Tag Archives: European Union

Return Of An Early Inhabitant of Jaunpils Castle (Circa 1301) Or Just A Glitch In The Matrix?

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In the autumn of 2004, more than just the leaves were changing in Latvia. We were in the midst of immense cultural, financial and political shifts: We had been members of the EU (European Union) for precisely one year; within which time, change had consumed every level of Latvian life. Politicians now had the EU overlooking their shenanigans and had become somewhat less overt with their corruption.  The economy was—by Eastern European standards—robust and showing remarkable improvements. After some bouncing around, we’d reduced inflation from 958.6% in 1992 to 2.5% by 2004. People were renovating old properties and tourists were flooding the capital city of Riga. Life was finally stable and, as an American, I felt hopeful.

There was, however, a shadow side to all of this good news: With the tremendous  social and economic changes came a collective identity crisis shared by many local people. My dictionary defines Identity Crisis: A period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

I leave it up to you to imagine what happens when an entire society experiences abrupt unexpected change in their aims and roles. When you compound this with the fact that what Latvian society had been and what it was transitioning into were almost diametrically opposed (regimented socialism/communism to a relatively freewheeling capitalism) … Let’s just say it was disorienting for many people.

The watchful, parental eye of the Soviet Union was in force for 50 years: People were told where they would work and live and had no worries about future security; all necessities were guaranteed. Music and art were defined and dictated by the state; even personal fashions, including the length of men’s hair, were mandated. The sudden collapse of such an austere political system left many people wondering what was normal within this brave new world into which they’d been launched. This lack of a clear identity created some rather inexplicable behavior—in the search for normal—that frequently offended my American sensibilities. More on that later …

2004 was also the year I bought my first digital camera. I was immediately in love with my new acquisition and we quickly became inseparable. The cost of film had been high in Europe, but the cost of developing pictures, particularly in Eastern Europe, had been extremely high and often had a 10-day to 2-week turnaround. Overnight I was able to take hundreds of pictures, download them onto my computer, delete them from the memory card, and start all over again. I was off and running with this new technology.

It was a warm, Saturday morning—with an azure sky as far as the eye could see, interrupted by only a handful of white fleecy clouds—that Egil and I headed to Jaunpils Parrish, about an hour south west of Riga, to visit the beautiful Jaunpils Castle. I knew nothing about this early 14th century castle, but Egil assured me that, although it had been rebuilt and restored many times over the past 7+ centuries, parts of it remained impressive examples of ancient architecture.

Factually, we were both longing to escape the noise and stress of the city, for the day—as much as we loved Riga—to commune with nature and hopefully experience a few Kodak Moments with my new digital companion.

We took our time driving to the castle—Enjoy The Journey as Much as The Destination is generally our motto—meandering through the bucolic Latvian countryside…

The journey was beautiful on that clear October day.

The journey was beautiful on that clear October day.

Consequently, we arrived at our destination in mid afternoon.

The castle gardens and grounds were spectacular. In every direction the scenes were surreal, in a Monet painting sort of way: soft, pastel gardens, grassy fields, meadows and ponds bathed in golden autumn sunlight… and all of this with a medieval castle as a backdrop.

A small pond, alive with wildlife, and illuminated by the soft golden sunlight of autumn ...

A small pond, alive with wildlife, and illuminated by the soft golden sunlight of autumn.

Jaunpils Castle in late afternoon sunlight.

Jaunpils Castle in afternoon sunlight, upon our arrival.

We wandered around silently for over an hour before realizing that we were ready for afternoon tea. As if on cue, a café appeared—stage right—just off the main cobblestoned square.

Just off of the cobblestone courtyard was the small cafe.

Just off of the cobblestone courtyard was the small cafe.

As we left the brightly sunlit courtyard and entered the softly candle lit café we found ourselves almost completely blind.

Standing in the arched doorway our eyes slowly adjusted and the lovely room came into focus: Three tables stood along a back wall—with the table to the far left being occupied; the two other tables awaited us. We moved towards the far right, leaving an empty table between us and the other patrons.

The candlelight danced magically around the room, bouncing off of the stone walls, leaving crevices and crannies hidden in deep shadows. I loved the absence of harsh electrical lighting as well as the lack of blaring techno music—which so many establishments in the former USSR seemed to consider an integral part of their ambience.

