The Floating Fortress – A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: Irritability, Beauty & Tranquility (Travels In Eastern Europe #61a)

After a couple of days in Vilnius I decided that it was time to see something of the Lithuanian countryside. My newfound friends at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast recommended a day trip to nearby Trakai Island Castle. One look at a photo of Trakai convinced me this was where I should go. Trakai is the eye candy of Lithuanian castles. It sits on an island, its red brick image reflecting off the water. The photos I saw of Trakai before booking the tour were astounding. So much so that when the tour operator told me that the interior of the castle would be closed because it was a Monday, I could have cared less. Such minor scheduling details would not preclude me from taking photos or walking along the walls. Trakai was not going to be an exercise in history so much, as it was an exercise in vanity. Thus, I found myself at 10 a.m. on my last morning in Vilnius boarding a bus with a small group that included an English woman, her adult son and a broad shouldered, imperious looking Norwegian lady.

Hill fort mounds in Kernave

Hill fort mounds in Kernave (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Unimaginable Past – Kernave
Our guide was a Lithuanian woman who looked to be in her late 20’s. Once she started talking, she hardly ever stopped.  We heard, but did not learn, a withering amount of Lithuanian history over the next 45 minutes. Her idea of leading a tour was to tell us so much information that we would be too exhausted from listening to ask any questions. Between the bus ride and an unending stream of facts, I was ready to sleep for a month. Finally, the bus made a stop at an overlook for the ruins of Kernave. Here stood what was reputed to be the first capital of Lithuania. The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and were supposed to be the main attraction. Unfortunately, during the 1920’s a magnificent, yet entirely out of place neo-Gothic Church was constructed nearby. There were other churches in this area from the 15th through the 19th century, either they fell into ruin or were removed. The irony is that during Kernave’s golden age, the inhabitants were pagan. They were fighting for their very existence from Christian crusading Teutonic Knights. Now a massive church overlooked all that remained of their glorious past.

The remnants of Kernave sat on a plateau just above the Neris River. While I found the various mounds and ruins impressive it also was a reminder of just how few people lived in even the most important settlements during the early medieval period. A small town in Lithuania today would easily swallow these mounds the represented Kernave. During this time, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside, their existence was precarious at best. Kernave’s population would have expanded to capacity when they were under attack. It was as much a seat of protection, as it was of power. Kernave was likely the greatest Baltic hill fortress of its time. Nevertheless, its current condition did not look very impressive. Those were very different times, as unimaginable to us as today’s world would have been to Kernave’s residents.

A Magic Moment - Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

A Magic Moment – Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

The Magic Of The World – In Progress
The guide continued to talk incessantly as we headed towards Trakai. It was difficult to even get in a word. When I did ask her a question, if it did not fit in with her pre-prepared narrative, she became rather abrupt. By the time we arrived in Trakai, I was less interested in seeing the castle than getting a break from her ceaseless chatter. I fled from the bus and headed straight towards the edge of Lake Galve, which surrounds the island that Trakai stands on. Just about the time I was getting ready to snap my first coveted photo of the castle, I noticed a sailboat sliding silently across the water. It was a moment of stunning beauty and picturesque serendipity. I was instantly pleased with the photo, which looked so enchanting that I could hardly believe such a scene was there for the taking. Sometimes beauty and tranquility conspire to create a perfect moment that captures the magic of the world in progress.

I then made my way over the footbridge leading to the castle. Though the interior was not open, just walking around the castle walls proved illuminating. Trakai Castle had undergone an extensive restoration which was visible to the naked eye. The lower parts of the walls were original and did not match up with the bricks that had been used to rebuild the taller parts of these walls. The restoration had taken over a decade. Strangely enough, it was done under the communist regime. This seemed odd, as the idea of nobility was anathema to the communists. I noticed this same phenomenon at work while visiting the Old Towns of Riga and Warsaw. What possessed these regimes to rebuild historic neighborhoods and structures was hard to fathom. Perhaps it was done in a paradoxical bid to create confidence in a communist system that was an imposition on national honor. A reminder that not all was bad. Or at least the past offered respite from the present. Whatever the case, the restoration was fabulously done.  It did make me wonder though, had the castle ever really looked this good. All restorations approximate the past. This one was so magnificent that any faults I could find seemed like mere quibbles.

Reconstructing history - The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

Reconstructing history – The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

At The Mercy of History – The Decline Of Trakai
And what of the history of Trakai Castle? The castle underwent three phases of construction between the latter half of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century. Its principle usage was as a fortress guarding against attack by the Teutonic Knights. One of these attacks brought it to ruin in 1377. This brought home to me the martial prowess of the Teutonic Knights. Taking Trakai meant overcoming nature as much as man. The castle would be rebuilt only a few decades later in stouter and stronger form, accentuating the Gothic elements. After the Teutonic Knights were soundly defeated at the Battle of Zalgiras (more famously known as the Battle of Tannenburg) in 1410 the castle morphed into a palatial residence for the Grand Dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The castle only went into perpetual decline after being badly damaged in the 17th century wars with Muscovy. It fell into disuse and was abandoned, left to the mercy of the elements.  The fact that it would eventually be resurrected in its current form did not mean that the ruins were without value, especially for artists.

 

 

The Power Of False Promises – Napoleon In Vilnius: Conquest & Failure In Lithuania (Travels In Eastern Europe #60)

When I think of Napoleon, the image that usually comes to mind is of a masterful military commander and visionary political leader. A self-made emperor, whose intoxication with power and flawed genius changed Europe forever. His vision and conquests reshaped the continent. I rarely think of Napoleon as having anything to do with Eastern Europe, but if I do it almost always involves his disastrous Russian campaign. Scenes such as the dyspeptic dictator directing his forces at the bloody Battle of Borodino or standing in the smoking ruins of Moscow. While visiting Vilnius I scarcely gave a thought to Napoleon, why would I? Vilnius seems light years away from anywhere I would associate with Napoleon. Yet he spent eighteen eventful days in the city during the summer of 1812. Long enough to leave both a legend and legacy behind.

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

The Grande Armée crossing the Niemen

Force Of Will – Liberation Without Freedom
Napoleon’s invasion of Imperial Russia commenced in territory that is now part of modern day Lithuania. His army crossed the Niemen River on June 23, 1812. He was soon being feted by the mayor of Kaunas.  Four days later, Napoleon arrived in Vilnius. The city had been liberated by his troops with hardly a casualty. First, the Russian Tsar Alexander and then his troops hastily retreated to the east. Upon his arrival, Napoleon was given a mixed reception by the residents of Vilnius. On one hand, he was a possible liberator, who would restore the independence of Lithuania. Pulling it out away from Tsarist rule. The reality turned out to be much more complicated. While Napoleon created a provisional government in Lithuania, he appointed French officials to have the final say in its affairs. The provisional government was created not to liberate Lithuania, but to help raise men and supplies for the invasion of Russia.  Napoleon was only going to give the Lithuanians a little of what they wanted to ensure their loyalty. In return, he received nine regiments of Lithuanian infantry and cavalry to assist the Grand Army. Twenty thousand men were called to arms. Little did they realize that in the coming months they would be marching into a deathtrap.

