Saturday, August 1, 2009

Of Weddings and Locks

As you will recall, last Saturday we sat at a café in the main plaza and watched a string of brides posing for wedding pictures. This Saturday we decided to explore another part of the area, Uzupis. Uzupis means “on the other side of the river” and in fact it is located across the Vilnius River. The early inhabitants were Jewish and their presence dated back to the 1500s. After the Holocaust the houses of the Jews were occupied by the homeless and other vagrants. It was largely neglected for many years. Now it is the area where many artists live and work. Many young artists still squat in abandoned buildings. In 1997 they declared themselves an independent republic complete with their own flag, currency, constitution, president and army (12 men). The focus of the republic is artistic in nature and the President is a poet, musician and film director. One of their first acts as a republic was to put up a sculpture of Frank Zappa.

We walked past some of the large Catholic churches behind Pilies, a street lined with cafes and filled with activity. From there we crossed what seemed more like a creek than a river and followed a wall covered with graffiti into Uzupis. We knew we had arrived when we stumbled upon a square with a large statue of an angel holding a trumpet for which the area is known. We walked down to a café by the river where we had lunch.

Here we decided it was time to try some of the native cuisine and ordered two traditional Lithuanian dishes, cepelinai and beet root soup.

We all have memories of our older relatives drinking borsht, a thick beet soup. Here they add sour cream so it turns a kind of magenta. The cepelinai looks rather gelatinous, but it is actually ground pork encased in a potato onion coating and then appears to be boiled. It is quite heavy inspiring “Lead” Zeppelin jokes.

As we enjoyed our lunch, we noticed a bridal party making its way towards the bridge. We noticed that the bridge was covered with locks and learned that it is the custom of newlyweds to have their names engraved on a lock which they attach to the bridge railing. Then they throw the key into the river. We watched as a second bridal party also made its way onto the other end of the bridge. As we continued our wanderings, we met up with a continuous string of wedding parties. We began referring to them by the color of the bridesmaids' dresses to distinguish one from the other. It seemed as if the entire town had been rented out for a wedding shoot.

We then walked towards town where we found the constitution of Uzupis posted on mirrored plaques in a multitude of languages, Lithuanian, Russian, Yiddish, French and English among them. The constitution outlines 41 points such as “everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone; everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance; everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation; a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need and everyone has the right to understand nothing.”

We then found an area of beautifully painted buildings and art constructions. We decided it was time to move on when another bridal party with photographer in tow arrived.

Aside from the bridal parties and the cafes, the area seemed fairly deserted. We stopped at an interesting churchyard were we visited with a British man, married to a Lithuanian, who has recently retired here. After sharing with him that we were in the Yiddish language program, he observed the differences between how the Lithuanians and the Danes had responded to the plight of Jews during WWII. He felt that to this day there is still a failure to acknowledge local collaboration with the Nazi policies.

During one of our frequent café stops one of our new friends shared a joke from an interesting site called Old Jews Telling Jokes. It puts out a new joke every Tuesday and Thursday. One thing we have realized in our travels thus far is how universal Jewish humor is. Whether it was Michael Freydman in Riga or members of the Jewish community in Vilnius, the humor felt familiar. We’ve tried to identify what the quality is and we’ve concluded it is a “bissel” (a little) irony, a “bissel” sarcasm and a “bissel” wit.

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