The Museum of Byzantine Culture

Today I spent a peaceful and reflective couple of hours in the superb Museum of Byzantine Culture here in Thessaloniki.

The museum is perfectly laid out and presented over 11 very spacious rooms, organised chronologically from the 4th century all the way to the 15th century and beyond.

The explanations were presented in Greek and in English, the quality of the language used was excellent – so much so that I actually photographed some of the text so that I could enjoy reading them later. I even found some of the names of the rooms to be strangely evocative :

Yesterday I began to understand in a small way what Macedonia means to the Greek people, today I took the very first steps on a similar journey of discovery centred on Byzantine culture. And what a journey – to see such an empire migrate from Latin and Roman polytheism to Greek and Christian orthodoxy as I quietly stroll from room to room..

Each one of the 11 rooms had an attendant who politely watched my progress from work to work. And the main reason for me writing this post is that apart from myself they were the only people in the museum.

For the entire two hours that I was there I was absolutely the only visitor.

Of course I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of having such a museum completely to myself – but a part of me found this incredibly sad. It was gently raining, the perfect kind of day to spend some time in such an informative and cultural place.

Was this the economic crisis? At an entry price of 4 Euros I would like to think not – that it was just a happy coincidence for me. I so hope that just after I left a coach load of excited children rushed in and did their bit to justify the hard work that has gone into creating such a wonderful cultural space here in Thessaloniki.

Macedonia and the crisis

As we drive west across the geographical region that my guide – Maria – assures me is the true meaning of Macedonia rather than the modern political context – the day starts and we begin to pursue themes that need drawing together to make any sense of.

We are on the way to visit the tomb of Philip II, the father of Alexander the great, at Vergina – which can be reached in a little over an hour from Thessaloniki. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and certainly it lives up to everything I expect in terms of  archaeological significance and the way that such relics, visited in situ, will always move me spiritually.

The tomb at Vergina
The tomb at Vergina

They are currently excavating the area around the tombs to map the city and palace. On a hillside is the recognizable shape of a small theater – where the king could bring his guests to watch a performance – and  also look beyond the small stage to a most beautiful panorama of the fertile plains and distant mountains. Maria describes him inviting his enemies as well as his friends and allies, to both entertain them and to reinforce their understanding of his power and the extent of his empire. Who could not be moved by such a vista.

Importantly for me personally by the end of the visit I have a true sense of the word Macedonia, and what it means to the Greeks. And I realize that this part of the world has been one of the centers of the world’s attention for 3 millennia, and for much of that – including modern times – it has been a battleground.

But of course we are also driving across these plains at a time of a different battle – the modern economic crisis in Greece – and  this backdrop is always in my mind and is a source of much of our debate.

Maria is passionate about the crisis, it is a very personal pain to her, as it must surely be to all the individuals caught up in it. Over a long coffee on the veranda of an isolated estate in the hills, where we are the only customers, she cries as she describes her frustrations of trying to run a business and bring up a family.

The Kalaitzis Estate, Vergina
The Kalaitzis Estate, Vergina

The recurring theme is that the political system is rotten – she quotes a Greek proverb  “The fish stinks from the head.” She compares modern life to ancient Greece, and remarks “Thank heavens that at least we had an ancient civilization that knew what it was doing..”

She compares the modern government with their shifting policies and a relentless pursuit of “taxes, taxes, taxes” to Phillip II – who was to her a great king – inspiring his people and giving them direct participation in his success by giving land to soldiers who fought for him in successful battles. To her he was a constant force, deserving of respect and she compares this to  the modern political system which she describes as a shifting quagmire of corruption and policy changes that makes planning difficult and success almost impossible.

I simply listen and ask gentle questions of her, as she is clearly deeply upset. Of course I have no solutions, but I leave Vergina understanding so much more about the trials and tribulations of both ancient and modern Macedonia than any classroom or western media can teach me. I am inspired to learn more, to spend time in this beautiful and fascinating country.

By getting on a plane so that I could hear these things from a passionate Greek lady while sitting in the winter sunshine a stones throw from the tombs of a Macedonian king it has all become so very real to me.

 

Get out there and celebrate the moment

One of the most important things I think I have finally, absolutely learnt recently is how fantastic it is to just get out and do stuff. You learn, live and celebrate.  Why do I ever take my eyes off of this very simple goal?

Two great examples form the last 24 hours here in Thessaloniki.

Yesterday evening, after two glorious days of December sunshine, as the sun went down it started to pour with rain. Rather than sit and read, listen to music or write – I looked out – saw the street reflections – reached for the camera and just tramped around for a couple of hours in the dark. What a great decision.

I spent the time wandering around in Ladadika – a very small area of Thessaloniki treasured for small intimate cobbled streets with cafes, bars and restaurants – a short stroll from the sea and opposite the main port. And about 500 yards from my hotel, so no effort at all.

Rain on tables

I ended up with some photos that I love, two of which I have posted here – I learned about the camera which is still new to me – but more importantly I have some memories that I treasure because they were created out of the moment by me getting out and just living. Upside down tables and puddles were transformed into something quite magical – and all I had to do was be there and look.

