Going back is not the same as never leaving.
Nearly two decades ago, at 16 years of age, I left the Baltic region for the United States. I landed on America’s shores a newly-minted immigrant in search of a better life.
The past 20 years have been a roller coaster of growth and adventure. I’ve set foot in more than 40 countries and switched careers three times, all while moving far and wide across multiple state borders. I have not found a home base in the United States, because all the while I have longed for my native land, the Baltics.
My last visit to Latvia took place during the troubling 90’s. At the time, the country, along with many other former Soviet republics, was in the midst of coping with a systemic shock caused by the fall of the USSR. Times were tough. Many people in academia, arts, and sciences were forced to turn to the age-old profession of commerce. Overnight, they swapped their lab coats and briefcases for Adidas sport suits and “bauls” — seemingly bottomless tarpaulin bags street hawkers used to transport their wares across the country that was no more.
Bittersweet memories flood into my mind as I walk through the streets of Old Riga. These days, “bauls” have mostly been traded for Guccis and Louis Vuittons. Still, some things haven’t changed. After a few shared cups of hot wine, some of the residents on Riga’s well-worn cobble stone streets tell me that life has been tough. The EU-wide economic downturn, the sanctions on Russia (Latvia’s main trading partner), and the turning tide of a new, market-based economy have left Latvians worried about basic survival — how to pay the bills and what food to buy so it lasts until the next paycheck.
Indeed, much of what I have enjoyed in the past two decades — the freedom of frequent travel or the ability to reinvent myself multiple times — is out of reach for many Latvians. By going back home, I suddenly see much clearer what possibilities I have been exposed to in the United States.
The streets of Riga are empty amid the hoped-for (but never materialized) pre-holiday rush. For me, it is just as well — this vacuum gives me space to reflect on the path that has brought me here. For street vendors huddled around Riga Doms, an imposing cathedral with a single spire piercing the city skyline, the situation is not so good. They send hopeful glances my way and retreat, disappointed, when I pass them by empty-handed.
A woman approaches me on the broad Town Hall Square, a gateway into the old city. “Tours? Riga’s history?” she offers. Her frayed coat tells me she needs this tour more than I do. She continues, “Do you want in English, German, Estonian, Latvian? Russian? I can do all.”
“Yes,” I say. “Da.”
For the next hour, she walks me through the mysteries of the old town. We pass the iconic House of the Blackheads, built for wealthy German traders’ guild in the 14th century and reconstructed in the late 20th after it was destroyed during World War II bombing raids. We stop by the oldest housing complex in Riga, the Three Brothers, dating back to the late 15th century. I learn about Art Nouveau, the architectural style that dominates much of Old Riga, and climb atop Sveta Petera Baznica, the highest wooden construction in the world at the time it was built in the late 17th century.
We finish the tour when the Baltic dusk settles on Riga’s streets, full of color. Waiting for one of many tramcars crisscrossing the city center, I think about Riga’s long gone and present challenges. The Latvian capital has lived through a lot in the past few hundred years, but it has preserved its complex, beautiful heritage and started building new hope for the new generations. It suddenly dawns on me that, as an immigrant in America, I’ve done the same.
By the time my tramcar arrives, I start seeing Riga — and my own life story — in a new, surprisingly hopeful light.