Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Latvia trip, part 2

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My trip to Latvia was not limited to the history tour described in my last entry. Mom, Juris and I also enjoyed connecting, albeit briefly, with several of our Latvian relatives. Alongside the family component was a tourist one. Indeed, the two components contrasted in more than just content: the weather conspired to give us mainly dark clouds and rain at our family destinations and blue skies at the tourist ones.

After a couple of nights in Riga, we drove west to visit the family farm Bisenieki and for Juris to sort out some property tax issues on another property he owns nearby. The latter is a small lakeside resort outside of Puze that a developer had begun during the latter part of the Soviet era. It was all but complete when independence came and threw the project into limbo. The building itself was complete and the interior mostly finished; all that remained were the finishing touches such as wiring, flooring and paint. When he bought it, Juris intended to hire a Latvian relative to complete the construction and run the resort as a small business. But for a variety of reasons, this plan died and scavengers have slowly gutted the building. Since Juris last visited, they had removed several of the large support beams and perhaps 20% of the cinder blocks in the load bearing walls, so sections of the building are not far from collapsing on an unlucky scavenger.

I did not shoot any photos of the sad, gutted building. In any case, the attraction of the property is the small lake on the bank of which the building sits. I suspect part of the attraction for Juris of this small lake was that, during his teenage years in Cowansville, Quebec, his parents owned a cabin on a slightly larger lake called Bull Pond. The fond family memories of summers at Bull Pond surely helped frame Juris’s vision for this lake in Puze.

As part of the resolution of his property tax problem, Juris visited his friend Klara (not her real name), who had been a county official when Juris bought the two properties in Puze. She welcomed us for tea and snacks, but visible through her warm hospitality was some fresh, destabilising emotion threatening to crumble the facade. As I do not speak Latvian, I was in the dark, and apparently Mom felt it was too sensitive to inquire during our visit. Klara’s earnest-looking son Gabriels appeared midway through our visit and everyone chatted away. Only after we left did Juris relate the story.

Klara and her husband were industrious and had enjoyed some success after independence. They borrowed to convert part of their farm into an eco-tourism resort, with cabins, a man-made pond and a large field with basketball and volleyball courts. After Latvia’s accession to the European Union (EU), Klara’s husband qualified for an EU farmer’s pension, which represented a significant sum in Latvia. To qualify, neither he nor his wife could own their valuable land in their name, so they signed the resort and farm over to their ambitious son Gabriels.

During the 50 years of Soviet occupation, ambitious men advanced not through industry or merit, but through loyalty and sycophancy to the Communist Party; and by learning to bypass the rules, which officially prevented private individuals from enriching themselves. After Latvia’s independence and then its accession to the EU, many Latvians saw new opportunities for social advancement in the form of private business. But many of these ambitious Latvians, of which Gabriels was one, still viewed business endeavours through a Soviet lens. That is, to bully your way into a monopoly and then sit back and become rich on others’ production. Or also through the lens of Yeltsin-era Russia, where which well-connected men bought valuable state assets at criminally low prices, becoming overnight billionaires. This no-work, get-rich-quick outlook made Latvians like Gabriels easy prey for swindlers.

In Gabriels’s case, a group of predators told him that Bulgaria was about to enter a boom period and that if he invested in land or businesses – I do not know which it was – he stood to multiply his investment many times over in a short time. Hooked, Gabriels secretly mortgaged the family property for 350,000 euros and sent the money to his Bulgarian contacts, who promptly vanished.

I doubt it was long before his parents discovered the catastrophe, but by the time they did, there was little to do. When we visited them, the bank had taken the first step to repossessing the property. The family were allowed to remain on the property to run the resort and generate some income for the bank. But they had already moved out of the main house into a suite in the barn.

As Juris told us this story, I felt sick. I imagined Klara and her husband discovering that the comfortable retirement they had built was gone and that they would both probably have to go back to work in their 60s. I also imagined how Gabriels reconciled it all in his head: how did he contemplate mortgaging the property in secret? How did he raise the courage to tell his parents once it was already too late?

The only bright side of the story was that Gabriels discovered a solid work ethic: he works long hours at the resort and it looks great. Klara said she was too shaken to do much, so they shifted most of the responsibilities to Gabriels. Klara’s husband was absent during our visit – the shock has apparently sent him back to the bottle.

