Gillian Bouras
An Australian
Writer
Living in Greece

April 2014

Late again, but with a good excuse, as I’m just back from the Big Smoke, which is how I think of Athens, where smoke is a definite feature of the cityscape. Greeks who live in the countryside are more likely to refer to it as To Megalo Xorio, The Big Village. I’ve had a week being Granny/Yiayia, and in fact I started the interlude about 27 km south-west of Athens, in a place called Nea Peramos, which is where my two ‘big’ grandsons live. Nikitas turns 8 and Maximus 6 this week, and where have all those years gone? I ask myself.

 

It so happens that Independence Day fell while I was away. March 25this commemorated as the day the Greeks began their finally successful rebellion against the Turks: the year was 1821. The day is a public holiday, and even quite small villages have a patriotic celebration involving a parade and the recital of suitable poems, while the blue and white striped flag of Greece flutters from many a window, and is borne by standard bearers in the marches.

Athens and Thessaloniki conduct enormous parades on the day. Nikitas and Maximus’s father, who is a marine commando, took part in the Thessaloniki one some years ago. The poor unfortunate had to march in his frogman’s outfit.

‘How was the march?’ I asked, eventually.

‘Long,’ came the succinct reply.

This year my youngest son, who is a fire-fighter, was in the Athens parade. We told ourselves that we saw him at the right moment during the telecast. In Nea Peramos, Maximus donned his white shirt, navy tie, and trousers, but looked like a thundercloud for the duration: he had to hold the hand of a pretty little girl who was wearing traditional dress, and this order apparently did not please him at all.

Nea Peramos was a village that grew rapidly in the early 1920s, when a population exchange was negotiated between Turkey and Greece, after the ill-fated attempt to make the Great Idea a reality. The Megali Idea was a nationalistic notion that envisaged a Greek state that would include all ethnic Greek-inhabited areas from the Ionian islands in the west to Asia Minor in the east, Macedonia in the north, and Crete and Cyprus in the south. Greeks have never reconciled themselves to the loss of Constantinople in 1453, and so the Great Idea also involved Constantinople once again becoming the centre of the Greek world, and being the capital of the new state.

The Greco-Turkish war lasted from 1919 until 1922, and involved the loss of Smyrna, which had been a great Greek trading city, amid scenes of unmitigated disaster. The Greeks were let down badly by France and Britain, and were forced to concede defeat when only a hundred miles from Ankara. In 1923 an exchange of populations was arranged and took place as quickly as could be organised. It was a process full of tragedy and anomalies, in which Greeks who spoke only Turkish were forced to come to Greece, and Christianised Turks were forced to relocate to Turkey. Greece had to cope with an influx of approximately a million and a quarter people within a very short time.

There probably had been a village where Nea Peramos flourishes today, but it was one of the sites chosen for resettlement of the very reluctant refugees, who named it New Peramos after their original village of Peramos in Turkey. Many of the street names are also Turkish in origin, so that there is quite a different flavour, as it were, about the place.

This was apparent in the traditional dress worn by some of the young women in the parade. I have something of an interest in costume, and noted that the ankle-length satin and silk costumes were all one colour, whereas Peloponnesian garb favours a satin skirt topped by a differently coloured embroidered jacket. In Peramos the colours glowed: rich red, sky-blue and warm gold.

For me, one of the highlights of the Athens Olympic Games of 2004 was the average victory ceremony, in which the medal bearers were young women dressed in regional costumes from all over Greece. On this visit to Athens, I went yet again to the Benaki Museum, which houses an enormous collection of artifacts from the earliest periods of Greek history onwards. It will come as no surprise to learn that I spent considerable time viewing costumes, many of which were bridal ones.

And,, while on days such as March 25thcostumes are worn for patriotic reasons and because of pride in the past, the bridal costumes in the museum are a reminder of what marriage means in traditional society. The dresses are invariably rich and heavy, with elaborate headdresses featuring fruit and flowers as symbols, one assumes, of fertility; intricately embroidered aprons are also part of most outfits, while rows of coins decorate many a costume: marriage was, at least in part, an economic contract, and the bride’s dowry was an essential part of that contract. My own mother-in-law wove and embroidered items for her dowry from a very early age. Respectability was also very important, so that the bridal gowns are modest, and show nothing except face, hands and feet. Such a contrast to the exposure common at weddings today! A certain grace has been lost over the years, in my view. But it is found again on occasions like the 25thof March.

Gillian Bouras

 

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