Latvia Trip, 1999

Eric's place in San Jose makes a good overnight stop before we take off from SFO.

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We show off our "Druviena or Bust" T-shirts


Finnair gets ready for the long flight
Finnair gets prepped for the long flight

Our June 14 non-stop flight to Finland departs on the dot from San Francisco International. It lands in bustling Vantaa airport, Helsinki, exactly ten and a half hours later. Have to give the Finns a lot of credit: the flight is one of the most enjoyable I’ve even been on, crisply on time, the improbably blonde stewardesses efficient and polite, the GPS screen keeping us updated on our progress around the globe. After a bus ride from the airport to the ferry terminal, we board the Linda Line hydrofoil for the 90-minute ride across the Baltic.

The hydrofoil
Helsinki Harbor


And, so it happens, the boat moors on the ancient stone pier instead of the modern terminals further up the coast. I believe this is the original pier from where Uncle Robert and his family made their razor-thin escape from the advancing Russian troops in 1944.

Tallinn Roofs  
Tallinn, Estonia

The ancient church spires of Tallinn greet us as we leave the boat. A local woman takes us under her wing, shows us to the tram, and motions to us where to get off. Language will continue to be a problem in the Baltics, as few locals speak English--their second language is usually Russian.

Off the tram, we walk up the cobblestoned streets of Old Town to Dunkri Street and our hotel. It is now approximately nine on a warm, humid evening. Outdoor cafes bubble with activity. Apparently nobody bothers to sleep during these short summer nights! We give up around midnight to rest our bones in our hostel-like accommodations, but the town will continue to teem with life outside our window for several hours still.

Tallinn compensates us well for our humble lodgings with a great experience of old Europe right outside the front door.

Dunkri Street, in front of the Eeslitall

Medieval stone fortresses and old buildings perch themselves on steep rock faces like so many eagles looking out to sea. Old Town has the traditional narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful old buildings restored in vivid colors. It is difficult to believe that 95% of the city was destroyed in World War II.

Dawn comes around four in this latitude, and we wake up much too early, after a couple of hours’ sleep. We wander around to kill time before the first coffee and pastry shop opens its doors at eight. It’s a long, hungry wait. When the bells ring eight, we find a delightful tea room, Russian Empire vintage, complete with intricately carved wood trim, a hand-painted glass tile ceiling, and gold trim on the windows and walls. I almost expect to meet old aristocracy in their finery, but instead democracy reigns. Street-cleaning women in blue serge uniforms come in for a coffee break, and to our right sits a very smelly older man nursing his morning tea. The

Old Town Tallinn in the early morning sun

cappuccinos are strong and hot, and we point to the sweet rolls under the glass counter. The woman at the counter helps take the right amount of money from Scott’s outstretched hand—we have no idea of the value of the Estonian kronen, affectionately called the Eek.

Our bus to Riga departs on the dot at one in the afternoon. Our plan had been to take the Tallinn-Riga express train, but due to a landslide in Latvia the train won’t be back in service for a good two years, they tell us at the travel bureau. Our other option, to fly to Riga from Helsinki, would have cost us $300 round trip. By comparison, the same distance over water and land comes to $70, and as a bonus we get to see the countryside.

We loved what little we saw of Estonia, and I promise to come back one day. The road soon narrows to two lanes, elegant old stone houses nestled among the pines on each side. The bus makes five scheduled stops plus several unscheduled ones to drop people off. A feature of bus station rest rooms in Estonia is a fee collector, usually a crabby, elderly woman behind a small table by the entrance. She bangs imperiously on the table when, blinded by the sudden darkness, I walk in without contributing my two Eeks. I do so and use the facility, only to find out there is no toilet paper in the stall. I forgot that toilet paper was doled out, square by square, by the imperious fee collector.

The border crossing is an emotional moment for me. The white/maroon Latvian flag flutters in the gentle afternoon

Passport control at the Latvia border

breeze. A devastatingly cute female border guard in crisp uniform boards the bus for passport check. It’s hard to believe that I am here at last. When I was growing up in Brazil, my parents' country was as remote as the moons of Saturn. So there is a Latvia after all!

