This year March 25th 2021 marks the 200th year anniversary of Greek Independence Day, the fateful day when the Greek flag was hoisted by Bishop Germanos of Patra from a pole outside a Greek monastery of Agia Lavra in the Pelopponesus to signal the official declaration of war against the Ottoman Turks. Although AHEPA will not be able to host an annual Greek Independence Day Parade or “parelasi” on 5th Avenue due to the pandemic, that does not keep us from raising our flags, the glorious blue and white stripes against a square with a white cross, in our hearts and souls.
For a forced immigrant like myself who was yanked from the ideal home and hearth of my extended family as a child of five, I carry a deep reverence for the sacrifices of my ancestors. I think this is why it has taken me so long to assimilate into American culture. That initial trauma of being ripped from the beautiful seaside, the warmth of family and extended kin, with the comfort of belonging became associated with the cut-throat reality of scrambling for the American Dream. Growing up as an immigrant makes you feel alienated not just from the new adopted country but from your country of origin. In my physical reality, I was an American, educated in American schools, excelling in American history, but in my heart, I felt Greek. Ironically however, I was never given a Greek education. I was never formally taught about the War of Independence because in school we were busy getting drilled on the particulars of the American Revolution, the Civil War, Jim Crowe. I was indoctrinated in the history of an adopted country that I had not chosen to be a part of. Just a simple history lesson can be an act of oppression, at least repression. Getting compelled to learn the history of a nation in order to make you a part of it is a way of erasing or not acknowledging your own history. The Hellenic part of me got buried deep somewhere. My Hellenic identity went underground for many years.
But, the one opportunity I did get to learn about my “lost” history was when we participated in the annual “parelasi” or Greek Independence Day Parade. This served as my personal history lesson. It manifested the heroism, the reality that I came from a different stock of people; I belonged to a rich powerful culture with its own distinct history. The Greek Independence Day Parade became a way to reconnect with that buried self. And not just to resurface, but to shine and strut and shout with pride–“Zhto i Ellas! Ζητο η Ελλας!῾
The Greek Independence Day Parade gave us all permission to be proud for who we were–something different from Americans. The Greek Independence Day Parade has become a personal history lesson, a day of remembrance, and pride. Lots of pride.
The following is an excerpt from my book:
“Are you going to the parelasi?” Ellen asks.
“If it doesn’t rain. Last year we froze our butts off.”
“Oh come on! Show your Greek pride. The Irish go to their parade, rain or shine. Where’s your patriotism?”
“But, it’s just another one of those boring Greek-American rituals!”
“No, it’s not”–it stands for something larger than itself. Show your Greekiness and go. Do it for the country. Do it for your Pappou. And my Pappou, Theos chorestoune,” she crosses herself the Greek way, the three forefingers held together in a point, touch first the top of the forehead, then the belly, then the right shoulder and finally, the left.
“OK, I’ll go! But only if it’s NOT raining.
But of course it usually rains on the Greek parade. We don’t have the luck of the Irish. When they have their parade two to three weeks earlier, it’s always sunny with record-breaking temperatures; for us, it’s cold and miserable.
Here it is again! The Parelasi. That annual gathering of Greeks who would not normally be seen in the same picture together, let alone the same block. Busloads of kids, frenetic teachers and fussy parents come from far and wide as Cherry Hill or Stanford to march in the annual Greek-American parade. “Excuse me, Miss,” a American-looking character ask me on the corner of 82nd and 5th one year. In grey jogging pants, ADIDAS-clad shirt with a reddish-tinge to his complexion, he had obviously come from his Sunday Central Park jog.
“What’s this all about? What’s the occasion?”
“Oh, this is the Greek-American Independence Day parade. It happens every year at around this time. March 25th is the actual holiday.”
The Anglo-Saxon continues, “Independence from who? I didn’t know Greece ever needed to be independent.
“From the Ottoman Turks,” I reply. “You see, the Greeks were enslaved under Turkish control for over 400 years until 1821. We almost lost our culture during that time. So we are commemorating the heroes of the Greek Revolution. If you remember Lord Byron, the English guy? the poet? He fought in the Greek Civil War and died. He’s considered a war hero, too.”
