take everything out of his pockets and had him asking why over and over.

We got through, but all of my bags were flagged. They didn’t like the rocks I took home because those could be bombs, they didn’t like dad’s duty-free Jack Daniels, and I don’t blame them, and they especially didn’t like my duty-free bottle of Black Balsam. The security guy was nice enough about it, but it’s still such a dickish rule. The Jack Daniels was okay because it’s in a clear bottle, so they can test it. But the Black Balsam comes in an opaque clay bottle. Even if I were to open it to show them what’s in it, that’s not good enough. It has to be in a clear container.

Nowhere did I see a sign or any rule explaining that. How could I know that? He said that I could take it to my checked back… oh… four terminals away on a train ride and then pass through security again.

Just before this happened, I asked Sue… why don’t they have a system for shipping confiscated items home through the postal service. To me it feels like illegal search and seizure for the TSA to just take private property away. They take millions of items every year from otherwise law-abiding citizens. Just because they make some arbitrary rule about what type of container is okay or not okay… and the rules change and aren’t clearly posted. So long story short, my third bottle of Black Balsam is now at the O’Hare airport in the “Hazardous Material” bin. I guess they aren’t far off. It is pretty nasty.

I know I say that there is no such thing as common sense, but Jesus Christ. Law abiding citizens with absolutely no criminal intent or record should not be subject to such scrutiny. Why are we such sheep to allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. So much fear all the time, and most people are just okay with the government doing these things because we are always afraid.

I’m sick of it, and I think the whole affair is a microcosm that explains why more Americans don’t travel.

Other quick things:

  1. Getting elderly person through airports from terminal to terminal sucks. It sucks for everyone.
  2. Flying sucks. Sitting in an airplane just sucks.
  3. Getting a passport is a bit of a hassle. In Latvia it took a few hours. Here you have to wait for weeks.
  4. It’s expensive. Everything costs money, so only people with money can afford to travel overseas.

I know there isn’t much we can do about it, but I feel better for writing this. I needed to vent. Sorry this isn’t as happy and fun as my other posts!


Vitauts in Latvia 16: Celebrating my Citizenship

Note: I apologize, but Vitauts plays a very small but fun role in this story. I’m publishing from the airport after a sleepless night, so if you see mistakes, let me know!

Celebrating my Citizenship

Bar Crawl - 1 (1)One of my goals in Riga was to go on a bar crawl, and this was the last night to do it, so let’s go!

After I got back from Gita’s house, I called Ansis and arranged for him to come have one glass of champagne with us to celebrate my passport. He agreed and picked me up. We met Sue and Glen at the Flying Frog where they had just finished their appetizers and were getting their suppers. I had a strawberry margarita and a lime margarita for dinner with a beer for dessert. Ansis had one small glass of Italian sparkling wine, and I had one of those, too, so we could have a toast. The bar crawl had begun!

Bar Crawl - 3Final note about Ansis… he is a funny and wonderful person. His pride in Latvia is infectious. He was in a hurry because his oldest daughter was at home alone, and he had to pack to go to the big Latvian music festival, Postitivus where he would meet Monta to help her run her vendor tent for the costume shop. Ansis told us the story about his Latvian friend who lived in England and saw these big music festivals. Her dream was to bring something like that to Latvia. So she worked for years talking directly to musicians and promoters to get the concert off the ground. Ansis said she really struggled for the first three years, but now it’s a huge concert drawing over 30,000 attendees per day. That’s a huge attendance for a country with only 2 million people! Again, this idea of one woman with a dream making something happen was ringing in my mind.

Bar Crawl - 2He apologized and left while Glen and I had a heart to heart talk. Then the three of us checked out the snooty wine bar across the street. I had a raw salmon appetizer and Sue had the delicious rhubarb sorbet. But we could tell that Normunds, our waiter, didn’t want us there, and Glen probably insulted him by ordering beer at a wine shop, so we left after one drink.

Wine Bar
Wine Bar

Then we headed to Old Town to finish our bar crawl in style. We saw a bunch of Subaru WRX’s that were all parked by this blue church that just called to us. I chatted with the Subaru owners for a minute and lost Sue and Glen. Glen had been approached by the strange waiter at the castle restaurant that had a catfish special which looked like it was from another planet. 

Meanwhile, I found a nice patio overlooking the Daugava River where we had beers, french fries, and Sue bought me a traditional shot of Black Balsam which I downed heartily. The only disappointment was that the menu said the fries came with gravy, but it was

Not Gravy!
Not Gravy!

really just ketchup. This makes me want to start a new career as a Latvian to English translator… not a translator, but more of an editor to take the translations that exist and make them sound like American English. I have a feeling most of the places are just going with Google and it doesn’t always work.


