Jēkabpils

Jēkabpils

December 30, 2016

I had planned to wake up this morning and just go on a road trip somewhere. I got started late, but I put my finger on the map and drove some 130 kilometers to Jēkabpils, the tenth largest city in Latvia.

What I learned is that there are no straight lines in Latvia, and probably not in life–not in my life at least. Yes, I tend to get philosophical when driving on strange curving roads along the Daugava river surrounded by the unfamiliar.

Think of all the decisions you have made in your life. The big ones. And what led to those decisions? Was it a plan? Some divine line that you drew when you were young until the day you died? I think my brother Paul is the only one I know who seems to have created a trajectory for himself. For me, everything has been more similar to the Formula 1 track at Monaco than any sort of line. I hope that it eventually circles and reveals a purpose, but for right now, I’m in it for the ride, chasing the corners and putting the pedal down on the straights.
But back to Jēkabpils (YAK-a-pils). The drive was stunning. I learned that another thing lacking on Latvian roads are speed limit signs. Just so you know, 90 km/h is the speed limit on most highways, but no real Latvian even pretends to follow this limit. I was doing between 95-100 km/h, and suddenly, I would see a car behind me, and VROOOOM, it would zoom on by as if I were standing still. I don’t know where everyone in Latvia is in a hurry to get to, but I would like to get there some day.

The other cool thing about the roads is that one minute you’re driving on a perfectly smooth highway, much like any highway you’d find in the states, when suddenly a little sign that shows bumps comes up, and the highway deteriorates into some minefield infested patch of rock that may have used to resemble concrete. But this road does not deter the Latvians, who will pass on a corner, up hill, in the rain, on such a bumpy road without hesitation. Maybe they just don’t fear death?

But Jēkabpils. One such corner, brought me on the edge of the Daugava, each turn exposing a more and more beautiful view. I would place that drive on the top ten list of places I’ve ever driven. I only wish the road were better, and the day were brighter, and I were in a 911 Porsche. Someday.

 

So, I got to Jēkabpils, and after winding and wending my way through the narrow streets, I came to what I believed to be the town square. Most larger Latvian towns have these squares, much like any fairy tale or European stop action animation featuring Kris Kringle.  A large Christmas tree decorated the square, and shops of all kinds surrounded the space. I began my visit at a small cafe for a cup of coffee and some potato pancakes with salmon. Delicious. The coffee was actually awful, but the food was good.

Then I had two goals for the rest of my day: 1) Cross the Daugava on foot, 2) buy some Latvian shoes. I took a stroll taking some pictures of old churches in the fading light, and realized that I wanted to explore my iPhone 7s dark photo capabilities, so enjoy my experiments with light. Two roundabouts later, I found myself heading toward the bridge over the river. It was decorated, of course, with Christmas lights. Traffic was heavy, and there were even several pedestrians crossing the bridge. Everyone in Jēkabpils eyed me in a funny way. I’m not sure if it was the beard or the coat, but I didn’t feel really welcome.

The bridge was beautiful and cold. It afforded me a view of the dark river flowing swiftly below with lights reflecting on the surface. I won’t say that I felt an epiphany, but I did think about how this river basically slices the main part of Latvia in two pieces. So I kept wondering how, back in the day, one tribe would cross to trade with another tribe? How did traditions and language cross this mighty river before bridges?

 

After crossing, I made two quick stops. One was at the supermarket. I was going to leave without buying anything, but the female security guard kept following me, so I bought some kleenex for .59 Euro and walked out. Then I decided to try the little Latvian casino. These are EVERYWHERE throughout Latvia. I suppose they would be in the United States if they were legal. Fenikss, I think is how it was spelled. Word to the wise… don’t go there. If you thought slot machines in America were terrible, the odds are much, much worse in Latvia. I played a game called “Chicago” which was a slot machine that paid out for poker hands. Normally, I could sit and play penny slots for awhile, winning and losing… but in Latvia, with 5 Euro, I think I “won” about ten times… the rest of the time, I just flushed those 500 pennies down the proverbial tualete (toilet).

