I have stayed in quite a few 4 and 5 star hotels and often ask for a freshly made omelette for breakfast, as part of my pretend diet this allows me to eat more chocolate later in the day. So given we're in a 4 star hotel I'm a bit surprised when the waitress bristles and slinks off to the kitchen when I ask for one.
“Sorry it is not possible” she may as well have added, “you self important western prick”
I try to apply a bit of logic “But my cousin said she just had one made”
“That's not possible”
I go off to find Miri and ask her, she says that she had two fried eggs, not an omelette as she had implied, “what's the difference?” Miri shrugs, “about 30 seconds”.
I ask the waitress for 2 fried eggs. She is slightly exasperated but a few minutes later returns with two eggs on a plate garnished with some feathery green herb.
“We have made an exception for you this time but we do not normally do this”
“I am deeply indebted. You can not imagine how grateful I am, thank you”. I say.
I looked at the “piggy bank” used for tips and realised that hope springs eternal
* * *
Shortly before my father died earlier this year I had said to him that I may go to Latvia to see where he'd been brought up, to get a bit of insight in to where he and in a way I, had come from. He raised his eyes and told me I was wasting my time.
Miri didn't understand why I wanted to go to Rezekne either, after all the house was no longer there and it was such a long time ago that there would be nothing to see. But I wasn't dissuaded. I wasn't sure what I was after but I'd know it if I came across it.
The last train back from Rezekne to Riga left at 4:56 so we'd only get a few hours there, especially as we were taking the later train out of Riga .
* * *
Sue and I made our way to reception.
“Hello”, I said, “It's your favourite customer, can I get you to call a Taxi to take me to the station please?” The receptionist looked surprised, or maybe that's just the way she did her eyebrows.
“You know” she said “it is only a 10 minute walk?”
“Really?” ~ I walk slowly and am always suspicious of appoximations.
“Yes, look at the map”
She placed a tourist map in front of me and marked big X's where the hotel and the station were.
We had plenty of time, so we thought we'd risk it. “If we miss the train we'll go to Tallinn instead” I said.
* * *
The first two minutes of the walk went well, we past the Alibi Bar and the bit where tramps check out the bins and lounge around on abandoned sofas. It was halfway through the underpass when I asked a woman where the Station was. But she didn't speak English and although I was tempted to start making choo-choo noises and mime a train, I decided to re-check the map. When we emerged from the underpass we realised the map had a scale that was probably measured in another dimension but it definitely wasn't one I've ever existed in.
“Excuse me” I say to a man who's walking by, he doesn't seem to notice me, “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. Again there's no response. Then a woman passes and it's the same routine, I call and she doesn't even batter an eye-lid. I feel like I'm in a film where no one can see or hear me. Sue and I look at each other incredulously. Then a young man walks by, but again not even a glance comes my way. We both burst out laughing. It's such an unreal experience. If I ever come here again I'm going to bring a big microphone with me with BBC TV written on it and see if that makes a difference.
Sue says “I think it's this way” which I hear as something like “It's definitely not in this direction” so I say we should have a look at the map. We determine we're closer than we thought and make our way to the shopping centre which apparently is where the station is hidden… they wouldn't want to make it easy now would they?
So we thought that was difficult, oh no, buying the ticket was much more interesting. This mainly involved the ticket officer using a calculator to show us the departure time which we thought was the price, so we're nodding our heads thinking it's quite cheap and she's nodding her head in a kind of “you're an imbecile aren't you?” motion. I ask Sue for a pen and paper but by about the fifth time I actually accept that she's probably telling me the truth when she says no. I start showing the ticket officer my mobile phone, thinking I can out number her, and kind of realise she can't figure out why we'd want to go so far then come back 2 hours later. I realise explaining that using calculators is really going to be near impossible so she finally brings out a piece of paper and a pen and somehow we get to book the tickets. Trust me it was if we'd signed an international peace agreement by the time we'd finished, there were pats on the back and repetitions of thank you all round, even the cleaner was tempted to join in.
In comparison to the last half hour's trials, finding the platform, the train, the carriage, our seats and that the windows didn't open were plain sailing. Sue had last minute doubts about missing the match so I offered to pay for her ticket if she wanted to go back to the hotel, but she said she'd stay with me so I said “be prepared for a hard afternoon and don't whine”
“What do you mean? I never whine” she said
* * *
As we pulled out of Riga the landscape took had a familiar look about it. It reminded me of Britain , very green, very lush, lots of trees and grass. My father had told me how Scandinavia had been one of his favourite travel destinations but England always felt like home so it struck me that the connection I was witnessing might have been one of the major reasons for him settling in the England . My father sounded South African and he told people that was where he was from but that wasn't the whole story, he'd lived in Latvia for 12 years, then travelled to England and from there went to Johannesburg. When he arrived there he didn't speak English and his cousins laughed at him, but within two years he'd mastered the language and accent enough for him to get into the army!
