Hello! My name is …

This post was inspired by a conversation with Dave Higgins.

Pleased to meet you. My name is Mike. Or Mika, that’s my Latvian nickname, or, actually, it’s more Finnish (which I have a small percentage of, apparently, according to my DNA analysis), unless you consider the ‘a’ at the end a Latvian possessive ending. Of course, Latvian speakers displaced Finno-Ugrian speaking Livonians in late medieval times, who presumably moved north to become Estonians or Finns, but that wouldn’t explain the odd form of my nickname, which ought to be Miku, strictly speaking. Then again, I wasn’t actually born in Latvia, but in a DP camp in Germany after the war (sorry, WWII for you; you look under 50). DP (Displaced Persons) is what they called European refugees then. Mikels is my full first name, or rather, that’s the English spelling of it, although I guess it doesn’t really look very English. It’s actually spelled Miķelis, with a funny little hook dangling from the ‘k.’ You won’t be able to pronounce it …

What? Where are you going?

Life on the Mississippi, revisit

It’s Fathers’ Day. This is a reprise of something I posted on this blog in February of 2013.

In a dusty, fading memory of a National Geographic of my youth, among the bare-breasted African ladies and stripe-shirted Parisians, there is a sunny picture of a lad on a raft, his toes swirling the Mississippi River. His father had taken him out of school for a year of rafting on that mythic Father of Dreams, not only waters. Why could not I have a father like that, I grieved.

My own father thought peace, not adventure, was the greatest gift. He was born and grew in Latvia, in a forest of kin, as much a part of his place as the oak trees planted for the native sons. A small stone house, a well, three oaks and a horizon of fields. A burial ground nearby sheltered his ancestors on both sides; their names are gone now, weathered away like the wooden crosses that marked their graves. But he was there, where he belonged, in the embrace of family, living and dead.

When I was a boy, I would stand in front of the door of my house, looking outside, wishing and wondering. I think he was like that. Bye and bye, whatever was beyond the fields of oats and rye beckoned, and he answered. In a fit of irrational exuberance, he joined the army.

Not bad, really, at least at first. It was a free country, for that brief period between the great wars, and nothing for soldiers to do but dream of dying under foreign skies, all brave and noble. They certainly had the songs for it. He went off to Riga, to the War College. It was a blast. Bright lights, big city, no way to keep him down on the farm after that. He married a girl with an eighth grade education and a mind that was quicker than a hare chased by two foxes and an alley cat. No slouch himself, he thought she was normal. They had a couple of children. You know that feeling, in a dream, when you’ve climbed to the highest peak to look at the world, and you turn around to discover the mountain has disappeared while you weren’t paying attention?

Russians. Germans, then Russians again. The world was in one of its fits. This part of the story is a haze of half glimpsed hopes and fears, mostly projections on my part. Like one of those stunts on a magician’s stage : a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and when it all clears, everything is different. In a camp in Germany, full of shattered dreams, I was born, much to the chagrin, I’m betting, of my brothers.

The father I knew had had enough adventures, thank you. He had made some promises to God when all else had crumbled; he did his best to see that his children fulfilled them. Keep this in mind when you promise things to God: don’t involve others. Faust probably had a better deal.

These days, I live near the Mississippi, and occasionally, when I drive upriver, I see that kid on the raft in my mind. I’m almost as old as my father ever got. I hope I’ve done as well as he did.

You don’t need a weatherman…

I have been following the exploits of Vladimir Vladimirovich in Crimea with great interest of late. As a Latvian I can see which way the wind is blowing, so I’m changing my Gravatar image:

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I’m hoping this new image helps me fit in with the new look.

Musical Riga: a photo essay

Riga is music; any season, but in summer, everything and everyone moves outdoors. The winters are long, dark, and cold, and Latvians figure to get the sun and fresh air while it’s available; plenty of time to rest after the leaves start to fall.  Everywhere you look, people are picnicking in the parks, or boating on the canal, or just sitting at cafes.  Nobody sleeps, really.  Many are the deep, peaceful slumbers, when it finally gets dark, interrupted by a full-throated early morning choir of well-lubricated revelers, their songs echoing back and forth between the buildings, much as they themselves might bounce between the same walls.  Latvians love their beer, and it is excellent; this fact in turn invites like-minded tourists to join in.  The saving grace is that the most violence you’re likely to see is perpetrated against the principles of harmony, and not people.  My view is that if I must put up with drunks, I much prefer them prone to outbursts of song than to outbursts of violence!

There is a plethora of music in official venues: concert halls, arenas, amphitheaters, and bars.  But to me, what really defines Riga in the summertime is the street music.  It is actively encouraged; the many local music schools even send their students out on the streets to perform, as a way of getting experience.  And, of course, there is the usual variety of street buskers, although it’s not everywhere that they set up complete with generators and amplified instruments.  The sheer range of talent and production value on the street is astonishing.

