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Greece Day 5: What Athens in Greece Stays in Greece

By Meghana Veldhuis

· Greece 2023

Due to technical difficulties, pictures will be added later.

Day 5: March 22nd, 2023

Hello my lovely readers and thank you for bearing with me as my titles get progressively worse and worse.

Today we had a lovely day at the Greek Parliament (which I always feel compelled to pronounce as par-lee-a-ment; it’s just par-la-ment). We all got dressed very nicely and professionally and left at 9:15 to embark on the treacherous treck past Hadrian’s arch, again, to the shining yellow Parliament building.

(It was absolutely not treacherous; everything just seems more dramatic in a business suit.)

At the Parliament, we found Katerina again and had all of our passports checked to ensure that we’re legitimate students, and then were led into some sort of basement waiting-locker-room-combination to put our bags away and get ourselves organized. Then we were led up two flights upstairs and directly into the Parliament.

It was shocking. We were seated right in the middle of an active discussion between the Minister of Education and a concerned constituent regarding Greece auditing degrees from public universities, resulting in them somewhat losing value and prestige. We understood very little of what was actually being spoken but could sense some level of political tension. We were seated at the very top of three balconies of seats—the actual Parliament was on the lowest level—and could thus sea nearly all of the seats as well as the ornate decorations of the Parliament building. It was absolutely beautiful and entirely photo-worthy, but we were not allowed to take pictures, so you might just have to look up “Greek Parliament inside” to fully appreciate the decorations we were surrounded by.

We stayed in that main room for about 10 minutes. Top tip, if you do go to the Greek Parliament, don’t clap after the speeches finish. It seems to be ingrained in BCA students to clap after literally anything happens, and we were swiftly encouraged by Parliament employees to stop. It appears to be a matter of decorum and also rightly pointed out that we don’t actually understand what we would be clapping for, and thus shouldn’t blindly clap.

Afterwards, we were taken back out of the Parliament into the landing atop some stairs. A tour guide offered to take our questions, which was good because we had many, considering that we were just kind of dropped into the middle of active Parliament with little prior knowledge of the Greek government—though, I did appreciate the chance to see Parliament in session and if I knew more Greek it would have been an excellent example of demonstrative learning!

From that tour guide, I’ve gathered some things about the Greek government:

-There’s many parties, not just the two (major ones) in America.

-To form a new party, you need at least 3% of the total country’s votes.

-There’s Members of the Parliament (or MPs to those of us who are cool) and then Extra-parliamentary positions as well.

-Greek Parliament elections are at least every four years. They can be earlier, if needed. They’re always on Sundays but not necessarily a set month of the year.

-The MPs select the Prime Minister (or PM to me, who is not cool but likes to think I am) who doesn’t do much beyond most of the MPs but does serve as a figure of the Parliament.

-There are 300 Parliament seats and, for a decision to be made, the majority (151 or more) but agree upon it.

-Greek citizens are encouraged to come in and talk to the Parliament about their concerns. They’re recommended to talk for less than three minutes but, if it’s not a terribly busy day, they’re often granted more time to finish.

-If a member of a political party with a position is unable to fill that position, the person within their party who got the number of votes below them gets to take that position.

-Greece does not currently have vote-by-mail but is working on a system to help citizens living abroad vote.

-Greece has had many Constitutions. The most recent one was written in 1974, so it’s about half a century old, or, more accurately, our parents’ age (sorry).

We were then taken to a room with the fanciest staircase I’ve ever seen. It’s a Hallmark movie staircase—it has the red squishy carpet and everything! Before the Parliament was Parliament, it was the palace of King Otto in the 1830s, a Bavarian who ruled Greece after they gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Parliament was formed later in the 1800s.

From there, we were taken to the Syntagma Square—meaning “Constitution Square”—which is directly in front of the Parliament and in direct view of the Parliamentary guards. They are the guards in the traditional uniforms with the oversized pom-poms on their shoes, to put it bluntly. We arrived at a very convenient time, 10:55, as the guards change on the hour. They don’t just replace their positions; they do a whole routine that I can most respectfully describe as an inverse flamingo walking. It is very impressive to see how in-sync they are, but you need to stay out of the guards’ way—the pom-poms are hiding spikes on their shoes that can be used as weapons, like some sort of warrior Tinkerbell!

We then walked by the Little Metropolis Church of Athens which is, as the name suggests, a very little, very old church from when Christianity first became popular in Greece. It’s right next to a much larger church and can only contain about 50 people at once, but it has impressively high ceilings and stained-glass windows.

Then we had lunch—I am continually impressed by the freshness and quality of food in Greece, except today we all lost it over pitas and hummus instead of yogurt—and then continued on our merry way to the agora.

One could say that I adore-a the agora. The agora was the marketplace and popular gathering spot in ancient Athens. It was first excavated when Athenians were digging to build a railroad and has views of the acropolis, as nearly all of Athens does, and is guarded by a temple for Hephaestus (and also some spots for Athena because, like I said before, the city’s literally named for her). That temple is one of the best-preserved in all of Athens—it still has a roof!—because it was never bombed by Venetians or Persians or any other rival of Athens throughout history in quite the same way that the other temples were.

Hephaestus is the god of fire and craftsmen. He got good at detailed labor as he grew up working on an island because his mother, Hera, tossed him off Mount Olympus because he was an ugly baby—just remember that parenting philosophy the next time you think you’d like to live in ancient Greece. Rather fittingly, then, his temple was well-constructed enough that it’s survived nearly completely through to today.

In the Agora we also saw the remains of the very first Greek Parliament. There were not elections for legislatures; all eligible names (non-foreign, non-enslaved, adult males) were chosen randomly. Those who won this legal lottery had to serve in a rather ancient jury duty for a year.

Ancient Greek court was also different than the modern judicial system; there were no judges and thousands of jurors were selected so that nobody could bribe all of them. Anybody who became too popular with the citizens of Athens, even by simply doing tons of nice things, was in danger of ostracism. Ostracism comes from Greek “Ostrakizein,” which refers to the small pieces of broken pottery that Greeks would write the names of people who they thought ought to be exiled on. At least 6,000 people had to agree to ostracize a person, and that person would then be exiled for 10 years; this was to reduce that person’s political power to prevent tyranny.

In the agora were many more cats and a very long, well-columned building that looks kind of like a cookie wafer. It’s a replica of the Stoa of Attalos (Stoa meaning “Porch;” the Stoics are called that because they used to lecture from balconies) and was built by Attalos as a sort of shopping mall so that the agora could still be used in unfortunate weather conditions. Nowadays, the Stoa is a museum were we can see things that have been found when excavating the agora—pots, little chairs, and the clay fragments with names of the ostracized—as well as the root of timed speeches: the ancient Athenians had a systems of buckets where water would drip from one to the other for a total of six minutes, and anybody speaking in ancient Parliament had to finish before the dripping was finished.

Just for your reference in time and space, the agora is where Socrates used to walk around questioning people about their ideas on justice and morality until he was executed for tainting the youth. I’m perpetually amazed at how very old things in Greece are.

We then had dinner and got to meet with some of our Pierce friends in the Plaka for a few hours before bed. Most of us are finally at the point where we have a decent general sense of where things in our area of Athens are, and we’re no longer entirely reliant on online maps.

In summary, today we saw democracy in action and learned about its birthplace. That’s it; we can end the trip. Of course, we’re not going to because we still have a few more days of thrilling activities left!