Turning from the East; Turning to the West

The Lady of Riga

There’s a kind of folk wisdom in her, that lady high up who holds aloft the three stars: she knows the power of songs that brought the end of the Soviet Union to Latvia; she lasted through every changing season.  Even in winter when nature says it’s not possible she’s standing in a forest of flowers with her sanctity guarded night and day.  I saw that on my second trip to Latvia in 2002.

Once, in the Soviet season it was illegal to look at her, I was told, the independence monument in the middle of the plaza beside Riga’s old town.  It was because she remembers the first independent Latvia of 1918 - 1940.  The three stars she holds are for the three regions of the first Latvia: Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Latgale.

A few streets away another lady, older and shorter, is adorned in a red jumper, red gloves and a silly red hat.  She stands by her ghetto blaster, which blasts golden oldies as she dances in obscure movements to entertain the passers by with her high speed yoga.  Those pedestrians are on their way to the retail sector which spreads across the city like a blanket of snow, and Christmas Street is crowded with customers.  Latvia by then was racing, restored and energetic, towards the European Union.  It was strange for the city where only a few short years before primary school children had been jealous of Anta’s Australian-purchased barbie dolls.  Barbie dolls were not available in Latvia in Soviet days.

Christmas Street, old Riga
Five and a half years after the first time there was a phone call placed from Vilnius, Lithuania to the offices of the Latvian National Academy of Science.  I wanted to catch up with my old friends; and although it’d been vaguely arranged I’d decided to come a little earlier.  There’d been letters but I hadn’t spoken to Dzintra in many years and in my mind her Latvian accent had been lost; on the phone it came rushing back and made me smile. 

‘Are you sure it’s okay if I come and visit you?’ I asked.  She sounds as excited as me.  


‘How about the day after tomorrow?’

It was afternoon when the bus from Vilnius arrived in Riga, after rattling through somewhere not too far from Bauska along the way.  It was late November, the fields icy, leafless and grey.  The bus station in Riga is by the train station by the Latvian National Academy of Science.  The doors were still heavy and there was still an old lady in a glass booth, as there’d been the first time, and she still didn’t speak English; but it hardly mattered because I had a name.  The enquiries lady directed me to a random other lady by the lifts who knew Dzintra and figured out which floor she was on.

The first moments belonged to just looking at each other again; remembering that decades-long week, half a decade before.  She hadn’t changed.

‘Well, looks like work is finished for today,’ she said.  It was 3.00 p.m. and highly unlikely work had actually finished but we went home anyway.

Her daughters had grown: Antra had become a Chevrolet-driving accountant; Anta had become something of a fully-fledged person and was studying nursing.  Antra had spent time in the States but Anta who’d inherited an Australian accent from her childhood months in Melbourne still readily pronounced all the twenty-seven odd syllables in the word ‘home’, just the way Australians do.  At her workplace they called her ‘Skippy,’ she said.

I was leaving for the local shop on that first day of the second time and I said, ‘okay, thanks, see you in another five years,’ as I walked out of the apartment.  Dzintra choked me with my scarf: in late November, Latvia dons scarves. ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no!’ she said.  It was nice to be all twenty-seven odd syllables of home in Riga again.  Just as before, each hour was a year together.

Antra found herself inclined to offer a Chevrolet tour to Latvia’s mid-west, to an now icy sculpture garden really made for summer.  We headed out along the freeways on Riga’s southern edge; cause to remember Belarusian and his rusty lorry.

It’d been towards the end of the first trip, when I’d decided that as much as I enjoyed staying at Dzintra’s place I should see a bit more of Latvia so, as well as not to outdo my welcome, I said I’d be heading west for a few days.  They’d suggested a picturesque little village called Pavilosta I believe; to get there first I’d check out Liepaja the Port City.

There’s not much to tell of those few days; it was indeed very first part, the trip to Liepaja which was most remarkable.  It was difficult to get cars to stop on the freeways out of Riga, and I’d decided to hitch-hike as a more sociable means of A to B despite that with a few tiny brown coins I could’ve bought a bus ticket.  I’d thought of giving up when eventually a rusty old truck had stopped.

‘Liepaja?’ I’d asked.  That town was far away, for Latvia; yet strangely that truck was headed all the way there, to the port.  The journey was hideously slow and the worst part was I couldn’t speak to the driver.  We did however exchange cigarettes: I was smoking Camels and he had this heavy Russian brand he thought I couldn’t handle.  Somehow I worked out that the driver was a Belarusian; the first I’d ever met.

Just when the long journey mostly in silence seemed as if it couldn’t get any worse, the driver decided to be a Samaritan and stopped beside another truck, broken down, to see if he could help.  The other driver I understood was also Belarusian.  As they talked and worked at fixing the other truck, so they had a little food: some bread and a chunk of white substance they said was called salo. 

I’m not sure how I understood it, maybe the other driver spoke a little English, but the salo was a block of salted pig fat that was a traditional Belarusian specialty and my truck driver’s grandmother had made it for him especially, in her Belarusian village.