Our bus hits the road again. The stone houses soon fade in the distance, and the scenery is best described as tedious. The countryside is remarkable for what it does not have—no evidence of cultivation, livestock, chickens, fruit trees, or any sort of mature forest growth. Where IS everybody? We drive 65 miles down the coast, past rolling fields lying fallow, alternating with skinny young pine woods. The dense forests my father Peteris and his brother loved so much no longer exist.

I will later find out that the abandoned countryside is the rule, not the exception, throughout Latvia. Stalin liquidated the kulak class, the so-called “rich” farmers, and nobody was left to tend the land. He intended to mechanize agriculture, but I see only two or three grim stucco mini-cities between the Estonia/Latvia border and the outskirts of Riga. Farming, a whole way of life, the backbone of the old economy, was destroyed forever in a few short years.

Riga is a sprawling city, home to 2.5 million people, half of the population of the country. The population live in row after row of dreary Soviet projects, apartment buildings devoid of any hint of beauty or grace. Balconies on the better ones are faced with rusting corrugated steel roofing.

Once at the Riga bus terminal, we take a taxi to the Radi un Draugi, a hotel run and frequented by Brits (we will later find out that it’s much shorter to walk). The Radi was highly recommended by our Lonely Planet book, and it is quite a bit cheaper than the high-rise, pseudo-luxury, shoddy Soviet-era Latvija Hotel with its eight-foot ceilings and dirty windows After checking in, we call for the elevator, and when the door opens, who comes out but the foursome of Jan and Pat, Tim and Anne, four friendly faces to welcome us. We spend an hour catching up on our different routes to this same spot before heading out to dinner. It is wonderful to be doing this trip with family

Druviena trip. The group going to Druviena has shrunk to six: Tim and Anne, our Latvian cousin Gaida, our interpreter Bill Brastins, myself and the driver. Jan and Pat stay behind because Jan’s back is hurting, and Scott was not overly interested in a long trip into the Latvian countryside. The drive to Gulbene takes three hours, over mostly unchanging landscape. Another two hours’ drive would take us to the border with Russia. Once in Gulbene, we stop for lunch at a bar/night club/eatery decorated in the Russian style, complete with brass railings, brass curtain rods, and red velvet curtains with filmy white drapes underneath. No English spoken! I ask the waitress at the bar for the “toiletten”—why do I think they understand German better than English?-- and she pours me a Coke. Lunch for the six of us comes to US$20, including a round of cappuccinos.

After a couple of further inquiries by Gaida, we finally locate the castle, more of a manor house, really. It is now a ruin, though I try to imagine the scene at the turn of the century: carriages at the gate, the rich parading in their finery, uniformed guards standing at attention on each side of the big door. In the States, the building would be boarded off, such is the state of decay. The door frames are cracked and seemingly about to give out under the weight of the brick and stucco structure above. Fallen plaster, chips of paint from the walls, pieces of paper and the dust and rubble of fifty years line the grand entrance. The steps to the basement, described by Robert, have been used as a public toilet.

We find the basement windows Robert talks about, through which Karlis strained to get a glimpse of his family. I envision the crowds of smelly, haggard prisoners craning their necks to see out. It is painful to imagine the heartbreak for Karlis, a lover of land and soil, when winter turned into spring and all he could do was to peek out from his basement dungeon

The Lutheran church where our grandfather was tried and sentenced is located across the road. It is a plain, white wooden structure, large enough to accommodate a congregation of 200 or so. The entrance is boarded off right now; the bell tower was shot down and is being rebuilt. The church property is accessed over a bridge, and the church lies within the two branches of the creek. There isn’t much room behind the church for a mass burial, and I surmise that the executions and burials were carried out in the field beside the castle.

Gaida wants us to see the House of Screams, where prisoners were taken to be interrogated. I really don’t know why, because the building itself has been torn down, and speaking for myself, I wouldn’t want to see it anyway. A stone with a Latvian inscription marks the site. The House of Screams was so named by the terrorized local population.

After a detour back into the town of Gulbene, where we meet with the local committee in charge of the castle, we head down the road to Tirza. Before we get to the church, Bill Brastins, our interpreter and friend, asks to stop at an ancient spring whose water is reported to give radiant health and endless vitality. To Anne’s dismay, Tim, Bill and I drink the raw water from the spring. It is truly water of the Gods, the best water I have ever tasted anywhere.

