In the labyrinth
Shortly after I first arrived in Riga several years ago I heard about a certain suburb called Zolitude. I instantly fell in love with the place, even though I’d never seen it. The name reminded me of the English word “solitude”, only taken to the extreme, thanks to the initial “Z”. I imagined it to be an amazingly beautiful place, where people silently and serenely went about their lives, and houses gently crumbled away, and life made somehow perfect sense. Such is the planet I live on.
I excitedly asked a few people I knew to describe Zolitude to me. But they just looked at me strangely, confused as to why I could possibly be interested in such a place. “There’s really nothing there,” one man told. “Just loads of huge housing blocks. It’s a typical Riga suburb. Rather ugly.”
And so that was that. I think it was actually the relationship between the “S” and the “Z” that got me so excited when I thought about Zolitude. It reminded me of Roland Barthe’s S/Z, that masterpiece of literary criticism. But I nonetheless liked my idea of Zolitude so much that I promised I would never go there and destroy the wonderful image I had of it. (I did go there in the end, of course.)
Zolitude is, as I should have guessed, just like almost every other Riga suburb, in just about every conceivable way. To a foreigner such as myself, if I can still call myself a foreigner after all I’ve been through in this city, it’s virtually impossible to differentiate between the vast, sprawling city suburbs other than by the fact of their allotted place names and the various numbered public transport that services them.
The vast majority of Rigans live in the city’s suburbs. But when they tell you which suburb it is they live in, they tell you it in a matter-of-fact, almost apathetic tone of voice, as if the fact of living in Plavnieki or Imanta or Zolitude or Kengarags or Jugla is essentially one and the same thing, and as if there is nothing more to say about such places except for the fact that you live there. It would probably strike most residents of these places as absurd if you were to ask them whether they actually like living there. At best they might remark that their particular area is quiet, or that the air is pleasantly fresh, or that there are a lot of trees, or that it doesn’t take long to get to the centre from there.
During my first summer in Riga I made the acquaintance of a young woman who worked as an English teacher at a high school in Purvciems. On one especially hot and sunny afternoon – I remember it well – she asked me if I might like to come and work at her school as an English teacher. You would be soooooo appreciated, she said. Sure, I replied after a few second’s thought, why not? In my superhuman stupidity I really thought that I might actually do some good working there.
I worked at Rigas Vidusskola 85 for about a year. Every morning I would wake up early and catch the number 11 trolleybus from Stabu Iela, where I lived at the time, to Purvciems. How I loved that short ride into the suburbs. I loved to see the suburbs open up before me into a vast, grey, abstract expanse as the trolleybus rattled over Deglavas Tilts. I loved to see the early morning light set the crumbling concrete walls of the housing blocks ablaze in its beautiful glow. I loved the almost fragrant scent of despair that hung in the air.
I actually found Purvciems surreally beautiful, at least to begin with. The overwhelming presence of geometry that loomed all around in the huge housing structures somehow seduced my senses. I would walk along Nicgales Iela, or take a short cut through the housing blocks, greedily sucking on a cigarette before I reached my school, and again and again I was struck by how strangely real this mode of suburban existence was.
An intense feeling of awe and horror came over me as I would walk around Purvciems, or any other Soviet-era suburb for that matter. There is just something so extreme about such places. Perhaps it is the feeling that this is somehow life at its most essential: mundane, repetitive, functional. To live there is the ultimate act of resignation.
The suburban block apartment was designed to curtail people’s aspirations, if only by obstructing any fanciful flights of thought with an oppressively low ceiling. And the suburbs themselves, as a meticulously planned, socially engineered living space, were basically designed to serve as a sort of self-effacing labyrinth. They ultimately lead nowhere, except the bare comfort of home, and the faintly comforting sight of familiar furniture. It’s this that can make the suburbs sometimes seem like a cemetery for the living.
During the time that I worked at Vidusskola 85, I was endlessly fascinated by my students, nearly all of who lived locally in Purvciems. Although they were by no means the worst students I could have had, I was nevertheless amazed by their phlegmatism. Of course there were a few special individuals among them, but for the most part they struck me as being a disturbing reflection of their environment in their gum-chewing, glazed-eyed apathy.
Naturally, out of curiosity I asked one of my classes if they liked living in the suburbs. No, they all said, with an almost choral degree of harmony. Why not? I asked. There’s nothing to do, they replied. I actually found it rather sad working with these children. For the most part I liked them, and I hope that they liked me, when they weren’t laughing at me. But they just didn’t seem to have any real joy for life, only a shrill enthusiasm, such as when their mobile phones rang, or they were having a quick cigarette by the gym and discussing where they would get drunk at the weekend.
