Tag Archives: Valmiera

What Was, What Will Be

Post-war Valmiera, Latvia today, as seen from above. (Source: LSM.LV)

“This was my home.” This was my  friend . . . my dog . . . my car . . . my job . . . my father . . . my daughter. These were the statements of loss that I heard at the start of the new video that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, released on CNN during an interview with Fareed Zakaria. Each was accompanied by gut-wrenching footage from the unconscionable war that Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was waging against civilians. Just as it was about to become unbearable, the statements and imagery changed. “We will win,” Zelenskyy said with complete conviction. “There will be new cities. There will be new dreams. There will be a new story. There will be, there’s no doubt. And those we’ve lost will be remembered. And we will sing again, and we will celebrate anew.”  Even as Mariupol, his nation’s tenth largest city, seemed set to be wiped off the face of the earth.

I understood that sort of loss. Valmiera, a town in Latvia, was founded in the 13th century and has seen its share of invaders and occupiers. It was devastated during the Livonian War (1558–1583), which was fought for control of Old Livonia (now Estonia and Latvia) by the Tsardom of Russia against a shifting coalition of the Dano-Norwegian Realm, the Kingdom of Sweden, the Union (later Commonwealth) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. Then  burned to the ground during the Great Northern War (1700–1721), where a coalition led by Russia ended the supremacy of the Swedish Empire in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. During World War II, Valmiera was captured by the German Army (July 1941) and placed under the administration of Reichskommissariat Ostland, only to be recaptured  (September 1944) by the Russian Army during the Riga Offensive. And again burned to the ground. That occurred less than a month after I was born and my parents and maternal grandmother managed to get me out of there.

I also understood that sort of optimism—up to a point. The residents of Valmiera, one of the longest-inhabited regions of Latvia, must have had it. During the 18th century, it became the district center and saw rapid economic growth during the 19th century. And, during the first quarter of the 20th century, became a cultural and educational center, as well. That trend continues, with Valmiera being one of the four Latvian cities short-listed for the title of the 2027 European Capitals of Culture. But each time that it was rebuilt, some loss remained. Particularly the most recent reconstruction, which occurred during the 46-year period (1944-1990) when Russians occupied, then annexed my independent nation as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and left the sad imprint of Stalinist architecture.

Before his death in 2018, Egons Tālivaldis Ziediņš, a teacher who spent his whole life in Valmiera, wrote in “Neapbedīsim Valmieras vēsturi” (“Let’s Not Bury Valmiera’s History,” my clumsy translation):

There are few residents walking along Valmiera’s streets these days who still see what is no longer there. Stopping at the unsightly Culture Center, those who do probably remember that one of the finest buildings in town was located at the corner where Ziloņu Street turns off Rīgas Street and housed the Ustupa and Bundžas ready-made clothing store as well as Eizentāls’ delicatessen.  And that the entrance to the Pūriņa cinema “Splendid” was across the street. As was the Dūņa building, where a bookstore was situated that usually carried one of the pre-war Valmiera publishers—Konrads Vanags, the son of Miķels Amālijs, head of the Šana Society .  And then there was Pūkas Corner, named after one of the shops—the center of Old Valmiera with a police officer standing there since Diakonāta Street intersected with Rīgas Street at that point, and Jurģu Street led down to the Gauja bridge.

Well, the old Valmiera was not rich in ancient architectural masterpieces since most of the structures only dated back to the 19th and 20th centuries. But together they formed a distinctive cityscape that was memorable because it was unique to the area. All this once was and then was not, and now the center of Valmiera is much more open and modern.

It is a genuine pleasure to see that we are taking good care of Valmiera, that it is increasingly well-kept  and beautiful. However, there is one “but.” The architecturally uniform, uninteresting  structures that emerged during the post-war period do not remain long in one’s memory. They could be in any other place in Latvia. I have often had to show foreigners around the town, and it always depressed me when I wondered where to take them. Inevitably, perceptible boredom soon appears on their faces. “Well, you have built a new city here after the war but seem to have given little thought to making it special. Why have you left all your buildings so bare?”

