Aleksandra Fomina is a Lithuanian fiction and essay writer and translator from the 1980s generation. She published her first book, a collection of short stories Nepaprastoji padėtis (2004) after winning the First Book competition, announced by the Lithuanian Writers' Union. Numerous reviews, short stories and essays by Fomina were published in the Lithuanian press. Her second book, a novel Mes vakar buvom saloje (2011) deals with the life of the post-Soviet youth in Kaunas and emigration to London. Fomina described hard labourer's existence of educated, artistic people in abandoned houses – squats – based on her own experiences in London.  For this work, she received the literary award by an émigré Lithuanian writer and public figure Kaziemieras Barėnas.

Could you describe your approach to the bohemian life (of Kaunas, Lithuania): what do you think it is?

To me, the concept of the “bohemian life” seems quite outdated and associated with the atmosphere of the 1980–90s, when “artistic” people started to be increasingly visible in the public life and publicly, and with their stance and clothes, established something completely contradictory to the “simple people” glorified by the Soviet culture. My teen years and early youth were related to this particular period of time, so the word bohemian first and foremost describes the characters from those times: pensive guys with long unwashed hair and velvet jackets with chaotic, avant-garde-chic ladies that you could meet in the most popular cafés in the Old Town, art exhibition openings, and, for the rest of the time, around the city, with bags stuffed with books and drawings. Also, bohemian life is associated with alcohol galore and “philosophical” conversations in front of a full table.

Are you interested in the bohemian life?

As I have mentioned, I was too young in those times described with such love by Kęstutis Navakas and Gintaras Patackas who “boiled in the bohemian stew” themselves. Those constantly drunk groups excited my curiosity but were also somewhat frightening. They were good to observe from afar, but I did not feel comfortable sitting with them. They always reminded me of children who live in their own, separate, invisible world, where they can spend time discussing and arguing, think of others whatever they want, but who also react painfully to encounters with rational, practical everyday life. And they communicated like children as well: it was necessary to tell out loud some weird things, complain about not being able to earn money, that the times were better before, etc. Some of those who were sitting in cafés day or night, or walking in the streets of the Old Town, used to approach me, a student girl, with some completely unexpected question, like, for example, about the meaning of life. And their question caused an inadequate reaction: I knew that instead of me, they can find an interlocutor in virtually any pretty girl. This both amused and annoyed me, and for some reason I pitied those "bohemians", because their arrogant posture attracted only the same kind of characters as they were. Since there were not many of them in Kaunas at that time, they all knew one another, were friends, slept and engaged in feuds with one another. And they used to openly tell everyone about it, complained that no one know them properly, that the government did not support art, that the taps are always leaking, exes call and ask for money: they were completely impractical people, and results of their activities cannot be frequently seen in public. Beautiful losers, as Leonard Cohen would have probably called us.

But if we do not use the word "bohemian", I have met a lot of people of my age living this way. But we had another name: we were called neformalai, as this word was yelled at us by guys in tracksuits hanging around the Old Town. I was one of them: with checked shirt nicked from father's closet, too large a coat, rebelliously tangled hair and eyes wide and full of curiosity. I could say that to this day, my friends have remained this way as well. They attract me with their free, uninhibited behaviour, wide point of view, determination for various experiments, great, usually diverse education and talents that they do not suffer from (at least publicly). It is one of the bohemian generations that altered its traditional image and through their successful activity, proved that an artist does not always have to go extreme lengths to create something sensitive and valuable. It is more interesting to speak with those who were neformalai in my youth, because they do not have any preconceptions, they are different: more open to the world, more tolerant, without all sorts of fancies; for example, it gives me shivers, when I remember the older representatives of bohemian life addressing me as dama (lady).

Do real (Lithuanian) bohemians exist today? If yes, then what form does it take?

Of course, they do, this thing has not disappeared anywhere. There are only its various generations that rarely meet each other, since the older ones still like wearing velvet jackets and demonstrating their spirituality, and the younger ones look at them as a book that they have read a long time ago: charming, once breath-taking but no longer relevant and even bothersome. All people with an artistic streak have something in common: be they painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, poets or writers working at the theatre, gallery or organising events. It includes an increasing number of foreigners, travellers, people with a very rich past: those who have worked in factories abroad and roam with Mongolian shepherds in the mountains and drink with masters of the old crafts somewhere in the village of Dzūkija. Everything is becoming more open and freer. Now if a young man wants to look more serious and "bohemian", he wears an old-fashioned hat and takes pride in that one short novel he wrote within several years, or some journalist of a provincial newspaper who parties with her old friends in a café of a larger city but in her everyday life, does something very inartistic. Maybe bohemian life is some sort of period, phase of development, where some are stuck and find a comfortable niche, image and lifestyle, and others explore it and move on to find themselves somewhere else. Maybe it is a legend, to which you can immerse yourself to feel, because a person does not need anything else: only friends, art, conversations, art and music?

