Many years ago, I was a boy growing up in Kharkov, Ukraine in what was then the indestructible Soviet Union. For 5 straight years in the early 1970’s, I spent one month each summer in a rented house in Jurmala, a small resort town in Latvia, then a reluctant part of the Soviet empire. Come the end of July, my parents and I would pack our suitcases and board a train to take the 24-hour trip through three Soviet republics to get to that house. It was an idyllic month of freedom for a boy, expected to spend the rest of the year “building a bright Communist future” as a young Soviet Pioneer.
Then came the summer of 1975, and my parents told me we weren’t going to that old wooden house anymore. We were going somewhere else -- to Canada, and not just for a month. But I couldn’t tell anyone, it was a secret. I was to tell all my friends that we were moving to Riga, the big capital city next to Jurmala. In those days, emigration was considered an act of treason. I didn’t know what that would mean for me, but I did know I wouldn’t be seeing Jurmala any time soon.
More than 35 years later, at the beginning of last summer I received an invitation to attend a professional conference in Riga, now the capital of independent Latvia. During all those years, I had made many trips back to Kharkov, my city of birth, often revisiting or retracing pleasant childhood memories. But I had never returned to Jurmala.
The idea of embarking on such a nostalgic trip was exciting enough, but I felt an additional challenge. I needed to find that house – the one we used to rent during all those summers. But I had no specifics – no address, no names – just a vague visual memory and a Jurmala map. I had one other clue, though: the man who rented us the room was a policeman. But time was against me: I wouldn’t be in Riga very long. At best, I’d have one afternoon for my quest, a quest that was preoccupying my mind from the moment I knew I’d be going to Riga.
So it was a warm, sunny, late-summer afternoon when I set off for the Riga central train station to take the 30-minute trip to Jurmala. I went over my approach. This was detective work, and I needed to communicate. I was worried that my fluent Russian wouldn’t be sufficient for a Latvia that had been independent for 20 years. The two languages are not similar, at all. However, I realized this wouldn’t be an issue when several people looked at me as if we were in Moscow when I asked them if they spoke Russian.
My first step was to go to a police station. They might be able to help me find an old colleague, even many years later. The main police station wasn’t that close to where I remembered the house to be, but it was a necessary first step.
I was greeted by a friendly-looking Russian-speaking man who didn’t look like a cop. He wasn’t in uniform and acted with self-importance. He listened to my story carefully, but didn’t seem too anxious to help.
“Do you have a last name?,” he asked.
“No, unfortunately, not. Perhaps you could try some retired cops. They might remember something,” I suggested.
“Well, I can’t just give names out. In any case, that would be an invasion of privacy,” he said, sounding like an exemplary bureaucrat at a Canadian government agency.
I could see this was going nowhere, so I decided I’d go to the neighbourhood where I expected the house to be, and ask around. Jurmala isn’t very big, and the particular area where we used to stay was like a big village. The sight and smell of pine trees were everywhere, and they took me back to that time almost 40 years ago. As I walked down the main street, I remembered my favourite place to visit. I was obsessed with stamps because they had the best store in the world called “Philatelia”! It was huge – two floors – and I learned there that stamps with broken edges were worthless. What I also loved on that street was the self-service supermarket -- I had never been in one in my hometown. And then, just 200m from that street, there was the beach. Every morning, it was the place go, where I had to walk about 500 more metres to get the water to my chest and where I made soccer friends. We would steal and set up four big garbage bins (annoying everyone else on the beach) and play on the wet flat sand right near the sea. And on special days, my parents would take me to a very fancy restaurant called “Lido” which looked like a gigantic mansion belonging to a very rich family, now literally just a shell preserved as a heritage site.
Lost in my nostalgic thoughts, I walked aimlessly for about 30 minutes, without anything triggering my memory about the location of our house. Meanwhile, the vacation season was over, the streets were largely deserted, so I wasn’t running into anyone. And I didn’t want to resort to door-knocking – not yet, anyway. I began to feel frustrated and stumbled into a cafe.
There were three women there, all middle-age or older. Two were watching some Latvian soap opera. And the third just stood there, wiping repeatedly the already clean counter. So I ordered a ‘kappucino’ and began to tell my story.
My voice was loud – deliberately so – and the soap opera began to lose out.
“My father was a policeman before he retired,” said one of the TV viewers. “I’ll call him. Maybe he can suggest something.”
“I also have an idea,” said the other one. “ There is a couple who used to live around here during those days. Their names are Galina and Albert. I believe he used to be a policeman. But they’ve moved, and I know where they live.”
I was getting excited. “So how do I find them?”
“They live near that police station where you were. There is a little market just down the street. When you get there, ask for Irina – she’s the boss. Then tell her that Nadia sent you and that you’re looking for Galina and Albert. She’ll help you, I guarantee it!”
At this point, the ex-cop’s daughter got off the phone with her dad. She too was excited.
“He can’t remember the man who rented you your house. But he did give me the name of the recently retired chief of Jurmala’s police. He knew everyone.”
She scrawled his name on my map and tried to give me directions to his house. I now had names, something real to work with. I ran out of the cafe with a new sense of energy, hoping to find Irina.
The directions weren’t perfect. But strangers proved surprisingly helpful, and I was finally in front of a tiny market with about 5 stalls. It wasn’t difficult to find Irina.
