Category Archives: Culture

To Leave Or To Stay

Officials tour the historic district of Ellicott City, Maryland after the second “1000-year flood” in less than two years again devastated the area.

The second time in approximately four years that the Soviet Union made moves to occupy Latvia, some 250,000 people fled. That included one-month-old me, my parents and my maternal grandmother. We, along with the family of one of my father’s sisters, eventually ended up in the United States. His other sister and her spouse, as well as a nephew, resettled in England. While many in exile around the world vowed that they would return as soon as Latvia regained independence, few did after that occurred. In fact, independence only led to more emigration. Which increased after membership in the European Union and the global financial crisis provided more mobility and motivation. As a result, 200,000 or so Latvians left.

As far as I know, no family member ever considered returning to live in Latvia. No one even bothered to reclaim abandoned property or obtain dual citizenship. My father viewed those who were certain they would go back as delusional, correctly calling their bluff. No one in their right mind would give up comfort and security for some romantic notion of a homeland unchanged from how it was imagined to have been. Particularly since it was well known that half a century of Soviet rule had radically altered everything from commerce to culture. Even the demographics were substantially different. Moreover, geography was not on their side. Latvia had long been prey to larger imperialistic countries that, for one, coveted a harbor on the Baltic Sea navigable in winter. And Russia still casts a greedy eye.

I never thought that, living in the States, I would ever find myself in a situation where people were not only forced to flee but also to admit that they had no rational reason to return. Yet that turned out to be the direct result of my buying an 1830s mill worker’s house in the Oella area of Ellicott City, Maryland about two decades ago. And it was so predictable. You see, the reason that a house like that was available to me was due to Hurricane Agnes destroying the mill race in 1972. The mill was closed, and the owner turned to real estate development. And the reason that I talked myself into buying that particular property despite knowing the history of flooding in the area was that it was built into a steep hillside high above the Patapsco River. Rainwater ran downhill into the river, so there was really no problem. I was not even required to carry basic flood insurance.

What I failed to consider—apart from fallen trees and downed power lines and long detours—was how hard it would be to function when, just down the road, a historic district full of specialty shops and up-scale restaurants being decimated with increasing frequency. In 2011, it was flooding brought about by Tropical Storm Lee. In 2012, it was structural damage, first from a rare derecho and then from an extraordinary train derailment that buried two teens under massive piles of coal. In 2016, it was the “1000-year flood,” which washed away two people, all but demolished the district and required years of rebuilding, which—together with the rumbling of heavy trucks on my road and the circling of helicopters above my house—made my days miserable. Followed by last week’s demoralizing flood, which was worse that its predecessor and killed a man.

While the earlier flood could be dismissed as an isolated event, the more recent one suggested that a new—possibly permanent—weather pattern was in place. Storms now did more than cause waterways to rise. Remarkable amounts of runoff from the impervious surfaces of the surrounding hills descended with amazing force, way more than the swollen streams and rivers could accommodate. Funneled by rows of buildings and roiled by parked cars, raging water turned roads in the district into whitewater rapids. Pulling up pavement and creating caverns, it smashed windows and walls to gut building interiors and collapse entire lower levels of some structures. Likely causes included overdevelopment and climate change, problems that even progressive planners seem unable to reverse.

When I heard that fewer people than before might return, I thought of my father. Twice in two years is too much, he would say. Particularly when basic assumptions have changed. The Bean Hollow Cafe owner’s Facebook post that deals with her decision makes sense:

The BH call from the flood of 2016 was described by the 911 operator as the worst of all the calls she took that night. Listening to it was devastating to me. I never got over it, and just typing this makes me cry. I really can’t live with this level of fear and anxiety anymore. We were able to rebuild the first time because the community bridged the gap between flood insurance and actual cost, and because we were supported by so much love from all of you and the determination born from all the love we have for you, our fellow merchants, residents and the our community that extends all across the continents. After a lot of soul searching and a lot of heartbreak, we feel that as badly as we want to come back, we cannot in good conscience rebuild in E.C.

