On Friday 26 September, I head for Valmiera, which is where my mother spent the first five years of her life. I have relatives there – my mother’s cousin on her father’s side, Biruta, and her husband Arturs. They will meet me at Lode, the railway station near their home and just two stops from the city of Valmiera.
On the way to the central railway station in Riga, I drop off my and my cousin Mara’s passports at a Russian travel agent who will arrange visas for our trip to Moscow in two weeks time. I’m carrying a rather heavy backpack – gifts for Biruta and Arturs, my computer, some things for staying overnight, a book to read – and it’s a long walk from the travel agent to the railway station. I’m also quite tired because I barely slept the night before. I trudge along Elizabetas Street, stop at an ATM, withdraw some money and as I turn to head for the station, I trip on the uneven footpath and fall quite dramatically in front of a group of smart looking business men standing outside a swish hotel. They rush to my aid and help me up. I am a bit dazed and shocked. My right ankle is very painful and I’m scared I may have sprained it. I manage to keep walking and realise I have been very lucky – the ankle is bruised and swollen, but the pain is in the muscles and ligaments rather than the bones. I make it to the station and notice my hand is bleeding. This is not an auspicious start to the trip.
The train trip to Valmiera is nothing like any other train trip I have ever experienced. The carriage is completely full by the time we leave the station and it’s incredibly noisy. Everyone seems to be talking at the tops of their voices, both in Latvian and Russian. There is also a group of teenagers who all have mp3 players turned up so loud that you can hear each one over everyone’s conversations. The teenagers call out to each other and wander up and down the carriage periodically – but when the train guard appears, they calm down. I am lucky I am sharing seating with two Russian grandmothers and a young boy - they talk all the way, but they are relatively quiet and calm. I am amazed at the young boy, who engages confidently in a very intense discussion with the two grandmothers and I wish I could speak Russian so I could understand what they are talking about.
It takes two hours to get to Valmiera and at about half way we stop at Sigulda, a very beautiful city popular for holidays, country walks, cultural festivals, and snow sports in the winter. You can go ballooning, bungie jumping and cycling there, and visit an historic castle. The train magically empties at Sigulde and the carriage quietens down. I ask the guard if there is a toilet on the train and he points me in the right direction. I make my way through two carriages and eventually find the toilet, but when I try the door, it’s locked. All of a sudden it opens and a young man enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke glances at me, slams the door shut in my face and locks it. So much for the toilet.
I get out at Lode and almost immediately recognise Biruta and Arturs who are waiting for me. Platforms are at ground level here in Latvia, and I have to climb down quite steep steps to get out of the carriage. I wonder how elderly people or mothers with young children manage.
I met Biruta and her family when I was here in December 2001 and all of Latvia was under snow. Her Soviet built apartment block seemed indistinguishable to me from all the other apartment buildings in Lode, but now the village is green and lush and I can see that the buildings are actually quite different from each other. We walk up five flights of concrete stairs to get to Biruta and Arturs’ apartment. The front doors on this level are all quilted with red and pink vinyl and decorated with brass studs. Inside, the apartment is tiny but cosy. There is a living room with the obligatory wall unit, a small bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a bathroom and toilet that are each the size of a cupboard in the centre of the apartment. We sit in the living room for a while and talk, then Biruta prepares a lunch of rye bread, cold meats, home made cottage cheese and salad and we move to the tiny kitchen.
When I look at Biruta, I see myself, my mother and my mother’s father, Alberts. We all have round faces, dark hair and eyebrows, and similar noses and mouths. It’s an odd feeling, both reassuring and unnerving, to encounter such strong evidence of my gene pool. I think my three sisters share more with my father’s side of the family - he was tall and thin and blond with a narrower face. I am definitely a Berzins and I can see now that my son, Simon, has also inherited these characteristics.
After lunch Arturs drives us to Valmiera. The trip is significant not only because my mother lived there for five years, but because I currently have work in an exhibition of diasporic Latvian art in the cultural museum. I have emailed ahead to let them know I will be visiting and the staff are waiting for me. Arija Pakere greets me and shows me around the exhibition, which has 94 works from all over the world, but mainly from America and Canada. The show is dominated by modernist paintings, but there are some more contemporary pieces as well. Mine is a digital print called The Truth Shall Make You Free and it’s on the second floor of the gallery. A number of different regional galleries have individually chosen about thirty five works each for touring over the next four years and I am delighted to be told my work has been selected by every one of those galleries!
