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!

 

 

 

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