But at least I got to use the water closet (another challenge to find for free in Latvia). I decided that if I ever rule the world, there will be no signs or illusions about using the bathroom. Every single place that has a bathroom will have a fully-functioning public restroom for anyone to use at any time that the place is open. No “For paying customers only” signs or anything like that. Just let me go to the freaking bathroom!

Sorry, Jēkabpils… my walk back across the Daugava was splendid. I stopped at an old-fashioned department store on the main street, and by “old-fashioned” I mean JC Penney’s in Wahoo circa 1978 with stairs and all. I found a men’s shoe selection on the top floor, and a wonderfully nice woman was there to help me try to fit my fat American feet into a pair of Latvian-sized shoes. Cetridesmit seis (46) I tried to explain, and she seemed to understand. I actually would have preferred a 46.5 or 47, but 46 is as big as I could find. After searching and trying on shoes for awhile, I felt like I had to buy something. We finally found these cool black and white sneakers that fit well enough. Sold! I said. But when I asked her if she knew somewhere nice to eat, she had no idea. Good thing I have a smartphone.

I found this cool place a few blocks from the square called “Klasse.” It had 5 stars on Travelocity (but only 3 reviews). What the heck, it was better than the sushi/pizza combo place in the main square!

Sure enough, it was another European masterpiece. I asked my cousin, Gita, about how all these little Latvian cafes, even in small towns, manage to be so cool looking and to have such diverse menus? In America, local greasy spoons are run-down bars. If you’re lucky you get some nice kitsch for your dollar, and cheap crappy beer. But here, the places are all decorated, clean, well-lighted, with a full bar and elegant if not gourmet menu options. I asked my waitress, Agnese, what she would recommend. She set me up with the pork fillet wrapped in bacon cooked with plums. I was scared at first, but the plums actually gave it a savory barbecue flavor, and the sauce was delicious. Although what they call spicy here, we call “pretty bland” back home. The most amazing thing was the chocolate soufflé I had for dessert. Crisp on the outside with hot, chocolate lava oozing inside. Fresh berries and ice cream topped it all off. Exquisite.

But all things come to an end, so after a quick stop for some beer at the liquor store, I said, “Goodbye!” to Jēkabpils, and took a route on the north side of the Daugava home. It’s too bad it was dark because I’m certain the view from that side would have been just as splendid.

One-Way Dam

The final drama of the journey was just after crossing the dam in Kegums, which was a one-way road due to construction, and a bit hairy at that. I got to the other side, and I saw a dog on the side of the road. I turned my brights on and came to a stop. It wasn’t a dog. It was a beautiful gray wolf that sauntered in front of me across the road, casually as if to say, “Lab vakar!” I tried to grab my camera, and I rolled down the window, but she just walked into the darkness and disappeared. Just a bit of magic in the air, I think.

I hope that the curvy road you’re on leads you to cool stuff like one-way dams, wolves, and a whole lot of whatever else you desire! Happy New Year! Laimigu Jauno Gadu!

 

 

 

December 29th: Gaismas Pils and Beef Cheeks

Gaismas Pils

Gaismas Pils

On Wednesday, at least I think it was Wednesday (time is moving in such a strange direction), I was invited to Gaismas Pils, the Latvian National Library, to see the first publication of one of the books that I helped to edit. I helped with the English version of the summary titled, “Intangible Cultural Heritage in International and Latvian Law.” The book itself is titled Nemateriālais Kultūras Mantojums Starptautiskajās un Latvijas Tesībās (Intangible Cultural Heritage of International and Latvian Law). I met the

I’m in the book!

author, Anita Vaivade and the director of the Institute of Latvian Folklore for the Latvian University, Dace Bule. She even has her own (albeit poorly translated) wikipedia page. Rita Treija, whom I met this summer with Gita, is the head of the Latvian Folklore division, and she introduced me to everyone and showed me around “behind the curtain” of the Folklore department which rents a space in the national library.

