2013 Grateful 34

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May? Remember those girls? From the E.E. Cummings poem?

Maggie and Milly and Molly and May went down to the beach (to play one day) and Maggie discovered a shell that sang so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,
and Milly befriended a stranded star whose rays five languid fingers were;
and Molly was chased by a horrible thing which raced sideways while blowing bubbles,
and May came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.
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 I was reminded of them recently when visiting the seaside resort of Majori in Latvia. I have a thing about the sea and prefer winter beaches with solitary walkers rather than the thronged sands of summer. It was a cold day – a wet one – and yet the minute we hit the sand, the sun came out, the temperature rose 10 degrees. It was like stepping into a micro-climate of sorts, one that enveloped us in warmth and held the cold at bay.

IMG_3805 (800x600)For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to live by the sea and one day it’ll happen. But it has to be a strong sea. One that crashes against the shoreline and screams in the night. One that howls its way to eternity and back and makes you believe in the fragility of life and the tenuousness with which you hang on to it. I have very vivid memories of an Easter weekend spent in Ocean Shores in Oregon and  a New Year spent on Achill Island off the West Coast of Ireland. I’ve a bank full of flashbacks to long beach walks either alone or in company and hours of time spent sitting on the rocks listening to waves crash and thunder as I felt so utterly and completely alone.

IMG_3812 (800x590)Were it not for the fact that summer fast approaches and the quiet solitude of this gorgeous old beach house will be broken by the raucous noise of tanned ravers, and its clean air disturbed by the toxic smell of suncream,  I’d have spent some time imagining a life there. As it were, I coveted the view and mentally refurbished it to my taste and style and wondered if I could live there just in winter.

Summer houses in Majori apparently attract a monthly rent of up to €25 000, depending on their size. It’s a popular spot for Russian money and the newly built houses are part of a growing body of evidence that money and taste are not necessarily constant bedfellows.  Some of the older buildings are tarted up in pastels, while the boutiques showcase the blingiest of bling.

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Indian poet, playwright, and Nobel Prize winner for literature, Rabindranath Tagore, said: You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Don’t let yourself indulge in vain wishes. But what, I wonder, if I didn’t want to cross it … would standing and staring at the water be so bad? And I wonder, too, if I am indulging myself in vain wishes, or am I simply biding my time till that day I pack up and head for the coast?

This week, as thunderstorms of both a meteorological and a political persuasion rage across Hungary, I am grateful that I get to indulge myself every now and then with trips to the sea. I am grateful, too, that my wishes are not vain. One day…

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Light relief?

The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination. (Elbert Hubbard 1856-1915)

IMG_3890 (599x800)As I stood before the Uzvaras piemineklis (Soviet Victory Monument) in Riga last week and watched a newly married couple lay flowers at its base and then pose for photos, I thought it most peculiar. Strange, even. In Budapest, all communist statues were banished to Memento Park and yet in Latvia, they still stand on their pedestals.


IMG_3887 (581x800)This depiction of  Mother Russia is quite something to behold and on reflection, not having lived through those times in these places, who am I to judge the merits of communism. If the Soviets liberated the city, so be it. Let the statues declaim the victorious.

The monument, with its five gold stars, one for each year of the Second World War,  was erected in 1985 to commemorate the Russian victory over Nazi Germany. Why does the phrase ‘the lesser of two evils’ come immediately to mind? Apparently it was bombed in 1997 by  members of the Latvian neo-Nazi group Pērkonkrusts, two of whom died that day. Yet it still stands tall and people still pay homage.

IMG_3543 (599x800)Elsewhere in the city, Brivibas Piemineklis (Freedom Monument) was built in 1935, paid for by the citizens of Riga and erected in honour of  soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). Standing 42 metres high, it is the tallest of its kind in Europe. It managed to survive Soviet rule intact, and now reigns over the capitalist edifices surrounding it.  Apparently, during the Communist era, the monument was jokingly referred to as a travel agent: to leave flowers at it resulted in a one-way ticket to Siberia. The Soviets may have let it stand, but they kept a sharp eye on who chose to visit it. And apparently they reinterpreted its symbolism: the three stars were said to stand for the newly created Baltic Soviet Republics – Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR – held aloft by Mother Russia and the monument was said to have been erected after World War II (which it wasn’t) as a sign of popular gratitude toward the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for the liberation of the Baltic States.

