(Edited by Kathryn Hummel)
Your own eyes are king.
I looked for her first in the garden where she would often be working—planting, weeding or watering. This time I found her in her little sewing room. It was a sun-trap with windows on three sides flooded with light. Perfect for finding the thinnest lost thread or a fine needle that dropped to the floor.
We soon got talking about current events and the sudden changes in Europe. She was nervous about what the Russians would do.
‘They’ll never let Latvia go. Never. I just can’t see it. But I’ve made up my mind. If it comes down to a fight, I will go back and help out.’
‘What? You’ll go back and join the independence movement? Don’t be silly…’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I may be in my seventies but I’m in good health and I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to in life…if I got killed now, what difference would it make?’
‘So you’re going become a guerilla fighter now?’
My mother, Vera, bent over the sewing machine and pushed her foot down on the pedal. The whirr of the machine underscored her set mouth. At that moment, with that determined steely look, it no longer seemed so preposterous and I could see her dressed in khaki clothes driving a vehicle down a distant road.
I dismissed her talk as ‘survivor guilt’. Among my second-generation Baltic friends, we talked about this a lot. Our parents partied hard; they had known real loss and sorrow so were determined to live life to the full. But there was guilt too for enjoying the kind of freedoms their Iron Curtain relatives could not.
Some of my friends had gone back to their parents’ homelands and it was often a frustrating, soul-destroying experience. It was at a time when the Soviet bureaucracy insisted on travel permits between towns or cities. One girlfriend managed to get a visa to visit the capital city, but was denied permission to go any farther so was unable to visit the small town where her relatives lived.
Glasnost and perestroika, the political movements that democratized the Communist Party, changed everything. I had always wanted to visit Latvia, but was also intimidated by the prospect. Firstly, I couldn’t speak the language, and secondly, I had always dreamt about making that trip with Vera.
Her excuse was that she would never return whilst Latvia was occupied by the Soviets. It was a point of principle. And unlike other Latvians who returned to visit relatives, she was an orphan so there was no real reason to go back there.
Then on August 23 we watched the Baltic Way, one of the most extraordinary acts of nonviolent protest the world has ever seen. More than a million citizens of three small nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, came together and took each others’ hands, forming a human chain that traversed the three nations. It was a plea for national sovereignty and independence. A few months later in November, in the edit rooms of SBS TV where I worked, I watched the Berlin Wall come down.
When Latvia got its independence, I urged Vera, ‘What about now?
She would say, ‘What’s the point? They are all gone now. There is no-one left.’
My idea to travel there was resuscitated by Olev, an Estonian-Australian musician who was planning to tour Estonia with his techno-folk group, Kiri-uu. Estonian audiences wanted to hear how this contemporary Australian ensemble interpreted their ancient folk songs.
‘Why don’t you come with us?’ he asked me. And so a four-week trip to the Baltic States was quickly planned.
In turn, I proposed to Vera. ‘We could meet up at Riga. You know what they all say. It hasn’t lost its beauty.’
I thought a trip to her homeland would be good for her: it would bury a few of those ghosts from her past. No matter what angle I took, she found a new excuse not to go.
‘I would have to see all those ugly buildings that the Soviets have built in my beautiful Riga.’
‘And you don’t think that if someone had left Sydney forty years ago, they wouldn’t be horrified by all the ugly buildings that have now appeared on our skyline?’
I gave up trying to persuade her to come but in the lead up to my departure, my questions about her family and her past escalated.
This irritated her.
For one, I desperately wanted to know where she had lived. I wanted to walk down that street and look up at her building.
‘Surely you must remember the name of the street?’
It seemed inconceivable that someone could forget the place where they lived as a child. By contrast I had grown up in half a dozen houses in six different streets and I remembered them all.
She shook her head, no. Yet it was a question with which I persisted. Then, just days before I was due to leave, she called me.
‘I remember now, it was Stabu Iela. Our apartment in Riga was on Stabu Iela.’
How many weeks and how many questions had it taken me to get this nugget? At last I had a street name…but what about a number? Again, she said, ‘No’—she could no longer remember the number.
I entered Estonia from Finland. It was only short twenty-minute flight from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital. Then I was out in the baggage area, waiting for my luggage. The first suitcase appeared on the conveyer belt and a few more followed, but then it spluttered and died.