 

Rita, Anita and I had lunch at the cafeteria, and then I was given the opportunity to explore a special exhibit on “Grāmata Latvijā” or simply “Book in Latvia.” The exhibition focused on publications throughout the history of Latvia, and it was quite fascinating. Most of the displays had translations in English, so I could understand the progression of publishing. As a teacher of Humanities, I found the Medieval vellum books with illuminations to be quite intriguing.

Me at the library

The hardest part for me to wrap my head around is that there really wasn’t a “Latvia” as we know it today until 1918 when they gained their first independence from Russia. Up until that time, it was a series of provinces united by culture and language, but with no real borders or national identity. One fascinating thing about my visit to the library was the running theme of how culture and especially books have the power to create identity. Beyond informational, the entire experience was quite philosophical.

Early book

Most of the early books were religious in nature. Crusades were sent to Latvia to bring Christianity to the region, and eventually Catholicism took hold, and later, the reformation brought Lutheranism with its own set of books. However, all of these books were published in languages other than Latvian. Most were in Latin, and later German. It wasn’t until Glück (a German theologian) translated the Bible into Latvian in the late 1600s that the Latvian language was in print and recognized officially. One of the curators of the folklore section, Aldis, explained in his own way that until then, the Latvian language was “junk” to the Germans, Russians, and Swedish who continually conquered the territories. Like I said, this was a whole new perspective on national identity.

It was striking to see the history during Soviet times (1944-1990) when books were carefully censored. They had one book on display sent from the United States that had been confiscated. Thousands of books sent to Latvians from abroad were never delivered. Most were simply incinerated. One display included an old fashioned typewriter that invited you to listen to the words from books, and then to type them in while it redacted the parts that were to be censored. I typed from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and any suggestion of religion or sexuality was carefully edited out.

It was also impressive to see that the literacy rate in early Latvia based on Russian surveys was over 90% in the area of Riga and most of Latvia. This was in the late 1800s when about 20% of Americans were considered illiterate. According to the Huffington Post, there are still 32 million Americans who can’t read.

Liesma

Another interesting thing I learned was that one of the most prominent and prolific publishing companies in Latvia was called “Liesma.” Imagine my joy to see my mother’s name prominently on display throughout the exhibition. Her name literally translates to “Flame,” so I guess it is a fitting name for a book company.

Riding up Glass Castle

I also learned that the design for the Gaismas pils was taken from this drawing of a knight riding up a glass castle from an old Latvian illustration. I was wondering why they called it “Light castle” instead of “Glass castle?”

The most impressive technological display was this small circular room

The Magical Book

created by black curtains, which felt like something right out of a fantasy novel. A giant wooden book sat upon a pillar in the center of the space. The room was dark, and an eerie glow illuminated the book from below. There were no words or instructions, but it felt natural to simply open the book, and when I did, the screen in front of me lit up to display a scene from Harry Potter (more of an artful animation than direct representation) with sounds symbolic of the words on the page. I turned the page, and there was The Count of Monte Christo, and Gone with the Wind. Each page led me to a different scene surrounding me with colors and sounds that created the mood of the words on the page.

I wish you could all feel what I felt. It was like I was a child again, and the magic of reading was brand new. I remembered when opening a book was like a transcendent experience projecting me into a world of my imagination where the words turned into pictures, and I disappeared into the pages. I was actually, once again, overcome by emotion, and I found myself flipping through the pages over and over again until someone else entered, and I wanted her to share the experience that I had just had. It was a little bit of transcendence.