Anne reminds us that Karlis was a member of the Lutheran congregation in Tirza, so that’s where we go next. The white Tirza church lies on a grassy knoll, shaded by huge old trees, probably elm or alder. So something other than pines grows in Latvia! What a beautiful spot, despite the reminders of war. The columns that announce the entry to the church are pocked with bullet holes. Everything in this country has bullet holes.

Our next stop is the Druviena cemetery and our grandfather’s grave. The inscription in the 1937 photograph is still there, carved into the granite. Over time, the letters faded to the same color as the stone and all but disappeared. Karlis’ photo, embedded in the stone, was shot off. Anne says he was executed all over again, but truth is usually more banal. I imagine that the photo was used for target practice by soldiers on their day off. I make an imprint of the edges of the photo. Perhaps I can order a replacement.

Tim and Anne manage to shoot a few photos while fighting off voracious mosquitoes. Gaida meanwhile tends the grave of her two nieces who died within a week of each other. I wonder what their story was. Everybody in this country has a tale to tell.

We are delighted that the elementary school in Druviena has been preserved as a historical museum. Just as my father Peteris described, there are two classrooms, first year children to one side, second through fourth on the other side. The wooden chests where the boarding kids stored food for the school week are lined by the entrance. The desks are obviously of 1900’s vintage, complete with childish carvings. I look for my father’s name but, even though he was a real rascal, I guess he refrained from carving his name. On the side of the classroom is a refectory. Wooden bowls and worn-out wooden spoons sit on the table. On the wall is a schedule of classes for 1912, meticulously logged by hand on yellowed paper.

On our way out of Druviena, after a few inquiries, we find what we think was the family farm. The place has a pond and could have had two ponds eighty years ago, the shallow one having filled with marsh growth over the decades. The countryside is open and expansive, rather different from what I envisioned. A lone farm house stands exposed to the winds—where is Karlis’ sweet scented lilac and the gnarled old maple tree? A few cabbages in back of the house, and a plot of peas, two hundred square feet at most, are the only evidence of cultivation. A little old lady emerges from the farm house. Someone has chopped a large pile of wood by the barn, so a man must live here too, though he probably holds a menial job in Gulbene and comes here to sleep. I am not totally sure this was the farm, but I muse, it doesn’t make any difference anyway. They all look the same.

How would one go about farming again, in this desolate country? Where would one go to buy seeds, fruit trees, farm equipment, fertilizer, tools? Worse still, will the young people clutching their cell phones in the streets of Riga ever choose to lead the tough life of a farmer? I think not. Karlis’ way of life is gone forever.

We visited the War and Occupation Museum this morning, reputedly the best of the several war museums in Riga. The first exhibit is a reconstruction of a Siberian labor camp barracks. Besides the wooden bunk beds is a coal-burning stove, and next to it, what passes for toilet. It is one-half of an oil barrel, with a crude wooden plank for a seat. The stench was said to be unbearable.

The museum is a wrenching experience. My uncle Janis, a good man and brave soldier, was among those who died in the camps. My cousins Aina, Gaida, and Skaedra spent eight years of their lives in a labor camp. To maintain sanity, prisoners carved elaborate chess sets out of scrap wood or kept detailed records of daily activities, painstakingly penciled onto paper scraps. I cringe at photos of tortured bodies—a deformed face has an eye gouged out. Another grotesquely swollen face grimaces at me, its teeth knocked out. A torture cubicle comes equipped with a drain for the spilled blood.

Enough of pain. In the afternoon, we attend a lovely concert at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Performers outnumber the audience! They play the organ and sing Bach, Messiaen, and Cesar Franck. I’m impressed by the musicality of Latvians. They play to small crowds or even to nobody, apparently for the sheer joy of making music. Now it makes sense that my parents bought us girls a piano, at a time when there was barely enough to feed the family. The experience of sweet young female voices in a soaring chapel, superimposed on the Occupation Museum images of this morning, is almost more than I can bear. Despite fifty years of oppression and humiliation, my fellow Latvians can still sing like angels.

We pass a string trio of street musicians—violin, viola, and cello--playing by the side entrance to St. John’s Church, in a cobblestone passageway. Riga musicians hold themselves to very high standards. These three could be playing in a concert hall anywhere in the world. The music is haunting. They play for hours on end, and we see them every day. It is difficult to tear oneself away from the music.

