Panagiotis Sgouridis felt right at home in Baltimore yesterday, despite being an ocean away from his native Greece.
A former prime minister and current member of the Greek parliament, Sgouridis marched in the Greek Independence Day Mid-Atlantic Parade that wound through Baltimore's Greektown neighborhood.
"It just like in Greece," Sgouridis said of the event, "except this is more authentic. In Greece, the military marches and it's very official. Here, it comes from the people."
Greek Independence Day is a celebration of Greece's gaining of independence after 400 years of rule by the Ottoman Empire, a Turkish state that at one point controlled much of southeastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The Greeks rose up against the Ottomans in 1821 and won their independence eight years later.
Gayle V. Economos, a spokeswoman for the parade committee who lives in Pasadena, said Greek culture was suppressed during Ottoman rule. "There is a Greek nursery rhyme about going to school by the light of the moon," she said. "That's because teaching Greek culture was forbidden."
Greek Independence Day coincides with the Greek Orthodox Feast of the Annunciation, a celebration of the Archangel Gabriel's revelation to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. Several Orthodox churches were represented in yesterday's parade and were joined by other Greek cultural organizations.
Along the parade route, which started in Highlandtown and ended in Greektown, vendors sold blue-and-white Greek flags and matching hats. In addition to the Greek parade attractions, people lining the sidewalks got to see Scottish bagpipers, school marching bands and mummers, brightly dressed bands that originated in Philadelphia.
Tyrone O. Green of Belair Edison, a frequent paradegoer, said the sunny weather was another draw. "I missed the St. Patrick's Day parade," he said. "So I came to this one."
Lynn Powell of Parkville said she was drawn by a loose connection to Greek culture. "I have a lot of Greek friends," she said. 'So I thought it would be nice to do this."
"But I don't think I'm going to see them in all this," she added, gesturing to the people crowding the sidewalks around her.
In addition to Greek dignitaries like Sgouridis, Maryland politicians also attended, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Mayor Sheila Dixon and Rep. John Sarbanes, who acted as grand marshal.
Sarbanes, who has Greek roots, said he had attended the parade before. "But this is my first time as an elected official," said Sarbanes, a Democrat who won election last November.
He traces his Greek heritage through his father, former Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, and spent a year studying in Greece. But he also learned about Hellenic culture from his mother, who has English roots, he said. "She was a classicist," he said. "So I had to study Greek history when I was young."
Economos said that many of the Greek families living in Baltimore came from the islands of Sparta, Laconia, Chios, Rhodes and Karpathos. "There are others, but those are the big ones," she said.
Steve G. Mavronis of Fells Point, the chairman of the parade committee, said that in addition to marking Greek Independence Day the parade was intended to highlight democratic ideals shared by Greece and the United States. "We have a lot of history together," he said. "It's all about tradition and creating a legacy for the young ones to grasp."