After the Grāmata Latvijā exhibition, I met Anita back in the archives on the 5th floor where Aldis, the Latvian Hugh Jackman, showed me an Edison recording device. He also passionately explained how several Latvian folksong archivists collected the songs of Latvians and published the famous book Dainas (Latvian Folksongs) in the late 1800s. Barons is the most famous of the archivists, and Aldis even suggested that his book on folksongs may have been fuel to the uprising of 1905 because these folksongs were evidence that Latvians were their own people and deserving of their own nation. Another display in the Book exhibition focused on books as power, and it was incredible to hear Aldis support this idea with his own historical knowledge.

Aldis enjoyed shocking me with the final book in Barons’ collection which was the “naughty” folk songs. He also showed me a book emblazoned with a Swastika. He explained that this book was published in 1922, long before Hitler stole the symbol for his own. It’s amazing how that symbol has gained so much power evokes such negative emotion.

 

Then I sat down for tea with Dace and Anita. We discussed my travels and my experiences. Dace told me about her time in Bloomington, Indiana as a Fulbright scholar. She said she drove across Nebraska and Kansas, and her impression was the same as most people’s. There was nothing for hundreds of miles.

After our tea, I sat in the lobby, writing and reflecting on my experiences. I heard a young child singing “Jingle Bells” in Latvian. The power of music.

As darkness fell, I braved the bus across the Daugava river bridge into Old Town where I found myself in front of the Cinema at Stockmann (where I had been the night before). I called Rita to find out which bus would take me back across the bridge. Trying to read the maps at the bus stop in Riga was a futile attempt. Maybe with more time and some help, I could have gotten it, but it was good to get assurance from her.

Allumette

I settled in for a light supper at The Wellton Hotel. When I walked in, a sign in English greeted me, so I felt that this would be a good place to stop. The name of the restaurant was in French, “allumette” which translates to “light.” The menu was small with tapas and some interesting special. I was going to opt for the pork ribs, but the bartender, Elsa, recommended the beef cheeks, so I obliged. A quick note… I consider myself to be mostly pescetarian (vegetables and fish), but when traveling, I like to experience local culture, and so much of that can be discovered through dining.

Beef cheeks

I sat at a small table near the window. The restaurant was mostly empty, but Elsa said that most patrons would come in later. Most people were now just heading home from work. She brought me a plate of bread and a dish of olives to start. How elegant! And then the bowl of beef cheeks with a special “barbecue” gravy with mushrooms, potatoes and carrots. It was a beautiful presentation, and the food was perfect.

The meet was so tender, and the gravy delicious. I ate slowly, savoring every bite while reading and writing trying to absorb the moment as fully as possible.

If you are ever in Riga and looking for a delightful and affordable place, take a look at Allumette across from the Stockmann center.

The trip back across the bridge was without event, other than the bus driver who did not understand when I asked about Gaismas pils, “I only speak Latvian,” he said. “It is Latvian!” I argued. Thankfully, several others on the bus said, “bibliotēka” and assured me that yes, the bus would stop at the library.

RC Cola!

I stopped for a funky looking soda at a small kiosk, and then walked back to the Honda, which I parked in a spooky, muddy lot in a deserted area of town. I was a bit concerned that it might be gone when I got back, but it was there. Hooray! And after another drive through the confusing streets of Riga, I was back on the highway to Ansis’ house.

The house is too big for one person.

On a side note, this is the symbol I see on Facebook… notice the globe has turned! 

Latvia December 28: Driving in Latvia

Me at a complete standstill. Gridlock!

Driving in Latvia

This is the third time I have been to Latvia, and I have driven all three times that I have been here, but this was the first time I was alone, navigating and fighting heavy traffic while trying to find a parking place in downtown Riga.

Let me start by telling you what Riga does not have. Riga does not have lines on the streets that are two lanes wide. It is hard to tell when a street is two lanes or four lanes, and the other drivers are not very friendly about foreigners making that mistake. The second problem I had while driving was that Google Maps told me that the movie theater I was going to was actually 3 kilometers from the one I was supposed to be at. So despite arriving an hour early, I was now going to be late!

