It’s a strange feeling, watching all of your earthly possessions disappear from plain sight as they are wrapped in paper and placed in boxes and sealed with multiple strips of thick packing tape, the bulk of which will not be seen again for the next year and a half. When they do make their next appearance, it will be in a land far away, a place completely unknown to me, but their job will be the same as always: to make the unknown feel familiar, to make a house or an apartment a home.
As I follow my belongings with my gaze, one by one as they are carefully tucked away – my mother’s Japanese china, the rosewood wine rack my students gave me when I finished my Peace Corps service, and some of the greatest books I have ever read, I can’t help but feel a part of myself being packed away, too. Images of where these things sat in our house in Latvia will join their counterparts from Mexico, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, DC, and all of the other places where I have lived. The memories that go along with them will reveal themselves on the other side, once they are unpacked and scents from their previous homes waft through the air, conjuring up memories in a way only smells can do. Two years ago, as I unpacked the 110 boxes of our household goods that were delivered to our new home in Riga, the occasional scent of our bunker, as we called it, in Matamoros, Mexico, struck me with images of the shiny, tiled kitchen floor and the green and gold couch that was simultaneously the most hideous and the most comfortable couch I have ever known.
Indeed, the places where we live, no matter how exotic or far removed from everything we’ve ever known, become a part of us, deep within our hearts and souls in a way that traveling on vacation never can. We join new communities and develop daily routines and weekend rituals. We wave to our neighbors as we mow our respective lawns, and exchange knowing glances several months later when we find ourselves in the very same spot, shoveling snow. We celebrate new friends’ birthdays and graduations and marriages; we go to their baby showers and to the funerals of those who have passed. We share in their holidays and invite them to ours. In other words, we do all of the same things we would do at home, because that’s what these places become to us: home. Some places feel more like home than others, and Latvia is without question one of them.
The cliched “time flies” will never seem quite adequate to describe how fleeting our time here has felt. The memory jar we use to house our most special moments throughout each year does not have enough space to hold all of the bits of paper it would take to record the memories we have made here. We have had jobs that have challenged us in ways that we never imagined; we have traveled to more places, both near and far, than we ever could have anticipated; we spent more cozy winter evenings by the fire than we thought possible; and we made a few forever friends at a time in our lives when such a thing is incredibly rare. In two years’ time, I’d say we’ve done a lot.
As that time comes to an end, our feelings are mixed… more bitter than sweet, perhaps, because while we have no way of knowing what great adventures lie ahead, we know without a doubt the greatness that we are leaving behind. Our time in Latvia has been precious, and knowing from the outset that we would be here for only two years made it even more so. It has been time that we didn’t dare take for granted. And while it hasn’t always been easy, or even pleasant, it’s been transformative… perfect in its imperfection. The unfamiliar has become familiar, so much so that I’ve begun to notice when things aren’t as they usually are.
There’s the barefoot runner with whom I crossed paths on the Vanšu bridge during my walk to school. I noticed when he switched to minimalist shoes for the winter and then back to his bare feet again after the spring thaw. There’s the woman who sells fruit and flowers at the northeast corner of Kronvalda Park. I noticed when the fruit changed from strawberries and blueberries to pumpkins and back again. There’s the young woman who walks her black pug along the river in sun, rain, or snow. When her belly began to swell, I noticed. I didn’t see her for a while, and then when I did again, she held the leash in one hand and pushed a stroller in the other. I’ve never talked to any of these people, but they have become part of my daily life in Riga.
When people ask me what I will miss most about living in Riga, the obvious response might be the cobblestoned streets of the old city, with its 400-year-old churches and buildings, or the quaint cafes with their sidewalk tables that lure in customers on sunny afternoons. And while I will certainly miss those things, it’s the hundreds of smaller, seemingly insignificant, things that make Riga – and Latvia – what it is, that I will miss the most. It’s being able to run, anywhere and anytime, without fearing for my safety. It’s feeling comfortable as an introvert in a society largely comprised of fellow introverts. It’s running into people I know nearly every time I go out, because the city is small enough for that kind of thing to happen; yet at the same time, it’s big enough that I can be invisible when I want to be alone in a crowd. It’s the existence of pristine nature, whether beach or forest, less than an hour’s drive away. It’s knowing exactly which bus to take, no matter where in the city I am, to get myself home. I could list a thousand more things that I will miss, each one perhaps more pedestrian than the next, but no less important to me. Don’t get me wrong; Latvia is not without a host of its own problems, like any country, but, as M. put it recently, with a little bit of money and a simple lifestyle, one can live a pretty peaceful, happy existence here.
