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How to see the Greek President on your vacation

When I travel there are certain things I plan – like making hotel arrangements before I depart or reading up on the sights.  I am not however someone who plans out every hour.  In fact, I like to wander some which is how I happened to get 10 ft from the President of Greece last month.  Let me explain…

On our second day in Athens, we wandered through the (rather touristy) shops of the Plaka and happened across Hadrian’s Gate and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.  It was around 6pm so the sun was getting low in the sky and giving off that gorgeous orange sun-light.  We walked through the ruins as the sun slipped below the Acropolis.

Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens as the sun was setting

We left the park just before it closed at 8pm.  I heard oompa music in the city park across the street and followed it thinking we could see an outdoor concert.  There was a brass band standing in a large courtyard.  I could see tents set up off to the left. Families were milling about, kids were dancing to the music and I guessed it was some public festival.

Brass band and families enjoying the music

The music came to a stop.  A group of well-dressed people began lining up in front of the band.  One woman even had a huge bouquet of flowers.  Next, 6 or so unmistakable special security officers (tall, in suits with ear pieces) began running around.  At this point the crowd started getting more dense.  Everything looked ready for some arrival but we waited for another 10min or so.  I was then able to look up in my guidebook (discreetly of course) the yellow building behind us which was the Zappeion, an all-purpose event center.

Volkswagen Passat - The Presidential Car of Greece (Photo: Technically this is the 2008 Lux addition but I thought it fits better with the story

Finally, four motorcycles come racing up on the right followed by a black four-door Volkswagen Passat.  An older man got out, shook hands, received the flowers (which one of the security guys threw in the trunk of the car – very classy) and made his way to a seat near the podium.  The TV cameras got into place and the crowd shifted to circle a small area of 60 or so seats in front of the podium.  A visibly nervous man got up to speak; even though his remarks were in Greek, I could still tell his voice was wavering.  My attention started to wain but I did catch him saying “UNICEF” and “Yuri Gagarin”.  A second older man, that I had not seen yet, got up to talk.  I kept whispering to my hubby, what is going on here?!

Speaker #2 - I still have no idea who this man is...

We wandered into a tent next to the podium which was filled with, of all things, Yuri Gagarin and Russian Space Program memorabilia.  At this point I wondered the VIP from the car was perhaps the cosmonaut Gagarin himself.  Moving further from the podium and into the fair, there was a informational booth.  I grabbed a program and waited to talk to the attendant.

Booklet from the information tent, it reads "Book Festival Zappeion"

In my best Greek I asked, Καλησπέρα, μιλάτε Αγγλικά?   Or, Good evening, do you speak English?  (An essential phrase!)  She did, and so I asked who had arrived to speak.  She said, “Karolos Papoulias, the President of Greece.  He is well loved by the people.”  My jaw dropped, surely something had not translated correctly.  We wandered back to the podium.

I’m use to American politicians who have an army of secret service agents that keep spectators in defined zones and aren’t allowed to just wander around the VIP.  Also, isn’t Greece facing severe austerity measures?  Where are the protesters if this is the President?

Finally, the President said a few short remarks and returned to his seat.  He was joined by the second speaker in the Russian Space tent for a private tour.  Here’s where I got the best photo of him.

President Karolos Papoulias being shown the Yuri Gagarin exhibit

Since my camera has a delay, most of my pictures look like the one below.  I think it is time for a new camera.

Slow camera = 6 photos of hair and not the President

The President came out of the tent, through the crowd and right past me.  In a bubble of security guards, he walked down the festival street past the book vendor stalls.  I followed along behind him.  I loved watching people’s reactions as he past by or they looked up and there he was.  It was touched to see little old ladies come up to him and just start chatting.   The conversations seemed pleasant and I could see admiration and a little awe in their faces.  Eventually, the President stopped by the UNICEF booth to buy a book and one other stall to say hello.  At the end of the street, his Passat awaited.  After shaking the nervous man’s hand one more time, he was off with his 4 motorcycle escort.

Afterward, we still couldn’t believe what we had witnessed.  We kept going over and over the details while we ate dinner.  It seems so surreal to just happen across the President of a country in such an un-orchestrated environment!  At least the Greeks attending the festival seemed to be just as surprised as us but were also respectful and amused by the President’s visit.  I guess Karolos Papoulias is “well loved” by his country after all.

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