Traffic was at a standstill. People were walking and honking, and lights were flashing. All the roads are at odd angles with one another, and some go one way but not the other. Eventually, I think I would understand, and it would be simpler, but as it was, I was struggling to find my way even with GPS guiding me.

Riga also does not have parking lots. In fact, it is just short of a nightmare, but it might well qualify as one of Dante’s circles of hell… right between the blasphemers and fortune tellers. Where can you park? You don’t know. Is it legal? You aren’t sure. Does it cost money? Maybe. All of these are questions that only a seasoned driver in Riga could answer, and I was a novice on my own.

At one point, I drove on some railroad tracks… I couldn’t be sure if it was a road or not, but I saw several cars in what looked like a parking lot. The number one rule of Riga is that, “You can’t get there from here.” So despite seeing a parking lot, after driving around and around, I couldn’t find an entrance. Instead, I found myself at the dead end of a hotel, where a cab driver was busy backing into me. They don’t have reverse lights in Latvia. The cars just go backward, and you have to pay very close attention. So the cab driver and I did this synchronized reversal, and it wasn’t until he turned around that I realized that I was in a dead end, and would have to do the same.

Finally, I found a parking garage, but it was across a busy intersection. The light was red, but cars were honking. The green right-turn arrow as on, and I was in the right lane… what could I do?

Let’s just say that I got across the busy street, and no one died. But now I had to find the garage. I tried to get into one at Stocktons (the huge building where the theater was supposed to be), but an old man was standing at the entrance waving his hand at me. I guess I wasn’t good enough to park there. So I found another entrance… I got to the gate, and there was some kind of machine blinking at me in Latvian, but no ticket came from it. The arm went up, I drove in, and thought… lucky me!

Pickups would not survive in Latvia. Every road is narrow and you have to drive up steep ramps with low ceilings. It’s all built for small cars. I was in a Honda CRV, and it was just small enough to make it through the snaking garage. I found a parking spot, and made it in time for the start of La La Land.

I’m not going to write a review of the movie here, but it was enjoyable on the surface level and some of the songs were nice. I enjoyed the dancing. 

After the movie, I did a little shopping, and found some strange fruits that we do not have in America. The little ones have a spiny, hard shell, and a strange white inside not unlike the skin of a dead person. But they taste delicious. I haven’t tried the giant tomato-looking apple yet, but I’m told it’s quite tasty.

Finally, I made my way back to the parking garage to figure out exactly how I was going to get out, and how I was going to pay without a ticket.

Back down the ramp I went, and when I got to the gate, another car was waiting. The woman was on the phone. I drove up, and the screen screamed at me in Latvian again. No ticket. No payment options. Just blinking lights.

I played the backup game with the Mercedes behind me as my friend proceeded to call the number on the gate. Luckily, I had some Latvian assistance to find out what was going on. Listen to this: the parking garage automatically takes a photo of the license plate. Then it records when you got there, and to get out, you pay at a machine by entering you number. Then it records your payment, a camera reads your license again, and voila, the gate opens and you are free! Technology is a wonderful thing when you know what the heck is going on!

So after a brief drive across town, I was back on the road to Ansis’ house (after one wrong turn onto a one-way street), and it was all good. The thirty kilometers from Riga to the country are okay as long as you can guess what the speed limit is (and no one else even tries to follow it). At one point, I was driving 70 km/h (as posted) when a car came flying up behind me and just whizzed past me. It was a police van doing at least 100.

Everything is dramatic in life. Or maybe it’s just me.

The movie theater itself was very cool. In Latvia, there are many shops where everything is combined… kind of like our American malls, but much more confusing and fluid. The supermarket and movie were adjacent to one another, and the theater had many vertical levels. It was a bit disorienting, but the screen was incredible, and the seats were very comfortable with wide aisles. However, they don’t just put ice in soda. I guess you have to ask for it. I don’t know if they have ice in Latvia other than the frozen tundra that is the entire country.

