Talking with the Presidential Guards

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 Chatting over coffee with brothers and former Presidential Guards,  Orestis and Aris. 

 

Rebecca Hall, travel blogger from Life Beyond Borders, shares this interview for the readers of Hellenic Lifestyle. Portions of the article have been edited. For the original post please visit http://www.lifebeyondbordersblog.com.

 

What is an Evzone? 

They’re the soldiers that stand outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (where most of the tourists head to have their photos taken—oh, and me too!), the Presidential Palace and the gate of the military camp, where the Evzones stay during their time.

Any tourist visiting Athens won’t have failed to experience them, the soldiers that stand guard outside Parliament with dead straight faces; not flinching, not moving a muscle.

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The Presidential Guard Selection of service guards has two sections in which they serve. 

1. The Command Company (-not the Evzone men in Foustanella skirts)

Consists of one platoon whereby they undertake administration duties such as:

  • chefs
  • office work
  • laundry
  • looking after the uniforms
  • drivers
  • guards of the military camp
  • soldiers who manage the restaurant: serve food, etc

2. The Evzone Company

These are the guards who wear the foustanella  consisting of 400 pleats, to represent the 400 years of Ottoman rule.

– Three platoons that guard:

  • The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (1 pair)
  • The Presidential Mansion (1 pair)
  • The Gate of the Military Camp (1 evzone soldier)

It’s important to say, here, that Evzones are not paid for their service. It is part of the nine month military service that all Greek males must undertake. Not everyone is selected to be an Evzone—and for this reason, it is an honor.

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The Interview

I settle down to a coffee with Orestis and Aris Konstantinidis. They’re both in their 20s—Aris lives in Athens, Orestis in Agrinio, a small town on the mainland in western Greece. Luckily he was visiting Athens that weekend.  What struck me upon meeting them was how eager they were to share their experiences, to allow me into their world.

The Selection of Evzones

I had three reasons for wanting to be an evzone confides Orestis, the taller and older of the two brothers.

1) To honour my grandmother’s wish
2) I wanted a challenge (being an evzone certainly provides that! More on that later)
3) To be near my girlfriend, who lived in Athens

The brothers had both completed their nine month military service and Orestis told me about the selection process: All military service candidates undertake one month general training where they’re not allowed to leave the camp. After this month, they’re sent to their certain speciality. Every two months, Officers of the Presidential Guard unit come and selects men for evzone training based on their height (1.85cm or taller) and their chiseled looks.

Many men try to hide their true height by slouching, exclaims Orestis!  This is because there are many rumors—mostly true—about how hard evzone training is. Out of 100 men selected for training, only 40 or 50 pass to become actual evzones. The rest serve in the Command Company (see above), or get transferred to other units.

The Training

As Orestis talks about his experiences, he beams with pride, indeed as does Aris. It’s clear that Aris is proud of his older brother.  We were so nervous on the military bus, having been selected from our camp in Messolonghi and traveling down to Athens. We had heard so many rumors, we just didn’t know what to expect!  But mixed with this was also a feeling of excitement. Evzones are known to have one of the toughest training in the Special Forces in Greece, so to pass is truly a testament not only to one’s physical strength, but also their character.

Once they finally arrived in their camp, the new recruits—‘juniors’—were to live in the ‘Aquarium,’ called this unofficially as it is the basement in the camp and has high humidity, no windows and is generally uncomfortable.
They were commanded—no, yelled at—to not make any eye contact or speak to the other senior’ evzones, only each other and their trainer. Their individual camp badges were ripped from their uniforms, and Orestis tells me that in the first day of camp, some are sure they are not going to last the month’s training for juniors.

A Typical Day

Up at 05:30 and made to stand for half an hour in the corridor of ‘The Aquarium’.  You’re still a little sleepy, so you sway a little bit, are not so steady on your feet  tells Orestis. But from the very start, the trainers get tough on you. No ‘swaying’ allowed!  Physical exercises such as running follows this, then breakfast—but not with the other evzones (remember—no eye contact or speaking to them!).  After breakfast comes Weapons Training. M1 guns from WW1 are used and they practice the typical raise in the air and catch on their left shoulder—“which gets very quickly bruised” says Orestis.

Then comes the ‘standing still’ training. The first week they have to stand still for 15, 20 minutes tops. This increases over the weeks until the final week of the month, they are expected to stand stock still, no movement for approx. 2 hours.  Whilst standing still, you may be teased, the trainer may try to make you laugh, try to steal your gun. All the time, you must stand straight, eyes front, no blinking or swallowing even! You are shouted at if you do. This is to prepare you for you actual evzone duty, especially if a tourist is nearby.

