Christmas among the alien hordes

I’m an immigrant. A friend recently asked me what Christmas was like in my family. What started out as a short answer kept growing longer and longer. Here’s the result.

When I was growing up, I lived in two countries at once; outside the doors was America, inside was Latvia. It was a permeable border, at least in one direction. We children tracked in a lot of America, stuck to our shoes, so to speak; very little went out in the other direction.

Latvian culture is peasant culture. Every tradition we hold dear, every quirk of character or demeanor, every inexplicable Latvian habit, beloved or belabored, ultimately relates to the fact that we’ve been under someone else’s thumb for centuries, right up to recent history. I won’t go into detail; it’s readily accessible on Wikipedia, and this is a Christmas story.

You’re already familiar with one of our traditions: cutting down an evergreen tree, bringing it inside, and decorating it with ornaments and lights, candles in the old days, electric lights now. That was a Latvian thing long before it caught on elsewhere. If you’re skeptical that such a tiny backwoods place could affect the great imperial cultures of Europe, remember that most of them tramped their way through there at one time or another, leaving their own distinct footprints, but also taking one or two habits back home.

As a result, you probably wouldn’t have noticed much in our living room that was different from yours. Dig a bit deeper, though, and things get a bit odd. There was a Latvian version of Santa Claus; I think “Old Man Christmas” would be an adequate translation. He was not significantly different from the American version, except that to get the presents he left under the tree, children had to sing a song, recite a poem, or otherwise entertain the adults. In our house, thankfully, that didn’t happen much. In fact, there was no Santa nonsense of any kind. I once got into big trouble at my school in the first grade for telling the other children there was no Santa. Sister Paul Marie, who spent a considerable part of the day admonishing us to always be truthful, scolded me for ruining their Christmas. I was mortified and confused.

We were Catholics, due to an accident of history that had my father’s region of Latvia under the control of Poland at the time the rest of the country, run mostly by Germans, was busy converting to Lutheranism. Before either of them, Latvian religion was essentially animistic paganism. Our gods were forces of nature.

My father took to Catholicism like a fish to water; my mother, still secretly a believer in the old religion, barely went through the motions. She also had Rom ancestors somewhere in her line and indulged in tarot cards and the like. She often “didn’t feel well” when it was time for church.

Except Christmas. Christmas had midnight mass. If you’re Protestant, you missed out on one of the great ritual pageants of religion, especially in my day, when it was all done in Latin. The music was magisterial: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven with an enormous, magnificent choir that materialized out of nowhere at Christmastime and dissolved again for the rest of the year, accompanied by an organ that could compete with arena rock for room-filling capacity. The mass itself was performed by three priests in their most ornate vestments, embroidered and gilded affairs that would be the envy of Liberace. They were attended to by a squadron of altar boys, including some older boys returning especially for the privilege. It was a solemn high mass, and the liturgy was sung by the priests, a rare treat when it happened to be Father Frey, who had a beautiful tenor voice. It was later rumored, when he disappeared from the parish, that he had run off with one of the nuns at the school, probably not true, as they were all accounted for. All the same, we took great comfort from the possibility that even he might be human.

Every year we bundled up at about 11:30 PM and trundled out the door for the long walk to the church, always in deep snow (at least in my memory). Once I had heard that a friend’s father had been found frozen to death the night before, after passing out on the sidewalk on his way home from the bar. The place where he had been found happened to be right on our usual route to the church. On that occasion we walked solemnly past the spot, which I was surprised to learn looked no different from normal, then continued on as our spirits slowly lifted again. By the time we got to the church, filled to the rafters with warmth and light, we were ready for the spectacle. It was a full hour and a half later when we slowly walked back home, tired and bedazzled.

But the real story of a Latvian Christmas is the food. If the living room looked as American as anyone else’s, it was full-on old country in the kitchen.

There were piparkūks, which were ginger snaps with a nip to them. It took three days of fermenting the dough before they went in the oven. There were pirāgi, often translated as bacon rolls, a woefully inadequate description of something that was half pastry, half bacon and onion with lots of salt and pepper. There was cottage cheese cake to munch on between the piparkūks and pirāgi and a huge bowl of nuts by the tree just in case you foolishly wandered a bit too far from the dining room.

The centerpiece was the truly transcendent goose, basted with sweet vermouth and roasted to crisp perfection by my mother. She later told us she had gotten the recipe from the Reader’s Digest cookbook, but it was Latvian all the same. No real Latvian cook would pass up a mouthwatering recipe from anywhere, or fail to transform it into something undeniably Latvian.

This was accompanied by sauerkraut stewed with a hambone, sweetened with apples, and fermented several days in the back porch, in short, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the kraut you may be familiar with from the supermarket. Boiled potatoes, carrots, onions, and rutabaga mixed together with butter formed a delicious dish I remember as being called something like “chivich,” but none of my friends or acquaintances, Latvian or not, finds that name familiar; perhaps another cookbook inspiration.

Dessert was incomparable. Usually bubert, a billowy, eggy pudding enhanced with ķīsel, a luscious sweet fruity sauce, made with rhubarb when it was available.

Then, out the door past the dormant-for-the-day snowshovel to the white, snow covered park, our personal tundra, with the sledding hill in the middle, where we slid recklessly down the slope and across the road at the bottom, almost never all the way into the frozen creek on the other side.

And, that, my friends, was Christmas among the wicked foreigners.

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, revisited

It’s Fathers’ Day. This is a reprise of something I posted on this blog in February of 2013, and trot out occasionally on this day.

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 older now than 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.