 

Riga December 26: The Music

Latvia: December 26-27

Framest!

The 26th of December was a Holiday. I am hoping you all spent it doing something memorable and wonderful!

My cousin Gita invited me to see the Christmas show at the Kipsala Exposition Hall. We had planned to meet for coffee before the show, but my internal clock is still way off, and I was lucky to wake up at 12:20 p.m. when she called because I was late. We were supposed to meet at the Laima clock at noon.

Instead, I hurried to get ready, and got quick directions from Bruno who, as he does, gave me options for walking, or taking the bus or maybe the tram. Walking seemed to be the simplest option, so I set off without an umbrella in the chilly rain of Riga.

Luckily, it only drizzled for most of the walk, but it really started to pour once I was in sight of the Exhibition Hall. Gita was waiting for me at the entrance. We exchanged a hug, gifts, and found our seats after giving our coats to the coat checker.

I had no expectations for what the show was going to be like, so I could

Gita and Jeff

do nothing but be completely happy with the performance. In a word, it was spectacular. It opened with a song in English, and throughout the show there was a mix of Latvian and English language performances. From what I gathered, they pieced together the songs to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel who were played by two very talented and well-known Latvian actors. Another famous actor read from a book between songs to tell the story.

The highlight of the show for me was the a cappella group Frameset. They did a version of the William Tell Overture, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

The most moving part of the show was either Bach’s Fugue in D Minor, which was a treat to hear live. I play it in my classroom for my students, and to hear it played was kind of like seeing the Mona Lisa in real life. Then there was the final song Eglite (Christmas Tree), and it really brought down the house. Everyone was clapping for an encore, and were given Silent Night. I was crying… I’m not sure exactly, why, but I was moved to tears throughout the whole performance. Dozens of dancers in colorful mittens joined the orchestra and singers on stage, and the finale had everyone in the audience singing and swaying.

After it was over, I offered to take Gita to supper, and she wanted sushi. I didn’t get the chance to try Latvian sushi this summer, so I was interested. We went to Tokyo which is a very popular restaurant in the heart of Old Town. The waiter said we would have to wait an hour for our food, but that was okay. I was happy to buy a bottle of wine and share a long and pleasant conversation with my Latvian cousin. She told me about the night my grandmother, Anna, passed away in 1991. We were talking about how we believe in spirits. I told her that when my brother died, I could tell. She said she heard three knocks when Anna died, and she just knew it was her saying goodbye.

The sushi came. I ordered simple spicy salmon, and Gita got some smothered with all kinds of extras. The fish was very good. Overall, the sushi was not as good as Blue in Omaha, but it was passable and affordable. Gita also told me that the Home Alone movies are very popular in Latvia during Christmas. Apparently, they show them on television every year. It makes me sad that those are the representative Christmas movies from America. Slapstick and violence. I keep telling people to watch Charlie Brown’s Christmas. I think it’s a much better movie.

After dinner, we walked around the Christmas Village with some mulled wine (and I had him add a splash of Black Balsam for good measure.) Then I walked her to the tram, and decided that it was still early, so I could get a beer before I walked home.

Not an IPA

I went to Alus Maja or “Beer House”. They boasted almost 50 beers on tap, and most of them were Latvian. How could I go wrong?

Laura, my first server told me that the beer on tap in front of me, Ausma, was an IPA, so I said, “Let’s do it!” Sadly, it was a ginger spiced special winter beer that tasted nothing like an IPA. But I drank it, and later she apologized. Caspars, the bartender, was the one who really knew his stuff.

Hungarians

At first, he wouldn’t even look at me as I sat at the bar reading through the list of taps and writing in my journal. Then two young men sat down around the corner, and as they were ordering I heard them speaking English, so I struck up a conversation. It’s funny because I was about ready to leave and walk home after my one beer, but I remembered Dan Boster’s advice, “Just stay fifteen minutes longer… that’s when the good stuff starts happening.” Sure enough, I asked where they were from, and it turns out they were Hungarians in town for Taize, an international young adult Christian festival. I knew they were good guys when I told them the bartender’s name, and Peters said, “Oh, he is a ghost?!”

