Being post-Latvian and other weird existential dilemmas
by Juris Kaža
An essay I wrote over the summer (2000- JK), a tirade, perhaps, in parts, has been widely read and discussed among the Latvian diaspora, "diasporans" who have moved to Latvia, and regular expatriates from Western countries in Latvia. I belong to the second group. I suggested that there were getting to be simply too much dissonance between what Latvia is, where it is going, and what it apparently will never be -- and some very important parts of my "Latvian" identity.
At the end of the essay, perhaps written in an excessively dark mood, I said that I and other former exiles, unlike many and probably most "Latvian Latvians", had options, meaning options outside, away from or beyond the "Latvia thing". It is perhaps the last twist that is the most interesting, because I suspect there really isn't a "where" that diasporans can go to anymore. Very few snails run away from their homes, and it isn't because they are slow.
So what does "beyond" mean, why go there, and why even look for the space if it might not be there? I think a lot of the "why" was laid out in the earlier essay, and since then, I have gathered a few more examples that Latvia, at one level of analysis, is a frighteningly depraved society, from its dregs to its top. A great example of the dregs was the young Latvian woman, who was probably in her early teens when independence was regained and can't really claim to have lost her best years and had her mind twisted under decades of Communism. She simply "lost" her 18-month-old child while on some rambling drunken excursion along the coastline. The most likely explanation is that the toddler wandered into the surf and was swept away. So it goes, to quote Kurt Vonnegut.
Meanwhile, mommy hasn't a clue, just a couple of other kids and some drinking pals with a car (the toddler was lost on a drunken motorized ramble), which means they were not your hardcore derelicts.. With mothers like this, does Latvia really need crack cocaine?
As for the top, there is the wonderful story of a county executive (or whatever you call a "pagasts") running over an 18 year old girl while driving drunk. Even if we accept the version that the dead woman caused an unavoidable accident, and that the driver couldn't have stopped to avoid hitting her even if cold sober, what could justify simply leaving the corpse by the roadside and spending the next few days trying to get the car fixed to cover traces of the accident? OK, there was the case of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy some 30 years back, but at least he came clean the day after. And if we accept Kennedy's version of events, he made some attempts to rescue the young woman who drowned in his car when he drove off a bridge.
The former Latvian county executive, who briefly had charges dropped of failing to assist an injured person (one can't give first aid to the dead, sort of makes sense…), has apparently continued his drinking. In his favor, he did help to pay for the funeral of the girl he (inadvertently, let us assume) killed. But the criminal investigation was only continued after a major uproar -- perhaps a good sign after all.
My gut reaction to this kind of stuff is that a) Booze-mommy ought to have her tubes permanently cut and the other kids put up for adoption b) I'm not going to, like some minor Old Testament character, rend my garments and wail if somebody takes a hunting rifle and terminates the ex-pagast executive mutt. And so we slide into serious -- and, to borrow a term from a Bruce Sterling novel -- batshit ravings. Western raised and educated person, foam dripping from chin, starts advocating forced sterilization and vigilante drive-by shootings.
Which brings me to the "fucking kuce" syndrome.
Let's rewind to the corner of Lacplesa and Terbatas in downtown Riga, where there is this big, abandoned construction pit with a wooden fence and walkway around it and a narrow driveway to some courtyard behind the pit (now a building that housed Dienas bizness for several years --JK). In the morning, somebody swings a car halfway into the driveway and stops it, completely blocking the busy sidewalk. From the silhouette barely visible through the ubiquitous darkened glass, I see it is a woman and mutter under my breath -- "kuce nevareja citur stavet" (couldn't the bitch park elsewhere) but what I was thinking, but didn't say, was "fucking kuce", a mongrel phrase sounding straight out of 70s American Latvian creole, where the best one I heard was the dialogue:
" Kur ir Lenars? (Where's Lenars?)"
"He's asleep, pliks, on the pods." (He is asleep, naked, on the toilet).