I might be ready to call it quits, as well. The house that I maintain is safe from floods is vulnerable to landslides. You see, above my modest row of mill workers’ abodes are much larger, more modern, more expensive structures. The one behind me is so obscured by trees that it is easy to forget. But I now think about the swimming pool that was installed after I moved in. It turned that part of the yard that looks down on mine into a surface that does not absorb normal amounts of rainfall. Storms of the sort that cause floods create waterfalls that end in the vicinity of my study. My homeowners association’s Architectural Review Committee—which once agonized over whether a fence must be painted white or taupe—apparently approved the pool. That it stressed an already fragile ecosystem did not matter. So I doubt there is much interest in hillside stabilization.

While I remain wary, there is cause for optimism. Howard County, where much of Ellicott City is located, has far more resources and know-how than most, being among the richest and best-educated in the country. Substantial state and federal funds have been allocated for disaster relief and flood control. And past performance predicts that rebuilding could occur in record time. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that it would take at least 10 years to recover from the 2016 flood, “near miraculous” progress occurred in one year. Moreover, business owners here are resilient. Not long after he arrived from war-torn Syria, for instance, Khaldoun Alghatrif and his brother Majd came up with a concept for a cafe and gallery—Syriana—that shows a side of their nation not normally seen in the news. “We just opened three weeks before the flood,” said Khaldoun, who now manages the gallery. “It’s a start-up business, so we struggle a lot.” After being rebuilt only to be damaged again by last week’s flood, the gallery as well as the cafe, now owned and operated by Majd and his wife Rasha, maintain a positive tone. An update posted almost immediately after the flood reads, “We are missioned to get back on our feet to lend hand to the rest of us in their journey to stand up again. Tough times are ahead of us, but we can only pull through it if we were all there for each other.”

I had hoped to talk with Khaldoun, but the times between disasters never seemed right. There were others, however, that I knew here who showed the same spirit. The late Alda Baptiste, who owned the best bridal shop in the area and came to be called “the unofficial mayor of Ellicott City.” Always a quirky character, she was born to a Portuguese fisherman’s family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Starting out in 1968 with a fabric store on Tongue Row, Alda moved to Main Street in 1970. After surviving the 1972 flood that nearly put her out of business, she took advantage of plummeting property values to buy a building where she could set up shop on the ground floor and live in the top two stories. When my mother moved here after my father died, she—a comparably quirky lady—avoided most people her age, saying, “All they do is whine about their ailments.” She and Alda, however, became fast friends. I spent many enjoyable evenings engaged in lively conversation with them and others from the area over fine food and wine. Alda died within months of my mother. Her building was sold, painted purple and turned into a Beatles-themed hotel, The Obladi. Which might have made her smile.

At this point, I do not know whether it would be smarter to leave or to stay. Starting from the time that I was a small displaced person, I have had 35 addresses over the course of my life. The mill worker’s house is where I have lived the longest. Perhaps I have reached my limit. Perhaps I have one more move left in me. I have always wanted a house on an ocean. All I know is that I need a place where people like Alda and Khaldoun and my mother and me are all able to live and work and try to enjoy life. For now, that will have to be Ellicott City.

Note: A Facebook friend and fellow Latvian American posted this comment in response to a Main Street flood recovery effort video that I shared: “Sorry. But the first thing that comes to mind: ‘Look how fast they clean up those wealthy white liberal elite neighborhoods while Puerto Rico is still a shambles a year later.’ ” While I feel that he misrepresents Main Street residents, business owners and employees a bit since they are more diverse and less affluent than he might imagine, he makes an important point. I would, therefore, encourage you to help flood victims both in our area and in Puerto Rico. And if there has to be a choice, donate to the people of Puerto Rico. How these United States citizens have been treated by our federal government is both a tragedy and a national disgrace.

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Paul McCartney singing his “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La- Da” (1968) in 2010.

The Last Time I Saw Paris

My parents and me by the Seine in the Seventies. (Photo: Duncan R. Munro)

Growing up, Paris was my place of dreams. Particularly the Paris of immigrants and expatriates. The Russian Vladimir Nabokov, the Polish Frédéric Chopin, the Belgian Georges Simenon,  the Dutch Vincent van Gogh, the Austrian Amadeus Mozart, the Hungarian Franz Liszt, the Romanian Eugène Ionesco, the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, the Spanish Pablo Picasso, the Irish Samuel Beckett, the English (but India-born) George Orwell, the West Indian Camille Pissarro, the Chilean Pablo Neruda and countless Americans, from Josephine Baker to Ernest Hemingway to James Baldwin to Jim Morrison. And many more foreigners who lived and sometimes died in The City of Light. All made me think it could be where I, a displaced person, could finally find the kind of creative environment that I intensely craved.

