Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Republic of Uzupis

Uzupis, meaning "on the other side of the river," is an area of old town Vilnius. It is literally and figuratively on the other side. 
We reached Uzupis via a graffiti embellished set of stairs and a rusty old bridge over the river Vilnia. We wandered around its quiet streets and enjoyed beer and mussels at a lovely river-side cafe. It was as pleasant and laid back as a place could be. 

Uzupis was originally a Jewish area when it was settled in the 1600s. Most of its inhabitants were killed during the Holocaust, and during Soviet times, the area was one of the most neglected parts of the city, home to its most marginalized people-young squatters, the homeless,criminals, prostitutes, and the unemployed. 

Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site is home to 7000 people, 1000 of whom are artists. It's a world unto itself.

Not long after Lithuania declared its independence from Soviet rule, Uzupis declared its independence. April 1 is its Independence Day. Protected by a mermaid AND an angel, it has its own army of 11 men, its own flag (one for every season), its own mayor and president, and its own constitution published for all to see in fifteen languages on a wall in a side street. 

My daughter Jordan reflected in the Constitution.
I love the constitution of the Republic of Uzupis.  It gives its citizens rights that most people in the western world would never dream of. I  love the fact that people have the right to be in doubt and to be unhappy. I love that being "undistinguished" is one of their rights. I love that people have the right to cry and the right to be be misunderstood- to accept both their negligibility and their magnificence. I love that dogs and cats have rights. I love that people have the right to understand nothing. 

On our side of the river, everyone is mad about success. People are told to "be the best you can be" and that "you can have anything if you just want it badly enough" and that "the only thing holding you back is yourself." The idea that everyone must relentlessly strive to reach his or her potential is considered a worthy goal to which all must aspire. It was wonderful to find a place where people have the constitutional right to just BE.

Here in the Republic of Alberta, the articles of our unwritten constitution don't have much in common with that of Uzupis. Here, we focus on the things we should do and be and have. We should be leaner and fitter and smarter. We should entertain more often. We should volunteer more and donate more to charity. We should have a cleaner house, a newer car, more fashionable clothes, better behaved kids and dogs that don't jump up on people when they enter the house. Having doubt and recognizing your insignificance are articles we would never condone. 

Teachers, parents and students should read the Ministerial Order mandated by the Minister of Education.The list of qualities that should be present in every "educated Albertan" is exhausting. Beyond skills and knowledge, our young people must also be self-reliant and confident and bold and take risks. They need to be innovative and motivated and never hold back. They must be adaptable and self disciplined and successful and competitive and optimistic and resourceful and tenacious and compassionate and have the courage to dream. They should always be growing and learning. They should contribute to the economy of their province. They must always be in a state of becoming. They cannot just BE. 
The Mermaid of Uzupis

Alberta is a long way from Uzupis. Across not just a river, but a sea, an ocean, and the better part of a continent, it's a long way figuratively as well. Here in Alberta, few people have suffered the privations of the people of Uzupis. Few have lived through genocide and tyranny, or fascist and communist rule. Very few have been forced to live in rundown old buildings where there seemed to be no chance of freedom and no hope for a better life. While there is certainly a gap between rich and poor, few people are destitute and without hope. Yet perhaps because of everything we have, we can't think of anything to value but having more. 

Yet our young people are crying out.  Our post secondary students suffer a preponderance of mental health issues. Fully half of the students at the University of Alberta experience feelings of "overwhelming helplessness". Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people, and rates for those under 18 doubled in Alberta in recent years.

On our side of the river, perhaps we experience our own forms of poverty and tyranny. A poverty of the imagination that does not allow us to explore other ways of being and knowing. A tyranny to conform to a culture of continuous improvement that can be damaging to the soul.