The Baltic Pigs Have Arrived

The Baltic Pigs Have Arrived
(c) Tomoko Takahashi Harvey 2006
An extract from Mushroom Covenant by Laima Muktupavela

Translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis and Vija Kostoff

Everything will be all right; I try to calm myself finding it impossible to understand how I could fit the ton of goods I have to take with me into a carry-on bag. No more than 20 kilos. I'd like to see them try and weigh work boots, jackets, shirts, socks, extra work pants, if they have anticipated no place to do laundry with everything getting soaked because it doesn't just rain in the pubs and taverns in Ireland.
Not easy to ditch from my bag the rye bread, the sprats, cheese, Riga's Balzams liqueur and the bottle of schnapps, the canned meat, coffee and black tea, for who knows when the first payday will come and I'll be able to buy my daily bread. All those who end up abroad moan and groan in yearning for authentic Latvian rye bread and bacon.
Bacon! That's to keep up one's strength.
Rye bread! No Latvian should leave his country without it. That applies whether he's heading East or West, whether he's escaping or being deported in a cattle car. That's why the bread! It's every Latvian's ID.
I finish packing my bag. The sun is already rising.
I go into the kitchen feeling that I must gorge myself on food, as much as I can cram in. In other words, eat to bolster my strength in the style of my neighbour. What a macho guy! When he eats his wife stands to one side and with humility and admiration watches him put it away.
He slices some streaky bacon, sizzles it in a pan, cuts in some onions and fries it all up until it's amber brown, sprinkles on some flour, black pepper, and some grated Russian cheese, and keeps the pan on heat just until it melts. Then he takes it off the stove, adds a good dollop of sour cream and some finely chopped fresh herbs (dill, green onions, parsley), covers it all with a lid and serves it to - himself.
Having finished his meal he carries on with the usual ritual that comes after he's stuffed himself - he forces a burp, but the fart comes out on its own. It sure is food that carries a punch. You can't deny that.
Ellocka takes me to the airport. There's not a sign of what you'd see on the big screen when the departed are sent off by mourning relatives or a grieving boyfriend. I have no one. To help me maintain my equilibrium Ellocka gives me a small book, some scribblings by an Indian shaman.
"Here," she says, "something for you to read after work on those long winter nights."
Everything will be all right; I comfort myself, trying to remember what it is that I have to do.
1. I must register my ticket.
2. I must check my baggage.
3. I must have my last coffee in Riga.
4, 5, and what comes after that I've already forgotten.
To keep up my courage I have a "cafeita" - a coffee with a shot of Balzams liqueur and cream instead of milk and while I'm doing that I take a good look at my co-travellers.
They're Russians. There's a young Russian woman with a hairdo piled high and gathered at the nape of the neck with such a grand hairclip it looks like ten fingers, keeping her hair trapped as if in a vice. She's blond, flamboyantly made up. Wow! The lips alone - a sinful red - are worth a good look. She's wrapped in a fur coat, with tall boots and in her ears clanging jewellery, which may be gold but I can't tell the real thing from the rest of the shiny stuff. She's laughing and chatting with three young men. They're all clad in leather. Mass-produced ready-to-wear from the Vilnius market. Oh but there's not much more to see there. They're typical punks looking like their ancient folk-hero Ilya Murometz. Like him, they chase the devil, shake down pears from trees and spear pickles. In other words, are thoughtless loudmouths.
The Latvians? They're quiet. Ah no, more than that, they're up tight, guarding their buggies as if they were dugouts. Latvians know how to build them wherever and from whatever material. Like me, for instance. I'm drinking my "cafeita", and no one would dare approach me to ask me if I'm lonely.
From the Latvian oyster-shell-like dugouts it's easy to observe the whirligig of life as O'Henry called it.
Time flies so quickly on the wings of an airplane. I have no concept of the nature of time for time is as fast or as slow as is each individual himself.
Dear Jesus, a voice over the airport loudspeaker announces gate numbers for such and such. A short climb up the lowered plane ladder, on to the cheap student seats in the back and with a great "swoosh" I, along with all the others, am yanked up into the heavens. Quick as a wink and it's done.
Tea? Coffee? I'd like something stronger but am afraid to. What if I get tipsy and get left behind somewhat drunk in the royal kingdom of the Danes?
In the seat in front of me is a Latvian woman. The person beside her starts talking to her in English. I don't understand a thing. Not a thing. The young woman laughs and keeps talking energetically. I understand absolutely nothing. Just maybe yes, yes, yes, and no, no, no. The two drink some wine from a small bottle, while I begin to tremble even more.
The meal doesn't help. Some sort of macaroni a la Aeroflot: slices of cheese, paper-thin slivers of ham, fried, finely diced potatoes, and grated carrots past their prime, with mayonnaise.
On top of this they give us some sweets. Wow, a Laima's chocolate, a cookie from the Staburadze store and then with horror I see that we're already circling Copenhagen's airport. All my good intentions to control myself and not to fall apart and my belief that my magic mantra will protect me from all harm go flying out the window. All I want to do is cry.
I know that my plane for Dublin leaves in two hours.
I reassure myself that that's plenty of time, time to find the right flight, the right gate - gate, gate, gate - my first English word obviously will have to be gate.
I go out into the airport city and find myself agreeing with all those people who say that the loneliest person is the one who's stumbling around aimlessly in a sea of people.
There are a lot of white faces.
Also many sunburnt Arabs and Indians, pushing their belongings in buggies crammed with small kids and beside them calmly sliding along the conveyor belt women wrapped in bright saris.
And many blacks whose gait is so leisurely and their supple bodies so mesmerizing that I find myself pulling in my stomach and also trying to walk with an air of nonchalance.
Despite the droves of people, silence predominates in the airport.
I understand nothing. Not where my plane is, nor my flight to Dublin, and why in heaven's name I am rushing off to some island removed from the continent to find my happiness and mountains of gold.
