Friday, September 19, 2008

Mezaparks, a Convent and the Hill of Crosses

Mezaparks is a huge national parkland north of Riga that was established in 1901 to celebrate the city’s 700th anniversary. Today it has bike tracks, picnic areas, swimming on the banks of the Kisezers lake, children’s playgrounds, an outdoor theatre and a giant stadium where the Latvian Song and Dance Festival, Dziesmu Svetki, is held. I catch tram 11 out there, on my way to visit Ingmars Kulnieks, an old friend from Melbourne who dated two of my sisters in the late 1970s and early 80s. He was a law student back then and drove a bright yellow Karmen Ghia sports car. Ingmars moved to Riga in the mid 1990s after falling in love with a Latvian girl, Ieva, a paediatric opthalmologist. They now have three children - Kate, Karlis and Kriss. Ingmars practiced law for a short while, but disillusioned with the legal system in Latvia, began a wine importing business. We haven’t seen each other since about 1980.

Ingmars greets me from a window of his top floor apartment of a house in the suburb of Mezaparks. The property is surrounded by giant pine trees, as are most of the houses in the area. We talk non-stop while Ingmars makes lunch and after eating go for a walk with the children. The area of Mezaparks is beautiful – most of the houses are huge, with fabulous gardens and high fences, but there are also more modest homes. Ingmars points out the owners of some of the houses – the Latvian Prime Minister has a place just a few doors down, the mother of the Latvian Olympic weightlifting champion lives around the corner, the German Ambassador a few streets away. Almost every house is guarded by a giant dog – I have never seen or heard so many dogs barking so loudly! In the evening I meet Ieva, who has been at the Arsenals International Film Festival. We drink coffee and talk and then I take a cab back to my apartment.

The next day Anda Klavina, the et+t residency project officer, takes me to visit her mother and grandmother who live in a small village, Valgunde, about 10 km from the city of Jelgava. Jelgava was almost completely destroyed in WWII and, with the exception of a huge palace, was rebuilt with Soviet style buildings. Anda’s family home has a big garden of flowers, vegetables and fruit trees and we eat lunch outside – broad beans, fried chunks of bacon, tomato salad and mushrooms, all washed down with kefirs, a type of buttermilk. Anda’s mother and grandmother ask me questions about Australia and I ask them questions about life in Latvia. Anda’s mother tells me that under Soviet rule her life was better - at least then she had a regular job and didn't have to worry about an income.

Later in the afternoon we walk to the nearby Russian Orthodox Convent, a branch of Riga St Trinity Sergij that has 65 nuns and somehow managed to survive during communist rule. It’s almost directly across the road from the house, but deep in the forest. We all put skirts over our trousers and take scarves to wear on our heads so we can attend the 5pm church service.

The walk into the forest is magical. The air is fresh and spicy and a deep silence descends over us as we move through the trees. We don’t go straight to the monastery, but first visit a small outdoor chapel in a clearing in the forest. There are paintings of angels and the Madonna, vases of flowers and a circle of simple wooden benches. We sit for a while and I stare up at the sky, which seems so very high above the trees. As we head towards the monastery, the church bells start ringing – the tone is light and gentle, completely different from the heavy sound of cathedral bells I am accustomed to. The grounds of the monastery house a number of beautifully kept buildings and a large cemetery that dates back to the 1800s, when the convent was first established. Anda’s grandmother lived here for about 3 years when she was a child after WWII. I photograph her in front of the building that was her home. We all put our scarves on and enter the small, dark green timber chapel.

Inside it is dark, a little cramped and somewhat confusing. The walls are covered with icons that gleam with gold, groups of parishioners stand here and there, a priest to the left of the altar calls out repetitive prayers, and several nuns wearing unusual habits with peaked headpieces walk back and forth through the space. I am not sure what to do. Anda’s grandmother gives me a candle and I squeeze past a group of people into a small area on the right where there is a beautiful painting of a Madonna. I light the candle here and then squeeze past again. The priest starts repeating the same word over and over again and the parishioners make the sign of the cross at regular intervals. We stay a few minutes longer and then leave.

The next day I continue the religious theme and visit the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, a trip I book through the Baltic Tourism Bureau. I am picked up outside my apartment by Austris, the Bureau’s driver. He is 20 years old but very worldly wise. I am his only passenger for the trip today and we head off in the silver grey van. I sit up front and we speak English all the way. Austris drives fast, overtaking everything in sight and constantly watching out for the cops and talking on his mobile. ‘Don’t worry’, he says, ‘I have my licence now one month. I am careful driver. I don’t take risk.’ I am not so sure about this and for the first 10kms I fell very nervous, but after that, quite inexplicably, I feel oddly safe in Austris’s hands, even when he tells me about the two major car accidents he had as a rally driver at the ages of 15 and 16 (apparently you don’t have to have a licence to drive rally cars). In one of the accidents, Austris broke his neck and was hospitalised for 6 months and took a further year to fully recover. He was paralysed from the waist down but eventually regained the used of his legs. When he emerged from hospital and ran into his old friends, they were shocked to see him because they thought he had died.

Austris smokes, but not in the car. He gave up a number of years ago but took it up again recently after a series of dramatic events. In the space of eight months, his girlfriend left him, his grandmother died, his mother had a car accident, and then his father. As we drive towards Lithuania, Austris points out various dangerous spots on the road. He puts on a CD by Natacha Atlas and we discuss life, the universe and everything.

The Hill of Crosses is the most remarkable man-made memorial I have ever seen. It is in the village Jurgaiciai, in the Siauliai district, not far from the Latvian border and was apparently established in 1831 after a rebel uprising. People began to leave crosses there to commemorate the lost rebels. At the beginning of last century there were about 100 crosses - now there must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions. During the Soviet era, there were a number of attempts to destroy the Hill, but after each attempt it was resurrected. The site has now been claimed as a symbol of undeterring Lithuanian faith and hope, but pilgrims visit from all over the world, including Pope John Paul II who blessed all of Europe from there in 1993.

The immediate landscape around the Hill is rather flat and unremarkable, which seems to enhance, rather than detract, from the special aura that surrounds it. We drive up to the visitors’ centre where I buy a large cross for my Lithuanian colleague and friend Ona, who is recovering from major surgery back in Hobart. The stallholder gives me a marker pen and I write Ona’s name on the cross. Then Austris and I make our way towards the Hill. There are so many crosses it is almost impossible to appreciate them individually. Newer crosses line the various paths that lead to two summits within the hill and older crosses spread out behind them. In some places the crosses are so thick that the bulk of them are obscured. Dangling from one large cross, old amber rosary beads twirl endlessly and magically in a circle, yet there is no wind. An old lady sits with a begging bowl on the steps leading towards a statue of the Madonna and Austris and I each give her a coin. People also leave coins on memorial stones. I find a place for Ona’s cross near the blue Madonna and say a prayer for her.

Austris tells me he always feels very emotional when he visits the Hill and I can see it in his face. We drive back to Riga at top speed listening to Natacha Atlas again.

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