Eventually it started up again, coughed up a few more boxes and bags before grinding to another halt. It started, hiccupped again and then died for a long, long while. Each time it got going, many travellers (I am sure they were Americans) started clapping. Yet even their enthusiastic cheering could not thwart the deathly stop-start rhythm of the luggage belt as it spat out suitcases three or four at a time.
On the other side of the gate, Olev was waiting for me. He handed me a bunch of flowers—the usual greeting for friends and relatives arriving from abroad.
I am staying with Olev’s cousins—Peter and Tiiu—in their small house in the suburbs. They have given me Grandma’s room. I don’t see her because she has been temporarily relocated to stay with another sibling. I feel a bit guilty about this until I realise how much Peter and Tiiu enjoy having these overseas visitors boarding with them. Perhaps Peter also enjoys having a break from his mother-in-law.
I can’t understand any Estonian, but Olev is happy to translate the conversation swirling around us. Thousands of curious expatriate Balts have come back to their homeland or that of their parents’ and their reasons vary. Some are highly opportunistic, looking to get bargain property at rock-bottom prices. Others are looking to find lost relatives, to heal the wounds of the past or revive lost language skills, whilst for an idealistic few, it’s a way to make a small contribution to these newborn democracies.
Breathing in the air of a newly independent democracy, full of expectation and promise, there are countless reasons to be here.
Culture binds them all together, but history will always divide. We see some expats buying up amber necklaces at ridiculously cheap prices and then sauntering back to stay at the most expensive hotel in town. It barely meets with their Western standards of hotel service.
They can’t complain too loudly as the rates are so low.
Olev calls the visiting expats “Outsiders—Inside-Out.”
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘They look Estonian on the outside, but are outsiders on the inside.’
My hosts, Peter and Tiiu, laugh and agree with that description. These newfound blood brothers from the West with their patronising ways can be infuriating.
We sit in the faded lounge room and, over cups of hot coffee, chat about the new Estonia. Tiiu brings in a freshly baked cake and a bowl of linden berries. I eat them by the handful and think, ‘Berry season. The perfect time to be here.’ I am in heaven.
She returns to the kitchen and continues working—pickling home-grown gherkins and preserving the rest of the linden berries. Battling decades of shortages, everyone is careful with money and possessions. A lot of foodstuffs are expensive, so as much as they can, they supplement their diet with home-grown produce.
The following day, Olev and his musical partner, Coralie are to give a concert. We are ready to go, but have to wait a little while for Tiiu. She is bringing in the washing from the clothesline, sighing she cannot afford to lose any more clothes. Thieving is common and even clothes on the washing line cannot be left unattended.
There are two versions of the truth here. One is the state version and the second you hear whispered by people who are old enough to remember what it used to be like. So fifty years on, the people here are convinced there are still two versions of the truth.
At Kiri-uu’s first concert, I meet a young man who has this profound sense of disbelief. Did I know, for example, that Freddy Mercury still lives? I tell him, no, he died of AIDS. He smiles knowingly—‘This death, you see, is another conspiracy. He still lives.’ We could not dislodge him from that belief.
One day we take a trip up to north-eastern Estonia to see not the beauty of its coastline, but the environmental degradation in Kunda caused by the Soviet-era cement factory. The vegetation in the surrounding countryside is all gray and even the few workers walking around the town’s lonely streets look ghostly, covered as they are in concrete dust.
But there is warmth from the locals who are grateful that tourists from the West are finally coming to explore this region. My two weeks in Estonia prepares me a little for the last leg of my trip and what I can expect to find in Latvia. As we travel down through Estonia, Olev promises me that I will see the landscape change before my eyes.
‘Estonia is much more Scandinavian—it has a bit of tundra about it. But Latvian forests are denser with their tangled fir and birch, they are the places for fairies and trolls.’
The band’s roadie is behind the wheel, his foot on the accelerator. When we arrive I try to offer him some money for the petrol but he shrugs it off and says it isn’t necessary—he filled up at work. They may be free of the Communist yoke, but they are still following “in for a penny, in for a pound” principle. And who could blame them? They are all underpaid and have long lived with so many restrictions, gnawing away at a system that ties their hands behind their backs is an act of rebellion.
