Monday, September 29, 2008

The Last Bend and Lienas Iela

On 9 October, 1944, my mother fled Riga by train with her parents and younger brother. She was seventeen years old and on the journey to the port of Liepāja, which took them three days, met a young man who gave her a book called Pēdējais Pagrieziens, which translates as The Last Bend or The Last Turn. My mother can’t remember the name of the young man, but they became fond of each other during their few days on the train together and corresponded for a while after parting in either Liepāja or Gdansk (how this was possible during the war I have no idea!). The book given to my mother was a romantic novel about racing car drivers and had been translated into Latvian, presumably from English. She enjoyed it very much and thinks it was written by Jack London, the famous author of White Fang. She also remembers that the young man who gave it to her carried with him a large sack which was full of books. Her family had one suitcase and a box of food with them, but this unknown young man was fleeing the country with a small library.

I am determined to try and find The Last Bend here in Riga. While the book itself may not be of any great literary merit, the title strikes me as being uncannily symbolic. I go to the National Library of Latvia in Elizabeth Street, where I spent ten days last year installing an artwork called SPOGULIS (mirror) on the ground floor windows. I register, am given a library card and then I see the Librarian. I ask about The Last Bend and explain the story of why I am trying to find it. The Librarian is incredibly helpful - she searches the online catalogue, gives me the card catalogue with all the Jack London entries and searches a range of online bibliographies. She tries various combinations of the title – perhaps my mother has remembered it incorrectly? Of course, this is a possibility and I also begin to suspect that she may have got the author wrong and that the book is not written by Jack London.

The Librarian takes my email address and phone number and sends me to the 5th floor to see another Librarian who may be able to help. I'm given a pass and make my way up the dark stairs. The lino is ancient and brown and the walls are painted to resemble wallpaper in brown tones with dark floral borders. There are old lifts with metal grills on every floor, corridors lined with closed doors or card catalogues, and on one level, beautiful stained glass windows. Earlier this year, the date was set for the opening of the brand new National Library of Latvia, called Gaismu Pils, The Castle of Light, which is scheduled to open on Latvian Independence Day on 18 November 2012. The building will be white and is shaped like a triangle pointing towards the heavens.

I reach the fifth floor and really have no idea where to go – I don’t understand the signs on the doors and how they correlate to the slip of paper I’ve been given - but I ask someone and find the right Librarian, who again is extremely helpful. She searches various hard copy bibliographies but is unable to find The Last Bend. She takes my details and says she will email me. I really don’t hold out much hope for finding the book.

I meet Armīns Ozoliņš at Osiris Café - he's the artist who helped me install SPOGULIS last year - and we walk to Krāsotāja (Painter) Street to a digital graphics company called Magnum TI who may be able to print some large scale images for me. About 200 metres before we get to Magnum, I notice a tree-lined street that goes off to the right with some rather dilapidated wooden buildings on the corner. This is nothing unusual in Riga – as you move further away from the centre of the city, the buildings tend to be less renovated and are more reminiscent of Soviet times. For some reason I feel oddly drawn to the view down this particular street and make a mental note that I should take a photograph next time I go by.

The Magnum company don’t have the particular fabric I wanted in stock and so I decide to get one image only, rather than three, printed on a different quality fabric as an experiment. I’m worried that the printing will be too glossy but I’m also keen to see one of the images at full scale. We do a deal and then Armīns takes me to a nearby Antique Bookstore where I might be able to find The Last Bend. We have to walk past that street I was drawn to earlier and for some reason I am once again struck by the buildings and the view.

The Antique Bookshop has a complete set of Jack London novels and short stories published in 1938, but The Last Bend is not amongst them. Either my mother has the title wrong or the author. I am almost tempted to buy the entire set of books just in case, but decide to wait for news from the library instead. I do buy about 10 journals from the 1920s, 30s and 40s and a novel about Emilija Benjamins, who ran the Estate my mother lived on near Kandava in the 1930s.

When I get back to the flat, there is an email from the library – they have found The Last Bend! I am stunned because I really didn’t think they would be able to trace it. The title is correct but the author is not Jack London – it’s H Richter - and it was published in 1944.

The next day I go to the library to see the book. I have to go to the third floor this time where I hand in a slip of paper with the book’s call number. It will take about half an hour to retrieve and I patiently wait in a reading room on the 5th floor. When I return the book has arrived. It’s a paperback with a murky dark cover and I can immediately see that it’s the right book because it has a picture of a racing car zooming down a tree-lined road and a silhouette of enthusiastic spectators on the cover. I feel overcome with emotion as I handle the book and turn its pages. The paper is thickish and brown from the acidic content. I get to the title page and it offers an extraordinary surprise – the book was translated from the German by M Berzins. My mother’s maiden name is Mirzda Berzins! I wonder whether this may be the reason the young man in the train gave this particular book to my mother.

