Latvia exists, in part, outside of time and outside of history. The birch forests receding away from the bay and the Dauguva River, recede from written history as well, into a time that was never written down. In Rīga itself, the vaguely Scandinavian, vaguely German, vaguely Russian buildings hint of an empire no one has ever heard of.
Contemporary Latvia is roughly split between Russian immigrants who surged into the place during the 60 years of Soviet rule (and some left over from czarist times) and the more numerous native Latvians. The Russians are blocky, fleshy apparatchiks with poorly made suits or young pimply brutes with bowl haircuts and cheap girlfriends, reeking of cheap perfume, sporting paste jewelry that leaves green rings on their necks and fingers, wearing cheap dresses pulled off a truck in the Ukraine.
The Latvians on the other hand are blond often as not, taller, graceful, Western-facing since the Hanseatic days of the 13gh century, at ease in the world, almost like soulful Swedes, sporting outfits from the center of contemporary global fashion consciousness. When they speak their native language they sound like Italians speaking Norwegians. They are cosmopolitan, mercantile traders who chafed under the rule of a people who acted and thought like the Latvians’ brutal hick cousins, hating the big city their metropolitan cousins moved about in with such ease, but jealous of them and covetous of it as well.
We got in late last night, arriving at the Hotel de Rome at 11:30. We found out we were actually in the Konventa Sēta, a sister hotel three blocks away, a complex of buildings next to St. Peter’s Basilica, a 13th century Rīga landmark. The building we stayed in started out as a refectory for the Order of Sword Knights who founded the city, then, later, became an almshouse for widows.
At 2:30 in the morning, there was still some dark blue light in the sky. We are in extreme Northern latitudes – on a par with Norway. Got to sleep at 3:30, slept until 7:30, had breakfast in the Raibais Balodis, back to bed until 11:30. With the sun out so late everyone stays up. I saw little old ladies returning to the hotel at almost 11:00 p.m. We went to the Latvian survivor conference’s orientation at the Rome, but over half the group, including the leader, were held up in Belgium. We asked around after people who knew S.’s family in Rīga. One lady knew a friend of the family, A., who lives in San Francisco. Another fellow, also called Mr. J., who lives in Stockholm, spoke at length with me in German. My German was more up to the task than I had expected. S. felt a bit overwhelmed but hopeful, and grateful. I was proud to help.
Tomorrow we go to the Jewish Museum, on a guided tour of the old city, which I am really looking forward to, the reception and dinner. We hope to find the house where her grandparents lived, the synagogue where her grandfather was cantor. Should be interesting. This is the most foreign place I’ve ever been – including El Salvador and Guatemala – and it’s something of an adventure.
Vecrīga is the best preserved old city I have ever seen – lovely, well-kept, full of businesses, bars, cafes, record and book shops, restuarants, street vendors. Look about th ecity from a high point like th Otto Schwarz restaurant on top fo the Hotel de Rome or the observatory on the Svēta Pētera Baznīca belltower and you feel you’re looking around at a 15th century engraving.
Today, we walked all around the incredibly lively, bustling and capcious old city in the cold northern sunshine with the fresh breezes coming off the river and breathing through the birdch stands, tidal marshes and the sea as though in and out of lungs. Unfortunately, hwoever, we wound up at one nasty, pretentious café after another. Twice we ordered food. The Georgian shishlik (as a formmer S.S.R., “exotic” food in Latvia still tends to borrow from its former fellow socialist republics, primarily Georgia and Armenia) was underdone, the potatos uncooked and the salad rancid. At the “Cuban” restuarnat on the river we were treated to suspcious eggrolls and a crème brûlée which consisted of a pile of freakish wobblings covered in goo and served by a shivering Ruskie half-wit in a Hawai’ian patterned mini-skirt.
So I insisted we go the Otto Schwarz, the ‘best” restaurant in town, figuring that, with luck, we could find a hamburger patty and mashed potatoes we could choke down. Instead, it was – after nine 0’clock in the evening it was still as bright as day – in this largely deserted restaurant, one of those meals you remember forever. As an old man played and occasionally sang old jazz and songbook standards we ate lemongrass-coconut milk-shrimp soup, a vegetable tart with goat cheese, salad with basil dressing, croquettes with spinach, (along unfortunately with a criminally overpriced, dreadfully sweet pinot grigio) and marzipan-ice cream cake.
The paneling, gilding, emptiness, elegance made me think of the loss of pre-war Europe. In the distance the stepped spires of the churches, the over-ground trolleys, the few old people in furs in the corner: it all felt like the ghost of a time lost in a moment of violence that can never be reclaimed, not with a lifetime of prayers. The sacral absence again that is the only possible memorial for the death not just of eight million Jews but of a whole way of being. Europe died long ago, the Europe that was an idea. The only living idea left to the world is America, and it too finally will be thought for the last time, then lost.