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!



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

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.

The hedgehog in the fog

I don’t think I’ve been this far north in Europe before. Yes, I’ve dipped my toes in the Arctic Ocean but that was in Alaska. The furthest north I’ve been until today was Lithuania. Now I’m in Latvia. In Riga. We left behind a steaming 28+ degrees in Budapest and landed in a rather balmier 10 degrees this evening – but I’m not complaining. I’m already dreading the summer in BP.

About 30 minutes out of Riga, the ground beneath us was partially frozen. It looked a lot like tundra, with a few houses pitted here and there. As we got closer to the city, there were trees, and more trees, and more trees. Most peculiar. Add this to the towering concrete blocks, the expansive harbour, and the fishing boats and trawlers bobbing the bay and you’d have little trouble conjuring up Kurt Wallander and his Dogs of Riga.

Our apartment is smack in the middle of the old town looking out over the river but this evening, tourists were scarce enough and it would seem that the locals give it a wide berth. We did pass some interesting-looking Russian-type enclaves on the way in from the airport but when we asked our driver where we were, we were told it wasn’t a place that tourists wanted to see. When we asked about a flea market, we were told that it wasn’t a place tourists could safely go. And when I asked about the concentration camp, they’d never heard of it. The next few days should be interesting. In the old town, at 8pm, there was little sign of any action with waiters in near-empty restaurants dancing attendance on a couple of diners – no more.

IMG_3422 (776x800)We had spotted Ezítis Miglá at the beginning of our first quick look-see and on the way home took our appetites inside. It literally translates to the hedgehog in the fog, a Soviet-era cartoon character. Cosmopolitan? Would that be the word I’d use? Or has Budapest spoiled me and what came to mind was an upholstered version of Szimpla Kert on a smaller scale. What distinguished it though was the orderly queue at the bar where you order what you want, pay the bill, take your drinks, and then sit and wait for your food. The wait staff were there to deliver food and bus tables. Nothing more. It’s quite the system and the queue moves quickly.

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IMG_3407 (600x800)From my shameless bout of people watching (quite a young studenty crowd mixed with some young professional types armed with smart phones, iPads, and laptops, all together yet all apart) it would seem a popular spot with some great 80s music on the turntable. The menu didn’t seem to know what part of the world it was in with a mix of pasta, tortillas, and the Russian/Ukranian solyanka. I was in hog heaven. I ate solyanka for a week once and never got sick of it. What we didn’t realise though is that the portions this far north are huge. They obviously have long, cold winters in mind and with 10 degrees outside, spring hasn’t quite arrived. And, thankfully, while the women I’ve seen so far are rather lovely, a sizeable proportion of them are in the double digits size-wise. Comforting to see.

With eyes biIMG_3421 (800x600)gger than our bellies, we had also ordered the Mexican platter. About the only thing remotely Mexican about it was the tortilla chips. Gives taking culinary license a whole new meaning. But at least we left with the makings of a good omelet for the morning. A full ten out of ten to the staff who were pleasant, helpful, and seemed to really enjoy what they’re doing. I’m already giving thanks that we have what has the makings of a ‘local’ practically on our doorstep. Sometimes, things do go according to plan.

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