Their heartbreaking story does not fit with the beautiful property they developed, but of which they are now little more than caretakers. Here is a photo of the pond, the house and barn and the fields planted with fruit on the left:

Between our visits to Puze and Bisenieki, we spent two nights in Ventspils on the Baltic Sea. The Soviet Union relied on Ventspils and Liepaja in Latvia as its only ice-free western ports during the winter, with Ventspils the more important of the two. As the USSR and later Russia became a major supplier of oil to Western Europe, the Russians sent their oil by train across Latvia to Ventspils and from there to its southern destinations. During the difficult economic times after its independence in 1991, Latvia continued to rely on the transshipment of Russian oil from Ventspils as its major source of foreign currency. Despite some boom years before 2008, the Latvian economy is once again in dire straits, and I suspect the Ventspils port continues to be the country’s largest source of foreign currency.

Here is the Travelling Cow statue in front of Ventspils port. The statue has a suitcase handle and is decorated with stickers from ports around the world – I haven’t a clue what it represents.

The city was once a fishing town, so next to the port is a low-slung old quarter of simple fisherman’s houses and unused warehouses. Its charm is one half tourist development, one half dilapidation. And its small scale is in contrast with the gigantic, neighbouring port.

The city also has a long, beautiful stretch of windswept sand beach. But I only visited it one morning while jogging, so I do not have any photos to share.

From Ventspils we travelled south to Kuldiga, which, other than the old city in the capital Riga, is perhaps the most developed tourist attraction in Latvia. It was already touristy when I visited in 1999. Of our destinations on this trip, Kuldiga felt like one of the only prosperous places, where the economic crisis had not frozen all new development. The Kuldiga town council was undertaking an extensive replacement of the brick roads in the town centre and there were a number of fancy houses being built and upgraded in the upscale residential areas along the Venta River.

Among other things, Kuldiga is famous for its “waterfall.” Before looking at the following photo, please remember that Latvia is a pancake-flat country, so the waterfall is less than Niagara-esque. In fact, it was tame enough for me to wade up to the metre-high waterfall to recover the sunglasses I had knocked off my head into the water.

Less famous, but far more amusing, was the wall of a downtown house painted with different plants and fungi. This was one of the images and requires no setup:

A half hour outside of Kuldiga, we stopped at a rather boring castle. Juris found a short cut and strode up this steep hill. He is more than twice my age – I walked the gradual slope to the main entrance.

We spent that evening in Liepaja, my favourite of our destinations. I am not alone in liking it: it was a beach resort for the butlered classed stretching back to the last century. Before the 20th century, Latvia was always controlled by the region’s dominant empire of the day: the Germans, then the Swedes and then the Russians until World War I. But throughout, the different empires ruled indirectly through a predominantly German landed class. These aristocrats loved to spend their summers at Liepaja’s beaches, so although the city developed during a period of Russian predominance, the city’s architecture is distinctly German.

Prior to the wars, there was Liepaja city on the river and, a few kilometres away, a community of “cottages” by the beach. These cottages are in reality multi-floor mansions with solariums, gargoyles and complicated gardens. Some have been converted into hotels; many are now owned by rich Russians. Because of Liepaja’s desirability, these cottage-mansions and the rest of the city’s real estate sell at Western European prices.

Unfortunately we had only one evening in Liepaja – enough time for some sunset photos at the beach and a nighttime walk through its pleasant boulevards.

At one point we turned a corner and saw the moon at the other end of the street:

After our history tour and the javelin competition interlude, both described in my previous entry, we continued to Saldus to meet Mara, one of my Mom’s cousins. Here is a photo of Mom meeting Mara for the first time:

The funniest anecdote from our trip occurred at this meeting. It is certainly insensitive to publish it on the internet, but it is true and relevant to the story: Mara’s husband Janis is bit of a goof. He is a warm, well-meaning goof, but a goof nonetheless. During my last visit in 1999, we ate a meal at their house and he grabbed my arm and talked at length to me in Latvian. I appreciated him interacting with me despite the language barrier, so I asked my English-speaking cousin Ruta to translate. She stared at him babbling and said slowly: “… I don’t really know what he is talking about.”

Janis wasted no time at this meeting either. He greeted Mom and me enthusiastically and as Mom and Mara fell into conversation, he walked over to Olympic hero Janis Lusis. Always quick to relate to people, Janis said to Janis Lusis: “Yeah, you and I can get along, because, you know, you have an Olympic gold medal and I play checkers!”