Because of what had happened in Latvia , with the Nazi's and the Iron Curtain, my father did not want to be associated with the place. He did come here though, normally about once a year to see his sister, who in 1945 was allowed out of Siberia with her husband and back to Riga . My father would bring a large suitcase full of provisions the family, carefully placed on top of a covering of shorts was a photo of my father shaking hands with the head of the communist party and that was the signal for them to leave him alone.
At one point my father offered his sister's husband, Misha, his coat just before setting off back home, of course he refused, so as the train set off my father threw the coat at him through the window laughing. At my father's funeral, Mishka cried as he told this story and said that to him he'd been like a brother, they had even lived next door to each other as children.
These stories about my father's early years had always have a dream like quality to them, as if they'd existed in a washed out colour version of the world, but to come here and see the landscape passing by brings a dimension of reality to them for me. And it is this that I have come here for, a clearer image of my family's past.
Many buildings in Latvia were as they have been for around a hundred years, it is almost the least populated country in Europe , so even the rural landscape is pretty similar in many ways too. It's like I've been watching a flicker book version of the past and now it's being retold to me in hi-definition and 3D.
* * *
As we rode across Latvia , I took photos as best as I could but my arm would tire after a while and I'd lower my camera. Suddenly there'd be something that'd have made a great shot, maybe a stork flying along side the train for a while and coming to land on a nest so large a grown man could sleep in it. My life is haunted by images I'd wish I'd captured, sometimes years afterwards I remember something I missed and feel a bit annoyed at myself.
A missed opportunity - A Stork in it's nest
* * *
When we got off the train at Rezekne and stood on the large platform it was like being on stage, everyone was looking at us. We were obviously foreigners, I have short arms and am wielding a big camera so it wasn't surprising really, and strangely because we're not likely to ever meet these people again it was almost a pleasure to be slightly celebrityish.
The sun was beating down as we passed through the old station building, and came out the front to a line of 2 cabs.
I looked at one of them and said “Do you speak English?”
I looked at the other
They both shook their heads even more vehemently “Non”
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” I knew that one might be a bit cotraversial
They were certainly very good at saying no.
I open my phone and show the address of the road I want to go to.
“OK” he says and opens the car door.
I say to Sue, “Put your fingers up and say Lats”
She does and he puts Five fingers up.
We're on our way.
As we drive through Rezekne most of its buildings are of post war design, with a few red brick buildings that seem to be from the 1880s. I notice some ruins of a fort on a hill. Although judging from the decay we've seen in Riga it could just be a bankrupt superstore from the 1990s. It all kind of reminds me of some poorer areas I've been to in the North of England, old red brick buildings interspersed with modern glass fronted, graffiti adorned, shops and offices.
We get to the road and the driver puts up his fingers indicating which house number we want. I say 20 and Sue does 10 fingers twice. Higher numbers may have proved a lot more confusing.
He stops the car and goes to get my bag from the boot.
I shake my head
There's a look of fear in his eyes, he's probably wondering if I want to stay with him for the next month or so. Sue does an impersonation of taking pictures. He points at himself then us, indicating that he should take a photo of us.
“Wait” I say, and I pass my paw up then down, (I learnt that from Star Wars, it's Jedi movement and never fails), it probably didn't help but certainly made me feel better.
I started to take pictures of the houses, and walked ahead of him. He then drove up to me, probably worried I was going to do a runner and leave Sue with him.
I looked at the street numbers and where my father's house would have been was just an empty patch of grass however 30 metres down the road was a building that definitely resembled what he'd described to me. It had been extended but it was still possible to see the basic style. (See panoramic photo below). This and the surrounding terrain certainly brought another feeling of context to me. Even the road was still a mud one. When my father lived here even the floors were made of mud. They'd sleep in the attic part of the house, which given the lack of ventilation and limited height would not have been the most comfortable of places to sleep.
It was this small place that gave me an insight to what may have driven my father. In many ways he was claustrophobic, I mean he could probably cope with small spaces, but in terms of feeling confined he really had a problem. I only ever saw him cry once and that was when he'd been stuck in hospital for quite a few weeks, he felt he couldn't take it anymore. As for his emotional world he wasn't able to be close in a way many people are able to. He never fell in love, never wanted to be married, didn't want to live in a family unit of any kind, he just wanted to feel free.
Now I'm not saying the stimuli for these feelings came from living here, because the rest of his family reacted very differently, but if he had a pre-disposition to wanting to “have space” then this world would certainly have helped heighten those feelings.
