Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Wayfarer in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by Ellen Chivers Davies

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Robert M. McBride and Company, New York, 1937
Hardcover: 280 pages

Fitting, that to prepare for my return to my ancestral home of Latvia, the middle of the three Baltic States, I should find some of my more meaningful and pleasant reading in a book long out of print. Latvian is, after all, one of the oldest languages still spoken today, and our cultural roots go deep into history, back to the times of Roman trade routes for amber, Teutonic Knights, and the first colonization of the island of Tobago. While I am born in the United States, a newborn nation by comparison, these three small but culturally rich countries have been in existence for many, many centuries.

Perhaps that is my draw. Or anyone’s, really, to turn back time and return to what was so long ago. If we should learn from history, alas, we rarely do, with humankind repeating the same mistakes over and over again, like a worn argument never resolved. But I am a firm believer in tapping into one’s roots, because to understand one’s own inclinations, a look back into family history can reveal much. Beyond our own personal memories are the genetic memories woven deep into our own fiber. Too often, we have little or no understanding of why we do what we do, how our life sense was formed, and why we long so achingly for we know not what. It could very well be in our history. In our family treasure chest, a dowry passed from generation to generation.

So I return, soon, for the first time in nearly 17 years, a long absence after many trips, beginning at age 15 during the gray and wretched Soviet years. Little as she is, Latvia has been occupied by one great power or another, for almost her entire existence. The Livs, the Poles, the Swedes, the Germans, and most recently, the Russians, have taken her by force and kept her people subjugated in often unspeakable cruelty. Yet on November 18, 1918, Latvia declared herself an independent nation, if under a benevolent dictator, and thrived by any measure for about two decades. Yes, only two decades, before the Red Army invaded from the east, clashing with the Nazis from below, and with the help of Roosevelt at the bargaining table, was tossed like a poker chip, up for sale, not even that, merely a bit of bargaining between the super powers. The Baltic States were handed over to Russia and its communist government, and the deportations to concentration camps, the executions, the waves of fleeing refugees began. My own parents, still in their teens, among them …

I visited my local libraries to seek out travel guides and histories, to refresh my mind for what I would wish to see and experience on my return trip. It is not that I have forgotten. If my mind has pushed away painful personal memories, my spirit has had its own demands. One cannot deny oneself. One’s true self. My eventual return, I believe, was a given, only a matter of time.

Yet the libraries held little on their shelves. As the global community expands, of what significance are these three tiny countries on the Baltic Sea? Even as I now see amber from their shores sold in most every jewelry store, grabbed up by customers who know or care little of their origin, the white sands where storms and angry waves wash up the golden nuggets, solidified pine resin from trees that grew on the shores ages ago.

I found this book, then, a travel essay written by E.C. Davies, from Great Britain, and published in 1937. Sixteen photographic plates are included. Oh, you can have your Kindles and new-fangled e-readers! I hold in my hands this old book, dating back to that time when these were free nations, prior to World War II when they were washed with blood. Would anything here make sense to me today, in 2010?

Ah, here is the beauty of countries so old that in some respects, time stands still there. Whereas I now live in a country where houses are considered old if they are built within half a century, where everything is changeable, where change itself seems to be a thing of worship, how refreshing and reassuring to turn these faintly yellowed pages, gaze into these black and white photos, and see what is still there—today.

It could be that I will see many changes on my journey back. I am sure I will. Some of those will no doubt be welcome, while others, equally without doubt, will make my heart ache. But when I read E.C. Davies’ almost tender account of her Baltic travels, I recognize what I know so well. I recognize streets, stores, buildings, villages and towns, natural landmarks, styles of living, characteristics, that I first observed in the late 1970s, when I first traveled there. And those, unchanged, on every trip after. I recognize places and stories that my parents told me as a child, or that were taught to me when I attended private Latvian schools in the States. There it was, and here it is, still and ever so.

I very nearly do not need a new travel guide at all. The wonder of traveling to much of Europe, in fact, is that much of it remains the same, century after century, and buildings survive, built for such centuries, even through so many wars.

Davies writes of her entry by train into Latvia’s capitol city, Riga: “There is an immediate sense of recognition, of acquaintance which rises up in you, even as you set foot for the first time upon the shores of these countries. For me the Baltic lands hold this spell… the thrill quickens, the night passes, and morning light brightens the spires and steeples of Riga, that seagirt city which has seen the argosies of so many nations sail up to its walls. Perhaps the sea way to the Baltic lands is of all others the pleasantest and most fitting. No one can realize how lovely these Baltic cities are until he has seen the long skyline of Riga from the water.” (pg. 94)

"From the very onset Riga gives one the feeling of an Imperial city; her fine buildings, wide, tree-planted avenues, the stately squares and beautiful parks make a lovely picture… the charming façade of the National Theatre, the dignified Ministries and civic offices, the beautiful Opera House and the fine blocks of modern shops and apartment houses… but take only a few hundred steps away from the centre of the modern town, and you are in that very ancient Riga which lies in a compact block between the river and the wide boulevards: a maze of narrow, twisting, cobbled streets, pierced by the tall spires of its many churches; the alleys, darkened by the shadows of the tall Hansa houses…” (pg. 95)

I was not born in that time when Davies traveled there, yet I recall in every detail my own observations, so like hers, some 40 years later, and again over the coming years after. Indeed, even now, planning my return journey, I am browsing tickets to the opera at the very same Opera House she mentions in the center of Riga. Will I buy a ticket to see the opera, Anna Karenina? Or Carmen?

My rented apartment is within that ancient Riga she describes, and my previous photo albums are already filled with my own yellowing photos of those many church spires, those twisted and winding cobblestone streets where I skipped hand in hand with my beloved. My own stories are buried among those cobblestones …

Could anyone pick up a travel essay for the United States from 1937 and still find there the same places, the same attractions, the same life sense of a people still living there? Probably not. And perhaps not everyone would want that. But for me, this stability of the ages come through to the modern day is fiercely reassuring and warmly comforting. I have the sense, again, of returning home. Not only to mine, but the home of my parents, of my grandparents, and the many generations before them. I will find those ancient, mossy stones beneath which their bones have long ago turned to dust. My digital photos in bright color will stand beside Davies’ black and white plates, and if a hairstyle has changed, the makeup or some item of clothing, the Baltic features have not. The buildings neglected in the Soviet years will now show fresh faces, newly painted and renovated, yet standing where they stood so many centuries ago, and the same ones that my parents saw as children.

Davies is of British background, yet she has apparently spent great spans of time and taken great care to understand the local history and tradition of these three Baltic countries. I read her descriptions of known places—of Dobele, where my father was born; of Riga, where my mother was born; of Jelgava, where my father’s family last lived before the war; of Ventspils, port city near where several generations of my family lived and some live yet today; of Tukums, where I myself lived for a time in an old yellow house that had survived centuries—and I am warmed by her gift of time to understand a place and not just pass through it.

That’s what creates something that lasts through the ages. The care and the time taken today to create something of lasting value. Her travel essays of 1937 are quite relevant and informative still today. Arguably even more so than a more contemporary travel guide.

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