European Diary: Terrace of the Melnais Kaķis (the Black Cat), Livu Laukums; 7:00 a.m.; Friday, June 4, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

S. is ill; I have continuing sinusitis and the preposterous insistence on the part of the sun to shine until the middle of the night and beyond makes sleep difficult. I’m at the café with almost seven hours of sleep versus four last night. S. is still sleeping, G-d keep her.

Late yesterday afternoon we visited the observation platform on Svētas Pētera. The cathedral itself, dating from the 13th century settlement of Rīga by the German bishop Albert, was uninspiring and we figured it was due to a botched “restoration.” It turns out it was bombed in World War II and, G-d help us, the Soviets rebuilt it. It looks like it was built by street corner day laborers – cheap brick and wretched plaster work. The Soviet influence will be felt here for decades.

Last night we attended the formal opening of the Reunion of World Latvian Jewry at the Jewish Center in Skolas iela (School Street) last night. The theatre was full of people, including Jewish association leaders from the U.S., Latvia and Israel and the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to Latvia.

The hall was encompassed by a balcony and all the walls were cream, scarlet and gold with a large golden “MD” on the shield above the stage. It looked like a lighter version of the theatre from Terry Gilliam’s film, “The Adventures of Baron von Munchhausen.” Among the festivities later later missed, a performance by the winner of the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner, Maria N., a Latvian. Yikes.

Today we are supposed to go to the Jūrmala resort at the beach but think we may need simply to rest.

European Diary: Room 4121, Konventa Sēta; 8:00 a.m., Thursday; June 3, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

We are not here for some ethnological observation – to “see how others live.” We are here to address that part of life that is fraught and sustained by memories, as well as that part of life that is halted by memories, incomplete memories, a life which can only revive and move forward by finding enough of the missing material to create a sensible narrative. This is a far more important charge than activities which, though presented as important, are little more than tourism.


The pronouncement by American bishops that politicians who favor abortion rights should be denied communion is typical of the Church. This is a group in which its most important and powerful bishops consistently protected dozens – hundreds? – of child rapists, declaring the image and authority of its organization, its prestige, more important than the faith, safety and sanity of its parishioners.

I remember a few years back when the San Francisco bishopric’s P.R. representative keened and mewled that a bunch of fags in nun costumes prancing about on Easter was just the same as the attempted extermination of six million Jews and when the outrageousness of this statement was pointed out, this same flack accused those who complained of being anti-Catholic. The Bishop, after being contacted about his minion’s actions, remained silent. Silent. Hrmm… Why does that sound… so… familiar? Oh, right! The cover up of all the child raping priests.

What self-deception that the most powerful religious organization in the history of the world would present itself as an innocent victim of much more powerful and sinister forces (shorthand, as always for Jews and, in this case, fags – probably people who carry library cards as well.) This arrogance and the actions it has allowed have bankrupted the Church, morally more than financially. I can’t see how it could ever recover any moral legitimacy. It is in danger of devolving further and further into its medieval hermit’s role as world-hating lunatics’ cave. The Catholic Church is becoming the nut-job militia of religions: dangerous, unbalanced and blind.

Well, all it took was unremitting arrogance, self-deception and un-Christian anger in the face of 2,000 years of European Jewish history, and hundreds of covered-up child rapes, self-righteousness, exclusion and pridefulness, but the S.F. P.R. weasel’s pronouncement has – I’m sure he’d be delighted to know – finally come true. I am “anti-Catholic.” And will be for so long as every bishop does not get down on his knees and pray to God, to ask for forgiveness for his cowardice and self-absorption, and beg the victims of his arrogance to forgive him, not until he stops making excuses and playing the victim. What would Jesus do, indeed. Probably not send his P.R. weasel out to slur Jews!

I hope self-righteousness is a pleasant companion for the Church in its moral dotage and death.

Once, it had Thomas Merton. Now it has Mel Gibson.


This is only the second time in the history of the Morpheme Tales I have felt obliged to clarify. Considering most of journalism is filled with a stagey concern for “balance” by people who are leaning crazily to one side or another, I have tried to eliminate self-censorship and say what I mean clearly, even if it means the minor notes are left unstruck. But I have had feedback from people I respect who have read this and been unsure whether I really have some unreasoning animus against Catholics. It’s a polemic, with the words chosen as much for effect as for an accurate reflection of my feelings. I do not hate Catholics, nor do I hate the Church. I am incredibly disappointed in the Church as an institution, one I have considered joining, and do have disgust for the individuals I have encountered — and read about — who have behaved immorally with the excuse that the ends justified the means. I also do not believe that any human institution has any right to expect to remain above criticism. This idea is at the root of most of the Church’s missteps throughout its history.