IMG_3431 (600x800)Another interesting and divisive statue from that period is Strēlnieku piemineklis (the Latvian Riflemen monument). It was originally dedicated apparently to the Red Riflemen who became Lenin’s bodyguards but is now said to commemorate all Latvian riflemen, red and white,  who fought in the First World War. This towering piece of red granite is very impressive.  And again, there’s a joke: it is said that the three men, looking so seriously into the distance, are waiting for the fourth to arrive with a bottle of booze.

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And, pre-dating any of the above (albeit it a modern version of an old stone) is the copy  5/6th century Livs idol, which was apparently found in 1851 by a farmer ploughing a field near Salaspils. A bit of light relief in comparison.

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Shopping, anyone?

Tell me that  it’s not a place for tourists and I’ll move it to the top of my list. Tell me it might be dangerous, and I’ll be sure to bring someone with me. Tell me that I shouldn’t go, and I’m already on my way. I’m a child at heart. And just about the only person who still gets to tell me what to do, with any hope of me doing it,  is my mother.

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IMG_3505 (800x598)Once I heard that the flea market – Tirgus Latgale – in Riga was not a savoury place, I had the map out. Luckily for me, my partner in crime last weekend is not one to be told either, so we ventured forth to this den of iniquity having been told repeatedly that photographs were not allowed and that could it be dangerous. Apart from one crotchety old cow, everyone seemed happy and friendly, although the stalls ranged from madly disorganised to compulsively neat.

IMG_3503 (800x598)IMG_3504 (800x578)Prices ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime and just about everything imaginable that you might want to use over the course of an entire lifetime could be found there. I bought a blue bottle (my current obsession is with blue glass) from a lovely woman for 1 LAT (about €1.50) and she wanted to give me a set of six teacups and saucers as a present (thank God for the luggage allowance excuse!)

Were the spy business still in vogue and were it still necessary to build a new life on a regular basis, it would be quite easy to purchase the trappings from places like Latgale. I’ve quite fancied the idea of creating an entirely new past for myself, using photos purchased at markets around Europe of people who bear even the slightest resemblance to me. How cool would that be?

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Riga is also home to the largest market in Europe – Rīgas Centrāltirgus – situated in old German Zeppelin  hangers close to the train station. About  72,300 square metres  (778,000 sq ft) wide,  they house more than 3000 stands and sell just about everything you might imagine eating.

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IMG_3441 (599x800)I was impressed – how could I not be – but Budapest has many like it, if on a smaller scale. I was up for something more local. As we traipsed the streets, armed with the new-found knowledge that Tirgus is Latvian for market, we found all sorts. And no doubt, were we living in Latvia, in Riga in particular, there is a chance that we would grow immune to the sameness of the crafts on display, but this time, they were really something. Latvia is famous for its wool and its linen and the two are put to such varied use that the ensuing crafts, although a tad expensive, make for very pleasant viewing. It’s also famous for its amber, but not as famous as Lithuania – and yet I still didn’t find that big green amber ring I’ve been hankering after for years.

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IMG_3562 (600x800)The big craft market on the corner of Kalku and Kaleiu is worth a visit any day of the week – if for nothing else, then inspiration.

All over the city  there are fresh veg markets with great local food. The shapes, the smells, the people – all just that little bit different to what we have here in Budapest. Not necessarily better or worse, I might add, just different. I saw lots of things I hadn’t seen before but then I said the same when I first came to Hungary. It was a nice wake-up call not to take things for granted.

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Mind you, when you venture inside to the shops, it’s a different story entirely. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been recently (as in the last ten years) where I have been less tempted by what was on offer. The colours – so 1980s – but perhaps it’s just me behind the times.