That's just an aside. It turns out the woman who so abruptly stopped her car in the middle of all the rush-hour pedestrians was unlocking some kind of metal bar designed to keep non-residents or whatever out of the back lot by ripping their car antennas off. "Fucking kuce" also looked dumbly apologetic -- a Latvian babushka barricaded into the wooden walkway on the other side of her car was starting to lambaste her. I felt I had overreacted, and even felt a tinge of guilt for what seemed like gut-reaction sexism. But when I thought about it, it was merely giving gender specificity to anger with the "kuce" remark.
A few days later, while the pedestrian walk lights were lit on Crash Corner (Lacplesa and Caka), I started crossing with my five year old (now 14 -JK) and some scraggly unshaven geezer wobbled through the pedestrians against the lights on his bicycle. The thought of "inadvertantly" elbowing the mutt and sending him sprawling into the gutter flashed into my mind, but was quickly overtaken by the revelation: "Fucking kuce syndrome!" or FKS.
I will write FKS from now on as I am not trying to test my readers and possible editors by seeing how many times I can write "fuck" in one essay with any socially redeeming value. FKS is simply the abrupt, shorthand version of exasperation with the whole sleazy white-trash side of Latvia (where the white trash, unlike in Alabama, cut across the whole socio-economic spectrum, from elected officials to shave-headed, convicty-looking teens and gutter mutts rummaging in the trash bins).
The female gender in FKS isn't inadvertent. When I think about it, Latvia is so often represented as a woman -- Mother Latvia mourning her dead, the maiden at the top of the Freedom Monument blasphemously nicknamed Milda, and the Folk Girl, as some translation software might render the Latvian "tautu meita". So, to put it in a single cute phrase, I got a case of FKS with Milda.
So what does one do about frequent attacks of FKS? For the ex-pats, it’s a simple matter. Time to move on, perhaps time to ask for a raise. The we-have-to-be everywhere multinationals, after all, will spend pretty big bucks to keep normal Westerners happy in environments where, instead of breakfast television, you watch the locals eating your pets in the middle of the pot-holed street. This is the kind of place where the local police chewing betel nut-- or whatever it is that keeps them giggling-- watch the pet breakfast and give hand jobs to the flash suppressors on their Kalashnikovs. Compared to that kind of place -- which lies only a few notches up the scale from football-in-the-streets-with-human heads Sierra Leone -- Latvia is a relative paradise, but a salary review is always worth a try.
As far as moving, your ordinary ex-pat American, German or Swede can then add Latvia to his or her "been there, done than" list for better or worse. After all, one didn't get into the business of being an international sales/marketing/finance or whatever person in order to have a dull and unchallenging life. The market, so to speak, comes with the mutts, be they in greater or lesser numbers. (I use "mutts" here loosely according to a vague memory of New Jersey gangster slang from some old Martin Scorsese movie, where "mutt" means some pathetic, dissolute, half-wit, half-criminal not too far from its actual meaning of "mongrel dog" as in "Vinny is a fuckin’ mutt, we outta kick his head"… )
Diasporans who have had it, I suppose, could do the same -- the move part, at least, but that brings me back to the analogy of the snails. Snails can't leave home, at least not without some possibly fatal and disfiguring jettison-your-exoskeleton thing. And then what?
I am still some distance from tossing it with Latvia, but I have done some serious thinking and that is where the whole post-Latvian issue arises. There is a major collision of rationality versus programming here, probably not only for me but for any other diasporans who may be thinking as I do. For one thing, we diasporans (former exile Latvians) are imprinted (like ducklings with their mothers) with wanting or at least missing a Latvian environment. For most of my growing-up life, I, a naturalized American citizen, studied or worked with "the Americans" and went to Saturday school and partied with my people, the Latvians. Twenty odd years on, it would turn out that "my people" and the inhabitants of Latvia were related but different tribes.