Your life is related to artistic, creative activities. Do you participate (have participated) in some form of bohemian life (in Kaunas)? If you did, where do the representatives of the bohemian life gather (have gathered)?

As I have mentioned before, sometimes I'd rather refer to people leading bohemian style as neformalai. I hang out with them when I was a teenager or a student. I no longer live in Kaunas, so our paths do not cross any longer. But it is still fun to catch up online sometimes. All of them sooner or later “stick” together: it so happens that after a number of years, I find out that some artistic guy works with another neformalas from a completely different circle of friends.

Anyway, I did not have much opportunity to hang out with those older, more pensive, prim and spiritual "bohemians" in Kaunas because of the age difference and financial situation: the youth of that time did not have that many opportunities to earn money for their free time and visiting cafés was a big luxury. Back then, we only defined our territory and fields of interest: we swapped CDs with music and films, and on rarer occasions, books; reading required a lot of time, and who wanted to spend time alone with a book, if you had friends to hang out with.  We spent time in the city, sat in the yards, nature or sometimes a party, or someone working at the cinema allowed us to see a film for free. Later a lot of underground places appeared. We had so much enthusiasm that we could go on foot at night with our gang to some dorm next to the Academy of Agriculture or after visiting a performance, go to Savanorių Avenue, where a friend painter celebrated the purchase of a workshop. A great event back then was a premier of a good film or an opening of the exhibition: it was not much important what art it was. The most important thing was to be around people and gain new impressions. Kaunas Jazz and Contemporary Dance Festival were events where we could basically spend all our time in.

When I was sixteen and had a boyfriend who everyone referred to as 'punk', even though he was more of a metal fan, I participated in rock band rehearsals with his friends. We would sit on the floor, share cigarettes and beer, talk and sway with the music. It was so much fun. Concerts were very important life events: I meet people to this day who remember with tears in their eyes the last concert of Foje in Kaunas. We were first and foremost united by music, films, all sorts of crazy things, rather than abstract philosophical ideas so it was easier to communicate: you walk in a city, see a person from the Academy of Arts you have seen once in your life, and half an hour later, we are driving in a car of his friends to some parking lot with a picturesque view so we can blast music out loud and have fun dancing inside an empty lot.

Later my friend was a painter from Kaunas Faculty of Vilnius Academy of Arts: we used to sit in his workshop, preparing a student art exhibition in an abandoned Jurgio Church (St. George the Martyr Church) and organised film screenings in empty auditoriums. With our bags stuffed with water colours, my friend and I, we used to go to the Old Town, sit on the curb, soaked our brushes in puddles and drew everything we saw around. Actually, in those times, the Old Town was like a magnet: we would always meet someone or approached the passers-by. And strangers talked to us as well.

Later, this dorm appeared in Miško Street, and this is where the most neformalas-like person I ever known lived. He was a photographer with a massive electro music collection. He probably had a girlfriend in each city and exercised the open-door policy in his house all the time. He brought me outside almost every day: to run around and scream in Nemunas Island, to the dress rehearsal in the Drama Theatre, to Panemunės barracks, as there were workshops and a group of people we knew were watching Japanese cartoons... Together with him, we visited basements of industrial facilities somewhere next to the Savanorių Avenue, as there was an underground electro music club, we hung around with very serious artists at the opening of Textile Biennial and in the literary society after lectures in the Vilnius Academy of Art, where everyone could read their works and others could express their criticism.

I guess the most bohemian place in Kaunas to me has been this bar that no longer exists called Senas Stalčius, which was located in a basement of a former cinema Laisvė. There was later a similar place in the Old Town, I think it was called Galera, with giant dolls sitting in thrones and the mysterious light of old lamps... Also, Suflerio Būdelė, Skliautas and, of course, B.O. Back then, it had authentic walls painted in blue, scribbled with markers and beer that cost 3 litas. This was a place of all starting metal musicians, young Foje or Airija fans, punks with safety-pins in noses (there were virtually no nose earrings in Lithuania back then) and students of Vilnius Academy of Art eating cabbage soup between lectures. And we all used to watch one another so shy. It was so unusual that in the middle of the day, you can enter such a colourful place, where the alternative rock was playing, and then do nothing: smoke inside, drink one cup of tea for three hours, chat, observe everyone around and simply spend time... I used to get 10 litas allowance from parents every week for my personal expenses and saved 5 of them: then we went to B.O. with a friend and chipped in on a pint of Biržiečių beer and that was the highlight of our evening.