Our final stop was an outdoor patio with a live band. I bought their CD for 15 Euro, which seemed a bit steep, and we met a guy from Lebanon with his new Latvian love. The five of us huddled in the chilly Riga night under our big umbrellas as it started to rain. The music was fun because they played their own versions of American rock and roll classics. The man owned a business that specialized in renovating old buildings, so he was in the right place. We told him all about the opportunities that existed all over Latvia, and he seemed really excited. He called Riga and “undiscovered jewel,” and I couldn’t agree more!

Bad Idea
Bad Idea

Glen and I made the mistake of ordering absinthe for our final drink. It was green, and Sue said it was 70% alcohol. It tasted like poisonous licorice, but I sipped it down dutifully. We were celebrating, right?

I got a beer to go, and we stumbled home, laughing so hard that both Sue and I couldn’t stop. It was exactly the kind of night I hoped to have, and it wasn’t even midnight!

Bar Crawl - 20When we got back to the apartment, I turned the key, but we couldn’t get in. Dad had locked the door using the deadbolt which could only be opened from the inside. It was just like being in Omaha again except I had no garage code to get me in! Instead, I had to call Bruno (again) to save the day. His apartment was adjacent to ours with a special secret entrance. He opened the door for us, but it was clear that we woke him up. He chatted for a bit and then went to bed. Dad never woke up, and I don’t think he knew he locked us out, but we made sure to write him notes after that. “Dad, please don’t lock the door.”

It felt good to fall asleep that night because I had absolutely no plans for the next day, so I could just sleep in and relax.Bar Crawl - 1 (2)

To be continued…

Barcrawl Gallery

Vitauts in Latvia 15: The National Library

The National Library of Latvia

National Library of Latvia
National Library of Latvia

Gita Berzina, dad’s grandniece, invited him and I to go with her to the National Library of Latvia (NLL) to see the archives and then to her apartment to look through some photos. We found out later that she is actually making contributions to the library by giving them old photos and helping to keep track of some Latvian families. I didn’t fully get the purpose of this project, but it was really cool to see.

Before we went to the library, however, I had business to attend to. Today was the day to get my Latvian passport and finalize my citizenship. I was to become a Latvian pilsonas (citizen). Ansis and Monta came to the apartment at 9:30 to get the key to the van and to say goodbye again, and then he offered to drop me off at the passport office which was only a few blocks away. I was running late because I said I would meet Gita at 10, so I said yes. But in our rush to take a final photo with Vitauts and everything, I ended up leaving my citizenship letter at the apartment, and Ansis, who was already late for an important meeting had to drive back to get the letter for me. Then, Gita showed up and got me a numers (number) for the queue. There was no line, so I got right in, took my photo, paid my fee, and they said it would be ready by 1 p.m. that day. I had to wait for weeks to get my United States passport, and the process wasn’t nearly as high tech. Go figure.

Then we picked up dad and took a taxi to the beautiful new National Library. The library itself is a treasure. It was designed by a famous Latvian architect named Gunnar Birkerts (Gūnars Birkerts), and it is shaped like a mountain with a flame on top. The theme, I think, is that it’s the flame of knowledge. I have never seen a building like that before.

Photo Albums - 12When we walked inside, I was in awe at the spectacular beauty and size of the space. There are 8 floors of books and other archives with an entire separate building dedicated to administration, over 2.5 million volumes in all. To get in, we had to get special passes, and then we followed Gita to the elevator which took us to the fifth floor.

The first display we saw was dedicated to Latvians who had been sent by the Russian government to Siberia. Thousands of Latvian citizens were deported during and after World War II, mostly intellectuals and wealthy citizens who posed a threat to the communist powers. Many of these Latvians remained in Siberia holding onto their culture through folk art, and the display included samples of some of the items that these Siberian Latvians had created over the years. It was a sad story.

Gita, Rita and Vitauts
Gita, Rita and Vitauts

Then we were greeted by Dr. Rita Treija who is a specialist in archiving folksongs and folklore of Latvia. She showed us the gem of the library which is a cabinet that contains over 200,000 folksongs (Latvju dainu) from all over Latvia. In the late 1800s, an influential Latvian named Krišjānis Barons began his life’s work by bringing together a group of helpers who went from village to village collecting the lyrics of songs for all occasions and keeping track of them. He began his endeavor by writing on small slips of paper with his own special coding system much like the Dewey Decimal system Photo Albums - 15for books. Papers from each region were carefully held together by ribbons that his wife made. Latvians are known for having over two-million known folksongs, so the collection, although extensive, represents only 10% of all the songs. That’s basically one song for each and every Latvian citizen!