After awhile, Caspars brought me some samples of IPAs, and I bought a shot of Black Balsam for my Hungarian guests. We struck up a conversation, and I learned much about their country and culture. Their names were Peters and Benedict. I even got Peters to play Fantasy Brackets. He ended up finding me on Facebook and saying, “Hello!” The “Fifteen minute rule” strikes again! Caspars even gave us complimentary shots of Fernet, an Italian liqueur. Suddenly it was 1 a.m., and I still had a long walk home. I said, “Goodbye!” and I wished them luck on their adventure. What a night!

The next morning,

Bruno woke me up at 10:30. I had a slight headache, and I woke up from awful dreams about students and being unprepared to teach. The kind of dream where you show up at school with no pants and twenty minutes late. I was happy to be awake, and it was nice to see that it was finally snowing outside.

Bruno had met Ansis at the airport earlier that morning, and now we were to go pick up his van to drive back to his house, where Bruno would leave me with the Honda CRV and my time in the country would begin.

I cursed this big van as it got between me and Bruno!

The drive was not without it’s small adventures. Bruno couldn’t remember which lot the van was in at the airport, so we spent some time looking. Then he had to get gas, and for some reason it took thirty minutes for him to fill up the Dodge Caravan. I waited patiently practicing my mindfulness while listening to Latvian radio stations in the Honda.

Finally, we were on our way, and I didn’t really know where I was going, so I tried desperately to stay behind Bruno’s orange minivan. However, there were many Latvians who were conspiring to separate us by forcing their way between my CRV and the minivan. Traffic was terrible, but I didn’t lose Bruno, and eventually, we made it to Daugmales pagasts, Ansis’ home… which, incidentally, will not show up in Google maps for me.

Bruno took some time showing me around, and trying to figure out Ansis’ cryptic message about setting the thermostat. I was ready to just settle in and be at peace, but first there was the garbage, the garage, the water, etc. etc. Even after he left, Bruno came back one more time to explain the Honda registration for me. He is very thorough.

View from my window

So now I am here in the big house alone with a few fish, a bunny, and lots of room. The sun is setting, and we had some snow this morning, so it’s beautiful. There are so many windows, and the natural light just makes you feel like you are out in the open all the time. It’s lovely.

We’ll see what I can learn about myself and Latvia as I settle in and relax.

Ata!

 

Christmas in Latvia

For this year, fate (or some other magical force) sent me to Latvia. I am here in Riga at Ausekla 2-7 (Bruno’s apartment) and I will soon transfer to Ansis’ home at Daugmales pagasts. I left on the 23rd and arrived on the 24th. It felt like I was in some kind of a time warp, and I’m still adjusting.

After spending two weeks here in the summer with Susan, Glen and Vitauts, I had an urge to return to spend more time learning the language and culture of Latvia. People ask why I’m so interested, and it’s hard to explain. Maybe I’ll figure it out better as I spend more time here, or maybe I’ll find out something else.

The trip was mostly uneventful after a long delay in Omaha. I was afraid that I’d miss my connection in Newark, but I was right on time. The overseas flight was okay, but I couldn’t sleep. The plane from Berlin to Riga was the worst part of the trip. Maybe it was because I was so exhausted, but the airport was confusing and disorienting. I didn’t have a boarding pass, so the lady said she could print one for $30 or I could go online to check in myself for free. I was so tired of trying to get wifi to work that I said, “I’ll just pay.” But she took my phone and did it for me. She was very kind.

The plane was a small prop plane, and I was crowded against the window after we took a long, crowded bus ride to the airplane itself. I just wanted to sleep, but I couldn’t. I actually felt a little airsick which never happens. After a mile panic attack, we landed, roughly, in Riga, and Bruno was there to pick me up. Just writing about it makes me a little woozy. I hope that the plane back is not so strange.