I got to Paris while still in my twenties, but not alone. And not to stay. I was with my then husband as well as my parents. Moreover, my mother, normally an avid tourist, had taken a tumble down a flight of stairs at my aunt’s house in London, so we had to help her along. And there was the usual British baggage-handlers’ strike, so we had to lug our own. And we made the Dover-to-Calais overnight crossing on a hovercraft that segregated sleeping quarters by sex, so my husband and I elected to wander around the boat all night instead. And what seemed like every single person on the crowded train to Paris had a heavy nicotine habit, so that even a smoker like I was back then could barely breathe. So all we wanted once we arrived was to head for bed.

But Paris would have none of that. She provided us with a chauffeur de taxi who exuded joi de vivre. He loved life, he loved Paris and he was determined that we do the same, despite any unpleasantness that we had experienced earlier. So we spoke French, or what passed for it on our part—he was probably the only person that we encountered who did not switch to flawless English after a few of our clumsy sentences—and we started to smile, then to laugh. Looking back at us far more than in the direction he was driving, he pointed out each monument, each building of any importance and even the occasional interesting cul de sac. And a tree or two, warning us that, since it was October, we should expect many large chestnuts to rain down on our heads. By the time that we arrived at our hotel, there was really no question of napping. The only debate that we dealt with was which of the nearby bistros and cafés we would select to while away the rest of our day.

Over the subsequent days, we spent as much time in the streets and shops and restaurants as we did in the museums and galleries. But wherever we went, we—three Latvian-born and one Scottish-born Americans—were accorded the same consideration, invited to share the same joy evidenced by that taxi driver. We stumbled upon a nondescript restaurant, for instance, somewhere between the Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Moulin Rouge, and decided to stop for lunch. Inside, it was indistinguishable from many of the high-end restaurants my husband and I encountered in Boston, except it was frequented mainly by locals. Our waiter pointed out an elegant gray-haired man who came in daily and took two hours to enjoy his midday meal. This waiter also stopped in the middle of taking my mother’s order to bring her a plate of little raw fishes so that she could see what she would get lest she regret selecting an unfamiliar rouget dish. And thereafter brought everyone else’s orders to our table first so that we could better understand what constituted French cuisine.

I remember that taxi driver and that waiter each time that I hear “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” And, since the November 13 terrorist attacks, that song has played constantly in my head. You see, it was composed in 1940 and inspired by the Fall of France, which brought Paris under Nazi Germany’s control. And seems terribly relevant these days since it gives voice to the sadness that comes when a wonderful way of life is suppressed by, basically, barbarians. The lyrics nostalgically recall the dodging of taxi cabs and the sound of their horns. The laughter in the heart of Paris heard “in every street cafe.” The “trees dressed for spring,” when the chestnuts that we saw would be abloom with magnificent creamy pyramids. It does not say, because, of course, no one knew then, that Paris would be back. But it happened in a matter of years, and it will happen sooner now, once she has mourned her loss. After all, she has had the same motto since 1358: “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” which translates to “Elle est agitée par les vagues, et ne sombre pas,” which translates to “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.”

In the aftermath, as attempts are made to protect her from further assault, I wonder whether my youthful dream of Paris as a site where displaced persons of all sorts can thrive will survive unscathed. Prior to the current attacks, Paris was one of the most multi-cultural cities in Europe. According to the 2011 census, 20 percent of the population was foreign-born. The areas where these attacks occurred were—and perhaps not by accident, as some suggest—vibrantly multicultural and replete with a variety of places where all people could enjoy themselves. I remind myself that terrorism is nothing new. The Seventies, when my family and I were in Paris, was marked by events such as the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics; the bombings, kidnappings and murders by European militant organizations such as the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof Gang; the IRA bombings in Britain; and violence by American groups such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army. But neither, alas, is xenophobia and scapegoating during times of trouble.



“The Last Time I Saw Paris,” a song composed by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, published in 1940 and sung by Kate Smith.