Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bread Street is really only a pair of dull streetcar tracks that form a loop leading up the hill to the huge dark train station built by Stalin, fond of architectural intimidation. Bread Street curves and drops down into the oldest part of the city, the tramway running past the market, which has moved slowly westward since the Medieval square developed, where the War Commandery is, pink (“the middle ages ended very late here”), shifted to what is now Unity Square, where bitter babushkas put red tulips on the pedestal where Lenin stood (a granite Lenin dressed for Siberia and intended for some god-forsaken city there but rejected on account of its ugliness – the last Lenin in Latvia, removed stealthily, at night, to avoid protests), and finally finding its current location, rinok, bazar, tirgus, Slavic rhythms pumped from phlegm-choked speakers, urgent advertisements we can even hear in the house, large strong women standing before barrels of sauerkraut with huge spoons (discreetly selling glasses of sauerkraut juice; to buy it identifies you as an alcoholic, since it is the best cure for a hangover, that and kefir, sold in the other part of the pavilion). Kiosks, each selling the same products – Dutch tomatoes, Italian grapes, bananas (more bananas here than anywhere, it having been the forbidden fruit), coffee, matches, oil, cat food, sweets… The meat pavilion, resounding with the sounds of heavy axes, stinking of dead animals, no refrigeration. Booths selling clothes, gaudy, cheap clothes. The flower section – quiet women from the country, Ls 1,50 a rose, only a lats on Sundays, when competition is stiff. The single row of actual farmers, garlic and pickles, last year’s potatoes (not good to eat towards spring, toxins), cottage cheese and sour cream, there must be a hundred people selling sour cream, skābais krējumiņš, smetana, some so thick you can smear it on bread, slightly yellow, even. Milk, evening milk or morning milk, from cows with names.

Behind one window in Bread Street, bread is still made, the smell of it at dawn as I trudge back to Novastroika, leaving the gracious central district, ducking into the gloomy station for smokes (Mistral, Sobranie, Shakhterskiye), perhaps into the Blue Danube for a thimble of Black Balsam, cross the footbridge into the wide streets – wooden houses require wide streets, enforced after a serious fire. The Old Believers’ houses are surrounded by high walls, also wooden. The houses are still shuttered at dawn, and the district has an almost menacing emptiness to it, even as the fruit trees blossom within – hidden gardens, even a tiny abandoned orchard in the ulitse Gagarina again Cavalry Street, which leads to what used to be the Daugavpils Desert, dunes, now the Химия, “the Chemists’ Microregion,” shoddy khruschovkas meant for workers at the synthetics plant, cold now, silent, on the verge of closing. High tension wires cross a large pond surrounded by these ugly five-storey buildings of pale brick, a pond where a tiny Venice was once planned for the Workers’ Paradise. On the other side, the graves begin – a few Latvian Legionnaires, their section repeatedly vandalized… Germans and even a few Turks from the First World War, Latvians from the War of Liberation… then the astonishingly vast, hilly cemeteries running as far as the next railroad line, divided by faiths – though there are only recent Jewish graves; under the Soviets, the old Jewish cemetery was bulldozed. Rumor has it that the granite along the edges of ulitse Lenina, again Riga Street, is from those headstones. Hard by the tracks, below the prisoners’ graves and between the Orthodox and the Old Believers, are the paupers and the unknown. Date of death only, scrawled on a piece of wood. A large bulldozer waits there, erasing even that after a time.

A lengthier extract from this section was previously published as a broadside by the Oasis Press, ed. Stephen Ellis. Other sections appeared in Shearsman, and two earlier parts are available online at Archipelago.


Blogger carlos said...

Rumor has it that the granite along the edges of ulitse Lenina, again Riga Street, is from those headstones.
It's definitely more than just a rumor, i've seen couple of those stones myself.

14 February, 2007 14:00  
Blogger Pēteris Cedriņš said...

You're right, Carlos -- since I wrote that piece, I've found a couple of stones with the inscriptions still visible.

14 February, 2007 18:10  
Anonymous Headstones said...

Cool headstones, let me know when you have more info.

06 July, 2009 04:33  

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