Friday, October 29, 2010

Where I grew up

I arrived in Riga from Washington to find the snow which melted in couple hours letting still to enjoy colors of autumn leaves. So far it has mostly been raining (or wet snow) with some wonderful exceptions of bright sunshine, allowing me to take some pictures of my native city.

 Riga does not have a central plaza. In 1990 part of the street near The Freedom Monument was closed to traffic and that made a central plaza for public gatherings.
The Freedom Monument is dedicated to "Fatherland and Freedom", erected 1935 (author K. Zale) it is 42 m high and has a nickname Milda for a woman holding three stars that represent three parts of Latvia. During Soviet times this monument was considered for demolition but the prominent Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina, who was born in Riga and was a student of K. Zale, is credited for saving it. 

These houses in Old Riga were built against the medieval city wall.
This is one of the favourite spots for postcard pictures and paintings of Old Riga
Part of old city wall which at some point was nicely restored but now is "getting old" again

I love to walk in Old Riga to find houses nicely restored.
It is clear that tourist season is over, also some of my favourite places on this street has disappeared due to current economic crisis.

This is the house where my family lived until 1961.There has always been a store on the first floor. This was the first store in my life where I did shopping - my parents sent me down to buy a bottle milk which I proudly bought and was carrying back but dropped on a door step and the glass bottle broke. I guess this unfortunate first experience with shopping left lasting impact on me - I still do not like shopping. There is an earlier story about me and this grocery store. The most expensive sweets there were truffles wrapped in golden paper like a little parcels.I never was a big candy lover, but that one time I decided that I must have a truffle. I had seen adults at neighbour's party eating them with after dinner coffee. I was about 2 or 3 years old at that time. Nobody would allow me to taste coffee (anyway, I knew from some left over drops in cups and glasses that it was bitter and the liqueur with it was just awful). But truffles were something I had not tried and one time I decided not to leave the store until I got one. When my mother had paid for her groceries and continued to ignore my requests for a truffle and instead pulling me by the hand out of the store, I decided to stay there and screamed as loud as I could, "Iwant those truffles!". At least it was what I thought I insisted. I did not know how to pronounce that fancy French name correctly, and there is a Latvian word in folklore not suitable for use in literary language or by a child. My mother blushed and tried to get me out of the store - that of course made me more determined then ever. The ladies in the store were laughing until they cried, and they gave me a truffle. Was it so special as I expected? No, it had a lot of pure cocoa powder around it, and it was a little bitter too. There came a lesson that if you can not get something, maybe it is even not worth longing for it.  By the way, I like only bitter chocolate now.

This is the courtyard of the house we lived. Windows of our room were 2nd and 3rd from left on third floor - the first one which is not in line with others is a window on stairwell. Next two narrow ones are from so called "maid's room", that was used as a pantry for everybody in the appartment. Next one is kitchen window with a little opening on right side that was for "a cold cabinet" - there were no refrigerators in the appartment. We lived in this appartment together with other people. There was an elderly couple who once owned the whole building but now had only two rooms left for them.  It is a mystery to me how they managed to escape "a free trip to Siberia" in 1940 when mass deportations from Baltic States took place. In one of the rooms there was a single woman, director of bread factory. She used to bring occasional pastries for me. Two other rooms were for Professor's family. Prof. Skuja (1886-1983) was a very special person to me. He was my first teacher - taught me to read at the age of 4, taught me that the most valuable thing one can possess is knowledge. He said: "Everything else can be taken away from you, but what is in your head will always be with you and will help you to survive." He knew what he was talking about - he was a doctor and professor but for political reasons had a knowledge of cells in KGB, after 1950 was banned from teaching and forced to retire. He was working on Latin-Latvian-Russian dictionary of medical terms but it was published as "the lifetime work" of somebody else (K. Rudzītis. Terminologia medica in duobus voluminibus („Latīņu-krievu-latviešu medicīnas terminu vārdnīca divos sējumos”). - R. Liesma, 1973. - vol 1 -1039 pages, 1977. -  vol.2 - 866 pages. Those little index cards for the dictionary are very vivid in my memory - I was not allowed even to blow on them. I saw how much time he spent on this work. I do not know the details of the agreement to do the work that will be published by somebody else, but this was my first experience when intellectual property laws were violated, and the feeling of unjustice has stayed with me ever since making me very sensitive to these issues. I could not know at that time that my own work will be published as somebody else's research.
Professor was often my babysitter. We had an agreement that if I let him finish what he had planned for the day, I could sit in his lap and we would go through books together. He taught me anatomy by the age of six and lots of interesting things. He taught me to play chess but I never became too fond of it, I liked checkers much better. Because of him I always wanted to be the best student..We already had moved out of this place when I started to go to school but at the end of each school semester I would come to visit him to show my report card.        