She told us that they are organized by occasion with songs for births, deaths, and the largest collection for weddings. She also pointed out that the bottom drawer includes songs with obscene lyrics. Recently, they have begun archiving these lyrics online (include link) and she said that the most searched for songs are the ones with the naughty lyrics. Big surprise!

Then she took us into her library and showed us some books and samples of these slips. It’s amazing to think that this one person was responsible for collecting all of this. A running theme of this trip was the power of dreams, and how one person can truly shape and change the world he or she lives in.

Photo Albums - 20
Anna on the Left

Photo Albums - 18While I was looking through a book of folk songs with a whole section of Smiltene lyrics, and being absorbed by all of the history, Gita had given dad a stack of photographs to look through. This is when I learned that she was not only taking us there, but she was actually a contributor to the library. Vitauts immediately recognized photos of his mother, Anna Kamolins in beautiful dresses with mesmerizing eyes that are hard to miss. Gita marked the photos that dad could identify and let him keep one that he had never seen before.

Rita and I talked a bit about American movies, and she spoke excellent English. She asked me about the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and she wondered if I liked the DiCaprio movie. I was surprised that Latvians read and knew American literature, and she said, “Of course.”

Then we had a light lunch at the library cafeteria and took a cab to Gita’s apartment.

Photo Albums - 1When Gita invited us, she told us that she didn’t have room for more than two people. I thought she was exaggerating, and she probably was, but her apartment was small. I remember Edgar Jerins warning me how small his New York City apartment was, and it is for four people, but Gita’s is even smaller with just one room and a kitchen. She has made it a very livable and comfortable space for she and her two cats Annemarija Glorija and Beatrise. One was very comfortable and greeted us right away. We only saw the other one once.

Photo Albums - 28
Annemarija, I think?

When we got there, she had Vitauts sit down while she gave him photo albums to look through. The first album was the most interesting to me because it included photos of all of us, the Grinvalds kids. Apparently his mother and/or sister had kept every photo he had sent over the years and organized them very neatly. Each of us had a page, and some of the photos I had never seen before including a couple baby photos of little Norman which are hard to find.

Janis Grinvalds Young and Old
Janis Grinvalds Young and Old

The other albums were like time machines with pictures of our grandparents and even great-grandparents. I wish I could see more of my grandfather and his family, but those photos are few and far between. Dad recognized his grandparents on the Kamolins side as well as his godparents and many others. He was in awe that all these photos existed. It was like a time capsule. Every time he saw his dad he would say, “My pops” and his mother, “My mama,” and his sister, “Es masa.” Touching to say the least. 

I also learned much more about Gita and her mother and brother. Juris, her brother, took the name Grinvalds because Mara didn’t like his biological father’s name. It was a Ukrainian name, so she named him Grinvalds in honor of his great-grandfather, so the name will  live on in Latvia.

Photo Albums - 5Then Gita revealed the feast that she must have worked on for many hours. I told her not to make us any food since it was just the two of us, but as we learned all week, Latvians do not allow their guests to go hungry. She had made three full plates of all kinds of amazing breads with vegetables and fish. She also made a special cake from bittersweet berries because I told her I wanted to try Latvian rhubarb bread. In Latvia, they don’t use rhubarbs harvested after John’s Day, so this was the next best thing. It was all just too much for Vitauts and I. We both tried a few pieces, but there was no way we could finish it. She promised that she would take it to work and have a party for her workmates. I hope she did so.

Vitauts explained to her that he felt guilty because he couldn’t eat more. Of course, she was very Photo Albums - 6gracious and said it was fine, but I have never seen such incredible hospitality.

We eventually said our goodbyes, and she called a taxi. We ended the day by climbing the stairs to our apartment again. Dad kept talking about the nice woman who showed him photographs and made him food.

It was a very good day, until Sue and Glen and I decided to celebrate my Latvian citizenship…

To be continued.

Lots of pictures of albums. It was amazing to see how well-preserved these photos are. Like the rest of Latvia, some places are like a time capsule!

Vitauts in Latvia 14: Smiltene

Note: Okay, I finally got to it. If I hurry, I’ll still get four hours of sleep tonight before we fly back. But I can sleep on the plane, right? Enjoy… 

Smiltene: Vitauts’ Home

smiltene - 1I know I’m not spelling this right, but I’ll correct it later. Dad lived on a farm for sixteen years and the name translates roughly as flowing water or moving water, it was Strautini (not spelled right). He left the farm when he was 16 to go fight in World War II for the German army. The farm was sold in 1971, and somewhere along the way the house and barn burned down, so there isn’t much left, but he wanted to see it, so we went.