I start to read a little of the book but I’m too overcome by its very existence to be able to concentrate on the Latvian. I turn the pages and find that it won’t let me get beyond a certain point because all of the pages have not been cut – the content of most of the book is thus inaccessible. I am reminded of my own art work and how so many of my projects present the viewer with book pages, documents or other objects that promise information and meaning but deny access to that information and meaning.

I take lots of photos of the book and then head for Magnum to pick up my print. I pass by that strangely alluring street again, and this time take a quick photo. At Magnum my print has turned out well and I’m really happy with the scale, even though I am not completely convinced by the surface of the fabric. On my way home I stop by that street again and take a couple more shots, but the shadows are very intense and so the pictures are not very successful. Then I look at the name of the street – it’s Lienas Iela. This is the street where my father grew up! I’m completely taken aback, overcome by a feeling that the street has been calling me to towards itself. I walk down, looking for number 8, and there it is, just a short way down on the right. It’s a big rendered apartment building with a large gate on the left leading into an internal courtyard. It looks as though it has not been touched since the 1940s. I take photos and feel tears welling in my eyes. My father’s family lived in apartment 14 and this is also where my cousin Mara grew up.

I’m not sure what to do. I walk back to Krasotaja Street and there is a small café directly opposite Lienas Street called Lienas Café. It’s very basic, with fake green onyx tables and a lone customer - a rather rough looking Russian worker - busily concentrating on a bowl of soup. I don’t feel I belong here, but I need to sit down and get over the shock of Lienas Street. The owner of the café emerges from the back room – he looks like an extremely weathered version of Michael Edwards, the directory of Contemporary Art Services Tasmania - and I order a Frikadelu (meatball and vegetable) soup with rye bread. It’s home-made and delicious and I enjoy every mouthful.

On the way home I stop at three Antique Book stores and ask for a copy of The Last Bend, but no-one has it.

Russian Contemporary Art, the Arsenals Film Festival and Riga Balsam

On Friday 19th September I attend the opening of ART-Index, an exhibition of Russian Contemporary Art in Arsenals, the gallery with the amazingly steep and scary staircase I visited in my first week in Riga. The exhibition is part of a unique season of events celebrating Russian culture in Latvia. The place is packed and buzzing. After the speeches a very groovy band called Beat Retro Scratch start playing a fabulous mix of retro jazz, folk and contemporary music in the foyer.

In the main gallery a group of ballerinas wearing classical tutus are performing as part of one of the art works. It’s very crowded and I push my way through to see the rest of the art – sculpture, painting, photography, video – there’s a lot of work and my first impression is that it’s all very exciting. There’s a Russian aesthetic present here that I can’t quite define – it’s dramatic, strong, and confident. I’m taken by the ballerinas, a series of rather Dadaist reconstructions of military objects, a big pile of dirt that sits in the centre of one of the gallery spaces, and a bookshelf filled with loaves of rye bread. Some of the videos are also quite compelling. I join the crowds around two large cardboard boxes and peer into their open lids. Inside one is a projection of a miniature sleeping Lenin – but his sleep is is troubled and he tosses and turns in his formal black suit. Inside the other box is a projection of three people in a room – a naked woman on a bed, a man on a toilet and a man at eating at a table. The two men rotate their way clockwise around the room - eating, having sex with the woman and shitting - a comic little scene about the merry-go-round of life. I’m also drawn to a video of close-ups of raw eggs and spaghetti accompanied by Tchaikovsky; a series of large scale photographs of sausages, rye bread and cheese that have been arranged to mimic Russian Constructivist paintings, and a group of mysterious monochromatic landscapes.

As I’m taking photos of the landscapes, I hear someone call out my name and it’s Jegor Jerohomovičs, the journalist who interviewed me last year for an article in Riga’s main newspaper, Diena. Jegor speaks perfect English, Latvian and Russian and we chat for a while in Latvian, both agreeing it’s a great show and that we should keep in touch while I’m here. Then I watch the band for a little longer and meet their manager, Zoja. The band don’t have any CDs out yet, but there is more information about them on My Space.

Later I go to the K Suns Cinema to see a Belgian movie at the Arsenals International Film Festival. The movie has English subtitles but most of the people are wearing headphones through which they hear a Latvian translation. The next day Anda Klavina and I see another film, My Winnipeg, a fantastic black and white movie by Canadian director Guy Maddin, in which he recalls his childhood growing up in Winnipeg. Maddin employs actors to play his various family members and then merges his recreated memories with documentary footage of his hometown. The result is a humorous but deeply moving narrative of Maddin’s early life.