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But these colours seem to pervade the city – bright greens, blues, oranges… most peculiar. And yet no one was wearing them… yet another conspiracy methinks!



The Cats of Riga

Me: Why is there a  cat on everything?
Random local: I don’t know.
Me: Why is the cat the symbol of Riga?
Tourist Information Office chap: It’s not official. It’s something to do with a story…or something.
Me: Do know what the cat on this magnet symbolises?
Market vendor: *shrugs*

IMG_3719 (800x600)A word to the wise, Rigans – if the tourist is asking, the tourist doesn’t know. So make it up! There are cats everywhere. On magnets, in pub names, on graffiti, on postcards – everywhere. Surely someone must know why? And if not, is it beyond the realm of reason to suggest that someone could come up with a plausible story? It’s not like I’m not going to believe you. I do it all the time in Budapest when someone asks me what such and such a building is… I spin a yarn, their curiosity is sated, no one dies. It’s a perfect win.

IMG_3712 (800x589)It’s a scary world when I have to resort to Google over local lore to find an answer to what seems on the face of it to be a relatively simple question. Apparently back in the fourteenth century, an architect applied for membership of the Great Guild and was turned down. He was so upset that he put a black cat on the roof of his building with its backside facing the guild. The famous Black Cat of Riga, complete with arched back, symbolised said architect’s displeasure. Easy enough to remember eh? So why then did 100% of those I asked not know about it? Okay, admittedly, it was a small survey, but still! And by the way – said architect got his way in the end and turned the cat around.

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2013 Grateful 35

A good friend of mine once told me that he envied me my faith. Another, a confirmed ‘dirt man’, thought that it must make life a little easier but wondered how I managed to be so matter-of-fact, while living in a world based not on scientific facts and figures – hard data – but on tenuous concepts and strange beliefs.

There’s a great expression used at home that has become a mantra of sorts for me – if it’s for me, it won’t pass me. End of story. Clean. Simple. Precise. What’s due to me will come to me – not necessarily on my schedule, mind you, but in the end, it’ll all work out for the best. Some might consider this trite. Others might think it  a cop-out. The very idea that each of us has a predestined life plan seems at face value to negate the concept of free will. I’ve long since given up debating the point – all I know is that faith works for me. Having faith, knowing with unqualified certainty that what is meant to be will be, believing that everything will work out for the best – call it faith, call it whatever – it works… for me.

In Latvia last week, we ventured north of Riga to the seaside town of Majori. There I saw faith of another sort – or perhaps the same, not that it matters much.

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At the site of the former Orthodox Church of the Kazan Icon, consecrated in 1896, people still lay flowers and attend ceremonies each Sunday at 4pm. This church survived two World Wars until one night, in 1962, when on orders from the state, it was bulldozed and razed to the ground.  Priests who served here included Jānis Pommers, the first saint to come from Latvia.

Though the church has been gone for longer than I’ve been alive, the congregation has kept the faith and fundraising continues to build a new church on the old site.

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To hold vigil here each Sunday in the belief that one day the building, the church, and its community will be restored… that is faith.

As antisemitism raises its ugly head in Budapest and Jews are assaulted at football matches, believing in the innate goodness of mankind takes even more so I  take heart in such acts of faith. This week, as I still feel the heartbeat from Salaspils, I am grateful, once again, for my faith; for whatever innocence or naivety that allows me to believe in the good in people and the sanctity of tomorrow.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Point Percy at the porcelain

Notable by its presence

I was in Riga, Latvia, last week and it was quite the experience. I know now a lot more about the place than I did the previous week, which wouldn’t be hard considering then I didn’t even know where it was on the map. Many things struck me about the city yet one stood out for its presence – the abiding sense of helpfulness that contrasted starkly with recent experiences in Budapest.

Lost in the Academy of Science, looking for the loo, we asked a random stranger where it was. It soon became apparent that her English was as good as our Latvian (i.e. non-existent) but instead of brushing us off with semaphoric directions, she took the time to walk us through the maze of corridors, down stairs, until we reach the ubiquitous WC sign. How nice of her.

