Latvia 2018 –– Four

Zvaigžņu ceļā. Riga, 08 July 2018

Running for the tram on the cobbles worn slippery from century of use makes me think of the ending of Doctor Zhivago. We just make it before it leaves the Opera towards Mežaparks. As we leave Centrs with its shops, tourists, gambling rooms, advert screens, derelict houses, graffiti and road works towards the northern suburb meaning Forest Park, the cobbles and asphalt give way to grass, the concrete and stone apartment blocks to wooden villas, and the lamp posts to trees. At each stop more people fill the tram, many in folk dress and even more in flower garlands and wreaths, but with each stop it gets easier to breathe. The pines and birches stand tall and green, swaying in the late afternoon sunlight and wind that sip through the window. The further ahead we travel the further back in time do I feel like I’m going. Most of the people around me are checking their smartphones, there are adverts for sugary drinks, films and dating websites at each tram stop, and in the drives of the villas there are Porsches, Mercedeses and Land Rovers. But getting closer to where the final concert of the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration will be held, I feel like I’m going back to a starting point, a fundamental building block of culture and identity. The very spirit of Latvia will be sung tonight, the spirit which has been as fundamental in the building of myself as in this country.

Along Atpūtas iela, Riga, 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
Along Atpūtas iela, Riga, 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

We reach the final tram stop and walk along Atpūtas iela through the forest park, surrounded by thousands trees and hundreds of lamp posts all carrying the Latvian flag. I’m wearing a garland of wheat and small summer flowers, my mother one of cornflowers my sister a large wreath of dozens of flowers, and my father wears a traditional linen hat with a burgundy-white pin he added himself. We look splendid, and it’s majestic to walk down the massive alley with everyone else in flowers and folk dress towards the open air stage.

The concert area around the stage feels like a festival. Among the tall pines there are beer tents, food tents and souvenir tents, and thousands of people. The sun filters through the branches and gives off that particular forest light I know from childhood; green like needles and leaves, a little pink from the towering trunks, and vast like the blue sky. We eat sweet sauerkraut, spicy sausages and salty chips at picnic tables set up in the shade of the trees. Bees buzz, butterflies flutter and wood pigeons coo to one of my favourite smells: sunlight on dried pine needles. I’ve never been here before but these senses are so familiar that the languages around me don’t feel foreign.

In Mezaparks festival area, 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
In Mežaparks festival area, 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

A little bit further down the path the entrance to the stage area dominates the view – it’s a massive concrete structure rising up like an arena. This reconstruction of the audience area finished just a month ago, with toilets and bars at ground level, stalls and attractions on the middle level, and ticket checks and access to the seating at the top. And from up here the view is incredible. No longer an arena but an amphitheatre of a grass-clad slope towards the raised stage. The wooden spectator benches spread out in increasing semi-circles from the huge white bandstand and together they open like scallop shell.

Mežaparka Lielā estrāde, 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
Mežaparka Lielā estrāde, 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

The sky is still blue and the air is still warm as the seats fill and the time moves closer to starting. Pappa looks at the bandstand framed by two corner-pillars, and says that his mother used to keep a picture of the Mežaparka Lielā estrāde in their flat. That and a picture of the Freedom Monument were the images of the lost Riga that my father grew up under; the symbols of the culture to which they belonged, and the freedom which they in exile protected. The stage was only completed in 1955, the same year my father was born, so Grandmother Anna never got to see it. But now her youngest son sits in front of the Great Bandstand for the first time, sharing its age, with his wife and daughters in flower garlands beside him. Slowly the choir begins to fill its steps, with my Uncle Juris, Grandmother’s oldest son, somewhere amongst the singers. I put my hand on Pappa’s shoulder and squeeze it. He puts his hand over mine, looks over at me and smiles.

Audience before "Zvaigžņu ceļā", Mežaparks 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
Audience before “Zvaigžņu ceļā”, Mežaparks 8 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

Surrounded by the increasingly pink pines and lined by Latvian flags, the sky shifts from blue to ever darkening yellow, orange, pink, red and deepening purple into black and Milkyway grey. The songs performed by a choir of choirs, from all over the country and from all over the world, is a 16,500 people strong testament to their love for Latvia. The national anthem is sung; the President holds a speech but the wind catches his papers and he loses his words because of nerves; the country’s top choral conductors take turns to direct the massive choir; solo artists on kokle, organ and violin accompany the singers; and for the number ‘Dievs, Tava Zeme Deg’ – ‘Lord, Thy Land is Ablaze’ – written in 1943 at the height of war and occupation, the choir and audience alike are bathed in a blood- and fire-red light. A larger flag is raised ceremoniously on the stage’s central pole, and to the moving hymns at the end of the concert the audience light up the torches on their phones to build a sea of people that reflect the stars of the sky. It is a beautiful evening that carries on beyond midnight. Pappa turns to me and my sister every now and then to translate something, or tell us something, or to just look at us and smile until we smile back, despite the hard benches and the colder night air. I make a video and tweet it, by mistake saying there are 40,000 singers on stage.