The cobblestone streets of Old Town Riga jog in all different and crazy directions. It is easy to get lost here; at the end of six days I’m still not quite sure of my way around. Sidewalks are cracked and uneven. Sewer smells waft from every other corner. Fifty years of Communist paradise have left Latvia without an infrastructure. One street by the edge of Old Town is closed to traffic to install a new sewer, and we sense the urgency. Workers are on duty at 10 PM on a Sunday.

The old town is being restored by bits and pieces. Crumbling buildings are draped with safety netting rather than scaffolding, but safety is not a major concern as it would be in the US. For example, as we sit in a modern, friendly cafejnica for a couple of espressos, we stare out the window at the dilapidated building across the street. A large piece of sheet metal, probably two to three feet square, is precariously jammed into a second story window. It could fall off and slice a pedestrian’s head in half any time soon.

At the outskirts of Old Town Riga we find the ubiquitous McDonald’s arches. It’s the only eatery open at 7 AM, but it sells no breakfast items except for coffee. People line up to pay one-lati ($1.60) for a Big Mac. at 7AM.

The six of us are invited for a visit to Gaida’s, about twenty minutes by taxi from the center of Riga. She lives in the back of the back of a large stucco house. At first, I think she must be pretty well off, then I find out that the house where we are entertained belongs to Sandra, her daughter-in-law, who rents from the family with the big house. Gaida and her husband live in two tiny rooms in the back of Sandra’s place. I don’t think Gaida’s two-room spread has running water or a toilet. The only bathroom we are invited to use is the size of an airplane bathroom. The toilet bowl is pre-war vintage, dilapidated, smelly, and it no longer flushes, if it ever did. We flush with a pan of water from a pail that sits by the side of the toilet. There is no sink and no way to wash one’s hands.

We are offered soda or Latvian berry tea (no thanks!), strawberries, and chocolates while we sit in the living room of Sandra’s house. After an hour or so of chatting and admiring the photos I brought, we file out to the yard for the meal. A large picnic table sits under an old apple tree. The surroundings are lovely, with flowers, grass, and shade trees. I send a mental prayer of thanks that I didn’t pig out on the chocolates and strawberries, because the table groans with smoked chicken, smoked pork, sliced home-made caraway cheese, tuna salad, potato salad, a mayo-based salad of peas and carrots, pirogi, open faced salmon sandwiches, pickles, two kinds of bread. Pat mistakenly takes a big bite of a white sliced substance that looks like sweet pudding, just to find out it’s bacon fat. We drink beer, Fanta, and Coke, as well as the special Latvian tea. Long after we’re totally stuffed, Sandra brings out two kinds of cakes and coffee.

After sitting around for hours and eating myself into a stupor, I am totally ready to leave. Scott sleeps on my shoulder, probably a major faux pas that will dishonor the family for decades. However, Tim’s cell phone rings—it is the third sister, Skaedra. She is a dentist, and she is still at work, two hours away by bus. Will we wait for her arrival? To my chagrin, Tim says yes. After all that food, I need to lie down and take a nap.

Skaedra finally walks in at 4:30. She wears a polyester dress and a light coat. She looks like the matter-of-fact German dentist who ground into my teeth without anesthesia back in Brazil, and my memories of hours of pain don’t help much. Neither does the fact that she rattles on in Latvian, looking tenderly at me, and all I can do is to smile vacantly back.

6/21 The Open Air Museum is one of the sights that everybody says not to miss, so we plan on a visit. The Museum is located in a park just outside Riga, next to a lake. We decide to take a bus like the locals. Bus #1, a two-part vehicle with an accordion joint in the middle, takes us down Brivibas Bulvaris, Freedom Boulevard. The bus is dirty and decrepit. A twenty-minute ride takes us to our destination. However, the dark clouds we saw when we came out of the hotel are by now emptying out in buckets. We hide in the bus kiosk while water flows down the street in muddy streams. I borrow Anne’s umbrella and look for a restaurant, but the only eatery around is a McDonald’s, and we didn’t come to Latvia to eat McDonald’s food. Tim takes the lead and rushes us to the tram for a damp ride back into town. We end up at the Runcis (“Tom Cat”) for a good inexpensive meal, and call it a day.