In each of the restaurants we visited, the service was friendly without being in your face, courteous without being oleaginous, and so pleasant that inefficiencies, if they existed at all, were smothered with graciousness. One even solicited feedback and complaints on its menu in a transparent effort to improve its service. What a novel concept.

Navigating the city mainly on foot, we did have occasion to use public transport. Again, patiently explaining our options in a blend of Latvian, Russian, and doodles, everyone with whom we interacted was pleasant, friendly, and helpful (okay, there was one lady at the flea market who was having a bad day, but one out of how many?). It was enough to make me want to go back.

Notable by its absence

If I was in any doubt though about returning, a second thing struck me by its absence – the smell of stale urine in the streets, a smell that is all too pervasive in Budapest, particularly during the summer.

IMG_3481 (800x600)This has to be due to the huge number of free public toilets dotted throughout the city of Riga. Many of them are solid structures, not portacabins. For the most part, they’re clean, well-stocked, and secure. So those who feel a sudden urge to return the beer they rented that evening have plenty of opportunity to do so, housed, well out of public view, and at no cost.

There are parts of Budapest through which I will not walk without taking a deep breath and holding it before I enter. The diagonal archway corners at the junction of Üllői út and Ferenc korut are two cases in point. The smell is staggering. Another is the Aradi and Jókai utca area. A killer. And while there might well be some correlation between the obvious number of homeless in Budapest, compared to the distinct lack of same in Riga, it’s not down to this alone. [Anyway, there is an argument to be made that if the city cannot provide housing for its citizens, and if some reside in the great outdoors, then it becomes their all.]

But I’ve seen many a well-dressed man stop mid stride to huddle into a corner or nestle up to a drainpipe and relieve himself without thought of dignity or decency. And it’s not just men. Perched at a table in Captain Cook’s one night, I looked out the window down onto the street to see a stylishly dressed young woman shaking the dew from the lily, thinking she was safe from prying eyes by hiding behind a parked car. When she saw that she’d been spotted mid-act from on high, she at least had the grace to blush.

Invisible walls

Many years ago, in Bangalore, walking down Mahatma Gandhi Street with an Indian colleague, I commented on the line of men spending their proverbial pennies along a fence. He calmly explained to me that as they didn’t look at each other, or at anyone else, and as no self-respecting citizen looked at them either, they were in effect peeing in privacy. It was only foreigners like me who made an issue of it. That gave me pause for thought – invisible walls. While the sight of such public acts might be vanquished by simply not seeing, it’s a totally different matter to filter the ammonia from your nostrils.

While I will always be a foreigner in Budapest, I’ve lost my visitor status. I have an address card. I live here. And I take exception to the wanton disregard with which the streets of my city are doused in the dregs of water, with organic solutes including urea, creatinine, uric acid, and trace amounts of enzymes, carbohydrates, hormones, fatty acids, pigments, and mucins, and inorganic ions such as sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), chloride (Cl), magnesium (Mg2+), calcium (Ca2+), ammonium (NH4+), sulfates (SO42-), and phosphates (e.g., PO43-).

Enough, I say. Where are the controllers? Where are the ticket books? Where are the on-the-spot fines? Judging by my sense of smell, there’s a fortune to be made out there for the city’s coffers.

First published in the Budapest Times 3 May 2013

Be still my beating heart

There’s a lot in what we choose to call a place. Names come with reputations. I know. I did my first MA in Oxford Brookes but all anyone hears when I tell them is Oxford – and they’re two completely different universities, even if both happen to be in the same town.

I was reminded of this recently when I discovered that the term concentration camp is not generic. The Nazi administration had a ranking during the Second World War. They had the  Police Prison (Polizeigegfängnis) and the Work Education Camp (Arbeitserziehungslager), both of which were often combined into one. Then there was the concentration camp (Konzentrationslager) and the extermination camp (Vernichtungslagerv) aka death camp (Todeslager). Last month, at Terezin, I had begun to distinguish them, and my education continues. Last week I visited Salaspils. Just 18 km (or 22 km or 25 km depending on who you ask) southeast of Riga lies the Salaspils Memorial, probably the most difficult place to find in the whole of  Latvia as, I kid you not, no one seems to have heard of it. Yet it’s been there since 1967.

