When Peter's father was in his teens, at home in Riga, Latvia, a German officer knocked on the door, holding a tiny girl by the hand. Peter's grandmother answered the door and the officer explained that he had just hidden this little girl in a suitcase and smuggled her out of a concentration camp. He asked if she would take care of her. Peter's grandmother didn't know if he meant for her to watch the girl for one day, one month, or one year. Years later, when she was twelve, the little girl's uncle--who had managed to survive the war-- came and got her.
This Thanksgiving we visited Riga for the first time. What a perfect little toy town! Six flights of winding stairs, in an building constructed in 1788, took us to our Airbnb apartment. A train peeking through red rooftopped buildings and church spires give the town the look of a village set up under a Christmas tree.
With a populations of only 600K, this capitol city feels like a town, that also happens to be a medieval world heritage site.
We bought Thanksgiving groceries at the Central Market, which was built in the 1930's in three zeppelin airplane hangers. We bought already-cooked beets (what is this? Trader Joes?) from a vendor who taught us how to say thank you in Latvian: paldias. We also picked up milk, a poppy seed tort, apples and fresh cranberries for our Thanksgiving feast. In the afternoon, we roasted the 10 pound turkey I had lugged up the six flights of stairs.
We made eggs a couple mornings, and felt duty-bound to eat a lot of chocolate, since Peter's grandfather had owned a chocolate factory, but most meals we ate in cafes--the same ones, over and over again, they were so good!--as we walked around the cobblestoned-town. In the morning, the bill for three coffees, black tea, bacon buns, fruit pastries, and an eclair in a darling cafe came to 11 euros.
We visited the music conservatory Peter's father attended. While a student there, he entered a contest to compose an anti-Soviet march. He won the contest, but because of the popularity of the song, had to flee the country. He lost his country, but he did win a case rum.
I took an etching class at an Atelier-type place and got to print cards using an ancient press. One evening we drank hot wine and listened to rollicking folk music in a packed basement club. Nina and I extolled the virtures of a snowless, iceless November. We bought knitted mittens, woven wool blankets, handmade iron nails and ancient-Latvian style jewelry. It's like Portland moved to Europe and you can walk down the street with a paper cup of hot berry juice spiked with the local balsam liqueur.
I myself want to move there so badly I wrote the Latvian embassy and was happy to find out that we're already Latvian! Peter's family, because his dad left by force during the war, is considered a Latvian in exile. EU citizenship is four months away. Not sure how well the state department would take that though, but it's enticing for Peter's sisters and cousins.
Peter and Nina met up with the daughter of the "little girl" Peter's grandmother had taken care of, her daughter, Beata, and her little girl Sara. Together they visited the site where one of the most beastly acts of the war was committed. Hundreds of Latvian and Lithuanian jews had been rounded up, forced into the basement of a synagogue and burned. Now, an engraved marble list of names supports a larger marble slab. "When our world was collapsing, you supported us." (My loose translation.) The names of 270 rescuers are engraved in the marble, including that of Peter's grandmother.
Nina took these photos at the site of the burned Great Choral Synagogue.
Peter and Nina Skyped with the "little girl," now 77 years old and living in Tel Aviv. She refers to Peter's grandmother as Mama.
I'd heard about Peter's family taking in the little girl during the war, but walking the cobblestone streets with the family that Peter's family saved elevated the visit to Riga to something far beyond seeing a new city. Riga is absolutely tourist-worthy, but for us this trip went beyond site-seeing and spiked-berry-juice drinking, and helped us connect to the best part of ourselves.