End of concert, Mezaparks, 9 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
End of concert, Mežaparks, 9 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

When the programme is over I am stiff and cold to my bones, dying for the toilet and for some tea, but moved to my very soul and strengthened in my bond to my family and this country. I shake my shoulders and hug Pappa. This was only the official part, he says, and after a ten minute break the singing will continue until dawn, with live television broadcasts across Latvia throughout the night. It’s half past midnight and we’ve been sitting on the wooden benches for four and half hours. Without words we make for the beer tents.

‘Do you think Uncle Juris is staying with the choir or going home?’

‘Oh he will stay until the end.’

Post-concert beer, Mezaparks, 9 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
Post-concert beer, Mežaparks, 9 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

There are large round lightbulbs in the trees now, blocking the stars but lighting the sauerkraut. The four of us sit and sip and eat and laugh and talk. I check my tweet from earlier and notice it has had an unprecedented number of likes and retweets. Tracing the notifications down to what caused it, I see that Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the Opposition in Sweden has retweeted my video. I stop the family’s conversation to announce this and they’re as astounded as I am at the power of social media. Pappa goes to get a second round of beers, just as Mamma gets a text from cousin Kristina, Juris’ daughter: ‘We have Dad! He wants beer. Where are you?’

After some texting and toilet queuing and more beer buying Kristina, Juris and Auntie Sarmite join us. Hearing my uncle’s stories of what it was like to stand up there and sing with thousands of others and representing the Stockholm choir is almost better than the actual concert. With only the seven of us, the other Zarins’s having had to go home already, it’s an intimate midnight chat, and it’s not because of the beer I no longer feel cold or stiff.


Midnight Mežaparks pines, 9 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins
Midnight Mežaparks pines, 9 July 2018. Photo by Jessica Zarins

We make our way back along the avenue of trees and flags to the tram, stopping in the shrubbery for a piss. The tram is packed with singers and children and tourists. It takes us back to the Opera in Old Riga and when we walk through those cobbled streets again I see the black sky bluing over the spire of St Peter’s church. We hug our relatives goodbye at the doorstep and they head home to theirs. My father, mother, sister and I drag our shoulders up the stairs, kick off our shoes and brush our teeth with our eyes on the waiting beds, and then each collapse into them with a groan. I check my video tweet again. Six new followers, 51 likes and 29 retweets. Not bad for someone with only 52 followers, I think. It’s 4am, and the windows are letting in dawn. I can hear three sleeping breaths in the flat around me. I cuddle down into the covers and dream of trees in the wind.

The next day, my sister and I bid our parents farewell and take the bus with cousin Kristina to the airport. She’s flying home, but me and CC are collecting a rental car for a few more days around Latvia. We plan a cousin get-together in Riga for Kristina’s 40th, we should get everyone involved now before they make any other plans. We talk about the magic of last night’s concert, and Kristina says she hopes there are videos online of it so she can show her husband and son who stayed in Stockholm.

‘To see my dad singing up there in the world’s largest choir, in his native language, in the year that Latvia turns 100 years as a nation, was something I’ll always carry with me,’ she says. She also wears yesterday’s garland. ‘Apart from the birth of my son, this was the most fantastic experience of my life.’

As we say goodbye at the airport and wish each other happy travels, I wonder at this statement. I have no children, but although this was a memory for life, I do not think it can only be surpassed by childbirth. I think of my aching bum and back, my cold ears and the forbidden ‘are we there yet’ thoughts I had towards the end of the concert. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I feel that strongly?

We get the car, and head west towards Kolka. We pass the Jurmala villages where I visited with my boyfriend last March. Everything was dead then, but I’d been alive.

I guess it wasn’t my father who was up there singing. It made it all the more special that my uncle was, but probably not as important as it was for Kristina. My father was sitting on the bench in front of me, translating and telling me things. Wanting to give and share the joy and understanding that he felt. Hoping to widen and deepen his daughters’ experience. I clutch the seatbelt and think of Pappa now, all alone now on his way back to his boat in Greece. I raise the volume of the music and take a deep breath. Why do I have to question everything he says? To challenge the standards of the parents is at the heart of every child’s road to growth. Otherwise there would be no development. But his standards aren’t wrong, even if they are different from mine.

I have made everything about Latvia holy, through careful study and venerated visits. My father has made Latvia holy by engaged consuming. This city matters so much to both of us but we celebrate it in different ways; me as an almost Attenboroughian observer, and him as a prodigal partaker. He wished to show and share the Riga he knew, I wanted to show off the Riga I’d learnt to know.

I look in the rearview mirror and think of yesterday when Pappa said how he loved being in Riga and getting along with his Latvian, but that he had realised how comfortable he was speaking English. ‘When I’m in England I always feel inferior to Lisa and Jessi, and I just follow them wherever we go. Here I know the way, and I feel good speaking both Latvian and English!’ I lower the car window to let the air slap my face. I hope it carries the sorry I whisper back to Riga where it belongs.

Zarins family en route to Mežaparks 8 July 2018. Photo by Cecilia Zarins
Zarins family en route to Mežaparks 8 July 2018. Photo by Cecilia Zarins

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