Travel #3: A Year in the Van. 1992-93.

September 24, 2019

Travel #3 – A Year in the Van. 1992-93.

I was completing many years of teaching at Sacramento Waldorf School and would be joining the Rudolf Steiner College faculty in Fall 1993. Jim Staley and I had been asked to do teacher training in Latvia, we had hosted a family from Riga, and we had an interest in how this Baltic country was faring under the changes in the Soviet Union. We decided to take a year off and focus on Eastern Europe. We consulted a map of Europe, identified where we had friends to visit, and researched places we wanted to explore. Our practical arrangements included purchasing a used VW camper in Amsterdam and selling it back at the end of the year. With the addition of a portable toilet, we were self-sufficient.

When we travel by plane, it is as if we are dropped into a place, and the journey begins. On wheels, it is different. We slowly move into the future with the possibility of making a left turn, right turn, going straight, or reversing our tracks. The exploration itself is the journey. During the year we crisscrossed Europe from West to East and back again, four trips in all. The sense of adventure and the unknown were present everywhere we went.  Although Latvia would be a focus, other major sights included Poland, Hungary, Russia, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, and Spain.

Why Latvia?  After teaching in Riga, Jim said, “When I left Latvia in 1991, I thought I was leaving forever. I had experienced the intensity of the struggle to get out of the Soviet Union, for Latvia to be a free and independent country. It was a special joy to come back to a Latvia that was independent and free, that the dream was realized.”

I knew little of Latvia before my first trip and was surprised to find that my grandmother Fannie Leicht Finkelstein came from that area when people from Latvia and Lithuania were called Litvaks, and it was under one rule.

Some of the following experiences stand out more than twenty-five years later.


  1. Crossing the border from Poland to Lithuania

The crossing took eight hours, and autos inched up a few feet every hour or so.    However, I was busy cooking dinner in the van, and rather than being frustrated by how long it took, we enjoyed a meal and were pleasantly relaxed. Every once in a while, a border crossing official knocked on the van window demanding a bribe to be able to move us to the front of the line. Jim declined.


 2. Living in Riga with the Lisagor family                                                                                                                                                 The home of Oskars and Olga Lisagors, her mother Ludmila Brauna, and son Roma became our home base for a month. Law and order was an issue. Metal hardware on the apartment house doors, as well as in cemeteries, were being stolen to be sold for hard currency. Street lights were at half voltage or off, temporary money was being used. The van had to be secured inside a yard so it wouldn’t be stolen.

Around the tiny kitchen table, we had intense conversations about life. The seed of my book Tapestries was conceived to capture the stories of life under the Soviets. We were aware of food shortages. One day, while I was out exploring Riga, I found a cauliflower in the window of a shoe repair shop and came home with it in my purse. Olga commented, “You are becoming a good Soviet woman.”

When I commented to Oskars that I hoped to find some connection to my father’s family in Belarus, Oskars asked me my maiden name. I replied, “Kletsky.” “That’s not the way it would be pronounced in Latvian. It would be Kleckins. There is a well-known professor of journalism at the university with that name.” They invited Abrams Kleckin and his wife Anna to tea. Although we couldn’t prove it, it seemed possible that his grandfather and mine were cousins. When World War I broke out, the border between Latvia and Belarus was closed, and his grandfather was caught in Latvia. Abrams was born in Riga.

 3. Teacher education in Riga and St. Petersburg                                                                                                                                  Jim had given some of the first Waldorf education lectures in Latvia when he was there in 1991. German Waldorf teacher educators were offering formal teacher training seminars, and we were asked to join them.  One of the issues had to do with translation. Under Soviet occupation, everyone had to learn Russian, and that was the language of our course. Jim objected to it and insisted that it be Latvian translation from our English presentations. A German colleague accused Jim of being a nationalist, but when we returned to teach the next segment some months later, half the day was translated from Russian and half from Latvian. A minor victory.

In the Spring of 1993, we took the train to St. Petersburg (Leningrad then) to teach in the Waldorf seminar there. Teachers came from very far away – in some cases, two or three days by train. They held their Waldorf teachers in high esteem, and when we walked to the front of the room, they stood up to honor us.

Sour cream is served on everything, and after standing on a long line to buy some, we were told we had to have a jar. The next day we mentioned it in class, and we received many jars. So, we went back to the market, stood in the long line, and when we got to the front with our jar, there wasn’t any more left. So goes life in the Soviet Union.

One of the difficult situations was how to adapt the German approach to Waldorf education to the Latvian approach. At first, when the teachers planned the first day of school, they wanted to have a fire in the courtyard as is typical in Latvia, but the German teachers said it wasn’t appropriate. However, the next year, the Latvian teachers made a fire, the first of many changes to adapt Waldorf education to the local culture.

