Since before I was born what came to be known as the Eastern Block was off limits to Westerners. I don’t mean it was simply impossible for most to travel there. I mean something more insidious. I had a picture of every place I ever traveled – Wales, Spain, Germany, Canada, West Covina. Those pictures were incomplete, sometimes ludicrous, but they existed. Italians talked with their hands and ate pizza. The French talked with their hands and drank wine. In England they didn’t talk, ate fish and listened to Pink Floyd.
But I had no pictures of the Eastern Block countries and I certainly did not have pictures of the individual countries within it. In fact, the notion that there were countries radically different from each other behind the Iron Curtain was not a notion that occurred to us at all. They were all gray places and they had tank parades. Traveling with my wife to Latvia, the land of her father’s birth, a land he turned his back on after surviving the concentration camps that eager Latvian collaborators helped the nazis put him in, was a revelation.
Latvia was like wandering into someone else’s fairy tale. from the road sides, chest-tall luminescent green grasses waved in constant motion, groves of white birch trees spiking skyward, great gray rivers rolling into unknown seas, high-stalked flowers doting the fields with color. You half-expected a hero in leggings and embroidered tunic to step out from behind a birch bole and fire a magic arrow into a supernatural deer who would then turn into a rival prince, whom the hero finally realizes too late is his long-lost brother.
Traveling to Latvia’s capital Rīga was also like stumbling onto a powerful empire that you never read about in school, with guild halls as tall as skyscrapers, rich merchant houses in yellows and blues, cobbled streets with cobbles as big as cantaloupes. on one narrow street you would find a plaque marking Wagner’s tenure as music director of the symphony. Berlioz and Mendelssohn were also in residence here. dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also came from Riga. but all this history is hidden, and to see it suddenly laid out before you is unnerving.
In Riga, which is on a parallel with Aberdeen, Scotland, the sun set after midnight and rose again before six. I would sit on the wide sash of the window in our room – the hotel was a convent for widows and, before that, the dining hall of the sword nights – and peer, going slowly mad, into the night sky, willing it to burn out my rods and cones so I could sleep. But sleep… Never came.
The Latvian language sounds like a Norwegian speaking Italian. It is round and tonal. It has the lilt of a vaguely Scandinavian tongue, although it is neither a Germanic nor a Slavic language. It’s only living relative is Lithuanian. When a Latvian speaks, what with Estonia and Finland right up the road, it sounds like the recitation of some unknown epic influenced by the Kalevala. “Atvainojiet, es nerunajat latviski,” you’d say. “Ludzu, kafiya ar piem. Cik tas maska?” you’d ask. Looking at a sign or a menu or the front of a newspaper was vertigo inducing. You couldn’t even figure out what part of speech a given word belonged to. It felt funny. And dirty. And you loved it.
I’ve been in El Salvador and Guatemala and Latvia is, hands down, the most foreign place I’ve ever been. I experienced a relentless ecstasy of otherness. I was constantly on the verge of a magnificent psychosis. These feelings were, to her surprise, shared by S. I think she expected, at least in part, to come back to the land of her father, her grandfathers and grandmothers, and feel some ownership, some familiarity. But she really did not. One day we spent walking around the city from one hideous restaurant to another trying to find something edible in a city whose questionable culinary heritage was further compromised by 50 years of soviet rule, under which every hint of culture was suspect. It culminated with us sitting outside on the patio of a Russian-run restaurant on the banks of the slate-gray Daugava. It was, as close as we could figure, a Cuban restaurant. The waitresses, pale Russian girls in turquoise miniskirts (you know, like they wear in Cuba), mottled by the cold, delivered an alleged crème brulee wobbling menacingly that had the taste and consistency of whale meat and eggrolls so suspicious and malicious we almost burst into tears.
Finally we had had it. We retreated to this once elegant city’s best restaurant, the Otto Schwarz, which sat on top of the soviet era Hotel de Rome. Although the hotel was the apogee of late Soviet design – cheap and mirrored, with yellow metal instead of gilding, like one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces – the restaurant was another page out of a different part of the past. It was lodged in between the World Wars, a time before that line had been crossed that can never be uncrossed. Sitting virtually alone, the gorgeous city was spread out beneath us: the parks, the canal, Vecrīga, the old city wandering downhill toward the river, the “new” suburbs of the 1800s with their jugendstil buildings, iced and ornamented with stone pine cones, caryatids and atlases, the stylized onion domes of Svētās Pētera and the Doma. Inside, amid white table clothes, walnut wainscoting, silver service and crystal, an old man played jazz standards and chanson on the grand piano, short-coated waiters delivered lamb shanks, potato croquettes and spinach shrimp soup and marzipan. It was loss made physical. It was the drifting back to a time before the glass broke and was scattered. It was a monument to the death not only of six million Jews but of a whole way of life. It was the eulogy to a Europe that was once whole. It was the period that marked the last full sentence Europe ever spoke to the world.
We went to Rumbala, the forest where S.’s grandfather, a cantor, and grandmother, along with 25,000 other Latvian Jews were shot, the Kaiserwald transit camp and ghetto where her father was imprisoned before the long ride to Stutthof, near Gdansk in Poland, and to Buchenwald. When her father was freed in 1945 he was contacted by his brother, Simi, who, with his blond hair and blue eyes, had been hidden in plain sight by a Latvian family. “Come back to Latvia,” Simi said to Israel. “It is a new place. It’s free.” “Nonsense,” said Israel. “The Russians are as bad as the Germans.” S.’s father went to America. He moved to San Francisco. He was a young man, free for the first time, single, handsome, European, in the best city in the world at the time, a city full of cocktail bars and movie stars. Simi became an officer in the Soviet Army.
I sat there in the Otto Schwarz restaurant in Riga and watched S.’s eyes wander out of time over the city of her father’s memories. I listened to the echoes of that lost time, feeling it pass over me. We dream of what we’ve lost. I saw Europe dreaming.