When it came to core matters, primary social contacts, serious relationships and the like, it was automatically predominantly Latvian. I dated Latvian girls in the US and later in Europe, married an exile Latvian woman, and after we split up in 1991, I remarried to a Latvian Latvian. Latvian all the way! It was instinctively unthinkable otherwise, and this is perhaps something that only Jewish American readers of this piece or other ethnics will fully understand.
Getting out of this place, where I don't see an obvious defeat for white-trash Muttland against the Latvia I was given illusions about, means losing this instinctively important Latvian environment. And then where to? I've spent thirteen years in Sweden, two of my sons live there, but -- boring! BORING! This is not meant to be offensive to Sweden. What they have done is to make their country into one big white middle-class suburb with an all-too-predictable, reasonably well-behaved, semi-homogenous population, where young women wrapped head to toe in Muslim chadors tell semi-clueless TV reporters: "Jag är också svensk" (I am Swedish, too). And in their heads, they are probably right.
As for what to do in, say, Sweden, there's probably some narrow-niche possibility to work writing about wireless telecommunications, broadband internet, lots of that nifty stuff the Swedes can do. I would then get some of it myself and use it, guess what-- to keep in touch with Latvia. So there is one kludge of a solution -- virtual Latvia, but reality in some place with a lower "where did we drop the baby on our last bender?" rate and fewer FKS experiences during the average week. But then we are sort of back to square one, repeating dramatic history (monitoring, with bated breath, the freedom struggle) as wacko farce (watching a broadband stream of the latest LNT TV report about some political mutt who makes $50 000 a year legally and is building a house out of the opening titles of "Dallas" on land his mother bought from her savings as a kolhoz milkmaid during the Soviet era).
So what else to do? There is a bit of diasporan networking and clustering (the "Trimdie" --diasporan in Amero-Latvian creole--house on Bruninieku, hanging at Osiris, seeing if there are still diasporan evenings at the World Federation of Free Latvians or PBLA office, whatever). I probably hit some of the wrong evenings at the PBLA, some years back, because it seemed like much of the crowd was what I would call Type V diasporans. Type I diasporans are bubbly teeny-boppers who see Latvia as a big theme park extension of Garezers, the Latvian summer camp in Michigan and who have lots of cheery fun on some American Latvian Association two week (if it's Tuesday we play the kokle in Aizkraukle) trip. Type IIs seem to predominate -- they are the 20-somethings who come to Latvia for both adventure, idealism, beer, casual sex, interesting work, Paddy Whelan's, whatever. This is the demographic group most suited for a wide range of stuff like foot-soldiering global wars, discovering America, chasing off on Gold Rushes, starting dot-coms and garage bands and other dangerous, unserious and fun stuff.
The Type IIIs are rare. They are middle-aged people who ought to be wringing their hands about children's college tuition. They have to be career fuck-ups, wackos or foreign government paid consultants to be here. Type III includes 51-year old (now 60 -JK) me (shit, I never thought I would ever be writing that age back when I was listening to the Rolling Stones "Colors" and smoking grass in 1968). The Type IVs are basically your spry retired folks, some a touch kiddie-minded (to translate the Latvian expression "berna prata") and many are here to do good things. The Type Vs are the ones who seem to have come to DIE in Latvia and save their grandchildren hassles with the urn at Riga Airport customs.
I'm not knocking this group. It cuts back on a lot of weirdness like the small "reburial" business -- digging up grandma from Perpetual Rest Cemetery in some US suburb and replanting her three rows down from Banner of Stalin General Gronkoplyordov in one of the classier Riga graveyards. I will always remember meeting an acquaintance from Sweden back in the late 1980s who filled me in on his latest doings: "I was at both of (famous Latvian exile playwright) Martins Ziverts' funerals."
So to return from this major, but, hopefully, amusing sidetrack, the PBLA evenings that I hit were a little overstocked with Type Vs and a smattering of my people, Type IIIs, mostly with “what a weird scene this is” looks on their faces. And anyway, there is more to life than telling spry ladies who are your mother’s age and come from Chicago that it has been a while since you were a “jaunietis” (a callow youth) attending some callow youths’ seminar on folklore at their Daugavas vanagu house.