Had I had more time I would have tried to find out about other places around here he'd mentioned, like the theatre he'd climb in to for free, but we only had a few hours and we were both hungry so I got back in to the taxi and got Sue to do a mime of eating, which she transformed to drinking. I said restaurant, and he said Hotel and we just nodded in resignation. We were there in two minutes so as we got out I got Sue to do her “how much?” gesture and he did five fingers again, So I said “OK?” thinking we ought to pay more, but he was happy so we paid and he went off.
150 miles from Riga , it was Sunday and everything looked closed. A young man walks past with a bike. I said “Do you speak English?” he nodded “no” and laughed.
We were next to a bridge and a hotel called the Kolodadez, so we walk around it and found an entrance to the restaurant. We walked in. A family were sitting at a table.
“Do you speak English?” I asked
They nodded their heads whilst looking mildly petrified. One of them pointed so I followed his direction. A woman was at a bar.
“Do you speak English?”
“A bit” she says.
I wanted to burst in to song, something like Midnight Oil's “Hey Hey Hey, there'll be food on the table tonight” but given the amount of hysteria we've whipped up so far I resist.
Gita and the other staff at The Kolonadez were extra friendly, it was almost slightly worrying
The biggest teabag I've ever had the honour to meet
We get to eat, drink and be merry for an hour and get the receptionist to order us a cab which will not only take us to the station but also back for another photo shoot at my father's road which had originally been called “Ianopolskaja” Street before the Nazis burned most of it down and changed its name “Bukmuižas Iela”.
Nope not a casual passer-by asking if we're lost and in need of help but out Taxi-driver
We drove off, I got my shots, and we ended up back at the station, which was packed with an assortment of Riga bound Rezeknayans, most of whom were finding me very interesting indeed. I was almost tempted to do an Elvis impersonation but instead I took photographs of them. At one point a beggar approached us, said something, I asked if he spoke English and he walked off in disgust.
As the train pulled in Sue offered to push through the scrum to get us some seats, but I worried it might cause an international incident, (“Small to large” is bouncing round my head still) so we politely walked to the doorway, and climbed the steep steps up on to the train, followed only by an octogenarian with a walking stick.
There were no empty seats, so we walked to the next carriage, where there were still none. We made our way to the bit between carriages and prepared for a 4 hour trip there. At this point I saw the ticket inspector having a word with a woman with a child, who lifted the kid on to her lap and the ticket inspector beckoned me over. I took the seat appreciatively and gestured Sue to join me. She didn't though.
A while later I texted Sue in order to ask if she'd like to time-share my chair but she refuses and I don't see her again till we get to Riga, or at least I thought it was Riga until I stepped off. Sue was walking ahead of me when I shouted “Sue this isn't it, we'd better get back on”
I put my foot on the step to get back on, the door went to close, then in reaction to my foot stayed open.
She ignored me
I took my foot away, the door shut and the train moved on.
“Sue” I called out again “Why didn't you get on?”
“I wouldn't get back on that stinking train if you paid me a million pounds, I'd rather die!”
“For fuck's sake we're in the middle of nowhere” I said in a slightly vexed tone.
“I don't care” she said
We sat down on the bench and she started to cry, so I put my arm around her and though sorely tempted to strangle her said “it's ok, we'll get back, some how, some day.”
“I've just been cooped up sitting on the floor with a load of diseased people coughing, sneezing and kids farting all over me”
“I know you have, and I know it wasn't nice but you don't have to take it out on me! Why didn't you come and share with me? We could have shared the chair and chatted”
“I didn't think there was room and anyway I was pissed off because England lost 4 goals to 1 against Germany !”
“Anyway let's go and look at the timetable” I said trying to change the subject.
We looked and it seemed there might be another train in 30 minutes.
So back at the bench we had fun asking every passer by if they spoke English and seeing how well they could ignore us. They all scored very highly. I think for many Russians and Latvians, if you haven't been introduced you don't exist.
The place was desolate, reminding me of a post apocalyptic computer game world such as Fall Out 3. Occasionally a gang of people would walk across the lines towards us, so I made sure my camera was packed away.
The train did come, it had RIGA lit up at the front of it so we got on and headed back. This time there were golden fluffy, soft to the bottom “just for us” seats galore.
Once we got back to Riga we stopped in at the Alibi Bar and in time Eddie and Miri joined us. We walked to the square, had ourselves a badly served meal at the Steak-Haus then in the midnight light sky walked back to the Hotel.
As had become custom we waved hello at the receptionists as we walked in who expertly ignored us. To be fair the bar lady smiled, but she has probably been on a “Charm-Offensive” course run by the beer sellers. The other workers have obviously only done one part of it “Advanced Offensiveness”.