I started mourning – not to be overly dramatic – our impending departure from Latvia more than six months ago. Well, to be honest, the thought that we can’t stay here forever struck me with immense sadness shortly into our stay, but it didn’t really sink in until we received confirmation of our onward assignment (to Yekaterinburg, Russia), followed a few months later by departure surveys and pack-out plans and flight reservations. It was then that an invisible list began to take shape in my mind, of all the things I wanted – needed – to do before we leave Riga. I’ve managed to squeeze just about all of them in, though I’m not sure any amount of time or number of checked boxes would make me feel truly ready to leave.
I’ve run more than 4,000 miles since we arrived in Riga 26 months ago, including several out-and-back runs to the coastal resort town of Jurmala, but I hadn’t yet run there and taken the train back. Two weeks ago, it was time.
I had been thinking about getting a tattoo for a long time, but wasn’t sure what I’d want to have with me for the rest of my life… until one day I was and I decided that was the day to do it.
I had always wanted to see the sun rise over the Baltic Sea in the middle of summer, but the thought of a 3:30 am wake-up call was enough to turn me off of the idea for two summers… until it became clear that waiting too much longer might result in never.
M. had given me a 1,500 piece jigsaw puzzle of the map of Latvia two Christmases ago, but I hadn’t had the courage, will, or time to attempt it… until one day I did. And I finished it on Jāņi, Latvia’s Midsummer holiday.
The list goes on, and it’s these kinds of things that will forever be ingrained in my memory of our last weeks in Latvia. With all of our belongings packed up and shipped off, we are spending these last days in our sweet little house, empty of all of the things that made it our home for the last two years. I’ve taken advantage of this time to visit my favorite restaurants and cafes and shops one last time, to feel the cobblestones under my feet, and to run the routes that have become my regular loops. I’ve spent more time looking up at the sky, seeing the clouds, listening to the seagulls as they fly over the river, and feeling the cool Baltic air on my face. Change is coming, and while there are things to which I am looking forward, they are often overshadowed by feelings of sadness over the time that has come and gone. There is also anxiety that comes with returning to our home country after being away for more than two years, and the inevitability of reverse culture shock. These things are, of course, both the beauty and the flaw of foreign service (and military) life. We are a transient bunch, made stronger by our ability to pull up our roots and set them down somewhere else. I have mastered the art of setting up a home in 48 hours, complete with groceries and pictures hung on the walls. Yet at the same time, we never seem to become experts at leaving.
In my nearly 38 years, I have lived in 30 homes, 19 cities, 11 states, and 5 countries. (I have a spreadsheet.) I’ve learned a thing or two about packing and unpacking and saying goodbye during that time. With most things in life, the more you do them, the easier they become… but not in this case. In fact, it’s often the opposite, and now, for reasons even I am not completely sure of, my farewell to Latvia is proving to be my most difficult one yet.
This place, a gem of a country, as I began to refer to it shortly after we arrived, is not at the top of most people’s lists of travel destinations. But it should be. And if you have the time, stay for a while. Stroll through Old Riga and take a riverboat cruise on the Daugava. But don’t stop there. Ride the bus. Go to the ballet. Visit the National Art Gallery. Learn about Latvia’s pagan symbols. Take the train to Jurmala. Hike in Gauja National Park. Carry a lantern through Cēsis’ 800-year-old castle. See the summer sunrise at 4:25 am. Swim in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Venstpils….
I wish I had the time to do all of these things all over again and to explore the parts of Latvia that I have not yet seen. Perhaps someday I will.
Until then, with a heavy heart, I’ll say, goodbye Latvia. Es mīlu Tevi.
Thank you for reading!