I was aware of a man, woman, and child sitting at the table on the far left wall and initially thought they were simply a family out enjoying the beautiful autumn day. Gradually, however, I became aware that the child—a boy of 9 or 10—was extremely agitated about something: Initially whispering—albeit very emphatically— that he wanted to go home. His whispering became louder until he was announcing to his father that, with or without him, he was leaving. The father was replying with soft, distracted responses like, “Oh lighten up, son. We are here to enjoy ourselves.” I wasn’t sure what “We” he was referring to because the boy was obviously not enjoying himself at all.

As my eyes further adjusted to the low light I could see a middle-aged man—let’s call him Clueless —groping a very young woman in a most inappropriate manner. I was thankful for the table that somewhat obscured our view, at least below the waist. The young woman—let’s call her Giggles—was laughing pretentiously, although not the least bit embarrassedly.

At one point Clueless put food in his teeth and then leaned in towards Giggles who obligingly nibbled it out of his grimacing mouth, while he fondled her. I was thankful I hadn’t ordered anything solid to eat, or I’d have possibly lost it.

I understood that without an internal appropriate behavior barometer these were difficult times, but this man had a child acting as his own built in barometer—and he was ignoring him! The scene was appalling on so many levels with the primary one being: The poor child, obviously saner than his hormonally imbalanced father, was feeling completely humiliated by the adults’ (chronologically speaking) behavior. And this fact haunts me to this day: How does a child have more inborn integrity than his parent?

[Okay, so this is a great example of the kind of behavior I was talking about Re. the collective identity crisis creating some really bizarre conduct. As an observer there was almost nothing one could do—in the absence of laws or even standards of acceptable behavior—but watch and cringe. Frequently it seemed like the person performing such acts had seen a movie and thought, “Oh! So that’s normal! Okay I’m good to go here …” and then went out and reenacted some ludicrous Hollywood performance on the street—or in a café, as it were.]

I cleared my throat loudly, several times—thinking perhaps Clueless and Giggles hadn’t realized they had company—in a tone that clearly stated that their fellow diners were not enjoying the show.

If anything our announced presence seemed to encourage the adults (I cringe at the use of this word) and further outrage the boy.

We’d ordered our tea upon entering the establishment—and not being the kind of people to waste money—we decided to drink and run, as the drama across the room unfolded.

“I’m going to turn my flash off and try to capture the beautiful candlelight in this room,” I announced, as I neared the end of my tea. Egil looked at me with his, “Um… Seriously? Alrighty, then…” facial conversation that ended with “I’d rather cut and run immediately, but … yeah okay, just be quick…”  (unlike me, Egil frequently speaks without words.) I can’t imagine what it would take for me to pass up a potentially nice picture; but Clueless and Giggles were not it.

With all patrons seated and the only waiter present hanging out in the backroom (good call in my opinion), I held my camera tightly in both hands; elbows propped firmly on the table, to avoid any movement and began clicking away. The room was absolutely still as I took several pictures, trying with each shot to hold my breath and steady my hands.

In our haste to miss the final act at the table across the room—and reconnect with nature and silence—we quickly left the café after I felt I’d taken an adequate number of pictures. We did not preview any of them.

Giggles and Clueless had so disrupted our peace that we called it a day almost immediately and returned home.

That night, I downloaded the pictures I’d taken throughout the day onto my computer. Initially, when I looked at the pictures I’d taken in the café, I failed to see the ghostly figure that appeared in one of the pictures. What I saw instead were a group of blurry pictures, one of which included a distorted image where light had refracted in some weird way … Then as I looked closer and my eyes focused, I gasped, as a human image materialized in front of my eyes. To me this looked like a woman—perhaps a servant, but not one living entirely in the material plane.

This is one of the several pictures I snapped, in quick succession. You can see the empty room, as we saw it.

This is one of the several pictures I snapped, in quick succession. You can see the empty room, as we saw it.

This photo was taken in the same "empty" room. This image (that looks female to me) is looking directly towards the table of unfolding drama.

This photo was taken in the same “empty” room. This image (that looks female to me) is looking directly towards the table of unfolding drama.