Arturs then drives us to Stacijas and Cesu Streets, where my mother lived with her mother’s parents – Anna and Toms Berzins. (My grandmother’s maiden name was Berzins, which means little birch tree, and my grandfather’s name was also Berzins, but of course, they were not related. Like Ozolins, Berzins is a very common Latvian name.) There is no sign of the original houses but I photograph everything that looks old in the hope that my mother will recognise something.
* * *
My mother’s family moved to Valmiera in 1928, because my grandfather, Alberts, could not find work in Riga. He was a casual labourer and found a job in Valmiera as a woodcutter in the forest. Marta, my grandmother, also worked in the forest, helping her husband to chop the trees, remove the bark and make the logs smooth. They lived with Marta’s parents, in two different houses. One was a wooden house named Eler Maja and later they moved to a log cabin. My mother got on very well with her grandparents and enjoyed living with them.
My mother became very ill one winter in Valmiera. She was about four years old and had a terrible headache that made her sick for many days. She remembers being pulled in a sled to her grandparents house and feeling excruciating pain as it slid over the bumps in the snow. No-one took her to a doctor.
In 1932, when my mother was five and her brother was six months old, the family moved to Kandava to live and work on the Benjamin Estate.
* * *
From Valmiera, Arturs drives us to Smiltene, where my grandmother, Marta Berzins grew up. She also worked there as a maid for the owners of the largest bakery in the area - the Ozolins’ Bakery! This is probably also where Marta and Alberts first met. I have no addresses in Smiltene nor any idea where I should go to look for houses or significant landmarks, but Arturs and I walk around the centre of town and I take photos. At least I can say I have been there.
Their son, Pauls, pictured next to my mother, was something of a photographer
and took the picture with a shutter release. I can't help wondering if there is some connection to Peter Dombrovskis...
In the evening Biruta shows me old photo albums and explains what happened to different members of the family. My grandfather, Alberts Berzins, had three brothers and two sisters. Alberts was the eldest, and his sister Leontine was the youngest – she was Biruta’s mother and died at the age of twenty-seven from blood poisoning after an abortion. Biruta, her sister and her brother were raised by her grandmother, Emma. Her father remarried a sixteen year old girl and started a new family.
Edvards, my grandfather's brother, killed in his 20s, and Leontine, Biruta's mother, on her confirmation, who also died in her 20s.
All of my grandfather’s siblings died under tragic circumstances, but there are discrepancies between Biruta’s version and my mother’s. Biruta tells me that Peteris, the second eldest, was very fond of drinking and was murdered by a gang when he was in his sixties, presumably as a consequence of a drunken brawl, and that Edvards (pictured) was tortured and shot when he was eighteen by the Aizsargi, or Home Guard, for suspected but mistaken involvement with the communist party. My mother, however, tells me that Edvards was definitely involved with the communists and was twenty-seven when he was killed. Biruta claims that Janis died in his twenties when a stack of wood fell on him, but my mother tells me that he died of a rare skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa, or EB, in which the skin develops painful raw blistering at the slightest touch. While I would like to know which version of these stories is correct, in some sense it doesn’t matter because each is equally tragic. And then there was Anna, born in 1904, who died at the age of two from a childhood illness. Biruta says that her grandmother had believed Anna died as the result of a curse.
As I listen to Biruta I wonder how it is that I have managed to escape such a tragic destiny. I feel incredibly distanced from the terrible events she relates to me but extraordinarily moved by them as well. These stories are part of my story but my life seems like a fairytale in comparison. Of course, Biruta’s children have also transcended their parents’ history and have successful, comfortable lives, on a par with my own – but all the same, my life seems oddly disconnected from the main narrative.
During the Soviet era, Biruta and Arturs were employed in a brickworks. Biruta gradually worked her way up to be one of the managers and retired only a few years ago. She and Arturs tell me what it was like to live during communist times, recalling their early years together when they lived in an apartment with no electricity or hot water. There was never anything much in the shops and when there was news that something had arrived and was for sale, they had to queue for hours in the hope that it was something useful and that there would be some left when they reached the counter. Meat was a particularly rare commodity and only offal was for sale locally. Arturs talks about getting up at 4am to travel to a place in Estonia and wait for hours and hours to try and get decent meat. The best produce, says Arturs, was all sent to Russia or to those who were higher ranking within the system. But Biruta and Arturs explain that they have always grown their own vegetables and fruit and that they were able to get other items through a black market system of exchange and, because they worked in a factory, they would always get free fuel for their motorbike. I ask whether life is better for them now, and they say, yes, well, you can get everything now, but you need the money to buy it.