After drawing a complete blank on Google (plenty of information but none of it consistent or in any way constructive), we checked at the Tourist Office. The chap there told us to take the train to Darzini, get off,  walk 500m and we’d be there. He said there were some buildings left and a photo exhibition. Plenty to see. So we took him at his word.

IMG_3727 (800x600)In the middle of the woods, some time later, I realised that just because he worked in a tourist office didn’t make him an expert – that was an assumption on my part. He’d probably done the same Google search as I had. The train station is literally in the middle of a forest. We followed a woman through the trees and came to a motorway. We vaguely remembered some advice on the Net about being careful when crossing it, but we decided to check at a local hotel. Five km, he said, that way, pointing left. But our note from the Tourist Information man said 500 m. We asked a woman at the bus stop. You need to get a bus 2 km this way, pointing right. But our note… and that last chap… We asked another lad at another bus stop and he told us to go 3 km by bus and then walk 2 km into the woods. Eventually, as all good tourists do, we went back to the hotel and called a taxi. It was about 5 minutes by car, to the left, but deep in the woods. Had we indeed gotten off the train and followed the forest path that runs parallel to the train tracks in the same direction for 500 m and then taken a paved road to the left, we’d have found it. But a sign would have been helpful.

The greeting on the memorial gate reads: the earth moans beyond this gate. When I heard the metronome that beats loudly and reverberates across the clearing, I knew why. [Do you remember the movie Angel Heart? And the heartbeat that ran through it? This was something similar.] It was eerie.

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At the end of the gate, there’s what looks like a calendar. I’m not sure if the scratch marks denote days or deaths but they run from 1941 to 1944 so perhaps a calendar. What information I found initially said that 12 000 people passed through the camp and about 3000 of them died here, including more than 600 children aged 5-9. And, something that gave me pause for thought, no matter how accurate it might be: apparently by the end of 1942, the inmates were mainly political prisoners and foreigners designated as politically suspect. Of them, 12 were Jews. But later searches and reading through the comments on one posting tell a different story. One said that 7000 children perished with the total number of  victims in the range of 53 700 people with different ethnic and religious background and from different European countries: Latvia, Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic. The short thread makes for an interesting read and shows just how little is known about what happened there. But I did find something that suggests the numbers are underestimated. A testimony from Olga Birjukowa (86) aus Saporoshe who says she was prisoner No. 50258 in Salaspils. She tells of seeing healthy prisoners bled to death and thrown half-dead into graves [subject to Google Translation!]

There are none of the usual maps or bookshops or guides at this particular memorial. A dearth of information. Just this desolate place in the middle a forest with a metronome keeping time and memories alive.

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Six giant sculptures stand in silent testimony guarding the foundations of the 15 barracks that made up the camp. The most poignant, for me, was the one of the mother trying to shield her children from a fate worse than death.

IMG_3732 (800x600)Atop the foundation of each barracks sits what might be the remains of an outer wall.  And in these walls, people have left soft toys of all things. With so little information out there and no one around to ask, it would seem that the memory of what went on is still alive in the hearts and minds of some, though perhaps not for sharing with tourists, however well-intentioned they might be…which might explain why no one other than the taxi driver knew (or was prepared to tell us) where we wanted to go.

On top of the black marble tomb-like casing which houses the metronome, someone had left some flowers tied with a rosary beads. A bowl of rice pudding stood beside it. No one around. In the middle of the forest. The sound of a heartbeat louder than any thought that ran through my mind. It was one of the strangest and one of the most moving experiences I have had since I first started visiting the camps back in the 1980s. It’s impossible to explain.

