I’m on a plane, on my way to Venice to see the Biennale and to Padua to see Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovengi Chapel. Unless I stop sleeping altogether and start taking drugs, there is no way I can write up all the experiences I have had in Latvia since my last posting with the attention to detail I would like to give them. So, instead, I offer a series of snapshots with brief comments.
I go on a canoeing expedition on the Gauja River with Mara, Viktors and their sporty friends. It is intensely beautiful and incredibly peaceful. We row 30 kilometres and pass many other boats, fishermen and riverbank campers on the way. Lots of young people are literally allowing their boats to float down the river at will – minimum effort, maximum relaxation. Our team, in our boat, has trouble coordinating the paddles. Maximum effort, minimum relaxation. We get the hang of things in the last third of the journey.
Mara and I catch the train to Saulkrasti, a beachside suburb north of Riga where she and Viktors have an apartment. Mara’s mother Benita stays here during the summer and looks after Dendy, Mara’s French Bulldog. Benita and I follow the wooden pathway through the trees to the beach, where we sit on a bench, ponder the meaning of life and watch the sun set into the water.
About forty minutes drive from Saulkrasti is the village of Limbazi, and not far from there, a property called Rumbini, where the famous Latvian poets Fricis, Antons and Pauline Barda lived and worked. It is now a glorious museum that celebrates the lives of the Barda family. My father’s sister, Irena, married Fricis’ nephew, Edvins Barda, and so my cousins Rita, Peter and Walter, who live in Sydney, are direct descendants of the Barda poets. There is magic in the air at Rumbini. And millions of white butterflies! Fricis Barda’s little summer house is like a little piece of heaven…
We visit Riga’s cemetery number two with Taida, Mara’s stepmother. Latvian cemeteries are set in forests and the trees loom over us and around us. Everything is green and lush and just a little dark. I can feel the presence of the dead as we weave our way down a series of paths towards the Ozolins family plot. Taida plants a flowering plant in the ground and Mara and I arrange our flowers in vases. Viktors rakes the sandy ground so everything looks neat and well kempt and Mara draws a little cross in the entrance way. I am deeply saddened because I have lost every photo I took in the cemetery. But I do have one image of afternoon tea with Taida in her home.
Afterwards, we drive around the nearby suburb of Mezaparks, where Mara lived when she was young. There are huge homes here, built by the very rich, but there are also rambling, dilapidated fairytale houses. We eat dinner in a little café bar nearby and I have a traditional Latvian favourite – herring, potatoes and cottage cheese – delicious!
I spend time with an old friend from Melbourne, Ingmars Kulnieks, who has been living in Latvia for close to 20 years and also happens to live in Mezaparks. We meet at the Central Market where Ingmars seeks out the best prices for mushrooms, meat and vegetables for our dinner – and we wait in a queue for 20 minutes to buy special bread from an Uzbekistani bakery that is particularly loved by Ingmars’ 3 children. I buy sunflowers, an elaborately floral house dress called a ‘halats’ typically worn by older ladies, and then we catch the tram to Mezaparks. After dinner we walk around the neighbourhood as the sun is setting. There is a huge sandy lake, big immaculate Russian houses that look like no-one lives in them and a massive, ghostly building project abandoned as the result of the credit crisis.
I also get together with other friends in Riga, one whose name also happens to be Brigita, and who I’ve known since my teenage years in Melbourne. This Brigita is theatrical and bohemian and lives in an amazing apartment not far from my cousin’s place. She cooks me dinner and shows me the beautiful crowns she is making, based on traditional Latvian and Swedish designs. Brigita is good friends with Andris Aukmanis, the Director of the Soros Foundation in Latvia, who I met in New York in my first weeks there. We have lunch together and they tell me all about their recent adventures in Venice and their thoughts on the Biennale.
My mother’s cousin, Biruta, lives in Lode, which is about two and a half hours from Riga. I take the bus to Cesis where she and her husband Aturs meet me and take me to their home, but first we stop on the way at a huge house where we meet their daughter, Daiga, her daughter-in-law Madera, and grand-daughter Lina. Daiga couldn’t get work in Latvia and now lives in Norway, where she works in the general store in a small village in the arctic circle. At Biruta’s place we eat a truly splendid lunch and then drive to the community gardens, where her and Aturs spend most of their time during the summer. Their plot has beehives, fruit trees, berries and vegetables and provides almost all their food except for bread and meat. I love their little summer house in the garden.