Riga, Latvia, 1991
‘You don’t speak Russian. That’s a worry. But never mind, we’ll find you a good cheap hotel,’ says Olev. He tracks down the Hotel Viktorija and coincidentally it’s on Stabu Iela.
‘My mother’s street!’ I gasp. Divine providence must be behind this trip. Riga is often dubbed the ‘Paris of the North’ but Stabu Iela lacks the grandeur of some of the city’s well-planned boulevards.
The buildings here are late nineteenth or early 20th century and all are dingy, dirty, dark grey-brown in desperate need of a wash. But it’s well located and from here I can walk to the streets that hold some of the most stunning Art Nouveau architecture in Europe (there are already Germans grouped together on walking tours just for this purpose).
There is one beautiful Art Nouveau building on Stabu Iela which is not on the tourist map for it has a dark past that many want to forget. It was the base of the Soviet secret police and during the Soviet occupation hundreds of Latvian nationalists were tortured and killed there.
The building is now empty and the city is reluctant to do anything with it. Turning it into a museum will only offend Latvia’s Russian citizens (who now make up half the population) and even some Latvians wonder if it’s worth turning one of their country’s more traumatic places into a memorial.
It’s week three of my trip. I look around at my shabby room with its worn, grubby furniture and ugly, checked-patterned wallpaper and I am already planning my escape. I wander outside, stopping at a kiosk to buy a can of lemonade. Before long, I get the distinct feeling I am being followed. I am. They are only a couple of adolescents, but it rattles me. I wonder if I am imagining it, but suddenly they make a move towards me. Will they produce a knife? I expect the worst, but in halting English they make their demand.
‘Can we have your can?’
‘What, the lemonade?’ I query.
‘But it’s finished,’ I counter.
‘We know,’ they reply, ‘we just want the can’.
They seem thrilled to bits when I hand them my empty vessel. Junk food is still rare and exotic. The upside is that everyone here—well, those under 30—is slim. Young Australians once looked like that too, I sigh to myself.
For dinner at a restaurant I plan to tuck into the local fare of schnitzel, potato salad, coffee and torte. It’s the kind of meal that Vera often used to cook: my default comfort food. The waiter is tall, blonde and lanky. Taking my order, he stands a little too close to me. He keeps looking over his shoulder nervously, so much so, it’s making me anxious. Am I being followed again, I wonder?
Then he leans toward me and whispers conspiratorially, ‘Russian Caviar? Only fifty American dollars for you’.
He’s hiding a giant tin underneath his oversized napkin. Has he pilfered it? I shake my head, not because I am afraid to break some Latvian law, but I hate the thought of caviar—how the eggs are ripped out of pregnant sturgeon.
Perhaps disappointed that I am not as gluttonous as he’d hoped, he wanders off and before I have finished my main course, he’s back with another offer. It’s a book about Riga’s architecture. Maybe he’s pegged me as a dilettante. I buy it. It will be useful as a guidebook.
As evening comes down, I return to my hotel. The room is only on the third floor but the lift chugs slowly up, as if climbing one decrepit step at a time. I make a mental note to use the stairs next time before the clanking lift jogs my memory bank.
Hel. Some years before, my mother, father and I had taken a driving holiday through Poland. The purpose was obscure. My father announced one day he wanted to go to ‘Hell and back’ (partly because my mother was always telling him to go there), so that he could tell his friends where he’d been.
The village of Hell, or should I correctly say ‘Hel’, is just a handful of dwellings, situated on a long spit of land that sticks out in the Baltic Sea. The long finger of land eventually leads to the border of Kaliningrad, a small Russian province which during the Soviet era was heavily militarised.
On the borders of Hel, I sat on the sea strand and found a piece of amber washed up on the shore. The area is famous for the quantity of amber found here yet that small piece seemed magical to me.
Jokes aside, the main reason for the trip was just to see what life was really like in a communist country.
Warsaw. A Soviet-built lift. There five of us: the Polish lift operator, two beribboned Soviet apparatchiks, Vera and me. One of the Soviet officers orders the lift operator to take them to a particular floor. The Pole shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head, making it clear that he can’t understand Russian.
‘How can you not speak Russian?’ the Soviet official barks. ‘This is pathetic! Poland is a satellite of the Soviet state and, look at you, not even making an effort to learn basic Russian! What backward people you Poles are!’ The Soviet goes on in this vein, making the poor man shrink into his uniform.
