My august teacher’s proposition was one that perplexed me from an early age. Being girded with the foustanella and assorted accoutrements in order to attend the annual Independence Day march or other festivals was a time consuming process involving the employment of innumerable amount of safety pins to hold everything in place. Furthermore, we were all strictly injuncted not to move around, lest any of the fastenings come loose and the foustanella unravel. It thus appeared to me that rather than facilitate movement, the foustanella actually retarded it by virtue of the fact that by the time one secured the said garment and made rudimentary efforts to keep it clean, an enemy army would have come and gone.
This pained me. Whenever I would don the foustanella, recollections of my aged teacher’s vivid description of the heroic pursuits of the freedom fighters and better men who had worn the same costume before me would flood my conscience, granting me a small stake in history. It was men in skirts who, having ensconced themselves in Souli, held out against the forces of the evil Ali Pasha. Those same skirt clad men held out bravely at Mesolongi, liberated Athens and drove the bloodthirsty Dramali from the Peloponnese. Attired in their pleats, the foustanelloforoi repeated these feats almost a hundred years later in the Balkan Wars and even in the mountains of Epirus in the Second World War, proving the military superiority of their gear.
For this reason, unlike most of my contemporaries, who would only consent to wear the garb after considerable bribery from their progenitors (and indeed, one of my favourite childhood memories comprises of carefully leaning against St Eustathios church in such a way as not to soil the foustanella, on the day in which the liberation of Epirus was being commemorated, and listening to such contemporaries compete to outdo each other as to the magnitude of the bribes they had managed to extract), I secretly looked forward to the days when I could vest myself in the clothes of heroes, in the hope that by doing so, I would absorb their attributes, though it would have been social suicide to say so.
Catching me in one of my more unsuspected moments strutting around preening myself and pretending to be Markos Botsaris, one of these contemporaries tugged me by my sleeve and proceeded to pull me down the stairs exclaiming: “Are you a tsolias? Then jump!” To my horror, and despite the fact that the foustanella was apparently made for such pursuits, I shrank back hesitantly, in mortal fear that my poorly made 1980’s model tsarouhia would probably not survive the impact of such a precipitous leap. Given then that I had refused to engage in tsolia-like pursuits, it seemed to me that I was dishonouring the uniform, disqualifying myself from identifying with tsoliades and consequently causing an ontopathological crisis into the bargain.
Such an ontopathological crisis is beguiling and entrapping in its apparent simplicity, leading us to think that our progenitors had an insidious hidden agenda in insisting that their children wear the foustanella. For in Australia, the wearing of it is still largely the preserve of young children and only rarely that of adults. By donning clothes that one’s peers and environment deem to be properly suited to females, a public affirmation of Greek identity is made that can only be retracted with difficulty. A perilous crossroads of identity is crossed that can lead only to two pathways: A rejection of the Greek identity as something anachronistic and effeminate, or an embracement of and a commitment to it, as there is no going back once the cross-dressing divide has been surmounted. It is for this reason, to prove their offsprings’ Greek credentials that parents have been sending photographs of them clad in the foustanella, to their parents and relatives in Greece, where paradoxically enough, they are treated as articles of derision.
My ersatz and secret love affair with the foustanella persisted throughout my teenage years and it was perhaps private knowledge of my own unsuitability to wear the said item (after all, which freedom fighter in the Grade 6 Greek history textbook is depicted as wearing glasses? Did not Tityros the teacher, in Kazantzakis’ masterpiece Kapetan Mihalis cast his glasses and western attire aside as a corruptive influence and don Romaic garb in order to regain his manliness and join the revolution?), that led me to deem my own mass-produced set, comprising of a shirt with a collar, blue velvet vest, striped blue and white belt reminiscent of the Greek flag and dark red velvet fez as ‘inauthentic,’ and this despite my having seen and enjoyed the Greek historical classic “Souli,” starring the same actors that playing Yiangos Drakos and Vyrna in the endless series “Lampsi,” in which every single male was clad in exactly the same blue and white costume as mine.
Further, my Greek school teacher had taught me to despise the fez as an article of headwear imposed upon us by the Ottomans as a way of displaying our subjugation to them. This, as I later found out, was incorrect as the fez was originally Greek headgear, fashionable among Aegean islanders, that was adopted by the Ottomans in the nineteenth century as a symbol of progress and modernity. Indeed, one of the arguments employed by Kemal Ataturk when he banned the fez in 1925, was that it was the “headcovering of the Greeks.” Not knowing this at the time, I replaced my fez with a flat, fur Epirot hat and my blue velvet vest with a black embroidered “stavroto” vest, which seemed less gaudy and more plausible given the harshness of the terrain and everyday life.
By this time however, I had reached my final growth spurt, one which my foustanella had failed to keep up with, to the extent where it barely covered the essentials, as I found out when, in 1999, I was coerced into attending a protest outside the American Embassy against the bombing of Kosovo, just after the Independence Day march. Not having time to change, I made my way there, and then back home, on the tram. Now it takes real man to wear a short skirt on public transport and survive to tell the tale, though I still want to belive that the comments about the shapeliness of my legs were genuine.
My mini-fousta was necessarily replaced, after a trip to Northern Epirus by a thick goats’ hair dress ending just below the knee, refuting my Greek school teacher’s assertion that the foustanella was short and pantaloon like, and comprised of 400 pleats, one for each year of slavery. Given than most of Greece had fallen under the Ottoman sway prior to 1453 and of course, that most of Greece was not liberated in 1821, the fallacy of such an argument should have been obvious from the outset, yet caught up in the romanticism of neatly fitting symbolism, this was not so. Thus clad in my more demure but infinitely more chafing local variant, I felt that the ontopathological crisis of my youth had finally been resolved.
To be continued.