I wish I could have sampled the sounds for you, but I’m afraid it’s beyond my small competence to putt something like that together.  So here’s a photographic journey instead.

Enjoy!

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This trio was playing a Boccherini quartet.  If they had another person, I guess they could have gone for a quintet.  They were fantastic.

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There was even the occasional official paid gig, like this one at an upscale hotel.  Outdoors, of course.

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Big production number here; very professional, great vocalist.  They had a gas generator with a long enough extension cord so that it didn’t interfere too much.

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Then there was this guy, a marvelous operatic baritone.

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Cello chiller.

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I actually thought I might know this blues harp player from my checkered past.  Then I realized I’m old enough to be his father.

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They start young.  Good posture, sweet sound.

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A one-woman band, and with an attitude.  Her schtick was to ask passers-by to sing a verse of their national anthem.  Then she would make it sound like everything else she played.

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Ragtime Cowboy Joe.

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Not a cowboy.  Some people apparently just needed the money.  The quality of this group was variable, but you had to give them credit for doing something, and not just begging.

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Even Anonymous apparently was represented.  An interesting cure for stage fright!

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Very proper, and with a beautiful clear voice.  She played a traditional instrument and sang Latvian folk songs, even dressed the part.

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Of course, it’s always nice if you have a buddy to help with the music.

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Uh, no comment.

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More solid traditional music, despite the cowboy hats.

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Some interesting combinations…

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Lots of brass bands.  These guys were excellent; no need for amps here!

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Or here, for Mr.Cool.

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Another brass band.

That’s all, folks!

Mail order bride

On a long bus ride into the past, watching Riga Center slip by, I become aware of the two voices from the seat behind me. He speaks American English, slow, measured, clearly enunciated. She speaks language-school English, without undue inflection, practiced.

– Riga is a very nice city.
– Yes, very nice.
– I saw a sign somewhere, on the Maxima, I think. It said 00-24.
– Yes, it’s means it’s open 24/7.
– So, if it says 8-22…
– Yes, of course.

(pause)

– Once I walked 2 hours to buy a book. I will show you where; it’s on this line.
– You walked 2 hours?
– I wanted just to walk.
– I hope it was a good book.
– Look, there it is, the bookstore.

(pause)

– There’s a bus with a thing to connect to wires overhead.
– Yes, we call them trolley busses.
– In Paris and London, they have subways.
– They wanted to build a subway here…
– But the electricity is in the rails, not overhead, like here.
– But it was not popular.
– Oh, look, there’s one on rails. They stopped those in San Francisco. Too hard to maintain.
– Yes.
– My ex-wife wants 50% of everything. She will only get 25%.

(pause)

– Graffiti. That means it’s not a good place.
– Yes, outskirts, not so nice.
– Suburbs.
– No, outskirts.
– No. City, suburbs, then country.
– No. Outskirts.

(pause)

– Nothing to do out here, I guess.
– No, it’s nice.

My stop, time to get off. I can’t resist turning around. I see a grey man in his 50s, either fashionably unshaven, or just lazy, can’t tell. Beside him is a rather plump young girl, attractive, a determined look on her pleasant face. I hope it works out. I’m not very optimistic.

Riga party line

If you doubt that Eastern Europe is very different, consider this comment I heard at a party in Riga:

“I can’t drink beer or wine; my doctor told me to stick to the hard stuff.”

Someone else, having been told the stuff he had just poured into his glass was wine, and not flavored hooch, recoiled with horror, poured it out, and went straight for the vodka, hoping, no doubt, it wasn’t just water.

And these are the sober types.

I told a story of my profligate grandfather, who drank a bottle of vodka every day, finally expiring at the age of 85. Well of course, they said. What pathogens could survive such an environment?

Of course, all that booze was accompanied by heroic amounts of food: pickled herring, lox, unidentifiable but delicious cured meats, olives, pickles, cheeses of every variety, salads composed of any and all imaginable vegetables, all accompanied with sour cream and dill. Copious dill, always. Someone brought a massive traditional klinger, a thing like a giant pretzel, filled with fruit compotes and dressed with fresh berries. To be eaten with shots of cognac or vodka interspersed. Moderation, you know. Of course, you could always go one-stop, and eat the heavenly en-booze-iated fruit salad. Did I mention that all of this was unspeakably delicious?

This was followed, as the evening grew long, by the actual meal: marinated pork kebabs grilled to perfection. And, had I tried the klinger? I really should, you know. Perhaps a bit of cognac, to settle things?

There was, all in all, approximately a week’s worth of eating and drinking in one sunsetless evening in late June Latvia. I begged off and left the party as twilight began its descent, a rather late and hesitant affair up here at the 57th parallel. My host was dismayed at my early departure, and asked if I was well.

