Wednesday, October 29, 2008

To Russia

On Thursday 9 October, my cousin Mara and I catch the 4.20pm Latvian Express train from Riga to Moscow. We’ve got a four berth sleeper all to ourselves for the entire journey and it feels like a real adventure – the rattling of the train, a meal in the dining car, staring out the window as day fades to night, watching for signs of Russia in the landscape and architecture after we cross the border, and talking our way into the darkness of the Russian countryside… The last time Mara was in Moscow was about 20 years ago and she’s very excited about seeing how the city has altered in that time. She tells me that during the Soviet era, you could get better quality things in Moscow and so people went there specifically to go shopping. Mara also studied there for a while, and she was the member of a folk dancing group that performed in Moscow as well as many other cities in the Soviet Union. When she was about eighteen, the group was selected to tour a number of cities outside the Soviet Union. There was great excitement about this opportunity, but Mara was not allowed to go. Her visa application was rejected by the government and she cried for days from the disappointment. I ask her why she was not granted a visa. ‘Well, no-one ever told you why decisions were made,’ she says, ‘but probably because my records showed that I have family who live in the West’. My heart gives a little jump. It has never occurred to me that my parents’ decision to leave Latvia for a better life elsewhere would have impacted on the life of relatives who stayed behind. So even though Mara was born in the 1950s, she could not escape our family history. Mara also explains that while she could study almost anything she wanted, certain types of work, especially that associated with the government, would also not have been possible for her. She continued to dance and also taught dancing, but eventually studied English at University and became a high school teacher. (I find this an interesting paradox - Mara was allowed to learn and to teach English - the signature language of the West - but she could never be given permission to use her skills outside the Soviet Union.) The train stops at the Russian border for well over half an hour as everyone’s passports and bags are inspected (it’s quite a complex little bureaucratic system - see the picture of me holding my customs declaration). I want to take a photograph of the border control area from the carriage window but Mara tells me I’ll get arrested and that will be the end of our adventure. I particularly want a photo of those big circular hats the Russian military wear, but of course, I will get plenty of opportunity once we get to Moscow. The train starts again and we get into our pyjamas and under the covers in our sleeping berths. Back in the mid 90s, I was on a train very much like this one with my partner Gerard when we travelled from St Petersburg to Riga. We had a first class cabin, so there were only two sleeping berths, and the only real other difference was that we had a television perched above the cabin door. It was almost completely unwatchable for us because the programs were voiced over in Russian, German or Latvian, but you could still hear the original language underneath, plus there were subtitles, sometimes in two languages. It was like trying to decipher a secret code. On this trip I don’t sleep too well. The bed is narrow and hard and I can’t get comfortable. I get up around 3am, go to the toilet and then peer through the window as we speed through the Russian countryside. We stop for about 20 minutes at a big station that is lined with seemingly endless rows of oil tankers. The station lights bathe everything in a yellowish-green glow and I feel like I’m in a very strange dream. I do eventually manage to get a little sleep, but it’s very fitful. When we arrive at the Moscow-Riga Express station, we are met by Andrey Tchoukine, a Russian artist I met at the Cite Internationale des Arts in 2002. Although we have been in regular email contact over the last six years, it feels quite odd to be meeting him now, here, in Russia. I am also worried that I may not recognise him, but there he is, waiting for us just a little way down the platform. He’s neatly dressed in a camel coat and dark trousers and he’s carrying five yellowish-pink long stemmed roses that he presents to me when we greet each other. We take some photos of this special moment and then Andrey guides us to our hotel via the amazing Moscow Metro system. I feel waves of dizziness come over me - a mixture of excitement and lack of sleep - as we push through the crowds. I’ve never seen so many people underground at once in my life and, of course, I’m awestruck by the grandeur of some of the stations we pass through. Mara asks me what I think of the people we see. Do they seem different from the general population in Riga? I say no, everyone looks extremely familiar. After we settle into the Budapest Hotel (it’s very comfortable, very close to Red Square and quite reasonably priced), Andrey takes us to an Indian-come-Asian-come-Russian style restaurant where we eat a late breakfast of soup, vegetable piroshki and cottage cheese patties. Then we begin our tour of Moscow through Andrey’s eyes. The first stop is the Kremlin. I had no idea it would be quite so beautiful and quite so breathtaking. I gasp at all the golden domed churches. They are stunning from the outside and like jewel boxes on the inside. The interiors feel much more Eastern than European to me – there is no seating, and while the spaces are grand, they soar upwards rather than width ways – and they also feel a bit confined. There is not an inch of wall space that is not adorned with frescoes or icons that glitter with gold, and in amongst everything there are the tombs of saints and tsars, decorated with elaborate carvings and protected behind glass and bronze display cases. I am completely overwhelmed and find it almost impossible to take in any detail. My eye keeps moving from one image to another, unable to settle on anything. Andrey points out favourite icons and particular shades of blue paint. We move from one chapel to another, and after we have seen everything that can be seen in the Kremlin, and I’ve taken plenty of photographs, we make our way to the Metro again to catch a train to the Tretyakov Museum. It is a beautiful building and has an extraordinary collection of Russian art, particularly Russian realism from the second half of the 19th century. Andrey shows us his favourite artists. He too, is a painter, and follows the realist tradition. When I met him in Paris back in 2002, he was spending much of his residency copying the masters in the Louvre and other galleries. We enjoy being saturated with art, but by the end of the day, Mara and I are completely exhausted.