Then again this evening – no rain but its windy and cold – and off I go. No hesitation. This time the experience wasn’t driven by photographs but simply by going into a bar to shelter from the wind. Inside it was small, very dark and intimate. I ordered a glass of wine, warmed up, got settled –  and very gradually started looking around.  It took me a while to work out that I was the only guy in the bar.. I had managed to wander into a gay women-only bar without realizing it.

After my over-polite exit i fell into the next bar where the barmaid – Nandia – thought it was extremely funny, and so did I. The girls in the bar were  amused, hospitable and I am sure I didn’t spoil their evening, I was just a crazy English bloke who didn’t understand what way up anything was and left as soon as he did.

And to round off the the experience I did manage to order a sparkling water ( to go with the chardonnay ) in Greek without Nandia hesitating – although she did smile – for all the wrong reasons women have been smiling at me all evening – and how nice is that?

Just get up and get out there – it’s such an exciting planet!

The Importance of Music

Music has been a big part of my first visit to Thessaloniki.

Drummers in Thessaloniki

 

Drummers in the square, children singing, a man playing the accordion for his friends in a cafe – and street bands have all been very uplifting for me.

 

 

 

Music so lifts me up.

Thessaloniki accordian player

People sharing music here just seems so natural – unpretentious.

But actually the biggest high so far was last night – when I finally realized I could plug my laptop into the room sound system and listen to Spotify through proper speakers. I haven’t yet started a Greek channel – but I am sure I will.

 

Lots of bouncing around the room for joy – no photos of that, fortunately..

 

Thessaloniki – First Impressions

End of the first full day of my first visit to Thessaloniki – and I am certainly impressed so far. Main takeaways are:

  • Great weather – the UK is getting a cold snap – what a great feeling to have the warm sun on your face
  • Not a tourist resort – at least for global travelers – just the right balance of visitors enjoying themselves and locals out and about
  • Lots of music, culture and celebrations

I definitely lucked out on the celebration front – the city has just started a month of celebrations around Christmas, with children in particular loving the celebrations in the main square today.

 

Greece is of course constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons – the miserable state of the economy and the impending and inevitable exit from the euro. Based on my first few hours here the people are friendly and full of life. Even the Chardonnay is totally reasonable..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a shame about the sunsets..

 

Leaving space for people

In the Arts

Another great evening last week discussing creative writing with Gary Mepsted. One of the main subjects that comes up consistently is that of leaving space for the reader.

This is extremely important in creative writing – if we provide all the answers and explanations the reader will become bored. Give them the space to work things out for themselves, and leave them with a sense of satisfaction – ideally the emotion would be ‘I didn’t expect that – but yes, I understand”. People are also absolutely prepared to have many minor things left unresolved, a beginner writer like myself is too often tempted to make everything too neat.

In photography I am also learning that without a story that allows the viewer to participate the photo is a meaningless snap. A friend often describes this as ‘context’ – she will ignore a pretty scene of a boat drifting by, because there is no story. She will be facing the other way – finding images and stories amongst the graffiti on the wall.

This is true in business and also in my life.

In business we have been designing and implementing a comprehensive dashboard this month. I have all of the financial information nailed, its just a question of presentation. But one of the metrics needs to be a measure of satisfaction and engagement of our staff. I passed around a simple graph that a friend who runs a search company had found very useful – a simple graph that asks you to plot where you are on two axes – one is how clear your role / tasks are – and the other is how much freedom you have within that role.

 

The idea of course is that without the freedom you simply won’t be engaged – people need space to contribute – they want to chose the best way to get things done, participate fully in the way they accomplish the tasks the company needs them to complete. They need space to express themselves.

In life I am learning now to make sure that I respect peoples space – i think I have always had a temptation to try to control too much. A friend I met recently is just a brilliant example of this – she wants to live life to the full – but expects to control nothing, to enjoy the weirdness and excitement with what happens if you pursue your passions and learn from those you meet on the way.

 

 

Connecting the dots

 

I was out walking in the rain this morning when I took this simple image of rain drops.

As I walked on my mind turned to a phrase that is used so commonly – “connecting the dots”. And I started trying to connect them, and thinking what we really mean by this phrase.

So what are the dots? In my new child-like world and in the context of this post they are something very special, something that adds to my understanding, helps me improve in one of my main passions, raises my excitement level or adds to my interests. I think of them as gems.

In practical terms I see them as either ideas or people –

  • Ideas – like how to improve a specific area of my company, or a subject to photograph, or a thought for a new travel venture.
  • People – people who are experts, who share their passion – or make your stomach tense when you are with them, or surprise you with their loyalty, openness and friendship.