Anyway, to try to seek solace in diasporan clustering often tends to end up as a futile effort at rewinding the unidirectional film of history. It will never be the ALJA (American Latvian Youth Association) Congresses of the 1970s again, when we were all a disparate, but strangely united group escaping from our everyday immersion in the sea of "Americans". My old friend Martins Zandbergs recently celebrated his double nickel (55) and there was a cross section of the whole ALJA and ELJA (European Latvian Youth Association) scene there. My memories of the 1970s and 1980s seemed like recollections of some common astronaut training, and now we were all landed and scattered on different parts of a small, but disturbing planet -- the paper moon we used to study from a distance.
There's also not much point to getting together and bemoaning the locals. In the early to mid-1990s, it was probably like the German Wessie-Ossie thing. "They haven't a clue, lots of them are awful, but they're our folks and they'll come around soon enough." Well, the "soon" soon passed and some of us are thinking more and more of the enough part.
One of the great fortunes that turn out to be misfortunes of the Latvian nation is that it is small. Small is beautiful except in wars and revolutions. 25 million Latvians and 20 armored divisions would have made it considerably harder for Stalin in 1940. Double-digit millions of folks (with the right density of global scatter) would also make another solution possible -- the Singapore model.
I'm talking about a small, efficient, clean, honest, very much Chinese part of the Chinese nation that, while sharing significant elements of culture and the Chinese language, is a far cry from 1 billion Commie-deformed mutts of the Chinese mainland (this is a country where televised mass executions seem to have little effect on official corruption). Clearly, the majority of the Chinese (and I may be wrong here) are going to have to go through the same agonizing and possibly interminable post-Communist come-down that the Latvians did, once the totalitarian geezers running China die off.
Meanwhile, we have no less "Chinese" Chinese living in a little tropical cyber-island which moved into the 21st century already in the late 1980s. For the sake of argument, I am ignoring the more bizarre and smiley-faced-authoritarian aspects of Singapore -- the ban on chewing gum, the canings of some foreigners, hangings for drug possession, etc. The point is that aside from these quirks, part of the Chinese nation has established a wealthy, honest, efficient, technocratic little society where those Chinese live who don't find stumbling behind an emaciated ox in the rice paddies of Bat Dung province to be the meaning of life.
I wish there were enough diaspora Latvians to make a Latvian Singapore (with chewing gum allowed) possible. I might move there. Everyone would speak Latvian, there would be almost no I dunno-where-I-dropped-the-toddler-moms, almost non-existent FKS incidents, there wouldn't be five cable channels of Russian-language TV (three with dubbed maudlin 1980s Uruguayan soap-operas), no white-trash mutt authorities and bureaucrats.
The island of Tobago, with its tropical climate and historic links to Latvia would be an ideal place to establish a Latvian-speaking mini-Singapore but, alas, Tobago has its own population. They would, at best, find such a proposition amusing and bizarre and at worst, toss out the whole lot for infringing the sovereignty of their little republic.
Vilnis Zalkalns (now dead for several years -- JK), a long-time Latvian activist and radio journalist in Sweden, proposed something like the Singapore idea on the cusp of independence in the early 1990s. He suggested that all the then-exiles move to a single, medium-sized town in Latvia and sort of take it over, setting an example of Western political, economic and ethical lifestyles. This was also a charmingly bizarre idea. I think Tukums was one of the towns under discussion because it had a very high proportion of Latvians.
Vilnis is one of those diasporans, roughly of my generation, who has chosen to visit often rather than to return. I think his work at the Radio Sweden Latvian Service as well as some health concerns are important reasons why Vilnis, one of the most dedicated Latvian patriots I know, hasn't moved to Latvia. But I also think he is very skeptical of the viability of Latvia as a "civilized" society and genuinely worried that it will degenerate into a semi-Russified banana republic. Anyway, it is now probably too late to head for Tukums. It would simply drive up rents and real estate costs and probably line a few pockets before someone wisely decided to give it up.
