While the IMF and European Union may now have to focus on Portugal, Greece is still trying to keep her head above water and banking on the upcoming tourist season to help keep her afloat.
So if you're a vacationer with tons of money you would like to spend in Greece, you might be very happy to help the struggling economy and come home with something special? Right? Well, if it's Sunday, you're out of luck. On a Sunday afternoon in Athens last July, I decided to leave my hotel and walk down to Syntagma Square. That's the main square in Athens across from the Parliament, metro stop in the center, perimeter flanked by exclusive grand hotels, carry-outs, and retail. There's a fantastic store there called Public. An ultra-modern store built into a historic old building. It's largely a bookstore but also multiple floors of CDs, games, home entertainment and computer equipment, tourist information and ticket outlets, café out front plus a very nouveau chic but affordable rooftop café with internet access and a sensational view. Public is a fairly new phenomenon in Greece that Barnes and Noble should take a lesson from - lest they go the way of dowdy Borders who forgot that its comparative advantage was precisely that it was not online but actually a live place to go to - which means it needed to look alive and attractive rather than being nothing more than a warehouse selling books. It should have been what Public is; a happening place. Whatever tempo you prefer, Public's got it. The perfect place for anyone who wants to learn something, get jazzed, soothed, or socialize, and spend some money, especially on a lazy Sunday when it's too hot to even go to a pool. But, to my amazement, Public was closed. It and all the other stores (i.e. places to spend money) in Athens are closed on Sundays. Virtually nothing is open except some cafes and restaurants. I found this so interesting that I went back to my hotel and sent an email to my family and friends that began with what my kids call Mom's classic phrase- "Can you imagine (translated from the Greek- boris na fantastis?) that so many stores have gone out of business in Athens and the ones that are still operating don't open on Sundays? Tourists are here with money spilling out of their pockets and the Greeks aren't allowed to open or are too busy relaxing on Sunday to open the cash register." Well, no one replied except one person, with one word; "fascinating." Fascinating, as in "please don't bother me with your irrelevant observations." And now, here we are eight months later. Greece is struggling so profoundly that she is asking her diaspora (many of whom are tourists on summer Sundays in Athens) to help her out by buying bonds. Jimmy Panagiotou of the Greek Music & Video Superstore in Astoria, NY - nowhere near as architecturally magnificent and sexy as Public, but open every day, 9 am to 9 pm, and accessible online 24/7/365 - was quoted in the Wall Street Journal recently regarding his opportunity to buy diaspora bonds. The 27-year-old Jimmy must be a direct descendant of Socrates because his analysis of the situation is more precise than anything a Nobel Prize winning economist could come up with and truer than anything the IMF could allow itself to say. Jimmy just returned from a trip to Athens where he saw everything closed on Sundays and says the situation is... "ridiculous." (And that he will not be buying any Greek bonds.)
Ridiculous. Bravo Jimmy. And I would add, heartbreaking. Also inconsistent and heartbreaking is that this Syntagma Square that goes to sleep (no, not to church) all day Sunday instead of staying open to sell people something is the same Syntagma Square now seen frequently in the media filled with desperately angry young protesters. Educated, uneducated, poor and about to be poor, but all unable to find employment. Sick of paying the price for what they perceive as corrupt government officials, their cover-up of huge scandals, and the injustice of double standards and hardships imposed on the general public, they use Syntagma as a launching site for screaming rage, attacking parliament guards, and intimidating officials coming out of the hotels. In the meantime, down the road in Piraeus where Melina Mercouri was filmed in 1960 singing a song about her sacred day off from work called Never On A Sunday, the Chinese last June took over full control of the major container dock, pledging to spend $700 million to construct a new pier and upgrade existing docks. Last Monday's update on this experiment with foreign investors is that the Chinese company is withholding payment for the period during which employees and truck drivers were on strike and that the alternate managing director of Piraeus Port Authority has resigned.
Ouch, souvlaki on a chop stick? To determine how to best guide Africa clients relative to the opportunities and potential risks of China in Africa, last spring the World Bank invited the Chief Economist of Export-Import Bank of China to a forum to discuss the issue. When asked why China has been successful in Africa, Dr. Jian-Ye Wang, formerly of the IMF, said that a primary reason is quite simply that even Chinese dignitaries are willing to fly coach, live in poverty, and work seven days a weeks for months on end to complete their tasks in Africa. And still Greece... Never on a Sunday. But on Monday asks her cousins abroad to bail her out ... Then on Tuesday, the world sees her understandably frustrated youth explode in violent protests. This is not about Greek shops being open on Sundays or not being open on Sundays. It doesn't question a human's need for rest or advocate a 24/7 work schedule. The question is whether or not Greece is ready to adapt to the rules of the game required to be a viable member of the global market. Is Greece really "open for business" or not?
This conundrum is what one might term "the Schizophrenia of Syntagma Square" And there are two ways to look at this and two ways for it to play out. One way to see something that's in such a state of confusion, contradiction, and incongruence is as inevitably headed for disaster. Something about to implode under the weight of its own inability to adapt. The other way is to look at disorientation is as a normal stage of development and fantastic opportunity. One of those terribly uncomfortable periods that we have all lived through in our own lives. Those confused times when we know that the way we're doing things doesn't work anymore and yet don't know how to do something different. When some parts of us have obviously outgrown a beloved coat and another part of us just loves the comfort of a suede softened to perfection by years of wear. These are the bittersweet moments that precede every breakthrough transformation and must be moved through before a better reality can emerge.
So what will it be? Will Syntagma become a metaphor for Greece's decline or her victory? A square memorializing the demise of a country unable to adapt? Or a vibrant site continuously celebrating growth and triumph? What would it take to transform the portrait that Syntagma Square frames as a reflection of Greece itself and message to the world? Who can transform this site from being a picture of crisis and confusion into a positive vision of Greece's potential? Actually, beneath the surface confusion, Greeks intuitively know who can lead this transformation and what needs to be done. It came through quite clearly in the feedback from "What Greece Needs is a New Hero." Can you imagine... what people said and what great things they could actually do in Syntagma to improve Greece's public image and create a brilliant future?
The upcoming "Greece: The Schizophrenia of Syntagma Square - A Golden Opportunity" answers these questions and asks a few more that may be critical in determining the future of Greece.