I make contact with my friends at the National Library of Latvia and they make arrangements for me to go on a tour of the brand new library, not yet open to the public, which stands almost complete on the other side of the Daugava River. The design is meant to symbolise a castle of light and knowledge. From the outside, I think the structure looks a little heavy, but on the inside, the sense of light and space is magnificent. The building is 11 stories high and is constructed around a huge internal atrium that creates a feeling of tremendous openness. Glass and timber staircases zigzag upwards and a huge wall of glass will feature books donated to the library by the public. On the upper floors, the reading rooms all have superb views of the iconic Riga skyline. We go all the way to the top of the building, which is like a little glass ice-berg and where the views across the city are even more stunning. This new library is due to officially open in September, but the exact date has not yet been set.
The old library, on the corner of K Barona and Elizabetas Streets, had a past life as a bank. I love this library dearly because everything in it – the books, the catalogue cards, the shelving, the etched glass windows, the complex warren of corridors and little reading rooms – is pregnant with its history. One of the librarians, Anda, gives me a tour from the basement right to the top floor, and I photograph obsessively. The building has been patched and mended here and there over the years, and as I wander from floor to floor and room to room, I know I am witnessing its final days. Back in 2012, the floors in the stacks collapsed, just one week after my exhibition opened in the gallery in another part of the building. Over 400 people formed a human chain and rescued 80,000 books, many of which ended up lining the lower half of the walls in my show. On January 2014, when it may be snowing and the temperatures will be below zero, hundreds of people will form a human chain from the old library to the new, passing books from one to another, right across the Daugava River.
Click here to see my 2010 exhibition in the library’s gallery.
I visit KIM? (Kas ir Maksla? – What is art?), a contemporary gallery just behind the central market. I am shown around by Laima, one of the project officers, who explains the aims of the gallery as she shows me around its three excellent exhibition spaces. Laima is keen to develop an education program for the gallery to increase public awareness about contemporary art. Her own life seems extraordinarily exotic to me – she was born in Latvia, but has lived in New York, Prague and London and returned to live in Riga a year ago.
I also go to Rigas Maklas Telpa, The Riga Art Rooms, where I see a simply fabulous exhibition of traditional Latvian hand crafts. The hand knitted sock and mittens! The woollen shawls! The woven linen! I am inspired to start cross stitch and knitting projects. My grandmother taught me how to knit and my mother taught me how to cross stitch before I could even speak properly.
I take more photos of more wonderful houses and street scenes. I want to film and photograph everything, as if everything will vanish, not just from my memory, but from the world.
Mara and Viktors take me to the Latvian Outdoor Museum, which is on the outskirts of Riga. It covers many acres of forested land that backs onto a huge lake and features traditional houses, churches, storehouses and other buildings from all the different regions of Latvia. Each building has a caretaker who explains the history of the building, how people lived there and what was grown in the garden. Many of these caretakers also practice traditional crafts and offer their goods for sale. As we wander through the trees, coming across clearings with beautifully tended buildings and gardens, I feel a tremendous sense of calm wash over me. This is one of my favourite places in the whole world.
In the evening, we have dinner at the giant Lido restaurant complex on the far side of the city, one of a chain of eateries that specialises in serving traditional Latvian food. Each restaurant is decorated in a style that references traditional Latvian peasant culture – I think you can see the resemblance to buildings in the outdoor museum in the photos. I love eating there because the food is delicious and reminds me of my childhood and mother’s wonderful cooking.
On my last evening, Mara and I go for a walk to the house where our fathers, Romans and Peteris Ozolins, were born – Lienas street number 8, apartment 14. We can’t actually see the flat they lived in because it’s in the courtyard. We turn right at the street corner and find an adjoining courtyard where there is a little hotel with an outdoor pub area and from here we can see the windows of the two roomed apartment. I am not sure how to describe what I feel when I look at this building. It tugs at me. It begs me to knock on the door of number 14 and walk through the rooms…
As we walk back, I take photos of buildings, many of which stand completely empty. Mara says it’s because the owners are greedy. They threw out the tenants or raised the rents too high, and then asked huge sums for the buildings that no-one is willing to pay. The streets are punctuated with such once beautiful properties that now stand sadly neglected.
Outside my bedroom window, in the courtyard behind Mara’s apartment building, a homeless man has settled himself in a small nook. I hear him coughing every night. Sometimes I peak through my venetian blinds and see him in his nest, smoking.
I leave Riga with a sense of sadness – I am not quite ready to go – but I am sure I will be back in the not too distant future…