Lately, I cry at the most unexpected moments for the strangest reasons. Like staying at a hotel for two nights on a trip to Daugavpils, a city in the eastern part of Latvia. I put down the key card and did the routine check around the room like many, many times before. Nice decor, check! Comfy bed, check! Clean bathroom, check! Great view outside the window, check! Perfect location, check! Then it hit me – when was the last time I did this? It has been easily over a year. Standing in the middle of the hotel room, I realized how abnormal it feels to do “normal” things and how much I have missed it. And, yes, it brought me to tears for the simple pleasures. Maybe not so strange after all.
It was a Saturday night in early May as I walked on the mostly empty, quiet streets of downtown Daugavpils. If I have ever been here before, I don’t remember any of it. I don’t remember the space and the charm. I certainly don’t remember how perfectly orderly the streets are. I commented on it to my hosts that the city has the feel of strict, military-style planning. It was only the first impression, though, and probably based on some preconceived ideas. Since it is the location of Daugavpils fortress, the only early 19th-century military fortification of its kind in Northern Europe that has been preserved without significant changes. The construction of the fortress began in 1810 by decree of Tsar Alexander I of Russia to prepare for the invasion of Napoleon’s army of the Russian Empire in 1812. The fortress as a small, walled-in city is truly an amazing place to visit.
I realized I had other preconceived ideas about Daugavpils like many Latvians who not having visited it lately or ever. Daugavpils is the second-largest city in Latvia. Founded in 1275 as a castle, it was officially designated a city in 1582. During its history, the city had different names: Dinaburg, Borisoglebov, Dvinsk, and finally Daugavpils. it is close to the Belarus border and now the majority of the city’s population is Russian-speaking. (The ethnic Latvians are 20% and ethnic Poles are about 13%). Only a little over 200 km from Rīga, it often seems farther away than it is.
Daugavpils is a very charming city but its history has some very dark chapters. Since the beginning of the 18th century, a significant part of the population of Daugavpils had been Jews. The 11,106 Jews, who lived in the city before WWII in 1935, made up 25% of its overall population and the number of synagogues had increased to 40. The Holocaust during the Nazi occupation destroyed the vibrant and successful Jewish community. Now only one synagogue is functioning in Daugavpils – synagogue “Kaddish.” And approximately 400 Jews reside in the city.
When walking around a place I have never visited, I am one of those people who don’t look only at the buildings but look at other details. For example, I love doors. It makes me sad if the main front door is not in use, but the people use the back door. There is something important about the beautiful front door which properly welcomes you in. I also like to glance at the windows, the curtains, and the plants in the window. Or a cat sits there and stares back at me. You can tell some things about the people from their curtains and their plants. And their pets.
Sometimes a city reminds me of a song, and Daugavpils makes me think of U2 song, “Where the streets have no name.” Dedicated to divided Belfast, Northern Ireland and its complicated past and present. Bono, the band’s vocalist, once described how through the lyrics he was trying “to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location… to sketch a feeling”. There is a unique vibe in Daugavpils where diverse group identities have left their multi-cultural imprint. I got the impression that the city does not reveal its story immediately to the naked eye. The story has to be peeled layer by layer… by those who want to hear it.