“Oh, I see,” the WASP looked on at the corny paper mache floats of light blue and white stripes with teenagers dressed up in chitons and ivy wreaths waving at the crowd. So many resurrected Socrates, Platos, Homers in suburban rivalry with one another. We had usurped his boundary, 5th Avenue, the golden lining to the cloud of the Upper East Side. At least for one Sunday afternoon in March or early April, depending on how fast the people who organized this thing worked without bickering over the minute details such as who goes first, who goes second, what percentage should each syllogo/organization/foundation give to pay the City’s permit.
“Is that your flag?” he asked pointing to the hundreds of plastic minis flapping in the wind, the clever souvlaki-cart-turned-Greek-flag entrepreuner was pushing at the corner.
“It looks a lot like the American flag, with the same striped pattern of lines. Except that it has a cross in the field where our stars are, and there are less stripes.”
“Hey, you’re right,” I said, “I never noticed that before.
Before us pass two crooked lines of tsoliades and amalias from some parochial school in Brooklyn. The turquoise folds of the costumes catch the sunlight and reflect it back in sharp, stilletto gleams. Just like the beginning line of the Greek national anthem–“Se gnorizo apo tin opsi tou spathiou tin tromeri. Se gnorizo apo tin kopsi pou me bia metra tin Gi.” The tassels on the girls’ little red velvet cap, pursed in the middle around a little button, dangle in the opposite direction of the black tassels on the boys’ white woolen stockings.
“Did they actually dress like that for battle?” the WASPy gentleman is intrigued now.
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Do the men always wear skirts?” he presses on.
“No, this is the traditional patriotic costume. It has a ceremonial function. People don’t dress like that in the street.”
“OK, I was wondering about this in the movies.”
“You know, it’s like the Scots with their kilts . . .”
“Oh, yeah. I see, I see, ” he nods, securing his spectacles.
“Who is this man?” he points to a large mural of Kolokotronis, the Old Man of Morea on the float passing by.
Thank God, he asked me about Kolokotronis. Had he asked me a question about Giorgios Karaiskakis or Palon Patron Germanos, I wouldn’t have been able to answer him. I mean, who the hell are all these men dressed in frilly skirts, wearing kerchiefs and waving long Turkish scimitars? What connection do I have to them anyway? I’m just a girl who grew up in Astoria, who was taught about President Washington who was so honest he had to tell about his cutting down a cherry tree. I knew all about the white-wigged, stern, pale old men wearing navy-blue suits with gold buttons down the front, black boots, yielding bright green bayonets; who had wooden false teeth and slave mistresses in their barns where they screwed in the night. But these fellows? I had descended somehow from a long line of brutish, sheep-hording cheesemakers who doubled as a subversive band of rubble-rousing rebels. I learned about our history, my real history, only in fragments—through the larger-than-life, stock paper faces that floated down 5th Avenue.
Watching the paper mache PVC-piping connected floats assembled in somebody’s suburban backyard, I recognized faces. Faces that returned like waves in banners with gold filligree, in oil-painted murals rehashed from last year’s parelasi, in portraits framed in paper carnations, in pictures amatuerishly spray-painted along the sides of Church vans-cum-processionals. They appeared these faces like names out of a fairy-tale or storybook. Somehow you know the story happened somewhere, but there’s a cloud, a fog of unclarity that hugs it so it appears in your mind’s eye–mythical.
Kolokotronis for one I knew easily. He’s the one with the fierce, fiery-red look in his eyes and the bushy overgrown moustache. He wears a turban and carries a holster with at least two scabbards and two pistols in his front right pocket. (It also helped that his last name rhymed with “golo” or “ass”)
“That’s General Kolokotronis,” I explain. “He started as an arch-klefti, a leader of a rebel army in the Peloponnesus. His expert shooting ability earned him the nickname “Old Man.” When the Revolution of 1821 was declared he gained leadership of the Greek forces, gaining many victories obliterating the army of the Turkish general Dramali. His efforts proved crucial in tipping the balance of victory for the Greeks. He was imprisoned by his own constituency, but was emancipated by the Turks. The rival of the Bavarian crowned Prince Otto sentenced him to death, but he was granted amnesty by Otto. He lived to be “the Old Man from Morea” until he was an old man.” The other guys, their names, what they did for Hellas I’m ignorant. I know their faces via the homemade floats that pass. (Very cheesy!)