My mother taught me not to laugh at other people, at least not in public, but Janis and his checkers were too good to omit.

From Saldus we travelled to Tukums, where my grandfather’s family – and the Terauds name – is from. My grandfather is buried in the family plot of the Tukums cemetery, in rather ironic circumstances. He was fiercely proud of his Latvian background, but it was common knowledge in our family that his parents’ name was Štāls, which is German for “steel.” During Latvia’s inter-war period of independence, it became unfashionable to have a German name alluded to the historical social order of German landlords and Latvian labourers. So my grandfather and a few of his 10 siblings assumed the Latvian translation of the Štāls name: Tērauds. Despite this well-known recent history, my grandfather would insist that our family were NOT of German ancestry, but of proud Latvian stock.

The argument itself is moot, but when I visited his grave in 1999, I began to chuckle as soon as we entered the cemetery. We first passed a massive stone block carved in a distinct German style with a distinct German face, square jaw jutting forward. We continued through the large cemetery, past iron cross after iron cross, each engraved with pure German names. Even the family plot seemed to mock my grandfather’s “not German – Latvian” stance on our ancestry: the gravestones read Štāls, Štāls, Štāls, Štāls, Štāls…. Tērauds. Here is my grandfather’s gravestone (with Štāls written twice on it), along with the nameplates from those of his parents:

Augusts died in 1936, the same year in which Mamu’s father Gederts died and Juris was born. Aged 51 years, Augusts was not necessarily young when he died, but it was acknowledged that he died early due to alcohol. These are the stories that families like to keep quiet, but more than a generation separates Augusts from the living members of our family, so I feel little shame in telling his personal story of alcoholism as an introduction to a more general one.

As a young man, Augusts was industrious an earned renown as a beet farmer. Yes, a beet farmer. When independence came to Latvia, government agriculture officials asked him to visit farmers’ groups in different parts of the country to share his knowledge, which he did. His youngest daughter Ausma told us that she suspects the alcohol pressed on him by his hospitable hosts at these events was the first push on his slide into alcoholism. In his later years he was a shell of a man, less able to provide for his family and to participate in their lives.

I mention Augusts’s story because alcoholism is a sad, recurring theme in my exposure to Latvia, especially among Latvian men, and including too many of my male Latvian relatives. A reverse example is that on my first trip to Latvia in 1999, when people talked about Bronislavs, the long-standing tenant on the Pukstaiši family farm, they began every description of his value and qualities with: “he is sober.” My uncles were lucky, people said, that they found a rare sober man to work their farm.

In Canada, sobriety is not a quality you would mention in a job application. But even in the narrow set of my uncles’ experiences there, it is scarcer quality in Latvia. For example, earlier in this entry I described Juris’s plans to hire a family member to turn his little lakeside resort into a business. The main reason the project stalled was that Juris could not find a single male relative of working age who was responsible and sober enough to hire. And from my casual observations on two visits to Latvia, alcoholism is not a problem limited to my male relatives, but is a widespread societal problem.

From the cemetery where Papu is buried, we drove the short distance to the house where he grew up. His youngest sister Ausma, the only surviving member of the 10 Štāls/Tērauds siblings, now lives in the neighbouring house. Her son lives in the old family house, but sadly he is an alcoholic and we did not see him or visit the house.

In the moment, it mattered little, as Ausma was engaging: still bright, sharp and full of life. For some reason, I had not met Ausma on my earlier visit. This time, Juris said that she looked as healthy and happy as he had seen her in 10 years, apart from a sprained (broken?) wrist from a recent fall.

Meeting Ausma was one of the highlights of the trip for Mom: there seemed to be in Ausma some of the family traits that she shared growing up with Mom’s father and that passed to the North American branch of our family – traits that understandably never formed in the next generation in Latvia, who grew up in a different context.

Here are Ausma, Mom and I in Ausma’s garden, which she tends herself:

Ausma had an envelope of treasures to show us: portraits of her family shot during independence. Since most of the boys are dressed in Latvian army uniforms, these photos represented potential death or deportation for anyone pictured if the Russians found them, so Ausma buried them in her yard for the better part of 50 years. Here is one of the photos, with my grandfather Jānis Harmanis standing at the back on the left and Ausma the young girl in the front:

Hiding the incriminating photos was not out of character for Ausma. Her second youngest brother Oskars – I think he is the one in the scout’s uniform on the right – joined the Latvian resistance and continued fighting the Russians long after the end of the war. During this time, Ausma would sneak out of town to the rebel camps with supplies and to carry letters back and forth.