Right after his arrival, Napoleon toured the fortifications protecting the city, then over the coming days he visited a few more of the most prominent sites. I can vouch for the fact that the one which amazed him most is certainly worth seeing on a visit to Vilnius. The idea of Gothic architecture as flamboyant seems contradictory. Gothicism is usually dark, brooding and intimidates as much as it inspires. St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius is styled in what is known as Flamboyant Gothicism. The church’s façade is fantastically exuberant, with towering spires soaring skyward. No less than thirty-three different types of brick were used in the creation of the edifice. Imagine a red brick Bat Mobile turned vertical in a wonderous dynamism of stone and style. Such a spectacle led a man as deeply cultured and brilliant of intellect as Napoleon to have been profoundly moved by the sight of St. Anne’s. Legend says that upon seeing the church, Napoleon remarked that he would like to carry it back to Paris, “in the palm of his hand”. It is unlikely that Napoleon used these exact words, but it would not be surprising if he found St. Anne’s an otherworldly architectural wonder. Sadly, his reverence did not stop the church from being used as a military warehouse during the war.

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius

False Promise- Napoleon in modern Vilnius (Credit: Adas)

The Gate Of Dawn – Soldiering On
Another famous place in Vilnius that Napoleon visited was the Gate of Dawn. Just as today, the Gate of Dawn was the only one of the original nine city gates still standing, the rest having been torn down in the late 18th century by the order of Russian Tsarist officials when they took over the city. The gate gained its fame due to a venerated painting known as Our Lady of the Gate Of Dawn, which has been known to have miraculous powers. The painting portrays the Virgin Mary in northern Renaissance style. Long after the painting was done, a chapel was constructed around it and became a place of pilgrimage. That reverence continues today, just as it did two centuries ago. Napoleon first entered Vilnius through the Gate of Dawn while heading toward the city center, what is presently the Old Town. His first impression of Vilnius was that the locals were not as enthusiastic towards him as they had been earlier in Warsaw. Nevertheless, he and his soldiers were welcomed by crowds hoping that Napoleon would throw the Tsarist yoke off Lithuania once and for all.

The presence of his troops was a different story. The Grande Armée wore out its welcome not long after its arrival. They commandeered or looted crucial food stores and livestock from the locals. The peasantry took to the forests, trying to safeguard their possessions from marauding soldiers. Within a matter of days, the Grande Armée went from being viewed as liberators to obstinate occupiers. Relief only came to the area when they marched out of Lithuania, eastward into Russia. Vilnius would soon become a distant memory for them and their leader. A little less than five months later, a very different Napoleon was back in Lithuania. His army had been defeated by the vast spaces, harsh winter and a Russian Army that fought to the death for their territory. Napoleon arrived back in Vilnius on December 6th. His stay lasted less than a day, as he almost immediately left for Paris. There he hoped to fend off a coup d’etat and then raise another army. Napoleon may have been defeated, but he would live to fight another day.

French Army - in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

French Army – in the Town Hall Square of Vilnius during the retreat

Grand Failure – Blind Ambition
The same could not be said for the Grande Armée, which by this point was barely recognizable as a fighting force. Thousands of starving, emaciated, frost bitten soldiers descended on Vilnius. Many were past the point of exhaustion. They died at the outskirts, in the streets and on doorsteps all over Vilnius. Mass graves were dug to bury the corpses of an army that could no longer be termed “Grand”. The same soldiers who had once taken whatever they wanted from Lithuanians were now reduced to the status of beggars. Just as Napoleon had provided Lithuanians with false hopes, he did the same with his army. The campaign proved to be a death knell for Napoleon’s imperial ambitions. His visits to Vilnius at the start and end of the campaign, illustrate both his ambition and ultimate failure.

All I Remember Is Saying Goodbye – Debrecen To Budapest: A Crisis Of Consciousness

One of the great laments in my life is that I have only been able to spend a limited amount of time in Eastern Europe. The trips I have taken to the region now number in the double digits, but cumulatively they add up to only half a year of my life. Of course, I have been much more fortunate than most. At least I have been able to indulge my passion for the region over twenty-six sometimes spectacular, always revealing weeks of travel. As memorable as each trip has been, I find myself increasingly alarmed by the blank spots in my memory. Though I try to remember everything I can by taking notes and snapping hundreds of photographs there are still so many moments I fail to remember.

Several things are becoming increasingly clear to me. First, I have taken so many trips that they are now all beginning to run together. I can distinctly recall almost everything about my first two trips to Eastern Europe. I can distinctly remember what I did on each day of those journeys, the arrival in Sofia, the bus trip to Bucharest, a flight to Sarajevo, a train across three countries on the way to Pecs and so forth. My last trip is always completely clear as well, that is until I do another trip. The last trip always overtakes the one before it. The next to last one then exists in a netherworld of confused memory. Secondly, that I am getting older. This has resulted in either very detailed memories – such as a fog engulfed visit to Tata in western Hungary many years ago, where I can still mentally trace my footsteps past waterwheels, along the shores of Old Lake Tata, a dessert lunch at a Cukraszda (patisserie) and standing outside the Parish Church trying to take a photo as a tour group milled around the entrance – or the opposite effect where I remember nothing. This includes a very faint recollection of a walk I once took around central Vienna. I remember wandering around and that is about it.

The Parish Church - Tata Hungary

As I remember – The Parish Church in Tata Hungary

Memory Gap- The Trip I Cannot Remember
Searching my travel memories, I realize that several days in a row can pass where I have no idea what occurred. Without the aid of notes and photos these days would now amount to nothing. This came to mind when I received a call the other day from a friend who accompanied me on my last trip to Eastern Europe. He asked me if I could “remember that train ride we took back from Debrecen to Budapest?”  I was suddenly at a loss. He tried to refresh my memory. “All I remember is saying goodbye to Ibolya when she dropped us off at the train station? I can’t remember anything else.” At that moment neither could I. He is seventy and I am forty-six, this was worrisome. As he kept talking I lost track of what he was saying as I tried to recall a memory, any memory. I finally said, “I can remember walking to the platform through that ghastly underground corridor.”

The only reason I recalled the corridor was because passing through it triggered a memory of a post I had written awhile back about how menacing that place felt, with its communist era chipped paint job, cold concrete and the smell of decades old mildew. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. My friend continued to search his memory for any detail that might help him recall that train trip. I finally said, “I think there was some woman sitting behind us who kept talking the whole time.” She had been incredibly irritating, loudly conversing with her son. She would pause for 30 seconds of silence and then predictable go off again on minutes long binges of verbiage. My friend did recall this, “Yes I got up and moved to get away from her.” That ended up being the only memory we could excavate from a two and half hour train ride across the Great Hungarian Plain. Such a pity that of all the things I could have remembered it was of a woman who would not shut up.

