Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dram: The Independent Republic of Uzupis

Uzupis1Another charming and intriguing aspect of Vilnius is that it is home to The Independent Republic of Uzupis. Seriously!... sort of. Uzupis -- which means "on the other side of the river" -- is a district of Vilnius which was especially run down after "the Soviet days" and was therefore particularly cheap to inhabit. It became popular with artists and other "free spirits" who declared their independence from Lithuania on April 1, 1997. As the date may give you a clue, this "independence" is technically an April Fool's joke, but it is spiritually robust and gives the district a unique character. As with many such areas, it has since become a very popular place to live for those who are less "artsy" and more affluent, so it has become a chic and very expensive area of the city. Nevertheless, it retains much of its bohemian aesthetic and takes itself somewhat seriously, under the patient aegis and remarkably good humored countenance of the actual government of Vilnius and Lithuania.

Uzupis2The Republic's Constitution, posted prominently in three languages, is comprised of 41 Articles ranging from the "serious" -- e.g. "Everyone may be independent" and "No one has the right to violence" -- to the "abstract" -- e.g. "Everyone has the right to be happy" and "Everyone has the right to be unhappy" -- and even to the "quirky" -- e.g. "A dog has the right to be a dog" and "A cat is not obligated to love its owner, but must help in time of need" -- which are some of my personal favorites. Among the Republic's charming customs is that when couples marry they put a lock on one of the bridges that lead across the river to signify their commitment to the institution. Most of these locks are inscribed with names and dates, memorializing the nuptial individuals for all to see. The tradition of throwing the key in the river speaks, I suspect, either to the fact that this is an almost exclusively Catholic country or to the availability of strong bolt cutters.

Uzupis3As you might imagine, the "egg" scenario I wrote about in the previous Dram originated in Uzupis, and the statue you see here was the first to be "hatched." Considering the Soviet oppression from which Lithuania has emerged as a nation -- and the cloud of despair it continues to struggling to work its way out of -- I found it both remarkable and encouraging to see the spirit of independence so enthusiastically -- even if whimsically -- displayed within its capital city. The Republic of Uzupis is a delightful part of Vilnius -- an absolute "must" on the list of places to visit here -- and a prominent example of why I have found this city to be one of the most interesting places I have been. To quote the last three Articles of the Uzupis Constitution: "Do not defeat. Do not fight back. Do not surrender."

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