Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas in Latvia

Argo Kingsland didn’t count on being stuck in traffic in the Baltics on Christmas Eve. The cab driver told him, traffic in Riga was always bad but on Christmas Eve, everyone plays then prays. The cab smelled like cheeseburgers. The driver spoke Latvian, his head bouncing up and down, into a squawking radio. The car's stereo played a throbbing techno version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," sung in Russian.

He was trying to return to his hotel to call his brother Tim in Baltimore, where it was close to 5:00 in the afternoon. The sun just setting, Tim, his wife and two girls were probably just finishing dinner, readying to have dessert and hot chocolate, watch a Christmas movie. All decked out in red and green, sweaters with tree and reindeer patterns, posing for a Norman Rockwell painting entitled simply, "Family Christmas." Firm-footed Tim waiting for world-wandering Argo to call was not part of this picture. The phone call would be a disruption, jarring the scene and its participants loose. Argo's Christmas scene would have a name too long, be painted by Picasso in a "Guernica" state of mind, colored in browns and grays, installed in a circular gallery where its end would just fall short of meeting its start.

He told the driver he could just walk. The driver said, no, you don't want to walk. Pickpockets, even on Christmas. The car would roll a few feet to a squeaky stop then roll again.

Riga was domes and spires. Barren trees, snow-covered parks. New skyscrapers competing with churches in touching heaven.

Last year it was Paris. Previous years were Portland, Berlin, Tokyo. This year, he thought he’d go some place completely off the mark, so he went with Latvia. The dream of world traveling—he had fulfilled it. But with each passing year, he felt more and more that he was just spinning—going everywhere and nowhere all at once.

Revellers dancing between stopped cars, singing Christmas carols. They weaved through traffic, disappeared into churches and apartments. Church bells rang in the distance.

The song in the cab, just as it seemed to end, started again. The perpetual carol, with a dance beat. The cab seemed to have become stationary. Maybe, Argo thought, he had died and gone to hell.

"Somehow," Argo said. "Christmas ends up like this. A traffic jam. In a foreign country."

"Never where you want to be," the driver said, turning his head. His eyes were wide whites, beard patchy, skin doughy—Argo figured he was probably in his mid-forties. "Yes, I know this feeling. My brother watches my little girl while I drive. Dead mama—God rest her soul—gone papa, yet she still believes in Santa Claus. When I get home I will kiss her on the cheek, move her hair off her face while she sleeps. Tomorrow we will have Christmas for a few hours."

"Sounds familiar," Argo said. He had no children but only his nieces. Right now, they were probably counting the minutes until Christmas, bouncing up and down at the thought of the bounty that would await them under the tree. "You, me—we seem to be everywhere but home, hanging stockings and sitting by the fire. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?"

"I don’t know,” the driver said, his right hand in the air as his left clutched the steering wheel. “I don't have a fireplace anyway."

Argo smiled, felt his pockets for a cigarette. Nothing. He smoked his last one an hour ago. The driver reached back, handed him one.

"Eggnog?" The driver held up a metal thermos with a thick-fingered hand. "Strong and bold, fuel for a Baltic winter!"

“Sounds good. I could use a stiff drink.”

He poured Argo some in a paper cup. It was harsh with vodka, had mere hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. The driver appeared to be drinking an innocuous soda out of a can.

"Just look around you." The driver turned around and faced Argo. "Snow on the ground, red brake lights, Christmas songs. I'm here, my family is there, but Christmas--it's all around us. Wherever you are, I say."

The driver answered a radio call, his voice re-descending into Latvian.

Argo looked ahead. A stick-like clock advertising chocolates indicated it was past midnight. He'd crawled into Christmas.

The song morphed into a slow, ethereal version of "Joy to the World." His cigarette and drink vanished. The traffic, though, was the same song.

He thought about Tim and his family, their Rockwell painting life. He closed his eyes and saw himself slipping into the picture. Wrapped and ribboned gifts surrounding him. Kids climbing on Uncle Argo’s lap. Tim handing him a glass of eggnog, a plate of snowflake cookies. Christmas songs playing on the stereo.

Maybe next year.

But now, here was Christmas. Imperfect as it was. He opened his eyes. All around. Wherever you are.


  1. Going everywhere and nowhere at once... super. Merry Christmas. Peace, Linda

  2. An enjoyable read , good stuff

  3. Good piece, this. I've got a very clear image of this fellow. I don't think his nomadic Christmases are over yet, by a long shot. The call of the Rockwell Christmas really isn't strong enough, yet...

  4. The whole traditional family thing just isn't for everyone. Great job on creating Argo and breathing life in him in such a short space. Very believable, can almost smell the vodka. I love the sentiment he lives by, "wherever you are." So true, wherever you are...there is your life." Wonderful.

  5. Lovely story, poignant yet uplifting at the same time. Love your word-weaving, especially "He'd crawled into Christmas." Just lovely.

  6. Really enjoyed this. Love the contrast between the two life paintings. Also loved the contrast between the longing for something different and the reminder to appreciate the present for what it is. Great work.

  7. Between the techno beat carols in russian and the cheeseburger smelling cab, i was there. This was a gentle, immediate story. I like your style, christain.