Sunday, June 20, 2010

Week One, Athens: it's not the heat, it's the humility... and hospitality

Did the public transportation workers know that Athens would suffer an epic June heat-wave when they chose to strike last week?

"Saranda". That's Greek for "forty". As in 40 Celcius. My iPhone says that's 104 F. Is that all? Maybe it seems hotter because the subway and bus strke means massive traffic jams, and the taxis don't believe in air conditioning (i.e. $8 gallon gas.)

Whatever the case, it's the wrong time to lose the option of using Athens terrific (and cool) subway. Site-seeing and business meetings are sweaty ventures. And no swimming pool in sight from Tuesday until Friday, when we gladly accepted an invitation to a friend's back-yard oasis.

Of course, our 15-year-old, globally-networked mommy's helper has figured out a way to find not only a swimming pool, but an air-conditioned health club as well. She connects with friends staying at the Grand Bretagne -- a modern Parthenon of a hotel, on the Constitution Square, right across from the Parliament. Beyond the splendor of the place, she scores a few Grand Bretagne pool and spa "time outs". Forcing the rest of us to ask: why did we pick the quaint side-street boutique hotel without a pool or even exercise room? And how do we get to know her friends?

The heat-wave takes a back seat to more powerful memories of a week in Athens. The first is humility. Exactly 2500 years after tiny Athens beat the great Persian Empire in the battle of Marathon (490 BC... do the math), Greece is again the talk of the globe. Not in a good way, of course. What was most striking about the conversations in Athens was the sense of humility. From government officials, to business leaders, to journalists, to cab drivers, to waiters, Greeks were to a person humbled by what had befallen their global brand.

Public lying by government officials about national finances. The disgrace of the EU letting it twist in the wind before giving it a bailout. A supplementary IMF bailout, usually reserved for least developed countries, not for the birth-place of democracy. A political system incapable of making the changes that almost everyone expects.

So, we ask, where is the hope? That now, maybe this one time, with this one non-corrupt Prime Minister, Greece might actually balance their budget, strip back their regulations, and hit "restart" on their democracy.

But our strongest memory is the hospitality. The invitations were overwhelming. The meals were never-ending. The curiosity about all things American was endearing. And the feeling that now was a time for friends was reassuring.

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