Saturday, October 29, 2011

Friday, 28 October: The Best Ochi Day Ever!

(And I’ve experienced some wonderful Ochi Days, too; see here.)

Ochi is the Greek word for no. It’s what the Greek ambassador to Italy said to the Italian foreign minister on this day in 1940, when the Italian said, “Surrender now, or we invade Greece at dawn.”

OCHI. NO. The 28th of October has been celebrated in Greece ever since, with speeches and church services and especially with parades. There’s even a street in our neighborhood called “Twenty-eighth of October Street”.

I should tell you first that in recent years, people have been discouraged from attending the parades. The parade in Thessaloniki has been made into a shadow of its former self. When I first came to Greece in 2005, it included roaring tanks and jet fighters screaming overhead, and it was a long parade, and it began in the center of downtown. More recently there have been no tanks or jets; the parade has been considerably shortened, and it has been moved from the gracious and elegant downtown to our own poor, rather shabby little neighborhood.

Well, the first thing that happened here in Thessaloniki was, Greek flags bloomed all over the city this morning, more than I’ve ever seen before. Next thing that happened was, the churches were well attended. After church, a multitude began gathering along the parade route, not the few hundred souls of recent years, but tens of thousands. We were sitting at a corner café there, having our after-church snack, and watching the people assemble, but then, as the parade was still an hour away, we walked home for a little rest beforehand. (That’s an easy 10-minute walk or a brisk 5 minute one.)

We had just gotten home when the President of Greece arrived with his entourage, to take their places in the reviewing stand, a few yards from where we had been sitting. We were unaware he was coming, or we might have hung around (at least I might have), just to boo him a bit.

Never mind; others did it for us. No sooner had the politicians appeared than the crowd began to shout them down, yelling, “Traitors! Traitors!” and “Thieves, thieves!” and they kept up the shouting, ever more loudly, more and more people adding their voices, until guess what? The President of Greece and all his bodyguards and all his cohort departed. Yes, they simply stood up and left, under military escort.

(Ironically, Anthimos, Bishop of Thessaloniki, was among them, although he has been a strong opposition leader. He’ll no doubt have some choice comments about all this, which I wish I could hear, but he’ll probably keep them private.)

Fear for the safety of the politicians was of course not unfounded, as an angry crowd can so easily turn into a mob, and once they’ve branded someone a traitor they may feel justified in giving him what traitors deserve. I’m pleased to tell you, this crowd preserved its self-control.

We were watching all this on the local television station, which announced that with the departure of the officials, the parade had been cancelled.

I said to Demetrios, “I can’t stay here another minute! No matter what happens, good or bad, I have to be there with the people!” So out the door I flew, carrying three small Greek flags in my hands, while he couldn’t unglue himself from the television. (He did come 15 minutes later, however.)

On the way I met an old man and wished him Many Years, which is what you say to people on feast days. He smiled and asked, “What happened down there?” meaning down by the sea, where the parade route was. I said, “I wasn’t there; I’m going there now.” Then I gave asked him if he would like one of my flags and he said yes, so I gave it to him and said, “The flag is very precious, you know, because it’s a symbol of freedom.” Freedom, not fascism. He nodded and took it happily and said, “Be well!”

The crowd at the parade site was milling about restlessly, not knowing whether to stay or go home. The police were out in very large numbers. Some of the people were carrying painted protest signs. One showed the Greek flag with a black swastika superimposed on it and the words, “NO to the Fourth Reich!”

Another was a big banner that simply said, OCHI, “NO” in letters 18” high. (That was my personal favorite, because it couldn’t be faulted. NO is, after all, what this day is all about, yet everybody knew that this NO didn’t so much refer to 1940.)

A few people were leaving, small children in tow. I asked one of those, “What’s happening?” and he said, “Nothing. The parade is cancelled.”

When a TV reporter asked one young man the same question, the young man said, “What’s happening? Can’t you SEE what’s happening? They’re all working for foreign interests, and the Greek people have found it out!” And he shrugged and walked away from the camera.

