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2014.04.02 11:21

From Kiev just to celebrate the Užupis Independence Day

Christine Neijstrom | The Lithuania Tribune | DELFI2014.04.02 11:21

Man who would only introduce himself as Vlad, presented his Russian passport for yet another entry stamp at a checkpoint on the bridge leading into Vilnius’ mock “Republic of Užupis.”  Without even a trace of a smile, he proudly displayed his entry stamps and said, “There are very few things to celebrate in Lithuania these days.  I come here on April 1st for several years for the sense of humour I get here.”  Vlad, a veteran visitor of the April 1 Republic of Užupis’ day of Independence, understands that in Užupis some jokes are best told with a guise of grave sincerity.

 Man who would only introduce himself as Vlad, presented his Russian passport for yet another entry stamp at a checkpoint on the bridge leading into Vilnius’ mock “Republic of Užupis.”  Without even a trace of a smile, he proudly displayed his entry stamps and said, “There are very few things to celebrate in Lithuania these days.  I come here on April 1st for several years for the sense of humour I get here.”  Vlad, a veteran visitor of the April 1 Republic of Užupis’ day of Independence, understands that in Užupis some jokes are best told with a guise of grave sincerity.

Since 1997, Užupis has jokingly yet officially observed its national independence on April 1st. The event is both a celebration and a reflection of the bohemian spirit found along the hilly cobblestoned streets across the River Vilnelė from Vilnius’ old town.

To mark their entry into The Republic of Užupis, visitors to the neighbourhood can have their passports stamped at checkpoints manned by adolescents in bright yellow vests who take on their duty of asking pedestrians for their passports with a sunny irony under banners bearing the Užupis emblem of an egg in an open palm.

The first to receive a stamp in his passport at the 2014 checkpoint was Clay Moore.  “I’m thrilled” said the American Embassy Intern from Texas who requested an additional stamp for the back of his hand.  “I had done a lot of research before coming here today but I was very interested to learn Užupis has its own money.  I bought money.  I’m not going to buy beer with it.  I’m going to take it to home as a souvenir and give it to my family.”

Užupis’ Prime Minister, Sakalas Gorodetskis presented the Republic’s currency with pride. “When we started 11 years ago it was exactly 3.5 litas for a pint of beer.  Now beer costs 7 or 8 litas but our currency doesn’t change.” Gorodetskis winked as he added, “It stays the same.  You can know that the value of our currency will always be the same as when beer was 3.5 litas.”

Longtime Užupis resident Liudas Urbonas values the playful and active nature of his home and encourages his newest neighbours to contribute to the neighbourhood’s funky but fashionable flavour through real and tongue in cheek civic participation,  “The people who live here now, we expect newcomers to understand the spirit of this place.  This is a special place. We expect them to be more energetic and to take part in the events we organize and really be a part of Užupis.”

Urbonas was once a newcomer to a very different Užupis. “I moved here in 1995. I wanted no central heating, no supply of hot water because the prices at that time were like half of your wages.  I moved here because it was very close to Pilies street.  Now the quality of the streets is better and there are plenty of cafes and bars and shops.  Now it is something different from the Old Town and the mainstream. People who moved here were more artistic minded and those people are still living and working around here.”

 “20-25 years ago it was kind of a slum district of old town. Now its better, and strategically, the best place.  Now the river is clean.  In the summer time I go there for a swim to cool down, even.  I saw trout swimming before my eyes when I was lying in the water. It isn’t polluted upstream.  There are no more factories that used to pollute this river,” added Urbonas.

Far from a slum district, Užupis has been sought by tourists. Olga Kutsewok, Anna Sobolieva and Anna Nefodova scheduled their visit from Kiev to coincide with the Užupis Independence Day.  “I had a guide book that said April 1st was a special day here so we came to see Independence Day.”

“We had heard that this is the most beautiful, nice and interesting place in the whole city with lots of artists,” added Sobolieva.

Visitors to Užupis on any day can wander the small district until the discover the Republic’s Constitution, engraved and posted just a few steps away from its famous Angel statue.  Some highlights include “Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone” and “A dog has the right to be a dog.”

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