I've come to a stop in front of an airport employee in uniform and am shocked that my body has not abandoned me. Tears start to flow. Sorry, Miss. She asks something more but it's no longer important. I still don't understand and can't explain. I wave my ticket around and just weep, weep, weep. Pointing to my ticket I stammer, managing to get out only the words Dublin, Dublin, Dublin...
The royal kingdom's employee writes something on my ticket, and points to the TV monitors at the ceiling level, saying here little girl, look at that little monitor for your flight number, your flight destination, the gate you have to go through and follow those arrows, which you can't miss, and they'll take you straight to Dublin. A blind man would see, a deaf man would hear but a cripple after such a comprehensive, simple explanation in pantomime would run away like the wind. She hands me a Kleenex to wipe my tears and smiling kindly melts into the sea of people.
I sit down by the Dublin gates like a puppy who after some naughty escapades has returned to his own front stoop. I don't walk around the airport, not yet being ready for so grand a manoeuvre. I listen to the announcements in various languages and look at flight information on the TV monitors.
I understand everything. Dear people, surely if I understand and if I can make my way to the plane without being tied by a rope to the kindergarten teacher, then things are not as bad as I imagined. God, was I afraid. God, was I paralysed from fear just thinking of what I was about to do, I who have never been further than Zilupe to the East and Liepaja to the West in Latvia.
At the gate (gate, gate, gate) to Dublin a crowd of people flying to Ireland starts to gather. Carrot-heads and dark ones. And then some who are rather mouse-coloured. Like me, for instance. The Russians I saw in Riga. Blond Goldilocks is here looking somewhat confused in the midst of travellers dressed unlike her. With her eyes she attempts to take in something one of the Russian men is saying. He must be the only one who understands five words in English and that's why she's sticking to him. They've all become somewhat quiet.
We board the plane.
Everything proceeds smoothly like mass in a church, like all well worked out rituals. To keep us busy we're given food so that, like children, who have nothing to do, we don't start getting into trouble and worrying about air catastrophes and possibly falling into one of three seas. The tired-looking stewardesses try to smile. Coffee? Tea? Yes, yes, I say, coffee. The stewardess understands me! She hands me a coffee. She understands me. I'm speaking English. I haven't yet crossed England, folks, but I'm speaking English and they understand me!
Everything happens fast. Maybe even too fast. Like at a wedding - food, coffee, drinks, blankets for those who want to sleep and the captain's message concerning our landing on Ireland's shores. We have arrived.
I put on my nametag readying myself to be received by the welcoming committee. But arrival on the island is not quite that simple. The labour pains leading to this new life are further prolonged. All arrivals must pass through two checkpoints - like the double dangers of Scylla and Haribda. The Irish passport control, customs officers and other such beasts like Cerberus guarding the gates of hell.
Calling out a sincere word or two the customs people let pass the carrot-haired ones, the white ones, black-haired ones, stocky ones and all those whose facial expression gives away their birthplace - born anywhere but in some forgotten world's sixth region. Everybody's laughing and hurrying, for the night is fast approaching.
We're at the tail end of the queue - one black guy who already in Copenhagen's airport was asked to step aside and show his passport, Riga's Russians and me. What we all have in common is the confusion on our faces and yes, gutlessness, even though I know my work permit is in my pocket. It's a sheep's cowardice; one could say baaa, baaaa...
The passport control is set up on purpose in such a way that even physically the control officials are taller by at least a head than all the people passing through. This means they're able to look down at us from the heavenly heights as if at a lesser being, rather than eye to eye. The controllers are themselves of large physique, so that through their mass alone they can put the fear of the Lord in the newly arrived. So regardless of who the arrivals are they understand that there's no joking around on their Irish island. That's why the Irish don't assign to this position short men for whom guarding Ireland's security would be no more than a question of raising their own self esteem. Let people fear the Irish nation!
At this moment the Irish customs official/Cerberus who has elected himself God, with a superior smirk, is staring intently at the beauty from Riga. The Russian girl's bewilderment grows into veritable confusion. Her piled up coiffure has already gone flat, now looking somewhat like a hen's behind after the wind has been at it. The grand fur, the boots with spiked heels, in complete contrast to her ku-de-ku-ku appearance, now seem completely out of place and change the current circumstance into a commedia dell' arte performance with the Irish fellow as its director, set designer and animal dresser all rolled into one.
To her rescue comes the young Russian who knows five words of English. Sorry?
From his private pulpit on high the Irish fellow says something to the young man. He in turn mumbles a response but the Irish guy pretends not to understand. With a grand gesture he points to a small table in the corner, on which lies a pile of papers. He smiles, because he can see that even his colleagues are taking pleasure in these beasts in fur coats.
Lending a half-ear I listen to the Russians talking. It seems that we, who have been pushed to the side, must write down our first names, last names, the reason for our visit, where we're staying in Ireland and something else. I start to move towards the table and look for something to write with. Beside me is the black boy who has survived the crossfire at the Copenhagen airport. Driven by a familiar humility inherited from his ancestors and a resignation to always being the one held back (slavery, entrance forbidden to blacks, not this nor that, and other such honourable outcomes of history's shit) with big beautiful letters he prints his NAME.
Observing the Negro boy's script I follow suit. I print my FIRST NAME, LAST NAME, some sort of PLACE, DATE OF BIRTH...It looks fine... Fine enough to fly even as far as Bali and fill out similar forms. (Their alphabet, however, looks more like dancing snakes it's so mystically beautiful and incomprehensible.) But regardless, with letters that look like they could be carved into rune stones I print on the Irish form a brief autobiography:



