20 December 2007

Borderlands (V)

Though one won't feel the light returning for a while -- it's the nigrum nigrius nigro here now, or Clayton Eshleman's "alchemical broth," pale incandescent snowflakes having long ago replaced the last, even less luminous neon hammers and sickles in what was Red Army Street for half a century -- this winter's solstice (so far muddy, verdigris) will be remembered as the day that many a border disappeared. Over All the Obscene Boundaries, Lawrence Ferlinghetti once titled a book of his poems. Here -- from the Iron Curtain and between the countries held captive behind it -- they truly were obscene. Here is an article with some reflections by Sandra Kalniete.

Latvia signed away a swathe of its territory (in yellow on the map) this week, exchanging the ratification documents of the Border Agreement with Russia -- the last act in a tragedy I tried to chronicle in four parts (I, II, III, IV). Though most of us will be celebrating one of the most palpable aspects of "returning to Europe" -- freedom of movement is as tangible as inflation -- let's take time out to raise a glass in recognition of the sorrow of those who've lost their lands forever. It's a loss for all of us, except for those politicians who haven't a share in the real. A song from the area, sung in Latgallian, can be heard here.

And then -- let's celebrate! I wasn't here until after the worst was over -- my first Soviet visa was issued in the final fizzle of the USSR, obtained in Berlin. What it means to be from a small nation -- the Latvian Consul, who issued a Latvian visa with a number in the low teens that no official ever saw because the Latvian border barely existed, invited me and a friend to celebrate the 18th of November, Latvia's Independence Day, at his villa in Dahlem. The anthem blared from scratchy vinyl. Der Spiegel described the Baltics as hopeless Soviet provinces where deluded dreamers desired to become part of the West. A filthy train, its Rīga car doubtless still staffed by KGB informers, bore us eastward. The change of gauge at Białystok (men lazily kicking the wheels out from under us, arc lamps). The brief transit through Soviet Belarus, still filmic, Jurassic, faceless creatures unscrewing the panels to look for contraband or stowaways and depriving babushki of the money they'd earned abroad.

Belarus is still on the other side. Last year I danced with a girl who had to be gone by midnight, like Cinderella. But the border between Latvia and Lithuania is fairly erased at last, for all practical purposes. Between the wars, border towns like Subate languished, Poland and Lithuania locked in conflict -- even postal relations between the two were as bitter as wormwood.


coming back into this
country I am ignorant of
& tired of being foreign to
everywhere, in a way as in she is in
a way -- back in after the brief curve through Belarus --
the border-guards asking not for passports but whether we have them
-- will be border by November --
remembering Irby, I am a citizen of that state that is a haziness in the air
& long for that color that is the eye of love like a body for its clouds
between cars for a smoke a man gestures at the frozen fields & says vot,
your America, your Plains --


ate apples fall, ābolu gads, apple year,
till could hardly stomach them --

apple eaten

at dawn down the bright law the Gypsies made
forbids them to sow,
keeps them moving

to youthen this cessant Europe

I have come to stay at the stalk of
where it pushes up still pale from the bloodied ground

here Lith. the earthen smitten,
the generations

come put their mind to it,
as their mind came from it

some stones say are
or aren't, past
oblivion some thing you know
about stone or the hair in the trees that mean you

can't go back, a matter of how much it hurts
not to, lost in the hands

I traveled in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia illegally, without a visa, because the sudden fall of the empire left a breathing space for some.

Then a flood of other memories -- the crying, screaming people removed from buses once their status was noticed. The waiting room for foreigners in the Lviv train station -- packed; "we're all foreigners now." The buses that ran to Warsaw from Daugavpils every Wednesday, full of "Polish riders"; there are almost as many ethnic Poles as there are Latvians in Daugavpils, and Poles would pack the aisle with Soviet goods to sell in the "Russian Market" in Warsaw, just as traders from Warsaw would head for Berlin. They used their earnings to set up some of the first decent businesses here.

Not being able to get to the platform at the station in Daugavpils -- this was a border zone, and one needed a passport to kiss someone departing on a train. Bicycling to Zarasai -- the smell of ink and the cost of a new passport when the pages were filled -- and the other side different how?

At the summer solstice, when Latvians wander from farmstead to farmstead singing and demanding drink, wandering into Lithuania at dawn -- the border guards at least as drunk as we were, urgently calling Vilnius because I then had an American passport with the stamp given to children, a weird tattoo -- citizen of Latvia.

The Kazakh who set himself on fire in Daugavpils because he couldn't get residency and couldn't provide for his family.

