Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Some things I learned today

[Sandis Rainis, national poet and playwright of Latvia]

I knew from Lonely Planet that during the Soviet era lots of Russians came to Latvia for the jobs. And forgot to leave when Latvia became independent in 1989. They are 45% of the population and more than half of the million-or-so population of Riga.

What wasn't in Lonely Planet was that about ten thousand of the "Russians" are Jews. The pre-war Jews of Latvia were murdered to a man, woman, and child. But today, the Jews of modern Latvia are renovating their synagogue. It is like, all of Latvia, being restored. It has a beautiful jazzy Pharoah-onic Egypt theme, appropriate for its reopening for Pesach.

There is even a kosher restaurant here.

It is true as I expected that the German and Russian armies and artilleries and bombers destroyed the country during two world wars. What I did not expect is that the country was not rebuilt in an ugly and tedious Soviet style, but was more or less restored to resemble prewar Latvia. This seems an unusual forbearance on the part of Stalin, usually not noted for respecting anybody or anything.

So the Old Town of Riga looks like its Swedish early 18th century self and much of the rest of the city is in 19th century Russian provincial, a not-unpleasing style.

(Writing this in youth bar in Old Town with a wi-fi connection. Learned several things here. One is that it apparently works, at least for one Italian, to claim to be a doctor. Another is that my talent for attracting head cases remains unabated. Fortunately she has left, at least for now.)

If I get out of here soon enough I am off to Jelgava tomorrow.

If not, another day in Riga. Now that I have found out that Zemgale, where my grandfather lived, is in Latvia not Lithuania as I previously thought, I have allocated too much time here.


  1. Jack, it's good to see you getting back to what you do best. I love your travel writing, you go places I would never think or want to go. As long as you're in Latvia, are you going up to Estonia? Can you resist the northern most baltic point? They say Aegviidu is lovely this time of year. or even Vinistu.

    Good travels.


  2. Anonymous12:13 PM

    Jack,you are very lucky to have an exact location of where your father and grandfather lived. I only have a region or district of where my grandparents were born.

  3. Harvey, thanks for the compliments.

    Anonymous, I have pretty much the same problem. Jelgava is a sprawling city of 65,000, the fourth largest in Latvia. There is no obvious old section of town distinct from the rest. I have no idea where to look.

    Tomorrow I am going to drive around aimlessly looking for Victorian era houses.

    Daddy told me that my grandfather was from Zemgale. But that is the province of which Jelgava is the capital and principal town. I think he meant that his father was from the country, not from a town. So I have no idea where to look there either.

  4. There were no Victorians. And only a few old houses. Even these were badly run down. Apparently the Soviet government thought it was better both economically and politically to build new apartment blocks than to maintain old houses.

    Housing under the new order is also new construction but of middle class houses on the edge of town.