In July 1994, Bill Clinton became the first American president to visit an independent Latvia. As he spoke near the Freedom Monument, thousands of Latvians thronged to hear his words. Many more listened on radio or watched on television. Among them was Kevin, then a young midwestern American who had come to Latvia to visit his penpal. Jeff Keenan tells the story of that first visit in his book, The Main.
The following month we traveled to Latvia for the first time. The trip was hectic, requiring visit after visit to new and old relatives, excursions around Rīga and throughout Latvia to places we had only read about, and occasional jaunts to various institutions for business and research purposes. In short, we were busy.
His first trip was made specifically to visit his penpal Māra and her family. The Main describes his two weeks with the family and his growing need to “find himself.”
Kevin comes across naive—and I’m trying to use that word objectively, without attaching to it the negativity that we often do. Here he is, a young man of 25 from northeast Iowa who is making his first voyage beyond the Midwest. Even before he’s out of the country, he is apprehensive and amazed by New York, where he has to change planes and airports.
I went to Latvia for the first time with baggage. Besides the overstuffed suitcase, there were three decades of accumulated history, family lore and black-and-white photographs etched in memory. I don’t think I went with a romanticized vision of what Latvia might be like, but I’m sure that what I saw was quite different from what Kevin did.
Kevin, without that baggage, also doesn’t find a romanticized—or even a romantic—Latvia. What he does find is simplicity, so much so that at times it begins to grate the reader: The home in Rīga where he stays is simple. The meals are simple. The people are simple.
But sprinkled through the book are hints that things are not so simple in Latvia:
Amazed by the simplicity he was experiencing, he questioned Mara about her everyday life.
“Everything seems very peaceful here in Latvia,” he said. “Is life always this simple?”
Māra explains about the lack of heat in her family’s apartment, about the loneliness and depression that some people experience. Still, Kevin continues to see Latvia as a peaceful and simple place. Perhaps it is, but The Main begs for Kevin to dig a bit deeper, to seek what the country and the people are really like. He has several opportunities to do so, but is reluctant to ask questions when they may reveal much to him.
At one point in this short book of 110 pages, Kevin puts aside a travel guide, realizing that it provided inadequate preparation for the Latvia he finds. It’s a telling moment, one that shows the effect of being placed in a different culture, even if for a while. Nothing you read is like the real thing.
Keenan’s book about a journey of self-discovery allows us to see Latvia through fresh eyes. I only wish he had looked a bit harder.
Minneapolis: Peace River Publishing, 2001
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