Sights, sensations, and allegations in Vilnius

I’d like to say my dominant memory from Vilnius was Uzupis, the bohemian neighborhood of the capital of Lithuania, the third and last of the countries I’ve visited from The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations list for 2014.

Walls are not blank in Uzupis

Walls are not blank in Uzupis

Uzupis followed one of the quintessential paths of the European twentieth century, from origin through inhumane human suffering, to the blossom of hope. It was primarily Jewish until the Nazis brought genocide (an estimated 70,000 people from Vilnius and the surrounding area murdered), then the Soviets killed the dead, destroying the old Jewish cemetery that once stood nearby. For a few decades of neglect, the area was home to the homeless, drugs, prostitution, and decay, then their sometime offspring: art, inspiration, and a spirit of self-reliance.

By Lithuanian independence in 1990, the area was already home to a bohemian set, and in 1997 Uzupis declared itself independent. How independent? The mayor of Vilnius lived there, independence day is April (Fools) 1, and the constitution? Click to enlarge. The area is just over half a square kilometer, and according to wikipedia, 1000 of the 7000 inhabitants are artists. I wonder if 6000 people would take issue with that statistic.

Click to enlarge, or here

Click to enlarge, or here

I walked along the river, admired the art, and chatted with crusty men smoking pipes and joints with pigment-stained fingers. The area is no ghetto anymore, and reminded me of Christiania in Copenhagen. I loved Uzupis. But it is not my strongest memory of Vilnius.

From there I walked up to “Bleak Hill” to see the three whitewashed crosses built in 1989 to replace the ones blown up by the Soviets in 1950, themselves replicas in a tradition dating back to 1636, when a couple missionary friars pissed off the local pagans and got themselves tortured to death. The remnants of the previous crosses lie just below, and you can see them for a moment before your eyes are inexorably drawn to the panorama of Vilnius below. It’s a good looking city.

Beautiful, historical, cultural and religious. And still not my main memory. The strongest impression was left by a girl, but it’s not what you’re thinking.

After the crosses I walked the streets of Old Town, and around to St. Peter and Paul Church, a Baroque masterpiece that stands out, even on that continent of churches. On my way to food I had to stop off at the Frank Zappa statue, pausing to read the graffiti notes until my stomach got too demanding. Then it was time for the girl. I have no idea what her name was.

Three cross, VilniusI actually first met her in Riga, where she was packing her bag on the beer-spotted carpet of a floppy hostel common room, Jimi Hendrix posters on the wall and Bob Marley on the stereo. She wrote my name in Korean on a torn guidebook page, and offered everyone valium and xanax from a shockingly large supply of both that she carried around in a sandwich bag.

That should have been my first warning.

But she seemed nice enough, and when she showed up in Vilnius, I greeted her with a smile and introduced her to the usual suspects from England, Australia, Canada etc. The lot of us went out to the bars, as you do, but her habit of carrying multiple sides of a conversation all by herself may have had something to do with the way everyone else drifted off.

I don’t think anyone else heard it the first time she said to me “Well, I’ve forgot my condoms, but if you like we can find a bathroom for a bit of a shag.” I pretended not to hear either. So she repeated it. I politely declined. Add several beers, and she no longer saw me as a friend. I discovered this fact on the dance floor, when my dorky dancing was interrupted by her hands closing around my throat from behind. Let’s just say, she was not a waif of a girl.

The rest of the night was a series of assaults, then allegations made against me to random guys on the street who turned out to be plain-clothes police. Their investigation quickly reached the factual basis of the situation, and their looks were pure laughing commiseration. I spent the night on an empty bunk upstairs, not trusting her sanity to sleep in the same dorm room.

In the morning I came downstairs and was greeted with the question: “Hey, guy, did you pee on that girl last night?”

Luckily the hostel owner was as astute as the police, and he quickly deduced “Yeah, I didn’t think so, she was just that drunk, but she said you peed on her bed to make her look bad, and that next time she sees you, you’re going to be sorry. She means it, man.”

I would have liked to stay longer in beautiful Vilnius, but I caught a bus out that afternoon.