I sleep soundly on the fold out couch in the living room opposite the wall unit that houses the best china, books, photos and other mementos, including a fantastic green ceramic candle stick holder. In the morning, after breakfast, which is similar to lunch but with the addition of home-made jam and mugs of unfiltered coffee, Biruta wraps my sprained ankle with the mashed leaves of a plant called Zeltā Stīga, (literally Golden Stick) and then binds it with bandages. Her bedroom window sill is covered with the plant, which apparently has amazing healing properties that can cure all kinds of ailments.
Then we walk to the community gardens. Biruta has told me about their garden and in my mind I have imagined a small plot, about double the size of her living room. We go behind the Soviet housing blocks into a small forest. ‘This is where we let the chooks loose every day’, says Biruta. And then, beyond the forest, is the remarkable world of community gardens. I had no idea they would be so beautiful and so very extensive. Biruta and Arturs grow all their own vegetables here, plus they have fruit trees, a strawberry patch, berry bushes, flower gardens, two hothouses, five beehives, eighteen chooks, and a small summer house. This is where they spend the majority of their lives. They get up in the morning, prepare some food to take with them, and then head for the gardens, where they work all day. The summer house is tiny but it has a small living room with couches where they can rest, a little kitchen for making preserves, and a storeroom. They only return to their apartment in the Soviet tower block in the evening.
I am stunned by the magic of this place. From their plot I see their neighbours working in their gardens, all a little different in layout, but essentially with the same elements. I now have a completely new insight into what it is to be Latvian under the Soviet system. I have seen these garden plots from the train and the bus near other Soviet tower blocks. While the tower blocks provide basic housing, it is the community gardens that offer the possibility of creating a miniature version of life in the countryside as it was before Soviet rule. The garden preserves the innate link with the land and with nature that is so very essentially Latvian.
Biruta fills a big bucket with bunches of flowers which we take to Dikli Cemetery. Dikli is about 30 minutes drive from Lode and it’s where Biruta grew up and where my grandfather was born. The cemetery is very beautiful, as all Latvian cemeteries are, because they in the forest. The graves and headstones are scattered amongst the trees and every family has a small area separated off from the others by low-lying shrubs.
The plots here all have sandy soil and when we arrive the first job is to rake away all the autumn leaves. I help, using a child-sized plastic rake. Then the flowers are placed in vases, the plants are watered, the headstones are polished and Arturs does a final raking with a larger wooden rake that leaves a very neat trail of wide grooved patterns around everything. At the first plot, my great grandmother Emma Berzins is buried, along with her daughter, Leontine Adamsone, Biruta’s mother, and other members of the family in unmarked graves. To the left there are spaces for Biruta and Arturs. Emma’s headstone says:
Paliek tiem, kas tālāk iet
Like an apple orchard, your life
Remains for those who continue on
My translation is clumsy and fails to convey the poetic beauty of the lines.
We go through the same ritual of raking, watering and decorating for other family members in the cemetery – Arturs’ parents, and Biruta’s father, who is buried on his own. Biruta shows me where her father’s second wife is buried, and the memorials to Latvians who were supporters of the socialist regime. My great grandfather, Mārcis, died in Vilikie Luki in Russia in 1941, around the age of sixty. He left his wife and six children when in his 30s to join the communists. Edvards, who was killed in his 20s for aligning with the communists, has his name engraved on a large stone for those who died during WWII. Both of the memorials are unkempt, presumably now seen as reminders of years of oppression rather than socialist liberation, but there are some candles left near the WWII stone.
Near Biruta’s father’s grave, we meet another lady, also named Biruta, who is tending her family plot. Her husband died only a few weeks ago and the grave is still a large mound covered in layers of neatly arranged pine branches. I was unaware of this tradition, as all my relatives in Australia are cremated, and I ask Biruta if I can take a photo.
After the cemetery, we drive to the Dziesmu Svetki (Song Festival) Memorial. The very first festival was held here in 1864, atop a small hill in the forest. From 1973 onwards, it has been held in Mezaparks, in the northern suburbs of Riga. A group of other visitors climb the hill and spontaneously start singing.
