15 January 2007

Like living in a Chagall painting

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 13 January 2007

I met the old man in a kitchen. Whose kitchen I cannot say. It was impossible to tell who lived where in Lasi, the tiny village deep in Latvia’s glorious countryside where I had holed up for the weekend at the invitation of a friend.

Everyone, including the villagers’ dogs, a comic parade of mutts lorded over by a motherly shepherd bitch, wandered in and out of each other’s creaky wooden houses, passing through open doors with nary a knock or holler. They rummaged through each other’s refrigerators, catnapped on each other’s sofas, used each other’s outhouse toilets and sweated themselves clean in the same pirts, the scorching communal sauna.

From the moment I left my car on the rutted track, waded through the chest-high cow parsley and inserted myself into Lasi’s jolly rhythm of life, I became the beneficiary of these people’s magnificent capacity to share.

At the kitchen table sat the wizened old man, one eye squeezed theatrically into a squint and the other, sky blue and bulging in my direction, sizing me up sceptically. With his massive manual labourer’s hand he grabbed the vodka bottle. He slid a second glass out into the middle of the table and filled it for me, to the rim.

It quickly became evident that my paltry Latvian vocabulary was inadequate for the quality of conversation required on the occasion. But the old fellow, bursting with a lifetime’s supply of bittersweet anecdotes and folk wisdom, was willing to employ his surviving Soviet-era Russian if I was pleased to drink with him.

“Amerikanets”, he called me when I explained I grew up near Chicago. The name stuck all weekend, though, as he refilled my glass again and again, I, of course, forgot his.

As the vodka flowed, we traded anecdotes, political philosophies and notes on faith. The old man served up an account of his war against the Red Army six decades ago, some thoughts on the lines dividing western and eastern Europe (“Russians are Asians dolled up in European costume”) and a hearty denunciation of the Lenin cult. I answered with tales from my stint on Capitol Hill in Washington, a view on the origin of justice as perceived by citizens in western democracies and a wordy moan deriding the effort of modern states to pose themselves as gods above men.

Time arrived for the pirts. The men, about 10 of us, tramped back through the cow parsley, stripped under a blazing sun and climbed into the little board-and-nail shack. The interior greeted us with its burning breath. The old man scrambled on to the top tier and I followed.

We all whipped each other with birch branches, dunked heads in bucketfuls of water and passed around drinks to replenish our fast dehydrating bodies. Everyone lasted 20 minutes but after that, one by one, they began to give out. “Enough,” a man would say, leaving the pirts and collapsing into a bathtub full of cold water propped outside. The old fellow and I stayed put, layered in sweat and shining in the candlelight, until we were alone.

“Amerikanets! What are you doing in here still? We’re the last. I thought you Americans were soft, but you’re a man!” he roared, clasping my arm and shaking it. I was woozy but I beamed in the darkness. Out he went. I took another minute to revel in my victory of endurance, then stumbled to the cold tub.

The nap that followed, taken in a fallow field shaded by a giant oak, was vivid with dreams. My Saturday in Lasi already felt like a Chagall painting. The balmy summer afternoon dozed on in perfect stillness but for the buzzing bees, until the sudden blast of a nearby shotgun startled me to my feet. Karlis, the local Soviet-Afghan war veteran, came striding through the grass, shooting and bellowing: “Time for a swim!”

Men and women piled into cars. We bounced our way to a nearby bend in the mighty Daugava, Latvia’s section of the river Russians call the Dvina, flowing west to the Baltic sea. At the riverbank, we clambered down through brush and boulders to the shimmering water’s edge.

No sooner had I removed my shirt than my resolution began to wobble. Karlis had already run ahead. I saw him, stark naked, charge like a bull into the river and dive in, followed by two women, equally bare and yelping with delight. The others likewise disrobed to the last thread – men, women and children together, some 20 friends and relatives.

Prudish instinct held me back but soon my restraint felt absurd. So I did it. Like an audience member at Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring forced suddenly to join the cast, I plunged in, starkers. This clearly pleased the old man, bronzed head to toe from a thousand previous dips of the same kind. He laughed loudly then dived beneath the surface.

European Christianity reached nowhere later than the Baltic states, where in the 13th century it arrived masked in the ghastly armour of the Teutonic knight. Histories now recall how native Livonians in those day ran to the rivers and ponds to “wash off their baptism” when the invader was away. Amid the splashing, shouting and show of flesh, I wondered if our romp in the Daugava physically resembled those ancient scenes.

Swimming made for pleasurable work against the chilly river’s relentless westward flow. But a few minutes of going nowhere wore me out so with some others I retreated to the reedy bank, panting, to collect stray clothes and bask in the sun.

White butterflies flapped paper wings in the tall grass. Fat bumblebees climbed precariously over the petals of bobbing wild flowers. Laughter rang out from the far side of the river. Soon we would drive back to Lasi for supper and another round.

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