Filling in the memory gap - Puspokladany Train Station

Filling in the memory gap – Puspokladany Train Station

From Puspokladany To Torokszentmiklos – Running Out Of Memories
After our conversation I began to try and remember all the things I have forgotten. In other words, I attempted the impossible. There are all those train and bus trips I have never written about because everything went according to plan. Contentment might be what I am searching for in life, but it is the enemy of fascinating journeys. No great truths are to be unearthed in comfort and refinement. There are those Hungarian cities, towns and villages I have passed through more times than I will ever remember. They now inhabit an unconscious oblivion. Places such as Puspokladany in eastern Hungary which I have been through, but not actually to, at least twenty times. What do I remember about it? The outlines of a two story, rather elegant station, a vacant platform other than the station keeper – a sort of goodbye greeter – stepping out to signal whether to stay or go. Is this what I have spent so much time, energy and money chasing? At a certain point, travel infused with familiarity becomes a little too much like the life I left behind. This amnesia creeps over and manages to consume me one trip at a time. The easier things get, the less they mean to me, thus the more I proceed to forget.

And then there is the Torokszentmiklos syndrome. This can best be described as a self-induced psychosis of indifferent procrastination, that one day I will travel there to finally see what I promised myself umpteen times in the past, a mid-sized town out along the Great Hungarian Plain. All I can remember is a massive church in the near distance which has managed to impress itself upon my imagination. I have to see that church up close, stand in its shadow and admire the handy work of people whose names I will never pronounce correctly. I do not remember when was the first or the last time that I saw it. For many years I have wanted to visit that church. I always promise myself that I will go there the next time. I am running out of next times, the way I am running out of memories. I am running along the same rails again and again, failing to even remember what I have forgotten. Stuck in that vicious netherworld of travel pervaded by a stultifying sameness. The will to change direction now escapes me.

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) - in Torokszentmiklos

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) – in Torokszentmiklos (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

The Fascination Grows Faint – A Lost Experience
I wonder when I will finally forget all about Torokszentmiklos or Puspokladany. I am trying so hard to remember everything, that I must not have noticed anything. I certainly do not remember passing by those towns on that last trip with my friend. I was there, but I wasn’t there. At least I can remember that I have forgotten all about them. This exercise in frustration and futility reminds me of only one thing, that woman’s banal chattering. I went halfway around the world and that is what I left myself with, memories lost the way they are in everyday life. This is not a crisis of confidence, more a crisis of consciousness. The fascination of traveling to these places has grown faint, the same as my memory. Somewhere way out in eastern Hungary I lost an entire experience, but I was still awake and alive when it occurred. That is the most frightening memory of all.

 

 

 

The Book Of Names – Erno Berger: A Resurrection At Auschwitz

It was in Block 27 at Auschwitz that I came upon one of the most arresting physical representations of the Holocaust ever conceived. In one room of the block can be found The Book of Names. The title of the exhibit is perfectly descriptive, but trying to explain the effect of this voluminous compendium of death is not easy. Try to imagine the number and size of the pages it would take to print the names of 4.2 million people. Now imagine that after each name, the year and place where that person was born is given. Finally, try to visualize that at the end of each entry, the place where the person was murdered during the Holocaust is listed, if it is known. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine The Book of Names. The entire exhibit stretches out over several meters with the large pages bound together in a multi rowed, thick compendium of tragedy. It is the thickest book I have ever seen before and I hope to never see another one like it again.

What makes this huge tome particularly unfathomable is its subject matter and what that endless list of names says about humanity. Everyone listed in the book was murdered due to a choice by one group of human beings to single out and destroy another group. This litany of depressing data gives the sparse details of the individual lives and deaths of millions. Open The Book of Names to any page and one is confronted with hundreds of lines that cause the senses to reel. Soon the eyes glaze over as one name looks like another name. After a couple of pages all those lines run together. The sheer immensity of this catalog documenting the humanity lost in the Holocaust can scarcely be conceptualized by the mind. The only way for me to make any sense of it was to seek out an individual name. I had one to focus on, a personal connection, that suddenly made my eyes stop and closely search all those lines for traces of an existence.

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz


The Outlines Of A Life – The Power Of Presence

The name I searched for was that of Erno Berger. It took me several minutes just to find the specific page. There was not one Erno Berger, but many lines listing men with that same name from a multitude of places in Eastern Europe. There were thirty-one Erno Bergers in all. Just the fact that the name was repeated so many times was a chilling reminder to me the depth and penetration of the Nazi’s genocidal thoroughness. I began to study each Erno Berger entry more closely until I found the specific one I was searching for. Finally, I came upon the following entry: Berger, Erno, 2/3/1982 Belgrad, Yugoslavia, Place of death unknown.

It was a surreal feeling to find this Erno Berger. Suddenly, I felt a pulse of energy and interest. A tangible connection had been made. For a moment, at least for me, Erno Berger rose from beyond all those pages, he came back to life, if just for a moment. He was no longer anonymous or just another name among millions, but a person whose existence had been documented. He lived on in this handful of details, straddling a couple of lines his life and death came down to these inches. It is an extraordinarily powerful feeling to never have met someone, to have been born a quarter century after they died and yet feel like they are very close to you. I could not touch this man’s presence, but he was touching mine. I, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no Jewish blood suddenly had a connection, a thread that I could unspool and use to trace the outlines of a life lost among millions of others lost.

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

From Father To Son  – Making A Name For Themselves
Who was Erno Berger and why was I searching for him in The Book Of Names?  He was born in Belgrad during the late winter of 1892. His father was J Kohn. Eventually he migrated to Debrecen in eastern Hungary where he worked as an electrician. In June 1944, he along with nearly the entire community of Jews in Debrecen – 7,411 to be precise – was rounded up and deported. The deportees were sent either to Auschwitz or Austria where many more would die in forced labor battalions. Which one Erno Berger went to is still a mystery. Somehow he ended up in Bergen-Belsen where he died. One thing is for certain, he never came back to Debrecen. The only existing remnant of his existence is his name on a memorial wall. It can be found in the courtyard of one of only two active synagogues left in Debrecen. He never saw his ethnic Hungarian wife again or the lone child that was born to the couple not long after Erno’s deportation.

This son would be given the name of the father he never knew. His surname eventually changed, as so many Hungarians Jews did during the communist period to avoid persecution and any lingering anti-Semitism. Assimilation was no longer necessary to survive, but it was to thrive. The son would grow up to become a noted physician in the city that had rejected his father. He would eventually marry a Hungarian as well, just as his father did. This was in the late 1960’s rather than the mid-1940’s. Hungary was a very different place by then. The kind of place where a man with brilliant intellect and smarts could achieve great things, despite or perhaps because of communism. And this son did just that. He healed, he taught, he loved and he lived. If not for him, I would never have been standing at Auschwitz searching for the name of Erno Berger.

