Ilze Berzins

Thanks to Juris Kaza for his photo called Sunny Riga. This reminded me so much of the time I lived on Čaka Iela that I decided to transcribe some passages from my book HAPPY GIRL.

When I first arrived in Riga I stayed at the “korporacija” house called TALAVIJA.

But then my days at Talavia were drawing to a close. I had by now my puppy Happy, my cat Sweety, and all my stuff from Canada. The tiny room was crammed full –kitty litter and puppy and myself and bits of food. I had installed a hotplate on which I experimented with tough little pieces of meat but in no way could this be called home. I craved a kitchen and a wall to put up the few paintings that I had shipped to Latvia.

Egija, the caretaker’s wife at Talavia, started looking at ads in the paper and made phone calls. We both knew that my foreigner accent would have given me away and that any prospective landlord would ask three times the going rate. To my surprise many of the ads read: “For foreigners only.” Tthe hope was that these foreigners would eventually buy the apartment and the landlord would have cash and no landlord worries. Who but foreigners would have extra thousands of  American  dollars to purchase an apartment?

So here was Egija looking for a place for her “cousin.”

“Tikai ne bandita rajona,” cautioned Arnis, her husband. Well,it seemed to me that all neighbourhoods were bandit neighbourhoods. There were no foreigner enclaves. Embassy staff usually lived at the heavily guarded embassies.

Eventually Egija and I chose an ad to follow up on. An appointment was made with my prospective landlord, called Ivo.

Ivo sizes me up, ordinarily dressed as I was, and says:

“You’re a foreigner. Just look at you.”

Everything changed in a heartbeat and a new set of rules was established. Ivo will rent to me for one year at a reduced price. The deal is that I will renovate at my cost and then buy it at his cost. Ivo has in mind a metal door. He tells me how dangerous the place is. Well what place in Riga isn’t dangerous, I say to myself trying to look on the brighter side of the apartment issue. I could see Ivo’s greedy little mind working.

“She’ll renovate and then leave (all foreigners leave) and I’ll have a great apartment where I can live myself.”

“Okey-Dokey,” I assure Ivo.

I move in hauling everything up to the sixth floor. It’s late November.

Reality hits.

There is no water. Never mind hot water. There is NO WATER !

“Nu, ja,” Ivo says when I scream bloody murder.

“These are very old buildings. The pump was never intended to service twenty people per apartment (Soviets packed people in like sardines—one family per room).

“You can put in your own pump,” says Ivo.

“Right, Ivo. I’ll be supplying water for the whole house,” I say to myself.

“That’s the idea,” Ivo doesn’t say, but that’s what he means.

“Hot water?” I ask foolishly.

“Nu ja, it’s permanently turned off because there are debts.”

“But you can put in a boiler,” he adds.

Ivo is young. He has just inherited a building he can’t possibly maintain. Every young entrepreneur’s dream is that some fool foreigner who will make him rich. All the better that the fool be a woman. Easier to intimidate.

So Ivo thought before he met me.

I decided to stay in Ivo’s house until the Christmas holidays were over. There was some water late at night. I start getting up at two in the morning to fill the tub. Then in the morning I would boil a kettle and make a tiny bath in a pan of water. I lived like this in Paris, in my “chambre de bonne”, without squawking– but that was over thirty years ago. And then in Paris there were public baths where I could go to wash my hair once a week.

Towards the end of November the days got dramatically shorter. It was exciting for me. It was the first time that I had experienced this mystical night-shroud gradually moving in on everything and extinguishing the day. People lit candles in shops and at workplaces.

On the first Sunday of Advent, I lit the first candle on my Advent crown and put it in the window.

A month after I had moved in Ivo noticed that I had not yet installed a metal door nor had I put in a water pump nor had I bought a boiler.

This upset the young entrepreneur. He decided that I would be no good to him as a tenant and immediately embarked on terrorist tactics, with which I was already familiar. Unscrewing fuses no longer worked. Further fiddling also didn’t work because I had learned a thing or two about fuse boxes from Janis, my previous landlord.

Finally, one cold dark afternoon, I put my key in the lock. The key turned, but nothing happened. The door wouldn’t open.

To my horror I realized that the door has been nailed shut from the outside!

All my stuff was in there, including Sweety, my kitten. Luckily I had my dog Happy with me. Had I been inside, sleeping, they would have entombed me. No telephone, no fire escape. And no one ever  paid attention to screams.

As fast as I could I ran to Talavia, to my friends Egija and Arnis. We telephoned my English students at Good Year Tire.

Within an hour, my brigade arrived: a van, three guys and a couple of crowbars.

Two hours later the door had been ripped open, all my stuff packed into the van and back we came to Talavia. Thank Goddess there was a vacant room.

So long Ivo! Have a nice life.


2 Responses to “DIGS”

  1. Frank writes:

    Here you were looking for the romantic life in Riga! Then you met harsh reality in post Soviet Latvia. actually it has always been hard to live in a big city as an immigrant. No matter that this was the home of your ancestors and the land where you were born. Contrast that to sunny Florida!

  2. ilzeberzins writes:

    Thanks for your comment, Frank.

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