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 --
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,
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.