Flirtatious smoke, anemic threats, Baltic driftwood, surprising sibilants, suspected heartbreak, heavy muddling, storks’ nests, fertility festivals, a million very tiny flowers & Latvia.
It was 1999, and I was living with a single mom named Sanita, accent on the first syllable, in Valmiera, Latvia, accents also on the first syllables, for a summer of pre-service Peace Corps training.
My first night there Sanita gestured to the apartment’s only bedroom, which I understood to be mine. There was a wardrobe emptied of Sanita’s things, walls hung with the Baltic shore driftwood I later learned was arranged by her daughter, away in Rīga at university, and a balcony to which I excused myself as politely as I could. I lit up a Dunhill Light, my ex-boyfriend’s brand, from the pack I’d bought at our layover in Stockholm, and inhaled aggressively. I calmed on the exhale, watching the smoke flirt with the neighboring Soviet bloc apartment buildings until it disappeared into a sky that was just now—it was near 10 p.m.—fading to peach.
It was, at its heart, this: ever since my family had moved away from the immigrant community of my birth, what was supposedly “foreign” had tasted for me like home, and I wanted home more than anything.
I had somehow already learned that “to smoke” in Latvian is pīpēt, the diacritical mark over the “e” signifying held notes.
Piiiiiipeeeet, I mouthed to myself.
And then, in a happy, jogging rhythm: I did it. I left. I did it. I left.
W hen the Peace Corps coordinator called me in my dorm room at the University of Texas one late afternoon that spring to offer me a spot as an English teacher in Latvia, I looked out the window to the unblinking sky above the quad and immediately agreed to a two-year tour. I had applied six months earlier with an essay that, as I remember it, highlighted “sustainable development” and “international cooperation,” key Peace Corps values I had copied from their brochure. In my subsequent interview, I wore a cheap black blazer that I believed made me look like a serious person—culturally aware and politically committed. But the truth was I would have said or worn anything for them to put me on that plane.
Leaving was not meant as a fuck-you to my college boyfriend (though he wouldn’t introduce me to his parents and, therefore, in my opinion, deserved it). Nor was leaving an attempt at some kind of single-girl spirit quest. (It was 1999, remember, before Eat, Pray, Love). And it wasn’t even that I needed a job with health insurance (though this was also true). It was, at its heart, this: ever since my family had moved away from the immigrant community of my birth, what was supposedly “foreign” had tasted for me like home, and I wanted home more than anything.
As the Peace Corps coordinator spoke, I spread my fingers through the curls of the phone cord and squeezed. It seemed somehow that going to Latvia—and I did not question my logic, only followed the feeling—would bring me closer to who I was.
Never mind my position as the compliant older daughter—the call to leave leave leave rang clear and insistent.
To the extent that I shared my reasoning with my family, they thought I had lost my mind. “I came from a poor country,” Auntie Maria, usually so supportive, had quipped. “No way I’d go back to one.” And then Auntie Lizzie chimed in: “You’ll break your mother’s heart.” I assumed she was referring to my father’s departure years before. “What about a husband?” My mother leveled the anemic threat that she wouldn’t give me a ride to the airport. But I shrugged them all off. Never mind my position as the compliant older daughter—the call to leave leave leave rang clear and insistent.
“Yes,” I said to the Peace Corps recruiter, and then again, “Yes,” to be sure he heard me, to be sure he wrote it down.
It was only after I’d hung up that I realized I didn’t know where Latvia was. There was half an hour before dinner in the cafeteria, so I opened my atlas to the map of the world and moved my finger north along the lines of latitude (fifty-six), then east across the lines of longitude (twenty-four), until I arrived at a small country shaped like a gem. The names of its cities bled over the delicate lines of its borders. Latvia could hardly contain itself—so few square kilometers and so much to say. Russia hulked to its east, Estonia, Lithuania and Belarus encrusted its northern and southern edges, and the Baltic Sea stood sparkling to its west. “Latvia,” I said aloud, letting its vowels open my jaw.
I knew, at least, that Latvia was post-Soviet. And me? I was all big words and poorly articulated desires. I was pre–whatever awaited me there.
Which was, at least to begin with, three months of cultural, language, and profession-specific training before my cohort, the eighth group of volunteers to arrive since Latvian independence in 1991, would be split up and sent to our two-year placements in villages and towns across the country. Beyond that basic outline, the details of pre-service training were fuzzy. I knew only that we would all be assigned to host families who lived within an hour’s walk to our training site, would be fed three meals a day plus snacks, and would learn the Latvian language using the “communicative” teaching method, which would turn out to be frustratingly thin on grammar and appropriately heavy on muddling the fuck through.
Nice to meet you, I would learn, followed by I’m an American girl.