IMG_3763 (600x800)Walking back out to the car park, we passed a living fir tree still home to some ragged ornaments. Even though the tree wasn’t old enough to have been around when those Jewish children perished, it was nevertheless a stark reminder of how even in the face of suffering, the human ability to survive and make the most of what we have is remarkable. For a minute, I thought back to that graveyard in Hawaii where the gravestones were decorated for Christmas. I remembered, too, the houses in the township I visited in South Africa, and the efforts made to make the shacks look homely. What matters is our spirit. Easy said, I know, when I’ve lived a relatively charmed and blessed life, yet I’m convinced it is our spirit that picks us up and makes us keep on going.

IMG_3751 (595x800)We drove away in the taxi (the nice man very kindly waited for us), and were almost immediately pulled up short at the railway crossing. The light was red but the air was silent. Eventually we heard a train and saw the steam. As it crawled towards us, moving slower than a fast walk, I saw how perfect the location was. Shielded from the town, set back in the woods, right beside the railway tracks yet hidden from view. The train passed by, one engine, 78 carriages (is carriage the right word?) The first deportation of Jews to arrive at Salaspils in October 1941 numbered 1000. The timing of its passing added to my general feeling of disquiet. Something horrible had happened in those woods, in that forest. Something that some people don’t want to talk about and yet something that other people are unable to forget.

IMG_3747 (596x800)Two more things worth mentioning. There’s a memorial to Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who volunteered to die in place of a total stranger and later lost his own life in Auschwitz, erected by Elizabeth Erb, then president of the Maximilian Kolbe Werk organisation, dedicated to reconciliation for survivors. That so many who lived through this are still alive today is amazing. That their numbers are dwindling is terrifying. When they’re gone, will their stories die, too? Will we stop remembering? That horrifies me. as did the realisation that there were many sub-camps in and around Riga with their main HQ at a second camp  in the suburb of Mežaparks (German: Kaiserwald). Nothing remains of it except a memorial stone bearing the words: In memory of the victims of the national socialist concentration camp Riga-Kaiserwald and its subordinate camps. In 1943-1944 more than 18 000 imprisoned Jews from Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Austrian, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were held in the Riga-Kaiserwald concentration camps. The majority of the imprisoned did not live to see liberation. At least there is a stone.

Moving city

It’s been a long time since I’ve visited a city I thought I might live in. No matter how fleeting the thought, it was there. Riga might have its problems (what city doesn’t) – it’s a curious mix of old style and new money with the former making up for the bad taste of the latter – and yet it’s decidedly attractive.

Famed for its Art Nouveau, it’s thought that 40% of the buildings in Riga are in this style – the most of any city in Europe. The style was at its peak of popularity when Riga experienced a financial boom and the building regulations were relaxed – the architects of that period had a field-day. There were a couple of places I wouldn’t mind living opposite. For instance, I don’t think I’d ever tire of looking across Alberta iela at this building.

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And some I wouldn’t mind living in. Imagine looking out this window every morning – mind you, from what I remember, the view is a building that houses the Design Company Frank & Stein. That could wear old pretty soon.

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Elsewhere in the city, it’s hard not to stop and gawk – literally. There is so much of interest to look at. Walking the streets is like being on one long treasure hunt – just when you think you’ve found the most amazing building, you find another, even more beautiful.

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Yet as you walk through the city and out to the suburbs, there’s a curious mix of old wooden buildings trying in vain to hold their ground in the face of modern development. Splashes of tired, resigned colours offer a more subtle balance to the screaming attention-seeking oranges and greens of the new builds.

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Some are just crying out for a little attention as the valuable real estate around them is sold off to developers and private individuals with plenty of money and very little taste. I’ve bitched about this before taking Gozo as a case in point. And I was still bitching as I walked the streets of Āgenskalna priedes, a suburb across the Daugana River much neglected by the guide book. It was here, though, that I actually stopped, considered, and then applauded this creative melding of old and new.

