Yesterday we made our way from Sigulda to Gulbene, a two-and-a-half hour bus ride, thankfully air-conditioned. As we drove north-east, I enjoyed sitting back and watching the countryside. Latvia has a gentle beauty with pine and birch forests everywhere. Driving further and further from the capital city Riga, one feels like one is moving into a simpler and humbler way of life. Buildings in general are a little more run-down, although there are clearly lots of restoration projects happening everywhere. The nineteen years of recovery from Soviet rule have perhaps moved a little more slowly in the countryside than in the cities. As we drove by all of these beautiful forests, my feeling of being rooted here began to deepen.
Gulbene is a small town in the province of Vidzeme. Wikipedia says that the Gulbene district has a population of about 30,000, which is the size of Stratford, Ontario. I believe the actual town is more like 6,000 inhabitants or so. Interestingly though, like Stratford, Gulbene's symbol is a swan; which is in fact the meaning of the word "gulbis". Again, like Stratford, Gulbene has a lot of history tied in with the railroad industry.
We were met at the bus by a relative (nth cousin, however many times removed) whom I had never met before. In fact, he boarded the bus and asked for me by name! He then took us to our hotel a few blocks away and gallantly unloaded our ridiculously heavy suitcases. At the exact moment that he was doing so, a colleague from his amateur theatre group was walking by and was enlisted to carry one of the suitcases up the stairs to the third floor.
After settling in, we later met up again and were given a grand tour of the surrounding area. This was something I had been looking forward to for some time. My maternal grandfather grew up near Gulbene, near the village of Stameriene. The land which had belonged to my great-grandparents was taken over during Soviet times, and the house was demolished. Now that Latvia is once again free, that land has come back into my family's possession. I was very interested in exploring it, and had a romantic vision of standing on that land and somehow feeling some deep epiphany of belonging or such. To reach the property, my cousin drove his Mazda over fields, stopping to dismantle a barbed wire fence or two on the way. He parked amidst a few unimpressed cows (guess they weren't fans of the Katy Perry song blaring on his radio) and we got out to wade through the long grasses into the woods. It's an impressive and beautiful piece of land, again with tons of straight and tall pines and birches, but of course there are no paths, nothing cleared; the only hint of civilization is the wooden sign my dad made and hung on a tree a few years ago with the name of the property: Brikšni. (Yes, it's still there.)
Unfortunately, the "Ah" moment didn't have a chance to come to me, as I was fairly busy minding branches, holes in the ground, tree roots, etc. as we hoofed it through the woods. We came to a clearing at the far end of the property and were ransacked by mosquitoes. That probably would have been the moment of basking in the awesomeness, but I couldn't get back to the car fast enough. In the space of less than a minute, I must have been bitten 45 times! Stupidly, I didn't even stop to pick up a souvenir pine cone. But at least, I can now envision the place, and next time I'm in Latvia I'll be sure to arrive properly clothed and bug-sprayed for a wilderness experience.
We were also driven to and through the village of Stameriene. I've heard this name so many times, but had no impression of it. But now, being there, I did feel the wonder of how my grandpa long ago spent time here growing up. There seem to be many old buildings that have withstood all the time and turmoil. This helped me to imagine what the place must have been like a century ago. Extraordinary.
We were also taken to the Stameriene cemetery, where we laid flowers from our host's garden and ferns from Brikšni on the grave of my great-grandparents. Apparently, this grave is a somewhat approximate guess as far as the actual location goes due to the tumult and upheaval of Soviet times. Again, quite a moving experience nonetheless.