* * *

I am sick with some sort of virus for about a week. Anda suggests I take Riga Black Balzam, a mixture of secret herbs, roots, oils, berries and pure vodka (45% proof) that was developed in the mid 1700s and was traditionally sold in pharmacies. It’s black and very potent, both bitter and sweet in taste, and the day after I take my first dose, I magically feel much better. I take another dose the next day and continue to improve. The drink has won various international awards and when Catherine the Great of Russia visited Riga, she was apparently cured of illness after taking Riga Balzam.

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 Soļikamska 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.

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.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Riga, the Hospital, the Gulags and Kandava

So many things have happened in the last week. I have met with relatives in a Soviet housing complex, have semi-mastered the trolley bus and tram system, have travelled to a small village in Western Latvia by bus, and am now the proud possessor of a renewed Latvian passport which makes me an official member of the European Union. Along the way I’ve met people who have been extraordinarily helpful, and others who have been extraordinarily rude. I have also completely fallen in love with the architecture of Riga – the mixture of old and new, crumbling and renovated, art nouveau and traditional wooden buildings, takes my breath away. Old Riga hugs the river Dauguva. It is a maze of cobbled stone streets and 13th and 14th century buildings that open onto public squares filled with outdoor bars, cafes and souvenir stalls selling amber jewellery and hand-knitted socks and mittens. From the old city the rest of Riga extends out beyond a bank of beautiful parklands along grand boulevards lined predominantly with art nouveau buildings, but every now and then you come across traditional old wooden houses, some completely neglected and other very beautifully renovated. Of course, there are vestiges of the Soviet era everywhere. It is all so completely different from humble Hobart and I can see that my love for this place is tainted with a bad case of fascination with ‘the other’ (even though I technically belong to that ‘other’). Part of me wants to live here because it is so very aesthetically compelling - but another part of me acknowledges that the reality of living here from day to day may not be so easy.

A few days ago I visit Riga’s First Hospital, which is where my mother, Mirdza Berziņš, was born in 1927. The hospital was originally established in 1803, but the rather gothic main building, which is now the emergency entrance, was built in 1873.

I take photos from the outside and then ask the guard if I can take a photo of the interior. He says I need permission and leads me up the stairs to the management offices - I feel a bit like a naughty schoolgirl being taken to the headmaster’s office. I am introduced to Iveta, the PR Manager, who is absolutely delighted to meet me. She sits me down, makes me coffee, gives me a book of Latvian poetry as a gift and asks me why I am interested in the hospital. We talk for over half an hour, exchanging life stories, star signs, and views on what it is like to be a woman in the world today. We discover that both of us were born in 1954, only a few days apart. I am not able to take photos inside the hospital, but Iveta showed me a small museum in the bowels of the building where there is a photo of the hospital’s nursery in the 1920s or 30s. We then go outside and walk through the hospital complex and she shows me the building where my mother would have been born. Iveta gives me permission to return at any time to take more photos. We have been emailing each other since our meeting.

* * *

When I was in Riga in December 2001, I was taken to the First Hospital by ambulance from the Hotel Latvia. I was having trouble swallowing and my breathing would often stop for a brief period of time when I ate solid food. I was becoming increasingly distressed by my symptoms and after an episode in the Hotel’s café, asked if there was a doctor in the house. They called an ambulance and it was suggested I see a specialist at the hospital. My niece, Antra, accompanied me for moral support. I vaguely remember the interior of the ambulance – it was dark and the equipment looked dated and unfamiliar.

When I arrived at the Hospital and was led inside, I felt as if I had entered a 1940s black and white movie. There was a lone woman sitting at the reception desk, bathed in a dim wash of yellowish light. A short woman with red hair led Antra and I down a long corridor. She wore a white lab coat and knee length leather boots and there was an almost military precision in her stride. In the distance ahead, I could see someone standing in the otherwise empty corridor, looking in our direction. As we approached, the person's face became visible – it was lobster red and extremely swollen, the eyes mere slits, the skin shiny and peeling in places. Our eyes met briefly. As we progressed down the corridor a voice inside my head began repeating 'Take the first available flight to London if you have to have a procedure, take the first available flight to London…'

At the end of the corridor, Antra was made to wait outside while I was led into an examination room. The red-haired woman with the boots instructed to me take off my coat and pointed to a seat against the wall next to a trolley of medical instruments. There was a small Christmas tree covered in decorations on a table at one end of the room and traditional straw mobiles hung over the large examination table in the centre. The woman sat down at a table opposite me, opened a large ledger book, picked up a pen, and held it poised over the page, ready to write. She maintained this position without moving. Clearly, she was not the specialist.