A Lot To Learn – Ancestral Feelings
The son and by extension his father really must have been something, to have such power and influence continue beyond life. I never met either of them and never will. The day the son died I was still in high school. I did not know anything about Hungary and the Holocaust meant little to me other than what we learned of it in history class. I had a lot to learn then, I still do now. Erno Berger and his son meant a whole new world to me because they were my wife’s grandfather and father respectively. It has been through her that I came to know them. And it has been through her that I can see them.

Both Eyebrows On The Road – Leadfoot Leonid: Brezhnev Behind The Wheel

Anyone who remembers the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev cannot help but recall his stolid rigidity, dark, ultra-thick eyebrows and frosty visage. Brezhnev became the human face for the stagnation and stolidity that beset the Soviet Union during his long and depressing reign over the country from 1964 to 1982. He looked like a block of ice animated only by Politburo meetings and military parades. For a generation he was the ultimate symbol of unwavering allegiance to a corrupt, ossified system that could not and would not be reformed. It is hard to disassociate Brezhnev’s image from the slow, inexorable downslide of communism.

He was iconic in the worst of ways, a cult of bad personality that was about as memorable as any ordinary nightmare. Yet there was another side to him, livelier but just as unsavory. Those who knew Brezhnev privately saw a man who was shockingly vain and materialistic. A lover of fur coats and the finer things in life that communist leaders such as himself supposedly abhorred, but secretly hoarded. He craved the trappings of luxury, never more so then when it came to automobiles. Brezhnev loved nothing more than quite literally life, in the fast lane. He drove wild and loose in some of the best automobiles that his power could purchase for him.

Collision course - Leonid Brezhnev ready to roll

Collision course – Leonid Brezhnev ready to roll

More Equal Than Others – At Everyone Else’s Expense
I once heard a story that Brezhnev ran someone over while driving from one of his dachas on the outskirts of Moscow on his way into the Kremlin. This story may be apocryphal, than again Soviet leaders could do almost anything they wanted to without reason. Like every exaggerated story the one about hit and run Brezhnev contains many seeds of truth. Brezhnev loved to drive his personal collection of automobiles at very high speeds. He had no less than eighty-two cars to choose from. Many of these had been given to him by other heads of state. Consider that this occurred in a country where the highly successful might have to wait five years or longer for an opportunity to purchase a very poorly made car. Brezhnev proved Orwell’s metaphorical aphorism from Animal Farm, “that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Brezhnev was a leader who got what he wanted at everyone else’s expense. A pseudo dictator who was just as corrupt as the system he presided over. A running joke often told among Soviet citizens is revealing. In the telling, Brezhnev takes his elderly mother on a personal tour of one of his luxurious homes in the Russian countryside. She remains silent throughout, even when Brezhnev showed her his fleet of luxury automobiles. Finally, he got fed up and asked her what she thought. To which she replied, “It’s very nice, but what will happen when the Communists come back to power?” This was Soviet style communism at middle age, corrupt to the core.

Leonid Brezhnev - receiving the keys to a 1973 Lincoln Continental from Richard Nixon at Camp David

Leonid Brezhnev – receiving the keys to a 1973 Lincoln Continental from Richard Nixon at Camp David

Crash Course – Taken For A Ride
One of the most famous car stories of the Brezhnev era concerned a trip he made to Camp David in the mountains of western Maryland where he met with President Richard Nixon. This less than dynamic duo could have rightly been called partners in political crime. On this occasion, Nixon played to Brezhnev’s love of cars in an incident that almost led to dire consequences for both men. Much to his joy the usually stolid Soviet leader was presented with the keys to a brand new 1973 Lincoln Continental. Little did Nixon know that this gift would lead to a ride risking both their lives. As soon as Brezhnev took possession of the keys, he was raring to take the Lincoln for a drive. Lead foot Leonid got in and invited Nixon to join him. Despite the reservations of a Secret Service agent who grew alarmed when he realized what was about to happen, Nixon took the front passenger seat.

The two most powerful men in the world at that time then started down one of the narrow, curvy roads around the perimeter of Camp David. Brezhnev was not familiar with the route. He was used to driving however he liked. In no time at all, he sped the car up to 50 miles per hour then started down a hill that led into a dangerous curve. Brezhnev was throwing caution to the wind. Nixon must have wondered if they were on a collision course with fate or a tree. The Soviet leader was out for an adrenaline rush in a dream car, while the American president sat beside him terrified. Brezhnev was in control of the car, Nixon was just along for the ride. The situation might best be described as too fast for conditions and Nixon knew it. As they sped into the curve Nixon told Brezhnev to “slow down, slow down.” Abruptly the Soviet leader hit the brakes, the tires squalled, but the car safely made the turn. A relieved Nixon complimented Brezhnev on his driving skills, proof that a little lie can help when it comes to diplomacy.

Fast Friends - Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev at Camp David

Fast Friends – Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev share a lighter moment at Camp David (Credit Robert L. Knudsen)

Driving Them Crazy – A Show Of Credentials
This was not the only time Brezhnev looked to drive his new Lincoln on American roads. While in Washington, D.C he wanted to take the car out for a spin around the city. He was informed that the Secret Service would not allow him to do this. It must have been a shock to the system for Brezhnev to realize he could not do anything he wanted, even in America.  This did not stop him from dreaming up a disguise so that Americans would not be able to recognize him. He offered to, “take the flag off the car, put on dark glasses, so they can’t see my eyebrows and drive like any American would.” To this idea, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger quipped, “I have driven with you and I don’t think you drive like an American.” One can only wonder how many traffic laws Brezhnev would have broken that day if his wish had been granted. He could have easily been charged by the police for being an unlicensed driver. His response would likely have been to show them his party card. With this show of credentials, Brezhnev would have probably driven them crazy.

Vilnius Home – A Family Of Foreigners: By Way of Lithuania (Travels In Eastern Europe #59)

I came to Vilnius nursing a terrible head cold. The damp and chilly Baltic climate that hovered over Riga had knocked me sideways. Rarely have I ever been so sick while traveling overseas. My first impulse was to long for home. Since thousands of kilometers separated me from my bedroom, I would have to make the best of a less than desirable situation. There was no direct train between Vilnius and Riga, thus I suffered through a bus ride that made me swear off that mode of transport forever. I arrived in Vilnius sweating and shivering with fever chills. I expected the worst. It was just a short walk from the bus terminal to the Bed & Breakfast where I had reserved a private room. This Bed and Breakfast did not have many reviews on the website I used to book the accommodation, but the few that were posted all said the same thing, it was outstanding.

