Who knew that Latvia had the most Art Nouveau buildings in all of Europe? I surely didn’t. How lovely would it be to live in a wedding-cake house: pastel-colored building decorated with soft shapes, vine leaves, theatrical masks, or lions and angels? Until one steps inside to discover that while the narrow, tall windows are beautiful, they do not let in much light at all. The outside matters more than the inside. And while the inside may be dark, it is certainly decorated.I wonder who lived in all of these houses? Were there enough wealthy Latvians in Riga in the turn of the century, or were most inhabitants of foreign ethnic origin? And what does it feel like to live in a blue-white building watched over by two huge bored long faces? Who ever saw them during a post-opium-laced-tea dream and decided, “I know, I will put them on the roof of my next house – what a grand idea!”?To the contemporary mind, Art Nouveau seems less like new art and more like old art. Perhaps the shapes and the wholeness of the style, from architecture to art, was fresh. But covering a house in white cream the shape of seashells, lions, statues, and vine leaves sounds more rococo than new. Perhaps it was art nouveau that Ayn Rand’s hero architect could not stand in the Fountainhead? I cannot blame him – but I can state that today’s buildings are a bore compared to the whimsy of art nouveau, new art a century old.(Riga, Latvia; February 2016)
There were heaps of sauerkraut and pickled vegetables of all kinds. There were pastries from Latvia and from Uzbekistan, apparently very popular. Piles of pumpkins and other winter vegetables, and towers of spice packages. But the fish market was spectacular. We dug in our memories from elementary school biology class: this is a sturgeon while that is a catfish. This is a pikeperch and that is a bream. Common bream, vimba bream, silver bream, and common roach. Carp, eel, lamprey, char, and salmon. Some dead, but most alive – unfortunately. As we walked through the zeppelin hangars that now are the food market of Riga, I could not help but wonder why, in the midst of all this loveliness, did I have a bowlful of boiled, salted black peas for dinner the night before? It was a “traditional dish” I was told. Very meager, but filling. How immense is the contrast between 800 years of serfdom in poverty and today’s free Latvia?
I could not help but feel for the 800 years of generations of poor laborers who owned nothing and barely ate anything, compared to what the land can really muster to produce, for everybody’s dinner table joy.
(Riga, Latvia; February 2016)
It rained cats and dogs and huge wet raindrops when we left Helsinki. Down South in Riga the water had frozen into wet heavy snow. And it never ended. Our brain break turned into a brain freeze.While it is definitely wrong towards the Latvians, this weekend Riga reminds me of a Russian city snowed under. Something out of a James Bond movie. Wet, heavy snow falling from the gray sky. People with heads covered, hunkered down against the blizzard, hobbling and dragging heavy boots forward on the slushy streets. Old men warming their hands in jacket pockets. And so many old women, going about their grocery shopping in heavy down coats, beret on head and basket on arm. I see no joy in Riga today. No energy, no celebration of life.
And yet one day there will be joy. There will be sunlight, energy, and celebration of life. In our last hour in Riga we caught a glimpse of sunkissed streets, pastel-colored art nouveau houses, the scent of old wood, and the particular echo of cars passing on hot summer streets.
Once upon a cold winter’s night there was a grand house that, if you stepped inside, whisked you back into the roaring twenties. Hot blazing torches welcomed the guests of the night. The most stylish ones arrived in horse carriages of pure light.
There were pearly white balloons floating about. There were strings of pearls cascading down from palm trees, white wispy feathers, and crystal chandeliers. And later there were neverending showers of golden confetti.
There were jazzy pearly ladies floating about. There were more feathers, black ties, and gentlemen who rivaled the great Gatsby in style. And later there was dancing in the showers of golden confetti.
It was a night of celebration and magic. As the guests stumbled back out into the frosty snowy morning, it was a night with two hours of sleep left.
(Ziemeļblāzma Culture Palace, Riga, Latvia; January 2015)
Red velvet, a huge crystal chandelier, and four kilograms of gold make worthy premises for tonight’s performance. How lovely it would be to sit up there on the first balcony when the first tunes for the Barber of Seville shoot into the air. But alas, it was not to be this time.
Upstairs was a gorgeous red room with high windows that was once used as the rehearsal room for the ballet. This time its walls heard the most soulful arias accompanied by a single piano. And this was no rehearsal but a lovely surprise. How lucky we were.
Hello Latvia! Hello Riga, the city of music, art nouveau, and hearty winter food. Yours is one of those artsy chique spirits that is the result of mixed heritage and merchant’s money. Poles, Swedes, Russians, Livonians, Lithuanians, and Germans all left a stroke each on your canvas. Sorry I missed most of it, but I will return soon. Perhaps when your trees are green and your beavers are playing in the river again.