I didn't even know the Greeks had Mardi Gras. I just wanted to check out the Sunday flea market in Monastiraki Square, so I set out on a balmy winter morning, weaving my way through the ancient streets of Athens. It was all going smoothly...until I ran into the masked men. They blocked the small street. They wore black masks. And thick pungent sheep skins. And loud bells around their waists. And 6-foot tall coned hats decorated like pinatas. Wait, what the hell is going on?
Most. Flamboyant. Bank robbers. Ever.
They are surrounded by a throng of helpers and a crowd begins to gather around then. Then the music starts. There's a band! Two guys with giant drums start banging away, joined by another two guys with flutes. All in all, it's pretty rough on the ears! Then it - whatever it is - begins. The furry, cone-hatted, masked men start slowly bounding down the street, destination unknown. I've gotten a late start this morning so I have a choice: catch the end of the flea market OR miss the flea market and follow the man beasts. The flutist passes by and makes my decision easy. Dude is playing the flute and holding a lit cigarette in the same hand. I'm not gonna see that kind of talent at the flea market.
The monster men and their monster men band are drawing attention. With every side street we go down, the crowd trailing the action grows. There doesn't seem to be any particular route, the tall furries trudging through the streets in whatever direction they see fit. I identify the ring leader; he's giving directions to a woman holding an Etsy version of the scarecrow mask from Batman. It was like a modern day Alexander the Great telling his Hoplites to make costume adjustments, direct traffic and the keep hats from falling off.
"Chaos is a Ladder"
Our swarm crosses one of the few roads that has cars. The cars stop for us and wait. Traffic starts to build up. A woman in the front car gets out. I brace for yelling, but instead she snaps a picture with a smile on her face. Everyone loves these wildebeests! Unfortunately for the autos, there's no end to our column. One of the helpers halts the crowd and we part the road. A furry monster man who fell behind lights up a cigarette and takes a deep drag. Even monsters get smoke breaks.
I use the lull to ask a few questions cause I still don't know what the hell is going on. People are happy to fill me in! These fellows are from the northern Greek village of Flambouro and this is their contribution to Greek Mardi Gras (Apokrias). They symbolize good things but they have to look even more hideous than the evil spirits they're scaring away. In other words, these dudes are so bad...they're good! The final destination is Monastiraki Square. I'm on board.
Game on! We're moving again. The crowd grows larger. We're at 200+ people now. The throng descends upon Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens. Plaka lies in the shadow of the Acropolis and is famous for its small pedestrian streets lined with cafes and shops. It's not meant for a horde, but the horde is coming through. Menu stands are bowled over by the very tourists they were meant to lure in. Souvenir shop keeps pull in their spinning tri-towers of magnets and postcards to avoid the onslaught. We emerge onto an open square next to some Roman ruins. It's getting crazy. It's getting loud. Its getting...dancy?
DANCE CIRCLE BABY. Yep, we're doing the famous Greek Kalamatianós dance and everyone's invited, even your favorite ugly American! Every so often the Where the Wild Things Are man-creatures dip their tall hats into the center and almost take out a few people. Gotta chase those evils away! The dance circle ranges from people in their 80's to kids old enough not to be scared shitless of the monster men. The band is raging, everyone's laughing, it's pure fun.
We're in the final stretch now as the crowd careens towards Monastiraki Square. There are 400+ people clogged into the tiny Plaka streets. With every step we gobble up a confused tourist or two (ah, reminds me of me an hour ago) who join our ranks instead of going against the grain. A smart move considering it's physically impossible to go in the other direction.
The monster men get a heroes' welcome and the crowd roars as they enter the square, their newly recruited army of followers trailing them in force. The band steps it up a notch, trying in vain to compete with the cheers and singing of the ENTIRE SQUARE. How does this saga end? With a dance circle of course. The evil spirits never had a chance.
Don’t smile under there dude, you’re supposed to be scary!