“I’m here from Nadia and hope you can help me,” I said.
“Nadia? Of course, what can I do for you?”
“She said you’ll help me find Galina and Albert.”
“That’s easy. See that apartment building? Just take the third entrance. It’s the apartment on the left on the first floor.”
In about thirty seconds, I was knocking on that door. For about a minute, there was no answer. The fear that ran through me throughout my quest returned: I’d find the place but no one would be home. Or alive.
But an elderly man finally opened the door and interrupted my mounting anxiety.
“Sorry to bother you. Are you Albert?” I said.
“Who else would I be?”
“Bingo,” I thought and launched into my story. Albert listened patiently with interest and sympathy, smiling and nodding occasionally. Finally I was done, and it was Albert’s turn.
“Yes, we did live in a house in that area in the 1970, and, yes, we did rent a part of it out during summers. But, sorry, I was never a policeman...”
Disappointment, yet again. But I still had a couple of hours, and I wasn’t giving up. I was very close to that police station and did have a name now. Maybe there would be someone else there, more willing to help than Mr. Privacy. Sure enough he was still there, but was now joined by, what seemed to be a more senior police officer. His fancy epaulettes indicated that. Again, I repeated my house story – now with the ex-chief’s name as a potential source of help. The new cop, a Latvian speaker – he said something to Mr. Privacy in Latvian -- appeared unfriendly and impatient. But he gave me a nod, wrote down the name and started leafing through some old binders. He then spent the next 10 minutes on the phone. I had no idea what he was saying, except that I could tell he was getting numbers. Finally, he hung up, wrote something on a small piece of paper and handed it over.
“This is the ex-chief’s number,” he said. “Call him.”
In the 15 minutes I spent there, those were the only words he said to me, but I was thrilled.
I walked out of the room, and without leaving the police station, frantically dialed the number. It took an interminably long 10 rings but, finally, I heard a man’s voice. I politely asked if he spoke Russian, then told him the story. There was a 30-second pause, then an answer.
“Yeah, there was a guy. I don’t remember his name but he was a major when I came into the force and his house was roughly where you are describing.”
I was beside myself with excitement.
“Could you please give me some specific streets?”
“Yes, I believe it’s Lienas and Teatra.”
I looked at my map, and it was right next to that cafe.
“Good luck and let me know how it goes,” said the ex-chief and hung up.
As I raced out of the police station, I thought about the kindness of strangers. Was it luck? Or that we all melt for childhood nostalgia, even vicariously? I only had about an hour before having to return to Riga for a conference event. I remembered that our house was at an intersection, so the two streets made sense. I found the house fairly quickly, stopped in front of it and knew right away... it wasn’t it. It was too big, too modern, too Western-looking...
I felt like the air had gone out of me. I had little time, and I didn’t know what to do next. As I was contemplating those final desperate thoughts, a car pulled up and a woman, about my age, got out with a young daughter. Taking one last shot, I stopped her and gave her the Twitter version of my story. She didn’t hesitate for a second.
“Yes, of course, there was a cop living here back then. But it wasn’t this street. It was the next one, about 100 metres from here, in this exact same spot.”
I wanted to hug her and run, but she began telling me the story of her life. Given what she had just done for me, I felt it would have been rude to leave right away. So I listened. About her relatives in Canada, about corruption in Latvia and about how she bought all her clothes in Berlin because it was cheaper than in Jurmala. Then I saw an opening, thanked her and sprinted around the block. In 9.9 seconds, I stopped in front of THAT house, and there it was. I knew it instantly. It was as if I was back in 1974. There was a small fence with a big dog warning on it, but I didn’t care. I pushed the gate open, walked a few steps and knocked on the old wooden front door.
An elderly, graceful woman opened it, with a guarded look on her face. But as I began telling my story, suspicion turned into curiosity which then melted into a smile, as she interrupted me.
“Of course, I remember you and your mom. You used to come every summer and then you suddenly stopped. We didn’t know what happened to you.”
“Well, we were emigrating and, as “traitors,” didn’t want to get you into trouble.”
“That’s too bad. We always liked your family and I still remember your mom. When I talk to others about old tenants, she always comes up.”
“What about your cop husband? He used to show me photos of crime scenes, something my mom still doesn’t know.”
“He died suddenly about 25 years ago. I thought of moving elsewhere, but I’ve lived here since 1968. This is my home.”
We stood outside “our” house, chatting for a few more minutes. But before leaving, I had one last request. To see inside the house, or rather, something specific inside it. The room that we had been renting was on the second floor in the attic, but there was no staircase. We had to use a fire-exit type ladder that went through a very narrow chute. My parents, hated it, of course, but I loved the daily adventure.
She opened the front door and pointed at the rusty-looking ladder right in front of me and chuckled.
“There. It’s been there since the beginning in 1968. Go check it out, climb it again!”
As I slowly climbed, it hit me why it was so important for me to find this house. It was the last meaningful part of my childhood that I had never revisited. And as I finally crawled through the chute and stood there staring at the old bed where I slept all those years ago, I remembered that my parents always hated to climb that ladder. Now I did too, and with that sudden realization, I closed the final chapter of my childhood life.
Alex Shprintsen is a Canadian TV journalist. As a child growing up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, he spent many holiday summers in Jurmala.