The Tretyakov Museum
Our second day in Russia takes us into the countryside, to the village where Andrey lives, which is about 100 kms south west of Moscow. We have arranged to meet him at a particular Metro station and all I can say is, thank goodness Mara with her perfect Russian is with me, because without her, I would never have been able to unravel the mystery of the Metro system. While we don’t exactly get lost, Mara has to ask for directions many times until we finally get on the right line and make our way out into the suburbs. It is a bit stressful, but the experience takes us through a series of fantastic stations decorated with stunning chandeliers and Soviet sculptures. When we reach the designated station, we can’t quite remember where Andrey told us to wait for him. We decide to take an exit and go outside, but this is a mistake. Andrey phones me and tells us to go back down underground. When he finds us, he admonishes me. ‘Why did you do it, Brigita?’ he says. He takes us through a different exit where a friend is waiting for us in a car and drives us all the way to Andrey’s village, which takes about an hour. Mara and I sit in the back. The sky is grey and it begins to rain. We zoom along a huge highway - the rain gets heavier and the Soviet housing blocks in the distance eventually give way to forest. I truly feel I am on the other side of the world. We are dropped off outside Andrey’s home and briefly shake hands with our driver, who quickly disappears, I think back in the direction of Moscow. Andrey has clearly gone to a lot of trouble with the logistics of our visit and Mara and I feel both humbled and honoured. We are shown into the house, which is brick and two storey and is divided into two separate apartments – Andrey and his parents live in one half, and another family live in the other. The garden, which is overgrown and still has some remnants of summer flowers and fruits, is also divided. We take off our shoes and meet Andrey’s aunt and mother, who give us slippers and show us into the living room. There is a wall unit, a couch, a piano, a round table, a giant desk and the walls are covered with paintings and other art works, mostly copies of the masters by Andrey himself. A copy of a Rembrandt portrait of his naked wife hangs on the wall above the couch. We present our gifts and then Mara and I sit while Andrey busies himself in the kitchen, making us tea. We have a full itinerary. After morning tea, we go up to Andrey’s studio, which seems to take up the whole top half of the house. The walls of the stairwell are lined with Andrey’s paintings, pre-empting what we are about to see in the studio itself, which is dominated by a huge painting that runs all along one wall. It shows what I assume to be members of Andrey’s family or his friends out in the garden busy with various housekeeping tasks. All the other walls are covered in smaller paintings. There is an easel in one corner, a lounge suite, a television, a desk with a computer and three other doorways through which Andrey produces more and more paintings until one side of the room is completely stacked with his work - landscapes, interiors, portraits and many paintings of flowers that are so vivid and realistic that the petals seem to be falling from the canvas. I take photos of Andrey with his work and then he puts on a dvd of Tarkovsky films for us to watch while he goes downstairs to cook our dinner. A little later, Andrey’s brother arrives to drive us to the estate of Russian realist painter, Vasily Polenov (1844-1927), whose home is near the Oka river and is now a museum. The trip takes about half an hour. Inside the car, the black vinyl seats are torn and peeling, and there are no door or window handles. With the exception of a small slit of an opening on the front passenger side, the windows are closed tight, and the smell of petrol gradually and increasingly pervades the cabin. I feel a little sick and headachy, and for a brief moment, as I look out the window and consider where we are, hurtling through the remote Russian countryside in a rather dilapidated car with two men we barely know, and dense forest on either side of the road, I feel a moment of David Lynchish terror descend upon me. But the moment passes and we arrive at the Polenov Estate, are released from the car, and get to breathe fresh air again. Andrey’s brother arranges to meet us in about an hour. The estate is beautiful, and I sense within Andrey a longing for the type of intellectual life that was lived here – painting in the spacious studio; travelling overseas to gain inspiration for new work; holding soirees with other artists, poets, writers and musicians… We tour the house, wearing those big felt museum slippers over our shoes, and then explore the grounds, going right down to the River Oka. We also visit some artist studios set up in small cabins on the estate. One of them is a friend of Andrey’s - he’s very friendly and takes a picture of me painting the little canvas he has just started. Then our chauffeur arrives to take us back to the house. I ask Andrey what his brother does and he tells me he is an entrepreneur – but the exact nature of his entrepreneurship is not revealed.
Brigita attempts realism