I also remember some performances in Drama Theatre, which we attended in winter when we starved for culture. Nothing happened in Kaunas in winter, except the said cafés, but you could not go out much without spending much money. Then we went to absolutely all performances for the student price. On Friday evenings, the phone used to buzz all the time: we were getting ready, arranging the time, then my friend arrived looking very nice, in an original black apparel (black jeans, black sweater with a tall neckline, and it was considered to be very artsy) and found me hugging a radiator because my nail polish did not want to dry off. And then we ran, late, catching our breath, through ice and snow to that performance, which became very boring within 15 minutes and you only anticipated for that handsome actor in the main role...

I liked going to exhibition openings very much, especially to Žilinskas or Kaunas Picture Gallery. It seemed that everyone was going there to look at one another, because there were not many people who knew art, especially among youth. Those openings used to last until midnight, sitting around: we just gathered together and waited for a miracle: sometimes someone used to bring a guitar, sometimes some foreigners bought us something at the bar, sometimes a friend who lived in front of the gallery invited us to watch a film by Jarmuch or Greenaway... We also watched films in the legendary Trestas cinema: dizzy with impressions, we lurked in the yards, annoying the neighbours and sighing that tomorrow it is Monday again...

Could you describe your relationship with Laisvės Alėja. Is there some place in Laisvės Alėja that is very important to you? Is bohemian life vibrant in it? Could you please share your memories?

I lived just next to Laisvės Alėja. I remember myself, 11-year-old, wandering somewhere around Soboras: first time alone, when I walked outside without parents on a hot summer day and was so impressed by the number of people in Laisvės Alėja: I have never probably seen so many of them in one place. And everyone was moving, doing something, engaged in their important affairs. So, it became crucially important for me to participate in the social life. I had 15 kopeks and spent them solemnly in the modern public toilet installed next to Žilinskas Gallery, where everything, oh dear, smelled like shampoo and hand drier was functioning without any difficulties, blowing out three types of air...

Moreover, in those times, it was forbidden to smoke in Laisvės Alėja. I approached a man with linen shirt who was smoking “Kosmosas” cigarettes next to Soboras and told him not to do it. I also pointed to a blue plaque on a post with a cigarette crossed out cigarette and a warning sign. The fellow was very surprised and after a long pause he told me that he could not read. This was probably my first solo visit to Laisvės Alėja.

Later, on my way from school, I used to go through Laisvės Alėja to catch inspiration. Even though two of my best friends were living in more remote districts, they managed to calculate their route in a way that would allow them to board a bus not in front of the school, but a few stops away at a stop which could be reached by crossing Laisvės Alėja in front of the fountain. We would simply walk and look around. It seemed that in this street, that was impressive for us teenagers for its size only, and it seemed that the real life was happening here, and it had nothing to do with the annoying studies and discipline. Houses there were different as well: they were old, not, Khrushchyovkas; some of them were cafés with music playing, you could see unusually dressed people, and there were kiosks next to Merkurijus department store with unique Chinese goods... Later the square in front of it became a ground where ravers would gather, and it was the greatest fun for us to put a battery-powered boombox on a shoulder and show how cool we were, strutting proudly on Laisvės Alėja in spring: we played rap and Eurodance. We felt like in some fancy American movie. An important place was Tulpė café. There was a tiny store of pirated audio tapes nearby: there was a perpetually sad guy sitting in it that we called Brolis Triušis (Brother Rabbit) who sold recorded tapes for 5 litas. The greatest event was to save this amount and go with my friends to look for new music: The tapes of Ace of Base, Pet shop Boys, Bryan Adams, Madonna, Michael Jackson allowed us to get a glimpse at this scary big and mysterious world of pop music related to the magical words America and Europe.