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IMG_3942 (590x800)There are some hideous examples of new trying to look old – I wonder if there’s an architectural equivalent of the idiom ‘you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’? Although I number two architects amongst my close friends, I don’t claim to know anything at all about their profession. Like art itself, I simply know what I like… and don’t like. And I found this type of ostentation offensive. A strong word, perhaps, but honestly… if you have that much money, build your castle in the country. Miles from anywhere.

IMG_3933 (599x800)This didn’t work for me, either. Although the intent to blend in was clearly visible, I wanted to scream ‘Have some confidence! Be yourself! Don’t try to ape yer man next door!’ But then, in fairness, when this does happen and when the new monstrosities appear, I’m the first to bitch and moan about them. Strange… when I’m so easily pleased most of the time. When I looked back at some of the many photos I took, I noticed that I am more fascinated with old, run-down decrepit buildings than I am with the newer ones. Give me peeling paint over a gloss veneer any day. I wonder what I’m projecting? Perhaps there’s material there just crying out for analysis.

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Yet the juxtaposition of old and new still fascinates me and I wonder if anyone else really gives a toss?

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The door to hell

I was under the impression that the KGB had disbanded in 1991 – but apparently, it, or a version by the same name, is still alive and well in Belarus. Just last month, reports appeared about the Latvian Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB)  being concerned about Belarus KGB agent activity in the country. Am I a victim of random Googling, or is there any truth to this, I wonder?

IMG_3651 (600x800)I’ve just been trolling the Net in an effort to discover more about the KGB monument in Riga. The guidebook said it was a memorial on the corner of Stabu and Brīvības. We got to the corner and didn’t see anything resembling a monument. We walked a little ways up Stabu and had passed the door before we realised what it was.

Backtracking, we read the inscription: During the Soviet occupation the state security agency /KGB/ imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building.

Known as the Stūra māja (the Corner House) the actual address of the former KGB headquarters is Brīvības iela 61. The building itself was apparently originally built as a hotel of ‘questionable repute’. Stabu iela also has an interesting history in that up until 1849, it was the site of a pillory – a wooden framework on a post, with holes for the head and hands, in which
offenders were formerly locked to be exposed to public scorn as punishment. Strange how some places seem to breathe malevolence.

The monument, installed on Stabu iela by the Museum of Occupation of Latvia to commemorate those who died there during Soviet occupation is known locally as the Melnais slieksnis (the black threshold, or the black door). It looks like a door half-open, a door no one in the their right mind would want to pass through. It is said that from the rooftop you can see Siberia – and many of those who did pass through its doors ended up there, never to return. In the first year of Soviet occupation, about 300 Latvians are said to have been held here.

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Freelance journalist Aleks Tapinsh describes the building as such: The building is designed to trip your senses. The labyrinth-like layout of the basement makes you realize you wouldn’t know where to run if you decided to escape. The three elevators inside located in such a way that you may never seen another inmate, or you wouldn’t even know you are being taken into the dreaded basement. Undoubtedly, the Soviet secret police improved on the architecture and design to suit its own needs and established a process to control the population.

Back in 2012, The Guardian ran a piece on Latvian Boris Karpichkov, former KGB operative and double agent. It makes fascinating reading. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d worked out of this building and what he knew of what went on inside its walls.

Nearly 20 years ago, in 2004, the Latvian government decided to make public all KGB files. Prior to this, while each individual could see their own file, files were only made public if you were thinking of running for public office or joining some law enforcement agency. According to Latvian law, anyone with a KGB record could not stand for public office for 10 years. As the KGB was officially ‘retired’ in 1991, the statute of limitations has run out on this one. Twice, though, it cost people their parliamentary posts: two Social Democrat MPs, Juris Bojars and Janis Adamsons, in 1993 and 2000, respectively. Both had worked for the KGB. (I tell kids to watch what they post on Facebook and Twitter as an innocent comment now might ruin their chances of presidency in 30 years time. How far we’ve come!)

There was concern that releasing the files would open old wounds. At the time, Indulis Zalite, director of the Centre for the Documentation of the Consequences of Totalitarianism, pointed out in a BBC interview that the files were incomplete and didn’t contain information on those responsible for the atrocities of the 1940s and 1950s. He maintained that ‘Making this information public today is unfair to all those people who simply played by the government’s rules.’ A heady thought.