Bruno took me on the familiar ride to Ausekla 7 where we stayed last time. This time, I stayed in his apartment in the spare room that is a storage space for hundreds of paintings. It is small, but comfortable.

St. Mary Magdalene’s

On Christmas Eve, I went out to dinner at the Neibergs Hotel restaurant and then took a tour of no less than four Latvian Churches in Old Town Riga: The Riga Dome CathedralOur Lady of Sorrows, St. Mary Magdalene’s  and St. Jacob’s. We hit each church as the service was ending, so we got to see the beautiful Medieval architecture and gothic styling without paying the “price” of admission. We ended up at St. Jacobs Catholic Church for a full service. Everyone told me to prepare for a long, Catholic mass, but it was just like a typical Lutheran service–3-4 songs, a sermon, some readings, communion and that’s it. The priest even spoke in English sending his greetings to visitors. It made me feel very welcome. I wish I understood more of the message because I am guessing it was also lovely.

The evening ended with some warm mulled wine and a walk through Old Town back to Bruno’s flat. By the time I got home, I was very ready to sleep.

The next day, Bruno woke me up at 12:30 p.m. We were planning to leave for Ansis’ at 1 p.m. I may not have woken at all without his help!

We left Riga and traveled the 30 kilometers to Ansis home in a small suburb. We stopped at a store for some candles. I was surprised that it was open on Christmas. I bought some blueberry gum. It wasn’t bad.

Ansis, of course, went all out for the Christmas celebration. I met his wife’s brother, and their whole family. Ansis cousin, Arnolds, from Ogre also showed up with his children. Monta’s father, Raimonds, was the oldest member of the family at 83. He tried to converse with me in English. I was so impressed with the hospitality. Most of them spoke at least some English, so it went well.

The three young men, Roberts, Janis, and Matis all spoke very good English and they were eager to learn how to play poker from me. Ansis had cards and a set of poker chips, so we played Texas Hold ’em. I won. Roberts who is a 9th grader, was the most fun. He kept saying “Hell yeah!” at each hand, and he tried to bluff his way every game. He ended up losing pretty big, but he had a great time.

We had no less than 5 courses at the meal. The first course were the famous Latvian Christmas peas. The tradition is that you have to eat all the peas for good luck. The peas are large and brown, not small and green like American peas. I had them with a delicious white gravy, and I ate all of them, so laime for me!

Then came the moose. Yes, Monta’s brother was in a hunting party that shot and killed a moose, so there it was. Little slabs of this tough, chewy meat. I tried it. It was kind of like Liesma’s famous dried roast beef. We had two giant fish, some desserts, salads and so on. The food just kept coming, and Ansis refused to sit down for very long because he had to keep the service coming. I had the pleasure of sitting with his daughter Darta and later Raimonds.

The best part of the party was when presents were passed out. Ansis said that Santa had left a large back outside on the picnic table. He went to retrieve it, and then his youngest daughter, Nora, took presents out and announced names. If your name was called, then you had to perform before getting a present. It sounds like what my siblings had to do when they were little. By the time I came along, I guess Vitauts and Liesma got tired of performing the tradition. Monta’s niece sang beautiful songs and even played the piano. Most of them recited Latvian poetry. Some even did a little dancing or gymnastics. I recited “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost to earn my gift from Santa. It was a little bit of Latvian magic. So peaceful, patient and kind. No derision. No divisiveness. Just polite and loving family time with no yelling or screaming.

It all ended to soon because people had to travel. I would have stayed longer to drink a glass of wine and have adult conversation, but it wasn’t up to me. Ansis gave me a quick tour of the house, so I would know what to do when I moved in on Tuesday, and that was it. Bruno drove us home, and my Christmas ended here at the apartment. All told, it was a fantastic two day Latvian Christmas extravaganza!