Letters From Riga

Photograph by Nuno Godinho

Nothing Special, Just Crisis

Latvia’s economy is in peril and its government a mess. Reporting from Riga, our writer feels more comfortable than most, knowing Latvia from a childhood in suburban Connecticut.

The recent collapse of the government of Latvia and the looming prospect of national bankruptcy have wreaked havoc on the citizens of this small former Soviet nation, who were just getting used to the comforts of life in the European Union, and made the country a source of deep embarrassment for the other, more prudent new E.U. member states. The disastrous economic situation has exposed the financial hubris, incompetent governance, and reckless lending that had run rampant here for almost a decade. Perhaps the lowest point to date came in December, when then-finance minister Atis Slakteris, in response to a journalist’s question about what had brought about the economic difficulties in Latvia, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Nothing special.” The expression has since been emblazoned on T-shirts and stickers all over Riga, usually in the Latvianized version of the phrase—“Nasing spešal”—or the popular spin-off: “Nothing special, just crisis.”

But for me, all of this has seemed more like “nothing new.” Reading the papers, I can sympathize with the anxiety felt by nearby nations, who fear the troubles in Latvia may spill beyond its borders and infect the rest of the region. I know how Latvia can give rise to deep-seated feelings of unease. I’ve been through this particular crisis before.

As a Latvian-American growing up in suburban Connecticut, I was never allowed to play hockey at our town’s fabled ice rink on Saturday mornings, or sit for hours on the rug in the den watching WWF wrestling, like any other normal kid. Instead, my mother would drag my brother and me out of bed, hustle us into our Dodge Caravan, and speed down the Merritt Parkway into Yonkers, New York. After driving past a seemingly endless series of check-cashing stores and Arab groceries, idling at traffic lights next to beat-up vans with throbbing stereos, and steering around packs of teenagers hanging out on street corners smoking cigarettes, the locks on our car descending with a crunch, we would pull up in front of an old church on Valentine Lane, hidden behind a wire fence and a row of tall shrubs. Latvian school.

Would I, too, have to plead with my kids to speak Latvian and then drag them to Yonkers every Saturday for school, while I sat in a basement sipping Chock Full O’Nuts?Inside, we were strictly forbidden to speak English. My classmates and I spent the day in small classrooms, decorated with framed portraits of presidents from the first Latvian republic, where we listened to white-haired octogenarians talk about their lives in Latvia before the war. We picked through the dense pages of nineteenth-century pastoral novels, recited the names of the country’s longest rivers and biggest lakes, chanted noun declensions in singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and sat on stiff metal chairs by the piano in the basement, crooning folk songs about mowing meadows of clover and watching the sun set into the sea. The rooms were stuffy and overheated and smelled of dusty radiators and chalky erasers. Across the street, old Puerto Rican men in shirtsleeves hung out the windows of what somebody’s brother called a welfare hotel. I couldn’t stand it. I hated Latvia.

On the way home from school, at five o’clock, I would whine in the back seat about having spent yet another Saturday in Yonkers, instead of practicing to become an all-star peewee-league hockey player, with the oversize duffel bag and blue windbreaker to prove it, my name stitched proudly in white on front. When pressed to give a reason for putting us through this misery, my mother—her hands jittery from drinking coffee in the basement kitchen all day with the other moms—would inevitably say something about maintaining the traditions of my grandparents, who had fled from Latvia to Germany and eventually to New York during the war. Or the need to keep the language alive, in a place where it wasn’t subjected to the intense onslaught of Russification. Or the importance of preserving and nurturing our Latvian culture and heritage, which was under attack behind the Iron Curtain. Of course, none of these answers satisfied me. I didn’t see what they had to do with the painful ritual of scrambling to finish Latvian-school homework on Friday nights: conjugating verbs, memorizing the precise date and height of the Freedom Monument, and writing essays about the use of various buildings in a rural Latvian homestead.

But something about what my mother said always troubled me. It had to do with the steely tone in her voice, the notion that this was something she needed to do, that it was her lot in life, her destiny. Would it be mine as well? Would I, too, have to plead with my kids to speak Latvian at home and then drag them to Yonkers every Saturday for school, while I sat in the basement sipping cup after cup of Chock Full O’Nuts?

If we hadn’t been forced to change into Latvian folk costumes, it would actually have been pretty fun.These questions grew to become my very first existential crisis, a stumbling block for my elementary-school mind. I would grapple over the fine points while whacking a tennis ball at our garage door. I thought about what would happen when I moved to Midtown Manhattan to be closer to my job selling junk bonds on Wall Street (my childhood dream) and married one of the freckle-faced Katies or Allisons or Courtneys who, at my school, clutched Trapper Keepers to their Patagonia fleece pullovers, slid across the slick linoleum floors in barrel-knotted Sebagos, and murmured tales of Nantucket and Vail and field hockey practice. Would I still have to recite those queer folksongs about chasing floating crowns of flowers in a boat of linden wood and billygoats eating milk and honey down at the mill?

