I had returned that morning to Athens from an extended stay on a small island and had wandered down to Syntagma Square to check for mail at the Poste Restante. On the way there I had noticed what appeared to be police or soldiers in riot gear down a side street, something I had not seen before in the city. After finding a letter waiting for me at the Post Office I took a shaded table in the Square and ordered a Greek coffee and settled in to read my letter and catch up on my journal. There was scaffolding going up and a good deal of activity, but in Greece there was usually construction going on all the time and, like the men in riot gear, I thought nothing of it until I realized that the scaffolding was for flags and floodlights and banners. There was going to be some sort of political event.
This was plainly to be no slap-dash, ad hoc affair of anarchists behaving anarchically. The scaffolding was several stories high with a speakers stand, TV cameras, loudspeakers and floodlights that must have taken some time to put up. There were large signs arranged so as not to block vision, but to show up in pictures.
People were beginning to gather in the early afternoon, gradually displacing the usual tourists and idlers at the tables around the Square. The crowd was plainly middle class, with many families, and had a picnic or country social atmosphere. There were children and old people. There were grandmothers. I have a policy against attending foreign political events where there are no grandmothers, believing as I do that the authorities are not going to send in the cossacks to run down grandmothers and grandmothers are not going to go to gatherings where the authorities might send in the cossacks. I have no doubt that the black-shawled grandmothers have a surer sense of what’s going on than I do.
The music begins. Loud, but not obtrusive. Background music to the conversations of families and friends and playing children. Off to one side is a rattle of firecrackers and a couple of rockets go up. (Easter is a week off and firecrackers are part of the Easter celebration.) Afternoon lengthens into evening.
The music picks up, with faster and more obviously political songs. A man and a woman come on the loudspeaker with low-key announcements and slogans and a few of the crowd respond. I have by this time figured out from the signs that this is a rally for the Nea Demokratia Party.
The Square continues to fill and now apparently most everyone there has come for the rally. Hawkers move through the crowd selling flags and badges and cigaret lighters. A key chain seller singles me out for a long and animated explanation, in Greek, of what all this means. While I undoubtedly missed all of his nuances, he told me that Greeks like America and hate socialism, that PASOK (the ruling socialist party) is very bad and that the Prime Minister is good only for football (at which the crowd around me laughs) while the people go hungry. I bought a Nea Demokratia key chain from him.
The flood lights have come on, a bright, bluish white light, and there is smoke from flares set up on the scaffolding. A group in the center of the Square begins to chant slogans and while the music over the loudspeaker becomes faster, it is paced with slower music, and then there are more slogans and announcements and more of the people in the Square are turning their attention to the rally and I learn that at eight o’clock there will be a speech by Kostas Mitsotakis.
As the hour approaches, the pace increases. First a song, then a short speech, then a rousing, militant-sounding chorus reminiscent of a ‘60s protest song, though distinctively and passionately Greek, then another speaker. Their messages seem to grow shorter, becoming more like slogans, and more of the crowd responds.
I am struck by one of the women speakers, her voice so full of passion. It was not strident or abrasive, but strong, committed, passionate. It may be that women are potentially better political speakers than men, better able to move the emotions, to inspire hope and fire with indignation. And, yes, shame men into action, for better or worse, as the power to move emotions is unrelated to wisdom and I remembered Bellini’s opera "Norma" and the chilling war cry of the priestess: “Guerra, guerra”.
A pattern emerges: music followed by a chant, then slogans. The music before the slogan is not as stirring as the music that follows. The programming is conscious and effective. There is a cadre in the center of the Square who take up the chants, chorus-like. “Down with PASOK” and “We demand democracy”.
Individual conversations become fewer as more and more become involved in waving flags and chanting and booing at the appropriate cues from the speaker.
The music and shouting is loud and physical, seeming to displace the air. There is a feeling of being part of a large, vital, vigorous organism. A motherly lady gave me a flag, which I wave when everyone else waves theirs. It doesn’t feel right not to be waving a flag when everyone else is. I take up the refrain of their song: “Long live New Democracy”. The people around me laugh and smile approvingly and I have a feeling of belonging.
The music is loud and fast, with quick cuts between slogans and the rousing music. There are no missed cues. Firecrackers, originally going off at random, now seem to be orchestrated, punctuating the slogans.
Everything increases as the time comes for Mitsotakis, the Man of the Hour, to speak. Everyone in the crowd seems concentrated on the speakers, taken up in the rhythm of the rally, and as he is introduced the crowd is roaring, faces full of joy and hope, and off to the sides a crescendo of firecrackers.
How in the world could any human hope to say anything that could live up to that introduction, though since I could understand only the odd phrase here and there, it is probably not surprising that I was bored by his speech, though the people there, who could actually understand what he said, seemed as enthusiastic after he had spoken as they were before.
Then the crowd began to break up, back into groups and families, some drifting off and others remaining in the Square. Some people started dancing, young people and adults, spontaneous and exuberant. Friends yelling to each other and embracing. There were young girls dancing with a banner. Everyone was happy.
Afterward, several people, having seen me with the flag, came over to greet me, obvious pleased that even a foreigner like myself had seen through the flimsy deceptions of PASOK and come out to lend them my support.
In light of present news from Greece, this incident, that took place in 1985, seems from a far-off, innocent time.