The lift operator blinks nervously, feeling the anger of his words, if not the content.
‘Excuse me,’ says Vera in perfect Russian. She has heard every word. ‘What floor did you want?’
‘Ah, number five, thank you.’
She turns to the lift operator, smiles reassuringly, switches tongues and says in fluent Polish, ‘Number five for these clowns’.
Now that the lift is moving, the apparatchik smiles warmly at Vera, grateful she had solved the impasse. But his smile only fires her up and she starts to dress him down.
‘What gives you the right to expect your language to be spoken by everyone in Poland?’ she challenges. ‘Moscow may hold the balance of power and control the policies made by the Polish government, but you must remember—you are a guest in this country. And if anyone should make an effort it is you! Why aren’t you speaking Polish? And when you are a visitor, you should mind your manners! Does being a member of the party also give you the right to be rude to every worker? That poor man is only doing his job and you abuse him for it! So much for looking after the workers!’
I only grasp a word or two of this exchange, but what I do see is the shock on the Soviet’s face, as if he had had his face slapped. The Polish lift operator also pales in discomfort.
I think: ‘This could get ugly’.
But right on cue the lift comes to a stop and Vera sweeps out, stage left, to our rooms down the corridor.
‘The nerve of those goons,’ she says. ‘Treating that poor Pole as if he was some slave.’
Vera is still telling my father what had happened in the lift when there is a knock on the door. We open it and there are three Polish members of the hotel staff. The one on the right has a bottle of French champagne, the one on the left has a large bouquet of flowers and the middle one says in English, ‘Here is a token of our appreciation for standing up to our other houseguests who are not our favourite customers’.
Riga. There was a happy ending back then and now I longed for another. But back in my room at the Hotel Viktorija, I try to lock my door and the lock is broken. Anyone can walk in at anytime. Then my first truly paranoid thought: is this deliberate? I heave an armchair against the door.
I had been warned by fellow travellers about untrustworthy characters in Riga that loitered anywhere tourists could be found: sharks and opportunists, con men and carpetbaggers. Eastern Europe was the new frontier.
‘Be careful of mafia men—they’ll be wearing tracksuits and Adidas shoes, and hanging around hotel foyers,’ I had been told. With that thought firmly planted in my head, I saw mafia men everywhere, all of whom I thought were determined to fleece me of my hard-earned Australian dollars.
I climb into bed and try to sleep. The walls are paper-thin—a Russian couple is talking heatedly next-door and the thoughts in my own brain are also becoming rattled, distorted and frenzied. Who knows I am here? Is Latvia really free? Perhaps KGB agents will burst through that door and arrest me. What’s to stop them? What would I do? I drift off to sleep.
About two in the morning, I wake with a start. Someone is in my room. The chair is being moved. Rigid with terror, I try to collect my thoughts. I look at the shadows around the room, searching for movement. I hear furniture scraping along the floors and raised voices again, but it’s all happening next door. Tensions have escalated.
The Russians are yelling at each other now. They are physical too. So close, as if my bed is wedged between them.
I used to laugh with my friends about our refugee parents with their petty Cold War paranoia—why couldn’t they just get over it? But here, on this first trip, my very first night in Latvia, there are beads of sweat on my forehead and my heart is racing. Decades have passed, regimes have changed but I am convinced I will be arrested. What kind of emotional memories are trapped inside my DNA?
She’s not with me, but I turn to my mother for comfort. What would she say right now? I can hear her quoting the Latvian philosopher Janis Kulins:
‘If you are unhappy about something, just wait four weeks and by that time, you will have become used to it’.
Roll on week four.
Amanda Hickey has worked with words all her adult life across many mediums – documentaries, journalism, blogging, short films and creative writing. She is also a teacher and gives Storytelling workshops to Not-for-Profits. Her first documentary (Writer & Director) on heart surgeon Victor Chang, won an award for SBS TV. Her latest documentary (Producer, second unit Director) – We Are Many – was long listed for an Academy Award and is currently available on I-Tunes.
Amanda writes for her own blog, reviews for Verity La, and is currently finishing a nonfiction book on a WW2 Australian soldier that will be published later this year. She is also working on a memoir, from which ‘Outsiders, Inside Out’ is excerpted.