There’s familiar painted face number 2–Karaiskaki. A bastard, born in a cave to a nun, nicknamed “Gypsy” because of his dark complexion, Kariaskakis was made arch-general of the Roumeli faction of rebels. He took part in many battles and led many victories in Boetia. During his return to Athens, he took part in a skirmish between Greeks and Turks. He entered bravely into the centre of the fray on his horse where he was fatally wounded. He died on his name day, April 22, 1827.
There’s familiar painted face number 3–Rigas Fereos. A teacher from a small town in Thessaly (Ancient Feres), fled to Bucharest after killing a Turk. He was inspired by the events of the French Revolution to galvanize all the peoples of the Balkans to seek their independence. Using poetry as a unifying political force, he moved to Vienna to found a publishing house where he printed his collected verses. One of his patriotic hymns begins, “How long palikaria will we live in slavery/Alone like lions on the cliffs, on the mountains/Living in caves, looking at beasts/Leaving the world for bitter slavery. Better one hour, rather than forty years slavery and prison.” He was taken prisoner along with seven others and sent to Belgrade, under Ottoman domination, where the Sultan of Constantinopole decreed they should be executed. They were strangled in their cells, but it is claimed that during his final struggle, even with his hands bound in manacles, Fereos was able to kill a Turk with his bare hands.
There’s familiar painted face number 4–Athanasios Diakos. (Deacon Athanasios). His is a handsome face. Long, light-brown hair flowing past his wide shoulders. A twirled moustach and curved-“S” eyebrows. Always wearing a handsome gold-threaded vest with puffy red velvet sleeves. Born in 1781, his parents sent him to become educated at a monastery where he was ordained a monk and then a deacon. After an undisclosed incident at the monastery, he was forced to strip himself of his monastic gowns and take to the mountains to become a rebel fighter.
During the Revolution he was leader of the Boetian faction. Following up on rumors that an enormous enemy offensive was coming up Lamia to extinguish the Hellenic Resistance, he, along with two other generals and a band of less than 200 men, secured the area around the Sperchic River. Even after the outnumbered band dispersed, he stood his ground at the bridge of Alamana against an enemy army of 8,000. After a heroic fight, he was captured by the Turks. The Turks made shiskebob out of him. He was impaled on a skewer and slowly barbequed under a low fire just like a lamb on the spit.
And then, there’s familiar painted face number 5, the most familiar being the most rare–Bouboulina. A woman rebel fighter. Her face is stern; dark eyes under bushy eyebrows. She wears a tight kerchief over her head that extends under her chin and swollen cheeks as if she is trying to alleve a double toothache. Daughter of a ship captain, she was widowed twice as both her husbands were killed by the Corsairs. She fell full-heartedly into the War of Independence (wom)manning her ship “The Agamemnon” along with two others. She gave up her vast fortune to the cause of freedom, upkeeping her small fleet by her own funds. When her son kidnapped the daughter of another ship magnate, Spetses, their ancestral island, was plunged into near civil war. During a loud verbal dispute between Bouboulina and her brother, Lazarus Orloff, one of the dissenters outside of her estate shot off a pistol. The stray bullet found the head of the “Great Lady of ’21” and instantly killed her.
The same way I know and not know about the heroes of 1821 I know and not know the national anthem. Now it gets piped through the bowels of contorted bugles and horns–“Se gnorizo apo tin opsi . . . “–thanks to the St. Demetrios high school band. On passes the cheerleaders with their cheer for the “Patrida” in their mini-mini frill skirts, yellow and blue pom-poms. Following them after a long break in progression, walk the Syllogos of Kalamata, the Syllogos of such and such, middle-aged men in dark blue suits and middle aged women in medium black pumps and conservative two-piece skirt sets with white banners lined in blue of their Syllogo’s lettering. They smile saccharine and wave at the crowd,”Zito i Eleutheria! Zito i Eleutheria!” (“Long live freedom!”) Someone in the crowd shouts while someone else yells out in laughter–“Bre Boula, ti kaneis more!” Boula shouts back some equally inappropriate statement, disturbing the decorum with colloquiality, and then the next wave of Syllogi come and then, a float erected as an ancient Greek temple with gold letters spray painted on the sides–“Zito i Eleutheria!”