Before Zelenskyy’s video, I felt disconnected from Valmiera. When I reflected on my past, the capital city Rīga usually came to mind. That was where my mother and her ancestors lived.  Where my father, although born near Cēsis, attended university and started his literary career. And Vecāķi,  a resort town on the Baltic Sea where my maternal grandmother had a large summer house.  We were only living in Valmiera because my father was sent there to perform administrative duties during the German occupation in between the first and second Russian occupations. And I was less than a month old when we were forced to flee. But after I cried for what Ukraine once was and, as Zelenskyy bravely predicted, will be again even as its cities were being shelled by the invading Russians, I cried—the first time in my long life—for Valmiera. And for what Latvians like me lost there.

“This was my birthplace,” I said through my tears. Built amid a forest of fir trees on both banks of the Gauja river. This was my father’s car, which he kept the Germans from stealing by bringing the tires inside to his bedroom when it was not in use. This was my father’s office, where he pinned a new piece of doggerel satirizing his Nazi superiors to his lampshade each night before leaving. This was my mother’s office, where she worked as his assistant and did her best to keep him from getting killed. This was the site where they were wed, possibly the town hall. I was well on the way and it was wartime, so she wore a plain dark dress. But carried a sheaf of yellow daffodils.

 

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My Many Names

Ibsen’s  controversial character “Nora,” first seen in the 1879 production of A Doll’s House, remains relevant today.  (Photo: Old Globe Theater)

There was a time when I had two birthdays, one in the winter and another in the summer. The winter one was a Latvian nameday, but that didn’t matter to me since it was celebrated the same way, with presents and a cake. The American kids that I met had never heard of such a thing. Nor had they heard of my name. Originally “Ilze,” it had been changed to “Ilse” by the time that my parents and I became naturalized citizens of the United States. I sort of liked it since it was a variant of “Elizabete,” which was my maternal grandmother’s name. And Oma more or less raised me since my mother worked a lot. What I didn’t like was that my mother was called “Elza,” which she changed to “Elsa.” Americans pronounced my name like her’s and assumed that we had the same name. What I liked even less was having my name pronounced “Elsie.” That belonged to the Borden Dairy Company’s mascot, and my classmates got a kick out of calling me “Elsie the Borden Cow.” Even though I wasn’t the least bit bovine.

Fortunately, my mortifying moniker was dropped well before I took my seat at the cool kids’ table. Still I never lost the feeling that meeting people for the first time involves unpleasantness. Particularly when my name is read, not heard. It doesn’t help that the first two letters–“Il”–look similar. So I try to cut those calling me “Ise” or “Lse” some slack. I even avoid correcting those who haven’t a clue how to pronounce a short “e” at the end of a word. After all, they consistently screw up “Porsche.” But I draw the line at people with no sign of a reading disorder turning dyslexic at the sight of my name. Surely they can see that I don’t resemble a tract of land surrounded by water, which is what “Isle” means. So when those types then ask how my name should be pronounced, I say, “Pretty much how it’s spelled.” And to those who then exclaim, “What an unusual name!” I respond, “Not really.” At last count, “Ilze” was the only given name of some 12,226 females in little Latvia alone. And there are the countless others called “Ilse” in the rest of Europe and beyond. As well as several rivers, an asteroid and a plant. But no islands, as far as I can tell.

Choosing a research career made me more apprehensive. Somehow, I kept coming across data that showed that strange names put people at a disadvantage. As far back as 1948, a Harvard study found that men with unusual names were likely to flunk out or display signs of neurosis. Subsequent studies showed that names could affect nearly every aspect of life. While some conclusions had to be withdrawn due to methodological flaws, findings on name-signalling—what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere and socioeconomic status—remained robust. Even when siblings with different names but of the same background were used. Moreover, changing names was found to have beneficial effects. Stockholm University economists, for instance, found that re-named immigrants made an average of 26 per cent more in wages than those who kept their original names. I wondered why I’d only assumed my husband’s Scottish surname when we married and retained it when we divorced when I could’ve easily changed my given name on either occasion.