How can we make and sustain these connections? By changing our behavior so as to find them, value them and bring them into our lives in a sustained and repeating way, rather than encountering them once – and then moving on. Some examples :

  • In Business – through processes. We take an idea – perhaps through a presentation or meeting we attended, a project that succeeded or failed or a customer that came across us for particular reasons – and we build a process that ensures we take advantage of that idea in a repeatable and sustainable way. We need to both implement the idea – bring it back to the business – but also make that experience repeatable and sustaining through incorporating it in a defined and appropriate way. Connect the idea to what we do in our companies – make it a part of how we work.
  • In creativity – through reflection and thoughtful analysis. Yes we need to continually seek out and learn  from experts to   ensure that we see and can become inspired by the work these talented people create, but then we should reflect on what their expertise might mean in our own lives and actively explore areas where different ideas intersect with each other.
  • In our personal lives – through attitude and bandwidth. This might be through exploring social networking, attending new  types of performances and shows – or going on courses to build personal relationships with talented people and fellow students. By not allowing ourselves to become lazy and complacent.

Why should we do this? Doing so increases our excitement, improves the quality of what we do and makes us more open and full of ideas. It preserves those gems over time – by connecting them we learn to remember them and stay connected, rather than feel inspired just once and then lose them over time.

What does this mean for me? I think it means I need to

  • Find as many gems as possible. I intend to do this by making sure I am always looking, pushing myself into new areas and unfamiliar territory –  always staying open.
  • Look always for new connections, new ways to keep these ideas and people connected so that I can benefit from their impact and expertise in a sustained way, and hopefully add my own thoughts so as to raise the bar in everything I do.

 

 

 

Acting like a child

With a new approach to life several new friends, who I admire immensely, have remarked that I am like a child.

I think they meant this in an approving way – in fact I know they did – but the concept of what this might mean in our lives and in business is worth exploring.

Recently I have found a huge level of enthusiasm for a wide range of new or revisited interests. These have given me great pleasure – cycling, creative writing, watching dance, photography – all have become significant parts of my life and have led to me meeting new friends.

Yet these cost almost nothing – apart from the initial equipment like a camera – and I could have taken them up anytime – but I didn’t. I just kept doing the same things, day after day. For more than a decade. Why did I not realize that this had happened to me? That I had become stuck in a comfort zone, not pushing myself forward. I had become fat and lazy.

Is it that we are scared of change – terrified of failure? In my case I don’t honestly think so, I was just doing the same thing again and again because it was comfortable, it was easy.

I wonder if we also do this at times in our business lives. We carry on playing in the same competitive spaces, with the same staff instead of pushing the boundaries and trying  new things with that playful sense of discovery. Business models and modus operandi  take over – improvements at the margins becomes the limit of our expectations.

Just as it was in my personal life I believe that experimenting and being child-like is not actually a costly exercise for a business They certainly do have resources available to be innovative and challenge the fundamental nature of themselves – but few actually do. Nor does it carry excess risk – the amount of play time can be controlled so as to keep the company in business until the benefit is proven – as Google famously does with their one day a week of personal project time.

Some companies famously do embrace play and experimentation as part of their culture – but they are few and far between.

My new friends are right – a personal shock actually provided all the impetus to get out and enjoy so much of the world –  playing, traveling, experimenting and pushing the boundaries in order to learn and discover myself – in exactly the same way a child does. Long may it continue.

 

Perfect Autumn Sunday Walk

Great walk today on the south downs.

One of those perfect days where the sky is clear, the light gorgeous and even the sheep look thoughtful.

 

Getting over the line – the end in business and in writing

As I am currently finding in my creative writing course one of the hardest things in writing is ‘the end’ – and I know from many years of experience that one of the hardest things in the business I run is to completely finish a project – to ‘get it over the line’.

Why might this be?

When comparing creative writing and projects in business, it recently occurred to me that the nature of  ‘the end’ in these areas are diametric opposites. What certainly connects them is that in both spheres they are challenging – and critical.

In business we are so concerned that we need to be clear about the specifications, and so the end has to be totally known before we can start to work. It actually defines the product, from the customers viewpoint it is the whole rational for the investment they are making. To them – after their role in defining the prototype – the journey we go through with design, development and testing really is irrelevant – they just care that we produce what they requested. To us any lack of clarity about the end represents a risk – so we make every possible effort to tie up all loose ends, to be crystal clear about every aspect of the ultimate product. The end is where our customer’s experience starts.

In writing however – the product is the work that leads up to the end. The reader joins us at the beginning of the work and will care enormously about the journey – with literature this shared journey is what we are creating. The last thing any reader wants is to be able to predict the end – that would destroy the value. And the way that many successful writers seem to work is that while writing they themselves have little idea – in some cases none at all – about what will happen at the end. They can work like this because the product is not defined by it’s end.

In writing we don’t have to tie up every loose end at all – just the major ones. Some unanswered questions and unresolved minor things are perfectly acceptable. It is a positive experience for the reader to have to finish it themselves – that’s the power of unresolved endings. We need to leave a space for the reader, we don’t want to patronize them, to patiently explain every aspect, leaving them no room to imagine and to think.

The best endings in literature have an element of surprise – but then seem to be inevitable. “I didn’t expect that, but I understand now” – is the kind of response we are looking for. In business the last thing we want as we complete a project is any surprises at all.

So it seems to me that in writing the end is challenging because we cannot define it until we are nearly there – as it must be fitting – and in business we cannot start until we know it completely. But in both cases the consumers ultimate sense of satisfaction with ‘the end’ will define the project’s success – and for us both as authors and entrepreneurs this is what makes it all worth while