M y first impressions of Latvia were like this: Sanita slept in the living room, and each morning on waking she would stretch her arms up and out, like a girl in a cartoon, and pull yesterday’s skirt over her pinprick waist. Then we would drink milky coffee, the grounds still stewing in the bottoms of our cups, and eat cucumbers and dill, fresh from Sanita’s garden, mixed with sour cream and sprinkled with salt, along with dark bread smeared with country butter. The food tasted more like itself here, the milk somehow fuller, and still today the scent of dill makes me feel cared for. It was Sanita who taught me that in Latvian all masculine nouns end in “s,” giving men’s names a hiss: Johns. Richards. Mikes.
It was also like this: on weekends my Peace Corps training cohort and I frequented a bar called Multiklubs, where we danced to “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and “Mambo No. 5.” I’ve always hated to sit when I could be dancing, but I would stop once in a while to drink the beer that I paid for in lats (Latvia was pre–European Union) and to make out with whomever was near and willing. In the mornings I went for jogs through a neighboring field, though I would turn back when my path was blocked by grazing cows.
It was also like this: I learned to orient myself in part by the odors of people’s bodies, which I ceased to code as bad. For example: Sanita’s creamy musk from her days in the milk factory overlaid with the sweet sample spritz from her Oriflame cosmetics sales kit, her side gig. For example: the salt sea from our Latvian language teacher’s dress as she swished past my desk. For example: me, whose Secret Powder Fresh began to smell artificial, like I was hiding something, and then not work so well under the clothes Sanita washed once a week in her small washing machine, its brand name stamped in Cyrillic, which, Cold War child that I was, still hummed for me with danger.
And then it was my first Latvian summer solstice. The longest day of the year.
I awoke that morning to Sanita singing. Or talking. It was sometimes still hard to tell the difference. Her daughter, Madara, had arrived in the night, thin and serious, and there they were in the kitchen, making coffee with the ease I would later recognize as unique to certain all-women households. I smiled a good morning and tucked into my bread and butter, happy in their company, in Sanita’s spoke-sung words, and in my uncertainty of what the day would hold.
I had learned that Latvia was pagan—or as pagan as any people can be after a history of medieval crusades, serfdom, Soviet restrictions on national rituals, and Western Christian hegemony. I had also read that the summer solstice—Līgo, as it was called—was Latvians’ most anticipated holiday, a fertility festival with vaguely erotic rituals centered around fire, dew and rare flowering ferns. I had taken enough women’s studies classes in college to jibe with the Mother Earth symbolism; my vagina was both fire and dew! It was in college, too, that I had learned to say “vagina” aloud, but I was also still my parents’ daughter, so I had the decency to wince as I said it. Do you see what I mean about big words and poorly articulated desires?
The Peace Corps cross-cultural training manual didn’t help a bit. On the subject of Līgo, it seemed to have been written in koan.
“You will jump over a bonfire,” it said, or so I remember.
“You will run barefoot on the first morning dew.”
“There is a riddle. And maybe witches.”
“The reed sways but does not break.”
What did it mean? What would I mean after that long night that was not actually a night?
I arrived at a small country shaped like a gem. The names of its cities bled over the delicate lines of its borders.
There wasn’t much time to ruminate, because pretty soon Sanita, Madara and I had piled into a car with someone whose name I did not catch and were rumbling along to a sunny open field, where we drank beer that appeared, it seemed, from nowhere, and where we picked a million very tiny flowers that Madara then braided into two perfectly round wreaths. Later I followed Madara’s lead to pin them to our hair and to rouge Sanita’s lipstick into our cheeks—oh, how I had always wanted a sister!—both of us gunning for the bruised, dewy look of nature herself. Then it was time to gather with Sanita’s extended family in a barn on her father’s property.
Or at least it looked like a barn from the outside. Inside it felt like a woodland kingdom. Fragrant birch branches hung from the rafters. Forest flower arrangements, all in odd numbers for luck, seemed to beget themselves in the corners. Plates of pork-fat pirogi and hunks of cheese studded with caraway seeds elbowed each other for space on the long center table. Clusters of squat candles framed the scene, but were not yet lit, as the sun would stay high for hours. There we were, too, in our flower crowns and blousy summer sweaters, floating along the surface of this always-cresting language, as if we were straight out of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And even the men! Sanita’s father, with his glinting eyes, and her brother-in-law, who, per tradition, wore on his head a sturdy wreath of oak as if he were born to it. Which he was.
Also there, with his host mother and brother, was Mikes.
Each morning on waking she would stretch her arms up and out, like a girl in a cartoon, and pull yesterday’s skirt over her pinprick waist.
Mikes was a fellow Peace Corps volunteer from North Dakota with a dimple that deepened when he smiled. We had traveled together on training outings, were witness to each other’s flatulence and knew the smell of the other’s depleting store of American hair product. We had held hands once.
He raised an eyebrow at me across the table.
