“God help you,” her father says, when Ilze Berzins leaves Canada for a new life in Latvia.
She has been raised on her mother’s nostalgic stories of an idyllic rural life in Beki, the farm that was abandoned when her family fled during the Second World War. Berzins was two years old. Now, more than 50 years later, she has come back to test her mother’s dreams. Happy Girl is a memoir of her experiences.
Berzins is determined to make a place for herself. Evicting the drunken louts she finds camped out in her room when she arrives in Rīga, she begins a series of bitter confrontations over housing. Beki, the family homestead, is devastated and unrecognizable after years of Soviet occupation. The tenants there don’t appreciate her sudden appearance. It is clear that their dislike could turn very ugly indeed. Full of energy at the outset, Berzins acquires and loses a series of jobs and apartments in Rīga—and even makes some friends. Eventually, however, the daily struggles of life in Latvia begin to wear on her. Locals are contemptuous of her desire to live there. She is beaten up by a militia man outside her apartment building while neighbours watch; she receives scant attention when she complains to the police. It’s easy, she says, to start drinking in the mornings in Latvia. Alcohol is a necessary cushion between self and reality.
"Kauns! Kauns!" (Shame! Shame!) people yell at her over any misunderstanding and label her "Trakā arzemniece!" (Crazy foreigner) for her eccentricities. Berzins wears leggings, running shoes and baggy sweaters in the street—to the horror of the more formal Latvians. Her colleagues at the Latvian Academy of Art sneer at her methods: she teaches French by singing popular songs, English via "Phantom of the Opera." She refuses to throw her garbage into the trucks like everyone else and leaves it at the curb for someone else to deal with. By her own account, Berzins makes enemies easily. Many of her friendships seem to follow a predictable course of enthusiasm, followed by deterioration, then recrimination.
She is conscious that her expectations are unrealistic: "I just wanted the folks at Beki to disappear. Like they wanted me to disappear. I wanted things to be like they were in my mother’s stories… I wanted impossible things." The myth of Latvia she carries within her is strong. Still, she cannot help but question her mother’s memories of life there: "From early childhood on, we had been brought up on a Latvia that no longer existed, if indeed it ever did exist."
The Latvia she discovers is rife with government and police corruption. Organized crime flourishes. Bribery and sexual harrassment are endemic. The Hare Krishna in Rīga don’t dance or sing in parks; they are too busy feeding the poor who line up outside their temple. Beggars and pensioners hold placards telling of their plight, and the prostitutes on Marijas Street ply their trade with feet wrapped in newspapers. Meanwhile, mafiosi in leather jackets talk on cell phones in expensive restaurants.
"Neņem galvā," the Latvians say. Don’t let it get to you; literally, don’t take it into your head.
Berzins goes to Latvia expecting reunion, completion; instead she encounters incivility, hatred and violence. Nevertheless, she does experience moments of pure joy, usually in the fields of Beki. When she finally gives up her dream of living there and decides to return to Canada, her disappointment and sense of failure drive her to the very edge of herself.
The result of her disillusion is a funny, lively, painful book, somewhat marred by typographical errors and minimal editing. It is a book written in anger. Berzins, along with a whole expatriate generation, was promised a fairytale Latvia that only needed independence to exist again. The promise is still unfulfilled.
(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the SVEIKS.com site.)
Halifax, Nova Scotia: Albert Street Press, 1997
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