I saw the farm in 2005, and you can compare the photos to see how much it has become overgrown in just eleven years. Vitauts was very moved and saddened to see how the home that must have meant so much in his memories has now been reduced to rubble. After the trip, he just kept pointing out how it was his home, and now it’s gone. It was a moving moment for all of us.

Footings 2016
Footings 2016
Footings 2005
Footings 2005






The footings of the old barn still stand as a testament to how Latvians build things to last, and the many farmhouses nearby that have been updated and are still lived in also demonstrate this ideal. I just wish Vitauts had more of his home to look at. We found out later that the schoolhouse he had attended also burned down.

Austra's grave
Maija, Austra and Janis’ graves

After a short visit at the farm, we drove into Smiltene to see the cemetery. If you thought that him seeing his old homestead was a powerful moment, then you can imagine what it was like for him to see the graves of his “mamas un pops.” He also remembered his sister Maija who died when she was just a baby. I already pointed out how beautiful Latvian cemeteries are, but this one was even more special because community members were getting ready for the big cemetery service which was coming up the next weekend.

smiltene - 20In Lincoln, they do a service in September at Wyuka for all the people buried there. In Latvia they do the same thing rotating dates at various cemeteries throughout the summer months. So people were there with rakes, flowers and wheelbarrows of sand.

Juris brings flowers
Juris brings flowers

They rake the graves to cover weeds and make them very beautiful. Each grave has a concrete planter which holds flowers or various plants and grasses. Dad insisted that he have flowers to put on the grave, so we sent Juris to go get some purple flowers.

smiltene - 22


We found that Vitauts’ sister and her husband have markers, but our grandparents do not. We also found Janis, his brother’s, grave. He died when he was 35 and he had been married. He was buried in a plot next to his wife’s mother. We didn’t understand that, but who knows why things happen the way they do.

The coolest thing was that once dad set foot in Smiltene, he had a new spring to his step. He was almost running from grave to grave. It’s as if being home had given him several years back. We were walking fast just to keep up with him.

After we finished paying our respects to our ancestors, we went to a cafe for lunch. We had a wonderful dinner together, and then went to see Helma.


Helma, again, was dad’s childhood playmate, and she and dad have had a correspondence for many years. I think he must have had a crush on her way back when, but none of that matters anymore. When we arrived at her house, dad immediately pointed out the window he used to look out of when he stayed at the house.

Helma and her daughter Dace (Dotsie) were waiting for us, and Helma shook hands with Gita and Janis but was asking, “Where is Vitauts? Where is Vitauts?” He was getting the flowers and wine, and when they finally met, it was magical. Sue and I both had tears in our eyes as we watched them hug.

smiltene - 32After the greetings, we went inside of this Latvian artifact. The house could use some updating, but it’s got a charm and beauty to it with antique decor. Again, Helma had gone out of her way to create a gorgeous table spread with coffee and baked goods for everyone. At eighty-nine she was as charming and wonderful a woman as I’ve met. She kept chastising me for not knowing my Latvian… one more reason to get learning.

She had a photo album of pictures that Vitauts had sent over the years. It was so weird to see photos of your family in a Latvian photo album. Dad was flabbergasted and just in awe when he saw himself just out of seminary school.

smiltene - 33We knew they would want to talk for awhile, so after a toast with wine and adorable little glasses, Susan, Glen, Gita, Juris and I went for a walk to the town centr to see the old church established in 1209 and some of the other local sites.

When we returned, Vitauts and Helma were still chatting away, but it was getting late, and we still had a two hour drive back to Riga, so we all said goodbye. Gita taught me how to say, “It was nice to have met you,” in Latvian and I struggled with it and it has already left my head. I remember “jaukum” which is “nice or pleasant.” The hardest part about the language is that words change endings for all kinds of reasons, and even if I think I know how to say it, it is hard. Very hard.

At the Lake
At the Lake

I thought we were going to go home, but Janis wanted to make one more stop. He wanted to drive Vitauts past his old school and to the lake. When dad got there, I thought he’d be wiped out, but he scampered around the lake like he was ten years old talking about how he would walk this way to school every day when he was young.




Vitauts walking ahead
Vitauts walking ahead

He walked the whole path pointing out landmarks that he could recognize and talking about how so much had changed.

Then, we all walked back to our cars. The Latvians gave us gifts and we exchanged hugs and they drove off one way, and we went the other, into the sunset toward Riga. Thankfully, Glen offered to drive home which gave me a chance to enjoy a beer and navigate. We saw a double rainbow on the A2 while listening to Prince.