To tell the truth, there are probably no viable post-Latvian options, at least not on the social level. That only leaves some kind of individual psychological remodeling to do. One has to bend all those big Latvian parts back and extrude from oneself a new personality where being Latvian is just one big component, like loving golf. Functionally, outside of Latvia, there is no difference between people who meet at a workplace or a social setting and where some have spent the weekend golfing and others being Latvian. I choose golf as an example because to me knocking a small ball between holes on a grassy field is utterly bizarre. So is being Latvian to some middle American whose ancestry is a largely forgotten ethnic mixed salad.
The thing is, I suspect that in a totally American environment-- back in Boston or seeking new challenges on the West Coast or wherever – I will tend to harangue people about Latvia like others harangue semi-captive audiences (coffee breaks and lunches) about golf. I know a lot about Latvia and most Americans know jack shit about it and it makes you feel good to think you are enlightening them. It also makes you feel European--which Latvians historically were and politically hope to be-- because reasonably educated Europeans tend to lose track of fewer foreign countries than Americans do. Europe, after all, is one big cluster of foreign countries and many are small enough so that their inhabitants risk wandering into another country on long afternoon drives. The whole Schengen thing in the EU only encourages this, letting European citizens cross three borders shirtless, in shorts with a Belgian library card in their back pockets. At Riga airport, you probably go to a detention cell for this and get your library card stamped so that you cannot use it in Latvia for five years.
And so the expatriate’s paradoxes multiply. With being Latvian tucked away in an appropriate niche, one finds oneself still being semi-European, with that problem having its roots in being Latvian. That probably makes it kind of difficult to scrunch oneself back into the peculiar space-time warp that is America. If I could teleport into a situation where there was a job and a home for all my children waiting, it would probably be to the US, at least for a couple of years, just to check the place out 25 years down the road.
By space time warp, I mean that the US is pulling away from much of the rest of the world technologically (expect for the mobile phone systems, a mare’s nest of standards) and economically, thereby speeding ahead in time. America’s space is warped because it is still somewhat huge and insular and even the most ethnically diverse social settings are simply accepted as part of the charm and color of that part of America, never mind where the Hmong running the gas station or the restaurant came from and what travails they may have endured. Hmong, Chechens and Paraguayans, I get the feeling, are simply viewed as the human equivalent of exotic flora in America. Like the Yucca cactus, which is not found everywhere, they simply are accepted as being there to enrich and set apart the landscape. That’s the US at its best. At worst, the wrong kind of ethnicity will have the original brand of white trash putting on the sheets…
In Europe we still view nations a little differently. For one thing, they are real, you can drive (except from interminable countries like Sweden) and take a look at them. To be sure, the EU has started the long-term process of changing nations from being clearly defined building blocks of the European house to something more like texture shifts in the common European fabric. Put that argument to some Latvians, at least, and they will retreat (stretching the fabric analogy) to the logical equivalent of a corner and shout that they are proud to be a rag that no one really wants to add to the quilt.
So even to be European, you have to have your patch to stand on and from which to gladly and willingly tear down your ancient moss-covered fence and become part of a “we” that doesn’t erase the special “us” of your nation. In that sense, the French and the Germans are already becoming post-French and post-German (and the cynics are muttering that the latter couldn’t go post-German fast enough) in a real way. Unfortunately, Latvia is standing just inside the threshold of the new century as a kind of fenced-in fen with many of the denizens staring in sullen horror over a shanty-town barrier. In this environment, described more lavishly in my earlier screed, some of the younger and brighter “Latvian” Latvians are getting out in the manner of true emigrants. For them, being post-Latvian is simply being pre-British or pre-American (which their children will be), or perhaps just European (but from the part that isn’t quite making it). For the 20-somethings, being post-Latvian is also a reversible state. Maybe when they are 35, some will come back – if the mutts haven’t completely trashed the place,Which leaves my generation with no viable answer to the problem of being post-Latvian