A figure from the past

Recently I came upon an article about the ”pizzardone”, as traffic policemen in Rome are known (due to the shape of their helmets, nothing to do with pizza!) They elegantly direct traffic while perched on a pedestal in central spots, such as the Piazza Venezia.

This brought back amusing memories, since we also used to have traffic policemen in Greece, at most major crossroads in the cities. In the very beginning they stood in the road, which must have been terrifying, given Greek driving habits. Then they were put on a dais, which eventually evolved into the cylindrical so-called ‘Barrel’.

They were a respected presence in their area, in their white gloves and white diagonal sash; some even acquired a measure of fame, like Mr. Nikos Kostakis, who for many years was a cult figure on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. He was known for his impeccable manners, stern but unfailingly polite approach and perfect control of the flow of traffic. Impervious to weather conditions, in later years he was offered a desk job, but declined, preferring the outdoors and his daily contact with the public.

Mr. Kostakis, known as ‘the man with the moustache’

Later came the tradition of gifts deposited around the barrels by an appreciative public at Christmas and Easter. This tradition was inadvertently started in 1936 by the king, King George II, who stopped his car in front of the palace to wish the traffic policeman a Happy Christmas and left a gift of wine. This was copied by the public and became a custom. People gave what they could, sometimes just sacks of potatoes and baskets of eggs.


Bad photo, but I couldn’t resist the live turkeys!

Along with wine there were seasonal sweets such as kourabiedes, and toys for the policeman’s kids. As the years went by and Greeks became more affluent, the gifts became more valuable. Local shops joined in and donated household goods such as mattresses, boilers, or even refrigerators! The gifts would be taken to the police station and balloted out to all.

Photo Dimitris Harisiadis (from the Benaki Museum Archives)


This is all history, but I remember well our own barrel, and my mother wrapping a crate of wine in red crepe paper with a big bow. Like everyone else, we’d stop the car right in the middle of the junction, and she’d get out to deposit the crate at the base of the barrel, and wish the man on duty a Happy Christmas or Easter.


Most hilarious, though, was that at Easter the police saw fit to turn the barrel into a giant Easter egg, from which the poor man would emerge like a newly hatched chick.


So sad all this has been replaced with mere traffic lights.


21 thoughts on “A figure from the past”

  1. When I was a boy, we also had traffic policemen at main road junctions. But they didn’t have a barrel to stand in, just some ‘white sleeves’ over their uniforms. 🙂

    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely post. I really enjoyed it. I remember (as does Pete, I see) out traffic police wearing white sleeves. Your post also reminded me of my telling me about the AA (Automobile Association) patrolmen who came to the help of motorists in trouble. The could take up position in a sentry box and Dad told me there was one near where he lived as a boy – and his mum used to take a cup of tea to the sentry box for the AA man.


  3. What wonderfully happy memories great to read on a mundane Monday morning ! Oh, remember traffic policemen in more than a few countries . . . unfortunately not such ‘characters’ as Mr Kostakis nor such lucky ones re ‘side benefits’ as you have shown ! Must share with friends . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What if he needed to, ahem, use the facilities? Wouldn’t it be kind of difficult to get out of that thing quickly?

    Also, don’t these items serve to become traffic hazards in and of themselves? Just saying. 🤓


    1. I’m sure they were hazards, and I wonder how many policemen were injured or even killed over the years… As for using the facilities, no idea how that was managed! Probably they popped into the nearest grocers’.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A wonderful story of days gone by and simpler times. I’m sure these days policemen popping out of Easter eggs and handling live turkeys would require pages of instructional text, occupational health and safety provisions and insurance!

    Liked by 1 person

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