The trouble extended beyond the school on that dreary street in Yonkers (the name of the town like a honking bleat in the face of my plight) and my pre-teen anxiety over the precise tone of my future. At home, we were made to feel guilty about the comforts we enjoyed, forced at every turn to think of our relatives back in Soviet Latvia—people I had never met—suffering under the oppressive communist regime. I always imagined a little girl playing on a tiny plot of grass, being watched by a fierce soldier clutching a submachine gun. People in Latvia had to stand in long lines for bread and milk, my mother told me as we ate another dinner of Tater Tots and chicken nuggets. I was more surprised to hear they couldn’t get potato chips and Coke.

After glasnost began to take hold, things got even worse. While people throughout Eastern Europe got their first breath of freedom, I watched helplessly as my mom got a little dizzy from all the excitement. She affixed to our minivan bumper stickers that read “FREE THE BALTICS” and “COMMUNISM SUCKS” and “HAPPINESS IS BEING LATVIAN.” In a town where the only things you were supposed to advertise on your car were the expensive colleges your children attended, this always made me feel a twinge of shame when the Caravan pulled up after Little League practice. She also demanded we write letters to our long-lost cousins, in Latvian. Coupled with the Saturday-school homework we already had—the lines of patriotic poems to memorize, the ethnographic drawings of old farming equipment to decipher, the fine points of World War II history to decode—these long sentences of declensions and conjugations and tenses and genders were too much to handle. There’s only so much you can say about the New York Mets to your Soviet relatives.

And then people from the country itself—real Latvians, the source of all this indignity—began to stay at our house. In my disdainful and infinitely callow eyes, they all looked the same: They stank of stale sweat; had bad teeth, sad eyes, and rigid mouths; wore outdated 1970s clothing; and smoked foul cigarettes in the garage with my mother. Once, when an esteemed Latvian poet was sleeping on our couch—an elderly man with an elfin face, who always wore the same gray slacks, brown turtleneck, and black leather vest—my mom made me accompany him on an after-dinner walk around the house. After an awkward 15 minutes, during which he gazed up at the dense foliage and placidly asked for the names of the trees, which I didn’t know in any language (who knows anything about nature in the suburbs?), the poet stopped to take a piss on a bush, as if he were somewhere deep in the woods of the old country, instead of in the backyard of a ranch house on a private road in Fairfield County.

I wanted to crawl down into the sewer and run away to join the people living in the tunnels beneath Grand Central. I wished Latvia would just go away.Things came to a head during a large demonstration in front of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations, which my brother and I attended with the rest of our school as a field trip on a Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1990, when I was 11 years old. After we unrolled the maroon-and-white Latvian flags, which were usually packed away with our Boy Scout pennants and folk-dancing banner in a utility closet up in Yonkers, and sorted out the placards made that morning in school—“RUSSIA GET OUT OF LATVIA” and “NYET NYET SOVIET” and even “RUCK FUSSIA!”, a renegade slogan we saw plastered across the backs of jean jackets worn by some of the older kids from the Bronx—our procession began to march up and down the street. The leader of our Latvian Boy Scout troop had even designed a small hand-held P.A. system, which he slung over his shoulder, mumbling fighting words into a microphone. If we hadn’t been forced to change into Latvian folk costumes—thick woolen kaftans pulled tight with an enormous belt, heavy black leather boots on our feet—it would actually have been pretty fun.

After a few hours of yelling at the impassive edifice on 67th Street, the demonstration began to lose steam. Businessmen raced by in fancy suits, inhaling Szechuan sesame noodles from take-out containers—obviously the preferred meal of my cherished junk-bondsmen. The cops guarding the proceedings started to yawn and wave the taxis, their headlights now switched on, past the rows of wooden police barriers that had boxed us in. As we took one final swing past the corner of Third Avenue, I glanced over at my mother and saw a look of desperation in her eyes. Nobody had come out of the mission to talk with us and acknowledge the harm done to the Latvian people. Gorbachev hadn’t walked out onto the sidewalk, taken my scout leader’s microphone, and offered Latvia its freedom (I somehow imagined this as the goal of our demonstration). It all seemed like a slightly more bellicose version of the Latvian Independence Day celebrations we organized on November 18 in the auditorium down at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

My mother’s years of struggle—against the old-world views of my old-country grandfather, who considered the pre-war Latvian idyll of his youth irrevocably lost, and therefore the fight for freedom utterly futile; against the snotty indifference of her fully Americanized kids, born far from the first-generation hardships of her own early childhood in a basement apartment in Tarrytown, where her father was a janitor and her mother cleaned houses and sewed clothing; against the ill-concealed contempt from her family and relatives, who regarded her fervent zeal for Latvian independence as excessive and unseemly for a woman with young children; and, most of all, against the oppression of a language and a culture and a people that she loved more than anything else—all of that had come to this: a parade of quaint folk costumes and homemade signs marching up and down a posh street on the Upper East Side.