TheCeļotājs website quotes a few lines from the artist who designed it,  Gļeb Pantelejev: With time all secrets become known. It is human nature to expose secrets, especially if the secret of much suffering. Behind the Chekha door we are confronted by a black wall – the monolith of inconceivable suffering – unknowable or understandable. For future generations it will not be the abode of the Chekha. It will be history. Our duty is to leave a message that is not self-serving, a missive that is an antidote against the recurrence of similar tragedy. Our successors must not only know but they must emphasize.

Must not only know, they must emphasize… I have to agree with that.

Sublimimal messages

As I was reading Henning Mankell’s The dogs of Riga in January, I never guessed for a minute that I would end up in the city a scarce three months later. I’ve always known I was gullible. I’m every advertisers dream. I go into a store for milk and come away with every product I’ve seen advertised that week. Which is why I don’t have a TV. Am way too impressionable.

IMG_3531 (800x600)What I knew about Riga last week could have been written on an ink-repellant beer mat. Okay, I knew it was the capital of Latvia, but that’s it. I didn’t know, for instance, that the Old Town is listed with UNESCO as a world heritage site. Or that it’s the biggest city in the Baltic States (in fact, I’m not sure I could name the Baltic states!). I had some vague notion that it will be European Capital of Culture in 2014 but didn’t know that it is the only city in Europe where five religious churches are located. I also didn’t know it was the cleanest capital in Europe in 2007 and I wonder how they worked that one out…

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

The Sun Stone building is the tallest in Riga and the second-highest in the Baltics (122.78 metres)  and the first of its kind to be built after the Russians left. Located on the west bank of the Daugava river, it’s known locally as Saules akmens or  Swedbank’s Central Office.  The Cable bridge (Vanšu tilts) is 595 meters long and was built during the Soviet era and originally named Gorky Bridge (Gorkija tilts) after the man himself  Maxim Gorky.

Latvian TV skyscraper

Latvian TV skyscraper

The TV skyscraper is a mere 22-storey construct, built on the island of Zakusala. It reminds me a little of the Needle in Dublin – even if it looks nothing like it.

Library (left), stone bridge, and Central market (right)

Library (left), railway bridge, and Central market (right)

The National Library of Latvia (NLL) is home to 4.1 million books in 50 languages. I could get lost in there. I’m not at all sure though whether I like the building. It only opened to the public this year and what I find most remarkable is that back in 1999 almost all 170 UNESCO member states adopted a resolution to ensure all possible support for the implementation of the NLL project. What registers on people’s order of importance in the grand scheme of things is truly subjective.

Up until the eighteenth century, a common pronouncement heard in Riga was ‘as impossible as a bridge over Daugava’. The Swedes put paid to this, though, when in 1701, they constructed the first floating bridge that connected Vecriga with Pardaugava. This was replaced by a pontoon bridge and in 1872 and 1914, two more bridges were built, including the Iron Bridge which was destroyed in WWII. The Daugava River in Riga now has five bridges: the Railway bridge (Dzelzceļa tilts); the Stone bridge (Akmens tilts); the Cable Bridge (Vanšu tilts); Salu Bridge (Salu tilts); and the Southern Bridge (Dienvidu tilts).
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These photos were taken from the seventeenth floor of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a 21-storey building thought to be the first skyscraper in Latvia. It took ten years to build (1951-1961) and strangely enough was built on the site of a Lutheran cemetery and church. I’m superstitious … I’d have trouble working there, magnificent and all though the building  is.
Interestingly, when I Googled it, I came across a page listing the mind-boggling achievements of science in Latvia that doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2007. I wonder if there’s a message in that? And speaking of science … apparently some doctors in Riga have opened a restaurant called Hospitalis where the dining room looks like an operating room and the waitresses wear nurse’s uniforms.  There are syringes and operating tools for cutlery as well as test tube and beakers for wine glasses. A skip or a must-see?