Friday, September 5, 2008

The journey starts

The start to the journey is not smooth. I leave my glasses at home, my flight to Singapore is delayed by four hours, and I am overcome by a totally surprising level of anxiety. I wonder whether the forgotten glasses and flight delay are bad omens. But I’m wearing something for good luck - the bracelet my mother gave me when I first left home. It was given to her when she was confirmed at the age of sixteen in Riga. It’s a Nameja bracelet, based on the Nameja ring, traditionally worn by men and made from three separate bands of silver twisted together and joined by a fourth fine braid. Namejs was a Latvian warrior who fought against the German crusaders in the early 13th century and his ring symbolises the unity of the three ancient tribes of Latvia.

In the special lounge for delayed passengers I phone my sister who lives in Sydney. I don’t tell her I’m anxious but she reminds me that at any time I can change my mind and fly back. I drink cups of tea, eat free snacks and go to the toilet too many times. I check my email. The Japanese man in the internet booth next to mine alerts me to a news announcement on the television about a problematic Qantas flight and then comments on the many mechanical faults the airline has experienced in recent months. At the gate, the flight is delayed another three times as final checks are made on the engine. At each announcement the passengers groan but there is spontaneous applause when we finally get to board.

I get to my hotel in Singapore at 5am. After a few hours sleep, I go shopping for a new camera and buy it almost too quickly - the salesman is incredibly convincing and I’m too tired to make endless comparisons. I eat delicious Chinese food in a tiny café, visit a Buddhist Temple and a Hindu Temple and get caught in the rain. I feel a bit de-realised the whole time I’m in Singapore, as if I’m watching myself from a slight distance outside my body. I go to the airport a little early and have a foot massage before the long haul to Frankfurt. I’m feeling more relaxed now, but during the flight I develop a new anxiety about which passport to use when I arrive in Germany – Australian or Latvian? Last year I used my Latvian one all over Europe and passport control was very simple because of Latvia’s EU status. But Latvian passport legislation has since changed and all passports have to be renewed to be valid. I make a sensible decision to use the Australian one, but when I arrive at Frankfurt I do the exact opposite. I feel both daring and terrified at the passport counter. The officer takes a long time checking my details but I get through, no questions asked, and make my way to Terminal 1 and my Lufthansa flight to Riga.

At the gate lounge I sit next to a Slovenian woman who was born in Belgrade but now lives in Singapore. We talk non-stop for about an hour as we wait for our respective flights. There is something about her face and her general demeanor that has an inexplicable effect on me – she is a complete stranger but I almost feel as if I know her. Perhaps it is her beautiful dark eyes and her features, which remind me a little of my mother.

After the war in Belgrade the Slovenian woman lived in Saudi Arabia for a number of years and she explains what it was like to be a woman there. She tells me about the women’s room. Apparently men have the right to build a special room in their houses where female members of the family can be locked up if their behaviour is considered inappropriate. The room has no windows and only a small slot through which food is passed. This is true, she says. No-one talks about it, but men may build such a room in their houses. We shake hands and exchange names when my flight is called for boarding.

In the plane I sit next to an elderly Latvian couple from San Fransisco. I manage to hold a conversation with them without letting too many English words drop in. I listen to Leonard Cohen on my ipod and that feeling of de-realisation sweeps over me again.

A strange thing happens at Riga airport when I arrive – I get lost. Instead of going straight down to passport control and to collect my luggage, I end up at the entrance to departures. I am asked where I am travelling to and I explain that I have just arrived. The officer points me in a particular direction but I end up in the general shopping area. It then occurs to me that I could slip out of the airport without anyone checking my status. I’m now feeling quite anxious about claiming my luggage and wander down a very long sloping floor, thinking this might lead to passport control but no, I am wrong again. The officer at the end of the sloping floor directs me back up and around the corner. He calls out after me and tells me my Latvian passport is not valid. Eventually I find the escalator that takes me down to baggage claim. No-one checks my passport.

