The desire to go home … is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars…
Sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.
As soon as I arrive at Gate 16 at Gatwick airport, I am in the company of my brothers and sisters. Everyone, with the exception of two or three people, is speaking Latvian. They also look Latvian and wear clothes that have a slightly Eastern European edge to them. I’m not sure how to describe that edge – it is a little bit decorative and a little bit over-styled. It can be very tasteful, but it can also sway the other way and be very kitsch.
Even though these are my people, I don’t actually feel like I belong with them. I feel more like an intruder or an imposter. I may have Latvian facial features, but I suspect my clothing is not quite right. And while my Latvian is passable, it’s also awkward enough to give me away in a flash. When I ask the flight attendant for a salmon sandwich and a cup of tea in Latvian, she smiles with surprise – some part of my accent that I will never be able to hear for myself has revealed that I am not native-born.
Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a two and a half hour flight from London. It’s where my parents were raised and lived until WWII turned their lives upside down. My mother fled to Poland with her parents, my father was conscripted into the Latvian army, and once the war ended, they spent five years living in refugee camps before arriving in Australia in the late 1940s. (I spent 3 months trying to follow my mother’s journey in 2008, and kept a blog about some of my adventures which you can access here.) My parents and grandparents always spoke of Latvia as a near perfect place. A place that had beautiful forests where you could never starve to death because of the plentiful berries and mushrooms that grew there. A place where the seasons were clearly defined, where food tasted better, where people were always polite and well behaved and children gave their seats to adults on public transport, where everyone dressed smartly and neatly – and where everyone sang. Even though my mother told me sad stories about her childhood, it was clear to me that life in Latvia was superior to life in Australia, it was just that communism had stuffed everything up.
The flight is rough and I’m a bit anxious because we rattle around for so long in the turbulence. When the plane lands, everyone applauds. Have you ever been on a flight where that happens? It is so charming it brings a great smile to my face.
The very first time I arrived in Riga, in 1992, it was only about 6 months after Latvia’s independence from the USSR. The airport was a mess, with weeds growing from a cracked tarmac and the arrivals area denoted with a handwritten sign, sticky-taped to the door. People drove Ladas and stole tyres from parked cars; there was virtually no advertising; you could barely recognise a shop; there were about four restaurants in the entire city; the trolley buses and trams were rattly and grimy and broke down regularly, and if you wanted to make an overseas phone call, you had to make a booking at the post office days in advance. Back then, I felt like I had stepped into a 1940s black and white movie.
But today, everything is so very different. The airport is refurbished in a fresh Scandinavian style; there are shops and cafes and ads and restaurants everywhere; the trolley buses are smart and new, and everything feels semi western. I say semi, because Riga has a distinctly Eastern European aesthetic. Stunning Art Nouveau buildings make up about fifty percent of the city, Hanseatic architecture characterises the Old Town, and distinct wooden houses reflect a more traditional, Latvian approach to design. There are, of course, traces of communist architectural severity interspersed between everything. I am completely won over by this unique melange of styles – it makes Riga so very visually complex, so much so that UNESCO have designated it a World Heritage site.
At customs, I’m both excited and nervous. I departed with my Australian passport, but I am entering with my Latvian one. I wonder if they will know that I am using different passports on this trip and whether they will ask me questions. I practice Latvian phrases in my head – I want to sound casual and relaxed – and very Latvian. In fact, the woman at the counter barely glances at my passport and I am waved through in a moment.
My cousin Mara and her husband Viktors are waiting for me. I’m staying with them in their apartment in Matisa Street, which is about a twenty minute walk from the centre of the city. I also stayed with them in 1992, on my first visit to Riga and on some of my other trips, which total about eight or nine – I honestly can’t remember how many times I have been here! I never imagined that I would visit my homeland so often. Nor did I imagine that I would ever exhibit my art work here, but I have twice – once in 2007, in the windows of the National Library of Latvia to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Soros Foundation (the work was called SPOGULIS and you can view it on my website), and once in 2010, when I showed work based on my mother’s escape from Latvia in the Library’s gallery (called Celojums/The Journey).
The drive into Riga from the airport stirs up a wild mix of emotions – I am excited, happy, restless and sad simultaneously, all underscored by an inexplicable ache, a type of longing, a deep deep note that reverberates far inside me and affects me physically as well as psychologically. The triggers are hard to pinpoint because they are everywhere – the oaks and birches and elms; the intense green of the summer grass; the particular way the clouds form in the sky; the cobblestones; the elegant thin, fair haired women walking along the street; or the modestly dressed elderly waiting for the trolley bus, and the architecture – for some reason it is the architecture that has the greatest impact on me – especially the old wooden houses and art nouveau buildings. Those buildings that have been renovated are truly beautiful, but those that bare the evidence of their history move me emotionally in a way I can’t quite describe. Is it the faded tan, brown, grey and green colour of the exterior? The crumbling render and woodwork? The shape of the windows? The glimpse of lace curtains? It is undoubtedly a combination of all these things and more besides.
I love staying with Mara and Viktors because I truly feel at home with them. Mara feels more like a sister than a cousin, and she and Viktors both share a great sense of humour. Their apartment is small by Australian standards (unless you live in Sydney) but probably quite big by Latvian. There is a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. I have a little room all to myself with a fold out couch and all the trophies Mara’s French Bulldog has won lined up on the wall unit opposite – my own little den in Riga.
I’m on leave here for most of my stay and I spend my first week with Mara, reacquainting myself with the city, trying to find my favourite little haunts, getting lost in the windy streets of the old town, eating at the Lido chain of restaurants where traditional Latvian food is served by weight, wandering through the beautiful lush parks, and taking endless photographs of everything.
Mara and I take a boat trip along the canal that runs through the city and into the Daugava, the country’s longest river, which starts in the Valdai Hills in Russia, passes through Belarus, and then runs through Latvia into the Gulf of Riga. The sun is out, the sky is blue and our little boat chugs happily along the river.
We eat delicious cakes at Gastronome, a wonderful café and delicatessen near the Raddison Hotel on Brivibas Boulevards (the Freedom Boulevard) where Latvia’s iconic Freedom Monument stands, built during the country’s brief period of independence between the two world wars; we go to the top of St Peter’s Church to take in the superb views of the city, visit lots of amber shops and see a fabulous exhibition of 40s and 50s women’s fashion in the Museum of Applied Arts. To celebrate Mara and Viktor’s thirty second wedding anniversary, we have dinner at the Rossini restaurant in the most exclusive part of town, where there is the most dense concentration of art nouveau buildings.
At the end of the week, we pick up Mara’s mother and step-mother (who happen to be the best of friends) and drive to Meleka Licis, a beach near the town of Tuja, for the christening of Liene, Mara’s four month old granddaughter. The ceremony is held on the beach, at the water’s edge, by a barefoot reverend. The proud parents are Baiba and Karlis, and afterwards we celebrate in Karlis’ parents’ fabulous summer house and then return to the beach to swim and relax as the evening sets in. A perfect day, and a perfect ending to my first week in Latvia.