Back at the house, we help set the table in the living room and have dinner with Andrey’s parents. His mother was a science teacher at high school and his father was the head of a Kolhotz. His father is very talkative and has a long conversation with Mara. (How I wish I could speak Russian!) When he finds out we are Latvian, the discussion becomes a little political. Mara turns to me and tells me that he just said that the Latvians don’t think much of the Russians! But she handles the situation well and manages to keep the tone friendly. It would have been so good, says Andrey’s father, if we had all remained as one Soviet nation - then we could have entered this capitalist era together, rather than separately. Mara responds diplomatically and I try to imagine what this trip would have been like without her - she not only acts as a go-between for me, but also has a wonderful ability to engage people in conversation. Had I been on my own, there would no doubt have been many periods of long silence. While Andrey does speak a little English, it is fairly broken and limited. Dinner starts with borsch, followed by fried salmon steaks accompanied by potatoes and salads of seaweed, carrot and cabbage. For dessert there is Andrey’s own apple strudel and then, as we sip tea from delicate Russian china, we are treated to a small piano recital. Andrey plays Mozart, Bach and Chopin – and then it’s time to say goodbye. Andrey’s mother gives us each a big hug, and as we make our way to the railway station, we watch Andrey’s father herd their two cows into the stables for the night. It has been a long day but an extraordinary one. I feel overwhelmed by the sincerity of Andrey and his family and level of hospitality that has been shown to us. On our third and final day, Mara and I are on our own. We sleep in a bit, have a long breakfast, and then make our way to Red Square. Interestingly, Andrey didn’t show us Red Square, even though we walked right past it on our way to the Kremlin, so today I’m going to get my fix of Soviet tourist attractions. My major objective is to see Lenin in his mausoleum. The Square itself is only about 500 metres from the hotel, so we don’t have to walk far. Near the entrance we participate in a good luck ritual, throwing a coin over the left shoulder and making a wish. Once the coin hits the ground, it’s collected by a team of old ladies who are the managers of this lucrative little business. Just beyond is Red Square and I’m very excited. It’s fantastic, of course, but at the same time I had imagined it to be much bigger! One side is dominated by the austere black and red granite of the Lenin Mausoleum and directly opposite is GUM, a magnificent department store that Mara remembers with great fondness from the Soviet era. At either end are churches and museums. It’s a dull and drizzly day but the square is crowded with tourists and the Russians put on a great show for them. People dressed as Lenin, Stalin and tsars wander about and offer to pose in tourist photographs. We walk in the direction of the Mausoleum and realise that to get to see Lenin, we have to leave the square and join a long queue that runs along a gate near the Kremlin. We only have a bit over an hour before they close the Mausoleum for the day and I’m a bit anxious that we may miss out. We wait for about half an hour and then we're in. Security is tight. While it is free to view Lenin, we have to pay to leave our cameras and mobile phones in a cloakroom, then we join another queue where we are scanned and have our bags checked. It’s raining a little more heavily now and we walk fairly quickly past the monuments to various Soviet leaders, each adorned with a red plastic carnation. Mara reads out particular names and I can see that she is engaging with a history that has specific significance for her. Then we approach the entrance to the tomb itself. The whole experience is dominated by the aesthetics of black granite, dim, dramatic lighting, and the strategic positioning of Russian militia. Right in the centre of the entrance, is a Russian soldier standing to perfect attention. As we approach, he automatically and very precisely raises one finger vertically to his lips, making a silent ‘shhh’ gesture. Then he points to our left, again with perfect precision, the arm straight and level, the finger a very clear direction. We make out way down the stairs. At every corner, a Russian soldier points us further into the depths of the mausoleum – there is no possibility of straying from the path, or of lingering on the black granite steps. We descend two levels and then we are there, within the tomb itself. It is nowhere near as big as I had imagined. Lenin is to our right, illuminated within his glass box. The casket itself is quite large and the top and corners are draped with swathes of sculpted bronze cloth. Lenin looks quite small and frail in comparison - and also extremely fake. His little face and hands seem to be made of papier mache painted with flat acrylic paints and covered with a layer of face powder. His beard and moustache are very spiky and his body seems almost hollow. If he is a fake, it’s a very bad one. I imagine that if you were making a fake Lenin, you would be able to create something far more realistic and convincing, and so my guess is that he probably is the real thing. We have to maintain a forward momentum with the rest of the viewers and are not able to linger. Before we know it, we have emerged back into the grey drizzle of red square where we take our time looking at the other memorials. The rain really starts to bucket down and we take shelter in the fantastic GUM store. It has to be one of the most beautiful department stores I have ever seen! There is a huge delicatessen that displays its fruit, vegetables and other products as if in an art exhibition. Mara asks me to take photos of the fruit drink dispensers, which are big inverted glass cones and bring back fond memories of her childhood. We stop at a café that overlooks the central fountain and eat pancakes and drink coffee. We both feel like we’re in heaven.
Mara in GUM
That afternoon we go to the shopping district of Arabat to buy souveniers and then, by the time we get back to the hotel, it’s time to tackle the Metro again and catch the train back to Riga. The journey back is less restful because we have border checks in the early hours of the morning rather than late evening. We also have to stop at Vilikie Luki (which means big onions) a station about half way between Riga and Moscow, where my great grandfather on my mother’s father’s side of the family died. I had wanted to spend a few hours there, but it was very difficult to find a suitable time for arrival and departure. On this route, it pulls into the station at about 3am in the morning and I was not too keen to get out and find somewhere to stay at that hour in a remote part of Russia when I don’t speak the language – Mara was also not happy to participate in this part of my adventure. There was a possibility of catching a train at night, arriving at 6am and then catching the 3am train back to Riga, but this also didn’t