After 5 minutes or so of waiting, the ambulance officer arrived and said, ‘Well, you must be feeling much better now that you are here, in the hospital. The specialist will be here shortly – he’s seeing someone in the other building who is bleeding profusely.’ When the doctor arrived he burst into the room in a great flurry wearing a full length padded floral dressing gown and a fur hat. I immediately thought of Groucho Marx. He removed his outfit and discussed my case with the ambulance driver and the red-haired assistant. They seemed more interested in the fact that I could speak Latvian and lived in Australia, rather than the nature of my condition. Eventually I was examined. The specialist asked me to open my mouth very wide and depressed my tongue with a wooden paddle. Leaning over his shoulder, also staring down my throat, were the ambulance officer and the assistant. The specialist stood back for a moment, then moved his face very close to mine and said, in a quite loud voice, ‘Completely healthy woman, completely healthy woman, completely healthy woman.’

‘So why am I having trouble swallowing?’ I asked. ‘It’s your nerves,’ he said. He prescribed a herbal tea, donned his floral padded dressing-gown and hat again, and left. I drank the herbal tea, but the problem didn’t ease. I ended up seeing a Harley Street specialist in London who explained the how the dysphagia had started and concurred that there was actually nothing wrong with me – it would just take me time to learn how to swallow properly again. The condition eventually passed after I finished my PhD.

* * *

The next day I collect my renewed passport, dutifully sitting with others in a waiting room until my number is shown on a digital screen. The girl who stamps my papers and hands the passport over to me is young and attractive, probably in her twenties, but she is extremely dour and serious. I ask her if that’s all there is to it, and she almost smiles back at me. As I leave the building I am surprised at how elated I feel about new the passport and wish I could celebrate with someone. I end up going to Latvian Art Academy, which is just nearby, where I have a strong black coffee in their rather dingy underground café and then visit an exhibition by a Japanese architect in a massive upstairs gallery.

Afterwards I buy seven yellow roses from the flower stalls near the freedom monument and catch trolley bus number 17 to Unijas Street, where my mother’s cousin, Jānis Petersons lives. It’s about 20 minutes or so out of Riga’s centre, in a Soviet housing area. Anna, Jānis’s partner, meets me at the trolley bus stop and we walk to their building. I would never have found it without her. Last time I was here all the buildings looked exactly the same because everything was covered in snow. This time, it is green and lush and Anna shows me the back of her building where her balcony is visible, covered in flowering pot plants. We walk up four flights of stairs to the apartment. The stairwell is dank and badly in need of painting, and the concrete stairs are cracked and dirty, but the flat itself is warm and cheery, decorated with Anna’s handcrafts. The living room has a huge wall unit filled with knick knacks, a couch, a wardrobe, a small table covered with plants, and a big wide screen television.

Jānis greets me and I present him with a bottle of Asti Spumante. We drink instant coffee and eat cake. Jānis makes his drink with about five grains of granulated coffee and 3 spoons of sugar. We talk and talk, reminiscing about the time I was here with Gerard in 1992. Anna shows me photo albums of her grandchildren in America - and then Jānis tells me about his time in the gulags. I had no idea that he had spent three years in gulags in Azerbaijan – for some reason I always thought he had been sent to Siberia. I have trouble understanding everything he says, because he speaks very quickly and uses words I am not familiar with. In a way, this is a blessing, because I don’t think I want to know all the details. He tells me that he progressed through a range of labour camps, working his way up to the salt mines in Baku, which were the best place to be because at least there you were outside in the fresh air. Food rations were one cup of gruel in the morning and 250 grams of bread per day. Fifty to sixty men slept in one small room, not much bigger than Jānis’s own living room, on wooden sleeping racks that lined the walls.

There must have been opportunities to do extra work and earn extra money while in the gulags and Jānis tells the story of agreeing to build a stone fence for an Azerbaijani for a specified fee. Jānis had never built such a fence before, (of course, he didn’t tell his client this) but subcontracts a team of other inmates who have some knowledge of building stone walls. They construct the fence to the specified dimensions and the Azerbaijani is very pleased with the result. A few days later, however, he approaches Jānis and says he has decided he would like the fence to be even higher. Jānis agrees – no problem, he can make the fence higher. He consults his wall making team again but they say if the fence is made higher, it will be unstable. Nevertheless, they build the wall higher, the Azerbaijani is happy and Jānis gets paid. A few days later, he hears an almighty crash and finds out that the entire fence has collapsed into rubble.

