Seldom is our summer paradise as tangible as when driving the ten minutes along the four-lane highway from the centre of Riga, into our summer vacation. Already the bridge over the Daugava river, flowing into the Baltic only a few kilometres from here, leads us over the water. A harbinger of the sea, the shimmering waters compete with the blue sky. Waves dance, intoxicated by the joy of summer.
In winter the Daugava lies like a line of separation between the southern part of the city and its centre. Edging our memories of summer into the realms of myth, the cold hard river becomes a worldly Styx that mercilessly pushes us from summer into the dark unfriendliness of winter. The thick blanket of ice robs the river of all movement – not even ice floes can float towards the sea. It is as if the Dagava has sunk into a wintery sleep, dreaming of the sea, of the promise of warmth and the freedom that lies beyond its prison of ice.
Dreaming of summer, in winter one makes one’s way towards Jurmala as if towards a fata morgana. You ask yourself: does this place really exist, or is it merely a dream fuelled by the longing for sun and light? And then you see a single building in the snow – the station lies before you. In summer the trains arrive every minute, spewing bunches of people into summer joy. But today a few figures fight their way through the cold. Yes, this string of villages with its population of around 50000, is also inhabited in winter. And yet the summer retreat seems deserted – hotels are locked, holiday homes and villas forsaken. The pedestrian zones are shrouded in ghostly quiet. The sunken does not merely dampen our footsteps, it strangles the sound completely.
Today the path to the sea, to our summer longing, is not lined with noisy tourists carrying their bags and lilos in front of them like indispensable holiday accessories. Dressed in our thick Russian boots and schapkas, we are the only ones bracing ourselves against the merciless north wind that is trying to chase us away from the sea. “Even the sea needs to recuperate!” it seems to be shouting.
Just as we are about to give up, we reach the beach which is as white as we had remembered it. And the sea too is still there where we once left it. The ice floes gnash, telling their ancient stories of the forces of nature, destruction and transience. This is no whisper. The sound is brutal and loud. Through this cacophony of ice, nature forces us to understand something which we have already known for a long time – this place is no paradise.
Or maybe it is a paradise, a lost one, still burning in many hearts.
Our paradise spans the coastline for almost 40 kilometres. And over time the longing to occupy it, to merge with it, has driven people to build summer homes here – monuments to the deep connection us mortals have with the transience of summer. In Jurmala, the snow white filigreed wooden villas, standing only a few meters from the sea and separated from each other by large gardens and a pine forest, form a kilometre-long seam of upper-class living. These monuments to delight still hold the nostalgic dreams of their previous owners; each one of these villas telling their own stories of being acquired. Of leaving. Of love and loss.
Now it is winter and every door is locked and bolted. The windows shuttered. No light penetrates the interiors; the glittering whiteness is locked out and everything is black. The houses seem to be resting, storing up life for the summer months, conserving their energy. How different everything looks in July and August? And yet, compared to the frenzy of Riga – the white forlornness of this place, its desolation – offers some normality.
I trudge through this winterworld with Ojars, my sentimental friend from Latvia who has joined me reluctantly. He of the big poet’s heart who has swapped poetry for business.
“What are we doing here in this empty desolate place? Our roots are inside us. We won’t find them by looking for connections to the past in a holiday resort.”
We have known this place separately and at completely different times and Ojars doesn’t realise that this familiar place binds us together much stronger than any fleeting love affair.
Growing up under Soviet rule, he experienced it as a typical socialist-style holiday place, a playground where the wealthy could romp about in their summer idyll.
I, on the other hand, only knew this place from the stories told by my Grandmothers Erwine. And from Oma Bella who, with her husband, had built a house here. A house that in its time was filled with life, where the family met to revel in summer pleasures. Here were held house concerts, friends visited from the city and dances. And later there was the futile flight from an increasingly complex world which one could not even escape in Jurmala.
But right now, in the snow and ice, this world opens up to us. Right here in this ghostly, empty place the memories and stories come alive in their huge and seemingly insurmountable contrast to reality.
And it seems as if our memories, created by experiences and by the tales told to us, have not only been written into us, but also into this place.
“If we discover our memories here, we will definitely discover something about the essence of this place.”
Ojars shrugs and braces himself against the wind.
It’s difficult to believe that this snowy landscape has had, and always will have, a sweet summer face. Even the monumental Soviet style architecture that had tried to make its unmistakable mark, could never really force itself onto this place. In this lovely new paradise, prominent members of the Soviet Union spent their summer vacations in sanatoria built for the workers. (Even here one seeks in vain for equality.)
For Ojars’ parents these sanatoria were unknown territory. In nearby Riga they dreamed of holidays at the sea that was only possible for party members and union bosses. But they knew their beloved ocean was close by and even if they seldom got to see it they continued to feel its power and strength.
