Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Republic of Uzipis

It's like sliding down the rabbit hole into an Alice in Wonderland world when you cross the Vilnia River into The Republic of Uzipis (ooz-shi-pea), which means "across the river." If you don't much like your government, you could think about this ancient, bohemian neighborhood on the edge of the old city in Vilnius. You could be inspired by Frank Zappa, as were a few citizens of Uzipis in 1997.  Declare independence. Write your own constitution. Make your neighborhood a nation state with its own president & flag & guardian angel on a plinth.
Gabriel blows his horn, the angel of Uzipis, by Romas VilĨiauskas, in the style of Soviet realism, an ironic mix of content & form representing artistic freedom of independent Eastern Europe.
Rather than "We the people . . . ," the Constitution of Uzipis starts off by saying "Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnia and the River Vilnia has the right to flow by everyone."  Mounted on mirrored plaques (in 15 languages) on a wall around the corner from the Uzupio Kavine, a coffehouse/bar/restaurant that's the center of government and social life, the 41 articles are, more or less, a statement that everyone would do well to let everyone else do or not do as they please. You got a problem with that? 

At least in part, the Republic of Uzipis is an artist response to shaking off Soviet rule. Lithuania was the first among former Soviet "republics" to do that, officially in 1990, with years of struggle to pull away & exist independently as an autonomous nation. Much of the resistance leadership was among the artist community, and the current mayor of Vilnius resides here. This struggle continues today, as Lithuanian electricity comes via Russian monopoly, at very high cost that holds back Lithuania's economy.

Courtyard entrance to a gallery in Uzipis.

The main bridge across Vilnia River into Uzipis. "Love locks" express bonds between couples.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Getting to Know Vilnius Old Town

Looking north along Didzioji Street — a few steps out the door from where I'm staying. That's the steeple of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, one of 30 some churches, from the 14th through 18th centuries, in the old town —mostly Roman Catholic, some Orthodox, a couple Protestant. During Soviet rule all the churches were "re-purposed" as administrative buildings, museums & often, I'm told, warehouses. They're beautifully restored and represent many European architectural styles.
The old town of Vilnius is a joy to wander and behold. Within my rather limited travel experience, I can compare it to the old cities in Quebec and Montreal — brick & stone buildings that seem ancient compared to almost all USA cities; narrow, curvy cobblestone side streets that disorient you at the same time as you feel charmed by the tangible sense of history.

Vilnius Old Town is much bigger in area than either Quebec or Montreal old cities, but still quite walkable. When you think you're lost, you keep walking in circles & soon come out on one of the two or three main drags, recognizable by being wider and straighter than the side streets. 

Like Quebec's old town, Vilnius is a United Nations (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. I have no trouble appreciating why that's so. This place began as a city in the 14th c. (if not earlier).  It's a cocktail of tribalisms — Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German (all languages you'll hear if your ears are tuned). And Jewish. For centuries until WW II, Vilnius was a thriving center of Jewish culture. Twentieth c. history here is tragic beyond words (though I'll no doubt have more to say about that).
Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, who founded Vilnius sometime in the early 1300s. The story is he woke from a dream after pitching his hunting camp here. In the dream, a wolf was howling & invulnerable to arrows (see wolf, lower right). The blue sky is from about 8 p.m. last night via iPhone cam (7/17).

The main streets of Old Town are clean with attractively restored buildings, many shades of brick, usually painted — carefully chosen pastels & coordinated trim, russet tile roofs — and I expect UN funds are part of this, since Lithuania is, by American standards, a poor country. There's an overwhelming abundance of cafes & restaurants, sidewalk cafes everywhere — Lithuanians (also, I'm told, many Russians on holiday) seem to love evenings on the town for dinner & drink. Sidewalks bustle and cafes hum with talk at 10 p.m. and later — even on weeknights. Probably not so much in winter, but July is comfy, so far in the 70s and cool enough for a light jacket or sweater after dark, which comes late — sunset 9:45 p.m. today, with light still in the sky at 10:30, and dawn early, 5 a.m.

Restaurants & food in general (I shop at the local grocery and often, so far, eat at my rental condo) are cheap by USA standards. I'll report further on cuisine (which most people like to know about) when I've had a little more experience.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Getting Ready to Travel

“Suppose, before they said silver or moonlight or wet grass, each poet
had to agree to be responsible for the innocence of all the suffering on earth . . . .”     

                                                                                     — Robert Hass

Making my list & checking it — things to do before I depart, Thursday, July 11, on the way to Vilnius, Lithuania, a two-week program, the Summer Literary Seminar (SLS). Plenty of info about it here.  SLS is also on Facebook with many current posts about what's happening here.

Of all the places to go, why Vilnius? — some have asked.  I submitted poems for the SLS fellowship competition, which covers everything — tuition, travel, room & board — and didn't win, but . . . I was a "shortlist finalist" and they offered me a tuition discount. Being jubilado (jubilant, Spanish for retired) and not getting any younger, I cogitated and said to myself, Mike, you should do this.

For a couple months, I've been unsystematically prepping:

  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (2010). (Thanks to poet friend Marc Jampole who called my attention to this book & loaned me his copy, which I still have, after loaning it to two others in the meantime. This is a major-major, award-winning historical study — what happened to people, Jews but not only Jews, in the countries between Poland and Russia in the 1930s & 40s. Among exhaustive sources, including personal testimonies, Snyder, a Yale professor, drew from documents available only since the 1990s de-Sovietization of this region.)

  The Partisans of Vilna (1986), a documentary film about Jewish resistance in the Vilnius ghetto, riveting, informative to me at many levels. Thanks to my friend Doug Schiller for telling me about this film, and thanks to Doug also for photocopied chapters from Shpil, edited by Yale Strom (2012), a book about the history of klezmer music in Eastern Europe. (The Partisans of Vilna is available on DVD from Netflix and also from Carnegie Library.)

"Dictionary of Vilno Streets," an essay by Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel laureate Polish poet in his collection of essays, To Begin Where I Am (Farrar, Straus: 2001). Milosz grew up in Vilnius (part of Poland then, until 1939) before studying in Paris and living and writing in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, then emigrating after the Soviets took over — to USA in the 50s, where he spent the rest of his life as professor at Berkeley, where USA poet laureate Robert Hass (quoted at the top of this post) became a friend and translator of his work. Milosz returned to Vilnius when he was 80, and wrote about his childhood there with detailed affection. (p.s. I met Milosz briefly in Philadelphia in the 80s.)

An extensive Yad Vashem website about pre-1940s Vilnius as a vital center of Jewish culture.

I've also been reading Lost, a Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn & looking at YouTube videos about Hitler, the Final Solution, etc. — maybe getting a little OCD about this.

Maybe the amazing thing is that the world, what was left of it after 1945, didn't find a way to vaporize Germany & the Germans. Every strain of me is, in a way, German — Pennsylvania Deutsch. My dad & grandad (people called him Heinie) used to sprechen ze Deutsch.  My dad drove a Sherman tank into Germany & came home a changed person, said his mother — and I'm sure his combat experience affected who I am.

The "inner tyrant" is a phrase I learned from my friend Tony Hoagland. I'd like to vaporize that part of me, whether or not it's German. A worthy life's task, I think, not yet accomplished. 

I haven't yet mentioned Herman Snyder, 93, grew up in a town near Vilnius, survived by running away from the ghetto at 21 & living three years in the woods. Herman lives near Carnegie Mellon, a friend of my friend & former American Lit professor Bob Gale.

Enough for now.

djeckou & zay gezunt,

Mike  (from Toronto enroute to Vilnius)