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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day Nine-The Resort Hotel (My trip to the Soviet Union)


The House of the Benjimins
The Resort Hotel
by Douglas Messerli

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, we took a bus from Vilnius to Riga, traveling along, at some points the Black Sea in ice-cold weather. At one point we stopped by the sea just to watch the winter waves pounding the beach.

Arriving at one of the grandest and oldest hotels in the city, we were told only the jazz performers and their families could stay there. Although reservations had been made, there weren't enough empty rooms. What would the rest of us do?

We were shifted, via the bus, to what was described as a "resort hotel" in Jūrmala, a town between the Gulf of Riga and the Leilupe River about 20 minutes out of town. Certainly there some grumbles about this new development, but we had, apparently, no choice.

The hotel was more like college dorm, clearly built in the Soviet style. The bathrooms had only a drain instead of a contained shower stall, which troubled those of our group who had done little traveling previously. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this isolated spot (although the on-line promotional sites describe it as the fifth largest Latvian city) was its darkness and desolation. A heavy snowfall had just descended upon the region, and as several of us set out to explore the neighborhood, the entire area was so quiet and seemingly bleak that it felt somewhat foreboding, as if we had ended up in a town of the dead. Perhaps in the summer, it was beautiful and bustling, but its small dachas and wooden houses, lovely as they were, did not entice us. We couldn't know that this had been a particularly beloved spot for Communist Party officials such as Brezhnev and Khruschev, and that over 400 wooden houses in the Art Nouveau style had been designated national treasures.

I recall seeing the so-called "House of the Benjamins," one of the favorite of the area structures, built in 1939, set darkly against the night.

When we returned to our concrete bunker of a hotel, however, we not allowed to enter without our room keys and a passport. Like so many buildings in the Soviet Union, one door was closed, while in the other stood a guard. Access even to our beds was controlled.

When one of our group explained that his wife had the key, our friend was refused entry, despite the rest of our proclamations that he was "one of us."

"No. Nyet." repeated the guard.

I was angry. "He has to get in," I argued, "to dress of the evening performance. Can't you comprehend that he is one of us?"

"No," the guard insisted.

"We'd like to speak with your superior," another demanded.

Finally our friend's wife arrived to save the day, and he, with some resentment, was allowed to pass.

The jazz concert at a large hall, the name of which I can't remember, was excellent that evening. And we were all fascinated by the formal stroll of the Latvian audience, arms around each other's waists as they slowly circle the halls. It was like something out of another era, as if it were a formal dance.

But we were frustrated once again when, after the concert, we had no way to return to Jūrmala, since the bus had evidently abandoned us. Our Intourist male guide quickly flagged down several personal cars, asking if, for a few American dollars, they would drive us to the resort. All but one agreed, and we finally reached our destination late that evening. Evidently, that mode of transportation was a fairly common one, for Leslie Scalapino reported to me that on a later trip to Latvia, during which she had also been forced to stay at Jūrmala, they too had had to flag down passenger cars. In 2008 bus service from the airport to the resort town was begun for the first time, and presumably, there is now bus service between Riga and Jūrmala.

By the next morning several inexperienced tourists among are group were boisterously angry, threatening to demand their money back and to cancel the rest of the trip. Those of us who had been in many countries or were simply more able to deal with small inconveniencies, attempted to explain that a shower outside a stall was quite common in many parts of the world, that the guard's stubbornness was based on his attempt to protect us from black market dealers, and the seemingly unusual method of conveyance was not a serious problem; after all we had been returned safely—and at only a cost of five dollars. One had to expect some difficulties when traveling thoughout the Soviet Union. After a long conversation, they admitted that they had not been truly harmed.

The next leg of our trip was a fascinating journey to Estonia, of which I have already written in My Year 2005.

Los Angeles, September 14, 2010

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