Travelling remains one of the most strangely contradictory experiences one can enjoy in life. It rewards you with new adventures while costing you small pieces of your old self that you inevitably leave behind. It is humbling as you witness the accomplishments of other cultures, yet it can be a source of pride as you wax poetic about your own culture while sharing a friendly pint. And you discover that there is one great big world that we all share, but it is a big world made up of a myriad of strange and different smaller ones. Sometimes you don’t need to travel very far to find a new world.
They aren’t a plane or train ride away. Sometimes, you just have to turn a corner. In Asia, it is all too common to be perusing a street full of food and knick-knack vendors, only to suddenly find yourself surrounded by incense and chanting prayers as you wander into a hidden shrine. In many Metropolitan cities throughout the world, you can cross the street and immerse yourself in Little Italy, Chinatown, or the diminutive cultural microcosm of your choice. And, should you find yourself in Vilnius, Lithuania, you may cross the right bridge and unintentionally discover the Republic of Užupis.
Following the fall of the Soviet Union, and Lithuania’s subsequent declaration of sovereignty, some of its people may have felt the independence streak a little too strongly. Just as the mighty male Darwin beetle, fresh from its many martial conquests of throwing other males from its mating tree will accidently and overzealously hurl its would-be and undoubtedly surprised mate from the branches of its love nest, so too did the seven thousand people of Užupis continue to enthusiastically exercise their independence, declaring themselves an independent nation of artists, free thinkers, and free spirits. This was not enough for some of the citizens, who went on to declare themselves a new breed of human, Homo Articus, and independent from Homo Sovieticus and Homo Capilitus.
Though, as these declarations did occur on April 1, this micronation may just be one of the largest and well-crafted pieces of political humor to exist safely under the phrase “April fools.” Whether it was simply a joke or not, the amount of effort given over to the new nation cannot be questioned. In addition to a president, Užupis has a cabinet, a standing army of approximately 10 people, a state flag for every season, usable currency for your pocket, a stamp for your passport, and a constitution of no less than 41 articles prominently displayed in 23 different languages. Being the modern micronation that they are, the full constitution can be found on the Republic of Užupis website. I find it refreshing that the people of Užupis are not only considerate enough to post their articles in so many different languages, but that they even took other species into account when crafting their constitution, posted for all to see. “A dog has the right to be a dog.” “A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee.” I am not sure what a time of “nee” is, but I applaud the progressive and considerate nature of the Užupis government.
As with most micronations, the concerned government from which the Republic of Užupis extricated itself, in this case Lithuania, has shown tolerance for the small state. No embargos or sanctions have been enforced, and border patrol is non-existent. Aside from the prominently displayed constitution, one enjoys a few other interesting sites while wandering around Užupis. Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of local art on display. Murals and graffiti adorn many of the walls, and an eclectic collection of statues resides on plinths that formerly displayed soviet busts. A large, stone penis can be found, proudly erect next to the river. Should you wish to see something slightly less offensive, but much less phallic, another well-known statue is of “backpacker Jesus,” where the familiar form of Christ with arms outstretched can be found, but with the addition of a sleeping roll and a backpack. The self-declared “Micronation” is not a concept original to Lithuania, but the amount of effort and good-natured attitude that has gone into the creation of Užupis lives up to a fine tradition and would do other micronations, such as Copenhagen’s more famous Freetown Christiania, proud. Personally, I wish more constitutions would take after Užupis, and I leave you with rights that are often overlooked, but are so important they should be written not just in stone, but on the soul. “Everyone has the right to make mistakes. Everyone has the right to be unique. Everyone has the right to Love.”