Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Patriotic Palimpsest, 21 April 1967

The contribution of the military coup that took place in Greece in the early hours of April 21, 1967 to my childhood memories consists of hushed adult conversations and sweaty blue exercise books written on by Bic. And a bird. For seven years every school book in Greece would carry the print of a bird at the back page: a phoenix consumed by or bathing in flames, wings outstretched - behind the dark outline of a soldier. What was the metaphor? Greece being reborn of its own ashes to which it had been previously reduced by the evils of parliamentarism and communism? Or Greece being consumed by the purifying flames of autocracy so that it could emerge anew? I never knew. I was busy sweating over the aforementioned exercise books.

Patriotically blue: the staple of my early school years were these plasticated affairs, blue to match the colour of our national flag, sweaty to match the smell of our fear. There were patterns: weaving patterns, chequered patterns, sometimes tiny stars. A clear pocket at the front cover held a card with preprinted ΤΕΤΡΑΔΙΟΝ (exercise book) Τ_ Μαθ_ (Of the Pupil) where I faithfully wrote my name - Ταξεως (Grade). The exercise books pages' were held together with staples which dug deep into the plasticated blue covers.

The neat handwriting in blue Bic is only interrupted by the teacher's markings in red Bic ("Pay attention"- "Well Done" - "Unjustified mistakes" - "Wrong" - "Bravo, Lito"). I remember my hand sweating holding the blue Bic. 1973. The fear of mistakes looming together with the impossibility of erasure. A razor blade was utilised to scrape off the Bic ink, eliminate the mistake - the thin paper getting thinner, its fibres feathering with every scratch.

And now the blue exercise books are palimpsests. The Bic writings have bled through the pages, the back page shining through the front, the letters dissolving from dark blue to watery azure. In the Arithmetic book additions and subtructions are overlapping; all the ingredients of practical arithmetic problems - 425 sacks of cement, 1805 train passengers, 1 kg of butter for 56 drachmas, 27 kg of soft cheese, 15 metres of pipes and 960 pocket handkerchiefs - are bleeding ink onto each other.

In the Grammar exercise book all the phrases are overlapping too. The evil patriotism of the 21st April 1967 regime has bled into punctuation and syllabication exercises. Words and phrases about God, Motherland, Nature, Cleaniness, Obedience are punctuated and syllabicated, neat, corrected, underlined, mistakes scratched away, and a grade applied in red Bic:

Οι καλοί μαθηταί εργάζονται και στο σπίτι τους και στο σχολείο προσεκτικά.
Τhe good puplis work attentively at home and in school.
 Αγαπώ πολύ την καθαριότητα.
I love cleaniness very much.
 Όλοι οι γεωργοί δουλεύουν στα χωράφια, οργώνουν και σπέρνουν τον ευλογημένο καρπό.
All farmers work in the fields plowing and planting the blessed seed.
 Ο στρατιώτης πηγαίνει να πολεμήση.
The soldier goes to fight.
 Δίνω το λόγο μου πως θα γίνω καλό παιδί.

I give my word I shall become a good child.
 Κάθε Κυριακή πηγαίνομε στην εκκλησία. Εκεί ο παπάς μας ευλογεί, κι εμείς του φιλούμε με σεβασμό το χέρι. Τις άλλες ημέρες πηγαίνομε στο αγαπημένο μας σχολείο.
Every Sunday we go to church. There the priest blesses us and we respectfully kiss his hand. The rest of the week we go to our beloved school.
 Αμα τ' αγαπάς αυτά, αγαπάς την πατρίδα σου.

If you love these, you love your country.

As I was writing about the nightingale singing at the beautiful sunset on 15 November 1973 the Athens Polytechnic student anti-junta revolt was under way.


  1. Thank you for sharing this moving and well written post that ties together so many themes.

    That coup resulted in many people coming to Canada, for which we are much richer, forming a "palimpsest of cultures" (in a good way) if that makes sense.

  2. Stephen, thank you.
    It is fascinating how out of something so evil and sterile comes something so enriching and multi-sided: a palimpsest of cultures. How lucky the society where this "palimpsest" is not only acknowledged but also a source of pride and inspiration.

  3. I spent a few months in Greece in the Fall of 1971. It was a learning experience for a young man who was still politically naive then. I remember it well.

    Thank you for showing me another aspect of this period, from the point of view of somebody who lived through it all.


  4. Fernan,
    What a pleasure to see you here.
    Strange to think that we've coexisted in Greece as complete strangers for a while and met on Flickr so many years later.

  5. I was there too, around '66, '67..'strange times indeed'.
    Here in Australia we have a large Greek population, biggest outside Athens, is in Melbourne I hear.How much richer our country is for their contribution, they have added many wondeful layers to our lives.

  6. Von, thanks for dropping by. Although immigrants enrich the culture of the country they settle in, they are often reluctant to integrate or take elements from the new culture they find themselves in - or they only do it superficially. I often find that a proportion of Greeks abroad are more "conservative" in their values than the ones back in their home country.