The story ends after we dropped Gita off and struggled to find our way home. Latvians do not like street signs, and our map wasn’t very good either. GPS? Nothing worked for us. But we made it. However, our parking spot was blocked by an orange metal device, and when I tried to push it down, the guard came rushing over. I thought I was done for, but I called Bruno and gave the phone to the guard, and it was quickly settled. Thank God for Bruno Grasmanis!

Enjoy some more photos: You’ll see that on dad’s land, there was a greenhouse and some tools and other objects. We think that someone is squatting or using the land, but no one seems to know who actually owns it.



Vitauts in Latvia 13: Cesis

Note: It’s our last night in Riga. I should be packing and sleeping because we are leaving at 4:30 a.m. for the airport, but instead, I need to write this blog because I know that once I leave Latvia, the memories will fade. Smiltene was the highlight of the trip. The jewel of our adventures. The one that Vitauts will remember. 

Cesis Pils

Cesis and Smiltene - 86This is a hard entry to write because it could be a novel in and of itself, but time and attention spans are limited, so I’ll do my best to keep it concise and focused. Composition 101!

We started Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. to pick up Gita at her apartment way out in Southeast Riga. The plan was to drive with her to Cesis where we would meet some of our Grinvalds relatives, and then go to Smiltene to see dad’s old farm and to meet Helma, his childhood friend.

We didn’t really know exactly how it was all going to work, but one think you learn about Latvia is just go with it. Roll with it. Everything will be fine (except the smoked mackerel from Remi… it is not and never will be fine).

Gita and Vitauts buying flowers
Gita and Vitauts buying flowers

Gita was excited to see us, and she helped dad pick out some flowers and a bottle of wine to take as gifts for Helma. Then we started our adventure on the Latvian highway. The roads in and around Riga are fine, but once you get out of the city, watch out. Every kilometer is an adventure waiting to happen. Either a crazy driver wants to pass you on a turn with oncoming cars, or you hit a bump so deep that the van seems to float in the air for a moment before crashing back down.


I had driven this road before in 2005, but I remembered it as having been a pretty nice highway. I think that the road repair crews have a lot of work to do, especially in winter when it freezes.

Janis Vitauts and Mara
Janis, Vitauts and Mara

We got to Cesis which is a jewel city of Latvia. I didn’t realize that it was

Me, Janis, Gita, Janis and Austra in 2005.
Me, Janis, Gita, Janis and Austra in 2005.

famous for it’s castle until Gita told us about it, and then we drove by it on our way to my cousin Janis’ home. We met Janis, his sister and Gita’s mother Mara, Gita’s half-brother Juris and followed them. They were all driving Audis, so that was kind of cool.

All of these family members are Austra’s children, and Austra was Vitauts sister whom I met in 2005. She died in 2011.

Mara and Vitauts on Jani's bench.
Mara and Vitauts on Jani’s bench.

Janis had a picnic all set up for us in his backyard. We met Mara whom he introduced as his wife of fifteen years. I didn’t know he had become attached again after his divorce. Janis had visited Lincoln in 1997 with his then wife. Vitauts drove them all around the United States showing them the sites. Janis is a television repairman, and he fixed our Zenith television that Trish (my ex-ex-wife) had bought for her graduation in 1994. It still worked when, I think, Trish finally got rid of it in 2008 or so when she left Ashland.

Cesis and Smiltene - 23We found out that the table we were sitting at and the little benches by the garage were all hand-crafted by Janis himself. He proudly showed us his shop which was in an adjacent side building. One thing you notice about Latvia is they don’t often have garages, but they always seem to have saunas or some other kind of out-building AND they have beautiful lawns. Again, his house was no exception.

Latvian Torte
Latvian Torte

We had planned to eat somewhere together, but guess what? Janis and Mara had prepared a typical Latvian “appetizer” with a bowl full of delicious pirags and a gigantic chocolate torte. They served us slices big enough for three men, and we ate every bit happily. Juris spoke really good English, and Mara took to dad like a paint to a canvas. She had him laughing and was telling him where to go and what to do. It was really nice.

Cesis and Smiltene - 89After our little luncheon and photographs, we hopped in the vehicles to explore Cesis pils, the big old castle. This wasn’t like the Jaunmoku pils which was more of a manor house, this was the real deal. Stone walls built to resist armies, and giant towers for launching barrages of arrows at invading enemies. Walls all around created what seemed to be an impenetrable fortress. And yet, most of the castle was just a ruin.

I found out later that Ivan the Terrible had sieged the castle with his giant artillery weapons and was going to take it one way or the other. So, in 1577, the people inside the castle including all the local villagers who had gone there for shelter decided to blow it up instead of allowing Ivan to take it. The brave people of Livonia sacrificed everything rather than being prisoners of the Russian intruder. I think that says a lot about Latvia’s national character.