I catch a cab into Riga. The driver is Latvian, rather than Russian, and we chat all the way. He tells me he has relatives in Adelaide but has had no contact with them at all since his grandmother died. I stare out the window - I have been to Riga four times since 1992 but this time feels like the first time. The architecture stuns me, reinforcing that I am in Eastern Europe and I wish I had my new camera with me but it’s in my backpack in the boot. We stop in the traffic near a very run-down Art Nouveau building that is decorated with a huge and elaborate relief of a witch riding on a broomstick. The windows and doors are like something out of Handsel and Gretel. The trip is slow and I am sure the cab driver is taking the long way round to get to Ausekla Street. He seems to be doing a huge circuit around the old city, but I am too jetlagged and not confident enough to argue with him.

Anda Klavina, the Project Officer for the Electronic Text + Textiles Residency, is waiting for me. I gasp quietly to myself when she opens the door and lets me in to the apartment – it is superbly spacious, minimal and modern. The studio is so big you could run dancing classes in it. After Anda shows me around we go to a little café around the corner. Waves of jet-lag wash over me and I struggle to maintain my Latvian – I am surprised at just how much concentration it requires not to break into English.

That evening I go to an exhibition opening of work by Eriks Apals that Anda has told me about. It’s in a very beautiful little gallery not far from the apartment. In the first room, walls painted a rusty red, is a series of smallish paintings on canvas - the two I remember most vividly are a rabbit in a snowstorm and a forest of fir trees in the night. There is also a slide show of stills from a U Tube video, projected beneath a small stairwell. In the second, larger gallery, painted white, is a minimal installation. Against one wall leans a smallish fir tree with many of its branches chopped off and scattered around its base. On the wall next to the tree is a crudely painted blue outline of a human figure. At the other end of this room a DJ is playing eerily distorted Latvian folk songs. The whole exhibition evokes the idea of a fairytale gone wrong. I watch people arrive. Everyone is very smartly dressed. One very groovy couple arrive with a boxer dog on a leash. Drinks are vodka shots or water. I wait until Anda arrives, say hello and then leave – the jet-lag has taken over.

On my second day I have two main objectives – to find a bank that will allow me to take a largish quantity of money out of my Visa card, and to renew my Latvian passport. I dial information on the landline in the apartment and get a number for the Department of Citizenship and Migration but every time I ring there is no answer or the line is engaged. I try about eight times but then the phone tells me that the line is busy and stops working all together.

I walk into Old Riga, following the waterfront. It’s raining lightly. I listen to voices in the street – Russian and Latvian, German, Dutch - no English. I feel strange, alien, a little unreal. My sense of self is not the same as my sense of self in Australia. Here I speak differently, without a true command of language. I realise how significant this is – to have command over language. With that command, you have command over yourself; without it, you become powerless. The idea is nothing new, of course – it’s one of the key principles of post structuralism –and as I have travelled to a number of places in the world where I don’t speak the language, or very little of it, the experience is not new to me either. But today my understanding of the concept that language and power go hand in hand is epiphanic. I think of my early childhood, of speaking Latvian at home and English at school. I don’t ever remember not understanding what was being said to me, but I do remember occasions when no-one understood what I was saying, no matter how determinedly I tried to explain myself.

I arrive at the The Occupation Museum. It is a stark grey oblong building on the waterfront, very modernist in design. I was here once before in 2001 with my mother, my sister and my niece and nephew. There are many enlarged black and white photographs of the Soviet and Nazi occupations, a life-sized model of sleeping quarters in a gulag with a detailed description of the Parasha or toilet barrel, and collections of objects displayed in black cabinets. I am particularly struck by the shoes woven from rope and the hand sewn floral padded face mask worn to protect the wearer in minus 40 degree working conditions. I don’t want to stay long today – it’s all a bit overwhelming and I am confused about my motives for the project and my ability to undertake it.

I wander the streets of Old Riga for while, and eventually find a bank that can sort my money issue. Then I feel determined to take steps to renew my passport. I have the address of the head office but it’s some distance out of the main part of the city and I’m not sure whether to take a trolley bus or a taxi. I make my way down Brivibas Boulevard past the Freedom monument, towards the Reval Hotel Latvija where I stayed with my partner, Gerard, in the mid 1990s. It is now an incredibly swish hotel, but back then it had a classic soviet 1970s interior - I particularly remember a bar with large orange swivel chairs on pedestal bases and corridors on some of the floors painted in black gloss. During the Soviet era it was where all foreign visitors had to stay. I was also here in December 2001, having a coffee in the bar. I had a disturbing medical condition at the time and the hotel arranged for an ambulance to take me to Riga’s Hospital Number One. I found out earlier this year that my mother was born in the same hospital.