I came to learn that the Ghost of Jaunpils Castle is a well-accepted personality among the employees. When I sent my picture to the management, the response was simple: “Thank you for these photos. They are some of the best photos where [we can easily see] our ghost. This is our Good Ghost, who always takes care of Jaunpils Castle.”  There were no attempts to deny or explain what appeared in my picture; no apologies or excuses seemed necessary. This was a Good Ghost who assisted in taking care of the castle. The end.

This might be a good time to say that I don’t know what I believe ghosts are. A part of me thinks that if time isn’t linear—as some scientists and minds more brilliant than mine, hypothesize—then perhaps all souls are living simultaneously, separated by a thin veil, that is occasionally breached; when this happens perhaps we can see (or photograph) people living in other eras. My mind cannot entirely wrap around that concept but I can feel it. Sort of. The other possibility is that the energetic bodies, of those who have lived before, but not yet moved on, hang out and work with energies in our current time. On occasion, perhaps when they become excited or disturbed, we can see or photograph them. Or perhaps these are angels, or fairies…  Honestly, I have no idea; in fact, I don’t even have a favorite theory.

I just have feelings about these things.

Prior to receiving the email—informing me that I had photographed the Good Ghost—I’d felt in my bones, that the appearance of this ghostly image was somehow related to the drama and emotional state of the child. The image seemed soothing; she was also looking or moving towards the table where the drama was unfolding.

Was she the Good Ghost who considers it her responsibility to take care of the castle? Had she come to lend support and comfort to the young boy at this time of intense anger and humiliation? Or perhaps she materialized (almost entirely) in an attempt to knock Clueless and Giggles into next week: This being my favorite theory although it’s probably projection.

Once again: I have no idea.

For anyone wanting to know more about me (the author) and my journey, here’s a short video:

 

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I’ve Been Gone For A While But Wait Until You Hear Why…

Since my last blog I received my UK visa!

Wait.

Even with that exclamation mark this sentence doesn’t begin to reflect the monumental nature of the event: Receiving my UK visa …. And  I will not stoop to a double exclamation mark. I have way too many English Majors in my life, who keep tabs on me, for such faux pas….

Perhaps my blogs should come with a disclaimer; something along the lines of the one on my rearview mirror: Images in print appear much smaller than in my reality!

Okay let’s start over.

In April of this year, I received a UK visa after Egils and I worked towards that end for 3 1/2  long years of our lives.  UK law requires that anyone coming from beyond the European Union borders (that would be me) must have a sponsor (that would be Egils) who can adequately (financially) support him/herself as well as the person being sponsored. The UK government is unaware that people coming from the former Soviet countries (namely: Egils and I) can live on air, so the amount of financial stability that they required was um… ridiculous, by our standards.

Screen goes wavy then white and we fade into a backstory…. I’ve been dabbling in video recently.

It’s July, 2009, I’ve lived in Latvia for almost a decade with my Latvian partner, Egils. Both of us received slashes in our, already pathetic, salaries prior to all paychecks ending, a few months ago. We have gone through most of our savings. Every day one of our friends or associates leaves Latvia. The grocery stores’ supplies are dwindling. My close American friend of more than 40 years, Bette, says gently, during a Skype talk, “You have to leave. You don’t really have a choice. I’ll help you, but you must go. Now.”

I’ve been denying this obvious fact for almost a year. But within this moment, I know she’s right. We must leave.

I apply for a UK visa, based on what’s left of our paltry savings,  123 online job applications that Egils has submitted for jobs in UK, and a heartfelt plea to return to the land of my great-grandparents.

A week later I receive my visa application back with a “WTF Woman! You can’t seriously think we’re going to let you reenter the sacred land that your ancestors  abandoned 100 years ago, based on a few bucks in an Eastern European bank account and some auto-response replies to online job applications!”

The official wording is “Visa Denied” but in retrospect, I totally know what they wanted to say.

We spend less than a month packing our small car, renting our home, and finding keepers for our cats, before fleeing our home in Latvia, in August, and arriving in Scotland one week later.

Egils enters the UK workforce on the bottom rung of the ladder, trying to make enough money to sponsor me. His masters degree, rich work experience,  fluency in multiple languages, and strong work ethic are of almost no value. He has an accent. He’s unfamiliar with local culture and traditions. He’s come here, uninvited, from a poverty stricken country, at a time when local people are scrambling for the few remaining jobs in the midst of their own recession.