appeal for obvious reasons. The other problem was that I don’t have any information about where my great grandfather is buried or what part of Vilikie Luki he lived in, so in the end, I decided it would be enough to take photos of the station – at least then I could say I had been there. Mara and I sleep in our clothes to make it easier when we get to Vilikie Luki. I set my phone alarm for 2.30 but I don’t get much sleep – I guess I’m nervous about missing the stop. But everything is fine - I’m already up when we reach the station, I put my jeans and shoes on, wake Mara, and we go out into the odd yellow-green light of the Russian railways. Velikie Luki is a surprisingly big and grand station, the building probably dating from the early 1900s. I take photos, Mara takes photos of me, and our carriage steward takes a photo of us as well. When she hands back the camera, I tell her that my great-grandfather died here, but it comes out a little loud and Mara says it was like an announcement across the whole station! We climb back into our carriage and I take a video of us leaving. From what I can see of the town, it’s quite big. I wish there had been some way of seeing the place in the daylight... As I related in a previous posting, my great grandfather, Marcis, joined the communists when he was in his thirties, leaving his wife and a family of six children to take up the cause. I wonder what he was thinking when he decided to make this very dramatic change in his life – what it was like to leave those he loved for something that he must have felt was even stronger than that love. But perhaps he had been one of the Latvian Riflemen, who were taken under the control of Lenin during WWI. I guess I will never know. But what I do know is that in June 1941, my grandfather Alberts was sent news that his father was dying. He travelled by train to Velikie Luki but arrived a day too late – his father had already died. The doctor who looked after Marcis told my grandfather that his father’s dying words were that he had made a mistake in join the revolutionaries. I wonder what my grandfather thought of his father? And what it was like to be the eldest of six children abandoned by their father for political reasons? I also wonder how much contact there was between Marcis and his children. I am assuming that letters must have been written on some sort of regular basis because otherwise it would have been very difficult to track Alberts. I also wonder about Marcis’s son Edvards, who was killed by the Latvian Aizsargi or Homeguard for suspected involvement with the communist party - perhaps there was some contact and influence there too. The doctor who looked after Marcis in his last hours warns my grandfather that he should leave Vilikie Luki immediately as he will not be able to get back into Latvia if he is found in Russia. I am presuming then, that he does not stay for his father’s funeral, but I may be wrong. I am also assuming that the warning is in some way linked to the massive deportations that occur Riga on 14 June, 1941, when thousands of Latvian citizens are herded into trucks and cattle trains and sent to Siberia. My grandfather gets back to Riga safely. The family lived in Sarkandaugava at the time, a rather industrial suburb of Riga that hugs the banks of the Daugava river. (Sarkandaugava means Red Daugava.) My grandfather had apparently gone fishing in his boat on his return from Russia. It is very early – perhaps 6 in the morning? – and my mother is sent to fetch her father and ask him to go to work immediately. He works in a big chemical factory where they make acetone from birch trees (coincidentally, my grandfather’s surname, Berzins, means little birch tree). There is some sort of crisis at the factory and he is needed urgently. On her way to the river, my mother is shocked to see her girlfriend, Aldona Ikmanis, whose father was a policeman, being loaded onto a big truck with her whole family. Her girlfriend is crying and my mother, who would have just turned 14, has no understanding of what is going on. She tells me that this is the one time she remembers feeling really terrified. Of course, no-one knew what was going on at the time – the deportations happened without warning and mostly during the night, so it would have been very difficult to make sense of what had occurred until well after the fact. (As an aside, I notice that in all the bookstores there are now numerous publications about the deportations, so there has been a great rewriting of history that was not possible during the Soviet era.) It seems remarkable to me that my grandfather’s return from Russia coincides with the deportations of 14 June. I wonder why he decides to go fishing and whether he had any idea about what was going on when he got back to Riga. Presumably not – presumably he simply wanted a moment of quiet and solace in his boat on the river to contemplate the death of his father. It would be interesting to confirm the date of my great grandfather’s death, which would help pinpoint what happened in terms of historical context, but that would probably mean going back to Vilikie Luki, actually staying there and visiting the archives office. It would probably also demand learning some Russian – or convincing my cousin Mara to come with me.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Here is my latest manifestation. I am wrapped in a shroud made of copper cloth, lying on a glass table in Riga's Artspace Gallery. I'm participating in a work by Canadian artist Catherine Richards, who is interested in the impact of new technology on the body. Just an hour ago, I heard her give a presentation as part of the Spectropia International festival for new media culture art and communication, and now I am lying here on the glass table, listening to the sounds of all the other art works, the voices of visitors, the occasional whispers of the two young women who carefully wrapped and tied me in the copper cloth... I am oddly relaxed, self-contained, even though I know that people are observing me. I remain cocooned for fifteen minutes and while I am relieved to finally be released from the copper shroud, I also feel a strange desire to remain within it. There is something meditative and secure about the experience - a feeling that nothing else in the world actually matters while I lie on the table, that I have left all other responsibilities behind me.