Glen and me in the Dungeon
Glen and me in the Dungeon

The history of the castle is simply incredible. They are still unearthing artifacts. They let you climb down into an actual dungeon… we would never, ever let people do this in America. You get to climb spiral staircases to the top of the restored tower holding a lantern with an actual flame candle in it for light. At first, I thought the lantern was a gimmick but you really do need light, and they really worked well!



Glen in Armor
Glen in Armor

Outside of the castle, they dress up in the old costumes and there is a blacksmith who demonstrates how they made jewelry and weapons back in the 13th century. A gardener has planted the traditional crops of Latvia using only medieval tools. And we even got to try on some armor and see the toys and games of the people of Livonia way back when. My big hope is that someday the United States gets over its fetish to sue people for everything all the time, so we can have fun like this in America without signs and guards and all of that.

Dead Lenin
Dead Lenin

One of the haunting highlights of this adventure was the statue of Lenin that had been taken down and now is stored in a giant wooden box that resembles a coffin. His hollow eyes stare at you when you walk by. Good riddance!



Manor House
Manor House

And not only does 6 Euro get you into the old castle, but you get to explore the new castle as well which has been turned into a museum. The coolest part for me was climbing another spiral staircase to the top and seeing the library which has this incredible white fireplace that looks like ivory. I could definitely see it being an artifact from a Dungeons and Dragons game. We all went to the roof and I tried to pose in the same place that dad did when he went to Cesis in 1991 or 1997. We couldn’t be sure of the year.

Me on the Tower
Me on the Tower

Cesis and Smiltene - 2 (1)As we toured the castle, dad stayed behind with Mara and Janis joined them to drive him around the city and show him some of the other cool things about Cesis. When we found him, he was laughing and just having a terrific time with her. He was at home, with family.

After all of that, we piled in the cars again to take the bumpy country roads to Strautini, dad’s family home just outside of Smiltene some 20 kilometers away.

Vitauts on the Same Tower
Vitauts on the Same Tower







Side Note: When I visited Germany in 2005, we went to a few castles, and they were fun, but this is by far the coolest castle I’ve been to. So much history. I have always loved the Medieval stuff like knights and jousting and all of that, so this was right up my alley. 

Castle Cat!
Castle Cat!

And another side note… Latvia loves cats. They are everywhere!





Enjoy the Gallery of Many More Photos… some by Gita!

Vitauts in Latvia 12: Riga


Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.17.00 PMAfter an amazing weekend, we finally had a day to settle into our downtown apartment on Ausekļa (a Latvian poet) iela (street) near most of the foreign embassies and just a short walk from Old Town, the hub of the city.

After a slow, lazy morning allowing us to catch up on sleep, we took Vitauts down the daunting steps and walked toward Old Town. Our goal was to stroll, have lunch, and then come back to the apartment.

Kronvalda park is literally across the street from us, and it’s a beautiful city park with a canal, trees, statues and bridges. We lazily walked around and chatted with dad about some of the famous names and faces we saw.

He got a bit tired after we got to the end of the park on the edge of Old Town, so Sue decided to stay with him on a bench while Glen and I scouted for lunch spots. We found a patio restaurant that we thought at first just didn’t want us to be there, but it turned out they were kind of upscale, and the service was slow, but the food was exceptional.

After lunch, dad decided that he had walked enough, so we took him back to the apartment. Four flights of stairs are cruel punishment for his 88 year-old feet, but he made it up.

We turned on the television for him, and then went out to explore more of the city. I know it sounds a bit selfish, but I really think dad would rather be in a comfortable chair with his remote control most of the time. He never was much for sight seeing even when he was young.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.29.07 PMGlen, Susan and I saw some of Old Town. We shopped for some souvenirs (and every time I saw the signs, I couldn’t help thinking of the movie Top Secret where the old man says, “souvenirs” with a really strong, German accent. We bought some trinkets for everyone (no spoilers) and Sue found a deck of playing cards for dad so he could play solitaire in the apartment just like he has every day of his life for the past 50+ years.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.17.23 PMWe were able to find Maruta and Monta’s costume shop, Sena Klets (Old Barn). Monta was working and she gave us a tour. We were just amazed at the quality and craftsmanship of the work. They also have been working on creating a line of modern clothing inspired by the ancient Latvian costumes. These were also beautiful and well-made. I tried on a classic linen shirt, and I was happy that the biggest one they had did actually kind of fit. My goal is to put together a traditional costume for next year’s Ligo. I just need to save my Euros.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.22.12 PM
Viking Costume

The viking costume with the dagger and bronze jewelry was calling my name!