One warm spring afternoon, when I myself was a having a quick cigarette out by the gym, a girl from the 11th class came up to me and asked if she could get my advice on something. Sure, I said. She then told me that she had recurring fantasies about having sex with two men at the same time. She wanted to know if I thought it was a good idea. Don’t do it, I said. Pornographically inspired sex is a metaphysical dead end. She thanked me for the advice and hurried off to her physics class.
There is something strangely soothing about life in the suburbs. They barely exist, for one thing. Virtually none of the many books about Riga mentions them except in passing, or only to warn people away from them. They are the monotonous mass of urbanity that makes Riga a “big” city. They are the irritating run of traffic lights you have to clear on the drive out of the city. They are Elliot’s Wasteland with a postcode.
For most people the “real” Riga exists in the city centre. Its historic architecture is somehow perceived as living proof of the city’s authenticity, its character, its true identity. The suburbs, on the other hand, are considered just an inconsequential footnote to the real story of Riga.
Of course, this suburban/urban dichotomy exists in just about every city but it is especially pronounced in Riga, as well as many other cities that fell under Soviet occupation after the Second World War. Where the suburbs of cities such as London and Paris evolved over the course of the 19th and 20th century, and so to some degree were an integral part of their infrastructure, the majority of Riga’s suburbs were hastily and haphazardly constructed in the decades following the Soviet occupation. And they were designed to be ephemeral, temporary solutions to immediate problems.
I remember the first time that I actually went to Zolitude. A friend invited me to her apartment for dinner. She knew about my fascination for the place, and so thought it would be a good idea for me to finally get to see it. She also told me that it was a nice, quiet place with lots of trees.
She gave me meticulous directions how to find her housing block because she was worried that I would get completely lost. And sure enough I did get completely lost. If the suburbs look the same in daylight, then they are utterly, madly indistinguishable at night, except to the trained eye. So I just called her on my mobile phone and she carefully guided me to the right door by using a bus stop and a kiosk to orientate me.
To my surprise, I rather liked her apartment, and especially her bathroom. After dinner we sat on her balcony drinking coffee in the twilight and I stared in amazement at the surrounding housing blocks that formed a huge wall around a large grass courtyard.
I couldn’t help but think of Kieslowski’s Decalogue as I stared at all those thousands of identical windows and the lives unfolding behind them. No artist has ever extracted such subtle beauty out of the mass-made housing block as Kieslowski did in that series of films. The real narrative underlying the stories that make up the Decalogue are in his extraordinary grasp of the image. He transformed the overwhelmingly bleak Warsaw suburban housing block where the film was shot into an unbearably beautiful meditation on appearance.
And there, sipping coffee in Zolitude on a balcony on a warm summer evening, I suddenly felt overcome with tranquillity. In that moment, everything really did make sense. I even seriously thought that I wanted to live there.
But then it was still all very novel to me. A very dear friend of mine lives in Vilnius. He recently moved there because his girlfriend gave birth to their child and she refused to live anywhere else. He moved to her apartment in a suburb by the television tower – I have no idea what the place is actually called. Every time I go and visit him, which is quite often, I just tell the taxi driver to take me to the “Rimi by the television tower.” And when I get there I have to navigate by signs like familiar graffiti on the walls, until I finally find his front door.
One day when I went to visit him shortly after he’d moved there we were on his balcony having a cigarette while his girlfriend was preparing a salad. We looked down in mutual melancholy at the scene below us. Some children were playing basketball on a dilapidated basketball court, and a group of old men were sitting around drinking on a nearby bench.
“This just wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “I wasn’t meant to end up in a place like this. I’m a romantic.”
I was deeply touched by his words and we almost shed a tear onto the balcony below us. I knew exactly what he meant. He was afraid that living in the suburbs would effectively negate him and all that he most cherished in life. Sometimes he would send me heartbreakingly sad SMS messages as he sat squeezed onto a trolleybus in the morning rush hour going to work in the city centre, along with “all the other human cattle.”
But I think he has finally started to find a strange sense of peace now after a little more than a year of suburban life. He has surrendered those romantic delusions that can make life so unbearably disappointing, and become a hardened pragmatist, soldiering through the days, palpitating his way through the nights, living for whatever little pleasures his local Rimi can offer.
What really makes life in the suburbs so daunting to someone, like myself, who has never lived there, is their appearance. I sometimes think that I should go and live there just because it would do me some sort of good, both emotionally and philosophically speaking. Finally I might then overcome my chronic idealism, and learn to love the act of putting my key into my front door, and chopping onions, and staring at a crack in the ceiling, and listening to the kitchen tap drip. Finally I might stop struggling to overcome the appearance of things.
For me, I believe that Old Riga, that throbbing historical heart of the city, is a meaningless mirage in comparison with the city suburbs. They at least have their roots in some sort of philosophical fact, whereas Old Riga serves little more than a symbolic function as a social space. But having said all that, I’m certainly not in a hurry to go and live in the suburbs. Life in the centre is at least a labyrinth I can find a way out of.