When Stalin wanted to break the Latvian resistance, Ojars’s grandmother Agathe, like many others, was deported to desolate Kasakstan. In all those years, far away in a dirty cave in Karanga, she dreamt of her Baltic sea. It was this longing that helped her to survive, and after many years of deprivation, brought her back home.
Ojars himself spent many summers in the Komsomol holiday camp in Kemeri. Despite his grandmother and parents’ envy, he did not enjoy himself at all. The deprivations of the previous generations had made him soft and vulnerable. Having to prove that a better life was possible and that all the suffering was worth it, he was not allowed to show anything. So he kept quiet and joined the exuberant Soviet youths at the sea. He marched and learnt all the Socialist aphorisms. If you spoke in Latvian you were immediately chided – so the majority of young people spoke Russian. Anything that was not understood was immediately interpreted as dissent.
My friend does not have any memories of romantic kisses on the white beach. Instead, his memories are of estrangement and rejection. Neither did being close to nature dissolve this loneliness. It made it worse instead.
“And do you know that when we were young we were not allowed to swim in the sea? It was poisoned by the pollution from the factories.”
I can see the 15-year-old boy standing on the beach staring at the dead ocean, his innocence lost to the Four Year Plans of the Soviet economy. Maybe the destruction of the environment was the sad and final ending to the romantic idyll of summer vacations.
Or maybe it was not?
Now we stand in front of one of those empty sanatoria where no one wants to have a holiday anymore. It seems as if they couldn’t find an investor to help sanitize this collapsing monstrosity, and overtaken by history, even demolition was too expensive. The snow lends a touching beauty to this solid block, this late memorial to the Soviet era – and covered in coy white it looks almost embarrassed at its own ugliness. And I can’t help thinking of all the dreams and hopes of those who built this monstrosity.
But Ojars doesn’t want to hear all this. All he sees is the tatty backdrop to a helplessness he had hoped to have left behind.
Pulled towards the dilapidated sanatorium I imagine the Stachanow workers from the Siberian Taiga living here, celebrating, dancing. After having secured the electrification of the mighty Soviet Union, and experiencing the sea for the first time, they solemnly dip their Siberian feet in the water. The Baltic must have been as strange to them as flying about in space was for Leica the dog.
My romantic notions of Soviet summer vacations don’t find any resonance in Ojars, and I sense that even in old age he will not be able to get rid of his youth.
Back at the seashore the blanket of snow crunches beneath our feet and I let my thoughts drift – this sea landscape has shrugged us off so many times, has loaded the losses of several generations onto our shoulders; and now, sharing all these memories and stories of loss seems to create in us an unquenchable longing to merge with a place that carries so much meaning. Being right here in the snow of Jurmala we might be able to find a new beginning that overcomes all the losses suffered by our families. Standing in this place it feels as if fate has brought me here. After all, the expulsion of my family from Latvia does not seem to have been the end of a story – it was merely a pause. And now it can continue with mine and Ojars story. In this windy white landscape with its blurred contours the stories of our families weave into a whole written for this very moment.
Would Oma Bella’s panic stricken flight from occupied Riga have been any easier if she had known that I am standing here today? That there still is a future despite her feelings that all was lost? While she was still alive she was convinced that there never would be as beautiful a place as the one she had created for herself in Jurmala. And this dream of her summer idyll accompanied her all her life. She decided never to drive back to her beloved Jurmala. She would not have recognised the place anyhow – this she was clear about.
Today I see the surviving fragments of the backdrop to Oma Bella’s holiday dreams. After the fall of the Soviet Union they are waking up from their Sleeping Beauty slumber. While next door the Soviet monstrosities crumble, new owners are innocently creating their own summer dreams. History repeats itself but under different circumstances.
And amongst the ruins and the wrecked dreams of his unhappy youth, and in the intimacy of the refuge my family once found here, Oljars too has a glimpse of the happier aspects of his story. My enthusiasm seems to have transferred itself to him.
“Do you still remember where your grandmother’s house is?” he asks. “Just imagine if you could live in this house? Do you think you would feel your family’s presence?”
But these questions are hypothetical because I don’t know which of these white villas belonged to my family. And exactly because I don’t know, I feel at home in these pine alleys and move through Jurmala as if it has always been a part of my real life, as if it had embedded itself into my being since childhood, had nestled itself ineluctably into my brain.
The wind drives us through the snowstorm back to the station. There is nothing more to say. You take my hand. And I take it as more than a proof of love – it is the reassurance of a journey that we have taken together, a journey in which we feasted on the past. A journey that has found its fulfilment in Jurmala, a place that has conquered its past and thereby has given us strength.