Over the last two weeks or so I have continued to accumulate extraordinary experiences. So much has happened in such a short space of time that it has been difficult to record and document everything - and now I have to catch up. I have been to Moscow and back by train, stopping at Vilikie Luki (which means 'big onions' in Russian) at 2.30 am to photograph the railway station so that I can say that I have been to the place where my great-grandfather, who left a family of six children to join the communists, died in 1941. I have waited in the rain in a long queue outside Red Square to see Lenin in his mausoleum; have got lost in the amazing Moscow Metro with my cousin Mara; have gasped with awe in the extraordinary churches in the Kremlin, and have been driven through the Russian countryside in a dodgy car with peeling vinyl seats, no door or window handles and the strong smell of petrol increasingly pervading the cabin. I have been a guest on Latvija's Radio Station 1 where I managed to converse in Latvian during a half hour interview. I've viewed passports and census information about my family at the State Archives, including seeing two pictures of my father's father for the very first time in my life. He died in 1932 at the age of thirty-seven and his baptism certificate from 1894 is in Russian, revealing that he was Russian Orthodox, something no-one in my family knew about. I have also viewed my mother's father's wages booklets from the time he worked at the chemical factory Rutenbergs, which later had its named changed to Metils - one booklet record his wages in Latts, the other has quotes by Lenin and Stalin on the first page and records the wages in Roubles. I have also been treated for a medical condition which took me to two different polyclinics, one some distance out of the centre of Riga where I had to have an examination that required a general anaesthetic (despite my initial terror, it was all perfectly fine and very professional). And I have also given a presentation about my work here at the residency.