Jānis has many more stories to tell but I have had enough for this visit. Anna walks me back to the trolley bus stop and we agree to meet again soon.

The next day I make my first big trip out of Riga and catch the bus to Kandava, a small village in Kurzeme, or western Latvia. My mother spent several years living on a huge estate about five kilometres from the centre of Kandava, moving there in 1932, when she was five years old. The property was owned by Latvian millionaire newspaper mogul, Antons Benjamins, who developed it into a model estate. He employed staff to work in the stables, the dairy, the gardens and the hothouses. My grandfather looked after the horses, and I think my grandmother worked in the gardens. My mother remembers her time there with great fondness. Her family was provided with a two roomed apartment that was completely white – white walls, white furniture, even a white stove in the kitchen. It was here that she tasted grapes for the very first time in her life. It was also here that she first used an indoor flushing toilet. There were not many children on the estate, but my mother remembers often inviting them all to her apartment, where they played games and made a big mess eating swedes by scraping at the sweet flesh with spoons. She also played in the hothouses, using seedling boxes as toy boats. I’m not sure what the estate was used for during the Soviet era, but today it has been reclaimed by descendants of Antons and Emilija Benjamins and is available for hire for wedding receptions, conferences and special events. The tourist bureau in Riga told me it is open to the public and has a small museum about the estate’s history. Naturally, I am very keen to make a visit.

The image shows Kandava Sunday School in 1936. My mother is third from the left in the front row. Her brother, Gunars, is second from the left.

It is cold and rainy when I arrive in Kandava - not a heavy rain, but a light, persistent drizzle. I wish I had worn warmer clothes. I walk up a hill toward the town centre. This is a very small village, with old stone buildings and a few wooden houses. There is a café and hotel which has recently been refurbished, and I go there for coffee. The girl behind the counter is very friendly and tells me the tourist bureau is back down at the bottom of the hill I just climbed. I ask her the best way to get to the Benjamin Estate and she says the only way is by taxi. She phones several times for me, but the taxi driver seems to be unavailable. I leave for the tourist bureau and the girl in the café tells me to come back if I have no luck there – she may be able to find someone who can drive me there.

The tourist bureau officer, Ilze, is equally friendly and helpful. She too, is unable to contact the one and only taxi driver in Kandava, who is normally parked outside the bureau, waiting for potential business. She then arranges for me to visit the museum, which holds information about the Benjamin Estate. On the way, several people give me directions, one even stopping his car, winding down the window and explaining how to get there. I feel as though everyone in Kandava knows where I am going.

The museum is a large freestanding brick building at the top of a hill with a dimly lit double entrance. There are no exhibits to speak of – just some Soviet memorabilia in a back room which I discover later on my way to the toilet.

The extremely helpful museum officer is expecting me and has taken out a pile of folders about the Benjamin Estate. I am really delighted – there are photos of the property in the 1920s and 30s, including members of the Benjamin family, the main house from various perspectives, what I assume might be the stables, and the hothouses. Antons and Emilija Benjamins were great philanthropists. There are copies of old newspaper articles about them and also more recent ones that feature their descendants returning to Latvia to reclaim their property after the end of Soviet rule. I take photos of the documents and discuss them with the museum officer. She kindly phones the Benjamin Estate for me, only to find that it is not possible to visit today because the housekeeper is out of Kandava. It seems I am just not meant to see the estate in person today.

I have lunch back in the village and then wander around Kandava for a while. I climb up the hill to visit the old Lutheran church, built in 1736, to see its baroque wooden carvings, but the doors are locked despite the sign that says it is open until 4pm. Back down in the village, in the street that leads towards the gallery and cultural centre, there is a very poignant sign outside one of the buildings that says ‘New York’. It’s a vertical light box, white with blue lettering on one side, blue with white lettering on the other. The shop sells jeans and other contemporary clothing but it’s closed, as too are the gallery and cultural centre.

I return to the tourist bureau, where Ilze makes me coffee and miraculously manages to get the housekeeper of the estate on the phone. I arrange to visit next Wednesday at 1pm, but the negotiations are laboured. Is it possible to visit the estate? It is possible. When could I visit? Not today and not tomorrow. Could I visit next week then? I suppose so. Which day would be convenient? You can’t visit in the morning. Ok, I’ll come in the afternoon, but which day would be suitable? Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday? You can come on Wednesday. Great, I’ll come on Wednesday – what time? Not in the morning, only in the afternoon. Ok, what time – 2pm, 3pm? No, come at 1pm, I have a tourist group coming then. I wonder why she didn’t suggest this right at the beginning!

Ilze gathers information for me about the other places I will be visiting in Latvia and then I catch the bus back to Riga.