A summer well spent: International Writers’ and Translators’ House in Ventspils

By NikitaNemygin, September 2, 2015

I have stumbled upon International Writers’ and Translators’ House in Ventspils (Starptautiskā Rakstnieku un tulkotāju māja) quite by chance. I do not even remember where or when exactly I have followed the link to complete the online application. Sometime later I was surprised to receive an invitation to come there for a month.

Should I spend my August enjoying getting wet under the rain in London or go to the shores of the Baltic Sea and spend it in the company of other writers for the price of a three days’ rent in London?
I did not hesitate for too long.

Residency building overlooks the main square

Residency building overlooks the main square

My goal was to use this time to clear some of my backlog on “Here be Dragons” articles, meet some new people, and most importantly – get a little bit of context for my new novel. The plot will partly revolve around a girl from Eastern Europe and more specifically – she must be from a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I have never tried residencies before and therefore had no idea of what to expect of them both in general and specifically of the one in Ventspils. Googling any reviews beforehand did not return any decent results and I was unaware what was so good about Ventspils that there is a more-than-a-year-long queue to take part.
This review is to rectify this lack of information.

Ventspils

Ventspils is a medium-sized town in western Latvia, in a region called Kurzeme. Its population currently stands at 40,000 people, though rumour has it, the real headcount is about twice as small, for lots of people have moved out to Riga and Western Europe but never deregistered.

Ventspils market square

Ventspils market square

Before I came, I expected to see a sturdy, maybe even aggressive town, deprived of most of young people who could escape and where only pensioners are left to drag their existence (this would be really useful for my novel). What I really found was an attractive, neat gingerbread town in the midst of the tourist season. I was even annoyed a little bit, because it did not fit my initial plan.

Ventspils river promenade overlooks one of the biggest ports in the Baltic sea

Ventspils river promenade overlooks one of the biggest ports in the Baltic sea

The young people were indeed scarce, but no-one could call Ventspils depressive! Lazy and sleepy, yes, definitely. It is a town where I could picture spending my retirement when I only have the energy to spend my days sitting around on quiet open terraces, drinking coffee and chatting to friends. In Ventspils I could do just that.

A street in Ostgals area

A street in Ostgals area

Ventspils has very quiet atmosphere, neat buildings, well-repaired roads and a reasonable selection of cafés and restaurants. The summer and the tourist season are brief, so the town cannot fully develop as a tourist destination as winter days are short and dull. When the summer does come, the town becomes inundated with Latvian and Lithuanian families who have recently had kids and therefore cannot afford Croatia or Montenegro. Ventspils seems to be a rational choice for them – it’s affordable, friendly, cosy and can provide enough entertainment for a week of holidays.

Beaches are good around here

Beaches are good around here

Ventspils is famous for its cows sculptures dotted around the town. They structure the town environment and makes it more comfortable and cosy.

A cow lies near one of the libraries

A cow lies near one of the libraries


Cow polices local bus station

Cow polices local bus station

Apart from cows, people are really into flowerbeds here. I reckon flowerbeds are a pinnacle of banal bourgeois ideals of comfortable urban environment, but what do I know? Flowers have taken over Ventspils.
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And if you like BOTH cows AND flowerbeds, there is a combo – a cow made out of flowerbeds to double the naughty pleasures.
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When one day these flowerbed animals come to life in some mad scientist’s experiment, Ventspils will get a decent-sized zoo.
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The comfort and neatness of Ventspils are, in a certain way, external. They generated not by the internal demand of the citizens, but by a plan of Ivars Lembergs, the ambitious mayor of Ventspils. He is one of the Latvia’s most notorious and controversial politicians – half of the country wants to elect him as their president, and the other – try him for corruption.

Ventspils, just as my native city of St-Petersburg (Russia), has been a result of a masterplan, not a local demand. It is made-up, unreal. Its weird gingerbread attire has scared me sometimes.

Art Nouveau buildings add to this weird resemblance to St-Petersburg

Art Nouveau buildings add to this weird resemblance to St-Petersburg

Some days I thought that these buildings are nothing but a theatre set, all cardboard, all fake. It seemed like they are to collapse and to be washed away into the Baltic Sea and I am to find myself in the middle of an empty undeveloped field. Nothing flourishes there, only Latvian Maiden from the local 1 Euro coin sits on a chair and knits quietly, murmurs a song to herself.
Half a minute passes in silence. Then she looks up and notices me, stares blankly into my eyes, shrieks and laughs like mad.

International Writers’ and Translators’ House
The “House” was established in 2006 and has since become a popular destination for writers. It is famous for creating comfortable and friendly atmosphere where you can create in peace.
Each resident is provided with a spacious en-suite room with some furniture, and an Internet connection and then – left alone.
And what else would you wish for?

View of the residency looking from the main square

View of the residency looking from the main square

The House can accommodate 7 to 9 people at once. They are welcomed for a single period of one month or two fortnights. It is extremely popular with Latvian writing community and all of them who enjoys the creative process in a semi-isolated environment has been here at least once. The House is open to the outside world too. Out of ten people that stayed with me in August only three were Latvians, others were from Israel, China, Austria, Italy and Georgia.

Residency courtyard

Residency courtyard

A spacious and fully-equipped kitchen is at writers’ disposal. It features all cutlery you might need, two stoves and a washing machine. Each resident gets a shelf in the cupboard and one in the fridge. The only thing you will need is your laptop, a hairdryer and a kettle if, like myself, you enjoy a cuppa when you write, as getting to the kitchen from the first floor each time can be tedious.

The kitchen

Kitchen


Dining room

Dining room

The House has a library of its own which contains, among others, books that were conceived or written here.

Books written in this residency are on the wall opposite

Books written in this residency are on the wall opposite

There is a room for very infrequent events.

The best event is Novuss (Baltic billiards)

The best event is Novuss (Baltic billiards)

To sum up, as a resident you get

  • all amenities including the Internet, washing machine, linen, towels, en-suite toilet and shower and good communal spaces both inside and in the garden,
  • a possibility to choose how much you want to be involved in the social life, adjusting your time alone and with other people entirely as you please,
  • the sea and the beach in summer and a sauna in winter.
  • What you do not get

  • much opportunity to present your work or participate in much events or to expose yourself to any considerable audience. That is, unless you have a plan of your own for that, in which case, the House can help you organising it,
  • any organised talks between the residents where you might have a chance to exchange ideas, tell about yourself and your work and present your vision (but you can do it on your own),
  • any obligation to present any work at the end or do any strict report on the results of the residency.
  • While disappointing for some, I think these are rather good than bad. Writers are an anxious, tense folk. It is impossible to know in advance who will be willing to exchange and who will lock themselves with their work for 10 hours a day. Besides, there is a language barrier to consider – not all of the residents speak Latvian or Russian and the locals are not very much English-speaking.

    Inside the room

    Inside the room


    Inside the room

    Inside the room

    Ventspils Writers’ and Translators’ House gives a lot and it takes back almost nothing. 120 EUR that I paid for the month of this wonderful experience would have got me three days of London rent. This time was useful for me. However, even if you do not write anything grand immediately, being here will, without doubt, impact and inspire you. It will allow to quit your routine and reassess yourself, your work and your whole life. For a writer this reassessment is essential. Even if the results are invisible now, they will show themselves.

    Acknowledgement
    I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my employer, Mercury Publicity, and my management, Mick Hersant and Richard Lower for making this experience possible.
    A huge thank you is for the staff of the House for their care and devotion, and in particular, Ieva Balode for her friendliness and professionalism.