Now I translate texts all day from Latvian into English at a small desk in the corner of our bedroom, which looks out onto the Freedom Monument (1935, 42 meters tall).What my mother did next will forever be etched in my memory. After casting a quick glance over at the bored policemen, who were checking their watches and plaintively eyeing the nearby deli, my mother grabbed the wooden flagpole from my hands and pushed through the blue police barricades blocking the street. Then she ran out into the oncoming traffic on Third, trailing a long stream of maroon and white, and sprinted across to the middle of avenue, where she stood waving the flag and screaming into the East Side twilight. When the light turned red and a line of cars stopped at the crosswalk, my mother turned and began to smack the hood of the nearest car with the heavy wooden pole, the flag draped across the windshield, screeching, in a piercing voice, her face contorted with rage, “Freedom for Latvia! Freedom for Latvia! Freedom for Latvia!” The driver leaned on his horn, stuck his head out the window, and screamed right back: “What the fuck you doing, lady? You fucking crazy?” Across the street, where I looked on in horror, along with everyone else from my school, I was thinking the same thing. Luckily, my history teacher jogged across the avenue and gently led my mother away from the car. I wanted to crawl down into the sewer and run away to join the people living in the tunnels beneath Grand Central. I wished Latvia would just go away.

Somewhere along the way things changed. In August of 1991, a year after the protest in front of the Soviet Mission, the attempted coup in Moscow failed and Latvia regained its independence; we signed up for cable—something I had been begging my mother to do for years—so we could watch the events unfold on CNN. The next spring, I turned 13. I soon realized that a lot of those Latvian gatherings—the annual American Latvian Youth Association congresses, the Latvian Song and Dance Festivals, the summer camp up in the Catskills—could actually be pretty fun, and were full of girls from exotic places like Wilmington, Delaware, and Arlington, Virginia. When school got out on Saturday afternoons, I would go home with a classmate to his apartment in Brooklyn; we would spend the rest of the weekend wandering around the Village and listening to the guitar players in Washington Square Park, which was much more exciting than the teen center in my hometown. And during a Latvian school ski trip to the Catskills in ninth grade, we learned that when you mixed Ruby Red with vodka, purchased by a friend’s brother at a liquor store near Valentine Lane, you got a sudden urge to belt out some of the folksongs we had learned in the basement in Yonkers, which suddenly sounded pretty good.

I began to follow Latvia’s struggle with the transition from communism to capitalism, and started to think about what I could do to help, or at least how I could get in all the excitement. When I applied for college, I found that words like “ethnic heritage” and “cultural traditions” looked great in personal essays. Later, I discovered they also formed the backbone for solid grant applications to study in faraway places like Riga. It was there, in the belly of the beast, that I met the girl who made me abandon all hope of starting a lucrative career as a junk-bond salesman and decide to move to Latvia—or “return to the homeland,” according to the diaspora mythology.

I try to speak only English with our two-year-old son, teaching him words like “clam chowder” and “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.”Now I translate texts all day from Latvian into English at a small desk in the corner of our bedroom, which looks out onto the Freedom Monument (1935, 42 meters tall) in the distance. Reading those difficult passages from old Latvian novels and memorizing complex charts of grammar really did pay off in the end. After work we drive to the beach, fifteen minutes from our apartment, and watch the red sun dip into the sea (nominative j?ra, genitive j?ras, dative j?rai, instrumental j?ru, locative j?r?). We spend the summer at our hundred-year-old log cabin country house, where I mow the long grass with a scythe. I know the names of all the farming implements stored in the barn—actually an old granary—and my wife has taught me all the species of trees in the surrounding fields. I look up the English translations online, cross-checking with pictures in Wikipedia. We have lots of milk and honey.

Since moving here, six years ago, I’ve watched the cost of living in Riga skyrocket. Easy credit, lax regulation, and widespread corruption—the “nothing special” that Finance Minister Slakteris had referred to, byproducts of the swift turn from Soviet republic to E.U. member—artificially inflated the flimsy economy to the bursting point. The sound of its loud popping, last fall, was followed by Latvia’s “just crisis”: a staggering rise in unemployment (currently at 10.7 percent, but expected to hit 14-15 percent by late fall), a night of rioting in Riga in January, a $9.56 billion bailout from the IMF, and the downgrading of the country’s credit status to junk by S&P. Analysts predict the economy will contract by 12 percent before the end of the year. The entire region is tense and watches Latvia with a wary eye.

But in our apartment on a narrow street in the Old City, around the corner from where my grandfather owned a tailor’s shop before the war, I try to speak only English with our two-year-old son, teaching him words like “clam chowder” and “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” and “Rabbit Angstrom” and “David Remnick.” I show him how to toss a baseball and catch it with his miniature Mets glove. I read aloud long passages from Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and show him videos on YouTube of President Obama’s speeches. We sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Pocahontas” and “Slip Sliding Away.” Sometimes, before he falls asleep, I tell him stories about crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn. I try to teach him that all of this is indeed something very special, and hope that his own eventual crisis will be—like mine, like Latvia’s—only just.