When I first arrived in Aloja after three months of language training in a nearby city, I was hosted for a few days by a well known poet, writer, and translator named Daina Avotiņa at her home in the countryside. Staying with Daina was my first exposure to the real Latvia: we drank milk straight from the cow, ate homemade caraway cheese, and slept under coarse olive green and heather yellow woolen blankets inside her old, wooden cottage. I was almost completely unintelligible at that point. I remember trying my shallow conversational skills with her family at the rustic wooden dining table; my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. As a departing gift, Daina handed me a large hunk of bacon fat from one of her farm’s pigs. I probably looked like a deer caught in headlights when I received it; I didn’t have a clue what do with it. At least I knew the words to thank her for it.

I ended up eating most of that fat throughout the following winter.  Despite – or because of – my broken Latvian and general dumb innocence as a foreigner, my downstairs neighbor Nora took it upon herself to take care of me. Which meant, that she fed me.  If I could capture my whole two years of living in Aloja, in Latvia, of my life in the Peace Corps, it would be this: getting called downstairs for dinner by Nora (“Sariņ, nac est!”) to eat mashed potatoes a la bacon fat along with a glass of fresh milk and then watching, late into the night, re-runs of Beverly Hills 90210 dubbed in Latvian. (Nora claims that she never fell asleep watching 90210 even though she had been up since 4am to milk the cows; she says she was able to watch the shows “ar vienu aci cietu,” with one eye closed.) And as the steps between Nora’s and my door became worn and more familiar, the coarse Latvian woolen blankets became warm and inviting to me and dinner was no longer complete without bacon fat.

Daina’s name came back to me some time in my second year when Nora lent me her mother-in-law’s sewing machine. It was a hand-operated black Singer from the early 1900’s, decorated with gold filigree and still a solid and smooth machine. It had survived the March 1949 deportation to Siberia with Nora’s mother-in-law and her two small boys.  One day while I was rummaging around inside a drawer of the well traveled machine (I had been fixing up my finds from the Scandinavian Humanitarian Aid clothing pop-up store, which Nora mockingly called the “Humani” or “Humpali,”),  I found a folded up, aged yellow newspaper clipping alongside some fabric and thread scraps. On it was was a poem written by Daina called “Tu jau tālāk aizvedīsi,” or “You will continue to carry.” Here is my translation. (If you are a Latvian speaker, corrections are welcome!)

Par ŝo zaļo zemes malu,
Ko par Dzimteni es saucu,
Cilvēki ir atdevuŝi
Mūžus daudzus.
For this edge of green land,
That I call my Native Land,
People have given
Many lives.
Pūsdzīvotus. Nedzīvotus.
Neprasot, vai atlīdzinās.
Neprasot, vai viņu vārdi
Paliks talākceļu mina.
Half-lived. Not lived.
Not asking for anything in return.
Not asking if their name
Would be remembered down the road.
Protams, katram sava daļa.
Dzīves sauciens. Aicinājums.
Es jau arī nebūtību
Savā esamībā krāju.
Of course, everyone has their own part.
Life’s calling. An invitation.
I also count nothingness
In my own existence.
Bet par to, ka redzu sali,
Redzu zālē rases zibu,
Redzu bērna tīro smaidu –
Kādam paldies sacīt gribu.
But because I see the sun,
I see the glint of dew on the grass,
I see a child’s pure smile –
I want to thank someone.
Dzimtene, lai Tev tas paldies.
Kad par tavu zemi kļuŝu,
Tu jau tālāk aizvedīsi
Baltus manu bērnu mūžus.
Native Land, let you be the one thanked.
When I am a part of your earth,
You will continue to carry
The brightest of my children’s lives.

We figured the poem must have been written some time in the mid to late 1980’s when it was relatively safe to publish something nationalistic (referring to this “edge” of the Soviet Union, I would surmise). It had to have been Jacis, Nora’s mother-in-law who had been deported, who put the poem in the sewing machine.  I wish I knew which newspaper it was published in and when exactly it was published; did it not raise any red flags for its nationalist message? Was it a local paper that was able to avoid national attention? Or was the content considered subtle, as it doesn’t mention Latvia specifically?

To me, the poem is so very Latvian – a paean to land, to the soil. Eschewing the German Lutheran God that only tenuously erased the ancient Latvian pagan way of life, she thanks the land for her life.  Why is the land so important? In Latvia, it is what has given most of the Latvian people their surnames: Bērziņŝ, Ozols, Kalniņš, Liepiņš, Avotiņa – birch, oak, hill, linden tree, a spring. It is what has given the natural dyes and the wool to the classical woolen blankets; it has provided the bacon fat that gives flavor to Latvians’ rustic, traditional foods; it has given the reeds that shape Latvians’ straw table coverings and wall hangings; it has provided the flowers that are given at every celebration.  This is a country where I was publicly laughed at – where I almost lost my credibility as a human being! – when I casually referred to a pine tree (“priede”) as a fir tree (“egle”). Trees are things you do not confuse in a country that highly esteems its nature and soil. No, these natural things from the land are a part of life.

This poem and translation are posted in honor of November 18th, Latvia’s Independence Day, celebrating independence from the Russian Empire in 1918. Sveiks lai dzivo!