25th March and 28th October are the two Greek national holidays which are marked with great ceremony. The first celebrates the start of the revolutionary war against the Ottoman Turks in 1821; the second, known as “OXI day”, marks the anniversary of Greece’s entry into WW II by saying “No” to Mussolini’s demand to march through Greek territory. It probably says a lot about our national psyche that we celebrate the start of wars rather than the end of them – something of the small nation syndrome perhaps, a big “don’t mess” to would-be invaders. If you are Greek-American you may have been treated to this surreal video marking the “OXI day” with world leaders praising Greek courage with remarkable lack of context and self-awareness. I thought it would be useful as a counterpoint to give some flavour of what a national holiday is like on the ground in Greece.
The central event of a Greek national holiday is the parade (παρέλαση: parélasi), typically a military parade and a school parade held on alternate days in Athens and Thessaloniki, and local school and veterans’ parades in smaller towns and neighbourhoods. But don’t imagine a sombre occasion like Remembrance Sunday or a jolly one like the Fourth of July. The Greek parélasi is more “Eastern Block” in inspiration, but tempered with quintessentially Greek indiscipline and je-m’en-foutisme. Here are some of the essential elements that one can expect to find at a typical parélasi:
Slutty schoolgirls and the guys behind the cameras who love them
Nothing says “the future of our proud nation” like a gaggle of 14-17 year old jailbait in fanny pelmets and stripper shoes strutting down the local high street like the cast of Showgirls doing St Trinian’s. Greek schoolchildren don’t normally wear uniforms, so this is the only chance they have to bend a dress code and they do it with a vengeance. This lovely compilation captures the enduring look, despite the uncharacteristically disciplinarian advice from one much-loved public figure. Please note, the girl bearing the flag will have achieved the top grades in the school.
Tanks, aircraft, submarines, guys in cammo and wetsuits. Perhaps slightly tainted by the knowledge that it was purchased at a premium from the country’s creditors, through shadowy deals, is not always fully functional and is one of the few areas of state expenditure that has been barely touched by austerity. At the present juncture (March 2016) some might question the wisdom of having military aircraft “buzz” areas where some 50,000 refugees and migrants are sheltering, many of them traumatised children fleeing war. But hey, check out that loop-the-loop!
Women with hardware, aka. chicks with guns
The human interest story
The press always latches on to a heart-warming inspirational story, this year (October 2015) the small island school that showed its spirit by parading its two pupils for the benefit of the handful of inhabitants. It is now more common to feature in this category the children from immigrant communities that become flag-bearers by distinguishing themselves academically. This is a leap forward if one considers that only a few years ago an Albanian pupil resigned his right to carry the Greek flag at the parélasi “for the good of society” after his classmates and their parents occupied the school and halted lessons in protest.
The bogus controversy
October 2015: Barriers at the parélasi. At the height of the anti austerity protests, parades were used as an occasion to confront and sometimes attack politicians on the officials’ podium, and as a result strict crowd control measures were introduced. The Syriza/ANEL government has made a symbolic statement of removing the security measures and creating a controversy over even the most rudimentary barriers. In the run-up to last March’s parade, there was a debate over whether or not to fly the fighter jets due to the cost; apparently this year the economy has improved enough for that to be a non-issue.
October 2015: mainstream politicians used the occasion of the school parades to battle it out over the hot topic of VAT on private education. This is mild compared to 2011, when parades were invaded by teachers’ union protests (more subtle teacher activism is a constant feature – example: kindergarten pupils carrying “cute” protest signs like “NATO out of the Balkans” on a dove, during the Kosovo conflict). This year there were no big protests, but the anti-austerity spirit lives on in the regions, where the former soap-actor mayor of a town in central Greece used his speech to a local primary school to urge the pupils to honour the spirit of resistance by acting on the slogan “the lenders, the loan sharks and the mnimónia (creditor agreements) can go f**k themselves”.
Image credits linked in the accompanying text.