He takes any and every job that comes his way: he works with disabled people, hangs banners over kiosks, scrapes old signage off walls and applies new, drives people to and from the airports…. I help when I can but have no legal rights to work without a visa.

Our time together, in Scotland, is spent in a rented room with the Syme family in a small village in Stirlingshire—the gateway to The Highlands. The Symes become our Scottish family. On good days they are our safety net; on bad days, our guardian angels.

In spite of the Syme family’s boundless hospitality and our endless efforts to make money, I am forced to leave UK 6 months after we arrive because I am an American without a UK visa.

This  6-months-in-UK-6-months-in-USA  requirement continues for 3 1/2 years. Ultimately Egils and I live separately for more than 2  of those 3 1/2 years—him working odd jobs and looking for full-time employment in UK, while I live in the USA with my dear friend Bette ( yes, we are still best friends!) and her husband, Mike.

This gave me more than 2 years of time in the USA to visit with my adult children: Morgan, Debra, Jonathan and Jessica, as well as my grand-babies. I had months  with my brother Tim, his wife and my dear friend, Mia, and their clan—more time than we’ve ever shared in our adult incarnation; what a blessing! I had time with my dear sisters Jeannine and Heather and their clans. I traveled from Coudersport, PA—where I spent time time with my physically and mentally declining mother and her amazing, young-at-heart, sisters—to Cocoa Beach, Florida where I reunited with my dear friend and boarding school roommate, Brenda (and her man, Bert). Brenda and I also cruised to Alaska, walked the ship’s deck in the (nearly) midnight sun and witnessed the birth of an otter on an iceberg.

Many aspects of these past 3 years were miraculous— rewarding in so many ways and on so many levels of my being…. But they were also years of separation from my beloved partner; they were years of incredible insecurity; they were times of learning the true meaning of faith. They were times that taught us the essence of what it means to be an immigrant: A person with many homes, while lacking a real home. They were times that challenged me—challenged us—to the core.

I have many  other visas and each picture tells a story: I’m over-the-moon to be going to Russia and experience a country I never thought I’d see, in early 1993…. I’m trying to smile, as I have finally succeeded in getting an Estonian visa, but my eyes are bloodshot. It is the week my father died … I have a lopsided smile in my next Estonian visa. I came straight from the dentist’s office with a numb, paralyzed jaw (but the appointment with the photographer had been hard to get)… I’m smiling like I have a secret in my first Latvian Visa. I am in those first days of new love with my partner….

My UK visa picture is quite different from any of the others. I am looking pleadingly, at the camera. I look exhausted and like I’ve been crying for years… I’ve been through heart failure. I’ve been away from my man for… it feels like forever. I’ve been living on the edge for way too long….

There were good times in these past 3 1/2 years. In fact there were great times that I wouldn’t exchange for anything. But there were some godawful, I-can’t-believe-I-lived-through-them times as well.

But now they live only as memories.

Because…

I got my UK visa!!

Now let me address the above statement: I’ve been dabbling in video recently…

After 1 & 1/2 years of working on a video, I’ve now completed it and posted it on YouTube! I am pleased and honored to share this with you.

In Search of Home: A photographic essay of our journey from Eastern Europe to Scotland. I really hope you’ll enjoy it and pass it along to others.

http://youtu.be/Ov8nyg8g8CY

I have also pretty much set up my online store where, should anyone desire to own prints of—or products containing—some of my best photos, just click below and voilà!

http://www.cafepress.com/BonnyScotland

So that’s what I’ve been up to since January and my last post (shame on me!). I hope to be blogging more regularly now that I have ended my regular commute between USA and UK.

For now, I’m nestled back in my wee village in the foothills (or hellfits as it sounds when the Scots refer to them) of the Ochils.

I will end this blog with a few pictures I took this week on the moor. Sheriffmuir, to be exact.

Gorse on the side of a hill

The gorse is blooming; the heather is next!

Cemetery

An amazingly colorful cemetery as I entered the road up to the moor …

Ewe and Lamb

Once on the moor, the ewes and lambs welcomed me!

Sheep scratching

Snow capped mountains, blue skies, sheep scratching their necks. Life is good on the moors