Riga itself is awash with golden autumn leaves that workers spend all day raking into garbage bags that in turn pile up on the sidewalks and in the parks. I only have six more days left before I leave for Poland and I know it will be very hard to leave. Please watch for more postings in the next few days that will fill the gaps about my recent adventures.

The view from my apartment window

Friday, October 3, 2008


Today I see a man in the street whose face is so badly beaten up that it almost looks like raw meat. I can barely look at him and almost weep from the sadness and the shame of it. I suspect he sustained his terrible injuries as the result of a drunken brawl – but why is he walking around the streets and not recovering in hospital? Just around the corner is an elderly lady in an ancient wheelchair, wrapped in layers of old woolen garments and only partially sheltered from the rain. She holds out a small plastic tray. She is the fourth or fifth old lady I have seen begging in the space of an hour. I give her a coin, she thanks me, and we nod to each other. I feel an overwhelming sense of distress that so many old people are reduced to begging in the street, and for some reason, the distress is far more intense and emotionally disturbing than when I see people begging in Australia. Is it because these people here are Latvian? (Of course, they may also be Russian.) Is it because I see something in their eyes that connects me to them, deeply, genetically, in a way I don’t feel a connection to my fellow Australians? Is it because I see my history in their faces?

I have to fight back the tears as I make my way to the Magnum Printers. I am overly emotional, over-reacting, over-experiencing…

The trip to Valmiera

I am having trouble keeping up with the documentation of my adventures. I need to record my impressions quickly, before they vanish, but I also need time to assimilate what I have experienced. In between, I am developing art works and thinking about how best to convey the myriad of visual data and emotional reactions I have accumulated. I am both excited and exhausted, even though my project is only in the early stages. I want to rest, but I am afraid of what I will miss.

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.

Biruta, my mother Mirdza, my grandfather Alberts, and my mother's brother, Gunars

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!

Arija Pakere (on the right) and an assistant in the Valmiera Museum

Arija shows me around the museum and explains about the history of the surrounding buildings, which are all of historic significance. We visit the old pharmacy, which has been converted into a museum about the history of Valmiera and look at old photographs of the area on a digital display. Biruta tells Arija and the museum attendant that she is from Dikli and worked in the old building opposite the pharmacy during the Soviet era. A wonderful exchange then follows in which they all share information about their common acquaintances – this is local knowledge about local people who have lived in the area for many many years. The museum attendant (pictured) has my sister’s name, Indra, and she asks me lots of questions about Australia.

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 (on the right) in Valmiera with rich friends

My great grandmother was very fond of the gypsy children in the local area. She would bring them home, let them play with her own children, wash them and put them all in bed together. There were lots of gypsies at that time, many who lived near farms in horse-drawn caravans, but others who also lived in houses. My mother describes them as very independent and uninterested in living a standard life. They told fortunes, played music and danced to earn a living. They were also accomplished thieves, but they never stole from those farmers that allowed them to stay on their property and provided them with food. There was an unwritten law of exchange with the gypsies.

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.

My mother as a young girl with her Aunt and Uncle Dombrovskis, in Smiltene.
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...

The church in Smiltene

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.

Emma, Biruta's grandmother, and Biruta with her eldest daughter, Laura

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.

Arturs and friend in compulsory Soviet military service

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 (standing with plaits) and her sister, Anita, seated in front, working on her stepmother's farm in summer

I take lots of photos and then spend some time talking to the chooks, who have a small open run attached to a series of coops. I am amazed that the chooks walk about 200 metres down a small dirt road into the forest, scratch around for a couple of hours, and then return to their pen. Biruta says you have to herd them home, but they happily obey. I guess they know that life is not going to be any better for them out in the wild.

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:

Tavs mūžs kā ābeļu dārzs
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.