was born

in Latgale's capital


increasingly many years ago

speak Latgalean and also

some sort of Latvian
and Russian languages,
which the black-haired
Irish don't need in
their country

regardless I will work
on the island

and be a mushroom picker

I will live with Sally McBranaghan and God only
knows where that is because her village is not on
any map and the road to it cannot be found and I
have no idea what the code CO MEATH means.
So don't ask me even if you are Catholics.
Have pity on me and don't be harsh- so that it's
less shit (1) for poor old me.

The Irish passport controller/pelt skinner rakes the Russians properly over the coals. The young man, who knows five words of English, looks totally lost. Mumbling something, blushing, confused, fingering his work permit with the beautiful Irish symbol of a harp on it, he looks exhausted. The others crowd together as if waiting to be shot by an open grave.
"Job... work ... working..." he stammers.
Baa, baa...
After some time they let go those like, oh what can I say when the same fate awaits me, baa..a ...
It's my turn. I walk up to the other Irish fellow. And he, like a big, black cloud floats over me. But the eyes, the eyes are warm and black. So help me God - warm and pitch black! The same as those of the Cerberus at the first control. I push towards him my completed form and my work permit. The big, black Irish fellow (black cloud) asks me some question. I, of course, don't understand. Name? I-V-A, the official spells out loud somehow not pronouncing the letters as he should, but for the life of him he can't make out my last name.
He asks me something again but I shrink even more and point with my finger to the work permit. Does it matter what he's asking me? Everything about me is on that paper. There's the paper and there's the person, for God's sake!
"Job, work, working." I recite.
The 'cloud' continues to question me but I neither understand what he wants nor can I answer him. That's why I shoot back my newly acquired words. All is fair when the water has already risen up to your mouth. Gate! Tea! Coffee!
The Irish black cloud and Cerberus fall silent. They look at each other. They throw me my passport as if it were an angry snapping crow.
"Go," they shout at me and point in the direction of the Up

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