ATHENS — It is not easy being a member of Greece’s Presidential Guard, the soldiers who, resplendent in old-world uniforms, must stand stock-still at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier here. Frozen feet, sweaty brows and the curiosity of the very young, who poke and kick the guards to see if they are really alive, are just some of the hazards.
But lately things have become far more complicated.
The tomb happens to be directly in front of Parliament in Syntagma Square, the focal point for many of the riots that have erupted since Greece began imposing austerity measures.
In the past year, protesters have battled with riot police officers over and over, often within yards of the guards, who can move only once every 30 minutes — and then only to take a few rigid, slow ceremonial steps. Even the guards at Buckingham Palace get to move more, breaking every 10 minutes.
Sometimes, the soldiers here manage to continue their routines during the clashes, lifting their red clogs with pompoms high into the air on the half-hour and offering an odd scene of normalcy just behind the line of masked and padded riot police officers dressed in black and wielding batons.
On some days, however, the stone-throwing has proved too much, and the soldiers — one on each side of the tomb, which honors fallen soldiers from long-ago wars — have been marched away. Lt. Col. Petros Miliopoulos, the officer in charge of the battalion, has a pile of newspaper clippings he is saving, many with front-page photographs of the guards surrounded by the mayhem.
In October, protesters even set fire to one of the guard boxes beside the tomb.
But some of the guards, like Pvt. George Matellas, 24, who has spent 135 hours standing still so far (the men keep a careful count), say the rioters seem to go out of their way not to bother them, perhaps valuing the long tradition of Greek military service that they stand for.
“When we are marching back to the barracks, they make room for us,” Private Matellas said. “The majority of the crowd support us, which is a good feeling.”
Tear gas is one of the big problems. The riot police officers wear gas masks. But the presidential guards are dressed in uniforms with skirted tunics that can be traced to the 1800s. A small nod to present-day pharmaceuticals has been made. But it is often not enough to protect them.
“We give them eye drops,” Colonel Miliopoulos said. “They help somewhat.”
In Greece, all young men must perform 9 to 12 months of military service, and the members of the Presidential Guard are chosen from among the ranks. Outward appearances are important. The soldiers must be a little over 6 feet tall and fit.
But Colonel Miliopoulos said a recruit must have a strong sense of patriotism as well. It is what sustains the soldiers in sometimes brutal weather. In the summer, the heat can rise to more than 100 degrees — but they still wear two layers of stockings. In the winter, the temperature can dip into the 20s. But the gloves do not come out until it drops to 23.
Even under the best of conditions it is hard to stand still for one hour, Colonel Miliopoulos said. “Try it, in private,” he suggested. “Not moving for 10 minutes is hard.”
Still, drawing duty in the Presidential Guard is considered an honor — and has a few advantages. For one thing, the battalion is housed in the middle of Athens. For many young soldiers, that is a lot nicer than being banished to Greece’s faraway border with Turkey, for instance.
Private Matellas said his method for getting through his tours at the tomb was to fix his attention on a point and concentrate. But, he said, the protesters are actually a welcome diversion sometimes. “If there is something going on,” he said, “it makes the time go faster.”
The guards have several uniforms to choose from, depending on the weather and the occasion. The tan summer tunic dates from the 1821 uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The navy one dates from an uprising in the early 1900s in Greek Macedonia, when it was still under Turkish occupation.
The soldiers dress in teams of two, carefully adjusting each other’s garments — the two cotton skirts, the embroidered jackets, the leather garters, the blue-and-white fringe atop the skirts, the tassels at the calves for the dress uniform.
Getting it right is important. Private Matellas said his worst moment so far was when he was performing one of his high kicks and the pompom on his hobnailed clogs went flying.
On the guards’ base, skilled workers produce the uniforms, trying to make each item exactly as it was made decades ago. “Changes here are very, very rare,” Colonel Miliopoulos said. “It must be a technical issue we cannot overcome.”
The stockings, for instance, used to be knitted on a certain kind of machine that is not available anymore, he said. But you would need a magnifying glass to tell the difference.
Each dress uniform costs about $11,200. The soldiers do not get to keep them.
The guards train for five weeks, practicing standing still with the full weight of the uniforms and visiting historical sites to reinforce a sense of their culture. Some of the practice sessions last three hours, though at the tomb, the guards work in one-hour shifts.
“After three hours,” said 24-year-old Pvt. Papiotis Evangelos (120 hours standing still), “one hour is nothing.”
The soldiers are posted at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in front of the presidential palace, and on Sundays and official holidays they raise and lower the flag over the Acropolis.
But most of the time, the soldiers say, they are simply props for tourist photos.
“We go on the Internet and find ourselves in pictures all the time,” said 26-year-old Pvt. Theofannis Faitas (135 hours standing still). “There are thousands of photos of us.”