After this swing through western Latvia, we returned to Riga for a spell before driving east for a day. We stopped first in Carnikava to visit Mom’s cousin Ruta. Ruta is the Latvian relative I have seen most: she visited Canada some years ago and on my first visit to Latvia in 1999, she generously organised visits and accompanied me as my translator. She did all of this for me despite working full-time and caring for her mother Irma, one of the sisters in the above photos, who was in the last stages of mental and physical decline.

Since her mother’s passing, Ruta has retired and moved from bustling Riga to sleepy Carnikava near the Baltic Sea. In what became a theme with all of the women I revisited on this visit, Ruta looked younger and healthier than when I had seen her 12 years ago.

We visited Ruta at the family summer/garden home that she inherited, also in Carnikava. Here is a photo of Ruta and Mom in the garden:

Ruta joined us for the rest of the day as we continued to beautiful Sigulda. The area is ambitiously called “the Switzerland of Latvia,” which I suppose is true if you picture Switzerland without: snowy mountains, lakes, pastures and cows. Swiss or not, Sigulda’s natural scenery is indeed the most beautiful I saw in Latvia. It is hilly, lush green and split by the deep gorge of the Gauja River. In the years since my last visit, Sigulda has used its natural beauty to develop a surprisingly extensive activity tourism sector: zip lines, skiing, bobsled (both the winter and the rail variety), rafting. Oh, and golf. If I were to return to Latvia for a holiday-holiday, I think I would split my time between Sigulda and Liepaja.

Another key reason I like visiting Sigulda is to see Mom’s cousin Dace. My stay with her family was one of the highlights of my trip in 1999. Although Dace is a reluctant English speaker, she has the kind of warm, unguarded and smiling personality that is easy to like. I enjoyed spending time with her children last time and shot one of my favourite portraits ever (below) of her daughter Ulla. Unfortunately the kids are grown and were not there this time.

Dace manages a rehabilitation centre in Krimulda, a town on the heights opposite Sigulda town, across the Gauja valley. The centre occupies what was once a German noble’s feudal-ish estate. The centre itself is in the grand manor house, with commanding views over the Gauja valley; Dace and her staff live in apartments in several sturdy stone buildings near the manor house; and there are more barns, warehouses and stables than the centre can use. On the periphery of the central cluster of buildings are houses that presumably belonged to the tradespeople who were drawn as suppliers to the big manor operation.

Dace has remarried since 1999 and remembering the new husband’s name was easy: both husbands were named Janis. I felt our visit was too short this time for me to reconnect with her. But I was glad to see how great she looks. She has lost weight and gained in confidence, happiness and fashion. The following photo shows husband Janis, Mom, Juris, Dace and Dace’s two nieces.

The bright centre that Dace is to her household is a happy balance to some of the sadder stories among our Latvian relatives. Indeed, she is an active counterweight to them. Dace is Ausma’s daughter and, as I mentioned earlier, her brother is an alcoholic. At a certain point he and his wife were failing their three (?) children, so Dace moved them into an apartment in the Krimulda complex and absorbed them into her household.

The two nieces in the photo, their younger brother and a grand-niece and grand-nephew – I stupidly forgot to note all of their names – live in the apartment Dace provided them. Even during our short visit, it was obvious they had developed a warm, loving family life, with the girls helping familiarly in Dace’s house, the teenage nephew taking the two kids off for a nap and the warm, teasing exchanges that passed between Dace and her nieces.

We used Riga as a central hub during our road trips and spent a long weekend in the city at the end of our trip, which coincided with Rīgas svētki 2011 – Riga’s Festival on its 810th birthday.

During our times in Riga, we visited with another of Mom’s cousins, Daina. Mom corresponded with Daina when she was young, so they knew each other relatively well until the letters stopped when Mom was around 15 years old. Here is a photo of Mom and Daina, catching up after 45 years:

Ignoring the two women for a moment, there are two iconic Latvian symbols in the photo: the Brivibas Monument and flowers.

