Some two decades ago, I married into a family originally from Riga, Latvia. I was completely unaware of this city’s glorious fame as “the Paris of the North,” which coincidentally was a perfect match for my birthplace, Shanghai, often called the Paris of the East. Like most Americans, my life became an interesting melting pot and Latvia added a new element to it.
I, however, had never seen Latvia until this December when Uncle Arvids invited my husband and me to Riga for his 90th birthday celebration. Overcoming the fear of winter’s fury in Northern Europe, we decided to go for a visit that was long overdue.
Before this trip, my knowledge of Riga was as abstract as the wood carving that my father-in-law Talivaldis Stubis had made of this city’s skyline, commemorating Latvia’s independence from Russia. I knew little about this country beyond the fact that it was next to the Baltic Sea with Riga as her capital.
All this would soon change as our plane from Frankfurt was getting ready to land at the Riga airport. I looked out of my window and enjoyed the first glimpse of the city in her winter splendor, for she was dressed in her veil of silver-grey mist laced with white snow.
Riga is a city of beauty and dignity. Like honor guards, her many church steeples, all dressed in unique suits of armor, have watched over the city for many centuries and witnessed many wars as the Latvians fought for their freedom. The Daugava River, like a deep, dark green belt, calmly flows through the middle of the city, with her old town, dating to medieval times, lying on its right bank.
There we found many gorgeous buildings, such as the Riga Dome Cathedral and St. Peter’s Church, all connected by streets paved with cobblestones. I wandered into my first European Christmas Market, where iron pots of soup were heated over open fires and stalls were stocked with festive holiday gifts. We also visited the Central Market inside zeppelin hangars from the 1920s. There, we tasted cheeses and breads, and feasted our eyes on many exotic fruits and fishes.
Riga’s architecture is original, ornate and graceful, and the city has one of the greatest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. We couldn’t walk a block without staring in awe at the magnificent stone carvings above windows, under balconies, and on rooftops.
I felt like a child standing in a shop filled with layered wedding cakes, each decorated with its unique creamy sculptures of lions, comic faces, floral designs and interesting patterns.
At Uncle Arvids’ birthday party, we met many old relatives and new friends. We drank and sang. We feasted and partied. We even learned some folk dances accompanied by Latvian music. When the party was over, I chanced to meet Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the first female president of Latvia, who happened to celebrate her 80th birthday on a floor below us. We chatted and, of course, I gave her a warm birthday hug.
With the help of our dear family members Indra Samite and Arnis Dubrowskis, who served as our exuberant and expert guides, we toured the old city, visited the Bauskas Castle that has been painstakingly restored from its ruins, made the trip to Rundales Pils, a gigantic baroque palace modeled after Versailles, got an insider’s look at the spectacular new National Library of Latvia, and paid solemn homage to the Freedom Monument in memory of the Latvian War of Independence. On its base, there are carvings of war heroes, one of whom is Voldemars Stubis (center below), my husband’s grandfather.
Seven days passed all too quickly, and soon we had to say goodbye to a city that has given us so many of our family members and cultural traditions. As I have learned again and again in life, sometimes you have to leave and travel around the world to fully find your family, your roots, and your home.
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