He begins his standing jog at this point to take advantage of the break in the pageant. He ducks under the blue wooden “POLICE-DO NOT CROSS” divider and skirts across to the other side of 5th Avenue to get into his penthouse suite on the 35th floor of his posh, concierged building. “Well, have a good parade,” he says as he jogs away.
Oh! There he goes again–the ubiquitious Kolokotronis! He’s passed three times already. This time he’s been reincarnated into the body of Michali, the kid who works at Teddy’s Auto Body Shop, and can kick the highest when he’s leading the ring of folk dancers.
“BRAVO! BRAVO!” the crowd cheers, waving their plastic flags a bit more intensely when a favorite son or daughter passes. So many heads of somebody’s aunt, uncle, cousin from New Jersey. They look so much alike.
“BRAVO, leventi mou–” yelps a matron from his clan somewhere from the back of the ranks of the crowd.
During the Parelasi, it is likely you will run across one of the distant members of your clan, or at least spot them in the crowd. “Bre, pion echoume edo?” “Ti kaneis Kiria Eleni? How long has it been since we last saw you?” “At Niko’s graduation, right? How are you? How’s your husband . . . ” My mother latches onto Kiria Eva, an old acquaintance, on the uneven sidewalk around the cracked square of sprawling oak roots. Her husband is fine, her daughter is fine, her son got a great job working for one of the top 500 financial firms in their IT department. “Se parakalo,” my mother pleads outside my brother’s earshot and hitting distance of his pride, “please have Harry put in the good word for my boy. He’s very smart. He just graduated from computer school. It’s just with the economy, you know, it’s hard to get a good job. Here’s my number,” my mother offers her on the back of a “Parelasi Party” flyer. “Well,” Kiria Eva hesitates, “it doesn’t look good if Harry does this. He’s really very busy. What I can do is take your number and give you a call if something comes up. It was so nice to see you again, though!” Eva sparkles in her cropped cut and diamond necklace. “Chairetismata,” they kiss on both cheeks, and Kiria Eva walks on to catch up with her grandson marching in the front ranks of St. Nick’s school.
The call will never come. “You’d think they’d go out of their way to help you,” my mother scowls. “They’re from the same village.” And then she lapses into her unadulterated Greek, the language of choice for expressing true frustration, anger, and joy, “O enas na bgalie tou allounou ta matia. That’s it. Ella, pame na figoume.”
Here we are again. Another year, another parade done. Only when they lose their individuality, their faces fold into one faceless mob, can these Greeks unite into a mighty force. They come to show their pride; it is pride, the hamartia all Greeks share, that is their unifier. It is not their mutual support of each other, their united voice. It is just as it was in ancient times. Sparta, Athens, Thebes in strife, splintered and grouchy, griping about each other’s spoils and the poets exhorting them about “hubrida”–“You can’t think yourself mightier than the gods; you can’t possibly think you have control of your own destiny.” That pride, that envy, is the national sin. We are here to flash our Greek pride. And it is pride after all. That’s the one common thread that runs from the stone-piling of the Myceanean wall to the stone-falling of Messolonghi. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Tiresisu, they all warned them about it, “For your pride, the gods will strike you down. You will be destroyed, you foolish mortals!” Because they are only too Greek, all Hellines, they come each to flash his pride; but then they disperse, each one to his own city-state–to Bay Ridge, to Whitestone, to Astoria, to the Upper East Side, to Westchester, to Hicksville, to Oyster Bay.
It is just as it was in ancient days. To look upon the collective face of the mob you would think they had changed. Only when each one lets go of his hold on their peculiar knob of pride that connects him to the larger trunk will he drop into one raging river, become a mighty force to be reckoned with, the force that can bring light to the world, the force that can topple an entire Persian avalanche. Beyond this they do not know each other; they will not know each other. Their individual pride stands in the way.
Then each Greek will go away into his own tent and bicker and strife and point about who gained more spoils, who went home with whose woman, who put out more for the war. And behind them, they each will leave thousands of puny, plastic flags littering the prestigious 5th Avenue.