Directly opposite the entrance to the memorial are some houses – a large older, dilapidated house that belongs to the church and used to be the minister’s manse, and some two storey housing blocks further back that were clearly built in the Soviet era. Nearby is a collapsed woodshed and sitting in front of it are a group of people, passing the time outdoors on a pleasant day. Biruta points to the minister’s house and tells me that another of my mother’s cousins lives there – Raimonds Upite. He is my great grandmother’s brother’s son and he is 94 years old.
We approach the group sitting around the collapsed woodshed. Biruta introduces herself and says she’s from Dikli. It turns out that she went to school with the man and they exchange information about their acquaintances, just like in Valmiera. Then Biruta asks about Raimonds, explaining that we are related, and the response from almost everyone in the group is that he’s mad, infested with fleas, never leaves his apartment and is aggressive towards strangers. But one of the elderly ladies, who introduces herself as an Estonian, asks if I would like to visit him. ‘He’s all on his own,’ she says, ‘and no-one visits him – let me take you to see him.’ I go with her and Biruta reluctantly follows. I am shocked that anyone even lives in the house because it seems so very run down, but the Estonian lady has an apartment in the front and Raimonds is her neighbour out the back. We go round the side of the house and the Estonian lady climbs the stairs and knocks on the door of Raimonds’ flat. There is no answer. She then knocks on the windows, but the house remains silent. ‘He could be dead in there, and no-one would know, no-one would know,’ she says. I ask when she saw him last and she said yesterday, so that is something of a relief. The Estonian lady keeps knocking on the door, banging her fist harder on the unpainted timber door, but Raimonds is not going to answer. My mother later tells me that his vision is very poor now but that before his sight began to fail him, she used to exchange letters with him for many years. I thank the Estonian lady for her trouble and we walk back to the front of the house and talk for a while. She fled to Riga as a young woman to stay with relatives back in the 1940s when all her family were killed by the Soviets. She is very interested in Australia and as I explain things to her about the weather, the landscape and the wildlife, I wish I had one of those tourist publications full of photos to give to her. A number of elderly people I have spoken to here have visions of Australia as an endless desert that is overpopulated with poisonous snakes, crocodiles and very large insects.
We leave the group by the woodpile and head for Dikli Palace, a beautiful old estate that was a Sanatorium during Soviet times but has now been transformed into a hotel and reception centre. A popular Latvian tv soap that Biruta, Arturs and I watched the night before, is filmed in the palace. We admire the paintings, the beautiful ceramic heating stoves and wander around the gardens. Biruta came here as a child to be treated for her lung infections.
Back in Lode we have a late lunch and Biruta and Arturs also show me their cellar in the basement of their apartment building. The shelves are stacked with preserved fruits and vegetables and there is a big box of potatoes that will see them through the winter. Biruta gives me three jars of jam and a big jar of pickled vegetables to take back to Riga with me.
On the way to the station, Arturs takes me to see Lode’s obligatory tourist attraction -– a sandstone cave called Hell’s Gate that is completely covered with engraved names, initials and other graffiti. Arturs and Biruta then see me off at the station. I take some last photos, climb up the steep stairs and I’m on my way back to Riga.
This time the carriage is a little quieter, but it’s completely packed by the time we reach the halfway point of the journey. Across the aisle from me is a roudy but happy family with four young children. They speak Russian, but occasionally break into perfect Latvian. Every now and then the father produces a big bottle of a pink milky drink that looks alcoholic from a shopping bag and pours it into a smaller bottle for his wife. In the seating behind them is a woman with a greyhound dog and directly opposite me are three young women squashed together, all playing with their mobiles and mp3 players. People also stand in the aisle.
When I arrive in Riga at 9.30 pm, I take the wrong exit from the station and end up at the back of the markets. It’s dimly lit and I have to walk through aisles of narrow, empty market stalls but I see some people up ahead and follow them. I pass by a drunken man who has collapsed on the ground, legs spread out in front of him, head hunched over his chest, repeating something over and over to himself. I am relieved when I get to my tram stop.
At home I take the bandage off my foot – it has been wrapped a little tight and there is an indentation around my ankle, but the swelling is not too bad. A couple of days later bruising appears and the swelling increases but thank god I am able to walk without too much discomfort.