I’ve been in Lithuania for about four days, and I can no longer count the number of times my mom has asked, “don’t you remember…?” We lived on the Baltic Coast from when I turned seven to the middle of fifth grade, so I do retain an elementary mental map of our Klaipeda neighborhood: the path to school, the home of the scary Rottweiler, the kiosk where we bought ice cream for twenty-five cents. My linguistic fluency, however, left as quietly as it came. I’ve lost the specifics of my memories, too. My response to her question has repeatedly been: “Mom, I was seven (or eight, or nine). Come on.”
Frustrating though it was (and is) to know I was once fluent in the language that now slides past my ears, I have been surprised by the familiarity of this place. When I want to say “excuse me,” and “please,” I think in Arabic, then Spanish, then French, and I don’t know the bus route downtown anymore, and my feet dangled above the floor the last time I dipped my fried bread into cheese sauce at the corner table on the top floor of Biskvitas. But sitting there on Wednesday night, I suddenly, suddenly, recognize half the menu. Lithuanian food is cheesy, meaty, potato-heavy, and covered in dill—not for the faint of heart, and not really for vegetarians either, so I’ve been taking the bread-and-cheese route regularly, and/or sitting politely as my family members chow on local delicacies. At the end of the meal, though, every one of us smells like sour cream.
The food—the dill, the cheese, the particular tang of local chocolate—it smells like home. It’s strange, what resonates. For a child, these are the strongest memories: the peacocks on the back acreage of the resort restaurant in Kretinga, the thick, spoonable hot chocolate we ordered at the botanical gardens, the time we caught older kids kissing behind the playground after school. By the dregs of the cup of tea served at a visit to my sister’s first grade teacher, I recognized the words for “boys” and “girls,” for “book” and “teacher” and “friend.” I experience these things as a matter of course, lawful citizens of my memory that have escaped notice for a decade I don’t feel old enough to own. But passed it has, and everything looks smaller from my adult height.
My mother’s other mantra is the cataloguing of changes. “When we first moved here,” she’ll start, “that was the biggest grocery store in town. This road wasn’t paved. None of these buildings existed. You couldn’t find peanut butter for three hundred miles.” Our excursions are punctuated with “look!” as she points out new bike trails, the improved bus system, multilingual signage for exhibits and historical markers. It is beautiful, and it is clean and lovely and well-kept. But I don’t remember it otherwise. It is, if anything, less wonderful now. I have changed, too.
Our old house is grayer than I remember it. The well I had to scale the fence to summit is just three feet off the ground. Our landlord’s dog died several years ago, and he has declared himself too old for a new one. So there is some loss, too, in coming back, in confronting memory with reality, nostalgia with the irrepressible present, which is always other than I imagined it. I am other than I imagined at seven (or eight, or nine). I have forgotten too much, grown too much, learned too much, remembered too much. This place has changed too much. And yet, at the end of the meal, we all still smell like sour cream.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.