European Diary: Room 4121, Konventa Sēta; Wednesday, June 2, 2004; Rīga, Latvia

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.

European Diary: Courtyard of the British Library, 1:00 p.m., Monday; May 31, 2004; London, England

Just visited the Ritblat Gallery where we saw a first draft of “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen with Siegfried Sasson’s remarks penciled in. Thought I was going to bawl or faint. Also, Finnegan’s Wake, the oldest extant complete copy of the New Testament (Codex Sinaiticus) culled from the collection of the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai – it is any wonder I’ve always wanted to go there? (See below) Also saw the Gutenburg Bible, the Magna Carta, the First Folio, as well as the bill for Blackfriars and pages from Leonardo’s notebooks.

It was an emotional experience but very powerful physically as well. It made me want to study again, so I can join the British Library and man-handle the manuscripts: HOT INK-ON-VELLUM ACTION!

We need to go to Heathrow soon and take the short flight to Amsterdam and slightly longer one to Riga. Not looking forward to suffocation-by-airplane-seat. Told S. I should have fashioned a traveling garment out of a fitted sheet. She suggested a book: “The Sweatpant Chronicles: 17 Countries in One Pair of Sweatpants.”


The initial and terminal poems from “The Sinai Elegies”:

The temple

Once the Temple at Sinai stood fixed in my mind in the shimmering heat

Of the white desert in the stillness of midday. No figure

Marred the emptiness, no bird broke the held breath

Of the sky. The Temple stood silent in the midst of silence.

Like the structure itself, stone shorthand for its own architecture,

This vision stood scrip to the gold of a greater truth.

Like the Incan runner holding speech in a knotted string,

I bore sanctuary in the folds of a luminous dream.

I hurled myself across the erring oceans, rejoicing

At each failure, each mistake I made I blessed,

For every ill wind that ran my ship aground

Marooned me closer to the terrible desert.

And the Temple stood fixed in my mind. The nights were hot

With desire, the roads blazed with it. The names of things

Were strong in my ear, the year long in its shadow. But now,

O, now the Temple is gone. I am lost in the tide of days.

Kingdom come

Now, the Temple at Sinai stands fixed in my mind in the deepening

Dark of the lengthening night with the timbre of starlight,

Possessing the desert like a held breath possesses the body,

Defining by degrees what it is and is not.

The stars revolve with the vault of Heaven, turning like a great

Stone lid. Intangible and infinite space seems

Palpable; Time, finite. This is the instant the anointed voice

Spoke and ceased. And this is the moment right after.

And I no longer care that there within its walls, where a crude

Lamp burns gold, stands the basin of polished

Stone the cut rose floats in and that,

Should I withdraw it from the Water,

The Rose revoke my Exile and my name unfold within me.

Let my Name unfold within me and my body turn to dust!

I have learned nothing but that something remains.

Let thy kingdom come down like water.

European Diary: Courtyard of the British Library; 2:35 p.m., Sunday; May 30, 2004; London, England

The flight and its preparations were a trail, but worth it. London is very comfortable, not at all foreign, though others would probably disagree. Excellent to be in a real city again; things feel possible. London has become much richer, culturally, in the sense of a global culture, than it was the last time I visited – 20 years ago? It may be that I just see it more; I spent only a day or so here before.

The first two days here this time were devoted to rest and Sunday, it appears, is the day on which London becomes a tiny village again and everything shuts up tight. Most of our cultural activities will have to happen when we return oat the end of June. London has more museums, art and theatre than any other city I’ve ever seen, possibly more than NYC. We did wind up taking the Tube to Leicester square and walking through the West End, eating a typically English, yet not horrid, dinner at a restaurant – Brown’s? – in the theatre district. Then, a jog through an open-air drag queen convention on the streets of Covent Garden.

There are too many tourists and immigrants to count here. Many of the hotel and restaurant staff are Spanish, Russian, French, Georgian and Italian. Stores are run by Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Arabs, doing the same work as is done in the U.S. by Mexicans, Salvadorans, Vietnamese and so on. Once, on Oxford Street, S. and I got up from a café (Nero & Great Palace) and as we walked I heard so much French and Arabic I thought for a disorienting moment that I was in Paris instead of London.

Tomorrow we fly to Latvia. I expect it to be interesting and, for S., very emotional, but nine days is quite long. She has already started saying, “Curt, I want to move here.” There is a lot of media here.


Added bonus: 70s punk rock hooker look still alive and well here, especially among the middle-aged and unattractive.

One other note: It is a terribly noisy city. British reserve, indeed. I wish they would “reserve” their voices, doors and horns.