In the lobby I hear someone call out my name – it’s my cousin’s daughter, Baiba, coming towards me! It is such a wonderful and totally unexpected surprise to see her. She works in the hotel and is able to quickly find out where I have to go to renew my passport. The office is just around the corner and it’s open until 4pm. I go there immediately and after some initial confusion, which takes me up and down the stairs twice, I get to see an officer. Her name is Indra, the same as one of my sisters. She speaks incredibly fast Latvian and I have to ask her to repeat most of her questions. I fill in some paper work, have my photo taken and then I’m asked to read a statement out loud that declares the information I have provided is correct. I decide to pay LVL25 to get a fast track passport. It will be ready next Wednesday.

On my third day I visit the Arsenals Museum to see a big exhibition of art made during the Soviet era – it’s called Mythology of the Soviet Land and features propaganda paintings, sculptures and videos. The videos are extraordinary. I’m particularly disturbed by one that shows a group of Latvian women folk-dancing in traditional costume, accompanied by a full orchestral rendition of traditional music. The dancers wear perfect smiles and their movements are perfectly co-ordinated. The message is that Latvian culture has been both preserved and celebrated under Soviet rule. Of course, the opposite was true.

There is also a smaller exhibition of art made during the Soviet era that was considered subversive. The staircase that leads to the gallery is one of the most extraordinary pieces of design I have ever seen. It is ridiculously and hazardously steep and I have to brace myself to tackle climbing it. I cling to the wall where the steps are widest and by the time I get to the top I am trembling. The exhibition itself is much smaller than I expected and all I can think of is how I'm going to make my way down that staircase!

Later in the afternoon I meet Zane Berzina, one of the Directors of the Electronic Text+Textiles Residency. We meet at Osiris Café, the place to be if you are associated with the arts. We talk about our respective art practices, my residency and some practical things, like finding a suitable site for the exhibition that will result from my project. Zane studied at Goldsmiths College of Art in London, specializing in textiles, and has just landed a professorial position at an art academy in Berlin. She invites me to join her and some other friends in the arts for drinks in the evening.

I have dinner with my cousin Mara – it is great to see her and Viktors and know that I have some close family here. She feeds me mushrooms and schnitzel and then I head off for the Wine Studio, on the other side of town, to meet Zane and her friends. It is a very pleasant evening and I feel a great sense of rapport with the new people I meet, especially Vineta, a painter based in Riga who has had residencies all over the world. Vineta and Zane were teenagers when Latvia gained independence in 1991. We talk about what it was like to grow up during Soviet times and Vineta explains how even as a very young child, she was aware of unspoken rules for speech and behaviour in public and private life. But she also says that there was an ever-present sense of hope that things would change one day and recalls the time of independence with great fondness - but also nostalgia, claiming that the idealism of the early 1990s is now completely gone. I leave after midnight, not because I want to, but because I can barely stay awake. (Zane is in the centre in the first image, sitting between Frank and Karl (from Ireland); Vineta is first on the left in the next image.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Brigita
What a giant journey, it was like a labryinth, I am exhausted reading the arrival story! The report on your travel north seemed interminable and confusing! I felt like I was in the airport corridors with you - and also it was like anxiety arrival dreams / reality moments I have experienced too. Meanwhile it is very exciting to read your stories. It feels like 4 seconds since you left here. You are experiencing some Dr Who time/space volume discrepancy where you will live decades of experiences in 3 months - and I will have a few meals and then see you again! All quiet here.
Keep reporting!
Julie in Hobart

Anonymous said...

you will fell like a local by now. Sounding good. Peter said he did not see you on board. He did not get an upgrade so you were in the same pressurized cabin. Peter is off to Breslau today. So envious of you adventurers. My leg is not giving me hope at the moment, very slow recovery 2 weeks and I thought I would be out running! Look forward to more stories. And I see that you are slumming it!
Anita Felicetti

Cynthia Karena Zeidaks said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I've lost touch, for the most part, with the Latvian community here in Melbourne, but I felt a bit more Latvian after reading this. And I never knew the history of Namejs - good to know! Liels paldies. Cynthia Karena Zeidaks.