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 10.17.34 PM

One highlight of this trip was the fact that after we stopped at the German Latvian restaurant by St. Peter’s church, a whole bunch of other people joined us on the patio. Before we got there, it was empty. Sue chalked it up to the people wanting to go where the Americans were. Or it was just a happy coincidence. We sampled their brewed beers and had a sausage platter. I also had the sauerkraut soup which was almost exactly like mom used to make.

These Latvian guys doing acoustic “Purple Haze” rock!

We ended our trip at Black Magic, a Black Balsam specialty shop. The shop is based in an old building set up like an ancient drugstore. The bathrooms feel like dungeon cells with four-feet thick brick walls. It is hauntingly beautiful. Black Balsam is the Latvian national liqueur. When dad brought some home after his trip in the 80s, we kept the bottle and forced it on friends who dared to enter our house in Yutan. Many of my friends still remember having to drink the Balsam. Here we found out that there are many different varieties including one made with currants which gives it a fruity, sweet flavor and one mixed with rum giving it a … well… some kind of flavor that you don’t want in your mouth for very long.

We had desserts and coffee in this medieval apothecary candy store and talked with the lovely shopkeeper whose name was Rita. There are so many beautiful women in Latvia. Have I mentioned that?

When we returned home, Bruno had come over to visit with Vitauts, and they were having a nice conversation. Dad never could figure out the remote control.

The next day, we were heading to Smiltene!


Side Note: I like to find unique souvenirs that you can’t buy in stores. I collect rocks, and leaves and flowers and other artifacts. As I walked around St. Peter’s church, I saw that they were doing some construction and I wanted to take a rock from the church home. There was a pile of old bricks and dirt. I picked through, and I found an interesting looking stick, but it was harder than any stick. Petrified wood? I was in a bit of a hurry, so I put in in my pocket because I had to catch up with Sue and Glen. When I stopped to inspect it, I’m pretty sure it’s a rib bone. Human? I don’t know. I hope not. I hope I haven’t cursed myself. And does taking it make me a terrible person?

Photos of Riga

Vitauts in Latvia 11: The Grasmanis Home

Kakava (Pronounced Checkeva)

Kekeva just south of Riga
Kekeva just south of Riga

Just outside of Riga, Ansis and Monta found an old property with a farmhouse on it. Their dream was to take the old house, fix it up, and create a place for their family of five to live and thrive. They were very successful in their endeavor.

Ansis drove us out of Riga, and we carefully watched how he went because we were going to borrow his van that evening and the next day for our trip to Smiltene. We stopped at Remi which is the Latvian equivalent of a Walmart or Super Target. We loaded up on goodies for supper and then finished the 20 minute drive to his suburban estate.

Vitauts and the House
Vitauts and the House

The house is located on a dirt road, and from the front, you see a garage, out-building and the front of the house which are all in the traditional Latvian farm style with dark, wooden siding. Then, behind the old house, is the new addition which is much more modern. Ansis was very proud of the way the architect married the old and the new. This was a major theme of our visit to Latvia. They are very proud of their past, and they don’t destroy it, but rather they renovate and update. But one rule is that if you build a new house, you don’t make it look like an old house. It’s unfashionable.

The New Addition
The New Addition

Ansis gave us a tour and we met all of his children. Darta was with her friend Katrina, and they had a couple bags of chips and were giggling like preteen girls will do. Laura was very friendly, but when Nora saw us, she ran under the bed to hide. She warmed up to us later.

Monta was, of course, busy in the kitchen preparing food. We sat down at the dining room table and shared stories and photographs as she and Ansis brought us dish after dish after dish of sausages, potato chips, bread, and other treats. He also showed us the architecture magazines which featured his home. The magazine really did justice to what they did to preserve the original charm of the old house.

Jurmula - 38After our “appetizer”, Monta announced that dinner would be served soon. We all gave out a collective groan and suggested we walk around the grounds before we ate more food.

Ansis then gave us the grand tour of his property which leads to a lake on the Daugava river which has been dammed to provide electricity for Riga.


Jurmula - 56I walked through the tall grass and flowers collecting different varieties as I went. We found a bottle washed up on the shoreline, and I made a vase. Ansis told us that this was the lake he swam in on Ligo when John Grinberg and his family were visiting. I was tempted to jump in, but I didn’t.

Jurmula - 59

On the way back, he pointed out a grove of young trees. Each tree had been planted as a gift to him on his 40th birthday almost five years ago. The most interesting of the trees was a “Royal Oak” which had grown from an acorn taken from the Royal Grove in London. Apparently, no one is supposed to grow these trees except for the royal family in England. I hope this blog doesn’t cause Ansis trouble with the international community.