We toasted. We ate. Sanita’s father poured me a thick liqueur from a corked bottle that tasted like earth. I was in the midst of formulating a sentence when Sanita patted my arm: “Paklausies, Katīte.” How I loved when she hailed me in the diminutive! But listen for what?
Mikes raised an eyebrow again, but before I could eye-language him back, Sanita’s stepmother opened her mouth, front teeth capped silver, and breathed out a wide falsetto.
“Goddess of darkness, goddess of earth, Līgo, Līgo.”
Her vowels rose in an insistent minor and then drilled down. The candles, now lit, pulsed. She inhaled again.
“Reeds are thundering, flowers are whispering, Līgo, Līgo.”
Her voice called up what was below.
“The shrubs and reeds tempt me. Līgo, Līgo.”
I was also tempted.
It was also like this: I learned to orient myself in part by the odors of people’s bodies, which I ceased to code as bad.
The others joined in, and the birch branches trembled, and the pork fat filled a deep hunger, and her voice sang out above them all.
After a few minutes or hours, I excused myself, stepped out of the barn and breathed in the smoky dusk. Our song seemed to echo in the distance, as other clusters of families did what one does on solstice—to sing, but also to līgo, to sway.
I swayed. The moon was milk. I could drink it. The stars began to splash across the sky.
I began to wish I could hold Mikes’ hand.
“Mikes ir smuks,” Sanita had told me one evening as we peeled potatoes for dinner. Sanita’s favorite word was smuks. Or she knew that it was a word I knew. Or I noticed the word because I knew it. Either way, it means cute. Or nice.
“Smuks,” I had agreed.
But Mikes and me, I didn’t think our smells mingled quite in that way.
Still, back inside the barn, I was warmed by him. The wax from the candles was dripping into abstract art, and my cup was again full, and Mikes? Mikes was looking elsewhere—but no matter, he was there, his hair gelled up in perpetual surprise.
Plates of pork-fat pirogi and hunks of cheese studded with caraway seeds elbowed each other for space on the long center table.
His hair reminded me of the hedgehog he had pointed out the previous week when we were walking home from training. He pushed back some brush and there it was, curled into a ball the size of a fist, waiting for what would come next.
Now, Mikes turned to me and grinned. Dimple. Teeth. I held his eyes and opened my mouth to sing, as it appeared I had finally caught the tune and even some of the lyrics.
What happened next, I remember like this:
The night fell and the day dawned in one miraculous instant. Then solstice was over. And the earth once again began to hurtle us toward winter.
Two months later, I left Valmiera for my more permanent two-year site, in the southeastern Russian-speaking city of Daugavpils. The morning of my departure Sanita and I downed two shots of vodka each, sucked the liqueur out of four boozy Latvian chocolates and dabbed at our leaking eyes. She gave me a paper bag of drying chamomile flowers she had gathered in case I got sick where I was going.
Mikes was stationed in a town not far from mine, so we carpooled the four hours in his host mother’s Lada, the trunk of which we jammed with our bulky Peace Corps–issue water purifiers, our down sleeping bags and the copies of Where There Is No Doctor that I would make the most use of two years later, stateside, when I could not afford my copay. The scene through the car windows as we headed east was like a flickering Soviet film: a village with thatched-roofed wooden houses, a woman in a kerchief bent with the weight of her bags, forests, fields. Mikes and I both thought it rude to speak English in front of people who did not speak it, and I was still a little drunk and weepy from my morning goodbye, so we let the Russian pop station his host mother had chosen (so we could get used to the language, she reasoned) crackle without interruption. Except for once, when Mikes pointed out the storks’ nests perched atop trees near the road, the name for which in Latvian he somehow knew, and for which I loved him.
When we said goodbye at the door of the home of my new host family, whom I greeted in stuttering Russian, he gave me one of those hugs that pushes you away just as you make contact.
I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I had leaned into Mikes that night and not the man I met just two months after. That man, the post-Mikes man, would charm, cheat, gift me a daughter and then, woosh, be gone, remaining largely untraceable by child-support authorities in the different countries and cities where he has since lived.
But it helps no one to wander down that path.
This story is about before pre turned irrevocably to post. It is about 1999. It is about Valmiera, Latvia, accents on the possible, accents on the magical, accents on that day where the sun ran an eighteen-hour marathon to reveal us to ourselves. And me there, my face dimpled from breakfasts of sour cream, singing a poem in a candlelit barn steamy with the breath of others.
That was how it was back then. We got wherever it was we were going with paper maps and half-learned languages.
Kate Vieira is an an international ethnographer and creative nonfiction writer. She holds the Susan J. Cellmer distinguished chair in literacy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she lives with her daughter. A recent winner of the Wisconsin Writers Award for creative nonfiction, she has published her personal essays in The Sun, Guernica, First-Person Singular, and Tin House. She is currently working on a memoir called Broken Home, about single parenting across borders. You can learn more about her work here. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2021 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Kaspars Upmanis