Potato and Toothpaste Travel

Amber is fossilised tree resin, a yellowish, pellucid gem washed ashore by the waves of the eastern Baltic Sea. Sometimes there are ancient insects within it, or parts of leaves to decorate it. Amber is a souvenir-laden Cretaceous traveller, and precious. Amber is said to be protective, happy-go-lucky and helpful in making the right choices. In Latvian, amber is called dzintars, from which the name Dzintra comes.

I’d nearly not stayed there but fate granted a second chance. As I’d walked away north on that day I’d randomly met Dzintra at the doors of the Science Academy in the Latvian capital, I thought to kick myself for turning down her offer to stay at her home and worse, for not getting any contact details. I knew enough to know I should know more.

It was in the days before mobile phones. My only hope might be to try to re-find her at the Academy, but I didn’t like the chances of dealing successfully with the German-speaking Russian receptionist. It was a very big building and we hadn’t even exchanged surnames.

Yet there was a sliver of hope: I was due to meet her daughter Antra on the following morning. Dzintra had said there was a castle not too far from Riga, that it was worth seeing and I could take the train there. Without any alternative plan it certainly sounded like a plan. She had to work, she said, but if her daughter was not busy with university she could meet me at the entrance to Riga station at 9 a.m. because her daughter would enjoy the trip too. Maybe.

‘How will she recognise me?’ I asked. It wasn’t as if I stood out in the Latvian crowd.

‘She can find you,’ Dzintra assured.

It wasn’t a meeting arrangement to inspire any confidence but there was only to wait and see. What did my intuition say? Unfortunately, it said nothing.

Anyway, there was a more immediate and pressing concern: would I really find the private apartment I’d left that morning, without really taking in properly where it was?

Eventually I did happen to happen upon the right street.

At 9 a.m. on the following day, at the busy Riga station, I thought it quite impossible anybody could find me in the crowd. But sure enough, as I stood waiting, a young woman approached, saying cautiously, ‘Excuse me, you are Andrew?’ It was Antra.

‘How did you recognise me?’ I asked, quite shocked.

‘You look like a foreigner,’ she said, ‘a bit lost.’

The day at the castle was like a meandering flute melody, made easier by Antra’s English skills. The offer to stay was repeated by the daughter. This time I accepted. I fetched my luggage from somewhere North Riga and returned the house keys to the apartment’s owner. By evening I’d been whisked over the Daugava River and up that flight of stairs in the middle block of three.

Events in the Stalin-era apartment were amusing. There was quite a bit of fussing that went on, unexpectedly, over Dzintra’s dinner.

‘Did you eat?’ I heard her school-going younger daughter Anta, ask.

‘I had my dinner,’ Dzintra replied.

‘What did you eat?’ the daughter pressed.

‘Oh, you know…’ the mother said.

‘What about your dinner?’ her older daughter Antra also asked, upon coming home again later.

‘Yes, I ate.’

‘It wasn’t only potatoes, was it?’

‘No,’ Dzintra said, calling me as a witness.

It brought a smile to see the two daughters questioning their mother in the way a mother might normally question a busy daughter. It wasn’t that Dzintra suffered any horrible malady; hers was rather a wonderful disorder: she was a nomad at heart, a jajabor and it was this affliction that encouraged her to save.

About the potatoes: they were cheap and plentiful, a ready match for the generally modest public salaries of Latvia. Well back into the Soviet era potatoes had allowed Dzintra to put a few roubles aside, as she could, as a travel fund. And what did it matter if dinner meant potatoes, now and then, if one could dream of a pending destination? That was the pay-off.

I agreed to help Dzintra with her English: she was nervous although she shouldn’t have been. With the world’s most delightful accent she could have, frankly, gotten away with anything. And she did.

‘Latvians eat much potatoes,’ she told me once.

‘Many,’ I corrected. ‘Many potatoes. Potatoes are countable.’

‘Not in Latvia!’ she said.

If I’d been more observant I could have seen that jajabor sparkle in her eyes when we’d first met, but it was the potato-talk that confirmed her status. Travel hadn’t been easy in the Soviet era but she’d managed to join tours to various places across the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. Later, she’d visited a relative in Melbourne and her apartment featured Australian souvenirs as evidence. The extended trip was also there in Anta’s English accent: it seemed so out of place in Riga to be hearing the Australian sounding English she’d been young enough to absorb.

‘Most Australians had never heard of Latvia,’ she said, ‘So I would explain where it was.’

But it was her tour to Poland that took my fancy. ‘Toothpaste was always more expensive in Poland,’ Dzintra said, so she’d stocked up and seen Warsaw and Krakow on a finance of Soviet toothpaste, stopping off at a Polish market between sites to pay for the trip.

Passion for anything is rare in this world and I admired hers. It was clear we were predestined to get along. It’s perhaps the reason why every minute we’d spent together felt as a month.

She spoke of her daughters, Antra and Anta, explaining that the elder Antra was supposed to be Anta except that Antra’s grandmother was fond of the letter ‘r’ and changed her name; so Anta was born later. 

She spoke of the other family member, the cat called Puncis which in Latvian means stomach; an accurate name for the robust feline that lounged about. 

We spoke of Australia and many other things besides, as the hours meant years.

And of course more than anything we spoke of travel. It’s a well-known fact that the next best thing for any traveller is to receive another traveller in their home city. It brings with it as close as can be the feeling of travelling, without going anywhere.

‘You can’t leave Latvia without seeing a Latvian forest,’ Dzintra said and I could hardly disagree.  I had no experience with Latvian forests.

‘I have a small car,’ she said, ‘It has some mechanical problems, so if I take a day off work, and it might not get us all the way there and back again without breaking down, but would you like to take the chance?’

We left in the little grey Ford that whistled along to every gear change for the length of the chat and laughter that was the way to the Latvian forest and back again.  I’d say the whistling Ford enjoyed the day out too; it didn’t break down.  And there was another trip to Jurmala and the Baltic Sea, so I could see a Latvian beach.

The days of my planned week in Latvia passed quickly in the way only enjoyable days can. Everything went well, more than well and without complaint until... Well I wasn’t to know how it would be, taking myself off for a day, independently, on that fateful tour to Bauska… It seemed such a simple idea.

But the amber wasn’t with me then.

The story continues here: Was There Any Chance of Wolves?

The first part of the Latvian story is here: The Latvian National Academy of Science.

Follow the Baltic Way, along the sea on a trail of amber...

Or something different? Head for Bangladesh!

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Potato and Toothpaste Travel

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