We returned to find that the patio table was all set for supper. Vitauts was happily chatting with Monta and enjoying a beer. We all sat down to a lovely meal of fish and potatoes and wonderful vegetables. Remember, that all this food came after we had been munching on appetizers for over an hour. Latvians and their hospitality!




After supper, we brought all the girls together and gave them gifts from America. Ansis said his girls liked the Disney movie, Frozen, and Laura and Nora were all over the figurines and toys from the movie. Darta is probably a little too old for Disney princesses. I also gave them little pink notebooks, and Glen and Susan gave them backpacks. We gave Ansis and Monta Crest toothpaste because apparently it’s hard to find in Latvia.

Jurmula - 74
Jurmula - 75
Jurmula - 77

Finally, I revealed the painting that I had packaged carefully and brought onto the airplane. It was a painting by Margarita Kovaļevska that Liesma had.

Margarita Kovalevskaya
Margarita Kovalevskaya

I found out from one of the Lincoln Latvian church members that the painting was an original and might have some value. I thought it was better to be back in Latvia, and everyone in our family agreed. I know it will look nice when framed on the wall of the Grasmanis manor.

Husker Power in Latvia!
Husker Power in Latvia!

Ansis and Monta put on the Husker shirts, and we made them promise to wear them when they visit Nebraska. Then the little girls all started throwing balls at us, and we knew it was time to leave. I got a quick set of instructions on driving the minivan, which turned out to be a Dodge, so that was easy. We loaded up and headed back to Riga.


It was a wonderful way to spend the evening.

Side note: We drove Katrina back to her home in the village. On the way, Susan had a wonderful discussion about her favorite American singers. Sue would say, “Do you know Beyonce?” And Katrina would reply, “But of course.” We ended up running into her father and brother on a walk. I can’t imagine what they must have thought to see their daughter with crazy Americans! Sue also learned that Latvian girls love Oreos, so that might be a hint at Christmas time. 

Vitauts in Latvia Desmit (10): Jurmula to Riga

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 8.35.36 PMJurmula to Riga

Ansis is the host with the most. We left Abragciems for Riga in the morning, but it was raining, so our plans to stop along the beaches to see the white sands was no longer possible.

We did, however, sprinkle dirt from Liesma and Arnold Grinvalds’ graves onto the Latvian soil and the Gulf of Riga as a symbolic gesture.


On the Beach
On the Beach

Jurmula is where the wealthy people go to stay for the weekend in their summer homes. We saw houses there that rival anything we have in the United States, but the structures are all either very old and beautiful or very modern. They don’t have the “McMansion” epidemic that is plaguing America.

Rain poured down, but Ansis took small side roads, and we hunted mushrooms as we drove. Glen, Ansis and I found a few to take home.


Vitauts at 36 Line
Vitauts at 36 Line

After surviving the tumultuous downpour, Ansis took us to 36 Line, a trendy restaurant in Jurmula. He knows the chef, so when we sat down we were greeted and encouraged to try the fish stew. And Glen, despite his dislike of fish, at the entire bowl. Glen knows how to take one for the team.




Jurmula - 4Sue had a wonderful Italian wine that I promised I would take a photo of. We shared the bottle and it was wonderful. Dad insisted that he wasn’t hungry and that he wouldn’t eat much (a running theme for Vitauts). We had some kartupeli (potatoes), and I gave mine to dad. We also had a free sample of Latvian steak so Glen could see what it was like, and we gave the surplus to Vitauts. He ate it happily despite his reservations.


After lunch, we walked down to the beach which was AMAZINGLY beautiful after the clouds Jurmula - 6cleared and the rain stopped. Vitauts walked back to the Honda CRV and waited for us there.

Jurmula - 12We drove back to Riga, and we ran up to the apartment to get our gifts that we brought for Ansis and Monta’s three girls. Ansis was going to take us to his home for supper where we could see the amazing house that he and his wife built.

When I visited in 2005, they lived in the apartment that Bruno let us stay in for the week because he is between renters. Now, Ansis and Monta live on an acreage where they renovated the old farmhouse and added on an entire new addition. They created an architectural wonder out of an old farmhouse.

Next? Supper with Ansis, Monta, Darta, Laura, un Nora…

Latvian language side note: As we were driving with Bruno and Maruta, dad pointed to a car in that cut us off and said, “something something shita.” I had always heard the word “shita” growing up, but I didn’t know what it meant, so I asked dad. He said there was no such Latvian word. Then five minutes later, he used it again. It turns out the words simply means “this” or “that one” as you point you say “shita.” It’s spelled “šeit” (š is pronounced /sh/). So finally, Maruta and Bruno asked me what it means in English… I told them “Kaka.” They all had a good laugh.