And then—drums! Not on Alexander the Great Boulevard, where the parade was to have been; that street was blocked by police cordons and official vehicles. But on Queen Olga Boulevard, the next parallel street, the street where I was standing, came a loud, defiant, BOOM! BOOM! BOOMDITTY BOOM! and one lone band marched past us, a look of determination and perhaps unease on their faces. And ahead of them, ordinary people, clearing the streets for them. Then they struck up the music, which for once I recognized: “Macedonia the World-Renouned, home of Great Alexander…” People clapped and cheered and I waved my two flags.

I walked behind the band some blocks, as far as I could, the ferocious BOOM of their drums resounding in stomach and ears and down to the tips of the toes; but they were marching faster than I could walk, and I can still walk pretty fast, for my age. I had the impression they were eager to do their bit and then get out of there, before they might get into any trouble over it.

And THEN, I don’t know what happened; perhaps I’ll find out from the television, but it seemed that this one, solitary marching band, and the cheering and applause it engendered, heartened other elements of the parade, because then, along Alexander the Great Boulevard (the planned parade route, now somehow unblocked), came an echoing reply, “Macedonia” being taken up by another band, this one holding up signs on tall poles that read, “Greeks, Save Macedonia!” And the people cheered wildly and yelled, “Bravo!” and clapped and waved their little flags, as behind it came more marchers, and then more.

Every group that marched, every single one, was preceded by the Greek flag. That was never so, as I recall, in previous parades. There were various organizations, each carrying its banner, and groups in various sorts of traditional Greek dress. The men in traditional fighting attire were loudly cheered.

There were even a few modern-day military units. I don’t know what (if anything) that says about their loyalty to this government, but there were Navy SEALS (or the Greek version thereof), and Army nurses and Alpine troops. (There are no Alps in Greece, of course, but you know what I mean; soldiers in white camouflage with skis strapped to their backs.  You can see them in the video below.) Demetrios says the Greek military has traditionally stood by the Greek people. The people evidently thought this was what was happening, from their enthusiastic applause and cheers.

Many of the marchers had a solemn expression on their faces, but some, seeing their heartfelt and more-than-enthusiastic reception by the people, were grinning broadly. There was one contingent of young people with Down’s Syndrome, and they had the biggest grins of all, as if to say even they could understand enough to want a free Greece, like the rest of us, and they wanted to do their part, if only by marching. They received some of the biggest ovations.

In the final two groups, which may have been Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts, every single girl and boy was carrying a large Greek flag on a very tall pole – topped by the Cross, no less, another touch which has been discouraged by the government of late. They made a perfect grand finale.

Here are a couple of minutes of video from our parade.

It was a micro parade, a third its usual size, but that didn’t matter. That it took place at all, minus the government officials and without their blessing, was the important thing. A small victory for the people, but even a small victory seems so major.

When the parade was over, the crowd spontaneously burst into the national anthem.

I went home literally wiping away tears.


We’ve learned from the television news that the same thing has happened today all over Greece. In towns and villages the length and breadth of the nation, the people have chased away their members of parliament and proceeded to have their parades without them. In one village, they threw coffee all over the politicians. In another, the people never even let them take their seats, but blocked the reviewing stand the whole time.

In Corfu (I think, but can’t remember for sure), the people let the parade proceed as usual, more or less. But as the marchers passed the reviewing stand, instead of turning their heads to face the officials, they turned their heads the other way; and school boys were filmed making a certain contemptuous Greek gesture as they marched past the politicians. The crowd waited until immediately after the parade and then turned on the traitors to assault them, but the police intervened and the officials got safely away.

You can see more videos of parades in more cities on this blog.

Today, the Greek people said a new OCHI. Today, the whole Greek people, as one, humiliated their government and drove it physically from public view and symbolically out of office. I’m so, so proud of them! They also seem proud of themselves, and much heartened. There’s a celebratory feeling in the air along with a grim certainty that all this patriotism, all this passion for freedom, cannot really be completely useless. As God is still in heaven, it will count, somehow, some way, in the end.

OH – and of course today, in Greece, is also the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos, no small factor in what has happened. Other Orthodox Churches celebrate it October 1, I believe, but in Greece it has been moved to Ochi Day because World War II is commemorated here on Ochi Day, and because during that war, the Theotokos was so often seen hovering above the Greek troops and spreading her mantle over them.

I think today even an atheist could hope the Theotokos might somehow protect Greece again.

Not only her prayers, but your prayers count too! Wherever you live, please add Greece to your prayers for your own country.