When I started hanging out with these teen subcultures, it was a necessary ritual to walk throughout the entire Laisvės Alėja, because it was the only way to get to the Old Town. At that time, I would say that this street was too open, too bourgeois: it always felt that I was observed by tens of pairs of eyes and assessed by all those fancy ladies drinking coffee in the middle of the day in some café terrace. To me, spending time this way seemed like an insolent luxury. Moreover, Laisvės Alėja was famous for its crossroads: guys with tracksuits used to gather around the kiosks built during the Soviet times. If you dared to go through the middle path, among the trees, you would always meet some gang sitting on the back of the bench, with their legs on the sitting part, spitting and loudly commenting on the appearance of passers-by. They even threatened to hit some of my friends. There was this one time, when I was walking with my classmate, a metalhead, and heard a very nasty comment about his hairdo. And one time I was full of horror when I recognised my other classmate in one of these gangs... Back in those times, it was the main street with its shops changing every two months and which we could not afford in any case, but also with various yards, secrets passages between buildings, inner labyrinths of infrastructure, gateways... I remember very well one of the first cigarettes I've ever smoked: with a metalhead from my school we were sitting on a bench not far from Pieno Baras. Some guys he knew invited us for a smoke to some gateway, because it was forbidden to do it in Alėja. Then they played some guitar and we parted. In order for my mother not to smell smoke, we would spray female deodorant to mouth...

These yards are probably the most precious place in Laisvės Alėja for me. The yard of drama theatre, stares and nooks of Žilinskas gallery, phantasmagorically colourful shops Pigūs Rūbai in a yard next to Spurginė (Doughnutry), a park next to the Musical Theatre, where one night I fell in love unexpectedly and fatally... I will never forget that sight of bats flying in circles around large trees in a mysteriously luminescent July sky, while my friends with rolled up trousers amidst the people bustling around went for a swim in the fountain because the weather was too hot.

When I was a student, I was not afraid of going to Laisvės Alėja, neither at day nor at night. I knew places that should be avoided, and I could freely go back even at 3 in the morning. It was empty but somewhat cosy: I felt that it was my city and it would defend me. I liked wandering around those yards alone: walk and explore those "unofficial" places on some sunny autumn's day and after starting missing people, get out somewhere next to Spurginė and buy some pastries. We would go to Spurginė in any case on long autumn afternoons, because it always smelled nice and was cheap. But I feel personal connection with those yards, it would be interesting to see how they have changed. I have found incredibly artistic nooks with all sculptures or plastic and wire construction that appeared in those yards from who knows were: every time walking there, I would find something picturesque and mysterious. Later, all those yards inspired me to describe Ūla’s walks in the novel Mes vakar buvom saloje (2014).

It is so sad that the legendary bar “Senas Stalčius” is gone. It seems that it was open for a very short time: in the next spring after I discovered it, there was another club in that place. Senas Stalčius was a place, where I felt this clear and strong beat of the artistic life for the first time. I could see the hairdos of punks, dyed in every colour imaginable, listen to weird and mysterious music by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and other amazing rock bands and feel like I ended up in a fantastically beautiful cinema film. My two friends and me, we used to sit on tall chairs and look around as if we were in some enchanted underworld kingdom... I remember walls with peeling paint, decorated with draperies, records, beads, all sorts of stylish items: gramophone, platform shoes spray-coloured and nailed to the wall, ancient copper teapot next to the ceiling with a snake stuffed with rags hanging on it... There was this bartender with black hair and bright blue eyes which I would recognise out of thousands of others: we were all in love with him at one time or the other.  We used to write him notes on paper napkins with a blue pen and leave them on the counter before departing, and after reading them, he used to flash us a smile and wave. Later we used to argue with tears in our eyes at which of us he was waving. I think that David Bowie would have liked that bar, because in his music videos, I saw characters that reminded me of the visitors of this club. It is weird but Senas Stalčius was crowded during any time of the day. Youngsters used to sit with striped, colourful shirt, girls in clothes that we called vintage, like some characters from a fantastic performance, on a very important and interesting mission... I will never forget that atmosphere, even though sometimes it seems that Senas Stalčius has been a dream, a mass hallucination.  It was even more weird to leave that basement and go to Laisvės Alėja. There was a jewellery store with cheap flashy items on display. We used to emerge into a different world, eyes ached from the reality, and legs would automatically turn to the side other than home.  And I always wanted to come back: I was there only for a couple of times, but every time I pass the former Laisvės cinema, I enter the gateway on purpose, look at the basement stairs and feel this special aura.  Even back then, when I was a fifteen-year-old, they would not sell me even coffee. They told me that I was young and that was not healthy for me.

Conversation with Justina Petrulionytė.