Olympian display of pride at parade

Heritage: A group with ties to the isle of Karpathos makes a stand-out effort for the annual Greek Independence Day procession.

March 29, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Little Foula Protopapas won't be visiting Greece this summer as she'd expected.

"They say some things blow up," the 7-year-old said with the kind of verbal shrug only a child can pull off when talking about terrorism threats.

All the more reason, then, to put on her sparkly blue dress and celebrate her heritage at yesterday's Greek Independence Day Parade in Baltimore's Greektown neighborhood.

Amid bright sunshine, Eastern Avenue turned into a celebration of all things Greek. Early clouds yielded to a blue sky that matched the blue-and-white Greek flags fluttering in the breeze.

This year's Summer Games in Athens offered another reason to feel good about the homeland, and a young woman in white held up a blazing torch on one float with cutouts of the Olympic rings.

But like many countries, Greece is a land where local pride runs deep, giving rise to friendly rivalries. Foula's family comes from the town of Olympos on the island of Karpathos, and a group representing people from Olympos hoped for a strong showing in the parade.

"Every group wants to have the most people," said Sophia Houvardas, a 27-year-old pharmacist at Johns Hopkins Hospital who is president of the local Olympian Brotherhood of America chapter. "You want to show off where you're from."

The group was formed half a century ago to help new arrivals from Olympos adjust to this strange American city. Since Baltimore natives now make up many of its 120 or so members, the mission is to keep old traditions alive.

Reminders of the real Olympos abounded inside the brick-fronted rowhouse where the brotherhood holds fund-raisers and its dance troupe practices.

There was a platter of mizitropitia, a traditional pastry stuffed with cinnamon-laced ricotta cheese and slathered in honey and walnuts. They were made by Houvardas' grandmother, Magafoula Konsolas, who came from Greece 22 years ago and speaks almost no English.

Then there were the outfits. Young girls like Foula wore the glittery sakofoustano, a skirt and blouse set emblazoned with sequins and faux jewels. The headdresses had bright flower patterns.

Boys donned the vraka, a baggy, pant-like bottom piece, with a white shirt and embroidered black vest on top. Their heads were covered by the fesi, a snug-fitting hat that has a tassel.

The parade didn't start until 2 o'clock, but the Olympian Brotherhood meeting space began filling up just after noon. Mothers and children gathered on folding chairs next to two large murals of Olympos, one showing windmills on a mountaintop.

The banter was mostly in Greek, with bits of English. A rapid-fire burst of Greek would be followed, in English, by "just like my son Bob."

Outside, the police had closed off a stretch of Eastern Avenue. A 1935 Rolls Royce pulled up, its driver looking for the staging area. A vendor started hawking bales of cotton candy that had been fittingly dyed blue.

The Olympians were told they would march 30th out of 69 groups in the parade, in the middle of the pack.

But Foula Protopapas and her 6-year-old cousin, Marina Protopapas, were feeling ambivalent about the event.

"I feel proud because it's like we're celebrating being family all together," Foula explained. But the prospect of walking for blocks in fancy shoes had them both concerned.

"We have to keep on going and going," Foula said, adding by way of exaggeration: "We keep going miles and miles."

Marina, meanwhile, was busy refuting her mother's claim that she is a tomboy who doesn't like dresses. "She's lying," the 6-year-old said flatly.

Crowds lining the sidewalk cheered the parade's start. They cheered the firetrucks, politicians, Harleys, antique police cars, the myriad Greek church and community groups -- and the spaniel mix named Precious who wore sunglasses and rode on a skateboard pulled by her owner.

And when the Olympians appeared, 35 strong, at the lead were Foula, Marina and the other children, each a splash of color.

That's when a particularly loud roar erupted on the sidewalk in front of the brotherhood's rowhouse.

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