The Brivibas (Freedom) Monument was built in a central square near the Riga Canal during Latvia’s inter-war independence. It is part war memorial, part depiction of Latvian history and part nationalist symbol. When the Russians returned in 1944, they were not bold enough to demolish it, so they build a traffic circle around her, posted guards to prevent people from approaching and apparently placed cameras in windows overlooking the square to document any treasonous interaction with Brivibas.

Today she is a central part of Rigans’ life, not only for her symbolism, but because her square sits between the old city, where many Rigans work, and the new city, where they live. So a large proportion of Rigans walk by Brivibas at least twice a day. The first photo below shows the busy square after a boring official ceremony, with Brivibas in the background and a hopeful man with flowers in the foreground. The second photo shows a closeup of Lady Liberty holding three stars, representing the three provinces that united to form Latvia.

Flowers are ubiquitous in Latvia. It is the only place I have visited in which you can stop at any time and see several men carrying flowers. Flowers for your host, flowers for your house – I imagine a Latvian man forgetting to bring flowers to a date would be as damaging to his prospects as not washing, or telling the woman she reminds him of his mother.

Here is a photo of Mom, glowing as she fulfills that most Latvian of rituals: placing flowers at the feet of Brivibas:

It is enough with Brivibas already, but here is a favourite photo I shot after the politicians had blocked the square for a long, boring procession to lay their flowers at the foot of the monument:

Riga’s old city is probably the only area in all of Latvia that has been comprehensively restored, upgraded and beautified – all for tourism. It is pleasant with its squares, brightly painted facades and pointy church steeples. Although most of the tourists in Latvia are concentrated in Old Riga’s narrow, cobble-stone streets, it is quiet by European tourism standards. Old Riga does not have an opulent imperial heritage of architecture and parks as do Paris or Prague, but it is an impressive second-tier medieval city, and with a fraction of the crowds that descend on Europe’s tourist capitals.

Here is the Dom Square, named for the large brick cathedral in the photo:

My favourite part of Riga is the canal that runs beside the old city. Both when I visited in 1999 and this time, economic times were palpably tough in the commercial areas of the city, but the park that runs alongside the canal was full of Rigans walking, talking and breathing deeply. During this visit, I incorporated the canal into my jogging route, so was able to explore it even more.

Not all of Riga is as pleasant and pretty as its old quarter. Much of the area south of the train tracks, for example, was built during Soviet times. I have not read about the inspirations behind Soviet architecture, but a large part of it must be intimidation by the state of the individual. Soviet designs seem purposefully ugly and angular; and loom over passers-by. An example in south Riga is the building occupied by the Latvian Academy of Sciences. It resembles the “Seven Sisters’ in Moscow: a set of skyscrapers that Stalin commissioned in Moscow and that resemble layered cakes at the unhappiest of birthdays. The copy in Riga looks as if its exterior was finished with a blowtorch.

One long, hot day, we wandered through the events of the Riga Festival. The grandest one we saw was a professional jousting performance, complete with lists, armour and lances. The performing knights were well trained, so were able to charge each other at full speed and then tumble from their moving horse if they “lost” the tilt. There was also a portion of the show devoted to acrobatics on the horses – Mom would have loved it if she could see through the thick crowds. After straining to see in the crush, we retreated to an excellent public balcony with views of the jousting and of the Daugava River.

Our excellent tour guide Juris left the day before Mom and I did. On our last evening, she and I walked along the Vansu Bridge at sunset. It is a busy, noisy bridge, but it offers great views of Old Riga bathed in the warm evening glow. I shot a few photos, including the one below. Then, tired at the close of a full, full trip, we returned to our hotel for an early night, ahead of our flight early the following morning.

Written by Kris Terauds

October 27, 2011 at 09:30

One Response

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  1. Hi Kris, my name is Anita Ross ( Stals ) and I have just had the pleasure of reading your Latvian blog. Wow.
    I am the grand-daughter of Emils Stals, your grand-fathers brother. I am going to Latvia for the first time in October. When I booked the flights to go to Latvia all I new was that my parents came from Latvia, one from Riga and one from Tukums. And now thanks to you and a couple of other Australian Latvians I have heaps of information. I am currently trying to track your mother down in the hope to get the exact address in Tukums and to find out if my ” great Aunt ” is still alive and if it is at all possible to visit her. I have emailed your mother but she has not answered, maybe she is away. If you are able me with that information, I would very much appreciated it.

    Anita Ross ( Stals )

    September 6, 2013 at 23:03


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