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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!