The proprietor met me at the door with an overwhelming warmth that made me momentarily forget my illness. Her name was Aleksandra and she smiled constantly. The accommodation, known as Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast, felt just like the smile on her face. The atmosphere was upbeat, positive, light, almost giddy. Aleksandra had started the hostel not long ago. She was committed to putting forth a world class effort by providing the best service possible. She said, “Let me know if you have any questions”. I would later discover that she was a rarity, the kind of person who backs her words up with action. The impression she made gave me a new sense of energy. I was ready to go explore Vilnius, no matter my condition.

Aleksandra - Welcoming with a smile

Aleksandra – Welcoming with a smile (Credit: Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast)

A Multiplicity Of Ethnicities – Wilna, Wilno, Vilnius
Before arriving in Lithuania I wondered if it could really be that much different from Latvia. The answer was a nuanced yes. Whereas Latvia’s main 20th century historical foe was Russia and then the Soviet Union, Lithuania had battled first with Poland and later the Soviet Union. Vilnius had been at the epicenter of this conflict, contested by a multitude of ethnicities. The Russians knew it as Wilna and the Poles as Wilno. There were not many Lithuanians in the city to call it Vilnius at the turn of the 20th century. The results of an 1897 Russian census (the city was part of the Russian Empire at that time) done according to language shows that only 2% of the population was Lithuanian. Polish speakers outnumbered Lithuanian speakers 15 to 1, Jews outnumbered them 20 to 1 and Russians 10 to 1.

Vilnius was one of the most ethnically complex cities in Europe during the first half of the 20th century.  Even though Lithuanians formed their own nation in the aftermath of World War I, Vilnius was placed within the Second Republic of Poland. The creator and then leader of that Republic, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski was a Polonised ethnic Lithuanian. In 1931, two-thirds of Vilnius’ population was Polish, with another 28% Jewish. Ethnic Lithuanians could hardly be found in the city or the adjacent region where they made up a miniscule percentage of the population. World War II changed the ethnic composition of Vilnius irreparably. Lithuania was given the city by the Germans in 1939. In the following years, the Jewish population was destroyed by the Holocaust. Then the Red Army occupied the city at the end of the war. The Soviets forcibly moved out Vilnius’ Polish population (which was 80% of the city in 1944). In moved Lithuanians and Russians.

Old Town - Vilnius

Old Town – Vilnius (Credit: calflier001)

A Lithuanian City – On A Human Scale
By 1939 Lithuanians were a plurality of the population in Vilnius, a half century later they were a majority. In 1991, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to openly revolt against the communist regime. The squelching of this initial revolution was short-lived as an independent Lithuania was reconstituted by the end of that year. Lithuanians were now in the ascendant, but the capital’s population and the surrounding region were much more heterogenous than other areas of Eastern Europe that had been ethnically cleansed.  There were still large populations of Poles, Russians and Belarusians. Scratch just beneath the surface of modern Vilnius and that complex legacy of multi-culturalism begins to appear.

Strolling into Vilnius’ Old Town I immediately noticed the incredible Baroque architecture. Unlike Riga’s Old Town which was laden with Gothic and Romanesque inspired structures, Vilnius evoked a later era of ornately florid, lavish splendor. Along narrow winding alleyways the splendid buildings just kept on coming. I would later learn that Vilnius has some one thousand protected structures and I believe it. Some were gloriously restored, others bore the graffitied tattoos of communist era delinquency. Still others retained a half-ruined charm. The city also seemed much quainter and more inviting than Riga. The architecture (except for the churches) was on a much more human scale. It was a strange feeling to come into a land where I did not speak the language, never really considered visiting and knew little more than what a guidebook told me about its past. Then as if by magic, after a couple of hours I felt totally comfortable. Vilnius would fit me perfectly for several days.

Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast

Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast

A Place With & Without Problems – Night Lights
That evening I did something very rare for me. I went out to the commons area at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast. Aleksandra had been so remarkably kind and welcoming when I checked in, that it made me want to socialize for a change. I found a group of travelers chatting while Aleksandra served hors d’oeuvres. The group was full of revealing stories. A young Belarusian man was holding court as his female travel companion looked on. He worked in the Minsk theater and it was obvious that he was a natural. Everything he said or did was intensely theatrical, animated with marvelous hand gesticulations.

A conversation arose about police in the post-Soviet nations. I said that in Ukraine, specifically Kiev, the police force appeared to be menacing. Aleksandra’s husband said the Lithuanian police never would come when you had a problem and were only interested in enforcing corruption. The young Belarusian man outdid us both. He said, “that was nothing compared to the Belarusian police.” “When they arrest someone, they know they are in real trouble.” And this was not for the crime, but just for the fact that the Belarusian police were involved. He made a frightful face and said, “If you get taken in, there is no telling what might happen.” Then he let out a mocking laugh. We all knew what he was talking about.

A young woman from Kazakhstan, whose parents were ethnically Lithuanian, began to converse with me. If I understood her correctly they had been part of a Soviet era migration to work in Central Asia. I mentioned the quiet silence and distance of Baltic peoples in general. She told me it was much better than Kazakhstan where people were incredibly rude. Pushing and shoving one’s way around public transport was a given. Brusqueness was not so much an attitude as it was a way of life. Her answers were shrieks of expression. She would pause for a few seconds before replying in a caustic manner.

Then there was Jan, a Pole from Poznan who was in town as a special guest at a chess tournament. One of his forebears was being lauded and he was representing the family. Jan had an amazing knowledge of history, specifically the Holocaust. He was taking a year off from school before heading back to get his graduate degree. He was also going to make a pilgrimage to the place where Pilsudski’s heart was buried, in his mother’s grave. Aleksandra turned out to be ethnically Pole as well. When I asked about issues between Poles and Lithuanians she replied with a beaming bright smile. She didn’t have any problems. And at that moment neither did I. The world outside, the world of division and separation melted away in that room. I felt a feeling of warmth and comfort, almost like home. In a sense I was at home, Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast.

 

Free Tour To World War 3 – Riga, Latvia & Ethnic Russians: Cataclysmic Possibilities (Travels In Eastern Europe #58)

On my first full day in Riga I headed straight to the heart of the Old Town. In the late morning I joined a Free Tour of the city that began beneath St. Peter’s Church, a Gothic styled slice of Teutonic architecture topped with a Baroque tower that provides a magnificent panorama of the Old Town and adjacent Daugava River. The tour was led by a Latvian woman with sad eyes and a talent for dispassionate discourse. In her right hand she carried a yellow suitcase, which for no apparent reason was the eclectic symbol of the Riga Free Tour. She led our group of fifteen curious foreigners to various sights that illuminated the diverse history, peoples and cultures that had sustained Riga since its founding by the German Crusader Albert in 1201. He has since come to be known Albert of Riga, such was the success of his enterprise. Riga was now a part of Latvia, but that was a much more recent development. The city had been under the sway of Baltic Germans, Tsarist Russian officials and Soviet apparatchiks during its long and storied history.

