When I tell Lithuanians that I lived in Kaunas in 1993-1994, they will sometimes say to me “yet you came back!” Those were the early post-Soviet years and life was a rather rough. I promised last fall to tell some stories of life in Kaunas at that time and, this week, I’ll do just that.
Part of my research is about how people remember and commemorate the past so it is interesting to observe how I remember the year I spent in Kaunas seventeen years ago. While I know that life was difficult in many ways and at times I was frustrated or homesick, I generally have very positive memories. So it was a bit surprising when my friend Arunas from Seattle said to me that, when we met in Kaunas in the spring of 1994, I had told him that it was hard for me to live in Kaunas. It serves as a reminder that we can remember the past differently than we experience it. I can certainly say that it was an adventure.
I’ll begin with one of my clearest and, I believe, accurate memories — the water heater in the bathroom of my apartment. The apartment building had been built in the 1930s and I think that the bathroom water heater was original to the apartment. It was attached to the wall above the bathtub. The advantage of having a water heater meant that I had hot water even when the city would turn off the central hot water to clean the pipes. The disadvantage was that I had to light the pilot light in the hot water.
In order to do so, I had to turn on the gas, light the match, and then reach my hand all the way to the back of the metal case. Just to be clear, this meant flowing gas, lit match, my hand all in close proximity. The whole process terrified me every single time.
I had to re-light the pilot light on a regular basis because my landlady would come by to check on the apartment and turn off the gas to the hot water heater. Her reasoning was that gas was very expensive. I kept explaining that I could afford the little bit of gas that the pilot light required to stay lit. For the six months that I lived in the apartment, we had a minor battle of the wills. I would leave the pilot light lit and she would come by and turn it off every couple of days. Each time, I would re-light it and, fortunately, I never did blow myself up.