4. Traveling around Eastern Europe in the van                                                                                                                               We were driving along the Latvian coast when we saw a lighthouse. Usually this is off limits to non-military people. The Baltic coast with its closeness to Europe had been a defense position of the Iron Curtain, a place where western intelligence penetrated during the Cold War. Every night the Soviet army would drag a machine to score the beach with lines. In the morning, they would see if there were footprints. Then they could search for intruders. The coastal zone had been forbidden for Latvians. However, with the ending of the Soviet Union, the new Latvian government was in charge, and we were able to visit the lighthouse. The officers invited us in and showed us the radar they used to use. There was much humor. The new Latvian government was making changes.

Traveling outside of Prague, we came to Lidici, in what is now the Czech Republic. On June 10, 1942, the German government destroyed the village in retaliation for the unsuccessful assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak soldiers. The Nazi government used Lidici as a symbol of revenge. The men of the village were shot, and the women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, and the youngest were sent to Germany for re-education. Although this happened in other places, as well, Lidici became a symbol, and many settlements across the world took on its name and thousands of parents named their children Lidice. It became a symbol of hope for the time the Third Reich would be defeated, and Europe would be free again. As we walked the empty streets where homes once stood, I felt we were surrounded by ghosts. Yet, there was a glimmer of hope in the conferences and exhibitions focused on children around the world.

I hadn’t expected the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust to be such a presence in our trip, but in town after town, we saw plates on the sides of buildings naming the number of Jews who had been gathered at that spot and sent to the camps. Few returned. When I went into a small synagogue in Poland, I asked where I might find out whether any of my father’s family had survived. The old men caring for the building shook their heads sadly and said that so few survived.

As a child, I had loved to eat bialies which we bought in the bakeries in the Bronx. When we saw the sign for Bialystok in Poland, we diverted from our itinerary and drove around to some bakeries. I tried to describe a bialy, but blank stares greeted me. Later I learned that the reason they didn’t know what a bialy is was that the bialy bakers were Jews who either had left Poland and brought bialies to other parts of the world or that most of them were killed in the Holocaust. Since then I’ve read a delightful book called The Bialy Eaters  by Mimi Sheraton which includes her interviews with remaining Jews in Bialystok who recalled the taste of bialies as part of their childhood, but who confirmed that there were none alive anymore. However, for those wanting to enjoy a bialy, there are still bakeries in the Lower East Side in New York as well as other places where bakers from Bialysok had emigrated. Recently my daughter Andrea and I had breakfast in a café in Washington D.C. where they make bialies on site. Not the same as my memory, but pretty close.

5. A change of scenery- Ibiza, Spain in January                                                                                                                              We were very fortunate to be offered an opportunity to escape the winter cold and live in Ibiza for a month in January. We left Munich and flew to Barcelona and then to Ibiza. Although it was winter and not a time for swimming, the sun was bright, and the days were long. We both set up corner offices in the house and set about making a daily schedule. Both Jim and I had writing projects, and this was a perfect time and place for concentrated work. I had begun to write Tapestries, Weaving Your Life’s Journey. As we traveled around, I met people whom I interviewed about their biography. In Ibiza, I interviewed an Episcopalian minister who cared for a community of British ex-pats who retired to Ibiza as a couple, but often the husband died, and the wives were left there without Spanish language or strong social support. This wasn’t the task he had signed up for, but he was glad to be of service.

6. A Difficult Ending to our Year in the Van                                                                                                                                      We were having problems with the van, and it became a question of whether it would last for the drive across Europe to Amsterdam. For $900, we could book two tickets and a place for the van on a ferry from Latvia to northern Germany and from there we would make the final drive to Amsterdam. We took the last of our emergency money and decided to do this. Jim was already in the center of Riga, waiting for me with the money. The aroma of popcorn from a nearby grocery awakened a sense of home, and I decided I had to have some. By now it was too late for me to walk into Riga’s center, so with the paper pouch of popcorn, I made my way into a space at the back of a crowded bus. A disturbance occurred in the front of the bus, and I looked up to see what was happening. Unknown to me, in that moment a person unzipped my attache case and took my wallet. I continued into town and met Jim at the ferry office, but when I went to pay, the money was gone. Nine hundred dollars was a year’s salary at that time. When we realized the loss, I ran back to the grocery store to see if I had left my wallet there. No luck. When we described the event to the police, they explained that this was a common occurrence. Two thieves would work together. One at the front of the bus causing a commotion, the other in the back taking advantage of preoccupied passengers.                                                                                                                                         We limped with the van back to Amsterdam, and a year later my wallet minus the money was sent to me in the U.S.