Friday, March 26, 2010

Turning Patriotic

March 25th is to be set down in history.

Yes, it was the birthday of the forming of the EU. Yes, it was also the day that a few rugged mountain men, irregular fighters called "Kleftes" made war on the Ottomans. (Odd fact: all of the military celebrations in Greece mark the beginning of wars and never the end.) So yes, all of these things are true and very important, but it was also the day that I rode my bicycle going the wrong direction down Syngrou Avenue. For those who haven't been down Syngrou Avenue on any given day, imagine that old arcade game where Bart Simpson is trying to skateboard down the sidewalk and cars are backing out, bullies are throwing trash cans, flower pots are crashing... well, put this on a highway and add some traffic, then roughly three hundred smart cars, five hundred taxis and three thousand mopeds, all out for blood.

It was a fantastic day. Everyone was out, but nobody was driving. The kids were on top of the shoulders of their pappous (grandfathers) and dressed in the clothes that inspire national pride in the hearts of the people of Greece, these fustanellas and fussy dresses, vests fastened by chains of gold coins and tights... unfortunately for all who participated in the day's activities in full costume it was the warmest day of the year.

Parades, for me, are right up there with monster truck rallies and air shows in the category of "things called 'fun' but are mostly just noisy." On the other hand, my deep blue Greek fever having failed to subside even after my tourist title has faded into the gray, I whole-heartily wanted to watch this day and engage in all of its specific festivities.

First: the local parade
My neighborhood of Kallithea is one of many surrounding the relatively small city center of Athens. They operate more like independent villages than suburbs and have their own municipal activities, so the parade as organized by Kallithea was maybe not as grand as the one lining up down Amelias Avenue in Athens but it had heart. The schoolkids were half in costume and half in uniform, some of them laughing and gossiping behind the high school marching bands, some of them straight faced and serious as they were dressed in their historical costumes, but it was messy and fun.

Second: The official parade
6 km further into the center G and I got into this expansive bit of road I mentioned before. I just never knew it had so much pavement! And the sidewalks were brimming with people, the military clubs in all of their respective livery were lined and standing in perfect silence which was transferred to the swarming mass of people lining the sidwalks into Syntagma Square. We peddled further into the middle section of Panepistimiou, or "University" where we finally found a nice window in the human wall.

First up, the steel heels of the nine pound, pom-pom adored shoes of the Evzones, the most honored division, the "fine-waisted ones," striking the street in perfect unison. Even for a hippie pacifist such as myself it was a sound stirring up some deep, warrior-like instinct in me wanting to cheer them into battle.

"Take some heads!"

Then the various regiments, the most impressive of which being the Special forces: the ski unit, all in white with their skis over their shoulders and poles in hand, and the Greek Navy Seals who were marching there in the 80 degree heat in full rubber wetsuits. Tanks strapped to their back. Masks on heads, most of which were gleaming bald. They looked like the Commandos of the Black Lagoon, barking as they marched, "No matter the cost, no enemy on our soil!" or something equally extreme.

(I would like to take a moment to note the babe policewoman in front. I don't know why; in Greece all of the Policewomen look like catalog models.)

All of this with the bands playing national marching tunes and people cheering wildly...but in the absence of the excess of former years such as planes and helicopters flying overhead, tanks following the troops, sports cars...

G found it disgraceful that they would cut here, on a day they should be inspiring the people. I argued that in these times, when you've hardly left a restaurant and it's closing its doors, stores are marking off merchandise at 70% just trying to make rent, it's a show of responsibility.

Third: Politics and Opinion Stating

We continued this discussion walking toward Mitrapolious Street to say hello to Michelle, an American long in Greece and owner of an exquisite jewelry store, who was also talking to a woman named Ellen, a Canadian-Greek who was on a year-long sojourn around the world. Ellen is a vice principal (on leave) with a sort of new-age, Doris Day, "What will be will be" attitude toward life and with her arms wide open. She told us about India and Cambodia, next up is Spain and Italy. I asked her if she was doing this which point she broke in "For myself. I'm doing it for myself!"

Drooled a little on poor Michelle's glass cases before moving on down Voulis Street.

Fourth: Vangelis Name Day

Yes on top of being the National Day, it is also the name day of all people named "Vangelis." It means "Angel." To explain this in a little more detail, any baby born in the Orthodox church must be christened after an Orthodox saint. Each saint is given a "day" which their name is celebrated, so anybody, place, or thing with that name must spend the entire day answering their phone and hearing "Xronia Pola!!" Which means "Many Years!!" and is a fail safe thing to say on any given holiday.

Now -if- you stop by this person's place and shout at them "Xronia Pola!" they are obliged to give you a little cake. That's right! It's like a complete role reversal on the birthday. And directly down the street from my new office (a subject that will soon get its very own blog) there is a lovely little coffee shop called "Deseo" owned by a young man named, you guessed it.

So I popped my head into Vangelis and said "Xronia Pola!" And he gritted his teeth and hesitantly opened a pink pastry box and offered a little cake to which I happily partook of a creamy, puffy little number with chocolate icing. I found out later that he was sweating bullets as he knew he hadn't bought enough cakes and was expecting people later that evening. (I didn't enjoy my cream-puff any less.)

We visited with Panos, owner of the Acropolis Hotel, and his own personal "Pancho" named Spiros. We talked about Texas, Obama, the crisis, women... and then Panos left. Shortly after, Spiros left. And that was when we realized we were very hungry.

FIFTH: Μπακαλιἀρο και σκοδιἀ
The traditional dish of National Day, think of it as the Greek Thanksgiving Turkey, is a fried fish dish called "Bakaliaro" served with a vampire-destroyingly delicious sidekick called "Skodia." This is nothing but garlic ground to a pulp and drowned in olive oil and is really lethal for anyone self-conscious of an odoriferous state. The consensus is that so long as you maintain solidarity, you'll survive.

And after that we moved to the informal Sixth step of the program, which was to hitch a ride with our friend, Harry, as he drove the SUNSHINE EXPRESS, a white and blue assemblage of parts and carts making up something resembling a train, around the waxing madness of Plaka and Monistiraki. All of those former parade-goers turned bakaliaro, skodia and wine guzzling cafe-goers when the clock struck 3pm. The cafes, having had anticipated their larger than average turnout, had placed so many tables in the street that Harry had nary a given inch on either side as he weaved down Adrianou Street. I learned a rainbow of new Greek curse words, sitting there in the caboose as he finagled his way through, at one point even stopping the train to get out and push a car out of his path to finish the route. I thought it was a lovely metaphor for life, but Harry just thought it was another headache of Greek reality and is currently looking for a host in America, if there are any takers.

Thus ended my first true celebration of Greece's National Day. And to return to the Greek lesson, I'm working on something that is coming, siga siga (slowly slowly) which is to memorize a poem by Constantine P Cavafy.

I can't prove it; you'll just have to trust me, I'm writing from memory the first sentence here.

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμὀ για την Ιθἀκη,
να εὐχεσαι νἀναι μακρὐς ο δρὀμος
γεμἀτο περιπἐτειες, γεμἀτο γνὠσεις.

It translates to (more or less)

When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your journey be long
full of adventure, full of knowledge.