Last week I did something I’ve never done before; I went to a Greek Independence Day parade. March 25 commemorates the day in 1821 when Archbishop Germanos of Patras raised the Greek flag over Agias Lavras monastery in the Peleponnese and the shouts “Freedom or Death” echoed around the rocky hills. The fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire had begun, ending some nine years later when a part of what is modern Greece received recognition as an independent state.
Cyprus celebrates the day as assiduously as Greece. Some Cypriots – and many Greeks – see the Great Plan as yet incomplete: Cyprus remains independent, outside the Hellenic fold, and still half-occupied by the old and perennial foe, Turkey. Others, including Best Beloved, believe that Cyprus has no place in the Great Plan, and think that the current educational policy of encouraging Cypriot children to think of themselves as Greeks can only lead to disaster later on when the best interests of Cypriots may diverge from those of Greeks.
Whether or not Cyprus should celebrate a foreign power’s Independence Day is a moot point. It does. With school assemblies extolling the virtues of patriotism and Orthodoxy; with parades of flags, secondary school students, scouts, and soldiers through the towns; with flags and bunting.
I have always avoided the parades; even when Sophia was marching with the scouts I stayed at home. The sight of goose-stepping teens moves me to laughter or tears, and I view nationalism in any form – particularly when it’s nationalism for a country not your own – with extreme distrust.
But Zenon and Leo were clamouring to go last Wednesday, Kay said that she would take them, and I thought there might be some photo opportunities, so we climbed into the Land Rover and headed for town.
The police had closed the main road from the Makarios Statue to Kennedy Square, so I parked up by the new government offices and we made our way to the route of the march, threading through groups of students who hung around in their various flags talking on mobile phones and taking pictures of each other.
Best Beloved had to march one year during High School: “I wasn’t very enthusiastic,” he remembered. “But the school offered me no choice. If I didn’t march in the parade I couldn’t play sports…” I wondered if the Paphos secondary schools were resorting to the same tactics to fill the ranks.
We made our way past the telephone exchange and sat the children on the kerb just opposite where the marching band – neat in blue and burgundy, brass instruments shining despite the overcast sky – was preparing to lead the parade. Mr Zach (Alex and Sophia’s music teacher, and, it appears, conductor of the marching band) waved his baton, and the players swung out past us in tight formation to pass the reviewing platform one hundred metres or so to our left.
School by school, the students followed.
Bless them! Some clearly had Best Beloved’s lack of enthusiasm. Others marched as Hellenes to the core, hands swinging, legs stepping high. But not until the International School contingent passed, with its burgundy blazers, grey skirts and trousers, and identical footwear, did we see any uniformity or cohesion. Yes, each school had its uniform, but each pupil wore theirs differently: hair was gelled, spiked, coloured, coiffed, shirts were in or out, skirts were tight or loose, trousers worn high or low. And shoes? They were mostly black but a varied collection of pumps, stilettos, lace-ups, and trainers – some with white stripes, some with yellow.
Nipping at the heels of each group came their teacher supervisors, counting the cadence: “One-two! One-two! Raise your hands high! Lift your feet! One-two! One-two!” Up and down the ranks they went hissing instructions, cajoling and entreating. “Look strong! Look proud!”
It was heartening. ‘Here,’ I thought. ‘Is a people who would be difficult to lead, difficult to manipulate. They’re all too bloody stubborn!’ For all the straight-laced conformity of Cypriot society, the teenagers were making a great showing as individuals.
Next came the scouts. “Look, it’s Erato!” I said to Zenon, pointing to our former landlady, her untameable cascade of blonde hair crowned unsteadily by a navy beret, leading the Yerouskippou Scout troop. “She’s seen us and is trying not to smile!” Friends of Zenon, the twins Oliver and Joseph flanking Erato’s son Marco, brought up the rear, all three bearing big orange rucksacks. Zenon called to them as they passed and they shed their solemnity for a moment and flashed him a smile.
Following the scouts came the military, led by officer representatives of the National Guard, the Air Force, and the Navy. They marched sternly in Class-A uniforms, holding thin, drawn swords.
Then the reserve soldiers passed, followed by the Home Guard, “Dad’s Army” Best Beloved calls the over fifties that we sometimes see heading off on a moped for duty. They keep their weapons at home and ride out to the base in full kit. The reserves were a motley crew in mixed camouflage. Some had short hair, some long. More than one ponytail, blond highlights and all, swung beneath the rim of a Kevlar. Some were unshaven, some scarecrow thin, some pot-bellied, some so stout that their uniform buttons strained. But they marched in pretty good order, boots bright, weapons slung. Their eyes sought the faces of their cheering family members (“Ela! Ela, Papa! Deme! (Look, Dad, here!)”, and smiles curved their mouths.
Then came the regular troops with a little more spit and polish. Their uniforms were… uniform, rather than the mismatched camouflage of the reserves and Home Guard. They kept their eyes front and swung their arms to an even height.
Last of all passed a company of commandoes, green berets at a jaunty angle, silenced P90’s looking like Star Wars Stormtrooper kit across their chests. Their spit-shined boots hit the ground to the even rhythm of their leader’s cadence, and they looked as if they meant business. Later, going over the photographs, I spotted a familiar dark and handsome face under one of the green berets. “He looks like Harris,” Sophia confirmed, referring to one of the young men who had been in my martial arts class four years before. “But Harris should have finished his Army service by now, that must be his younger brother.”
Once the commandoes had passed the reviewing stand, the ranks of spectators spilled into the road in their wake, buying icecream or helium balloons from the vendors who had been plying their trade up and down the road. Suddenly the street was full of uniforms as, parade over, the marchers doubled back and found friends, families, wives and girlfriends. Students, scouts and soldiers crowded around the icecream vans and popcorn machines, cameras clicked and beeped and a chorus of voices called greetings and farewells.
“There’s that dishy looking naval officer with his sword!” I nudged Kay and we looked toward the popcorn stand as the tall slim officer pushed his cap back and wiped his sleeve across his brow. “Not bad,” we agreed, but. “Too young and skinny!” A tall, podgy reservist, helmet pushed back and G3 slung over his back, his uniform blouse escaping from his trousers, linked arms with his girlfriend whose short plump thighs strained their white trousers as they stretched to match his stride. Groups of teenagers were everywhere, uniforms mingling, banners propped against railings.
“Small town, eh?” I said to Kay as we nodded greetings at a dozen people, marchers and spectators that we passed on the way back to the car.