When we arrived it was pitch dark, so the building, one of the main heroes of the story, was not visible. Signe was waiting for us with hot soup and a selection of home brewed beer – Serde specialty. Signe does not live in the house. She and her family have a house in Aizpute, walking distance away.
Serde is settled in a three-hundred-year-old wooden house, which has a ground floor and an attic. The house belongs to the municipality, but Serde has a rental agreement for 90 years. The house seems to be alive, similar to the building in Miyazaki’s animated film Howl’s Moving Castle. Walking in it may seem like walking in a constantly changing maze: you never know what happens behind you. Inclined floors, windows and spaces of various shapes, ages of usage make the house soft and organic. Thus, someone has to feed this live and changing organism constantly, and Signe and Ugis do that for already a decade. I guess this feeding sometimes looks like a fight, because the house has its own character and the owners have to fight for its spaces conquering them by repairing and cleaning.
Serde is difficult to use during the cold season (roughly October to April): the house is not tight and it is a 24-hour job to fill numerous fire stoves with wood and briquettes. Two big old clay stoves and two small modern brass stoves were trying to keep us warm. We had two cozy rooms next to the big hall and did not get cold. The hall had a grand piano, sound equipment, wireless internet, a little library and a big space, which could be used for meetings, concerts, workshops and parties. I spent half of the night in the hall at the computer, but the house did not want to talk to me – no squeaks, no laments, no ghosts.
In the morning we went out to look for breakfast. I wonder now if all small towns in Latvia (Lithuania?) have so many treasures? We found a big, recently reconstructed synagogue, used as local culture center, a park with symmetrical pools, a 13th century church, a water mill, a brand new catholic church and many small, but fascinating details. We did not find a cafeteria, but a supermarket corner with baked swans and other beauties was just fine.
Breakfast was followed by a guided tour of the house and its annexes. Signe started from the porch with Leonardo’s Madonna and Child and benches from an old regional train. Recycled or rather resurrected things, like these benches, which were about to be thrown out, are characteristic to the house. The building itself is resurrected from oblivion and negligence. I can see how this porch is the heart of Serde in summer. ‘There is a direct entrance from the porch to the kitchen, and this is so convenient’, Signe says…
During the tour Signe’s husband Ugis was mentioned very often, but we did not see him in flesh – he was taking care of their daughter, who had fever. Ugis was substituting the mother, who was stolen by us and taken away to Estonia. Ugis is the beer expert (we have tried chokeberry and black currant beer), and building expert (he has revived the house), and engineering expert (made all the brewery equipment himself), and electronics expert (we saw his fancy seed vendor machine in the workshop). Ugis was present everywhere. In Lithuanian Ūgis is height, so I imagine him as a kind giant, who can do everything, starting with comforting a little girl and finishing with carrying huge logs for the house repair…
On the attic of the main building are rooms for visitors. Many rooms, I have even lost the number. Is it 30 people you can accommodate at a time, Signe? Almost all beds are covered by hand knitted quilts. A local woman, a friend of the Center, decided to contribute this way. Thus she knits and brings the quilts to Serde. Signe says that this sort of cooperation with locals is now usual – they bring things they do not need any more, but Serde could use. The Center is there for already ten years and you can feel it – it has its place in the local routines. However, the window of the ceramics workshop was broken and Signe said ‘ah, locals do that…’
Serde has four workshops: ceramics workshop looked great to me, although I am not a specialist; beer brewery with all the Ugis-made vessels and equipment, just like a small professional factory, not to compare with the big cauldron, which is standing in the middle of the courtyard and is usually featured in Serde pictures; a wood and metal processing workshop in the barn – spacious and comfortable; and a recent acquisition – brand new dark room with ancient Soviet equipment, films, chemicals and papers – a gift of a well known Latvian photographer. Serde also possesses a kiln on an island in the nearby pond. Should be very special to go to burn stuff there.
Signe & Ugis are mainly occupied with workshops: beer brewing, herb and healing recipes collecting from the local area, ceramics, analogue photography, etc. Sometimes they also accommodate students of the Latvian Academy of Arts for their summer practice. As I understood, residencies are few and do not last more than a month due to rather rough living conditions, however, I think there would be many people willing to stay there longer. I still don’t know what Signe and Ugis does for living. Is it possible to keep up the building from space rent? Or does it suck their personal savings?
In the early afternoon we left Aizpute and headed towards Sanna Culture Manor in Southern Estonia.