Monday, September 22, 2008

Kandava Revisited

My return visit to Kandava to visit the Benjamin Estate is successful. I catch the 8.10am bus from Riga central bus station (it has a fantastically decorated cabin) and arrive in Kandava at about 10.30. It’s drizzling and cold again, but this time I’ve come prepared, wearing two coats – a lightweight parka underneath a longer trench coat – so I’m quite warm. I have a couple of hours to kill before catching the bus to the Estate at Valdeki, so I go to the market and buy gloves, say hello to Ilze at the Tourist Bureau, and then wander up the hill to the Lutheran Church, in that hope that it will be open this time. I’m delighted to see a group of ladies chatting in the entrance. I buy a candle and ask if it’s ok to take photos. It is a beautiful little church, with a large oil painting of the Madonna as the altarpiece and fantastic wooden Baroque carvings. One of the ladies (pictured) asks me to sign the visitors’ book and tells me that they have a wonderful minister who is loved by the community and that people from all over the world have visited the church and admired the carvings.

The bus to Valdeki is smaller and less modern that the one that took me to Kandava and drops me off about half a kilometre from the entrance to the Estate. I feel excited and a bit nervous too – afterall, I’m in the middle of the countryside, there’s hardly a house in sight and I have no car.

I walk another half a kilometre down a long curved tree-lined road. I see some farm buildings in the distance to the right and catch glimpses of the Benjamin’s yellow house ahead, hidden amongst large trees. The grounds are lush and green and well kept. There are signs that say private property and a busload of people is just about to leave the parking area. I proceed on to the house. An old lady wearing a scarf and pushing a small cart walks by and I say hello. I wander around the outside of the main house, taking photos and looking for Inta, the housekeeper, who is supposed to show me around. I recognise the front and the back of the house from the photos I saw in the Kandava Museum. In the front of the house there is a large decorative pond and beyond that, behind a fence, an ugly Soviet style building. At the back of the house is a paved garden area and beyond that, to the right, a series of buildings that I suspect are the stables. Perhaps my mother lived close by here?

There is no sign of Inta and I feel a little overwhelmed about being here, where my mother ran about and played as a young child. I wonder if she was allowed to go into the big house. (Later, when I phone her, she tells me that yes, they went into the house every day to eat lunch in the big kitchens.) I keep taking photos and then go up the grand stairs at the back of the house. The door opens and Inta comes out and greets me. Inside, the house has been lovingly restored with as many items as possible from the past – Antons Benjamin’s desk, elaborate carved sideboards, and some original chandeliers that somehow survived Soviet times. The walls are lined with large scale photographs, a mix of images that show the Benjamin family when they lived here in the 1930s, and more recent photographs by Peteris Benjamins, a descendant of the family who is now part owner of this property. Antons Benjamins died in 1939, so he missed the War, but his wife, Emilija, was sent to Siberia on 14 June 1941 and died a few months later of dysentery on 23 September in So─╝ikamska labour camp.

Inta points out that during the Soviet era the house was a government building was so neglected that even the floors had to be replaced. After the tour of the house, Inta says I can wander around the grounds as I please. I ask if there is a taxi or car that can take me back to Kandava afterwards, but the answer is no. There is a bus, but it doesn’t come for another three hours. I’m a little worried about getting back to Kandava – even though I am very happy to be here, there is probably not more than half an hour of exploration ahead.

I take to the grounds. It is quiet here, the gravel crunches underfoot. I take photos of all the building I come across. I think the long grey building with a series of wooden doors might be the stables where my grandfather worked, looking after the horses. Antons Benjamins’ favourite horse was a black horse named Kangars, and whenever Benjamins returned from trips outside Kandava, my grandfather would meet him at the station with a carriage drawn by Kangars. The Estate's first horse was named Otilija and was a golden colour. My mother loved the stables and the dairy and remembers that the names of every horse and every cow were inscribed above their individual stalls.

I find the hot houses where my grandmother had worked, preparing seedlings, and where my mother loved to play boats with the seedling boxes. The hothouses are now in a terrible state, the glass broken and missing and weeds growing metres high inside. Inta told me that many of the hothouses had already been pulled down because they are too difficult to restore, but there were plans to renovate one or two for the sake of posterity.

As I wander the grounds, I keep taking photos, driven by an underlying anxiety – will I manage to take one that my mother will recognise? Perhaps the long white building with windows on the second floor, is where my mother lived? I wish she were here with me right now. Every now and then I catch sight of the old lady with the scarf and cart somewhere in the distance and I wonder if she is actually real - she almost seems like an apparition from the past. I walk to the dam at the back of the property. It’s surrounded by old trees and shrubs, with a small round brick building to the right. It’s very beautiful here, densely green, and I suddenly find myself crying. When I talk to my mother on the phone later, she asks me whether the dam is still there.

Not far from the dam is a building that obviously was not part of the original Estate. I’m surprised to find it’s a shop, and I assume it’s for the people who live here, in the various surrounding buildings which Inta told me are all rented out. Back near the main house I see a man in the garden. As I approach I smile and say hello but he reacts aggressively and barks something at me that sounds like, ‘Come here.’ I move away quickly.

I take some final photos and decide to walk the six kilometres back to Kandava. I’m a bit worried about how my feet will cope, because they have still not fully recovered from surgery earlier this year, but it seems a better option than staying here for another two and a half hours. I return to the main road and begin walking. It’s a long road ahead, lined with thick forest on either side, only an occasional car passing by, and not a house in sight anywhere. It all feels very David Lynchish and I take out my umbrella as weapon. I try not to think about the possibility of being dragged into the woods by a stranger… shoulders back, head high, confident stride. I contemplate hitching a ride, but that seems even more risky than walking.

It takes me an hour to get back to Kandava and I feel a tremendous sense of achievement when I get there - my feet hurt, but I’ve made it. I visit Ilze in the Tourist Bureau and she scolds me for not phoning her to ask for a lift.

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