This time last week, I was hopping in a car and heading to the airport with my dad. We were to meet up with my younger brother Kevin in Riga, Latvia. Latvia, the homeland of our father and the cause of countless questions of "Why are you going there?" and "Where is that?" and comments such as "That's the last place I'd pick in Europe." (that last one from a douchebag I was talking to on Tinder who is now deleted from the contacts in my phone). But there we were, at Pearson Airport in Toronto and getting ready for a long flight to my dad's homeland. The trip was a surprise, quickly planned but perfectly timed as my brother was already in Europe and taking a bit of time while it's available (he'll be a dad for the second time any week now). The entire time leading up to it and on the flight I couldn't quite believe I was actually going to be on Latvian soil. I've long felt immense pride in my dad's culture, but Kevin and I were the last of my dad's kids to visit and the timing of us three being able to go just worked out... and I'd never traveled with just them before so that added a cherry to that sundae. I spent the bulk of my flight stunned by ALL THE FOOD the LOT Polish Airlines offers for free and stunned I was Going to F**king Latvia!!
In the latest issue of Future Female magazine, I explored the roots of my family with taking an Ancestry DNA test and I am really, really Eastern European. My hope was to discover why my dad's grandfather changed our name from Zemits to Zemnickis, but that didn't come to fruition... BUT... I did discover that around the time he'd have done that, ancestors of mine traveled from Europe to America so there's more to explore there. But it did show that my genetic make up really matches my father and could explain the almost magnetic pull I have to this place I'd not actually stepped foot in.
I'm not famous enough (yet) to be on 'Who Do You Think You Are?' (where celebs go on a deep dive into their ancestry) so this trip was essential my own episode. Arriving in Riga and making our way to the Old Town where my brother had rented a flat for us for the week, I still couldn't quite believe where I was. But I was anxious to see ALL the things. And that laugh and joy of meeting Kevin in Riga, I'll never forget that. It was a collective "Holy Shit!", followed by another "Holy Shit!" when I discovered how goddamned small the elevator was to the top floor of our building. It held enough room for 2 people and a pocket of hope that this thing wouldn't get stuck.
But arriving as the sunset over the city, and staring at the churches and cathedrals and worn rooftops from our flat, I was in love instantly and completely bewildered. Riga is stunning, it's just gorgeous. For a country that emerged out of Communist rule in 1991- it's still coming into its own in a way. And how interesting it was that my brother picked a spot for us to stay that was a block from where dad took our mom on her first (& only) visit here in the 1970s- a trip that was understandably jarring given it being under Communist rule then and why she was too hesitant to revisit. I absolutely understand how she's had a hard time shaking that off, but while there still isn't the "looseness" you have in Toronto, as an example, I did feel like this place was on the verge of really blooming. Though it is still under threat of Russia coming in and claiming it for their own, so... let's say it's cautiously optimistic right now? Kind of- sort of?? (And I will take a moment here to thank the Canadian troops currently stationed in Latvia, protecting my people. ThankyousomuchSOMUCH.)
I decided we should make a trip to Latvian National Archives in Riga, and it lead us into a beautiful old building and to a tiny desk where a woman pointed to a sign. We were to head to the 2nd floor, which lead us to a room with two ladies sitting across from each other and listening to power hits from the 1980s. I ask if English is okay, but within moments have my dad conversing with this woman in Latvian as we try to explain that we're looking to find out why our family name was changed. I'd love to be able to reveal here that we hit a goldmine of information, but we didn't. The truth is, my great grandfather likely would have changed his surname before Latvia became a country, and then during the War records got moved to Riga for protection but who knows what wasn't permitted for its people to access. What information might have been destroyed by the Nazis in WWII. Names came up in her records showing people with Zemits and Zemnickis, but we have no idea if they're our relatives... my dad knows next to nothing about his family history.
But she did provide people to contact and told me what information to ask for, and I will likely see how far I can deep dive with Ancestry to figure out what my dad's side of the family tree looks like. My dad didn't return home to Latvia until the 1960s and even up until the 1990s he wasn't always permitted to see his family or correspond by letter. It was all controlled under Communism. (This might explain why I had such a damn hard time finding postal boxes to mail post cards in Riga. No one really was allowed the freedom of mailing a letter.) And he grew up in a time where you didn't talk about your family history, or talk freely in the streets because you legally weren't allowed to. I recall Kevin and I saying to one another, "We have literally nothing to complain about. We haven't lived through ANYTHING like that."
As we roamed the city, went to the markets and visited exhibits AND had some of the most beautifully presented & delicious food I've had, I felt this immense pride to be connected to this land. I felt the pride of everyone around me. It's really something that took me by surprise, the level of comfort I felt despite my not knowing the language and being there for the first time. But there was a sense of identity that was a crazy light bulb moment for me. I find I'm having a hard time explaining it, but maybe it's coming across here... I guess it just felt like, well, home. I knew my late grandpa Karl and grandma Elsa would have been over the moon to know I was in Latvia- they'd have been just tickled. My dad was last in Latvia at Christmas time last year, as his only sibling, my aunt Aija passed away. That hurt coupled with the mixed feelings that any homecoming can bring, I hope and I do think this visit eased some of that heartache. Having his youngest kids discovering his home and breaking bread with our cousins... I would like to think it provided some comfort that the last visit didn't bring.
We headed to the seaside town of Jurmala for a brief visit before our flight, and walked the beaches at the Black Sea. My dad told me that they would holiday there when he was a child, before the war and his life was flipped completely upside down. As I ran my hands through the softest sand I've ever touched and just felt a complete sense of Zen on that beach. Complete peace. Perhaps the result of a circle completing itself... my dad's past and my past/future.
I have more of my history to uncover and who knows what fruit that search will yield... but being in Latvia gave me a sense that yes, I do in fact know who I am. And I couldn't be prouder.