Walking to the trolley stop afterwards, I passed reeling youth, shouting, singing, ignored by more sober pedestrians, treated like a late spring squall, alarming, but not serious. It all seemed oddly calm.

Welcome home, Mom and Dad

Hey, welcome back. It’s been – what – almost 70 years! My God, the time flies. You’d think after all that time you’d hardly know the place. I guess that’s true, in a way. I mean, the big shopping centers in the Old Town, and on Dzirnava Street; nothing like that in your day. I know, I know, the city market; it’s still there, still huge and bustling, but in an organic way, like mushrooms and dandelions. These other places, well, you know them from America. Conceived and built from scratch by speculators long before anyone guessed they wanted them, and yet wildly successful, fulfilling God knows what lack. How could they be here, of all places?

I tried to find your old place on Ernestine Street – ridiculous, I know, since I don’t know the number. I did find a lovely little park, filled with trees and hillocks and children’s swings. I imagined you lived in one of the houses facing it, and watched your boys playing there.

What’s that? Oh, the graffiti. Ugly, isn’t it? Another import from outside. Partly copied from those Americans you never quite figured out, partly welled up from within during those cold grey years under the Dogma. I know, the people making it were never alive in that time, but cultures have a way of making hurt live on long after real grievances have gone extinct. My God, look at the Israelis and Palestinians, after 3000 years!

Still, there’s a lot you’d find familiar, I’ll bet. Just today, I was strolling in the Forest Park. You know the place, at the end of the trolley line, past all the cemeteries filled with the dead from wars and ordinary life. I’ll bet you’d find a few old friends in those places! A bit overgrown these days, at least in parts, and amidst a few soviet apartment buildings I guess would break your heart, covered with, yes, graffiti. I should have warned you. But at least the graves are well tended.

Near the canal by the Old Town, boys and girls still lay out their blankets on the grass, and give each other such joy as they can under the circumstances. Their soft laughter blends so well with sparrow’s songs, I can hardly tell the difference sometimes. I know you sat together here often; if I only knew the spot. You’d be shocked, though, to see how little they wear these warm summer days, not like the elegant suits and dresses of your day! Still, there might be a twinkle in your eyes. It is nearly midsummer – full breeding season here.

They still have those wooden boats, you know, to cruise out to the river in. I bought a straw hat just for the purpose. I wonder if you ever did.

Russian voices are everywhere. I doubt that would bother you. I still remember warm evenings of food, drink and fellowship with the Russians and Jews who came to share dinner with you when I was growing up. I never understood what you talked about, but it was grand, judging from the atmosphere.

There’s music everywhere, of course. I think you would have been shocked to find otherwise. I’m glad it took me this long to show you around. A few years ago, when I first came here, there were sour faces everywhere. Not so long before that ordinary people died in the streets for independence. The long gray shadow of the Soviet Union still cast its spell. Now, people seem to have forgotten how to be cynical, in spite of hard times lately. I mean, here’s a people who, despite centuries of conquest and exploitation kept their own language and culture, and sweet, cheerful demeanor. Okay, so maybe it’s because no one bothered to eradicate it. Still, it was there all along, invisible but strong. The last century was not the longest or worst period they’ve survived.

Did I tell you, there’s been a renaissance of tradition? That music I mentioned: yes,there’s the ubiquitous hip-hop, metal, and pop drivel, but rather a lot of traditional stuff as well. I doubt you’re surprised; music is music, as any Latvian will tell you. Today in Forest Park I passed an old man (Old! He was probably my age!) playing songs on the accordian I’ll bet you could sing along with. And in the Old Town, I saw a little girl, maybe 10 years old, playing a lap dulcimer and singing, with a beautiful clear voice, songs I heard from you, I believe even before I was born. The old religion is everywhere, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Christian sourpusses. But wasn’t it always like that? The old oaks and elms, the thunder and fortune, could always accommodate a god or two in excess.

Dad, don’t listen for awhile, I’m talking to Mom now. I know you were afraid you were going to hell. Personally, I doubt you’re anywhere other than in my heart. But if you are, it’s not hell. You knew the value of the old ways, you felt the pulse of gypsies beating in your heart. There is no god worthy of the name who couldn’t stand that, who couldn’t see the beauty and righteousness of it.

Dad, I have no way of knowing what horrors you passed through. I know you were a good man, and I know you never wavered in doing what you thought was best for us. I took me a long time to forgive you, longer still to forgive myself. At last, it’s done.

I can’t quite grasp what it was to see it all crumbling, to watch the poison seeping into such a rich well, to leave it all so utterly behind. Did you really think you’d ever come back?

Anyway, I’m so glad I could show you around the old place. I hope you enjoyed it.