Lady with the Yellow suitcase - Leader of the Riga Free Tour

Lady with the Yellow suitcase – Leader of the Riga Free Tour

Little Moscow – The Dark Side of Riga
At the midpoint of the two-hour tour we ran right into some living history. The tour happened upon one of the peoples who had so influenced Latvia’s history and still were today. Surrounding a park bench were a group of Russian men conversing loudly with a single woman. Though it was not even lunchtime, they were imbibing vodka from a dreadful looking bottle. From their wrinkled, red faces and bellicose behavior it was obvious they were drunk. It looked like this was not a passing fancy, but a way of life for them. Inga told us that this section of the city – south of the Old Town and on the right bank of the Daugava River – was known as “Little Moscow”. She said, “as you can see” they have a very different culture here. In so many words, she was saying that Latvians and Russians were not very compatible. There was a marked contrast between quiet, humble, Latvians who were still very much connected to their rural roots. As compared to Russians who were city dwellers, inhabiting what had once been thriving industrial areas in Latvian cities, but were now increasingly marginalized and living in blighted post-communist landscapes. In a nutshell, the Free Tour was providing me a window into the greatest divide in Latvia and Riga today. It was also the greatest threat to Latvian independence and strangely enough, also a threat to world peace.

Russians have been living in the land that is now modern Latvia since medieval times. At the turn of the 20th century they made up one-tenth of the population, largely located in the Latgale region of eastern Latvia. The Red Army’s occupation of Latvia near the end of World War II and its reincorporation as a republic in the Soviet Union led to a dramatic change in the ethnic composition of Latvian society. Intense Russification was carried out in tandem with a policy of rapid industrialization. A massive influx of Russians moved into the cities, including Riga, where they lived in high rise, concrete apartment blocks and worked in heavy industry. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, one-third of Latvia’s population was ethnically Russian. In Riga, their presence was even more pronounced, with ethnic Russians making up almost half of the population.

Demographic Destiny – Creating Latvians
Today, one-quarter of Latvia and 37% of Riga’s population is ethnically Russian. That figure is a bit deceptive because Russians still punch above their weight in the city. The lingua franca of Riga, even after 25 years of intensive Latvian language education, is still Russian. According to the Latvian Central Statistics Office, exactly half of Riga’s population uses Russian in their daily interactions, as opposed to 43% using Latvian. What do these numbers mean? That for a tiny nation like Latvia, in a constant struggle to maintain its identity, the ethnic Russian population is perceived by many as a threat. Such a perception had only been exacerbated by the rise of Soviet revanchism under Vladimir Putin. Unlike Ukraine which has a large enough population to stand up to mighty mother Russia, the Latvians are in a much more vulnerable position. Understandably, but with predictably negative consequences, the Latvian government has made it compulsory that all those seeking citizenship must pass tests showing fluency in the Latvian language, in addition to knowledge of Latvian history and the Constitution.

This has led to a situation where 12% of the Latvian population are non-citizens. The majority of whom are ethnic Russians. Russian is also classified as a foreign language. The Latvian government’s policies have created the unintended consequence of a potential fifth column inside the country.  Add to this the fact that ethnic Russians suffered disproportionately in the post-Soviet era economic transition, due to their employment in heavy industry. Thus, it is little wonder that the Free Tour I was on ran across a group of ethnic Russians drinking themselves into oblivion. I wondered what it must be like further inside this area, within the concrete apartment blocks looming on the horizon. We were not going to find out, as the tour turned its back on that scene, much the same as I assumed many Latvians do. Soon thereafter I could see the Stalinist architecture of the Latvian Academy of Sciences Building looming above the city. Legacies of the Soviet era in Riga were hard to escape.  The experience was unsettling for me, an American. Unlike Latvians, I was not worried about losing my country. I was worried about losing the world in a nuclear conflagration that could start over Russians in Latvia.

Legacy of Soviet Latvia - Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga

Legacy of Soviet Latvia – Latvian Academy of Sciences Building in Riga (Credit: Panoramio)

Leaps Of Imagination – The Path To Oblivion
In 1996, the doyen of American Cold War diplomats, George S. Kennan, sat down for an interview. He was 92 years old at the time, but his mind was still razor sharp. In the interview, he warned that the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the Baltic States was a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” This might lead to the United States and its allies having to decide whether to defend Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia against a Russian military incursion. What Kennan meant when he used the phrase “epic proportions” was the possibility of nuclear war. His logic is not hard to follow.

Would Americans really fight for the territorial integrity of a remote country, such as Latvia, in what could lead to World War 3? All because of the perceived rights and slights to an ethnic Russian minority. The idea seemed absurd, but it was possible and only has grown more so in the 21st century. On that Free Tour in Riga I saw that this idea was not an abstract one. It was standing around a bench, an hour before noon, drinking itself into oblivion. Later when I reflected on that scene, I hoped this was not where Latvia and the world were heading.

Pissed Off – The Freedom Monument In Riga: Latvians Versus Lads (Travels In Eastern Europe #57)

The first thing I did after checking into my accommodation in Riga was to go for a walk in the city just after sunset. The temperature was dropping and the dense, heavy air reminded me that I was in a much wetter climate than much of Eastern Europe. Latvia was a land of mist and frost, humidity and water. Riga stood astride the Daugava River and was not far from the shoreline of the Baltic sea. I could almost taste the water vapor on my tongue. This was a land where the cold bit hard, going straight to the bone. Soon I could feel a chill perspiration develop on my forehead. I was already suffering at the beginning of what would turn out to be a terrible cold. The climate in western Latvia was only going to make it worse.  Despite my state of sickness, I could hardly wait to see something of the city.

Freedom Monument - Symbol of Latvian National Independence

Freedom Monument – Symbol of Latvian National Independence (Credit: Diego Delso)

Exposure To A Wider World – Delinquent Depravity
In the encroaching darkness I lost my way to one of the most revered spaces in the nation. After a few minutes of walking, I found myself in front of the vaunted Freedom Monument. Close by stood a couple of police officers chatting among themselves. When I walked by them they eyed me warily. I spoke and received no reply. They had good reason for suspicion. With my red hair, I probably looked a bit too British for their liking. The British did not have a good reputation in Riga and Riga had a reputation as the scene of occasional depravity. Two outrages had taken place at the Freedom Monument during the first decade of the 21st century. These had caused an up swell of anger among Latvians and cast suspicion on foreign visitors, especially English speaking one. Thus, the terse reception I received from the police officers keeping a watch over the monument area. I was not to be trusted and in their mind they had good reason for that attitude.

In the space of a few months in the late autumn and early winter of 2006-2007 two British males had engaged in outrageous behavior at the Freedom Monument. The reason for this behavior could be chalked up to public drunkenness, but the underlying reasons were more complicated and did not reflect well on British citizens or the Latvian capital. Riga had become a tourist destination for thousands of British lads who came to drink, hang out in strip joints and attend stag parties. And Riga was just the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Eastern Europe was ground zero for British boys to act out their foolish impulses. Cheap air fares offered by discount airlines took these young men to places they could never have imagined and after a hard weekend of partying could hardly remember. Long before I visited Eastern Europe, I read about such behavior. My first experience with it was hearing a group of British twenty somethings announce themselves through the streets of Bratislava, Slovakia. It was barely past noon and they already were on an epic bender. They looked ready to expose themselves to the world that day.