The middle-aged truck driver had a round enough figure and when he bent to check out the mechanics of the broken down truck so it happened he had a split in the back of his pants all the way down the seam; perhaps his village grandmother didn’t sew.  The other truck driver laughed at him and so did I.  As there were so few words to share I said not much more than, ‘salo,’ meaning eating too much makes you fat and splits your pants!  They caught the gist of it and thought it hilarious.  Later when we’d eventually arrived in Liepaja the driver didn’t let me leave immediately; not before he’d rustled around to find the rest of the chunk of his grandmother’s home made salo as a parting gift. 

I walked off down the road, towards the centre of Liepaja to find a hotel, with my luggage in one hand and a small plastic bag of Belarusian home-made village salted pig fat in the other.  I can’t say such a scenario has happened to me anywhere apart from Liepaja.

After some hours Antra’s Chevrolet arrived in the pretty hills at the sculpture garden.  The sculptures were modern and interesting - a bridge with colourfully painted toilet doors on either end, wooden koalas holding Latvian flags in the trees, and upside down tree fixed into the ground. And there were some real wild deer.

Christmas in old Riga
Afterwards we sat in the small town nearby, in the Chevrolet, eating home made jam with spoons from the jar, munching bread and drinking tea. The cold was such that I would be inclined to use the word 'very' to describe it.

Back in Riga, in the evening we went to the Christmas Tree House, a huge restaurant decorated for the festive season, with rabbits and deer made from lights, and a large Christmas tree. The cellar was the place to head for, a traditional Latvian cellar alehouse, where the honey beer is made on site. Anta was with us then, and we drove there in the same old, grey singing Ford that they’d had five and a half years before. It still sang with the gear changes.

Anta says she was surprised that I drank because I seemed so nice. I'm not sure what that means exactly, but I reminded her that last time I was here she was fifteen or whatever so I was hardly going to invite her to the pub.  Dzintra says, ‘may be she doesn't know that the first thing we did when we met was go out for a beer?’  It’s not true. We looked at old houses first. It was a good umpteen minutes before we drank beer.
The word for juice in Latvian, ‘sula’ is backwards for the word for beer, ‘alus’.

Sunday started unusually for me. We went to church.  Latvia shares its Protestantism with Estonia to the north, while Lithuania is Catholic.  The reverend looked like he wasn’t old enough to have completely finished with acne yet, but he spoke well.  I could tell by the sound of his voice and his eye contact though I had no idea what he said. I did my best singing hymns in Latvian that I didn’t know the tune for and Dzintra said I read the language well. There are lots of s-type sounds in Latvian in various forms.

Let the Musicians Play!

After church we walked to the old town to attend the private concert of the Latvian National Academy of Science at the House of the Black Heads, a very beautiful and recently reconstructed building that recalls Latvia’s colonial legacy: Latvia once had two colonies, at the mouth of the Gambia River in West Africa and on the island of Tobago in the Caribbean.  The decorations were really interesting because the style is strictly European but the models of the statues include many Africans. We sat in the Versailles-looking room at the top, a huge hall with about twenty chairs around the four walls. The side walls were more or less full; and Dzintra and I ended up at the far end in the place usually reserved for a king and queen. Let the musicians play!

The interesting thing was that the composer of the modern classical music, apparently famous around the world, was present and explained each piece before it was played on the piano, violin and flute. It was like we’d travelled back in time, were seated in Vienna and listening to the new music of a young Mozart. The flute player was especially good; her face moved with the music such that she was actually performing rather than simply playing.

Apparently that room has bad acoustics if it gets crowded, and also if there are only one or two people there. We had just the right number and it sounded magnificent. 

Third stop for the afternoon was the cemetery. The day was the Day of the Dead, I was told: when in Latvia people go to the cemetery to light candles to remember the deceased.  Hundreds of people and hundreds of candles decorated the acres of forested cemetery, and the scene was brilliant in the snowy evening.  The Latvians don’t only light candles for relatives, but by tradition also at the graves of famous actors and poets and other contributors to Latvia.  In the cemetery there was a war section and a section devoted to victims of the KGB.

We find the memorial to the first President of the first Latvia, before the Second World War. The memorial stands at the end of a long boulevard in a prominent position, except the Soviets planted a row of trees in front of the monument so it could no longer be seen from a distance. I guess they hoped the Latvians would forget.

In the evening I went with Anta to her local pub in a place I call Wahroonga, from Sydney geography, for its leafy streets and large houses on decent blocks. We drank a backwards juice or two in the loft upstairs. A black cat sat on my leg.
We returned to Jurmala where Anta studied then; no swimming in winter, no board shorts in tow.  Amongst the pine groves modern mansions were growing, being built to complement the mossy Soviet ones.  Latvia was changing.  Indeed the day before I’d arrived was the day the three Baltic States were invited to join NATO.  For many years the country had been turning, little by little, away from its East to face its West and people were really excited about the NATO invitation.

‘I’m so glad they took us,’ Dzintra said.
Riga, Big City of the Baltics

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