What stopped me, I suppose, was how my family might react. But even after my grandmother and father died and my mother came to live with me in Maryland and told me that she, too, had never liked her name, I did nothing. Even after I’d started writing and, at least, could have picked a pen name. The basic reason was that no other name felt right. I knew that since I’d systematically considered every imaginable possibility. I had lots of time during my daily commute to and from Washington, DC, where I worked as a NASA and Defense Department consultant. It was 80-some miles and included three of the worst bottlenecks in the nation, I went from “A” to “Z” for several days, dismissing most. “Anna” wouldn’t work since it was reserved for my nascent novel, Anna Noon”“Zelda” was as weird as “Ilze” and too closely associated with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s schizophrenic wife. In the end, only one name remained: “Claire,” a Latin word meaning “clear” in the French feminine form. It described how I saw myself at the time, which was open and transparent. And brought me back to the Sixties, when I devoured New Wave films such as Claire’s Knee.

While I never did anything with “Claire,” the process reminded me how much effort it takes to name a child. And how little was expended on me. I don’t know what I expected since neither my conception nor my parents’ marriage was planned. And my father, at least, assumed that I’d be a boy based on the size of Mom’s baby bump. He’d even started to call me Maks,” meaning “Max,” Which had a rakish ring I liked when learning about it later. But after seeing me ex utero, my father knew that he had to find a female name for the registry. And fast. Fortunately, a friend—a fraternity brother and drinking buddy, no doubt—had recently named his newborn. So, why not call me “Ilze,” as well? I know that we were in the middle of World War II. That the Soviet Army was advancing. That Valmiera, the city where my parents were sent to work and where, by chance, I was born, was about to be burned to the ground. Still, it might’ve been nice if someone had done more than merely name me after some random baby.

It took 60-some years for me to learn that someone had given my name some thought. Shortly after her 90th birthday, my mother casually mentioned that she never intended to name me “Ilze.” That, even in the womb, she’d called me “Nora.” After the iconoclastic character in Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist play A Doll’s House. Only she’d never said a word to my father. At first, I was furious. Then, I allowed that she, like others living amid political turmoil, had made a habit of keeping her cards close to her chest. Still, I couldn’t help feeling unduly cheated. Having a familiar, pronounceable name like “Nora” would have made life in the States much easier. More than that, it would’ve made me more secure in my identify, even my place in the world. Instead of feeling that I was a disappointment to my family because I struggled against societal constraints every step of the way, I could’ve felt that this was what I was meant to do. I might have even seen my mother’s disinterest in teaching me what I needed to know to be a wife and mother as something more than mere neglect. Of course, I kept these thoughts to myself. Instead, I imagined how my mother might’ve shared her hopes and dreams with me as a one-month-old infant in my first short story, “Making Soup.”

It took a contentious presidential campaign to convince me that I never needed some name change to empower me. In writing my essay “No Big Deal” about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I referenced some remarkable women on both sides of my family whose accomplishments dated as far back as the Nineteenth Century. And my native land, which installed the first female president back in 1999. As to the careless way that I was given my name, a big brown beard celebrating both her birthday and her nameday in January took care of that. She just happened to live in a nature preserve in Līgatne, Latvia, which is less than 12 miles from Cēsis, where my father grew up on the family farm. And my father—in fact, most family members that I knew—used the diminutive “Ilzīte” unless I did something to deserve the severe-sounding “Ilze.” And “Ilzīte” just happened to be the bear’s name, and it so perfectly conveyed how lovable bears could be that I almost cried. Then cried for real when I remembered that all of my immediate family members were gone, and no one had called me “Ilzīte” since my cousin in England died five years ago. 

Celebrating a birthday, then a nameday. (Source: Līgatne Nature Trails)

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