On Saturday, the four of us (Scott and Pat visited museums instead and took in a concert at the Riga Dom) walk down Brivibas Bulvaris to the main Baptist office/church in town. It is an old, dusty, dark building dating back to the turn of the century. Our mission is to bring the family history and photos to share with the Baptist bishop, who is supposedly writing a book on the Revival movement in Latvia. Tim heard that the bishop would like to see the Tarzier memoirs. In the foyer, we wait for our eyes to become dark-adapted and look around for an information desk, but the only sign of life is a janitor with a broom. After a few moments, a man walks down from another flight of steps to our right. He will turn out to be the bishop, but it is an ambiguous encounter. Surely he knows who we are, clutching our cameras, in our sneakers and shorts. We notice that the man carries a briefcase, and we figure he is probably not a janitor. He stands in front of us, half turned away, avoiding our eyes. Tim speaks first:

“I am Laimon Tarzier. Do you speak English?”

The man replies with another question: “You don’t speak Latvian?”

Tim replies, “No we don’t. We need someone who knows English.”

“You need someone who speaks English.”

This man obviously speaks good English, but he doesn’t offer to help. Tim continues: “We are the Tarziers.”

“I see.”

Tim tries once again: “We have an appointment to meet the Bishop.”

“Yes, I see.”

“Could you lead us to him?”

“It is possible.” But the man just stands there. So do we. For several awkward moments, we utterly don’t know what to say. We turn away to look for someone else who can help, since this man, while not unfriendly, is not offering any assistance, and, with his briefcase, he looks like he’s just about to walk out of the building. Except that he hovers around us.

The Bishop’s show-nothing, feel-nothing demeanor, I muse later, must come from the days of Soviet rule, when identifying yourself to offer anything besides inane, vacant agreement could cost one’s life. Eventually, he owns up to being the Bishop himself and leads us down a short flight of steps into the chapel. The chapel is a grim, cold room lined with hard wooden benches with straight backs, the Baptist sinner seating I know all too well. We huddle in a corner, rather awkwardly because the benches are lined up in rows as they would be for a service. Rather than to form a long string of people, Jan and I take a seat in the next row, but now we must twist around to participate in the conversation. My back won’t take this for long without screaming.

The Bishop, it turns out, is done writing his book, which is now in the hands of the publisher. Apparently he does not need any information from us. In fact, he proudly pulls out of his briefcase a couple of old envelopes, from which he digs out two yellowed, dog-eared half sheets of paper with pencilled information about Robert Tarzier of Tennessee and Pedro Tarsier of Porto Alegre, Brazil. He rattles off his information, dates of arrival abroad, marital status, children, and so on. His information, albeit minimal, is accurate.

Having finished his book, he does not seem interested in anything we have to say. We thought he needed our information for his book, he assumes we need information for our book. The conversation, then, is awkward for a while. We talk for about three quarters of an hour. Towards the end of our interview he relaxes at last. Tim asks,

“What is it like for Baptists, now that the country is free to worship? How about yourself, how is it for you?”

The bishop replies with remarkable candor, “Well, you know, in Soviet times I trained myself to fight against repression. Now that we are free, I need to change my ways and learn to fight, not against, but for something. But I am an old man, too old to change.” He is sixty-two.

We wave the family memoirs around a few times. The Bishop makes no move to thumb through the book. Towards the end of our talk, Tim takes the direct approach: “Are you interested in seeing the material we have?” The Bishop replies hurriedly, “Yes, yes, of course.” The moment is strained, because I am suddenly possessed with an unfamiliar stubbornness. I do not want to leave our precious manuscript with him. Having worked on it for years, it feels like my child, and to judge from the Bishop’s utter lack of interest, I know he will drop the book into a file drawer without cracking a page. After a brief discussion: do we xerox sections? Do we leave the whole manuscript?—I prevail. I don’t want to leave any of it with this sorry, damaged human being. Not now.

Next day we pack our bags and say our good-byes. We are the first to leave. Pat and Jan will depart in a couple of days, Tim and Anne will stay on a while longer. We walk to the bus station a few blocks away, Tim and Anne coming along to see us off. Scott and I will retrace our steps to Tallinn and spend the night in Helsinki before flying back to the US early tomorrow. It has been a good visit to the old country, the Latvia of my ancestors.

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