The bar that was in neither Latvia nor Lithuania. "The Queen of Between."

Standing in subzero temperatures for hours whilst guards fished for bribes -- have you any alcohol, precious metals, cigarettes?

For me it was merely exotic, often romantic. For most here it was prolonged incarceration, and then an incessantly demeaning process. "Use your American passport -- it's easier." Once I allowed my US PP to expire, I got a slight taste of that -- but I never had to eat it. Show the money, and see the bills rubbed between the fingers to see that the ink doesn't come off. Where are you going, Untermensch, and why.

Let's kiss it goodbye.

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Blogger Jens-Olaf said...

Let's do not forget and after the 21th of December we have something new that never existed before.
The first time I arrived in the Baltics was with an Estonian visa, the border control still by soviet guards. And I was happy that the visa was valid for all three Baltic States. Cause the only person who has sent the invitation, still neccesary at that time, did not show up in Tallinn. Next destination would have been Latvia, the only place where I knew people already in 1991.

20 December, 2007 18:18  
Blogger J. Otto Pohl said...

Before I first went to Estonia in 1989, I called up the Estonian consul in Los Angeles to get permission. This act was purely symbolic since Estonia was still under Soviet occupation. But, the Consul General appreciated the gesture.

22 December, 2007 08:59  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

Happy Christmas Peteris

24 December, 2007 17:54  
Blogger Edward Hugh said...

Happy Xmas to you, Peteris

25 December, 2007 13:20  
Blogger Taras said...

You live in a beautiful country, Pēteris!

Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to Daugavpils in July 1990, but I do cherish the memory of spending two weeks in Jūrmala. I loved that pine forest and those shallow Gulf of Riga waters, where I could enjoy myself safely, without much supervision.

Laimīgu Jauno gadu:)!

30 December, 2007 19:20  
Blogger jams o donnell said...

And a Happy New Year too, Peteris!

31 December, 2007 20:22  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments -- and Happy 2008!

02 January, 2008 02:02  
Blogger richardlith said...

Hello Peteris, don't think I've posted here before, but I have read your stuff for a long time.

I lived ¨over the border¨ in Utena 1996-98, and I remmebers a few drunken weekends in Zarasai, where the place to drink after 1 am was at up the road at the Latvian border, when there was a Visa Para bar, and lots of dodgy lorry drivers and other borderland characters.

PS, can you tell me whhat the Soviet 1919 stute before the Duugava bridge (coming fro the south) represents. Is it the Red ARmy's stopping Bermont's army or the Polish army.

Regards to Daugavpils. Hope it has some more life now that when I was last there in 98.

09 January, 2008 13:03  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Hi Richard,

Glad you enjoy the blog! I too remember all of the colorful and often dodgy characters. We would sometimes go to Zarasai also, by bicycle, because for a long time the beer was better and cheaper... last I was there, couldn't find a single open watering hole, however. It's a pretty dingy place despite its beauty in summer.

Daugavpils has changed a lot, but not always for the better -- permitting two hypermarkets and a huge rather 90s emporium of stalls selling cheap clothes, etc., to be built right in the Center (off Unity Square) meant that the Center emptied out; the fledgling little shops couldn't compete. A lot of buildings have been renovated, but much of the Center is pretty darn empty and dead. Likewise, complexes like a (wildly expensive)four-story bowling and billiards entertainment venue sucked the life out of smaller joints.

The Folkmanis statue of the shouting soldier (whose mouth was occasionally stuffed with a baguette) in Grīva (considered a separate city until the Stalin era) is of a Red soldier stopping the Polish advance in August 1919. Bermondt-Avalov never got here; Daugavpils was the capital of Stučka's Soviet Republic whilst the "West Russian Volunteer Army" besieged liberated Rīga... Poles, together with some Latvians and loyal Baltic German troops, liberated Daugavpils in January 1920 and the rest of Latgallia shortly afterward. That part of Selonia (the other side of the river was Courland-Semigallia) was claimed by Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia) -- once it became Latvia's, Grīva (formerly Jeruzāleme [!]) briefly had the distinction of being the only district capital not in the city a district was named after -- Ilūkste has been almost utterly destroyed.

09 January, 2008 13:40  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Erratum -- Ilūkste [i]had[/i] been destroyed, I mean -- it's there now!

09 January, 2008 13:43  
Blogger julie713 said...

Can any of you help me- My great grandparents birth papers say they were fron GRWA near Courland - do you think that GRWA = Griva?

Thank you.

Please email me: julie713@cox.net

27 March, 2008 22:54  

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