Raunchy Riga - Time for trouble

Raunchy Riga – Time for trouble (Credit: Riga Daily Photo)

Out Of Their Mind – Out Of Their Pockets
Not long after I set foot out the door from my hostel in Riga, I found myself walking past glitzy strip joints. Lights flashed illuminating darkened windows and doorways, silhouettes of neon lit women advertised the temptations on offer inside. It was in these establishments that unwary foreigners had been getting their pockets emptied throughout the 21st century. Unsuspecting, passion loving men would awake the morning after a night of intense debauchery with searing headaches and fuzzy memories. They had been scammed. Lesser lights got off by just drinking themselves under the table, followed by a bit of sinful frivolity. These young men were not in Riga for its splendid architecture, fascinating history or a relaxing holiday. They were in Riga for holidays that could turn very bad. A few of these foreigners did see some sites. Unfortunately, at the Freedom Monument they managed to distract from the attraction.

In 2006 a thirty-year old British male was arrested for urinating on the Freedom Monument. He was charged with a misdemeanor violation, but to Latvians his crime was tantamount to treason. He had desecrated a public monument and harmed national sensibilities. A little over four months later, another British citizen was caught urinating in Freedom Square which surrounds the monument. While engaging in this act of public depravity, the culprit’s friends snapped photos. Obviously, he did not mind getting caught in the act, including by Latvian authorities. These disgraceful acts made international headlines, casting a light on the poor behavior of immature British males and lad culture. Latvians were rightfully outraged.

Keeping watch - Ceremony at Freedom Monument in Riga

Keeping watch – Ceremony at Freedom Monument in Riga (Credit: Saelma)

The Gathering Place – Independent Movement
Standing in the square looking at the Freedom Monument, I found myself less than impressed. The copper toned lady Liberty stood atop a six-story high travertine column. She was brightly lit, but shrouded in mist. Her hands were raised toward the sky and in her grasp she held three gilded stars. I had expected that Latvia’s Lady Liberty would have been more spectacular, somehow soaring higher and giving me a feeling of transcendence. The monument was nice, but nothing great. My opinion though, was just that. What really mattered was how Latvians felt about the monument. They made those feelings clear every November 11th when they came to the monument and celebrated National Independence Day. This was a yearly spectacle, but there had been other events even more important. Such as in the late spring of 1987 when 5,000 Latvians gathered in memory of those who had died due to Soviet tyranny. This gathering re-enthused an independence movement which led directly to the reconstitution of the Latvian nation a few years later.

The most important event in the history of the Freedom Monument was one that never occurred. Its planned demolition by the Soviets in the 1940’s and 1950’s. For some reason – the myths and stories are legion – it was never taken down. The monument is a microcosm of Latvia and its people, both have staying power. They have weathered the storms of fascism and communism to soar above all would be conquerors. This is a point of national pride and the Latvians do not tolerate the desecration of a sacred national icon.  The honor guard standing at its base demanded respect, for the nation, its people and their national symbol. Fun loving foreigners and fascinated tourists would do well to keep that in mind.

The Silence Of Latvia – For A Time Being: Those Who Rule Riga (Travels In Eastern Europe #56)

The close to empty airport terminal followed by a packed, yet silent bus ride to the city center were my first impressions of Riga and Latvia. Later I would discover more emptiness and silence in the city. It was autumn, winter felt like it was only a day away. This was not so much sad, as it was reality. The people were truly northern in demeanor. They were quiet, stoic and seemed to silently go about their business. The lack of noise was disconcerting, but I would later learn that Riga had grown increasingly quiet since Latvia regained its freedom in September 1991. In that year 900,000 people lived in the city. Twenty years later that number had dropped to 658,000. If current birth rates, emigration and demographics stay the same, it is estimated that forty years into the future, Riga may have half as many people. What that means is more silence. And what a shame that would be, most of all for Latvians.

Germanic legacy still stands in Riga's Old Town

A Germanic legacy still stands in Riga’s Old Town (Credit: Dezidor)

Destiny Realized – Right In Front Of My Face
The Riga I visited was amazing and not for the most obvious reasons. Yes, the eclecticism of its Art Nouveau architecture was magnificent and the Old Town evoked the splendor of a wealthy Hanseatic fueled past, but the most marvelous aspect turned out to be so obvious that it was easy to overlook. It was right in front of my face, walked past me a thousand times that first day and spoke to me in an unintelligible language. Riga was, for only the second time in seven centuries, a city dominated by Latvians. With no conquerors on the immediate horizon, this situation looked like it just might have staying power, unlike the period between World Wars I and II when Latvians were first ascendant. Back then their hopes were crushed between the totalitarian forces of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Now Latvia was well on its way to joining the European Union, it was a member of NATO and despite flare-ups with its large Russian minority, the threat of another invasion from Russia seemed unlikely. To see Riga in its current state was to witness a moment of grand historical import. A destiny finally had been realized, even if the flame of that destiny may flicker and fade due to a falling birth rate, it was still worth celebrating.

The fact that Latvians were in control of the largest city in the Baltics was not lost on me as I visited Riga’s Old Town on a blustery autumn morning. Its architecture was overwhelmingly Germanic, soaring reminders shaped and sculpted in stone by those who ruled this northern outpost for many centuries. It was Germans who first founded the city back at the turn of the 12th century. Riga soon became wealthy from trade and was a major city in the Hanseatic League – that trading network that enriched much of medieval northern Europe and Scandinavia. The Germans were just the first in a series of conquerors of Riga and by extension Latvia. Then came the Swedes, then Russians and towards the end of World War I, Germans once again. Seven centuries worth of occupation. During that seemingly endless epoch there were not very many Latvians in Riga. They were to be found inhabiting the rural hinterland. They lived in the countryside, among dense forests studded with lakes. The city only came in to their possession for a short and tenuous time during the first half of the 20th century. Soon enough they were again invaded.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Credit: J. Sedols)

Monumental & Intimidating – An Unforgettable Space
Despite the non-Latvian nature of the architecture, there was one building that stood apart from all the glory and grandeur of Teutonic architecture that could be found throughout the Old Town. A large and ominous rectangular shaped, black building hovered just above Latvian Rifleman’s Square. Brutalist in style, it cast a dark shadow over its surroundings. The building was The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. I could tell by its block shape and expansive girth that it was straight out of the Soviet Union. The building was meant to be monumental and intimidating. It could not pull off the former, but was a frightening example of the latter. Latvians may have tolerated other occupiers, such as the Germans, Swedes and Tsarist Russians the best they could, but the Soviet-Nazi-Soviet Occupation from 1940 – 1991 was insipid in the extreme. For the native Latvians Soviet rule was so harsh that it could not be wished away or forgotten.

Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia or murdered. The innocent, including entire families were arrested. Meanwhile the Soviets moved waves of loyal Russians into the Baltic states. The was done to dilute the population. Riga suffered under this diabolical plan. No native Latvian was safe, everyone was under suspicion. It was a tragedy that unfolded over decades rather than years, a tragic imposition that embedded itself in the collective memory of an entire nation. When independence finally arrived, Latvians regained control of their own destiny and history. They took the building that was constructed to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday and subsequently had become a museum to the Latvian Red Rifleman, turning it into a memory bank of the suffering experienced under occupation. It stood in the heart of Latvia’s Old Town, an unforgettable space that was front and center for anyone to visit.

Latvian dawn in Riga

Latvian dawn in Riga (Credit: davisbarbars)

With The Odds – Far Into The Future
And yet Latvians have overcome a history of oppression by imperial overlords to become the majority force in their own country. Since 1991, they have taken the reins of power in Riga and the countryside. The peace and relative prosperity they now enjoy is unprecedented, a just reward for weathering the conquering forces that occupied their home for centuries on end. How long will Latvians retain control of their homeland’s destiny? For as long as there are enough Latvians to hold onto a majority. Much depends on the present and future birth rate. No matter what happens, one thing is almost certain, Latvians will still be inhabiting this Baltic land far into the future. After all, they have sustained themselves in the region for well over two thousand years despite incredible odds. And this time the odds are with them.

Baltic Flight Of Fancy – Landing In Latvia: A Between Time (Travels In Eastern Europe #55)

Kiev was the end of one thing and the start of another. I had not planned on coming to the Ukrainian capital, but the chance to visit Chernobyl proved worth the detour. Now I had to decide my route back to Warsaw. It was not simple. I could backtrack through Lviv, then head into eastern Poland, perhaps to Lublin for a visit. I could purchase a visa to transit through Belarus, then back into Poland. While Belarus interested me, paying an extortionate fee for the quick turnaround on a visa did not sound appealing. Furthermore, the visa fee would go to a dictatorial, anti-democratic government. Belarus had been in the iron grip of Alexander Lukashenko ever since the Soviet Union fell apart. Some called it the last dictatorship, though Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime would soon supersede Lukashenko in the villainy department. I decided against Belarus, but scolded myself for not taking the opportunity to visit a proto-communist state. Minsk would have to wait.

In transit - airBaltic

In transit – airBaltic (Credit: Dmitriy Pichugin)

Mutually Elusive – Losing My Way To Latvia
I spent an evening studying the map. Above Belarus and to the northeast of Poland lay the Baltic states. I had enough time to visit a couple of them if I so pleased. The question became how to find a last-minute flight at a decent rate. The advent of cheap carriers across all of Europe has been a boon for those looking to country hop. Baltic Air, the flag carrier of Latvia, offered a reasonable one-way fare from one four letter capital to another. I proceeded to book a flight from Kiev to Riga. I knew next to nothing about Latvia. For many years, I got the locations of Latvia and Lithuania mixed up. Latvia was an in between state, wedged in by Estonia and Lithuania. Often forgotten because it did not offer the medieval treasures of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital or the splendid history of Lithuania, which once ruled a kingdom stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Latvia did have Riga, by far the largest city in the Baltics. It was known for a splendid Old Town, an extremely restive Russian minority and a climate somewhat akin to Scandinavia. It also had quite a pagan heritage, as one of the last places Christianized in Europe. I imagined Latvia as a land of misty forests, rough shores and mysterious villages. Imagination informs reality, but also can betray it.

Flying to Latvia from Kiev was not the least bit difficult. I turned up at Boryspil Airport in Kiev with ticket in hand. The flight was short and uneventful, taking about two hours. The airline I used, airBaltic was cheap, but the flight accommodations were not spartan. It offered just as good or better service than major American airlines, which considering the comparison is not saying much. If a country that had been under the iron grip of the Soviet Union for three generations could learn to run an airline well after just two decades of capitalism, then surely America’s airlines could do the same. From my experience, airBaltic seemed to believe that quality service and profitability were not mutually exclusive, in America profit triumphed over service. If there is one thing I have learned from my travels in Eastern Europe, it is that America is more than often not the best, but the biggest.

A Baltic approach - Riga International Airport

A Baltic approach – Riga International Airport (Credit: Avio2016)


Perpetual Autumn – Where The Sun Rarely Shines

Looking down from the plane I noticed the Baltic Sea in the distance with white caps breaking under leaden skies and heavy clouds. Leaves were turning on the trees. Kiev had been enjoying an Indian summer, Riga looked to be suffering a perpetual autumn. From above this looked like a land where the sun rarely has shined. All of nature’s colors were deep and penetrating. There was an ominous magic to this landscape. The kind of place where the forest consumes and the sea swallows. A land always on the verge of winter. The kind of landscape that silently envelopes everything and everyone. I felt the allure of this dark magic, I could hardly wait to land as the plane began circling the Riga airport.

Once on the ground I made my way to passport control. I was surprised by the fact that it was all but deserted. I was one of only a few non-Europeans to be entering Latvia and by extension the European Union here in Riga. The officer was almost silent as he scanned and subsequently stamped my passport. The airport was pristine. All the surfaces shined. Cleanliness of public spaces was something Latvians obviously took very seriously. The condition was helped by the fact that hardly anyone seemed to be in the airport. I walked down a nearly vacant corridor, picked up my luggage and made my way to a bus stop. The air was chilly, my nose immediately started to run and I felt the start of cold suddenly coming on. A likely product of both the climate and the flight.

Latvian Official Currency from to 1992 to 2012

For want of the correct Lats – Latvian Official Currency from to 1992 to 2012

A Welcoming Silence – Down Payments
As I stood in the chill air shivering I was suddenly heartened by the sight of a bus fast approaching. This would transport me to the city center or so I thought. I dug into my pocket for money. All I had were a few larger denominations of Latvian currency. This would not do as I soon discovered. The bus driver demanded that I pay in smaller bills or coins. His demeanor was stiff and unyielding. Though I understood the driver’s point – after all he was not a change machine – I hoped he would show a bit of leniency. No such luck.  He stared at me in silence, as did every passenger in the bus. I felt like I was being watched and I was. Stares are the opposite of welcoming, they imply guilt. I was certainly guilty of not having the correct currency and the penalty was that I did not have the proper means to pay. Thus, I had to leave the bus.

This introduction to Latvia would inform my opinion of the country going forward. A pervasive silence, small frustrations and a dreadful cold would stalk me in the coming days. I had no other choice, but to make the best of a less than desirable situation at both the airport and in the immediate future. I stomped back to the airport and promptly got change. Soon I was on the bus heading into Riga. Everyone on-board was silent, including me.