Say the word Evzones and what pops into your mind? The tall guys dressed in kilts and pom-poms on their shoes guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Syntagma Square? Yes, but, more importantly, they are the Greek Presidential Guard, an elite ceremonial unit, who are volunteers from the Greek Army’s infantry, artillery, and armored corps. They must be at least 6’ 1” (1.86 meters) tall and must have served at least 6 months in the army. Their uniform, including the fustanella (kilt-like garment) evolved from the clothes worn by the klephts who fought the Ottoman Turks in Greece.
If you have ever been to Greece and have seen their precision drill of the changing of the guard, it’s quite inspiring.
For a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s, a contingent of 15 to 40 Evzones were sent each year to Philadelphia to participate in the Greek Independence Celebration and Parade sponsored by the Federation of Hellenic American Societies of Philadelphia and Greater Delaware Valley (“Federation”). As far as the Federation knew, the Greek government paid for their airline tickets to arrive to the United States, but each city they visited would foot the bill for their stay in their city.
Alas, no more for Philadelphia – unfortunately because of some financial shenanigans played by another city (we were informed that the government gave a stipend to 1 city to divide among all the cities – Philadelphia never received it), the Greek government decided that the Evzones would only march in a select number of American cities, including New York and Boston – not Philadelphia! Why? Are we, in Philadelphia, not “Greek” enough? Are we not deserving enough? Did we not cheer enough when we watched them marching down the street?
For about 6 years during the 1990s, as the Parade Chairman and President of the Federation, I was honored to spend a week each year with the Evzones. They would usually arrive on the Monday before the Sunday parade and leave the Monday after the parade. So for a week, I was not only their escort, but their tour-guide, manager, agent, and mother-hen. Because they are a Greek military unit, and were basically ambassadors of good-will for Greece, the young men were always well-disciplined, respectful, courteous, and above all, proud soldiers serving their beloved Hellas, not to mention ecstatic to be visiting the United States.
As they would arrive in Philadelphia, the Greek-American community rolled out the red-carpet for them. Unlike some other cities (not all) where they were each given $20 a day for food and left on their own, Philadelphia lived up to its name of being the City of Brotherly Love. In Philadelphia, the Evzones were treated as royalty. Greek owned businesses opened their doors for them. The Landmark Inn in Maple Shade housed them for the week at no charge to the Federation. Diners, pizzerias, and restaurants such as the Diamond Diner in Cherry Hill, Phily Diner in Runnemede, Adelphia Restaurant in Deptford, Abner’s Steaks in Philadelphia, and many, many more gave them breakfast, lunch, and dinner at no charge. Even with free lodging and food, it still cost over $10,000.00 to host them for the week. So many individual Greek-Americans and societies donated money to off-set the cost and time to make sure the Evzones had a great experience in our city and the Delaware Valley.
We gave them tours of not only the Philadelphia historic sites (they all wanted to run up the Philadelphia Museum stairs like Rocky Balboa), but of neighboring areas such as the Lancaster and Atlantic City. They also visited many of the local Greek Orthodox Church communities where dinners were provided to them and, in return, they would perform traditional Greek folk dances. Their performances were mobbed, especially by the young girls! The Evzones were like rock stars.
At one time, when we were visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia, one of the Evzones asked me how old the building was. I answered, “about 260 years”. He thought awhile, smiled, then said, “That’s not old. My Pappou’s house in the village is much older than that and I’m still living in it”. But they enjoyed our hospitality, the history of Philadelphia, and, meeting some of them years later in Greece, would always comment how Philadelphia was at the top of their memories for their stay in the United States.
When the day of the Parade arrived, crowds formed at the parade route specifically to see the Evzones march down the street. It was an awesome and emotional experience to watch them slowly marching down the parade route, in perfect order, especially when the United States National Parks Service permitted the parade to end in front of Independence Hall (this was before 9-11). The Evzones would be lined up, standing still and staring straight ahead, Greek and American flags fluttering in the wind, and with our nation’s iconic symbol as a back drop. Truly magnificent.
So why have they gone away? Why has the Greek government decided that the Greek-American community in Philadelphia is not worthy? Back then, I was told by some of the soldiers that they were treated by other cities as just another dance troupe or “used” for other agendas. Philadelphia never did this. The Federation, its officers, members, and the entire community treated and respected the Evzones for what they were – an elite military unit and ambassadors of good-will from Greece, and, we treated them as Greek-Americans would treat any visiting family or friend from Greece – with open doors, food and drinks, and good friendship.
It is time for the Greek government to wake-up and realize the importance of Philadelphia and our community and our association with Greece. Especially now with the turmoil in Greece… they need a little good PR! Our city’s name derives from Greek words. Our architecture is Greek. Our nation’s revolution and our country’s birth started in Philadelphia, which was the inspiration for the Greek War of Independence in 1821. But above all, although we, the community throughout Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, are proud Americans, we have never forgotten our roots. The Evzones belong here!
Note: This post is my personal opinion and story from my experiences and does not reflect the views of the Federation or Cosmos Philly.
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