All other rooms inn the appartment had windows on a street side with sun coming in, our room was originally a hallway for the appartment, so this was scene I remember looking out of the window being left home alone when I was sick and my parents had to go to work. There were no cars at that time and walls were grey and dirty because of smoke - there was no central heat, we had wood stoves, and my father was carrying wood up to our appartment from a storage place which was in the other courtyard through the gate in corner.

Sometimes I would be let to go out on my own in the courtyard and then I would violate the rule not to go to the street because there was another door leading to the grey building next to  ours, and I would come out on street through it, walk around the corner and come back to the courtyard. I was scared to be alone on a street but I pushed myself to do it in order to build my selfconfidence that I can do it.
This fenced parking lot used to be a little neighbourhood park with a sandbox and benches around it. This was very close to our place so I would be there often with some of the adults who would chat or read newspapers while I was playing with other children.
To prolong my time outside I was walking back asking questions about the buildings on our way like on this one next to the little park. I was curious about the people living there - who are they, how their appartments look like. I visited tis house couple times when I was in middle school - one of my classmates lived there.
This was the way back home - downhill one block.
I always was fascinated with this corner house
and its continuation on a little side street.
Across from it in the basement/ground floor of this red building was my first "restaurant" - it was a pancake place which was the first place I remember where waitress would come at the table and ask what kind of pancakes would I like. And then we had to wait some time until pancakes would arrive piping hot and crisp with jam and sour cream.
Those two modern buildings are bult on place of two story wood buildings across the street from ours.

This is the next street corner.
Across from the  building above is this three story building which was the newly built furniture store where my mother worked. I liked to go there because they had whole rooms on display and they were so different from the one we lived in. But mostly I liked to sit on the windowseels while waiting for my mother and watch the street. That was so much more fun than looking out the window of our room.
That two story building - I am amazed it still exists - was my day care center. It was just a block away from our appartment, therefore convinient, but it was for Russian speaking children. So I learned Russian very early. Unfortunately my language learning was not very consistent because I was sick a lot.
This is me in 1957 and the day care place is behind me. The next picture was taken in March 1957 and is still my most favorite of me:-) 
Turning on the same corner to the other direction I was taken for a longer walk - usually towards the church you can see at the end of the street.
This was a modern building I guess in 30-ies and still counted as modern and fancy in 50-ies. Pancake place I mentioned before is at the other end of this little street.

I was very happy to see that bending houses around the church are nicely restored.
On the way back from a walk around the church if I was lucky we would stop in shop that was in the building you see in the middle. There were candies plain and fancy, cookies, halva several different kind, pastries, cakes... I would get something very simple but I liked to see that all as a symbol of the life in different world - of the world for people who could eat whatever they desire, who were wearing fancy outfits and would not notice me.
Riga is famous for its Jugendstyle (Art Nouveau) buildings. This one is particularly important as an example of national romanticism at the beginning of 20th century (architect Eizens Laube).
Couple more pictures from the same area for my friends who wanted to see the architecture in Riga.


  1. Cik jauki, bet arī skumīgi ir pēc ilgāka laika apstaigāt bērnības ceļus. Es šovasar biju šokā, jo mana vecā skola ir renovēta un pārbūvēta tā, ka ne atpazīt.

  2. I love this post! I've never been to Latvia, or to Europe for that matter, so the houses are very interesting. I also like the childhood stories that you tell together with the pictures. Please continue to post more pictures and more stories. Some pictures of you as a child would be interesting too!

  3. I will try to find some of my childhood pictures - they are not digital or even in color:-)

  4. My mother corrected me - the elderly couple never owned the building we lived in - the owner was their son-in-law who emigrated to US and now that family got the property back after Latvia gained independence in 1991.
    I also added two of my pictures from 1957:-)

  5. Sveika Daina,
    I heard that you are going to speak at the Latvian Centre in Toronto but unfortunately I am unable to attend. I did look up your fascinating book on the Internet and was amazed. I am a Latvian-Canadian who lives in Ottawa. You may be interested in my recently published book, "The Amber Coast: A Latvian Family's Story" that came out in November 2010. Information about the book and me, the author, is available on the website and also on Latvians Online as well as in a recent review in LAIKS. Of interest perhaps, my husband, Dr. Hubert Zandstra earned his Ph.D. from Cornell. Visu labu, Ilse Zandstra.

  6. Paldies, Ilse,

    I will definitely order your book - you have a very nice webpage. You are from Latvia and you have lived in Ithaca - the world is a small place indeed!Hope to meet you some day...