Teargas

Many of you will know that unfortunately, Athens has been prone to riots and tear gas has been deployed (in the past, let’s see if this continues with the new government). In order to prepare evzones for this, some choose to take it upon themselves to squeeze lemon juice or garlic near their eyes to make them water, with no blinking.

Teargas

This is not part of the official training and the trainers do not do this, some evzones choose to, maybe to push themselves just that bit further. You hate the trainers at first, you feel you’re forced into this role  says Orestis. But then comes the realization that it’s not just about discipline, it’s about feeling proud of their role…the realization that they are actually becoming better people too.

Orestis also became a trainer. “We have ‘good cop/bad cop’ types. He coyly smiles. “I was the good cop.” At first, the junior evzones hate them, as did Orestis when he joined, but then—when the realisation comes that this is a time when they also build their characters, he began to feel very proud…he realised that it was a trainer’s role to pass the traditions on to the juniors, to help them become better people too.

Partners

During the training, you’re partnered up with someone who looks similar to you. Taller evzones guard the Tomb of the Unknown soldier in front of the Parliament building, shorter ones guard the mansion, around the back of Zappion Gardens. This was Orestis’s post. He speaks with great fondness of his partner—it seems the bond is strong between soldiers (as anywhere in the world?). Orestis is very emphatic about the fact that the evzones don’t guard the Parliament per say, it’s the concept of Democracy they’re guarding.

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The Uniform

The uniform is very heavy. It consists of:

A scarlet Farion—a red fez with a black tassel and national emblem on the front
The Doulamas—every day tunic. Navy blue in winter and khaki in summer
The Foustanella—kilt made from 30m of white cloth with 400 pleats, to represent the 400 years of Ottoman rule
The Ypodetes—a white shirt with very wide sleeves
The Fermeli—a waistcoat. Some will have stripes, yellow ones represent the military rank, Sergeants have two yellow stripes, Corporals have one
The Krossia—fringes around the waist in blue and white
The Epiknemides—garters made of black silk
Periskelides—white woollen stockings
Anaspastos—inside garter which holdes the Periskelides in place
The Tsarouchia—red leather clogs with black pomp poms. They have many nails underneath to make the tapping you hear when they march, and each clog weighs roughly one kilo.

On Duty

When they make it through to an official evzone, whilst on duty no blinking is allowed. If the evzone gets into any difficulty, there is a soldier around to assist. He can come and wipe sweat from their brow, give them water, place a coat over them if they’re chilly in winter or wipe tears from tear gas (see above). Or if none of these are required, he can come near to the evzone and ask questions about what might be wrong…the evzone may blink once for ‘yes,’ twice for ‘no’ and three times for ‘I don’t know.’

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Command Guards

Aris, the younger brother, was a Command Guard of the evzone unit. His duty was to guard the camp, and was also responsible for the coordination of all the evzones’ activities inside the camp during the day. In order to achieve the flawless and at-the-right-time execution of these activities, he sometimes had to hand out ‘punishments’. Usually this was because some people wanted to get out of being an evzone, so would fake an illness or underperform in their duties on purpose. Aris had to determine the difference between genuine and laziness.

Aris-in-camp

It’s a prestigious position to be in, being responsible for all the evzones and their day-to-day activities. Many people actually want to be evzones, so it’s insulting when someone is just plain lazy or disrespectful to the mission of the Presidential Guard.

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As we leave the café, the door is held open for me to leave first. I question how many other young men in their 20s would do that. It strikes me how both brothers are exceedingly polite, not in a fake way, but easy to talk to, have good manners and enthusiasm. Aris is now the Chief Operations Officer of Glovo – a platform that links volunteers to events and volunteer actions together. His entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm, throughout the interview rang out, as did Orestis’s stoic calm and anchor-like personality.

 

 

p63E21FQT8etArpSN9Y4_Bex   Rebecca Hall (Bex), travel blogger, writer and Rough Guide author, has traveled extensively around the world and currently resides in Athens Greece.  She fell in love with the culture, language, sights and smells of the Hellenic world. Bex shares all her  experiences on her blog, Life Beyond Borders. In addition, Bex is completing her first travel memoir. Learn more by visiting Bex at:

Site: www.lifebeyondbordersblog.com
FB: www.facebook.com/LifeBeyondBordersBlog
Twitter: www.twitter.com/BeyondBex

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