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.
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.
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.
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.